Over the Edge with Barnaby Grimes: Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell interviewed

A couple of weeks ago, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell sat down and chatted about the Edge Chronicles and the excellent Barnaby Grimes series.

Paul : I started it (Lord of the Rings) too late. I’m not a real fantasy afficionado really which is probably why the Edge is odd.

Chris: We’ve talked about this a bit, you know what we set out to do and the thing is we’re not either as readers steeped in fantasy. I think its sort of informed what we wanted to do with the series – its much more about structure for us and how narratives unfold than it is about the mythical. Its a reason why the Americans didn’t get it for a long time and then they got it all at once.

Paul: Its based on different physical laws rather than magic. Once you’ve got a premise that ricks float, everything comes from it. Magic just seems convenient.

Chris: We consciously decided that we didn’t want to do that because…

Paul: There’s no future in it and then Harry Potter came out the same year.

Chris: I think its very interesting now in a post-Potter world. Rowling has been fantastic because she’s influenced book buying mania and a lot of us have benefited. I’ve got a feeling that now things are going to become really quite idiosyncratic. People are going to go off in their own ways and there will be less generic. God in the last few years there seem to have been endless and they always seem to be the same. I think part of what we want to do is to explore different things and this is why we’re bringing the Edge to an end.

Paul: We’re very close to the end now as well. I’m on chapter 82 of 90.

Chris: Its such a peculiar feeling. There’s a sense that this book is bringing together themes that we didn’t know when we were starting out,that we were dealing with. Its wonderful but there’s also this sense of its going to be lovely to look back on it and to actually finish and to say that’s it, no more.

Paul: Its also frightening as well because then you’ll be at a stage where you can’t just add a bit because this is definitely the last one. Because we’ve jumped around in the series we’ve been able to do an earlier book and make a later book look very clever. This one will crown everything so its got to be perfect. We can’t do anything wrong, we can’t leave any thing out.

Chris: Its got its own impetus. Its fascinating when you start this sort of process that suddenly things fall into place and because the actual matter of the world has been established these things act upon the characters one creates, they feel compelled to do various things. There are a lot of times when things fall into place that we didn’t realise we were doing and that’s a spooky feeling. To think that five years ago, we had a conversation that is actually now affecting the chapters. It does something to your head.

Paul: have you read them?

Me: No, I was hoping to but time’s escaped me.

Paul: In the fourth book, there was a substance that helps destroy something and we’ve just realised its other property five books afterwards. That wasn’t something that we thought we’d even need to tie up but suddenly it became something that we can use.

Chris: Do you know? The worrying thing about this is that it is so much fun. Sometimes you just have to think “no, there’s some work that needs to go on”. It does become addictive.

Paul: And they are getting better. The first one still sells the best.

Chris: We’ve been doing it for twelve years, we should be getting slightly better!

Did you have an original plan when you first thought of the Edge?

Paul: It wasn’t a Rowling thing of sitting down and plotting everything. It started with Chris and I had a go at a chapter, it wasn’t even the first chapter and then that book came together and they said “Can you make it into a trilogy because trilogies are trendy at the moment?”

Chris: It grew. The books grew. They weren’t greeted by adoring fans begging us for more. They did nicely enough for the publishers to say “would you do another one?” and we kept saying “yes, of course we can”. It was a nice incremental climb when around book four or five when we were able to deliver a book when JK was sort of doing something else. We had wonderful sales and it really began to take off and ever since then there’s been a really nice impetus behind the books so we’ve been happy to carry on. I think around book five, we thought we want a shape, we want to bring this to a conclusion and when we looked at it we realised that the shape would be ten books. At the time I remember our publishers saying “Are you sure? 10 books – that’s a big commitment”. We’re now saying what a commitment that was because we’re getting to the 10th book and its right. Its also right to stop. I do like this notion of a certain amount on the bookshelf. Its stops there.

Paul: Slightly bigger than Narnia but as open ended as …

Chris: Discworld.

