Sam Gayton interviewed by Noga Applebaum

Sam Gayton lives in South London. In 2009 he completed the Writing for Young People MA at Bath Spa University and not long after published his first book, 'The Snow Merchant'. He loves American novels, Italian food and the English countryside. When he's not writing, he likes playing old board games, strumming his guitar and joining as many rock bands as possible (currently at seven). Here he talks to Noga Applebaum about his first two novels, 'The Snow Merchant' and 'Lilliput'.

The Snow Merchant is full of amazing inventions and creative ideas from the spell that turns you into what you last ate, to a boy with a stalk growing from his shoulder to of course the snow-making cloud. Which one was the first that came into your head?

The concept of alchemy came first. Alchemy is like wizardry or spells; it's a door to change and movement in the book. The first character that entered my head was an alchemist, the snow merchant. The most important thing that he had was his suitcase and inside was a cloud, a snow cloud. And so the book began with snow.

It was actually seeing snow that made me think of the idea. I moved to Bath to do the MA in Writing for Young People and every week we had to write a new story One week we had to come up with the theme of 'visitation'.I was sitting very late at my desk in my little draughty room which had a big sash window. I had lots of coffee and three quarters of a pack of hobnobs as well, so I was buzzing on caffeine and . sugar rush.  I was typing away without getting anywhere and when I looked at the window, it had snowed in the time I've been writing, and there was that weird silence and stillness, and maybe it was the caffeine and sugar rush, but I suddenly thought 'wow- how did that get there?' And with that, 'boom', came the snow merchant. That was the big invention that I focused on first, and all the other inventions grew out of that one.

'The Snow Merchant' has been illustrated by two artists. The first edition by Tomislav Tomic and the second by Chris Riddell. Why did you (or the publisher) decide to switch illustrators? What do you think each illustrator brought to the book and do you prefer the first or the second edition?

I have no idea, you'll have to ask my German publishers who bought the rights, ditched Tomislav's wonderful illustrations, and decided to go with Chris Riddell.  I imagine they wanted a Dickensian steampunk look. As soon as it came out in Germany, my UK publishers liked the illustrations and of course Chris Riddell is well known in the UK and it helps to have his name on the cover. I hear that there may be a third illustrator for the American edition, but this is still not confirmed.

What Tomislav brought to the book is a real sense of craftsmanship, atmosphere and action. My favourite panel is of the ship lifting up out of the water with wings and huge hands reaching out of the page - that was incredible. I really love the movement in his pictures. They are slightly darker than Chris Riddell's, and I especially like that Lettie isn't pretty. It's interesting when I go into schools and show them earlier drafts, where Lettie becomes progressively scruffy, and they seem to like her a little less, and I have to point out to them that she is the same person. Protagonists of stories don't have to be good looking. 

Chris Riddell’s style is more Steampunk in flavour. His Lettie is more like Pippi Longstocking and his cover picture captures her essence - her feistiness and stroppiness.  I think Riddell's illustrations are slightly truer to the text, but Tomislav's have a dark charm about them.  I love them both really and I'm grateful to my publishers for spending the time making both books look so nice.

The TES called 'The Snow Merchant' a book with ‘a germ of JK and a pinch of Pullman’ – are these authors that you admire? What do you think your work owes to these authors?

They are both incredible authors. I like Rowling's world-building skills, her sense of humour and fun. I love the way she ends the book with a 'twenty years later' epilogue, making it impossible to write any sequels. Phillip Pullman is probably one of the biggest influences in terms of my book's sense of place, the other-worldly, parallel universe and the ‘making strange’ effect of the world. I admire his use of language and his way of putting a twist on things.

I thought about him  when I was reading  about the clock maker character in 'Lilliput'…

Yes, 'Clockwork' is definitely a big influence, and it is Philip Pullman's  best and most perfect work in my opinion. I like the use of the metaphors - clockwork is both a theme in the story and a way to describe the story. He is interested mechanical stuff and in the wires behind things, and so am I. My theatre company are currently doing a piece with children in the British Museum, about an automaton called the Great Nef (or galleon) made by Hans Schlottheim in Germany in the 1500s. It's a clockwork ship that you can wind up and it glides across the table to announce a feast. The players on board play a song and when it stops it lights a fuse and all the cannons fire; it’s an incredible piece. 

'Lilliput' is of course a sequel to 'Gulliver’s Travels', a book that your intended audience may have not come across. Did you find that this presented a problem as you were writing, and if so, how did you work around it?

'Gulliver's Travels' is not a Children's book, and it can only be seen as such in certain forms, often as a retelling and usually including only the first two parts. I don't know what drew me to that book, but I was aware that I wanted the reader to be able to read 'Lilliput' without having read 'Gulliver's Travels'. I didn't think it would be a problem because the concept of small people is a very well used one in children's literature.

The message of Gulliver, which isn't for children, is that humanity is ugly and horrible and that we are all savages; I haven't taken this message on. In my book the message is that we can all be friends, work together and help each other. To make that theme work I kept in the good things about 'Gulliver's Travels' and the things that can be understood quickly, like the language of the Lilliputians, which allows me to have Lily saying lots of rude words without actually saying them. I also kept small details like the Sprugs - the gold coins they use.

