Graham Marks interviewed by Julia Eccleshare.
Graham Marks is a hard man to catch just now. His return email was from the US. He was going to be back from an assignment in Los Angeles early on Saturday and would then be off on an author tour to schools in Halifax and Huddersfield early on Monday for the rest of the week. We met on Sunday evening – the only available moment he had.
Not that he’s complaining: he’s making the most of it, taking every opportunity he can, such as bolting on some self-promotion work in bookshops in LA knowing that as a newly published author in the US you have to make your own waves. As children’s books editor of Publishing News he’s been following the ups and downs of other authors and interviewing them about their writing for years. Now, it’s his turn and he is loving it. ‘I’ve had a hell of a year, this year,’ he says with absolute satisfaction.
It’s a year that has included picking up the 2005 South Lanarkshire Children’s Book Award for How It Works , researching in Japan for his forthcoming title Tokyo , running a series of workshops at Reading Jail for young offenders, speaking at literary festivals, schools, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference and more, as well as always writing his next teen book and now launching into some titles for younger readers to be published from 2006 onwards. Luckily he doesn’t seem to be short of ideas. ‘I’m currently working very fast. Sometimes when I’m typing, I feel I’m chasing the words which are spilling out.’ It’s clearly a wonderful feeling.
As is the case for many other children’s authors, it is easy to think that Graham Marks has just started his writing career. Four good strong young adult titles and he’s suddenly a highly-regarded voice in an area of the market that is growing in confidence, profile and, for some, sales. But new he’s not: Graham’s been writing for years. ‘It was only when I hit the teen thing with Radio Radio that I really found my voice. Before, I’d always been told that I could write but that I didn’t have a voice. I got it here because I got back to what I felt then – that bizarre mixture of anxiety and certitude. It’s vibrant and it allows you to behave in certain ways.’
With his diamond stud and motorbike, it’s easy to think that Graham is still part of that ‘bizarre mixture’ but he dismisses the suggestion along with the idea that he is influenced by other teen authors who do tap into that. ‘I don’t think my writing’s influenced by anything that’s around at the moment. I’m informed by the books I read as a kid – Buchan, Chandler, The Riddle of the Sands , The Prisoner of Zenda – books like those.’ At the same time, he places himself as very much within the contemporary image of children’s writers by saying, ‘I’m a storyteller, and nowadays storytellers write books. I’m a populist author who wants to entertain.’
Maybe he’s right. If his books are a yearning for his teenage years, it’s certainly taken him a long time to get back to them. He’s coy about his age but when Graham runs through all the other kinds of creative work he’s done it reveals just how far from all of that he is. It also doesn’t fit with the kind of teenage years he had. While admitting that Radio Radio was influenced by his teenage sons who had every radio in the house tuned to a pirate station that was driving him mad, he carefully dodges round the issue of whether any material is drawn from his own adolescence: later, he reluctantly admits that he was at a boarding school doing normal kinds of things, ‘nothing too outrageous or unusual’. But he doesn’t want to dwell there and dismisses his entire adolescence saying, ‘I was a pissed off teenager having the kind of education my father never had.’
That education led to art school where Graham studied information graphics intending to work in design. He wrote poetry and even got it published under the guidance of his tutor, Paul Peter Piech, who also ran the Taurus Press. But writing poetry has never been a way to make a living and Graham went into publishing and packaging running his own business at one point and ending up at Octopus Books as Art Director. His writing was dormant and the spur to doing it again came from an outside source. ‘The manuscript for a children’s book written by a very distinguished adult author arrived. It was rubbish. I said, “I could do better than that”.’ And not being one to back off a boast, Graham did. He sat down and wrote The Finding of Stoby Binder , a nice enough 8+ novel which was published and a sequel was planned. ‘I thought, “Hey, I’m an author”. But nothing happened. I realised that was six months of your life tied up for nothing so I decided I wouldn’t do that again.’ There was no sequel.
But after another spell back in publishing, which included trying to get a children’s magazine off the ground – an idea which looked hopeful but went nowhere – Graham knew he didn’t want to go back to design but really did want to write. And, luckily, things began to happen. Some freelance work at Publishing News suddenly turned into a regular column, he was asked to write some Marvel-like books for Scholastic, he picked up work writing Captain Scarlett TV tie-in books, Wallace and Gromit picture stories: there was plenty to keep him busy. Then he got a call out of the blue from a copywriting agency and spent the next eight years as a copywriter, ending up as head of copy. ‘Writing to a budget and a deadline is a brilliant discipline for any writer. You learn how to write anything at all and to do it fast.’