Paul: I was thinking of the fighting rats. What are they called? Redwall.

You said you didn’t have much of a plan in the beginning. How are you finding trying to tie up all the major loose ends and also any inconsistencies?

Paul: Its going to look very clever I think.

Chris: Fiction is about inconsistencies, that’s a fictional drive.

Paul: Once, when we were up in Scotland, this kid said you’ve used this name before and she was a Roost Mother so she was head of the Shrikes, so I said, well its a bit like Royalty in this country with Henry II, Henry III, Henry IV. That was Mother Muleclaw I and the one you’re talking about is Mother Muleclaw II so the next time we wrote about Mother Muleclaw, we added the Third.

Chris: You can always revise. Hindsight is fantastic. I’ve just finished the illustrations for Don Quixote and Cervantes does this brilliant thing. He wrote Don Quixote in two volumes. The first one 1605 or something and 10 years later when the first one was just a huge bestseller and other people were trying to plagiarise and writing their own versions, he wrote volume 2. At the beginning of volume 2, he sets everything out and he’s talking about the other books which have come out and Don Quixote says, no this is really how I lost my donkey.

Paul: That’s when we’ll do an extra one! To correct other people. Its also a nice feedback element. We got one review which said, there are too many predators and not enough prey. So I thought maybe they’re right so in the next book there are migrating herds.

Chris: The key in this one is that we’re creating a flat world as it were on the edge of cliff and there’s always been a question of what is underneath the cliff – so that’s what we’re addressing. We’re finally going to go down below and in a sense, its mirroring the age of exploration.

Paul: Some of the early theories that the characters had in the early books are wrong. The latest book is 600 years after the start of the series so their beliefs and scientific things have advanced as well.

Chris: What’s exciting about the fantasy that we do is introducing that historical thing. That’s what you’re playing with all the time, the way that things change. There are fantasy worlds which in a sense are set in aspic and you don’t want them to change. You don’t want Narnia to go through an Industrial Revolution, you don’t want Hobbits to build skyscrapers in the Shire. What we do in a sense is all about that sort of change, looking forwards into the future and a nostalgia for the past as well.

Paul: That was partly to keep us interested. The first three books they have these great sky ships that stay up in the air because of the floating rocks and kids were saying love the sky ships I want to be a sky pilot and so we brought in stone sickness to the world and they all crashed out of the sky and had to start again. You just had to deal with all these problems in the way that you do if coal or oil ran out.

Chris: Its almost as if the Industrial Revolution had happened and the age of steam (but its our age of Steam) had come. It throws up some rather nice things, you get to talk about he way that fashions change and the way that social interaction changes. Society develops new things and there’s also tradition. The reader of the other nine books think, “Didn’t they use to do this?”. One has endless material to revise.

What’s it like working as a team?

Chris: I think its right at the heart of what we do. I don’t think that either of us would have produced 10 Edge Chronicles and 20 other books on various things if there wasn’t this sort of backwards and forwards thing going on. Essentially what it is its similar to writing teams who write things for TV. We’re often going over material with each other and sounding out things, working out how they work. We’re asking ourselves does this work? Is it any good?

Paul: I’ve written books on my own and it gets very lonely. I think it irons out a lot of problems that I see glaring in other writer’s work. Either you need a better editor or you need to leave it a year.

Chris: In a sense, we’re each other’s editor. I think that’s very interesting. It gives one vast reassurances but at the same time we have very good editors. Its a double system. I think there’s also something about work in progress where you can talk and show work in progress and can iron out things that are not working. I know writers who produce novels and only get to the meat of whether its working or not when they sit down with their editors close to the finish. David Almond once told me how he’d been working on Fire Eaters and he said he’d got a fair way through and decided it didn’t work.

Paul: About eight months in.

Chris: We’re very efficient. This way of working does mean that when we get an idea, we tease away at it and put it through the wringer a few times and kick it around until we’re really sure its robust. That’s when we bring in the publisher.