Because Lily leaves Lilliput behind, I was also free to leave behind the royal court and the war between the islands. I do have the egg (breaking it from the wide end), because it is so cool but I give it a different interpretation. My reasoning is that Gulliver is only a visitor, and because he remains in court he doesn't know the regions where Lily comes from.  And also there are eighty Lilliputian years between his visits, so people may have forgotten the reason for the custom. I did keep the spiritual element which exists in the original, but I put a new twist on it in in the form of a creation story.

Gulliver in my book is not the same Gulliver that you find in the end of Swift's book. Originally 'Lilliput' started because I was interested in writing 'secret histories', a particular genre in which a story gives the 'true' history of real events.  Tim Powers is an adult fantasy writer whose books tell the secret history of events like the Napoleonic Wars - in which the French and English are two warring vampire clans.  He weaves together fantasy and historical fact. Originally, in my book Jonathan Swift was a character who receives the manuscript from Gulliver and then publishes it as a work of fantasy to protect Lilliput. However,  I cut him out because it didn't really tie in with the story, which turned into Lily's quest to return home, 

Some people see intertextuality (the referencing of other works) in a children’s book as a nod to the adult reader above the child’s head, as something that is inaccessible to children. How do you view this issue?

My most memorable experience of literature as a child was , sitting at my teacher's feet, leaning against a really hot radiator and listening to 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', and enjoying this so much. And I vividly remember being read to every night by my parents. In a way the books that I have written are intended for an adult to read to a child, just as much as for a child to read on their own. For instance, some of the language is tricky for the age group they are aimed at. I'm a great believer in adults and children coming together to encounter and explore a story. For that reason,  I like intertextualityin stories because the adults can find something in the book for themselves. Although it has to be said that I think much of the  the intertextuality in ' Lilliput' would be lost on most adults because not many will have read the original 'Gulliver's Travels'. I was hoping that it would make both adults and children curious about and perhaps encourage them to read it. 

In 'Lilliput', Lily is a feisty character and she reminded me of another small heroine – Arrietty, in 'The Borrowers'.  Was this book an inspiration?

Actually I read 'The Borrowers' after I wrote the first draft of 'Lilliput'. And since then I have also seen theStudio Ghibli movie . I think Arrietty must have been an unconscious inspiration because the TV series was shown when I was a kid, and I was aware of it, even though I didn't watch it. When you have a small character you want to give them a big personality, so I suppose her feistiness is a natural response. Dah'l's 'Minpins' were also an inspiration, though not any particular one of them. 

There are many children’s books about small people, you mention a few at the end of your book, in addition to 'The Borrowers', there is 'Mrs Pepperpot' by Alf Prøysen, and more recently 'Toby Alone' by Timothee de Fombelle. Why do you think children’s authors are so fascinated with small people?

It's not only children's authors who are find miniatures fascinating. The original small people, the Lilliputians, were created by Jonathan Swift who didn't have children in mind at all. Also, one of my favourite authors, Steven Millhauser, writes a lot of short stories about tiny automata and the miniature in general. Millhauser wrote a really great essay about why the miniature fascinates and how it evokes a sense of delight, while the gargantuan feels us with a sense of fear. What it sparks in me is nostalgia for when I was small. It is an easy way to access childhood and that view of the world, when everything is enormous and rather bewildering. Also it allows for invention in stories. For example, animals which are regarded as tiny pests suddenly become things you can ride, and the delight of that is really powerful. 

And that's a subject for your forthcoming book,  Hercufleas…

Yes, the character in that story lives in a top hat, called the Hat House, which has little windows round the sides and little rooms at the top. However, 'Hercufleas'  it's less about playing with scale. It is more about belief, and having faith in small things. But yes, there's definitely something that calls me back to the miniature. 

In both of your published novels you depict strong friendships between boys and girls.  Is this a commercial choice, to attract both genders, or, a message to your readership which often start to split to ‘boys only’ and ‘girls only’ groups, or both?

It isn't a commercial thing, although I think it was a fortunate consequence.  I AM aware of it now when I write new books.  One of the main influences on 'The Snow Merchant' was Studio Ghibli films, which often feature girl-boy friendships. Personally, I grew up with a lot of girls in my house - my sisters and cousins. My brother only came along when I was 10, so up until then I  mostly played with girls. At school I also had many girl-friends, as well as boys. I draw things from my experience, people I knew, and this fed into my characters. I also enjoy characters who bicker, and not always get along, so there is fun to be had with girls and boys who don't get on.

I noticed that while the girls in your stories are family–orientated (Lettie is on a quest to find her mother and reunite the family and Lily is seeking a way home back to her grandmother), the boys are loners (Finn is an orphan, and Noah an independent traveller). Their trajectory is also different, since the girls’ quest ends with a family reunion while the boys with going away (Noah to the ocean, Finn to the Americas).  Do you think girls and boys are interested in different types of adventures, or that as an author it is difficult to completely ignore social conventions and expectations?

