Friday, 6 November 2015

Interview with Nigel Quinlan

I just finished reading Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox by Nigel Quinlan and it’s such a funny, original, wacky adventure that I had to track down the author for an interview. So, welcome, Nigel!

The beginning is probably a good place to start. What are your early memories of reading and/or writing?

Family myth has me as a small child too young for school reading the words 'CAR PARK' while sitting in a car with my granny. An aunt refused to believe this and took me around a shop and asked me to read all the signs, which I did. I don't remember that, but I do remember my Mum getting me my first books, which were Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. Later there were the Famous Five, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Joan Aiken, CS Lewis and lots of others. The Star Wars novelisatons made a big impact long, long before I ever saw any of the films, and The Hobbit blew my tiny mind just before I started secondary school.

My first attempts at writing turned out to be efforts at mimicking Enid Blyton, but Mum claims my oldest story is about two chickens who rob a bank, and she says she still has it somewhere. We had a mobile bank which visited every Friday, so I think the chickens just drove off with it. We also had a mobile library that visited every second Monday. I kept careful track of the days and must have been the only child in Ireland that hated bank holidays for throwing the visits off. I don't think the chickens ever had designs on the library, but I'd have cheerfully made off with it if I could have.

Maloney's Magical Weatherbox is such an original premise. Where did the idea come from?

What happened was some friends of mine told me a story of how they'd all decided to squeeze into a phone box together to see if they would all fit. They didn't. I made a joke about them destroying the phone box, and that put the idea in my head. Not about the Maloneys or the Seasons or the Shieldsmen or anything like that, just the phone box blowing up. Then I had to come up with a reason for the phone box to explode, so I invented everything else, like a chain reaction getting out of hand. Ideas kept exploding and going off in all directions. Getting all the ideas to line up as some sort of story was the big challenge. The Weatherbox itself is based on the phone box that used to stand in my home village of Murroe. My Dad had a garage and petrol station, and we used to get lots of truck and lorry drivers stopping there for one reason or another, and that's where Ed Wharton came from. I knew eco-warriors who protested the motorway expansion in the Glen of The Downs in Co Wicklow. We used to take Chinese take-away up to them, and that's where the Shieldsmen came from. There are probably other more-or-less direct connections, but a lot of the ideas evolved considerably over revisions, so explanations would be laborious. Most of the landscape and, indeed, the weather, came from what was around me growing up in Murroe.

Yes indeed. One of my favourite things about the book is its 'local' setting. Excluding the Dublin chapters, it's very much a small Irish town/parish book, and the 'Irishness' of the story shines strongly throughout. Considering your publishers are from the UK, did you have any difficulty keeping it as Irish as it is? Were there any particular Irish turns of phrases, words or ideas that they didn't understand?   

Both the US and the UK publishers were pretty keen on the setting and the voice, so I didn't have to change much. There was a bit of low-level swearing and cursing that had to be modified - Liz uttered the odd 'feck' here and there -  but that was due to age considerations. I think it was at the copy-editing stage that some of the colloquialisms got changed, because grammatically speaking they're perfectly terrible, but I generally got them changed back. I wanted Liz and Neil to say 'and me' instead of 'and I,' as in: 'Liz and me ran down the hill chased by the whirlwind,' so I had to keep a sharp eye out for that. They didn't bat an eye at the bits in Irish, even. I did originally have the Shieldsmen in the van singing 'The Boys Of Fair Hill,' and was firmly advised to pick another song. That was probably because of the drisheens. Or cribeens.

And how did you find the whole editing process with your publishers?

With the publishers, it was a dream. I'd already been through the revision mill with my agent, Jenny Savill and the formidable readers of the Andrew Nurnberg Agency. They took the book apart and I put it back together again several times before it was accepted by Orion and Roaring Brook Press, meaning it was at a pretty advanced stage by the time it reached my editors' desks. Still, what they got was the merely the definitive First Draft, no matter how many drafts I may have imagined passing through my computer files, and after that came the second, third and fourth and so on. Amber Carraveo in the UK and Kate Jacobs in the US actually worked together to produce a single set of edits between them, and they only really diverged in minor ways towards the end with the copy edits and the proofs. I was inured to huge plot and scene overhauls by that stage and responded to some of their suggestions by completely redrafting part one, and had to be told to rein it in a bit. Once I realised that the edits, though numerous, were relatively small, I settled into it easily enough. There was edit after edit, with the edits becoming fewer but knottier as I went along, but Kate and Amber were unfailingly kind and supportive. 

Another lovely thing about the book is the Maloney family unit. They work as a team and are kind and supportive of each other. Is the family based on your own? What do your own family think of the book?

They weren't especially based on my family - the personalities of the Maloneys don't map to the personalities of the Quinlans at all, really. I grew up in a big family, and it was loud and rambunctious and everyone tended to pull together when they needed to. You were part of this big gang, and that gang got even bigger when we teamed up with our cousins. Sometimes I look at the Maloneys and wonder if they're a wee bit idealised, but then I recall that Neil and Liz are only just entering adolescence. Family dynamics tend to get more frantic when the hormones start to flow. My family seems to like the book, on the whole, or that's what they tell me. I'm particularly pleased that my nieces and nephews who are at just the right age seem to like it. My older son, Eddie, read one of the proofs when they were sent to me and told his mum he was amazed at how good it was. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and said 'My dad the writer' in an approving voice.

