Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve tops the bill at the Towers and Tales festival in Lismore, writes
IT WOULD appear that writer’s block is not something Philip Reeve has ever had to worry about.
Perusing his significant body of work as a writer and illustrator, ideas have certainly never been in short supply. He wrote his first story, about a spaceman called ‘Spike and his dog Spook’, at the age of five — a fact that will no doubt encourage his many young fans who will have the opportunity to see him speak at the upcoming Towers and Tales children’s book festival in Lismore, Co Waterford.
While there were always books around when he was growing up, Reeve says that he found inspiration wherever he could find stories.
“It was more about the stories than books — honestly, television was as important as books were, and cinema when I could get to it, back in the 1970s. You didn’t have as much access to visual stories as we do now.”
He was working as an illustrator on books such as the Horrible Histories series, when he decided to take the plunge and approach a publisher about producing his own book.
“It never occurred to me that I could make a living as a writer, whereas with the illustrations, you made something and sold it. It felt like a proper job. I wouldn’t have had any idea about the writing business. But working as an illustrator, I was working with publishers all the time. I’d been working on Mortal Engines as a hobby for years and years, and I dusted it off and showed it to them.”
Mortal Engines is set in a dystopian world made up of roving ‘predator’ cities that move around and attack smaller cities. While the setting and themes are quite dark, Reeves believes children are well able to navigate them.
“It’s dark in places but I think the humour leavens that, and I think there’s room for everything in children’s books. A lot of writers write far darker stuff, especially since the YA genre has become a thing.”
Reeve’s work reached a new audience with last year’s screen adaptation of Mortal Engines.
Produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, the resulting bounce in sales of the book was welcome for Reeve. “For sure, Mortal Engines did perfectly well for years but in no way am I a household name, most people had never heard of the book, so the film was very good [in that respect],” he says.
Reeve says he was more than happy to leave the adaptation to others. “I wasn’t involved at all. Peter Jackson and his team were very nice about keeping me in the loop, and I was invited down with my family to New Zealand for a couple of weeks to see them working, but I didn’t have any direct input at all. When I saw it, occasionally I thought ‘hang on, that’s my idea’ but I was completely removed from it. It looked really well and the actors did a great job but it didn’t feel like mine the way a book does.”
Reeve’s output is prodigious, including four sequels to Mortal Engines, a trilogy of Victorian space adventures, Larklight, Starcross and Mothstorm, as well as a novel set in 5th century Britain called Here Lies Arthur. He says such awards are important in terms of reaching young readers. “Winning an award or being shortlisted brings the books to people’s attention. The terrifying thing about writing is so many books are published, and so many vanish without a trace.”
Notwithstanding his work rate, Reeve says he is not that disciplined as a writer, and his method involves letting his ideas percolate for a while before he puts them down on paper in “intense bursts”.
“I go through long periods of not doing much, not writing, but vaguely thinking of things, toying with ideas. When I decide to go for something I go for it quickly, I’m impatient, so I want to get it done. I work hard, intensely on something for a relatively short period of time, while other writers work on books for years and years.”
While there are lots of competing distractions for children’s attention now, Reeve says it’s important not to lose perspective about technology versus reading.
“I imagine they must be reading less because there are so many other things to do — if I’d had films on demand when I was ten I’d have been watching movies rather than reading books. But going back to the ’70s, I don’t remember many of my friends reading. I was odd because I read a lot, and I knew a few people who’d read, but most of my friends... they might read a comic but they wouldn’t read a book unless they were forced to by school.
“I’m only going on my own personal experience in England, but in my time, there was a pile of sticky paperbacks in the corner and you were encouraged to read when it was too wet to play. That was about it. Nowadays you have authors going into schools, book weeks, book days, I think there’s more of a focus on it and that’s good.”
Reeve will also be doing an event in Lismore with illustrator Sarah McIntyre, with whom he has collaborated on a series of books for younger children, including Oliver and the Seawigs and Pugs of the Frozen North. He says that in terms of feedback from his fans, they are divided along age lines.
“With the older kids, they come up to get their books signed and they are quite shy and respectful, they’re interested in the ideas and stuff. For the younger kids, there are two of us on stage, me and Sarah, and it becomes an extravaganza, with songs and games and sketches, it’s a hoot. I realise that we’re in showbusiness really. It’s a part of the job I really enjoy.”
Towers and Tales: Other highlights
Author and illustrator Mary Murphy introduces the smallest readers to a wonderful chorus of animal noises in this interactive reading event. Children can get hands-on with Mary’s favourite animals and add their own splash of colour to her life-size animal drawings.
- Saturday, 10am, Lismore Library, age 0–3, €5 (carers free), relaxed performance.
Rob Biddulph, the official World Book Day Illustrator for 2019 and 2020, will read from his latest book Dinosaur Juniors: Wide Awake and help children draw a dinosaur of their own.
- Saturday, 12pm, Lismore Heritage Centre, age 3-7, €5.
Siobhán Parkinson was Ireland’s first Laureate na nÓg, from 2010-2012. In this workshop for young readers (and writers), she talks about the magical and miraculous power of stories and how to imagine your own.
- Saturday, 11am, The Dukes Study, age 11-plus, €5
New York Times bestselling author and illustrator David Roberts talks about his new book, Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, a beautifully illustrated history of the women’s suffrage movement. David will share his tales of the bold and daring things women who changed history.
- Saturday, 4pm, Lismore Heritage Centre, age 11-plus, €5