The third book breaks the pattern, as the main character is a girl who is family orientated, but her family can't be brought back together, so at the end she goes on a solitary open-ended quest. The boy in the novel is also family orientated, and though he is mostly solitary, he does bring the family together at the end.  There is something in your observation and I may have subconsciously noticed an emerging pattern and so broke it. , However, I didn't set out to treat girls and boys in a different way. I was very family orientated when I was young, and I was lucky to have a family that spent a lot of time together.

Also, it has to do with the balance between the main character and the minor one, the friend. The main character in both novels is on a quest to fix the family, which is common in children's literature, the trajectory to return home.  And as I like to have something unresolved in stories, my other characters are more mysterious or even mournful, and so their trajectory is different.

Gulliver in your novel is very cruel – he abducts Lily from her home and punishes her by putting her into a flea-ridden smelly sock.  Yet Lily forgives him at the end. Why was it important to you to have her forgive her abuser?

I value forgiveness as a trait and as a way of healing yourself.  What Lily undergoes is extreme, even in a fantasy setting. In a non-fantasy setting it would be horrific. And the person treating her so badly is essentially a parent figure for much of her life. But I didn't want her to leave with any kind of bitterness and hatred towards him, because I don't think this would have been helpful for her. 

But Finn never forgives his abuser, Mr Plinker...

The difference is that Gulliver asks for forgiveness he has a revelation. He knows that he has done  a terrible thing, so he asks her during the last moments of his life to absolve him. Plinker doesn't ask for forgiveness or recognise that he has done  anything wrong. Gulliver causes his own death because he inflicts terrible wounds upon his own soul. Of course there is a moral here - and there is no children's book without morals - I desire to pass on what I think is good, and forgiveness is a good thing.

I was doing a Q&A at a school, and one of the pupils asked a  question why Gulliver dies at the end, and is he a goody or a baddy. In my opinion asking for forgiveness makes him a more morally ambiguous character. For most of the novel he thinks that what he did is right, and he only faces the consequences at the finale. I like that he is a grey character because 'Lilliput' is a fairy tale, and in fairy tales everything is usually presented as black and white.

In general the adults in your novel (apart from Lettie’s mother) are depicted negatively. They are greedy, cruel, or just hapless as parents and protectors. This is a common trope in children’s literature. What in your opinion stands behind this convention?

If the parents are great, the kids don't get to go on adventures! The wonderful exceptions are books like the Moomins. I'm in awe of authors who let the parents go on adventures with children, or even provide the adventure because in most children's fiction it is the other way.

Coming from a background with lovely and infallible parents, I think the fantasy element kicked in here. Maybe I also wanted to tell children that parenting is tough, and you don't always get it right, but it doesn't make you a bad person. In  'The Snow Merchant' Lettie's mum and dad are not great  parents, but they are essentially good people. Children are often the wise ones in the family who see things for what they are. The parents in my stories don't trust the kids enough. If they did, things wouldn't have gone so pear-shaped. 

In your new book 'Hercufleas' you return to Albion, the world in which 'The Snow Merchant' is set.  Will Lettie and Noah make an appearance? Are you planning to write more books set in this world?

It is not set in Albion but it is in  the same world as 'The Snow Merchant',  in a country called Petrossia which is roughly Siberia, and also on an island called Avalon, which is where the heroes come from.

I am planning to write more books set in the same universe. Lettie makes a brief appearance in 'Hercufleas'. Petrossia features in 'The Snow Merchant' as this is where Lettie's mum meets Blüstav. She turns the Czar's son into a cat. So I'm writing a sort of a prequel to 'The Snow Merchant', but which stands alone The draft is written and is called 'His Royal Whiskers

I like stories, like Discworld, that create a shared language with the reader, leaving these clues about other works from the same universe.

You are a graduate of a Creative Writing MA, what do you think this course gave you and would you recommend it to aspiring writers?

I'd recommend it very much. It gave me a career, as simple as that. It gave me confidence, and the ability to make mistakes and still be OK about that. Before, when I wrote badly,  it would make me depressed, but now I see it as part of the process. It also gave me friends, who are incredibly talented writers, and industry contacts. 

What made you want to choose a course specifically geared at writing for children? 

I trained to be a teacher, and through that I encountered 'Skellig' and' Holes' (the best novel I read ever), and other books I never heard about before, and I was astounded by the vitality of the genre.

What do you think makes a good 8-12 novel?

If I knew I would be writing it now! The essential components I think are wonder, humour and spirit. It needs to be curious about the world, not just of books, but also the world of clocks, or history, and so on.  A good dialogue is also important. It is hard to find  a child in an 8-12 book who  speaks like a real child. In YA fiction it is becoming the norm, but it is still to trickle downwards. The focus for this age group is still the storytelling, which is what I do and what I love, but there aren't many books about real kids and real relationships at this aget. 


Copyright Just Imagine Story Centre Ltd. 2014

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