Never having written for children before, John Stephens’ first novel The Emerald Atlas caused a sensation at last year’s Bologna book fair with publishing rights already bought in 34 countries. With two subsequent novels planned for his trilogy ‘The Books of Beginning’, he is clearly on a roll. Nicholas Tucker talked on Skype to John Stephens for Books for Keeps.
The Emerald Atlas tells of a family of three children mysteriously separated from their parents and now living in a succession of cruel orphanages. But their final billet turns out to be a secluded house inhabited by a wizard and containing a book whose magical properties allow for time travel into the past and back again. On their first trip the children encounter an evil countess. On her own quest to find one of the three magic books that will then allow her total control of everyone, she keeps her local subjects enslaved. But Kate, her studious brother Michael and their feisty younger sister Emma finally prove too much for her, and after a lot of fighting the countess is finally put out of action.
Talking to him in Los Angeles courtesy of Skype, Stephens – an engagingly friendly and young-looking 40-year-old – told me how he came to complete his first book: ‘I had always wanted to be an adult novelist before becoming a television producer. But then about four and a half years ago I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, which showed me how interesting and complex a children’s novel could be. So I started getting up at 4.30 and writing for a couple of hours before going off to my job. And after three years or so, it was finished!’
There is a lot in Stephens’ book about families experiencing separation, either in time or place. Where might this emphasis have come from? ‘I was looking through an old photograph album one day and saw this picture of me and my sister taken years ago. And I felt a wave of nostalgia, then thought how cool it would be if I had a machine that could take me back to the past. And America is such an enormous country; my own family now lives over three thousand miles distant from me. So putting these ideas together, I wanted to write a book about a family coming together again.’
Has he been taken aback by the huge interest shown for his work? ‘It’s unbelievable! I had thought that perhaps my wife would read it and then no-one else. Now it sometimes feels as if this is happening to another person.’
Stephens’ child characters tend to talk more like British than American children. Why was this? ‘I guess I was always influenced by British children’s books, from E Nesbit up to Roald Dahl and J K Rowling. And I think their voices were very much in my head when I was writing.’
Stephens’ characters flit forwards and backwards across the years. How did he keep track of which time frame they were in? ‘Time novels are difficult. On the walls of my office I had some graphs to help me keep track. I knew I had to be rigorous because young readers would be scrutinising the text for any possible mistakes. And as the main idea of the book is not exactly logical I felt I had to set up a lot of minor steps that would at least be internally consistent and so help lend logic to the wider enterprise.’
Books play an enormous part in this novel. In the age of the kindle, was this a deliberate attempt to reassert the primacy of the written word? ‘I guess I am something of a throwback here. I loved the world of books when I was young and I liked creating an imaginary world free of electronic media altogether.’
Stephens’ plot is a complex potpourri of every known fantasy plot. Secret passages, crumbling gothic houses, orphans on the run, dwarves, time shifts, witches, loyal villagers ruled by a corrupt monarch, idealised parents, impossibly heroic small children, you find all these in The Emerald Atlas. The writing itself while pacey and punchy also tends towards the old-fashioned, with looks thrown, tears streaming and small gasps emitted. Tea when it is poured is described as ‘steaming amber liquid’; roots when they are dug up are inevitably ‘gnarled’. The most powerful moment occurs when Kate has to face up to her suppressed anger and hurt about the parents who disappeared so inexplicably from her life but not before urging their four-year-old daughter always to take care of her two younger siblings.
But for the rest, this story is all plot, with sequences of near escape from evil running from cover to cover. Stephens offers boundless energy and an ability to write along well developed imaginary parameters without ever feeling the need to break out into anything new. It would be churlish to begrudge the success of such a nice and hard-working man. But his critical reception when the time comes may be cooler than the current publicity surrounding his writing might suggest.
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens is published by Doubleday (432pp, 978 0 857 53018 9) at £11.99 hbk.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.