• Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore

    Author Spotlight with Graham Marks

    Steve Skidmore and Steve Barlow (aka The 2 Steves) are a pair of authors who are as comfortable with working on the page as they are on a stage, their highly theatrical live events as popular as their books. Here they talk to Graham Marks about how they met, how on earth they work together and their new iHero ‘Decide Your Own Destiny’ series Blood Crown Quest.

    How long have the two of you been working on the Blood Crown Quest series?

    Steve S: We started writing [Sands of Blood, the first book in this series] about a year ago, August 2012, although the first ‘decide your own destiny’ book was in 2008.

    Was this the first time you’d written in the choose-you-own-adventure format?

    Steve S: Yes, it was the first time, so we had to learn how it worked, and there’s a definite pattern to them, because they are a bit like computer games – you have a bit of an episode and you have to get to the next stage before you can move on. So you have levels…you meet the baddy, and then the next baddy is even worse than the last one and the final one is a big baddy.

    Steve B: Specifically we didn’t start off with Blood Crown Quest, we started with individual iHero books; we’d already done sixteen of those and
    established the format, although that took some time. We started out completely at sea, trying to be very free-wheeling and taking the adventure all over the place and we just ended up in a complete tangle. What we worked out was that there were a number of points the reader has to get to to move on.

    Is there a diagram of how this all works?

    Steve S: Usually, with a chapter book, Steve will take a chapter and I’ll take a chapter and we’ll swap them over. You can’t do that with these books, so what we have to do is talk about the idea, plan what’s going to happen and then one of us will take the book and write it. I use a basic diagram layout, with fifty events on it, all connected like a computer flow chart, and you have to work it out that you can never go back and repeat things, obviously. But you then have what we call General Death – you know, where you can die in different ways… ‘your enemy attacks and blackness comes over you’ sort of thing. That can be used to give you extra narrative, to get a good story going.

    Do you both work the same way?

    Steve B: I use index cards and PostIt notes; I’ve got a big table and I write short narrative events on an index card, then put another one next to it with a PostIt arrow in between. I can move the cards around on the table and work the story out in a quite physical way. Steve seems to be able to do it in a more cerebral way and use these flow diagrams.

    Do you edit each other’s books?

    Steve B: Yeah, we send complete books to each other, usually, but if we hit a problem we’ll send the story so far and ask the other one what he thinks. We carry on until we feel we have a strong text.

    Did you have to read a lot of these book to get to grips with the format?

    Steve S: We read quite a few, and it took us a bit time to suss it out, really.

    Steve B: We did revisit the Livingstone and Jackson books, but we did want to do something a little bit different; in those earlier books, the text was very, very dense and we thought the audience we were working for would find it off-putting. And you had to have dice.

    Steve S: But of course all the boys cheat! They read them, choose, keep their thumb in and go ‘Ah, got it wrong!’…bizarrely the kids, the lads especially, love dying, they’ll tell you they died three times in a day, hooray! They’ll purposefully chose the most stupid choice just to see what happens. I think firstly it’s that it’s interactive so they have control, they decide, and secondly it’s what’s at the basis of all good story: what happens next? Because they’re short paragraphs and there’s not a lot of reading in [the books], they want to know. The feedback has been extraordinary, the books are really getting reluctant readers to want to read.

    Steve B: Boys particularly like that once they’ve taken a decision they have to find out if they’re right or wrong - are you dead or do you carry on? They like boundaries, they like clear cut consequences, not something they have to sit there and reflect on – which boys find very difficult. All men find it difficult as well…

    Did you do any road testing at the early stages?

    Steve S: We did, when we first started. I even got one of the lads to write a report for the publishers about why he liked the format.

    Steve B: Our editor also helped us and he has kids of the right age, and so we were able to get feedback.

    Steve S: And now we’ve done twenty four books, plus four iHorror books, which have a hundred events in them, and four Crime Team books – they’re slightly more complicated to write and read as they have clues and there’s a boss who admonishes you and you can score points; it’s not just about choice, it’s about solving things to move on.

