Interview: Ian Douglas

Photos: Dom Henry
Interview: Robin Lewis
Monday 15 December 2014
reading time: min, words

"The children's book industry looks down its nose on the digital world and is stuck in the past"


Your first novel for children, The Infinity Trap, was published this year. Give us the lowdown...
How far would you go to find your missing father? For fifteen-year-old Zeke Hailey, Mars is not too far. He lives in a future where mysterious psychics called the Mariners can think themselves across the vast distances of space. As Zeke hasn't a shred of ESP, he has to bluff his way into their elite psychic academy. Then his brain gets scrambled by an alien artefact and he has to battle Martian ghosts, monsters and a demon from the dawn of time.

How do you approach writing fiction for children? Is it very different from writing for adults?
Yes and no. The elements of good storytelling are universal: heroes, villains, narrative structure, USPs, cracking dialogue, pacing, twists and cliffhangers. When writing for children, it's action rather than violence. It ought to be fun. You can just go off on a good romp and not worry about literary pretension or post-modern metaphor. Of course, you need to use age-appropriate language. I think that helps me to write better – I'm a firm believer that less is more.

Are there other books planned with the characters from The Infinity Trap?
Gravity's Eye is due out in April 2015. Things get worse with a fifteen-year-old evil genius who's an A+ at mind control.

Do you have a clear idea of where the story will go in the projected sequels?
There's a story arc that needs five books at least. Things really get dire at the end of book four and it will take at least another novel to save the day. Otherwise humanity is going to hell in a handcart. Right from page one I've been seeding clues and hints of the horrors to come. What may seem a throwaway line today will turn out to be grimly significant later on. The fun for the reader is spotting these and tracking their development.

The Infinity Trap is obviously science fiction. Has the genre been a long-time love of yours?
Think 1963 and William Hartnell. It all started from there.

You're tied in with the burgeoning Nottingham literature community at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. How important has that been to your writing?
Crucial. It offers opportunities for critiquing, professional development, finding work, shoulders to cry on. Best of all, it's a great place to get drunk. It’s a hothouse of talent and enthusiasm and has an all-round attitude about giving to the community.

You spent ten years in Thailand teaching English. Do you think your experiences there have informed your writing in any way?
Absolutely. The more you learn about life, the more material you have to work with. I was exposed to real life stories, good and bad. From rampaging elephants to radiation poisoning, hijacked hospitals and prison breakouts. You can't make this stuff up. Plus I got my first break in journalism there.

What are you working on right now?
Book three in The Infinity Trap series. There’s an ace new monster and we get to see inside a ruined Martian citadel. Also an adult short about a planet full of bloodthirsty bees and a flash fiction piece about Captain Scott. I've fallen in love with flash fiction.

You do a lot of work with young readers in schools. What got you reading when you were young?
The very first thing that got me avidly reading was the lurid covers of Pan’s Agatha Christie novels. I read around fifty of them from the age of ten to twelve. I owe the local libraries a huge debt. I borrowed my family’s tickets – they didn’t use them – and took out eight books every fortnight. Fantasy worlds, monsters, aliens all caught my imagination. The likes of Bradbury, Anderson, Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Lovecraft, Poe, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, Harper Lee and more. TV also shaped my sci-fi sensibilities: Doctor Who, Tomorrow People, Time Slip, Star Trek and so on.

Is it harder to get kids reading now with so many other things demanding their attention?
My kids are glued to the Xbox. I respect all the creative genius that goes into computer games, and more and more they rely on narratives. Heck, I’ve even been commissioned to write a video game here in Nottingham. But we have to find a way to balance these wonderful interactive storytelling media with books. Why don’t books come with a DVD interlinking visual games with the words on the page, special features, author’s commentary, games, competitions? It needn't be costly. The children’s book industry looks down its nose on the digital world and is stuck in the past.

Tell us about your foray into mobile phone apps.
I’m the author behind the Snowpo the Bear apps on iTunes. They’re exquisitely drawn picture books for early readers. My job was to write a story in rhyming verses suitable for under-sevens, which was a lot of fun. That Snowpo has attitude. In the second app we met Snowpo’s arch nemesis, Tycoon Seal: a gold chain-wearing seal who raps. The way new technology is complementing traditional media like books is fascinating. Each picture has added value with moving objects, puzzles and text to help reading.

Your first non-fiction book, A Children's History of Nottinghamshire, was pretty popular. How did you angle a take on history that kids found interesting?
Children have a natural curiosity, so that was easy. I sifted through the archives for facts that were humorous, gross or downright grisly. Spies in the toilets, exploding diarrhoea, that kind of thing. In Tudor times, the local council authorised watchmen to kill anyone showing signs of the plague on sight. All good stuff. But one thing that was important to me was not to make light of suffering. I found kids reacted as well to drama as they did to funny bits – it was a gripping story rather than a joke.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Since the age of six. My family and teachers ridiculed me for years. Working class boys didn’t grow up to be poncey writers. In those days there was no recognised path into the profession. And I was embarrassed to tell anyone because I'd been so mocked growing up. I lost valuable time.

You did an MA in creative writing in Nottingham, and passed with distinction. There are some writers, like Hanif Kureishi, who've criticised such courses. How useful did you find it in shaping your writing?
That must have thrilled the students who handed over good money to take his courses. We have dance schools, art schools and film schools – why would writing be any different? That's not to say there aren't too many organisations trying to cash in on the aspirations of newly emerging creative types. Pick your course with care. My MA helped my writing considerably. It sharpened my writing skills and taught me more about how the industry works. And I made some invaluable friendships.

Harlan Ellison once said you know you're a writer when a writer says you're a writer. When did you know you were a writer?
When pay cheques started landing on the doormat.

The Infinity Trap and Children’s History of Nottinghamshire are available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

Ian Douglas website

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