Gareth P Jones lives in South East London and divides his time between writing books, producing TV programme sand playing the slightly ludicrous number of stringed instruments in his front room. His books include three series, The Dragon Detective Agency, Ninja Meerkats and The Steampunk Pirates. His Standalone books include, The Considine Curse which won the Blue Peter Book of the Year Prize 2012 and The Thornthwaite Inheritance, which won seven regional awards. In this interview he talks to Nikki Gamble about his most recent book, Death or Ice-cream?
Tell us about how you made the transition from working in television to becoming a children’s author.
I’ve been an author for nine years and this is my 27th book. My first book was the Dragon Detective Agency. I sent the proposal to Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury and she remarkably gave me a two book deal without asking to see the rest of the book. Which is just as well really, as the rest of the book wasn’t written at that stage. I published several books with Bloomsbury and then when Sarah moved to Hot Key I followed her there. Constable and Toop was my first book with Hot Key. Death or Ice Cream? is my most recent book for Hot Key. I have also had some books published with Stripes: the Ninja Meerkats and the Steampunk Pirates. And I have had two picture books illustrated by Garry Parsons and published by Andersen Press: ‘Are You the Pirate Captain? and The Dinosaurs are Having a Party.
The Ninja Meerkats series was written to a brief and the concept had already been developed when you were given the project, but your other books are created entirely from your own ideas. Which process do you find most challenging?
I think it’s the same creative process. Stripes had the concept for Ninja Meerkats and the character outlines and they knew who the villain was going to be, but they didn’t have anything beyond that. So I was working to fill in the gaps. Strangely I am working on another series for Stripes which is my own idea. It’s a good concept but for some reason it’s proving a struggle writing it. So I don’t think the challenge comes from whether or not the idea is your own. Every project, every book comes with its own peculiar challenges.
You won the Blue Peter Award for The Considine Curse, which of your books to date would you pick as an Award winner?
I think the best piece of writing that I have ever done is Death or Ice Cream? There are lots of things that happen in that book that I can connect with events that have happened to me, so it’s a very personal book. One story is set in a waxwork museum, which is really a terrible place to work. The staff have to follow ridiculous rules like ‘Pies are Unacceptable’ and they have absolutely no idea what it means. I used to work at Harrods back in the AL Fayed days. Harrods was the weirdest most surreal place to work and that fed the waxworks story.
There’s a diversity in the type of books you write for different age groups. Do you think that is an advantage or disadvantage?
I like writing all of the books but the older darker stories are probably closest to me. The shorter books are often hardest to write because you have to adjust to a different pace of writing. The picture books are probably the hardest of all. I’d like to write more. I can pitch the idea but I have to work really hard at writing them.
Do you work on different stories simultaneously?
Yes, after all you can be reading different books at the same time or watching different television programmes. It’s no different really.
How would you describe your brand of humour?
I write things that I find funny. In some cases there are jokes that only I will find funny. I have never had an ingrowing toenail but I live in fear of having an ingrowing toenail because it’s something that I think is unpleasant and entirely caused by your inability to cut your toenails properly. Now, I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what I think the case is, so I find ingrowing toenails very funny and this feeds into another of the stories.
Can we talk about the title Death or Ice Cream? I think it’s fair to say that it is more catchy than the titles of some of your other books. Where did the title come from? My titles do suffer from being a bit too hard to remember. No one ever remembers The Thornthwaite Inheritance or The Considine Curse. And they often call Constable and Toop, Constable and Stoop. So, with Death or Ice-cream?, I was playing around with possible titles. The book is like a collection of short stories so I thought I could have a play on ‘craft ales’ something like ‘Crafted Tales’. However, once I had finished the book I realised that Death was a large part of it and that ice-cream was a recurring theme. So I wondered what it would be like if I presented those two things as a choice ‘Death or ice Cream?’
At events I ask the audience which they would prefer and most people shout ice-cream -with the inevitable exception of the five kids at the back who growl 'DEATH!’ Of course it isn’t a real choice, you can’t choose whether or not to have death. So I think there’s an instant connection with the readers, which works well. It’s memorable.
In that case, the prologue must have been the last thing that you wrote because it couldn't have been written before you had the title.
Yes, I was in Qatar and I had a lot of time to focus on writing. I knew that I needed something to set the book up, to explain what it’s about. The prologue is more or less the last thing that I wrote before delivering the first draft - but not quite the last thing as we added another story later.
The other thing that I did in Qatar was live edit. I read one of the stories aloud to a group of children. As I read, I would stop if the story didn’t flow properly and make a note on the manuscript.
Larkin Mills is a great name for the place in which your stories are set. Where did that name come from?
Actually the idea came from Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes was a new town and a popular myth is that it was named after the poet John Milton and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Anyway, I was in a park with lots of adults and children and we were all playing around with potential sinister names and we were playing around with the Milton Keynes idea. Eventually we came up with Larkin Mills using Philip Larkin and John Stuart Mills and that sounded right.
