Philip Reeve is the award-winning UK-based author of many beloved books for children and young adults, including the Mortal Engines and Goblins series, Here Lies Arthur, and most recently, Railhead. He has collaborated with artist Sarah McIntyre on a series of illustrated books, and has illustrated numerous books himself, in addition to his work in film, theater, and even a musical. In 2001 he published his first novel, Mortal Engines, which went on to win the Smarties Gold Award, the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award, and the Blue Peter “Book I Couldn’t Put Down” Award. Mortal Engines was my first introduction to Reeve’s writing, and it captivated me immediately with its fascinating world and richly nuanced characters. I was thrilled to have a chance to speak with him online recently about his thoughts on writing and the creative process.
Before writing novels, you worked as an illustrator and in small stage productions and films. You’ve mentioned films such as Star Wars and John Boorman’s Excalibur as inspirations. To what extent would you say that your experience in fiction outside the world of books influences your writing?
I think a lot of my influences come from films, TV, art, etc. When I was growing up I loved books, but I think I loved films and TV equally – it’s the story and the imagery that matters, not the form. When I started writing Mortal Engines it really was because I didn’t have the means to put it on film. There’s always a very strong visual element to my stuff: most of my books are basically me describing a movie which I’m screening in my head.
You’ve mentioned before that your first novel Mortal Engines went through numerous, often substantially different drafts on its way to publication. How do you approach the process of rewriting and editing? When problems arise in a story, how do you go about sorting them out?
Just endlessly re-writing, really; trying out different plot-lines and different options, trying to find alternatives for the bits which don’t work. There’s very little planning involved. Sometimes if I’m writing a sequel and I know the characters and the world I don’t go through quite so many drafts, but with a new setting I often to seem to need to write at least one whole novel and discard it before I can find my way to the right story. It’s not a very efficient process, I’m afraid.
What part of writing do you find the most difficult? Is there any particular part of a story or type of scene that you enjoy writing most?
It’s all difficult, and it’s all enjoyable. Beginning something new is often fun – I write five or six chapters in a great rush – but then quite often it bogs down and I have to go back and unpick things to find out why. And when the end comes in sight – when I work out where the story is going and how it will play out, and start to write towards that – that can be a similar sort of rush.
Compared to the post-apocalyptic world of the Mortal Engines series and the historical Britain of Here Lies Arthur, how was the process of developing Railhead’s futuristic setting? Were there any new challenges?
Railhead is a much more hi-tech world than I’ve written about before, but it’s still quite fantastical and hand-wavey – I don’t have the technical knowledge to explain how all this stuff works. Trying to envision a future media-landscape, how the internet will develop and how people will interact with it, was quite a challenge; I find it hard enough trying to understand the internet we have now. But you can’t write about a (non-post-apocalyptic) future now without considering that: the many ways in which we are all linked, the devices we carry, the ways in which we all broadcast our lives. It’s a huge change that’s happened in quite a short space of time. The idea of people being able to do things secretly, for instance, seems quite unlikely in a society even slightly more technologically advanced than our own. So if you want to write a fairly old-fashioned thriller, which I do, you spend a lot of time working out ways around that.
You’ve recently collaborated with illustrator Sarah McIntyre on a number of children’s books such as Oliver and the Seawigs and Pugs of the Frozen North. What insight would you share with other writers interested in the collaborative process?
I’ve found it immensely valuable. The way we work is to come up with an idea together and discuss it, working out who the characters will be and what might happen. Then I write it, and Sarah draws all these wonderful pictures. And then we go out on the road and do shows at schools and literary festivals, which is also an important part of our collaboration. Sarah has a very different imagination to me in some ways, and I think that’s important – I find myself writing about things which would never have occurred to me on my own. And we’re good friends, which is important too. I think it’s been the most enjoyable part of my career, and it’s a great way of freeing yourself up, making you consider different approaches.
The depth and care you put into your characters have made them well loved by your readers (Gwyna, Hester, and Fever are a few of my favourites). Do you ever find yourself personally attached to your characters? If so, which ones?
Well, those three, really, and also Nova, who is one of the main characters in Railhead – all the odd, outsider-y girls! I don’t know about “personally attached.” I guess they become my representatives within the world of the book, and I spend a lot of time imagining their feelings and reactions. And then there are the minor characters who can be fun, the scoundrels and grotesques, who are often the most enjoyable to write about. But I seldom have that experience I hear writers talk about where the characters “take over” – I think mine mostly do what I tell them.
In Here Lies Arthur, the protagonist Gwyna learns to spin a narrative from King Arthur’s propagandist Myrddin (Merlin), and develops a complex relationship with storytelling. How would you describe your own relationship with storytelling?
I wouldn’t, really! I tend to set out wanting to capture a certain mood, some particular images which express something about the world, and at first the story is like a washing line on which I peg them out. Then a sort of sense of craftsmanship takes over, and I spend a long time trying to make the story work as well as possible, delivering twists and reversals, building to some sort of climax.
As an author of children’s and young adult fiction, what appeals to you about the genre? Do you have any advice for aspiring youth fiction authors?
I fell into that world by accident, really, though I’m happy to be a part of it. The books you love as a child are often the ones which stay with you, and you end up reading them to your own children. It’s nice to think that my books might mean as much to young readers now as Tolkien or Rosemary Sutcliff did to me.
Obviously books like Goblins and my collaborations with Sarah McIntyre are pure children’s books, but Mortal Engines and Railhead are really science fiction novels which happen to be not unsuitable for children – there wasn’t much YA around when I was a young adult, so I read a lot of sci-fi, and that had an enduring influence on what I write.
I think the best approach is just to think of yourself as a writer and write something you’d want to read. The challenges are pretty similar, whether you’re writing an adult novel or something for seven year olds. You still need to keep the reader turning the pages.
Ray Clark is a student of Creative Writing and Medieval Studies at the University of British Columbia, and an aspiring children’s and young adult novelist.