Prentice and Weil – Black Arts Interview

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently reviewed Black Arts by Prentice and Weil, a thrilling fantasy for young adults set in sixteenth-century London, published by David Fickling Books on March 29th. The co-authors have answered (in some depth) a few questions and you can read the interesting results below.

From where did the idea for Black Arts originate?

The first inspiration came from a book called The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl – a cracking piece of historical detective work into the murder of Christopher Marlowe. It presents Elizabethan London in a sinister, glamorous, exciting light – a world of violence and deception, where the foremost playwright of the day can be murdered by a notorious conman while the deputy head of the Secret Service looks on. As aspiring thriller writers we thought it was perfect – especially since most people’s idea of Elizabethan London is based more on Shakespeare in Love than the blood-soaked, paranoid reality.

It took a long time to get from the general plan of writing a dark Elizabethan thriller to the specifics of the world we’ve created in Black Arts. The idea that really started to bring it all together came up when we were thinking about Elizabethan magic. We wanted magic in our story, and we wanted it to be historically accurate (more or less); but we also wanted it to make sense to us and our readers.

The feature of actual Renaissance magic that we hit upon was the summoning of devils and spirits to create magical objects.  It supposedly worked like this: you’d summon up a devil or spirit and bind it into a physical object – a ring, a cloak, a bowl of water. As long as you’d got the right kind of spirit, you would then have a magic ring, a cloak of invisibility, a mirror to show the future. We took the idea a couple of steps further to create our magical London: what if people had been binding devils into objects – and buildings, and whole districts – for hundreds and thousands of years? A place like London would be full of these magical beings, buried in the archaeological mulch but still exerting their hidden influences. The idea made sense to us – certain places do have a particular ‘feel’ to them, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. As we read more about London, particularly the mystical histories of Peter Ackroyd, we learned that there are also weird continuities – places where the same sorts of activities keep on cropping up through the centuries. Maybe there really are spirits buried beneath London, shaping the lives of the unwitting inhabitants.

The authors, Prentice and Weil.

How did the two of you share the duties for planning and writing the book?

It’s been a process of trial an error. A lot of people assume we must have different, clearly demarcated duties, but actually we share pretty much everything between the two of us.

During the planning stage, we take lots of long walks to talk things through. Walking seems to help the flow of conversation and ideas, and we’ve found that different walks have different effects. The Regent’s Canal towpath is good for concentrating the mind on a single problem – there’s only one route, no diversions. If we’re trying to come up with new ideas, or deal with several different characters or story threads, we go for a more circuitous route – through Clissold Park, or the Stoke Newington Cemetery.

Once we’ve figured out a story that seems to work, we split up and write out separate versions. This is where we usually see the glaring plot holes, story loops and other storytelling sins we’ve failed to notice during the walk-and-talk stage, and doing separate versions gives us each a chance to just sit and think things through without having to talk. Sometimes, of course, this means we come up with contradictory ideas; but over the years we’ve got pretty good at dealing with these without actually fighting each other.

Once we’ve resolved any disputes, one of us will sit down and write an outline of the agreed-upon story, usually about 7000 words, which we send to our editor. This usually prompts a meeting and several major rethinks before we move on to a chapter-by-chapter plan. Once we’ve done that, it gets simpler. Starting at the beginning, we write alternating chapters (or pairs of chapters, or more – it all depends where the big narrative breaks are). We then edit each other’s work, back and forth until we’re both happy with the results. This, hopefully, means that the finished book has a consistent style – one that doesn’t belong to either of us, but instead emerges from the process of rewriting, editing and argument that goes on throughout.

You’ve obviously had a lot of fun writing about London and you create a wonderful imagining of the city. Did you do a lot of research into the history of London?

We read a lot of history books of course, and also plays like Ben Jonson’s City Comedies, Webster’s bloody revenge tragedies (full of murders and double-crossing intelligencers), diaries, court records, slang dictionaries . . .  It has been fun trying to capture the way people acted, dressed and spoke. But here we must make a confession: some of it’s just made up. Our excuse would be that any historical work – especially a historical novel – is a work of imagining. As long as you’ve done enough research to get the essential flavour rubbed in deep, under your skin, the things you make up will sound consistent with the ‘real’ history. (That’s what we hope, anyway!)

In the book, Jack has an Imp in his service. What sort of devil or demon would you two like to have control of?