Tell us about the structure. It takes a little while to see the connections. I think I was on chapter 3 before I realised that the pieces were going to fit together.
The process was interesting, fun and bizarrely rapid. The initial idea was for a collection of short stories in which one of the characters was going to die and the reader had to try and guess who it would be. My thought was that it wouldn’t be the character that you were set up to expect to die.
I wrote the first story, 'The Anecdote', quite quickly. When I reached the end, I realised there was a question left hanging, so I wrote the second story to answer the question. However I realised there were more unanswered questions, so I wrote the third story and so on. In two and a half weeks I had written the book. At the point that the devil comes into the story, I realised that I would also have to include God, that’s the fair thing to do.
One of the things that we worked on in the editing process was to make everything even more connected. There were some characters who merged to become one character. A lot of those changes took place quite late in the process.
So the origin story must have come quite late in the process then?
Yes, once I had the story of the archaeologist and the egg, I knew that I needed to go back and explain how it came to be there. It was the same thought process as I went through for writing the other stories.
The stories are varied in tone and voice...
Yes, I have read some reviews that suggest that the different stories are aimed at different age groups. I can see that point but I didn’t want them all to be the same. I wanted an adventure, a mystery. At one point there was a story written in the format of a television script. I wanted to see if I could challenge myself, so I wrote a story in the first person, the second person and third persons
The stories do have flavours of other kinds of storytelling. There are echoes of folklore (Death met on the road), morality and mystery plays in which God is sometimes played irreverently and there is a flavour of Gorey and some Oscar Wilde as well. You have given these allusions your own darkly comic twist.
Well I work in television and television is a backdrop to all of our lives.The thing about television is that it always there. It’s strange because you can be watching quite a dark story at the same time as spooning cereal into your child’s mouth. It’s a weird juxtaposition between the seriousness and the banality. I like the way those two things play.
The subject of your stories is very dark but the tone humorous. It’s darkly funny. I have sometimes found children see the humour where gatekeepers don’t. Why do you think that is?
Well children know that it’s all made up. I have read the story a couple of times this week and I always ask them who’s going to die and they have great big grins on their faces and they say things like ‘I think there’s going to be a machete hidden in the accordion.’ They know they are ideas and that I haven’t killed anyone.
You do kill characters off but these aren’t fully rounded characters that we invest in emotionally. Would you agree that the plot is the real driver?
Yes, I think that’s true and sometimes plot is overlooked. Ideas and concepts are also really important to me.
The thing about the idea and the reason I am struggling a bit at the moment is that no matter how outlandish, I have to believe in it. Strange though it may seem, there’s a level at which Death or ice cream is a vision of the world as I see it. Let me explain, when I created Larkin Mills I wanted to put together all of the oddnesses and strangeness of places that I visit in the UK. As you, know, I visit a lot of schools all over the country that I wouldn’t normally visit. For instance, you arrive in Swindon and the taxi driver says ‘Have you been to the roundabout?’. The roundabout in Swindon is a crazy design and it has become a bit of a local focal point. In Coventry the driver said ‘We’re going to have to go on the ring road’. The bizarre thing is the ring road was built before the town planning had been properly conceived and it’s too near to the city centre and so getting on and off it is a terrifying thing. I like those oddnesses that you get in the world and I wanted to include them in my stories.
‘All stories are made up. Only some are made up of facts and some are made up of lies. I don’t know which this one is but I think it’s a bit of both.’ (Death or Ice-cream?)
I love the constructedness of reality in the parody of the reality TV shows like Flog It or Burn It. Reality TV is a misnomer because it’s a fiction.
It’s all story. I have friends who work on reality TV shows as story planners and script writers. All of life is just story. When you meet your friends in the pub and start talking about your day, you edit it as you go along, you leave bits out and exaggerate others. It’s all storytelling.
Talking about the World of Larkin Mills, when you have so many stories set in one place how do you make sure you keep a consistent vision?
The original idea was that the world of Larkin Mills is built on layers of time. You scrape it back to find other stories but I discarded that. Really the creation of the world was intuitive. The minute I had a character selling and buying anecdotes, I knew that I understood the place.
Some things did change though. The big concrete heart was originally a big concrete head but Hot Key had already published a book that included one of those. What are the chances of that?
That’s serendipity: a concrete heart is a much stronger image.
Metaphorically it works because it’s the heart of the city and the character is trapped inside his own heart. And of course it’s a gift visually as well. It’s a completely disgusting image – much better than a head.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
Probably 'The Anecdote'.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished The Thornthwaite Betrayal which is the sequel to The Thornthwaite Inheritance. And I have a new series called Pet Defenders which will be published next year. It’s Men in Black but with cats and dogs.
Thank you Gareth P Jones for talking to Just Imagine...
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