The International Writers Magazine: Interview
The Marcus Sedgwick interview
'My First Memory is being pushed through a graveyard by my Nanny'.
Marcus Sedgwick talks about life, death and his new book Revolver to Callum Graham
It seems fitting that the rain streaks down the window of the café, and wind whips the brollies from unsuspecting passers by as I sit down to interview Marcus. A dominant force in the teenage fiction, his books are a mysterious blend of gothic and adventure which have earned him a place on the bookshelves of children not just in the UK but across the world. He looks scholarly, with a politely stripped shirt (complete with boldly oversized collar), maroon jumper and a earthy green scarf. Most fitting for a man who has been made writer in residence for Bath Spa University. As I unpack my note pad he tells me it is where he went to Uni and that he is now the proud dissertation tutor for two students, 'I'm lucky that they're good. I don't know what it would be like if they were awful'.
CG: What made you become a writer?
MS: 'I don't particularly feel I chose. I lasted one year of a maths degree, but we didn't see a number all year. It was so esoteric. I switched to the most interesting course I could find - politics'. After University he found work in a Bookshop. 'Books are what I love', he states with a laid back enthusiasm. However, his aspirations where higher and he moved into publishing. 'I didn't really feel like I fitted in. Not at first anyway'. However, this didn't seem to stop him from holding down his publishing job for ten years whilst writing his novels at the weekends. 'Only recently did I feel I could give up the day job,' he adds.
CG: Did you intentionally choose the audience you have?
MS: 'You write what you want to write. I naturally felt happy writing for that age group'.
It seems that Marcus, like so many teen authors found his niche through experimenting with writing rather than as a way of breaking into the market. However, he remains sharp to the ways of the publishing world. 'Ultimately your editor decides what target group to aim for'.
CG: I wondered what his thoughts were regarding his succession of teenage protagonists. Do you think that they are important for your audience?
MS: 'You can have a teenage book without a teenage protagonist'.
CG: Do you feel a responsibility for your readership?
MS: 'Yes. There is some kind of responsibility. It is a dichotomy'.
It seems the dichotomy comes when weighting up his responsibility to himself to write what he enjoys whilst being careful not to write anything too dark for his readers to endure.
MS: 'There is nothing you can't write for a teenage audience. Death or sex. But you have to be more careful with a younger audience, especially if you want to get your book in school libraries'.
This is why he is careful to include 'hope and redemption' even in his bleakest novels.
MS: 'Besides With kids books there are plenty of 'gatekeepers' who make decisions about what is acceptable for publication'.
He continues to talk about how he is not sure that the 'gatekeepers' always get it right, 'it is easy to be patronising to children'.
When talking about what he considers his darkest book My Swordhand is Singing, he talks almost guiltily about feeling that it needs a 'self censorship'. 'I felt like I should put a warning sticker on it,' he says.
CG: Why? The book did not seem overly gratuitous.
This is where Marcus's sincerity and modesty comes in, and maybe a little of that parental instinct. He states the reading age is not the same as actual age.
MS: 'An able eight year old could pick up one of my books meant for a teenager, and it is not completely suitable'.
Therefore there is no surprise when I ask if his daughter has read his books. 'No, in the past she thought she'd be scared by them. But she is thirteen now and is getting into Twilight and scarier things. I tricked her into reading them'.
He gives me a sly look which suggests the playful relationship between him and his daughter. This seems the perfect time to ask him why he writes his books what he calls 'bleakly'.
MS: I write what I enjoy reading. If I'm not interested in the subject I can't write about it well. The darkness is a basic human thing. A roller coaster experience.'
It is what he enjoys reading and writing. When I ask why this is he states, matter of faculty 'at school I was a first generation goth'. It seems a unlikely revaluation to look at him now, but he insists. 'My earliest memory is being pushed through a graveyard by my Nanny'. This is obviously a moment which has stuck with him. Anyone who has read Marcus's books will know there is an awful lot of what Marcus calls 'running around in graveyards'.
CG: Do you write for your inner child?
MS: Yes. A bit of you wants to work out things from when your were that age.
CG: I wonder if part of you is still trying to work out that inner Goth?
MS: A part of you never grows up. Some authors are still 14 year old boys'.
This seems an important part of the process for writing for himself. It seems to have a therapeutic power for Marcus. Marcus does seem to have a concern that his readership will outgrow him. After writing for so many years it is understandable that the people who were reading his books ten years ago are not the ones who are reading them know.
MS: '9-12's enjoy you then grow out of you. Well known authors can disappear this way. They outgrow you and you have to re-introduce yourself to them'.
