When did you know that The Last Guardian was going to be the last Artemis book?
I didn’t really know straightaway. I knew after three or four chapters that I couldn’t really find an excuse to have Artemis as the villain again. He had progressed too much. I realised then that it was going to be the end, so then I had to go back and replan everything.
I had a plan that this would just be the next instalment. Once I realised it was going to be the last one, it meant a top to bottom rethink of the whole book.
Were there elements that you incorporated into this that you might otherwise have kept for later?
I had to wind up all the stories, all the arcs. Anything that was left dangling had to be wound up.
Very often in these things the last half of the last book is everybody saying goodbye. It goes on forever. Artemis would have had to go round saying goodbye to all the characters, and they’d all realise how far they’d come. It would be very jolly. I didn’t want to do that so a lot of the characters have very brief, a couple of paragraphs, of goodbye. The whole thing is adventure right up to the last few pages, then I wrap it up. The way I wrap it up, I suppose, is not the traditional way. Something else will happen, but Artemis can’t really have another adventure.
I wanted it to be a little bit cyclical so it finished where it began…
So was that part of the original plot?
No it wasn’t [set] at Fowl Manor. When I started to write it originally, it was some sort of neutral location. I think I had picked somewhere in Sweden. Then when I realised it was the last book, I knew I could tie things up nicely if I set it at Fowl Manor. It would also explain the presence of magic in Fowl Manor, and a little bit how Artemis went the magical route in the first place. I thought it would work nicely, and also I could put the people possessed being Artemis’ little brothers which I thought would be interesting.
It was pretty much the same as it would have been but I had to orchestrate it so that all the strands came together at the same time.
Tolkien has this massive goodbye scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings…
Totally. The hobbits have to go round to all the different people and say goodbye to them – it seems to go on for a long time. But I try not to compare myself to Tolkien!
One guy who really stands out for me as a comic writer is Colin Bateman. He’s managed to stay funny for twenty books and there’s no sign of slowing down. If anything, he’s getting better.
And of course Terry Pratchett is another one. His stories are really complicated. At first you don’t really realise what’s happening, until the second half of the book, but they’re always, without exception, hilarious. Those are two guys who have managed to write in a series form, but also keep the comic tone very effective – which is not easy to do. These guys are devastating with their one-liners and they’re big heroes of mine.
The tone of the Artemis books changed a little after the first one – they seem a little less violent. Why did you change it?
Honestly, I thought I made a mistake in the first book, in that specific area, where it was a little violent.
There’s one specific incident where one character fights a troll, and it’s quite graphic. On re-reading it, especially with my own kids in mind, I thought “There’s not really any need for that, and I can achieve what I want to achieve without being that violent.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
It was reviewed by a very well-known writer here in Ireland. He gave it a lovely review, but he felt there was no need for kids to know the names of the weapons and all these violent techniques of combat. I thought, “he’s right”. I experimented a little bit with the second book to see if I could make it light-hearted, but still as effective as drama, and I found that I could, so I decided to continue in that vein.
Last year I released a thriller called Plugged, and I went into it really for that reason. I wanted to explore all those avenues that I wasn’t able to with kids’ books, like swearing and sex and violence. But once I was able to do it, and I had licence to do it, I didn’t really do it that much.
Maybe my tastes have change as I’ve gotten older: I have found that I don’t read the very violent serial killer books any more. I loved those: The Silence of the Lambs was one of my favourite books, but I just don’t have a taste for that any more. I’m not interested in people getting their faces peeled off and stuff like that anymore. Maybe I’m just getting older. Possibly it’s the result of having kids. You start imagining it happening to them… and you don’t want to go there.
There’s sometimes a misconception that to be “adult” there has to be lots of four letter words, and graphic sex…
Especially in the 1980s, where the movies were just saturated with swearing and violence. I recently rewatched the first Die Hard movie for the first time in a long time, and I just couldn’t believe how much swearing there was. It was really noticeable, and one of the things that hasn’t aged well. They were obviously swearing to be grown-ups and it just becomes annoying. In the last Die Hard movie, there was a little swearing but nothing compared to what they used to do in the 1980s. I think in a way it detracts from the writing to have that much swearing.
Comedians have changed a lot: they still swear but nothing like they used to. Billy Connolly was a great man for swearing but even he, I think, has backed off a bit. When it’s used judiciously, it has a bit of impact.
No. I think if it’s appropriate for their age group, then you’re fine. When I was 12, I considered myself too old for children’s books so I started on the Stephen Kings, the Jack Higgins, and the Robert Ludlums and Frederick Forsyths. Frederick Forsyth, especially; his plots are extremely complicated. I’m thinking of The Devil’s Alternative particularly, with its political scandal on several continents. When I was going to write for that age group, I didn’t see any reason to write a simple narrative, because I was writing for the 12 year old I was. That’s another reason I was surprised it became a best seller. I thought it would be a relatively small audience for a thriller for kids.
