by Sandy Auden
Discovering new authors is one of the pleasures of reading. This month,
Mike Shevdon and Jeremy de Quidt talk about their debut
novels. Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails takes us on a haunting journey as
a man's life is torn apart and rebuilt in unexpected ways; and Jeremy de
Quidt's The Toymaker takes our children on a snowy and dangerous adventure.
Mike Shevdon's debut novel, Sixty-One Nails opens with divorcee Niall Peterson embarking for another stressful day at work in the City of London. He's got problems with some disgruntled managers and a visit with his daughter that needs working into his already tight schedule. Then on the London Underground he has a heart attack and his day starts to morph into something very strange indeed. He is catapulted into the secret war that is raging beneath the streets of London where a dark magic will be unleashed by the Untainted, the darkest of the Seven Courts of the Feyre. They have made their play for power and unless Niall can recreate the ritual of the Sixty-One Nails, their dark dominion will enslave all of the Feyre, and all of humankind too.
Niall's adventures don't give him much time to breathe once they start and you never really know much about his background in the end. "That was a deliberate choice," explains the author. "At the beginning of Sixty-One Nails, Niall is in a rut. His relationship with his ex-wife has crashed and he is struggling to maintain a relationship with his daughter through a mixture of bribery and affection. He's thrown himself into his work and blotted out almost everything else because it saves him from thinking about how crap his life has become.
"So when he witnesses a suicide on the Underground in rush hour, right next to him, he barely reacts. He's closed himself off so completely he might as well be dead. Then he has a heart attack, and for a moment he truly does die. That's the beginning of Niall's story. There is another story before that, but that's about his relationship with wife Katherine and his daughter and ultimately his divorce, and that's a very different tale to Sixty-One Nails."
The story that Shevdon does tell takes us on a whistle-stop tour of one of England's greatest cities, a location that others like Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere) and China Miéville (King Rat) have explored for themselves. "London is a very atmospheric place," says Shevdon. "It has over 2,000 years of history and layers of diverse cultures that give it a unique flavour. Having worked in London for many years, I was able to set Sixty-One Nails in places that I knew had a strong atmosphere, so that the city could become almost a character in the story. I tried to make those places real for the reader so that they would be able to see how the city is part of the story and how it affected the characters and events that unfolded.
"One of the things I realised was that people walk around London with their eyes closed. London commuters are very conservative and they adopt very specific routines. They never seem to look up or down, and they ignore anything that looks unusual or like it might spark a conflict. It's a defence mechanism against the big city.
"When you start to explore London you begin to realise just how rich a seam you've tapped into. It's full of stories and history, rituals and ceremonies. If you can get people to open their eyes and look around them, they start to understand that they're in a really interesting place and it resonates with them. They begin to see that everyone else seems unaware of what's going on around them. The hidden city comes alive for them."
Shevdon has done what many writers do and written about what he knows -- a useful approach for an author on their first book and a technique that evolves with time and experience. Take Niall's character for example. "Like a lot of writers, I ask myself the question, 'what would I do in this situation?' So inevitably some of me ends up in Niall. I also asked myself, what would I be like if this had been different, if I hadn't grown up here, but there; if I'd met this person and not that person. Niall isn't me, but maybe I might have been like him if I'd made his choices and had his experience. Honestly, I think he was more like me in the really early drafts, but now he's himself."
"That's the best thing about writing, when your characters take on a life of their own and start writing their own stories for you. It's a surprising, wonderful and magical moment. Writing seriously gives you so much, even though it also takes it out of you. It's very emotionally and intellectually challenging but also very rewarding."
Did any sections cause any problems? "The sex scene. No doubt at all. Sex is the hardest thing (you see what I mean?) to write convincingly without innuendo or cliché. You are constantly caught between the ridiculous and the pornographic and have to tread a very delicate line between them. It can also be a moment of revelation and tenderness though, so it's worth working at."
Would Shevdon change anything if he could go back? "I'll tell you that later. One of the things about writing a series is that it's like rolling a snowball. The more you roll, the more snow you have to carry along. I didn't build the Courts of the Feyre before I started writing. I had some of the basic principles and had some ideas for the characters and structures, but there is no secret Courts of the Feyre manual somewhere with all the rules in it.
