Tell me what inspired you to write about your latest book?

After getting great feedback but no publishing deal on an earlier book, I asked my agent what publishers were looking for. She said Middle Grade fantasy was popular and I thought about this, specifically what I could bring to the table that was different. After racking my brains for a while, I realised the answer was obvious: Japanese culture and myth. I’d spent five years in Japan as an English teacher, so I had the skills and experience to write authoritatively about life in modern Japan but, more importantly, I could also do the research into folklore and myth that was needed. My Japanese is rusty but serviceable. Once I started delving into the rich trove of old tales, the plot fell into place and the story almost wrote itself. My main inspiration, though, was to convey to readers what it is like to live in such an exciting place. For a country that touches our lives in so many ways, Japan remains largely unknown to English audiences.

TheSwordOfKuromori TheShieldOfKuromori

Do you try and read the online reviews you get on say waterstones website?

I admit, I do read any and all reviews I can – even those in foreign languages! As a writer, you work in a vacuum, and honest feedback is hard to come by. If you ask family and friends to read your work, they’re liable to go easy because they want to be encouraging. At the same time, you can’t badger people to read work in progress, so the only objective readers you have early on are likely to be your agent and your editor. Once your book hits the shelves and is out in the real world, though, that’s when you get a better idea of what worked, what didn’t, which parts confused readers, and so on. That’s why I read the reviews, no matter how baffling some of them may be.

Is there anything you wouldn’t write about?

In general, nothing is taboo with me, discussion-wise, and I’ve had some colourful conversations with my own kids because of that. However, writing-wise – and in writing for children – I recognise the need to entertain, to guide and to stimulate, but in a responsible manner. For that reason, certain subject matter, e.g. drug use, probably wouldn’t work too well for me. Having said that, if a story required it and I thought I could present it in an appropriate way, then nothing would be off limits. I mean, my books touch on cannibalism and infanticide, albeit in a very subtle way!

How hard do you find it to keep within an age category?

That’s a great question. I do struggle with this because the overlap between Middle Grade and Young Adult can be blurred. In some ways I find the whole age banding thing to be somewhat arbitrary and artificial, although I do recognise its benefits. When I was growing up, I read everything from Enid Blyton to Ian Fleming and never gave any thought as to whether it was age appropriate; it was just a story waiting to be discovered. I doubt that when Dickens or Bronte sat down to write, they had an age category in mind and directed their prose accordingly. Similarly, when I write, I go with the characters and the story and allow it to unfold, as it will. I leave any cleaning up for the editing stage.

What did you do before becoming a writer?

I worked as a radio communications engineer, and I still do. Writing is something I have to squeeze into an already busy schedule, but it’s like a treat for me because it enables me to escape from a mundane reality. Hence, I write fantasy! Before engineering, I spent five years in Japan working as an English teacher.

Which author inspires you?

There are many authors whose work I enjoy and admire, from whom I learn, but inspiration? Not so many. After looking at my book collection, I’m going to go with an unusual choice, namely Michael Crichton, best known as the writer of Jurassic Park. I’ve read most of Crichton’s oeuvre and, even where he doesn’t quite pull off the ending, I still come away buzzing with ideas. For those unfamiliar with the man, he started out training to be a doctor and took up writing science-based fiction between his studies. Finding success as an author with The Andromeda Strain, he never practiced medicine, but continued to challenge himself by taking up film-making, going on to write and direct the hit movie Westworld, which was about a futuristic theme park where things go horribly wrong. Hmm… He went on to tackle other topics but I knew when starting a Crichton novel that, regardless of what I thought of the story, I would learn something new, be it nanotechnology in Prey or neoteny in The Lost World. A writer who entertains, teaches and stimulates is inspirational to me.

Which genres do you read yourself?

It might be quicker to list those that I don’t read! I’m a firm believer in reading widely and outside one’s comfort zone. Almost every book published has had to go through a vetting process to convince an agent, an editor and a publisher that it is worth printing, so it must have some merit. As a reader, when trying something different, the challenge is to respond and find that unique aspect. Conversely, if the book fails to engage you at all, then it is worth asking why it didn’t work and what you would change to fix it. The genres I read most, however, are popular science, non-fiction, YA, children’s books, graphic novels and the occasional Man Booker nominee.

What is your biggest motivator?

My father wanted to be a writer and used to scribble down lots of ideas in little notebooks he carried around. He had an idea for a novel similar to Erich Segal’s Love Story and regretted not writing it first after the latter became a huge success. Like many people, he was enamoured with the idea of being an author but not with parking his backside in a chair and doing the writing. I guess he was waiting for retirement to finally get round to it but a heart attack took him at forty five, and all he left were notebooks of half-written snippets. That taught me to fight for my dreams, to make them happen.

What will always distract you?

In a word, family. When I carve out a chunk of time in which to write, I can be very focussed and work in a concentrated manner but the exception to that will always be my wife and children. Largely, they understand and leave me in peace, but if help is needed with homework, or ‘Dad’s Taxi’ has to do a pick up, then I stop what I’m doing. Having a family is both a huge commitment and a huge responsibility and I take it seriously. Everything else must come second.

How much say do you have in your book covers?

I’m lucky in that the book designer for my publisher runs ideas by me first. I’ve had sneak peeks at both covers when they were in the pencil art stage and was allowed to make suggestions, such as adjusting character appearances to fit better with how I envisaged them. For example, I specifically requested a bust reduction for a female character! I leave the final decisions, though, to the professionals.

As a child were you a great reader?

I was. I was able to read from an early age and burned through the set texts in school, such as Kathy and Mark, so I was let loose in the school library to read whatever I wanted. I read H Rider Haggard, Willard Price, Franklin W Dixon, E Nesbit, whatever I could lay my grubby hands on.

Which book shop is your favourite?

Daunt Books in Holland Park is a lovely bookshop with a large and varied range of books, which you wouldn’t expect given its size. The staff are very friendly and knowledgeable, too.

What can you not resist buying?

When I was younger, I would always pop into bookshops or record stores and leave with handfuls of books and music, but I’m a lot more disciplined now and am well practised in avoiding impulse buys. If I had to choose something, I do like rooting around in bargain bins for DVD’s, even though I never have time to watch anything.

Do you have any rituals on your writing days?

I would love to say that I wake up late, have a long shower, enjoy a real coffee and write for hours while someone brings me freshly-baked cookies, but sadly life’s not like that! My only ritual is to try and bash my way to a word count. On good days it flows easily and is an enjoyable ride. On bad days it’s like trying to stack grains of sand using only tweezers.

How many books in your own to be read pile?

Hold on… <goes away and counts> Thirty seven, all literally at my bedside.

What is your current read?

I’m reading The Black Lotus, a Middle Grade book by Kieran Fanning, an Irish author. I’m about a third of the way through and am intrigued thus far.

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