The byline on your website for your children’s graphic novel The Adventures of Count Oblonsky and Petrov: The Curse of the Red Skull reads: “Count Oblonsky is Nineteenth Century Russia’s greatest detective – even Sherlock Holmes writes to him for advice!” What tends to make a detective story work well, or what makes your detective story work?
Oblonsky is a zany comedy adventure for 8-12 year olds. It’s sort of Asterix and Obelix meets the Carry On movies. Oblonsky doesn’t really do much detective work (although he does have a magnifying glass – very important for a detective); he basically stumbles over the clues and then pieces it all together at the end. If the plot was really scrutinised it probably doesn’t ‘work’, but if young readers have had some giggles and shocks along the way I don’t think they’ll mind too much.
As for detective stories like the Sherlock Holmes stories, I think their success is down to meticulous planning. I love the way the puzzle fits together so perfectly at the end – but it must be frustrating for Dr Watson to be constantly left in the dark until the denouement! So I’d say it’s all down to planning. It struck me while writing my novel Mice, where Shelley and her mum work hard to cover up the evidence of their crime, that the writer is a little bit like a criminal; but whereas the criminal seeks to elude the police, the writer seeks to avoid detection by the sharp-eyed reader – one loose thread and the careless writer will be caught red-handed!
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing your suspense thriller novel Mice?
I’d never written a novel before. I was confident I’d be able to emulate Graham Greene and write a thousand words a day. I quickly discovered that a hundred words a day was a good day and there were many, many days where I didn’t add a single word to the total. I wrote everything in longhand (you can see a manuscript page on my web site; it looks like the scribblings of a lunatic – note the obsessive word counting in the margin!). When I’d hand-written several pages or so I’d type it up onto the computer, then I’d edit and edit and edit – and edit some more. Editing is the most gruelling work I’ve ever done – discovering that you’ve used the same word eight times in one paragraph or that you’ve written five sentences that all start with ‘I’ and then trying to figure out how to remedy it – it’s a nightmare. It feels like you’re solving abstract equations rather than doing anything remotely literary.
It took a year and a half to write the first draft of Mice. I sent it out in 2003 to a long list of publishers all over the globe, but no one wanted it. So the manuscript remained in various drawers in Spain and Australia until Erica Wagner at Allen and Unwin in Melbourne read it in 2009. Thankfully, Erica loved it. She missed the final of the Australian Open tennis because she couldn’t stop reading it and rang me the next day to offer me a publishing contract.
I would think I worked on Mice on and off for another year or so with the brilliant Hilary Reynolds, my editor at A and U. It had to be updated (a lot had changed in those seven years), and Hilary pushed me to explore certain areas more deeply – particularly Shelley’s reasons for not telling her Mum about the bullying, and her relationship with her father. As a result of Hilary encouraging me to dig deeper I think some of the best passages in the book emerged (it produced one of my favourite lines in fact – ‘it’s what we can’t share with others that really defines who we are’). I then had to include editorial suggestions from both the US and the UK – all of which strengthened the original text. People are well aware how collaborative making a movie is, but it’s not so well known how collaborative making a book can be. I didn’t have a problem with it. I think collaboration is good – two heads are better than one as they say, and five heads better still!
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading and do you have some favourites?
I’m still trying to work my way through ‘the classics’ but there’s so much to read it sometimes feels I’m not making much headway. They haven’t become classics by accident and I’m rarely disappointed – although I must say I struggled with Don Quixote. I think my favourite prose work is Gulliver’s Travels because it says so much that is so important and so profound and yet still manages to be hysterically funny; I remember loving every page of Moby Dick, and Martin Jarvis’s reading of Great Expectations is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on!
I was mad about George Orwell when I was a teenager, particularly Keep the Aspidistra Flying (the hero is called Gordon, he wants to be a writer, and his first book is called Mice – not a coincidence!). Ian McEwan was the first writer I discovered for myself and The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers will always rank in my top ten books. I love Graham Greene and think he showed the way forward for modern fiction – my stand-outs would be Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Comedians, and The Quiet American.
Writers I’ve discovered in the last ten years or so and have really enjoyed would be Martin Amis (The Information), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), Vladimir Nabokov (The Luzhin Defence), JM Coetzee (Disgrace), Michel Houellebecq (Platform), and Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths).
How did you come to write your first book and get it published?