Do you have a writing routine? Where, when and how (pencil or PC?) do you write? Do you have any writing rituals or habits you abide by?

At this point I've had more writing routines than I've had hot dinners. I devise new writing routines and rites and customs and rituals and constitutional amendments every other hour, apparrently, in search of the magical alignment of place and time and snacks and bodily configuration that will allow me to write. I stand, I sit, I lie at desks on floors, halfway up stairs, in cafes and libraries and gardens. I use notebooks, journals, macs, laptops, PCs and small sticks dipped in paint. Somewhere in the midst of all this nonsense, I get some writing done. Actually, things have settled down lately, and I'm keeping it old school, with a desk, a chair, a flask of coffee and a laptop, just like Dickens used to have. I do love writing stuff longhand, but have had to face the stark reality that my handwriting is utterly unreadable, and typing it up was going to cause me permanent physical damage as I broke every ergonomic law in the books twisting and turning and bending myself in knots in an effort to interpret my own scrawl. Now I just use my notebooks to scribble cryptic little notes to myself that I read later and can't understand. 'Burgle the fish walker.' What the hell?

Your favourite books/authors?

This can be a bit of a movable feast, but here we go

Dorothy Dunnett
Dorothy Dunnett - author of the Lymond Chronicles, about a 17th century Scottish adventurer, the House Of Niccolo about a Renaissance banker from Bruges, King Hereafter, based on the premise that the Scottish Macbeth and the Viking Thorfinn were one and the same and the Johnson Johnson Mysteries, about a spy with a yacht. Her historical novels are mesmerising. Witty, delicate writing, astonishing historical detail, fascinating characters, and plotting that is devious and clever and often brutal. Dunnett was a bit of a gateway drug for me to more historical fiction, but though I've read lots of great historical fiction as a result, none of them have the combination of epic scope and literary style, with all the romance, intrigue and action that Dunnett has. Patrick O'Brian might be almost as good, but I find his novels, though lovely, get a bit repetitive.

CJ Cherryh - I think I may have more books by Cherryh than I do of any other individual author. I've loved her since I first read her Morgaine Trilogy - a fantasy epic with a science fictional premise, with her doomed and cursed protagonist and her fanatically loyal sidekick closing destructive gates through time and space regardless of the damage inflicted on the world the gate is on. Incredible writing style and densely psychological tight first-person POVs are her hallmark. Most of her other books tend to be hard science fiction set in her Merchanter/Union universe, tough-as-nails, unsentimental but emotionally tortuous space operas of secrets and lies and uncertain agendas and divided loyalties. Cherryh is downright addictive.

Peter Straub - when I was reading lots of horror, Straub was one of my favourites. Ghost Story and Shadowlands were wonderfully weird, formless, evocative, dreamlike nightmares, but it's the Blue Rose Trilogy that still stands up. Straub removed the overtly supernatural element from his work, which pushed his plotting and storytelling skills to a whole new level. His writing remains gorgeous, but Koko, Mystery and The Throat are as tightly plotted as they are intricate and epic tales of murder and blood-stained history. These are utterly captivating and compelling novels of mystery and suspense.

Other writers I love:

JRR Tolkein - I pretty much lived in Middle earth for all of my teenage years.

Ursula LeGuin - I just reread the Earthsea Trilogy, and they really are incredible books.

Alan Garner - I don't think his first two books hold up so well, but nearly everything else he's written is astonishing.

Flann O'Brien - At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policemen are both profoundly brilliant works of literature and of fantasy. long with Shirley Jackson he's one of the great touchstones of 20-21st century fantasy.

Wow, that's a comprehensive list. Can I ask if there will be more adventures from the Maloney family? If not, what are you working on now? Or is it top secret?

What I'm working on is not a sequel, though it is a similar sort of comic fantasy adventure set in an unusually horrible and miserable Irish village. I'm waiting for edits on that, so I'd better not say too much about it as it all might change completely in the next draft. I hope we haven't seen the last of the Maloneys. If nothing else I'd like to think I might do some short stories with them or with some of the members of the supporting cast. I think Owen and the Hags and Ed Wharton and Neetch should have a few adventures of their own.

We'll look forward to seeing these in the future. Thank you Nigel, for doing this interview for Middle Grade Strikes Back, and continued success to you and your writing.

Great questions, Kieran, thank you.

The Maloneys' Magical Weatherbox features not only Maloneys, magic and a Weatherbox, it's also got tourists, hags, Shieldsmen, bog-beasts, nasty old Fitgeralds, mysterious things in lakes and terrifying elementals! In other words, exactly the sorts of things you'd expect to turn up and make life difficult for Neil and Liz Maloney when one of their Seasons goes missing. Can they protect the Weatherbox and get the Seasons on schedule again? It's only the end of the world if they don't! 

Interview by Kieran Fanning.