Paul: I don’t now if we could have done it if we’d met in our twenties. Both of us are mature enough to know its the book which comes out of our collaboration.

Chris: The other thing is that we don’t argue. I think its a consensus, we find what works. I trust your [Paul’s] taste and I think vice versa. There’s a sense that if we were diametrically opposed, it would be quite difficult because we’d be going in two different directions and trying to square the circle. We know what we want to do and we share a lot of common influences. We decide what we want to achieve and then ask ourselves if we are achieving it.

What are your influences?

Chris: I think its a mixture. Certainly historical fiction – I was big on historical fiction as a kid, read loads of Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff even through to CS Forrester. I was very into the Narnia and then the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and some fantasy and then I got into science fiction. Almost in a sense invented worlds but always with a theme and invented realities.

Paul: Grimm’s fairy tales, the Alice books, the Phantom Tollbooth was my favourite and then like Chris, three years of sci-fi, anything I could get my hands on and suddenly Penguin Classics – I suddenly discovered Dostoevsky and I was away.

Chris: That’s a reading education, isn’t it? You don’t want to be stuck in juvenilia

Paul: I’m reading all sorts of non-fiction now and I think all sorts of stuff that we read goes into the books. I did loads of research, loads of reading about London and New York.

Chris: Travel books, that sort of sense of reportage. There’s a notion of retreating from other people’s fiction because you don’t want to be influenced. I think we both sort of dip into it, especially with Cormac McCarthy who is going to be a big influence on our next novel. There’s a muscularity to his prose which is just…

Paul: Well I read a book called Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrall and its another of these Southern Gothic ones. He [Chris] wouldn’t buy it so I bought it for him because I wanted him to read it.

Chris: I’m really into establishing a narrative voice. Its about getting the pitch right and certainly doing something like Barnaby Grimes is about “how does he talk?” and how will it work because it can’t be sub-literary because its got to be conversational because you’ve got to believe that he’s talking. You’ve got to pull that sleight of hand and say “but he’s telling the tale” and with the boat, I think we were both thinking of things like Conrad, Marlowe a the beginning of Heart of Darkness standing on the prow of the ship saying “I’m going to tell you something” and before you know it…

Paul: For me it was more Conan Doyle and I kind of re-read them all. I have to stop myself pastiching Conan Doyle as its the twenty first century.

Chris: Well its for kids so you can’t get too whither and wherefore. You have to get on with it but at the same time, texture is fantastic in books, telling the tale, getting that sense of curling up with a book. Certainly with Barnaby, we tried to sort of design it so you pick up the first page and then you’re impelled into it. Then you settle down a bit, get the where’s and wherefore’s then you race to the finish. I should say we’re tying to pitch Barnaby as quality pulp. You know you’re going to enjoy and have a great read so just let your self go.

Paul: The third one’s already written and just about to be published called Legion of the Dead and we’re just about to get start on The Phantom of Blood Alley.

Chris: Set in the arcane and vicious world of early photographers. They’re all into scientific experiments trying to get the better of one another. Obviously things go horribly wrong, they’re trying to stab one another in the back and all this sort of stuff. So we’re playing around with that.

You’re not afraid to

Paul: Kill people

Yes but also discuss horror – you describe a guy turning into a werewolf with his body literally shifting, the sheer agony.

Chris: Its inevitable isn’t it? You don’t want to be too soft. For our generation it was American Werewolf in London. We grew up with Lon Chaney running around in a furry face mask and suddenly you have this wonderful John Landis saying “okay, lets show what really happens” and you think “yeah. That’s what it would be like”. I remember being absolutely transfixed and when we decided to do this we said we’ve got to watch this and do it from the inside.