"Somewhere, then, I will have shot myself in the foot. I don't know where yet, but I'm going to have written something that means that the story cannot go where I want it to go. That's the thing I would go back and change, when I find out what it is."
He clearly hasn't found it yet since he's already finished the story for book two. "I'm editing the draft version of The Road to Bedlam, the second volume, at the moment before it gets sent to the editor at Angry Robot Books. Then I'm working on the plot for book three and subsequent stories from Courts of the Feyre. I find that some of the ideas for the current book don't fit in the story I'm writing, so I throw them forward where they'll possibly find a home later."
And he's keeping busy with other projects too. "I also have some short stories which I have promised myself I'll work on when I have finished the draft for Bedlam. There's also the reading pile which is currently in stasis. There's research into history and folklore, which has become a bit of an obsession, and working on things for the website and the blog, and I really must collate all the characters, places, history, rituals and events from the series into a Courts of the Feyre Codex so that I don't trip over myself later.
"Oh, and then there's life, mustn't forget that."
Jeremy De Quidt Introduces The Eerie And Deadly Toymaker
Jeremy de Quidt's The Toymaker is another debut novel but this one is for children. Don't expect a story of pink frills and fluffiness though, because The Toymaker is a dark, scary Gothic tale, set in the depths of winter in a cheerless Germanic country.
When Mathias's grandfather dies, Mathias discovers a small piece of paper that his grandfather had been desperately trying to hide. Unfortunately, this small fragment of paper manages to land Mathias in a large amount of danger. The boy becomes entangled in a devious plot and is constantly pursued by the sinister Doctor Leiter and his devilish and wicked toys, but Mathias is determined to uncover the deadly secret, whatever the cost...
The Toymaker had an unusual genesis, evolving on a chapter by chapter basis with a young audience -- from Wells Central School, Somerset, UK -- in attendance. De Quidt tells us how it all happened...
How did you come to be involved with the literacy initiative at Wells Central School?
I'd been into Wells Central once to re-tell a local legend, and they asked me if I could come in again. The idea was that I would fill in for two lessons each week, tell the children different stories and help them use the school library. It didn't quite work out like that though.
What happened instead?
I wrote the first chapter of The Toymaker simply as an example of how a story might begin, it wasn't intended to go anywhere else. But they wanted to know what happened next, so it had to carry on -- their enthusiasm was what drove the story forward.
The larger part of each lesson we'd spend with ideas for their own writing, then quite separate at the very end, I'd read to them the next instalment of The Toymaker. I can remember very clearly what scared me when I was their age, and that's what I tried to wind into the story.
There is a quality to the silence when people are really hooked and listening to something. Hearing that, and the gasps and intakes of breath was the best part of it all for me.
How did the children respond to the pretty harsh situations in the story?
The margin of the original manuscript is marked at the point where one girl let out a full, liquid, two lunged scream, but apart from that everyone coped pretty well. Children like scary stories, people tend to be too cautious about that. Ask a class what they want, a happy story or a scary one, and watch the hands go up.
Which locations inspired the settings for the book?
They are more an assembly of pictures and imaginings of German and Baltic towns stored away in the back of my head. It's more a case of 'a story like this should be set in a place like that.'
Why did you decide to set it in winter?
Setting it in summer wouldn't have given it the same atmosphere. It's a dark story that sits well in the cold bleakness of winter. Winter makes its own problems for people. It's difficult for things to be easy in winter.
Why do you think dolls seem to be inherently creepy?
There's a rich tradition that goes very deep, of dolls made in mockery and spite -- almost as though they somehow attract it. I think that has something to do with it, that unease that this small human looking thing might just not be as harmless as it seems.
The ending of the book is a little ambiguous, will there be a book two or more?
When I finished, I had it clear in my mind that I would follow Mathias and Katta, and tell the story of what happened to them next, but now I'm not so sure. I quite like the idea of not knowing, of leaving that to the reader's imagination.
What are you working on now?
It's another dark story and is unlikely to have a happy ending. I'm about two-thirds through. All being well it should be in the shops for January 2011. It begins 'The window of Kusselmann's shop was full of teeth.' But you'll have to wait until next January to find out the rest.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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