Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Puppeteer of the Land - Steve Cockayne interviewed

When did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?
Ever since I started to read, I have enjoyed stories that take place in imaginary worlds. Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Henry the Green Engine, Swallows and Amazons – these were the books that were my earliest influences. I read a lot of SF in my teens, and I became interested in fantasy a little later.

What do you read these days?
I find that I have to read a lot of non-fiction for my research. I enjoy crime fiction for its plot structures. I don't read too much fantasy or SF, and that's really from a fear of unintentionally borrowing other people's ideas! I wish I could find more time to read for pleasure.

Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
I started making up stories at the age of three. My mother wrote them down in a little book which I still have. One early piece, Peter Rabbit Breaks the Plates, won me a certificate from the National Book League. And, in my teens, I produced strip cartoons about a secret agent called Herbert Wilkinson. Later, I discovered film and television, and didn't start writing again for many years.

Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or
I never set out to write genre, and I never set out to write in a particular style. For my early books, I developed a format that conveyed what I was trying to say, and it just seemed natural to set the stories in an imaginary world. It was my publishers who decided that I was writing fantasy fiction.

Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who loves wonder and mystery and excitement and humour. Someone with imagination. Someone who doesn't want everything spelled out for them. Perhaps someone a bit like me….

How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you
write every day?
Each book is written from a detailed plan that takes me several months to develop. This means that, when I'm doing the actual writing, I don't have to worry about the key plot points, but I can still find enough space for inspiration and improvisation as I go along. I work on my books every day, but I'm not always writing – sometimes I'm planning, researching or just thinking.

Of your own books, do you have a favourite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
My first book, Wanderers and Islanders, was written with the most passion, because the story and the characters reflected what was happening to me at the time. But some of the later ones are probably easier to read. It would be wonderful to recapture that first tidal wave of creativity, but to be able to express it with the more elegant technique that I like to think I've developed subsequently.

What other writers do you feel you have something in common with? Which authors did you read as a child? Have you come back and re-read them recently?
There are a handful of authors that I have read at intervals throughout my life without ever becoming bored. CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Mervyn Peake. And I love The Once and Future King by TH White.

What does Fantasy offer to younger readers? Why is it gaining popularity?
I think that in an age that is increasingly governed by technology, people are starting to rediscover the value of magic. And perhaps, with the decline of religious values, we are all searching for something that touches us spiritually.

Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
Yes, of course. Every single thing that we see or hear or experience surely has some influence, whether positive or negative, on the way we think and feel. But writing is especially powerful because the writer can speak directly to the reader without anything getting in the way.

Reading The Good People, there's a certain feeling of a lost paradise,
that children need to be reminded about a time of more innocent play. Do you feel that this is so, that we've begun to forget innocence? Do you think that the adult world has become too authoritarian on issues of how children should think, be it religiously or scientifically, rather than encouraging them to explore and learn that actions have consequences?
In The Good People, I have been exploring the consequences of trying to hang on to your innocence for longer than you should! Every character except for Kenneth eventually stops believing in Arboria, but Kenneth never abandons his belief. I am sure that, if there had been any adults around, things would have turned out differently. But the best children's stories don't seem to have too many adults in them, and perhaps this is because adults have always tended to be authoritarian where children are concerned and, in stories at least, the children need more space to explore. Perhaps the healthiest option in the real world would be exploration with a little guidance.

I kept wondering whether the world was real or not, whether the armies were entirely happening or being imagined by the children. Was this deliberate, to keep the reader constantly questioning the reality/sanity of the narrator?
Absolutely! The question that I am asking in this book is "How real are our fantasy worlds?" And I've deliberately not provided a firm answer, so that each reader can work out their own. Does Kenneth find his Arboria, or has he gone raving mad? I've scattered plenty of clues through the book. The truth is there for each reader to discover.

What are you currently working on?
I am planning another fantasy for young readers. It uses some of the same settings as The Good People, and it explores many of the same themes, but this time it takes place in the 1960s. There is an outline for another Legends of the Land book in my bottom drawer. And I'm just finishing a biography of the great English puppeteer Waldo Lanchester. (Are there any publishers reading this?)

The Good People


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