    You two have been around…I don’t know how long you’ve been writing together…

    Steve S: We’ve been writing twenty four, twenty five years together…

    Steve B: Yeah, I reckon it’s pushing twenty five years – it depends where you start counting. We first met, I know, at the beginning of 1986, and started to work together shortly after that.  

    Has the iHero series been a very different process for the two of you?

    Steve S: It’s meant that we were writing more on our own, yes.

    Steve B: There have been titles in the past titles that one or the other of us has discovered we were out of sympathy with, that we found difficult to deal with; when that has happened the other has taken it over, so this wasn’t entirely a new process.

    And how has it been on the iHero series?

    Steve B: I don’t think I was ever quite as into the whole [game book] format when I was younger as Steve was, and I probably found it harder to get to grips with it; but once we’d worked it out it actually became quite an interesting intellectual exercise, to try and give the reader the most choices possible and to try and give a some kind of moral framework for those choices…if they do something particularly stupid or vicious or cowardly, then they’re going to die, basically. It’s not just random choices.

    Steve S: This project is a very different thing, in terms of the writing and the skill of writing. People ask us if we have a 2Steves style, but we don’t, we have a project style; whatever the project is, that’s the style we use. With the iHero books there’s no real back story or anything, you just say ‘You are a hero, you are this, you do that’ and off you go; there’s not a lot of description in there, but that really gets the reluctant reader, who doesn’t want all the description and backstory and they don’t want all of that psychological interest. And to some extent that has sort of informed us in other things we’ve started to write, as in, do you really need this or can you pare it down?

    Does this approach work for both boys and girls?

    Steve S: Boys like it, without a doubt, and although girls have asked us why we haven’t written a girl one, the books are good for girls as we’ve tried not to use ‘he’ – we did use it early on, but now we’ve stopped and the girls do like the books. The iHero show we do, which has been going for about four years, is extraordinary because you read part of a book, then ask the audience what they want to do, and then say, Oh no - you’ll have to read the book! You get three hundred kids booing because we won’t carry on reading, and so many teachers have turned round and said that this is the series which has got those kids reading.

    Steve B: The hero is always ‘I’, but girls tends to assume that the protagonist is male, asking if we can’t write a female one, and we say we have, but you think we haven’t. Books like Tomb Runner tend to go down better with girls, it’s not quite so much the ones with big guns on the cover, which boys gravitate to.

    What happens when you take the iHero books out and do a stage show to a mixed audience?

    Steve B: It’s partly in a sort of quiz format, so the whole audience can join in with that, but when we get kids out to be the hero we try to make it 50-50 between boys and girls, with those we bring up on stage. Particularly for the gladiator thing, we actually tend to make a point of finding the smallest, most angelic-looking girl we possibly can to put on the gladiator helmet and do horrible things in the arena.

    You both have educational backgrounds, don’t you?

    Steve S: Yeah, we were teachers…I’d done a lot of work with dyslexic kids, so I knew the problems with reluctant readers. We met in an inner city school in Nottingham, where I was Head of Drama; Steve had just come back from teaching in Africa, and came for a supply day.

    Steve B: My wife and I had gone out to Africa to teach English in Botswana for four years. We came back when our second child was on the way; we re-settled in Nottingham and I went on the supply list, and I actually met Steve on the second day. I was only supposed to be there for a couple of days, and that was almost a quarter of a century ago.

    Steve S: He’d written some plays and I’d done some sketches for Your Mother Wouldn’t Like it [a late 80s BAFTA Award-winning TV show from Central TV, preformed by teens from the Central TV Junior Workshop in Nottingham], because some of the kids we taught were in it and I’d said I could write better sketches!

