M G Leonard interviewed by Graham Marks

M.G. Leonard has a first class honours degree in English Literature and an MA in Shakespeare Studies from Kings College London. She works in London as the senior Digital Media Producer for the National Theatre, and previously worked at The Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe. Leonard spent her early career in the music industry running Setanta Records, an independent record label, and managing bands, most notably The Divine Comedy. After leaving the music industry, she trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing before deciding to write her stories down…

I thought ‘I know, I’m going to be a novelist; I’m going to be a writer’. For about four years I tried to write a novel and it was awful. I really wanted to sound clever. I wanted to put sentences together that would make people say, ‘Oh, these sentences sing!’.

I didn’t even know why I was writing the stories. After a couple of years of doing that, I realised I was no good at it and thought, ‘I’ll just put this in the bin and go and do something else…’, because I don’t like to waste my time. It’s not that I gave up on the notion of being a writer, because I always wanted to do it, but I thought ‘ I’m not good enough…’, until I had the idea of the beetles and that changed everything.

You were terrified of beetles before you started research Beetle Boy. Why do that to yourself? Why not choose animals that you liked?’

Fear is really interesting. It is. I’m arachnophobic to an extreme. I can’t control myself physically around spiders. I just run in the other direction or I completely freeze up. I wish I didn’t, because I know in my rational mind that that is ridiculous. I’ve always hated anything that scurries or flies. Not just a little bit, an embarrassing level of fear with proper screaming..

I realised I always described all tiny creatures as insects or' creepy crawlies', and I didn’t know what a 'creepy crawly' was. Obviously, I went online and I put in ‘creepy crawly’ and was faced with a lot of choice. It’s quite surprising. Then I realised I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what an insect was. So I put ‘insect’ into Wikipedia and found out lots of things I thought were insects aren’t insects. I realised that I was really ignorant.

That's when I typed 'beetles' into Wikipedia  and the page for beetles opened up…

Well, I started reading about how they are the most prolific species on the planet and they come in all different shapes, sizes and  colours. As I read it was like taking a cold shower because I thought, ‘How can I not know this? How can I be a grown up person with a Masters, thinking I’m really clever, and I don’t know what an insect is? How can I have never learned any of these things about beetles when they are the most important species on the entire planet?’ I was suddenly faced with the fact that I was an idiot…my fear had stopped me from looking at all of these incredible things. I knew I had to learn about them.

The more I learned about beetles, the more I thought it was a gift. Then I thought someone must have already written about them already because they’re so amazing. I went to the British Library and I put ‘beetle’ in and I got every book up that was to do with beetles,  both fiction and non-fiction. I didn't find anything like the story that I wanted to write. I thought ‘I had better write it because someone’s going to do it if I don’t do it now!’. And that was how my obsession with beetles started.  I’ve got loads of dead ones in my house now…

I was going to ask you if you now have beetles in the house.

Oh, loads – I’m just going to get Baxter, give me two seconds [M G disappears from the screen, reappearing with what looks to be a 6”x3”x3” cardboard box]. It’s amazing what you can buy on the internet these days. You can buy dead insects from Japan… [she lifts the lid to reveal and ENORMOUS black, pearlescent horned beetle]

Holey moley…

This is a rhinoceros beetle. I don’t know if you can see him.

Boy, can I…

People think that I’ve made up the size of Baxter. This is how big he is. The fascinating things I found out while in Britain we have pet hamsters, in Japan the kids have pet rhinoceros beetles in cages, which actually is a bit more sanitary than a hamster. They only live between three to six months, depending on the species.

Do you have any live ones?

No, I don’t. I have cats and children and I suspect if I had live beetles they wouldn’t stay alive for very long. It’s not practical.

Has being in the theatre helped your writing/storytelling process.

Oh, hugely. For example, War Horse is a show I must have seen about seven or eight times. It’s a brilliant and beautiful piece of theatre; the horse is a puppet, it never speaks and you never hear what it’s thinking. The relationship between the horse and the boy is so affecting and so moving in that piece of theatre. When I was struggling to make the relationship between Baxter and Darkus believable, powerful and not cutesy it was my involvement with War Horse that helped.  I saw that it’s through gesture and breath, through movement, that signifying gesture can be just as powerful as speech. That’s not easy to write.

No, it’s a bit like having a mime as a central character.

Yes. I would say, if I wasn’t working in the theatre, I’m not sure that I would have found that solution. 

Did you plan all of this out or did you do that thing where you wind the story up, let it go and follow after it?

The first draft of Beetle Boy is nothing like the final version. The first draft had at least ten more characters and random, tangential plots. I had no idea how to write a story, or even what the pace of a story should be. I was a complete novice. The first draft was 120,000 words long. Bear in mind that the final book is about 55,000 words. It’s like making a fine sauce: you put all the ingredients in, and  loads of water and then you reduce it, you reduce it, and you reduce it, and you reduce it, and you reduce it, until what you are left with really packs a punch, is flavoursome. That’s definitely the way I approached the first book.

I made every mistake you can possibly make but I’m a very fast editor. I edit film, I edit audio, I edit text, I edit images. I am not precious. I can see when something is dragging things down, I have got so much experience esiting text in  other mediums that it’s not hard for me to say ‘That can go, and that can go, and the only thing that’s essential is this. And can I say it more briefly? Yes’.

However, with the second book, I knew the shape of the narrative. I knew the beginning, the middle and the end.  I wrote the first draft in eight weeks, because I knew where it was going.

Did you always know that you were going to write a trilogy?