Paul: Did we have the title first? It was called Doctor Cadwallader’s…

Chris: Cordial. We started with quite a polite title. When you’re trying to put together a horror-filled type of thing where you’re trying to figure out what that thing is and why that happened you get to that point where you know the boat in the bottle where you’re pulling the mast and it might or might not. Damn, it didn’t work. We got closest to that in Legion of the Dead and then its really satisfying when you get that sleight of hand. Its good fun and these books are galloping romps in a way and we write them like that. We in an absolute sort of blur and we think, right this is what we’re going to do and its a great way of relaxing in a sense from doing a long Edge book which is a long haul and needs to be because its got all sorts of forensic things we’ve got to deal with. So its been nice to change pace, to have a go at this.

Do you have a set plan on how many books there are going to be?

Chris: This is episodes.

Paul: This was a contract for four but we think we’re going to do another four.

Chris: We could easily do another eight. We’re going through all sorts of Victoriana – various sorts of horror themes so stick around. Its so endless – form crooked mediums to early science to marionettes. Its great fun to do.

Paul We didn’t want to make it London so there is quite a lot of what I read about New York and Chicago so hopefully an English child will read this and go its London and an American one should be able to pick it up and identify with the city they’ve got. I was quite surprised to discover that the Americans use the term Victorian as she wasn’t their Queen.

How did you get the idea of high-stacking

Chris: That sort of came from both of us.

Paul: There’s Mary Poppins

Chris: Dick van Dyke up in the chimney stacks.

Paul: He [Chris] works at the Observer and you have to go through these windy windy way through London and its all that Tick Tock type stuff and its where my auntie used to live.

Chris: Its all sort of drawing the moon behind his head and doing chimney stacks and we thought “oh we should use that in some sort of way”. Then we talked about how he should earn his living.

Paul: Should he be a man of independent means?

Chris: Like Sherlock Holmes… What does he do for a living? Well he’s a dilettante and we thought may be he could be that.

Paul: I didn’t want that. It would a bit like sending your kid to public school and then they grow up and you hate them.

Chris: So you really want him to earn a crust and immediately that becomes the imperative. He’s not in it for the arcane interests. All he wants to do is to earn thruppence ha’penny to pay for his rent and live. So we played around with that. Once he became a working kid then suddenly we were left trying to find something for him to do and being a messenger seemed to be a good way of getting around the place. Then we made that jump – well how does he get from place to place quickly – go up on the rooftops! We had both watched these things about parkeurs, French urban running, and thought that looks fun. What would that be like in Victorian times?

Paul: It also means that it could work in France. They’re coming out in French and apparently his first name is going to be Edgar, which has got apparently an old sound, Destoilles – of the Roof . I like that. They’re playing up the whole parkour thing. I don’t know what their even going to call high stacking. Parkouring?

Chris: The French are fantastic.

What next?

Paul: Oh we’re getting very excited about next. I did a pitch in America and said you know you all love Larry McMurtry who did this thing called Lonesome Dove which won him the Pulitzer – a great big fat thing – and Terms of Endearment. So I said its Lonesome Dove meets Dinotopia.

Chris: In a sense what we want to do is to got from worlds which we’ve mapped that have a sense of places and names and societies into the Wild, into the unmapped.

Paul: You’ve seen Into the Wild? Sean Penn directed it and its a true story about this kid who sends all his educational fund to Oxfam and just goes off and ends up dying in Alaska. Its that sort of theme – its going into a wild place.

Chris: Its a place where people will describe things in their own way. There’s no received wisdom about this place. Its experience, as you begin the narrative you get into it. In a way its prehistory so not a fantasy based in an established imaginary world. Its leaving the confines of society and going into a new world.

Paul: All the people that go to this place will have stuff in their heads from the past.

Chris: It’ll be big, it’ll be fat, it’ll be a whole brick of a book but it’ll also have nimble, short catchy chapters. Its almost taking something like the Barnaby Grimes, merging it with the edge and moving upwards in age range.

Paul: Both of us would like to write about relationships in an earthier way than we’re allowed to for 10 year olds.

Chris: Also stretching their vocabulary. We’re not trying to retrace our steps but to try something new. Now we’re going into an area which is challenging because…

Paul: Why the hell not?

Chris: We know what we can do but we want to test what we’re able to do with the next one.

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