Tuesday 1 March 2016

Supermoons, Sheepdogs and Custard Pies: a Q&A with Ross Montgomery

By Miriam Craig

Cover design by David Litchfield.

I have a soft spot for cute aliens – I love E.T. (who doesn’t?) and I desperately hoped that J.Lo, the hilariously-named alien in The True Meaning of Smekday, was real. But now I’ve fallen in love with another vulnerable-and-amusing-creature-from-outer-space: Perijee. His skin glows, he tries to eat books and he moulds himself into the shape of a human being, bobble hat and all. What is it about these cute alien characters that I love? Possibly the way they make you look at life on Earth with wonder and amazement.

The book is Perijee & Me by Ross Montgomery it’s about Caitlin, who hasn’t been doing too well since she moved to remote Middle Island; her Dad’s always away, she’s horribly lonely and she’s hiding the fact that she can hardly read. Then a massive storm blows in this mysterious being, and Caitlin is overjoyed to have found a friend, even if it is an alien. But just when she thinks this strange, fun creature might help bring her Dad back home, Perijee is discovered by the rest of the world. He’s taken away from her and grows into a terrifying monster. Only Caitlin knows he’s good, and must travel across the country to save him.

It’s a funny, magical story that’s full of heart, and I was ruddy jubilant to be able to ask Ross more about the book and his author-y life.

What are you up to today?
About a thousand different things! I'm currently finishing off some draft chapters of a new book for my publisher to look at, which is very exciting, but I'm also preparing a talk to some trainee teachers about creative writing for a Just Imagine talk tomorrow and organising a guest list for my book launch next week. Plus I'm a primary school teacher, so I'm also writing 300 reports! It's not always this manic but sometimes that just happens. I'm planning to unwind later by setting fire to my house.

How would you describe your style? Where do you fit in to the constellation of genres in children’s books at the moment?
I would say my books are aimed at the top end of the ‘middle grade’ age range – for children who want more challenging books, but aren't quite ready for the more mature themes you get in YA. They're equal parts comedy, fantasy and adventure with big themes running through them, set in worlds that are very much like ours but with one or two bizarre differences. They're funny and sad with a lot of heart, and aren't afraid to end a raw emotional scene with a big custard pie to the face.

How did the idea for Perijee & Me come to you?
I was walking through a park thinking, ‘I need an idea for a book or my publisher will kill me,’ and suddenly I saw a man beside the path. He was a businessman in a smart suit with a briefcase, but he was lying face down with his arms by his side like a plank. It was like he was an alien that had fallen to earth and was trying to be a human, but wasn't really getting it right. And I thought, ‘Aha!’ At first it was a really simple short story in my head, but then it changed hugely over the next year – it was almost unrecognisable before I started the first draft. You'd be hard pushed to find any face-down businessmen in the finished book.

Is there any particular reason you chose ‘Perijee’ from the term ‘perigee’ referring to the moon’s distance from the Earth, as the alien’s name?
I wish I could say that it was always intentional but it would be a big lie! In the very first draft he was actually called Parsec, which is a measurement of light speed, but my editor duly informed me that this was totally rubbish and everyone in the sales meeting had laughed at it so I had to fix it. I went through A LOT of astrophysics dictionaries to find suitable replacements (sorry Jansky, Quark, Peeble and Planemo – it wasn't to be) and then found Perijee. It was perfect – the perigee is the shortest distance the moon can get to earth as it orbits, which is when you get a supermoon, and the whole story is about the idea of something incredible and unthinkable becoming magically closer. Caitlin is so lonely at the beginning, then everything is changed by her ‘close encounter’ with Perijee: the friendship and trust and affection she receives from this otherworldly being changes her life for the better.

What should people expect from this book if they’ve read your first two? Is it similar, or a departure?
In theory it's aimed at the exact same audience, but I know things never work out like that! It certainly follows much of the same formula, in that it's a manic race-against-time adventure. Perhaps the biggest difference is the narrative voice – Caitlin is quite a different protagonist for me. She's friendly and excitable and unreliable and impossibly optimistic. She's also very dyslexic, which while never mentioned outright in the book is a really important theme throughout. The language is much simpler than in my other books as a result – I loved the idea of something as inconceivable as communicating with an alien being described in plain words with no frills.

Do you plot your story beforehand? What’s the process – do you have a routine, a special writing onesie, a mantra that keeps you going?
I'm still working on this! I do always plan out in quite specific chapter-by-chapter detail, which is useful but of course bogs you down and you have to jettison 75% of it at the end anyway. I'm not very good at middles – they’re the ones that always need the most work, and I never really have them worked out in my head. My approach with Perijee & Me was to keep things swift and simple – I read that Stephen King said you should never take longer than three months to write a first draft, so I wrote the first draft in three months and sent it off and it was utterly awful. I think the actual tip should be, ‘Write your first draft in three months, sure, but make sure you make lots of really good instinctive decisions while you do it.’

How do you manage writing with your day job?
I've been working as a primary school teacher in east London for the last six years now. I've been doing it part-time for the last two years, which is fantastic – juggling the workload can be hard work, but it means that I have two full days off a week to do nothing but write. It's a bit of a dream, to be honest!

What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
That my biggest problem is overwriting. The first draft of my second book, The Tornado Chasers, was 78,000 words – we ended up getting it down to nearly 50,000. The sheer amount of time I wasted writing unnecessarily complicated scenes makes my mind boggle. I'm getting better at it with every book, but it's my ‘go-to’ mistake.

What inspires you?
Films, more than anything. I think that books were my first love, but I spent all my teens and twenties just obsessed with films. At uni I even did English Lit and Film Studies. I think that my writing ends up being quite filmic as a result – there's a lot of bouncing dialogue, and a lot of ideas that could be instantly conveyed in a second of film but require a lot of explanation when written down. For example, the Forbidden Land in Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door is an enormous perfect circle of land – very easy and effective to show on film, not very easy or effective as a written description!

How do you want people to feel when they finish reading Perijee & Me?
I would love them to feel a sense of wonder and excitement at the world around them – there is so much we don't understand about the universe we live in, and that can be completely overwhelming, but we should never stop being amazed at the stuff that we see every day. The other day I was on a train going through the countryside and saw a sheepdog, and suddenly the absolute incredible achievement of that knocked me off my feet. I was like, WE HAVE MANAGED TO MAKE DOGS UNDERSTAND THAT WE NEED SHEEP MOVED FROM ONE BIT OF A FIELD TO ANOTHER, AND WORKED OUT A WAY TO TELL THEM WHAT TO DO BY WHISTLING, AND THEY DO IT – REALLY WELL. It happens every single day and we're so used to it we've forgotten how miraculous and amazing and completely bizarre that is. It totally floored me. I had to have a cup of tea.

Ross Montgomery. Photo taken by Helen Nianias.

So here we are, back with a sense of wonder at life here on Earth. It’s true, sheepdogs ARE amazing. I’m also in awe of rats that can do obstacle courses and cats that can DJ. And all the fantastic books, of course.

For more information about Ross, visit his website.

Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig


  1. Fab interview! I started this this morning - already love Perijee :)

  2. Wonderful interview. The book sounds delightful and the cover certainly is.