In 1999 I was being slowly worked to death in a small law firm in Maidstone, Kent. I decided I had to give my writing ambitions one more go before laying them to rest for good. So I persuaded my wife that we should move to Spain where I’d give myself one year to get published, and if it didn’t happen we’d return to the UK and I’d go back to the law. I wrote and illustrated five picture books for young children and sent them off to ten Spanish publishers (my Spanish teacher kindly translated them for me). The inevitable rejections came back and after six months we were starting to think where in the UK we’d go back to live. We had a mobile phone which we hardly ever used and one night my wife saw that it had a message on it. To our amazement it wasn’t a special offer from the service provider, but a message from Mary Carmen Diaz-Villarejo, an editor with SM, Spain’s largest children’s book publisher. She said she wanted to publish one of the books I’d sent her called The Crocodile and the Zebra. And that’s what happened. Croc was my first publication and came out in 2002. I ended up living in Spain for six years. I still work with Mary Carmen to this day – she commissioned Oblonsky which came out in Spain in 2010.
What are the main differences in the way you write for a novel and the way you write for a children’s picture book or graphic novel?
In a children’s picture book the relationship between the text and the picture is normally very simple – if the text says ‘John plays on the beach’, then you draw a picture of John playing on the beach. In a graphic novel the relationship is much more complex. You might draw a girl sunbaking on the beach, but the caption might read ‘It’s a little known fact that the amount of love in the universe is finite…’ It’s this dynamic tension between the words and the art that makes the graphic novel such an exciting and stimulating field to work in. With a novel, of course, there’s no artwork, so you have to build word pictures for everything you want the reader to see and that’s why the novel is such hard work – it’s a lot easier for me to draw the face of my heroine than to describe it in words.
The process is very different too. I would write a graphic novel script by drawing out the panels and making sure that the dialogue and captions fit. Obviously, in a novel there are just words and no need to make your text ‘fit’ into a confined space. I still sketch while I write though – I find it helps me imagine what I’m describing. Again, if you look at that manuscript page from Mice on my web site, you’ll see that in the middle of all my scribble there’s a drawing of one of the characters, and, bizarrely, a drawing of a cartoon bear – no idea why I drew that!
What is one of your highlights from the 2011 Somerset Writers’ Festival?
It was a great event – I think some fifteen thousand students took part which is an amazing achievement on the organisers’ part. I think the highlight for me was Steph Bowe’s presentation. To see a writer who is still only seventeen with such poise and commitment, enthusiasm, and wisdom was extraordinary. I’m a can’t-pretend-to-be-young-anymore forty-seven-year-old and I’ve spent more hours writing and thinking and talking about writing than I care to remember, but Steph was still able to teach me a thing or two in her talk. Anyone who thinks the novel is dead should hear Steph talk about her passion for the written word – I think they’ll change their mind pretty quickly. From watching Steph I would say the future of the novel is looking pretty bright.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and why?
What a tough question! I have a soft spot for men whose love for the heroine is unrequited, unacknowledged and yet inextinguishable, such as William Dobbin from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Gabriel Oak from Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I know you only wanted one, but I have to mention George Magruder from The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams – better known, I’m sure, as David Sumner as played by Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs the movie based on the novel. George is the timid academic who fights like a tiger when his home is besieged by a murderous mob. Viva all the George Magruders!
What is the most important piece of advice you have for new writer-illustrators who want to tell stories with words and pictures?
I’d say study the greats, seek out the authors/illustrators whose work really inspires them – be it Raymond Briggs (as it was for me) or Quentin Blake, Joe Sacco or Will Eisner. We start out wanting to be creators by admiring the work of others, then slowly learn what we can bring to the party that’s original, but I think it all begins with that ‘wow!’ moment when you’re blown away by the work of a master. I’ve studied Crumb’s and Scarfe’s cross-hatching for hours and hours and I’m always on the look-out for early Jim Aparo art work (for me he’s the greatest superhero comic illustrator – he changed his style later in his career sadly, but his early stuff is unsurpassable in my opinion). I don’t understand people who want to write but don’t read. No one exists in a vacuum; we’re all formed by what’s gone before. Young writers should have a pantheon of heroes. They should absorb what their heroes have done, then slowly develop their own voice and try to make something new. But it’s evolution not revolution, it has to grow out of what’s gone before.
What’s next for your fiction writing?
I’m currently working on another YA/crossover for Allen and Unwin in Melbourne. I’m about a quarter of my way through the first draft so far. After that I have an adult novella I’d like to write called Nothing Human. I’ve also got an idea for a book of ten short stories called Ten Deaths which I’d love to do, but publishers’ faces normally drop when you mention short stories!
More on Gordon Reece and his fiction can be found at www.gordon-reece.com.
The Australian Literature Review