    We ended up working for Oxford University Press, writing plays, and we became known as the drama experts – in fact my claim to fame is creating Gok Wan, who was a kid at our school and we put him in our plays…he was a 16 stone kid, he was huge, and the one thing he did do well was his drama. All that stuff about self esteem came out of the drama that we did. He put a very nice little comment in his autobiography, very funny.

    How long after you met each other did you know you’d be working with him, and did you ever think you’d be working with him this long?

    Steve S: Oh no, I actually moved from the school and went to Leicester, and we weren’t at the same school when we got published. And then The 2 Steves just became the brand, but because we were both still teaching it was knackering as we were both writing at stupid o’clock…we realised very quickly it wasn’t easy to make money at this. So we got an agent and then began working for the likes of Piccadilly and Puffin.

    Steve B: I completed my contract with the school where we’d met and made a move into Further Education; we were in different educational establishments, but we were able to continue working together on the writing.

    How did this combination of writing and performing originally come about?

    Steve B: It all started when we were invited by [a publisher] to do an event a Bodium Castle and we really had no idea what to do; we didn’t want to just sit there and read from the book because we didn’t think that would work. Eventually we decided that, as we’re both drama types, why don’t we do the whole thing as a role play? The first one we did was The Lost Diary of Eric Bloodaxe, Viking Warrior, narrated by court poet Gorblime Leifitoutsson; I went into role as Eric, with a silly plastic Viking helmet and a sword, and Steve interviewed me as Gorblime. The kids got involved at various points during the show, and that’s how we started.

    Steve S: What Steve and I do is visit schools 120-odd days a year, doing a lot of educational stuff about self esteem and how everyone is a writer, not about how we are authors, worship at our feet. You don’t get invited into inner-city schools to do that. We are known in the business as performers as well as writers.

    You definitely are…before I ever met you people would say ‘Have the seen the 2Steves?’.

    Steve S: You can’t go into schools and just say ‘Hello, I’m an author, here's my book’, you’d get crucified. You’ve got thirty seconds to grab the kids, and if you don’t, well…

    Is there an element of the frustrated actor with you two?

    Steve B: Yes, I was quite keen on being an actor, but I found myself going sideways into stage management instead…I think I’m more of a frustrated actor than Steve, I don’t think he’s ever wanted to be a performer. He’s interested in drama and performing arts as a method of exploration of material, a process rather than a product, while I’m more the other way around. But what we’re able to do is to combine the world of books and world of performance, and with modern kids it’s really not enough to sit there and expect them to listen raptly to the pearls of wisdom that drop from your lips. They just don’t do that any more.

    And you get to dress up!

    Steve B: Normally it’s restricted to T-shirts!

    What’s changed the most since you started writing?

    Steve S: I think everything’s got safe…I think there’s a real disparity between what kids are asked to read at school, in terms of reading schemes, and what they’re doing at home, with the PlayStation and X-Boxes. With books, you’re competing against all sorts of things.

    Steve B: Traditional reading schemes have always been dull, but they’re getting duller because there’s this terrible fear of giving offence to absolutely anybody for any reason at all. If a child has freely chosen a book from the library, a parent may not approve of the choice, but that’s different to a child being given a book by a teacher.

    Do you think that everything you’ve done, in your career as The 2 Steves, has been informed and driven by your educational background and what you know kids want?

    Steve B: Yes, I think so…the fact that we were teachers, the fact we taught kids constantly and that we still work in classrooms. We have a pretty informed idea of the difficulties they can have, culturally, emotionally and educationally in engaging with books. There is this idea in schools that reading is (a) boring (b) a chore and (c) girls’ stuff, and there is a great deal of resistance to it in some quarters.

    What have you got planned for the future, more iHero?

    Steve S: It started as a little project and it turns out there’s a real need for it, and we’ll do as many as they want us to do!

    Steve B: Where we go after that we’re not entirely sure.

    Would you ever what to write books on your own?

    Steve B: I wouldn’t rule it out, but we’re not anywhere near that yet.

    Steve S: Who knows what will happen!