No…when I started  I just knew I wanted to write a story for children, with children and beetles. I always knew what kind of an ending I wanted that first book to have. I’m not going to give away the ending, but I knew that I wanted to have a lot of beetles versus a lot of humans.  That’s my big crescendo. In writing that ending, I realized the themes that were rearing their head needed to be explored in more depth. I realised that I couldn’t achieve it in one book because it would simply be too long. That’s when I knew it needed to be a trilogy.

I definitely didn’t want it to be a series.I have a  complete notion of what this is and where it ends and how everyone finishes their journey.

The thing that really blew my mind when writing about beetles is that you don’t need to make a fantasy world. We just need to look more closely at the world we live in. Why go to the great effort of trying to concoct an entire other reality when you don’t understand  the reality that you live in? I can watch a David Attenborough programme and feelas though it’s a fantasy that I’m seeing under the sea. I think  that will be a recurring theme through  my literature. I don’t think I will ever world-build because I think this world is interesting enough.

However, I think that the type of story I like to tell is one where the reader will experience pleasure and joy, I want the reader to laugh and I want them to even find grotesque, dark things funny. You can’t do that if you’re really gritty. And it’s also my coping mechanism I turn everything into a joke. Even the worst, most serious situation ever I try and make funny. Sometimes that isn’t always the right thing to do for other people but it worls for me.

That’s all helped along by the names: Darkus, Bertolt, Lucretia, Novak, Dankish, Craven, great names which are all very tasty and delicious. The character I felt sorry for was Virginia, who not only had to wait ages to get her own beetle, but also had the most ordinary name of all the characters you invented – although she’s quite extraordinary in her own right.

She’s one of my favorites, as well. But she’s Virginia Wallace, she gets the name of a great scientist as her surname. For me, she is the strongest, most adventurous, and I quite like the idea of a name that goes against the way someone looks and acts. I did toy with the idea of shortening it or playing with it…I totally know what her family looks like, I know how her mother says ‘Virginia!’, and I know that Virginia is always getting into trouble.

She’s that kid who’s always got scraped knees and is always doing that thing she’s told not to do just to see what happens. She bites her fingernails and I quite liked that.  I also liked the fact it’s such an English-sounding name but Virginia is from Jamaican roots - she’s not your typical English rose, but she’s a very English child protagonist. I did that on purpose.

You have a band of heroes, led by Darkus, but you have a seriously villainous villain in Lucretia, who has the sweetest daughter. Lucretia, though, is a very dark, very complex character, and I’m assuming here, fun to write.

I loved writing Lucretia. There’s a paragraph in the penultimate chapter of the book where she’s sitting in her bedroom about to have breakfast, and when I wrote that paragraph, I had to sit back because I had made myself feel sick. I knew that it was good because I thought ‘Oh that’s disgusting!’. I had to go down and speak to my partner and say, ‘Wait till you read what I just wrote!’. I know that she is unique, as villains go, but I also know she embodies a lot of complex ideas. They always say a story, in its complete arc, is the story of the antagonist as much as the protagonist, it’s just from a different view point.

I have an awful lot invested in her. The second book is Beetle Queen, and she has very grand designs for the future of everything. What I found very difficult was knowing how much of her to reveal, both physically and in her plotting; there’s an awful lot going on. But she is a delight to write. I’m obsessed with her, a little bit. In fact I think she embodies the thing I really want to overcome still…that fear of insects. For me, she is the literal manifestation of my terror.

I do, say no more, don’t give anything away! I’m going to hazard a guess here that Baxter is your favorite beetle…

Yes, yes!

Although I did feel sorry for the Goliath…

The thing is that there are levels of nerdy in this book that, unless you’re an entomologist, you won’t get. There’s a Goliath beetle in the Natural History Museum that has got shot pellets in its shell from when it was killed in a Victorian hunt.

In a way, you should read Beetle Boy with that little red book that Darkus is always referring to - I love the chapter opener illustrations, but they’re black and white, I want to see the colours!

That book is real – hang on a second [ MG disappears from the screen again…and returns] this is how nerdy I am.  So, I bought this book [holds up a small, octavo-sized red, linen-bound book]. It’s a real 19th century volume, I don’t know if you can read the spine, but I can show you on the title page, it says The Young Beetle Collector’s Handbook. It exists.

It was one of the things I found when I went to the British Library to see if anyone had written a book for children about beetles before. I bought this edition in a second hand bookshop, and it has all the plates. Literally everything I’m describing, where possible, is factually accurate. And this is a very beautiful book. It’s stunning. 

There were times, in the book, where it felt as though I was watching an animated Pixar version of Beetle Boy, especially where you were describing Humphrey’s bedroom, when things start to go crazy. I could see all this stuff happening - are you a visual writer? 

I think I’m very visual and I think that’s because of all the other mediums I’ve worked in. This is a book first, but I would love it to have other iterations in other mediums.

It’s very animated. Especially where there is a lot of action for instance when the beetles get going in the Emporium.

The trick to doing that is using as few words as possible.

That’s what you’ve got an imagination for…it’s for taking clues and then running with them.

I’m so glad you thought that, because I have worked very hard at this. There’s a huge amount of work that’s gone into this and a lot of preparation…a lot of true nerd-a-rama. I didn’t do Latin or Greek at school, I had to work out how you pronounce these long Latin words, saying them over and over again so I could put them in a sentence that doesn’t make it sound as though I’m unfamiliar with them.

You have basically told me that you’ve got your next ten months planned out, about which I am very impressed, but do you have any idea what happens after that?

I have at least another seven book ideas that have nothing to do be beetles. I have a list, I know what I’m going to write after I’ve completed the beetle trilogy. Absolutely. I know the next three books after that.

Thank you so much for your time and all the very best with Beetle Boy!

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