Somewhere in that time, Graham had pitched an idea for a story to Bloomsbury. Having heard nothing, Graham naturally assumed they hadn’t liked it but, two years later, he got a response. ‘I was having lunch with Sarah Odedina, the editorial director of Bloomsbury, and she poked me in the shoulder and said, “What did you do with that story?”’
It’s the kind of moment an author doesn’t forget in a hurry. The idea was to become Radio Radio but just when Bloomsbury wanted it, Graham didn’t have time to write it. ‘I was totally committed time-wise to my full-time job. Then I realised that writing it as a screenplay would be much quicker – and the audience would love it.’ Even with such a canny short-cut to the actual writing, Graham needed some time to do it. ‘I told the office I was going on holiday, sent the family away and sat down and wrote the book. I also bought a tube of fake sun tan to keep up the pretence for the office.’
If Radio Radio was the book that reconnected Graham to his teenage self and gave him his voice, he found How It Works was a more important outlet. ‘After Radio Radio , I was completely fired up. It led immediately to How It Works where I wanted to explore what would happen to a character who goes off the rails and has no one to talk to. There’s an element of therapy in How It Works . It’s me now talking to me then – you want to apologise but at the same time you realise that it’s not your fault. I could understand why I’d done what I’d done.’
In essence though, How It Works was no more biographical than Radio Radio . But it did give Graham a clearer sense of the kind of writer he really is. In particular, it made him realise that what happened to his characters was what mattered most to him.
‘I was taught about character early on by an editor who got me to write a biography of each character, then an autobiography of each character and said, “Now you know what it’s like to look at them and what it feels like to be them. Now you know your characters, go and write about them.”’ Graham took that advice and passes it on in the workshops that he runs in schools finding that teenagers enjoy the challenge of creating people and getting to know them. But, knowing how the characters work doesn’t always mean knowing what they do. ‘The thing about your characters is that you don’t always know how a book will turn out because you’re dealing with real people – there are things you don’t know at the beginning which affect what happens.’
Not that Graham really lets them run away with the plot, nor does he go deeply into their psychology. He sees it as being ‘my choice as an author is to open the door at a certain place and then shut it even though there may be more.’
And, despite the street cred of all of his books and the close identification with the challenges of being an adolescent, Graham does shut the door when there might be more. His books are not chronicles of alienation and despair. In fact, he’s both a romantic and an optimist who both likes and believes in happy endings.
He favours situational dramas, books which test the capabilities of his characters to manage difficult situations practically rather than emotionally. In Zoo , he explores the terrors of kidnap and how an individual might cope with it against a background of some dubious scientific experiments round cloning while in his forthcoming Tokyo , a book he researched carefully to get both the place and the people right, he has built a thrilling and scary story around the possibilities that surround the disappearance of a girl during her gap year.
What next? Graham is confident now that through his writing he can grow to fill a role which he feels has limitless possibilities. ‘I’ve been in a creative world all my life. I’m tapped into a well of ideas. It’s too big for me ever to run out of material. I suppose as long as people want to read what I write, I’ll keep on writing.’ He loves being part of the entertainment world that being a children’s author has become and, despite his love for the book, he has dreams and ambitions beyond it. ‘One day, I’m going to write something that’s going to make a movie. I’d love to sit there with the lights going down. That would be a breeze.’
But, in the meantime, he’s content. ‘Writing is a brilliant job – the best ever.’
Julia Eccleshare is Children’s Books Editor of The Guardian and Co-Director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.
Radio Radio , Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5939 2, £5.99 pbk
How It Works , Bloomsbury, 0 7475 7015 9, £5.99 pbk
Zoo , Bloomsbury, 0 7475 7733 1, £5.99 pbk
Tokyo , Bloomsbury, 0 7475 8172 X, £6.99 pbk (as featured on this issue’s cover)
Snatched! , an historical adventure story for 10+, will be published by Usborne in April (0 7460 6840 9, £4.99 pbk).