Ginger Nuts of Horror interviews Robin Bennett who is a rare literary beast in that he skilfully writes across different age groups and genres for children, something which is notoriously difficult and also dabbles with non-fiction for adults. Interestingly, Robin sees writing for the 7-10 age group as the toughest nut to crack! Much of this interview focuses on his fantasy/horror series “Small Vampires” which is a great read for slightly older kids and young teens. Robin is published by Monster Books and is one of the brains behind a successful independent publisher which is currently expanding and hopefully taking on new authors in 2017. So let’s meet Robin and find out what makes the man tick.
GNoH: So how did you end up writing both fantasy/horror for kids and adult non-fiction titles on subjects like property ladder?
The short answer is I enjoy writing and I get a kick out of honing the different disciplines of writing – in my case for adults (about money, which they take very seriously) and for children (about elves – ditto).
The longer answer is I’d always wanted to write books for children and teens but graduating with a fairly spectacular debt, even by the standards of my contemporaries, forced me to work for an honest wage aged 22. By 23 I’d realised I was better suited working for myself, so I started my first company. I found I enjoyed the variety of being a realist (businessman) and dreamer (writer).
GNoH: ‘Picus the Thief’ first came out in 2011, just when the whole vampire/paranormal romance movement in teen fiction was coming to an end and teen dystopia was picking up steam. Were you aware of the massive selling vampire teen novels at the time? Did you see ‘Picus’ as more of a fusion of fantasy and mythology rather than horror?
I know! And I was quite upset about that at the time as I wrote the first lines of Small Vampires on holiday in Romania in 2003 before Twilight etc got huge. By 2005 I had a finished book, an agent (Patrick Conville of Conville and Walsh) and an interested publisher (Barry Cunningham, who discovered published JK Rowling). I knew the vampire thing was beginning to kick off but was persuaded that Small Vampires wasn’t ready and, in any case, it was so radically different from the ‘mainstream’ vampire stuff, it didn’t matter when it came out.
In 2005, ‘Mousch the Crooked’ was actually the first book, I then decided to go further back in the Small Vampires story and write ‘Picus the Thief’, which became my new start point in their mythology.
However, I do agree it is more a fantasy book than horror, so I guess my original editors were right in hindsight.
GNoH: I think kids are pretty fickle creatures and are attracted to things which are bright and shiny. ‘The Small Vampires’ trilogy have covers which are deliberately done in an old fashioned style. Have taken to them or did they miss the point?
I always wanted it to be somewhat timeless, even at the expense of that ‘brand new’ thing – so many things have an increasingly short shelf life these days (including stories) and I sort of got a kick out of the fact you can’t ‘date’ the first edition just by looking at the cover. The central plank of Small Vampires is about discovery – uncovering hidden truths, anyway – and the look and feel could almost be that of a passed over ‘classic’ or some buried folklore.
GNoH: You’ve also published a few other novels and kindles aimed at younger kids. There aren’t that many authors who write across the age groups successfully. What’s your secret?
It’s genuinely fun to try and learn the ropes in different disciplines. Frankly, though, most reasonably proficient authors can write for teens and adults but it’s a very rare person who can engage younger readers between about 7 and 10. I hoping to crack that now with the help of the talented Imogen Cooper (Golden Egg Academy).
GNoH: Teen and kids horror writer Darren Shan made his fortune with a character called ‘Darren Shan’ in his 12 book series “The Saga of Darren Shan” as you have “translated” ‘Picus’ were you aware of this huge selling author who used his own name in the story?
No. I’m terrible at keeping up with other authors I should be reading. I only started reading Darren Shan when my son told me I had to.
GNoH: Which kid’s horror or other genre authors do you like and read? Ginger Nuts mainly focuses on adult stuff but we love teen stuff also….
Left alone for long enough, I’ll read anything – I’m the exact opposite of a discerning reader. However, I believe that Stephen King is the best all round author writing today: great stories, characters who you can inhabit and never a word on the page more than needed.
GNoH: Do you read adult horror? Recommend me a couple of books you don’t think I will have read. I read a lot……
We all went lived in France when I was 11 and had a dog called Suif (meaning small ball of lard). It comes from the story by Guy de Maupassant and I looked it up and found he wrote horror stories, which I read – initially in translation, then in French when studying modern languages at university. He’s up there with Poe, in my view.
GNoH: It is tough making a living as a writer for kids, many authors have to supplement their earnings by visiting schools and stuff. Do you do this?
I could probably survive on my salary as an author without getting about the place, especially since I set up Monster Books to act as an imprint for my fantasy writing, so I get to keep 35% and not 10%, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Not just because staying in touch with readers is a good idea (by visiting schools, taking part in festivals and signings etc) – that’s obvious – but because many writers I have known, who are able to do nothing but write experience a drop off in productivity.
GNoH: Kids are increasingly living in an online world and the things that may have excited us as kids, aliens, vampires, myths etc, no longer give kids a buzz, but the ‘Picus’ books have an enjoyable fusion of vampire and fairy mythology which I hope they would find appealing. Were you interested in this sort of thing as a kid?