He is cleverly trying to expand his market by writing a book for a younger reading age, he hopes they will grow into his teenage books. He has obviously brought some of his marketing knowledge from his days in publishing with him.
CG: Do you plan to write any adult fiction?
MS: 'I have one or two idea's at the moment. Ideas that will translate better as adult books'.
He talks about how adult books are much more 'obsessed with genre', attributing this to the 'massive amount of different adult books all sectioned' in book stores, whereas 'in the children's section it is smaller and books are split by age rather than genre'. He says, 'teenagers are less judgemental about reading and don't expect a genre. You could write about… I don't know… robot dinosaurs'. He looks up, 'Actually, maybe that would't be a good idea. Not for me anyway'.
CG: Revolver, his latest book is set in the Arctic Circle around 1910. It's plot marks a departure from the gothic and supernatural. I ask whether this was a conscious decision?
MS: Yes and No, this is just a new idea. A lot of writers are obsessives, I get an idea and run with it, researching the possibilities first.'
The only exception to this is 'The Book of Dead Days' which he admits came extensively from his own personal past interests.
CG: This moves us onto the question of one of the most obvious themes in Revolver, the weapon itself. Did you think placing the Colt at the heart of your novel was controversial?
Marcus sighs as if he has been asked this question before.
MS: 'I don't think it has been'.
He doesn't write what he calls 'issue books' although he respects them. He reassures me that several of his friends write these kind of books very successfully. 'However, I write more timeless novels'.
In a gun conscious society it seems strange that there has been no feedback in response to the placing of the revolver, it appears to be a mark of the skill with which Marcus has written it into the book. 'A gun is a beautiful thing,' he says. 'It is designed to carry out one job and it does it very well. It is it's use that is the terrible thing. I wanted to avoid talking about 'Are guns sexy'? Is rapping cool?' Marcus says that Revolver has been his best reviewed book. He chuckles as he tells me that the only bad review was one that called him prejudiced because the villain Wolff is disabled by his lack of a thumb. He shrugs 'you always get a few like that'.
CG: Seeing as this book is set in the wilderness of the Arctic circle I ask him, do you write on location?
MS: 'No not always. But this time yes. I was behind on a deadline so went out both to write and to catch up on other work'.
Now he has left publishing he is 're-inventing working life' and trying to get a routine back. It seems to have been successful as he states during the drafting of Revolver he wrote 15,000 words a week. I explore Marcus's working process. He explains that every writer has a different one. He prefers to get a piece of A2 paper and, with a pencil, plan the whole story, erasing and re-writing where necessary. When doing creative writing he works best in the morning and is a firm believer in lucid dreaming. 'I dream my way into the book space'. He often goes to bed thinking about what he will do in the morning. I ask him whether he uses music to help him with his writing. 'Yes, for Revolver it was Nick Cave and the sound track to Jessie James. particularly the track Martha's dream. I put on I-tunes to get myself in the right brain space'.
CG: Our conversation shifts to talking about the role of Einer, the father, in the book. I ask if Einer's love of how things work is something he can relate to.
MS: As a child I had vague notions of being an inventor.
He describes how he took things apart and then suffered the anger of his mother when he didn't put them back together. However, his interest in the pistol seems to have come later. He explains how he grew up with pacifist parents with no real knowledge of what guns where. 'My school had a joint cadet force. I was a conscientious objector'. He raises a half hearted fist up in a joking symbol of defiance. He leans forward and says 'I know its not necessarily PC to say it, but a lot of women are put off by the the description of the gun in the book. My (female) editor made me cut it down, but I thought it was important'. There is a paragraph in Revolver dedicated to explaining how a gun works, from the moment of pulling the trigger to the bullet leaving the barrel and hitting its target. He explains how it is in integral part of Sig and Einers father/son relationship. He is teaching him how to be a man. 'This communication makes up for Einers shortfalls'.
I look up at the clock and down at Marcus's empty tea cup. It is time to bring the interview to a close. I ask one last question.
CG: In a previous interview you have said that your are not a writer of sequels, why?
MS: From a business point off view it seems if you land a successful sequel 'your laughing'. However he doesn't want to be tied to a series if the first book flops. He calls this 'Treading water'. However, for him it is not a financial decision. He is into writing about new things. However, if he thinks a plot needs more than one book then he will write it over as many as it takes, as in the case of The Book of Dead Days and its sequel The Dark Flight Down. 'If I like a character and think the plot needs it its fine.'
At the moment he has an idea which he thinks may stretch over two or three books. I finish up my drink and we shake hands, then he heads out into the rain. As he goes he unfurls his umbrella, disappearing into the blackness of the evening. A mysterious, sophisticated exit for a charmingly understated man.
© Callum Graham April 2010