You co-wrote The Secret Fire with French author Carina Rozenfeld. How did that come about? What did you first think of the idea?
Carina and I have the same French publisher, and we were often seated next to each other at French book fairs, signing books for hours on end. It was amid that frenetic world that we got to know each other, over coffees and lunches. We’d talk about what writers talk about – our publisher, our lives, things we wanted to do or to write. And it was in one of those conversations that we came up with the idea – almost as a joke – of writing a book together. Our styles are quite similar, as are our audiences. I wanted to write a magic book – but not a witch book. Carina wanted to write about ancient beliefs in a modern setting. The two ideas melded quiet well. But I still never thought we’d really do it. Then one day, out of the blue, Carina sent me a chapter, and we were off.
How did you feel when the first chapter arrived from Carina?
At first I thought, ‘Uh-oh, are we really going to have to do this?’ Because the idea of co-writing is quite daunting. Then I read her chapter. The chapter she sent me was essentially the same as the one that is now chapter one in The Secret Fire. A boy on a roof, with a gun at his back, being told to jump. And then he does jump. He falls five storeys. Then he gets up and walks away. I was instantly hooked. The character of Sacha is so rebellious and striking – I had to know more about him. I wrote Carina back and said, ‘Let’s write this book.’
At first Carina wrote chapters for Sacha, a teenage boy in Paris, while you wrote chapters for Taylor, a girl in England. What was the most interesting thing to you about writing in this way?
It reminded me of a parlour game I used to play with friends in America called ‘Exquisite Corpse’. It’s a surrealist game where everybody writes a line without knowing what anyone else is writing and then you put it all together and have a kind of mad story. It was a little like that at first, because we had no synopsis, and we were each writing in an anarchic, lawless way. It was exhilarating. I didn’t know what Carina was going to write, so each chapter was like a little present. We were each as much reading the book as writing it. I think it made us braver. We took more chances with the characters, with the plot. Just let it develop organically. Only about midway through, as the story became more complex, did we write the synopsis properly.
What was the biggest challenge?
The hardest part was keeping the story focussed – with two hands on the rudder, the ship could easily go in circles. But we were both conscious of that, so when things threatened to get to out of control, one or the other of us would pull it back. The best part, by contrast, was having two imaginations working on the say story. We called it The Book of Two Brains. If one of us got stuck, the other could think of a way out. We always had each other’s back.
The two characters meet in person about half way through the book, and then the writing is even more collaborative. What was that like? How did the two of you work together?
We’d known the time was coming when the characters would get together, so we came up with a system where I’d write two chapters – in whichever perspective made sense – and then Carina would do the same. Then we’d edit each other’s chapter, focussing on our own character, to keep the voice consistent. It was a little tricky at first, but it came together as we went along. Carina teased me because I only know two French swear words for Sacha to say. She’d say ‘We have more curse words than just putain and merde!’
What elements of the story most appealed to you?
I loved the world of the alchemists. Sketching out St Wilfred’s – the school at Oxford where alchemy has been studied since the fourteenth century – was absolutely magical. I love Aldrich and Louisa and their entire world of science with just a hint of the supernatural. I want to go to St Wilfred’s and study with them! I want to move molecules with my BRAIN. This was my favourite art. And taking Taylor from her tightly structured life and throwing her into this crazy dangerous world was joyous.
What elements of the story are special to Carina do you think?
I know for a fact Carina’s favourite part was working in English, playing around with words in a language that is a second language to her. And she built Sacha very meticulously. She told me from the beginning she could see him completely. So creating that character and then watching him change was quite magical, I think.
Would you recommend to other authors that they write a book in this way?
I think co-writing is absolutely not for everyone. It requires patience, cooperation, collaboration and compromise. Fiction writing is not exactly populated with authors who like a bit of compromise! Most of us are pretty picky about every word that appears on the page. Letting go of the wheel and letting someone else drive for a while can be frightening. But if you choose the right co-writer, it can be pretty amazing, as well.
The Secret Fire is published by Atom, 432pp, 978-0349002194, £6.99 pbk