I think kids, like adults, are attracted to anything that makes them care about a story – not so much concepts, rather characters they find engaging. It was fun to with Picus to bring vampire mythology into the wider world of folklore and fantasy (they seem to inhabit a bit of a bubble, all on their own), but my main goal was to breathe life into this central character whose reaction to a harsh world is to revel in the good and kick out against the bad.
HNoH: As years go by kids are more and more attached to their electronic devices and downloadable TV as a way of escapism. The fantasy worlds of our youth, Narnia, Middle Earth and your own world no longer hold the same fascination for the kids of today. What can we do to pull more kids into the world of imagination?
As above – if the characters jump out, off the pages and become real, they will read you.
GNoH: Do you have any plans for an adult novel? Again, there aren’t many authors who write for both ages successfully? Very few actually, guys like John Grisham and James Patterson have written some pretty weak teen novels….
Sometimes I’d love to let rip and write something fictional for adults with no bars but, first things first – I want to crack the really hard nut writing for 7-10s.
GNoH: Do you intend to return to the world of the ‘Small Vampires’?
It would be fun and relatively easy now I know that world so well. Going right back to a time before Humans would be interesting, when they were at the height of their powers in a world full of anti-heroes …….
GNoH: Weren’t you ever concerned your stuff would get mixed up the ‘Little Vampire’ series by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg that have been around forever? I realise it’s aimed at slightly younger kids….
Only from an SEO point of view. It’s very different.
GNoH: The engaging ‘Translator’s Notes’ which appear at the bottom of the occasional page reminded me a bit of Terry Pratchett. Are you a fan? Of course, nobody played around with myths better than the great TP…..
Very much a fan and for years I had to stop writing passages which were basically homages, delete everything, walk the dog and start again. I have allowed myself, now I’m more confident in my own voice to ‘sample’ the great man.
GNoH: What do you think is horror’s never ending fascinating with vampires from Dracula in recent years? From Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, via Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to a trilogy to The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro?
They are us times ten.
GNoH: The version of our world in which ‘Picus’ and his friends is incredibly well drawn. How much background research did you put into creating a world which was a skewered version of ours?
Thank you, that’s very kind. No, I research very little, unless you count just getting about and being a bit of a chatter box.
GNoH: Tell us more about Monster Books. What else are they into?
Interesting times, it’s just doubled its staff to 4 and taking on more authors in 2017 with any luck. I want it to celebrate what is best in British fantasy and horror writing.
GNoH: Your 2012 novel ‘Angel of Mons’ sounds like another change of direction. Tell us a little bit about that.
It started with the theme of fear – not just that experienced by children, but adults and understandably often in war, and how we use stories like the one of the Angel appearing to troops in the First World War, to cope with fear.
It did involve driving all the way to Belgium and it did also mean a lot of research, which is very unlike me, as I usually just rely on an ability to simply make stuff up when writing anything from children’s books to tax returns. So that’s the how.
The why is a little harder to answer.
As the book progressed and my research went beyond the main facts of that first engagement in Belgium of British troops since Waterloo.
I kept coming across stories relating to what is known as ‘Third Man Factor’ or ‘Third Man Theory’: Smythe, the British climber in 1930’s who was so convinced close the top of Everest that someone was climbing with him, keeping him safe, he offered his shadow half of his Kendall Mint Cake; 15 years earlier, during Shackleton’s trek across South Georgia, looking for a whaling station he was convinced there was a 4th member of the team, a sort of re-assuring presence; on 11th September 2001, Ron DiFrancesco, had been led to safety through the smoke and the fire by a mysterious figure who faded away at the foot of the tower. Seconds later the tower collapsed. He was last man out of the South Tower in the World Trade Center.
Gradually my cynicism evaporated and I began to view my own story much less as a fantasy novel and much more of a proposition – a sort of what if?
There is a tendency these days for us to separate belief from fact as if when we say we ‘believe’ in or about something what we are really saying is it’s probably not true but well, darn it, why not? – as if it’s some kind of an escape, a crutch.
But what if a belief is true – could that knowledge save a frightened soldier, or even a frightened boy, for that matter?
This is what the story became.
GNoH: I’d say that kids between 10-13 or 14 might enjoy the ‘Picus Trilogy’. They’re not at all violent, did you deliberately limit violence to try and broaden their appeal? I felt that for kids fed on a diet of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner they might find them a bit tame and old fashioned. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, my daughter cried at the end of ‘The Bridge to Terabithia’, so that was a success for me!
Yes, and no. Our moods are varied as are our tastes for what we want here and now. I think both have a place, although I wish there was less violence towards children in books and on TV: I sometimes find that increasingly gratuitous.
GNoH: Is there anything else you would like to see on the Ginger Nuts website we don’t cover?
Recipe Books are big, I’m told. How about ‘Cuisine in Horror’?
GNoH: Robin it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. I’m sure lots of our Ginger Nuts readers will be fascinated by this look at teen fantasy and horror and your thoughts on writing, publishing and genre fiction. We’ll keep an eye out from new stuff from you further down the line. Many thanks.