The Imp is a special case: it has more flexible powers than most. If we had to settle for a ‘traditional’ bound devil (i.e. one that is fitted for just a single task) . . . we’d find it hard to agree on a shared one. Andy would like a devil of gluttony to live in his kitchen and make everything he cooks there delicious. Jon has always wanted to be able to fly, and would probably go for two little flying imps bound into a pair of boots. He would also love to bind a fertility devil into some kind of lotion, poultice or ointment, that would prevent him from going bald.

Are there any plans for more books involving Jack, Beth et al?

Yes. There are four books planned in all, and we’re currently two chapters into the second.

Black  Arts by Prentice and Weil on Amazon.

Black Arts by Prentice and Weil – review

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Black Arts is a YA novel by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil being published by David Fickling Books, March 2012.

It’s 1592 and the dank streets of London are a dangerous hive of thieves, murderers and fanatics. It already sounds bad enough but when young thief Jack cuts the wrong purse he finds out that magic is real and that there are much worse things than thieves and murderers.

In the midst of horrific Satanist atrocities and with danger round every corner, Preacher Webb steps forward to purge the city of evil. But Jack knows where the evil in London really lies. Embroiled against his will in a battle to save London and to find out the truth of Webb’s involvement in the murders, Jack has his own reasons for wanting to hunt the preacher down – revenge.

As Jack and Webb pursue each other through London’s murky underworld there are deadly encounters with magicians and fearsome devils. Yet in all the danger and violence there is room for friendship, as long as Jack knows who he can trust.

From the opening chapters as Jack attempts to navigate the nerve-jangling initiation into a gang of thieves Prentice and Weil plunge us into a vibrant, imaginatively crafted London. You can almost smell the sweat, muck and worse as the bustling life (and death) of the city’s dangerous streets threatens to burst off the pages. Jack immediately stands out in these surroundings as being a spirited and tenacious boy, he’s a fun character to follow; brave, cunning and not averse to taking a risk or two. From the dangerous gang-leader Mr Sharkwell and the mysterious, sword fighting ‘Intelligencer’ Kit Morely to the sinister Preacher Webb the entire cast of the book are a tough bunch and their exploits are fun to witness. As the mystery begins to unravel and the tension is ratcheted ever higher these characters clash with increasingly thrilling and devastating consequences. My favourite character, an Imp named Imp, provides some wonderful humorous and tender moments to the story and affirms my belief that every Children’s book needs some sort of talking creature or animal.

The dialogue in Black Arts is superb and contributes generously to Prentice and Weil’s wonderfully atmospheric imagining of London. Sharkwell’s swaggering East London dialect and Imp’s hectic, almost nonsensical diction add a depth to the prose that makes the world and the characters more convincing and ultimately more enjoyable.

The thrilling and terrifying story that ensnares London is well-plotted, told with great accomplishment and its progress is enthralling. There is enough mystery and suspense to silence even the most raucous Elizabethan playhouse audience and as the separate strands of the story spiral ever closer you can be sure a big finale awaits. This is an undoubtedly exciting story but it is the uniquely entertaining characters, their relationships, their dialogue and battles that turn this into such a terrific book.

Update: This review has been posted on Periscope Post, here.

Brian Selznick Interview

January 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is the author and illustrator of the groundbreaking The Invention of Hugo Cabret. A film adaptation of that book by Martin Scorsese was released late last year as well as Selznick’s latest offering, Wonderstruck. Below, Brian Selznick has answered some of my questions.

What did you think of the film adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret? Did you have any involvement in its production?

Well I think the movie is stunning. I’m really proud that I made something that inspired Martin Scorsese, one of the great film makers of all time. When I wrote the book I didn’t think it could be filmed because the illustrations and the page turns and the book itself are actually a part of the plot. But then Scorsese called and suddenly I thought, hmmm…maybe it CAN be a movie!

I didn’t work on the movie at all myself, but I feel like everyone on the movie collaborated with me through the book. The cast and crew all told me they’ve never seen a director be more faithful to source material. Scorsese had a copy of my book with him at all times, as did most of the people working on the film. When I first visited the set I saw that Dante Ferretti, the Oscar winning set designer, had used my drawings as inspiration for everything he built. It was an incredible feeling.

You have described your illustrations in TIoHC and Wonderstruck as “bursts of silent movies”, how much is film an influence on your work?

