For Kai Meyer, the publication of some of his books for children and young people into English is something “very special”. This is perhaps not in terms of his success as a writer; after all, he is the writer of fifty adult and children’s books in his native Germany, and their popularity has enabled him to make his living as a writer for nearly twenty years. It is just, as he says, “there are not many German authors for children and young people who are translated into English [perhaps only Cornelia Funke otherwise?], so it’s always good if you know your books are coming out in English.”
There is perhaps something else, too. For it is clear from our conversation that writers whose original language is English have played an important part in Kai’s development as a writer; although here, I sense also his politeness in talking about writers that I am likely to know. He credits reading Lord of the Rings as a young teenager with inspiring him to become a writer: “Not that I write Tolkienesque fantasy, although I did at the time, the things you are supposed to write as a teenager when you like Lord of the Rings.
Now he is now best known, to an English audience at least, as a writer of children’s and young people’s fantasy; with two his fantasy trilogies already translated into English, and the first book of the Arcadia trilogy, Arcadia Awakens, published earlier this year. However, he began as a writer of adult historical and crime fiction and his career as a writer for children began with books for younger children suggested not by Tolkien but by writers like Enid Blyton, a series about a band of children battling monsters rather than fighting crime and solving mysteries. If this didn’t demand too much of him – he wrote them very quickly, sometimes a book in two weeks – their success led to his publishers suggestion that he should write fantasy for young people.
In a way, it was an opportunity that he had been waiting for. When he had started out as an adult writer, his original pitch to a publisher had been a fantasy novel, but he had been told that there was no market for that in Germany. By 2001, however, the situation was changing, at least in writing for young people. Harry Potter and the films of Lord of the Rings kick-started a fantasy publishing frenzy. Much of what was being published derived directly from Lord of the Rings – “dwarves and elves and orcs and trolls” – and Kai wasn’t interested in replicating it. His own Merle-Trilogie (translated as Dark Reflections in English) is set in a fantasy Venice of magic, mermaids and stone lions, besieged by an Egyptian army of mummies. To the surprise of both Kai and his publisher, it was an instant success in Germany, and sold to over twenty-five other countries. In Britain, it began a continuing association with the doyenne of British translators, Anthea Bell, and the first book of the trilogy, The Flowing Queen picked up the Marsh Award for translation in this country in 2007.
Another trilogy followed, translated into English as The Wave Runners, which featured, to the original scepticism of his publisher (pre Johnny Depp’s excursion into the same vicinity) pirates in the Caribbean, wave walkers and demons of the deep. Again, it was a success, and meant, in Kai’s own words, “I could write in any genre I wanted”. In the space of six years, three more trilogies appeared, evidence of Kai’s prolific and eclectic imagination, including Renaissance Italians on a cloud crash landing in sixteenth century China; an Arabian nights fantasy, which he has described as “absolutely adult, dark, erotic and very violent”, optioned by Hollywood; and then, for young adults, Arcadia, the only one of these three as yet to be translated into English, again by Anthea Bell.
His interest in fantasy and mythology derives he believes, not from his childhood reading, which did include the sagas and fairy tales, but “not more than most children”, but from later reading when he became absorbed by anthropological approaches to mythology and religion and their connection to storytelling, particularly the work of Joseph Campbell and Eliade: “So I developed some kind of theoretical background to mythology and the telling of tales. I became interested in all of that after I wrote my first books.”
His career as a writer has been restlessly creative and productive, and he has been involved too with comics, TV and film, and the production of a fantasy role-playing game. He describes himself as a disciplined writer: “You have to just sit down in the morning and, even if you don’t want to, just start to write. On many, many mornings, I sit there and think I want to do something else. But after two pages I know why I love writing so much.”
Although there are still some embarrassing interviews from earlier in his career when he is scathing about fantasy authors who think they should always write trilogies, he now finds the structure of a trilogy, which he describes as like a play in three acts – beginning, development, and resolution – very satisfying: and he finds himself using it even for his single novels.
His preparation for writing a novel is meticulous. It begins with a detailed synopsis that can take him three months to complete and that, usually largely unchanged, forms the framework for the completed work. He says, “I don’t know any author that writes outlines in the same detail that I do.” This he describes as the most important and exciting part of the writing process for him, the development of the concept of the book, and he find himself drawn particularly to the challenge of bringing together “things that seemingly don’t belong together in a way that makes sense in the context of the book. I try to make the books as interesting to myself as possible. I know I will work on them for some time and I want to do something that I have not seen anywhere else.”
The mixing of genres is perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of the Arcadia trilogy, the second book of which, Arcadia Burns, is due out early next year. Developing through the trilogy, there is a (late) teenage love affair between the young capos of rival mafia clans in Sicily. These families are also “Arcadians” and have, through a connection with Greek mythology, the capacity to change shape into predatory animals. In his research for the books, Kai spent a week criss-crossing Sicily looking for inspiration and locations, struck by the huge contrasts in the island’s landscapes and eager to embrace the challenge of linking its Ancient Greek heritage with its more recent dark history of crime.
When I comment on what I think might be a similar interest in landscape in British fantasy, and, as an example, mention Alan Garner, Kai is immediately enthusiastic: “I really like Alan Garner. He is totally different from what I do. Actually he is very different from everybody, entirely singular. And he is not well known in Germany. A few years back, we were on holiday in England and we explored Alderley Edge and I was surprised how much it had changed from what was described in the books. But I went there purely because of Alan Garner.
If Kai’s interest in the location of his stories sounds as much like a film maker as a novelist, then Kai readily admits to be influenced by movies as much as books and to be seduced by images as much as words. When he talks about influences on his writing, his references are the early graphic novels of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore –“so clever, so sophisticated.” At home he has a whole room devoted to his comic collection. He says he needs to have “a clear picture in my mind of every location that I use and how that location is tied to the development of the characters.”
The events in the Arcadia trilogy are tied to the development of its central character, Rosa, who has returned to her family roots in Sicily and has to come to terms both with the responsibilities and expectation of being the head of a mafia clan, and of being in love with the head of a rival clan, and to learn how to live with and control her capacity to become a snake. This is a facility that can be inconvenient (particularly for your sex life), and sometimes slightly ridiculous, as well as disturbing and threatening. In the Arcadia trilogy, there are scenes of shocking and compelling violence. The first book ends in a confrontation at the Gibellina monument in Sicily and the second book opens with the transformed New York branch of the mafia hunting the homeless for sport in Central Park. But there is also a complex plot which demands much of its young readers’ understanding and emotional engagement.
Kai admits that sometimes “in the past I have perhaps put too many ideas in my books. However many ideas I have had, I have wanted to include them all. And sometimes, perhaps, this has made them crowded…But today I try to use only those ideas that drive the plot and characters forward. It is character development that he believes should be at the heart of a novel: “However, fantastic, I always try to tie the plot to the characters. To show how they develop as young people into adults. Most of my stories, even for adults, are coming of age stories.”
He says that, with each book, he hopes to develop further as a writer. In reality, of course, he has already moved on from Arcadia, whose final book, was published last year in Germany. British readers will probably have to wait until 2014 to complete the Arcadia story; but in our rather insular publishing world, it is good to have an opportunity to read and meet one of Germany’s most popular and ambitious writers for young people, and we can only hope to be allowed to follow as readers in English where his restless imagination may take him in the future.
Kai Meyer’s Arcadia Awakens (9781 8487 7631 9, trans. by Anthea Bell) is published by Templar at £6.99 pbk.
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City is a freelance researcher and writer.