My editor wanted to cut it back, and said I couldn’t use that vocabulary. But I fought for it. I’ve always done. There are going to be kids out there, like I was, who will identify with this book. I think I was proven right in that instance. You pick up words from the context, and you would be proud of yourself for doing that, and I think kids like doing that – they like two or three big words and have to work out what they mean. It’s worthwhile simply for that.
Not from a writing point of view. I’ve been working in that world for 12-14 years, and I thought it was time to end it. I didn’t want to drag it out so the next book would be one book too many, tipped it over and started a downward slide. This one will get publicity, I think the story’s pretty good: I’m glad for it to be on the shelves beside the other seven books.
I think I may regret it, as regards touring, because I hope that lightning strikes twice, but it rarely does. I can’t see my next series being as popular, so I may have a regret in a year or two when I’m not travelling around the world any more. But I won’t regret it from a work point of view where I have to spend nine months in my office writing it. I think it’s time for me to move on to something else.
Did the fact that your next book is being set up as the first of a series alter how you wrote the first one, W.A.R.P.?
Yes, with the first book, like a first movie, there’s a lot of set up involved. I wanted to set up the series for each book to be very different. That’s as much for my own sake as for the readers: I want to enjoy working in different ages with different characters.
I hit on the idea of a kind of Steampunk time travel thing with two central characters, then every adventure can be completely different, even in a different time zone. You’re changing everything with every book which I find really exciting. The first book I have to set that up, then the next books I’ll have a bit more freedom and can just concentrate on the adventures.
Will you need to carry out more research for these than for Artemis?
Oh yes, I am really going to have to bone up on my quantum physics. I did that for the Hitchhikers book – my brother very kindly sent me a book Quantum Physics for Dummies. I really enjoyed that so I’ll be able to use that. I love the idea that it’s theoretically possible, and if it’s theoretically possible, you can make it sound plausible in a book. I don’t want to provide a magic ring for them to be able to travel in time. I want it to be quite believable.
I think the person who did that best there was probably Michael Crichton in a book called Timelines. I didn’t enjoy the book very much but I really enjoyed how he set up the time travel, with a Bill Gates kind of character, and explaining how it worked. I wanted to approach it like that, where it’s a scientific thing, not a magical thing.
I was conflicted about it. I was very proud of the book, and it set out what it was supposed to do, which was to bring Douglas Adams’ books back into the chart and at the forefront of British science fiction where they deserve to be. All the Douglas Adams books did go back into the charts, and the book sold really well. It got basically good reviews but it was very nerve wracking.
For a while there, before the book came out, there was a lot of stuff out there on the internet. I don’t really want to deal with that, and I don’t have to, because my books aren’t reviewed until they come out, but for this, the knives were out beforehand. I completely understand it: if I heard someone else was doing it, I’d probably be incensed as well. But I was asked by Douglas’ widow and his daughter, and I felt this wasn’t something that I could refuse.
I enjoyed the process of writing it and I enjoyed it when it was released, but I didn’t enjoy it in the in-between time when there was this raft of stuff on the internet and in the papers. Some of it was very personal, and I didn’t like that. I wouldn’t do it again either: I’ve done it once and I’ve gotten away with it.
I realised about halfway through that this could actually really kill my career. I knew Hitchhikers was a really important series and one that I loved, but I didn’t realise just how beloved it was in the UK. I realised that very early on, so I really got a shock: if this isn’t perceived well, this could be the end for me, for Artemis as well. I got really worried about that but luckily it all worked out okay.
Will you return to the world of Artemis at any time?
I don’t have any concrete plans to go back, but I don’t rule it out either. I definitely set it up, whether consciously or unconsciously, as a rich world that I’d like to go back to and a lot of the characters there could bear their own book.
I’m certainly not ruling out going back to the Lower Levels, but I’m not going to write another book with Artemis in it. I think he’s run his course.
Or “Mulch Diggums, Private Eye”? There’s a lot of stuff there that you could do. My mind is open on that. I have thought of doing a Coraline type book with Artemis’ younger brothers… I think they’re great characters. I’ve talked to my editor about that, and they’re very interested. I don’t think I’ll do that for a few years though.
What else is on the horizon?
I’m working on the second book in the Daniel McEvoy series which I think is coming out this time next year, so I’ve got to finish that in a month. I feel a deadline whooshing by! And also the second book in the W.A.R.P. series: I’ll start that after. I’m pretty busy for the next few months!
Many thanks to Adele Minchin for her help in setting up this interview.