I’m distantly related to David O. Selznick ,the producer of Gone with the Wind and King Kong among many other films, so I’ve always been aware of the power of movies. I loved seeing my last name at the beginning and end of his films and watching movies has always been something I’ve loved. When I’m illustrating a book, especially something like Hugo or Wonderstruck, I’m thinking like a movie camera in certain ways, watching the story play out visually in my head and trying to translate that to the page. But the nice thing about making books is I am the director, the designer, the actors, the cinematographer, everyone. I like having that kind of control.

Do you see yourself continuing in the style seen in those two books?

Yes indeed, at least for one more book. Whenever I make a book my goal is to take everything I’ve learned previously and try to do something new with it. Hugo was the culmination of twenty years of making other books, and Wonderstruck was an experiment in trying to move beyond what I did in Hugo.

If you are able to talk about it, what can we expect next from you?

I have the beginning of a plot, and characters, and location and time periods, but I’m not sure yet how exactly the story will be illustrated, or why. But that’s one of the fun and exciting things about making a book.

Do you have a particular work routine for your writing/illustrating?

I usually start by writing everything out in present tense outlines. Then I begin to fill the story in further and start sketching based on the outlined story. So even though most of my stories start out as images in my head, I always write text before I begin any drawing. The plot and the details change considerably as the writing and the illustrations develop and often I have to cut things that I thought were very important when I began. But the act of cutting things from the story is always as important as adding things.

So there’s the part of the process where I’m making up a story, then I often travel and do research so I can get the details right, and then there’s a very long period of rewriting, and towards the end I do the final art that appears in the book, but only after doing many rough sketches. All the writing and sketching and conceptualizing must be done in total silence, but when I’m doing the final art, the shading and fine pencil work, I have to be listing to something. I listened to the radio and about ten audio books while I was doing the finished art for Wonderstruck (my favorites were The Story of Edger Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and the Wicked books by Gregory Maguire). Hugo took me about two and a half years and Wonderstruck took me three years. I’m hoping the next book won’t take longer!

A big thanks to Brian Selznick and to Alyx Price at Scholastic for sorting this out!

Update: This interview has also been featured on The Periscope Post, here.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick – review

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

For those familiar with Brian Selznick’s previous work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the size of his latest book should come as no surprise. The hefty tome is the second produced in his part-graphic novel, part-illustrated story style but this time the text and illustrations tell different stories, set 50 years apart, that interweave until finally merging in the latter stages of the book. The text tells the story of Ben, who in 1977 following the death of his mother, runs away to New York to try and find his father after finding clues to his identity in his mother’s belongings. The illustrations, set in 1927, tell the story of a girl named Rose who also runs away to New York. Both children are deaf; Ben – born deaf in one ear, later loses the hearing in his other. Rose was born deaf in both.

The illustrated passages immediately stand out, Selznick describes them brilliantly as “bursts of silent movies”. There is a ghostly, etherial beauty about his drawings. Particularly enjoyable are his sequential images that zoom cinematically onto some detail in the drawing. Compared to these, though, the prose can seem a little flat. The drawings evoke far better the emotions and feelings of the characters and seem much more atmospheric. Though this is due more to the success of the artwork than any failings of the prose.

The book is a wonderfully produced object one can enjoy owning. I think, perhaps, that it is because of the innovative way in which Selznick tells the story that Wonderstruck (as well as The Invention of Hugo Cabret) seems so unique. In an increasingly saturated children’s market an author/artist such as Selznick must be a publisher’s dream. Wonderstruck is a lovely story, it’s told well, illustrated brilliantly, and unlike anthing else I’ve experienced. It only remains to be seen whether Selznick is prepared to carry on in his unique text/illustration medium and perhaps innovate it further.

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In by Magnus Mills – review

September 8, 2011 2 comments

This novel is pretty on the outside, amazing on the inside.

Magnus Mills doesn’t disappoint with his latest novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. Mills takes his trademark deadpan prose and creates a captivating fable-like fantasy setting. The citizens of Greater Fallowfields are without their Emporor and find themselves, like many of the characters in his other novels, in various tail-chasing, dead-end situations. The Astronomer Royal can’t use his telescope without first inserting a sixpence into the slot and in any case knows nothing of astronomy. The conductor of the orchestra knows no music theory. You get the idea. With his imagination Mills seems able to create an endless supply of humourous situations in which to insert his characters but his prose and dialogue, which I love, add another couple of levels to the comedy.

Mills’ prose has been described as ‘deceptively simple’ and it’s so true. You can read this novel on many levels and there are elements of satire and allegory glinting teasingly throughout. I also find his writing quite addictive – for me, he is one of the funniest, most entertaining writers out there. I’ve been rather late writing this review (I finished the novel nearly two weeks ago) but even so I often find myself running through my favourite parts of this book and giggling to myself.

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills at his best. The prose and humour are the same we know and love – but better, and in a much more ambitious setting. Magnus Mills is one of those writers who I enjoy so much I feel they must be writing specifically for me. I urge you to read this book, oh and if you haven’t already, all his others as well. I must also say it’s one of the prettiest cover designs I’ve ever seen.

Read, read, read!

Pure by Andrew Miller – review

August 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Pure by Andrew Miller

I’ve only just found time to read Andrew Miller’s latest novel, Pure, and I’m very glad I did. In 18th-Century Paris the cemetery of Les Innocents has reached capacity, has been shut, but is overpowering the neighbouring area with a decaying stench that permeates the food, the air, the people. A young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is charged with purifying the cemetery. It is a challenge the forces him to challenge his own identity, his place in society. Will he allow this project to threaten his life – does he have a choice?

Miller nails every aspect of this novel; it is faultless. His prose is sublime – the atmosphere of Paris, the smells, the people, are seamlessly transformed into vivid images in your mind. The similes are wonderfully crafted, used adeptly. Miller is exploring a vastly different world to our own, yet he seems to do it effortlessly, he makes 18th-Century Paris feel almost familiar.

Jean-Baptiste, as with all the characters, is superbly fleshed out. His methodical engineering mind does not always grasp the subtleties of human interaction. He is wary, perhaps even paranoid of the men he has working for him at the cemetery. But this is balanced by the friends he meets along the way; Armand the church’s flamboyant organist, Jeanne the sextant’s granddaughter, Heloïse the quietly educated whore. There is a lost, helpless quality that endears Jean-Baptiste to the other characters, to the reader.  The relationships and interaction between the characters, even the non-action, are a joy to behold. Amongst all these people, in this vibrant and changing Paris, J-B has to learn how to live as himself, his own man, in a society that seems to restrict such ideas.

Pure is a wonderful novel, as I finished I felt like turning back and starting again as it seems a shame to enjoy such skilful writing only once.

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – review

August 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Adult cover

The book begins with a chase through the streets of Calcutta in May 1916. Lieutenant Peake pauses for breath outside the ruins of the Jheeter’s Gate station knowing that he only has a few hours to live. Inside his overcoat he is sheltering two newborn babies – twins, a boy and a girl. Pursued by his would-be assassins, Peake runs at full tilt to the house of Aryami Bose, to whom he entrusts the children. In 1932 we meet the boy, Ben, and his group of friends the night before they are due to leave St Patricks orphanage. They have formed a secret club, The Chowbar Society, that meets each week at midnight in the old ruin they have christened The Midnight Palace. Their final meeting is due that evening but then Aryami Bose turns up at the orphanage with Sheere, Ben’s sister, and tells them the story of the parents they never knew. Their father was an engineer and writer who died in tragic circumstances at the inauguration of Jheeter’s Gate station. But as the novel unfolds, there is more to this story than meets the eye and they are lured by a shadowy figure from the past into a final showdown in the ruins.

Children's cover

The Midnight Palace is one of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s young-adult offerings that encompasses horror, thriller and mystery elements. Written over seventeen years ago it tells the tale of a brother and sister, and their friends, over two short periods  in 1916 and 1932 as they are confronted by a terrifying spectral figure from their unknown past. It’s an exciting read, the pace is fast and the suspense is kept up throughout. The setting of Calcutta and the various locations within the Indian city featured in the novel are described in ways that add to the horror and mystery of the novel. At various points, whether due to the translation or not, I feel the standard of the writing can drop and the emotions of the characters are merely stated rather than shown through actions or dialogue.

The Midnight Palace  contains the thoughts of one of the characters some fifty years after the events which creates a bittersweet, retrospective tone to the book that works well. The novel races along to a gripping climax and as the author states in his opening letter you should find something to enjoy whether young or young at heart.


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