Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – Jonathan Stroud

Rebecca Davies

jonathan 300x225 Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author –  Jonathan StroudJonathan Stroud is the author of the hugely successful Bartimaeus trilogy, about a djinni and the young magician who summons him. His latest book, Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase, is set in an alternate society in which a mysterious ghost epidemic has infested Britain. Adults cannot see the ghosts, so young people are hired to track them down and vanquish them – which is where teenage ghost hunter Lockwood and his sidekicks, Lucy and George, come in. I asked Jonathan about his inspiration behind the novel and the ‘science’ of ghosts.

What would you say was your biggest inspiration – literary or otherwise – for Lockwood & Co? I’m guessing it’s no accident that the Lockwood offices are round the corner from Baker Street…

You’re right that it’s not quite a coincidence! Lockwood & Co. was largely inspired by two separate (but connected) literary traditions – the classic British detective tale and the classic English ghost story. I’ve always been keen to try a ghost story, and I’m a big fan of the old masters such as M R James (in particular), Algernon Blackwood and J Sheridan le Fanu. I wanted to follow them in conjuring genuine chills and lots of spooky atmosphere.

But where I departed from them was in wanting to empower my child heroes. Most traditional ghost stories feature rather hapless protagonists, who have nasty things happen to them. I preferred to make Lockwood, Lucy and George formidable in their turn, and so ultimately bring my book closer in spirit to the optimistic, upbeat tradition of the adventure story – which of course includes detective fiction. I think good old Conan Doyle is still the best reference point in this regard. As well as his Sherlock Holmes tales (which feature many gothic devices), he wrote quite a few creepy stories of the occult. In other words, the two traditions have been closely linked ever since the beginning, and it felt natural to fuse them once again with Lockwood & Co.

lockwood 225x300 Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author –  Jonathan StroudWhere did the ‘science’ of ghosts in the book come from, including the ideas that ghosts are repelled by iron, silver and lavender and can only be seen by young people?

It’s a mix of things, really. A lot of this is taken from folklore, particularly the notion that iron and silver are useful for warding off evil spirits. I like using traditional beliefs in my fantasies, even though I always end up warping them to suit my purpose: it somehow makes everything feel more ‘solid’ if it’s got a long history behind it. Then I stir these ideas in with things I just made up, like the ‘scientific’ mass-production of ghost-hunting kit that Lockwood and his friends use – the magnesium flares, the salt-bombs (salt’s another traditional ward against evil), and canisters of iron filings. I’m not sure about lavender, though. I might have invented that, though I think the belief that pungent herbs ward off evil isn’t new.

I suspect that there’s a long tradition too of young people being more sensitive than adults to occult things. Anyway, I particularly like this, because it not only gives an immediate reason why my teenage heroes are in the front line, tackling these dangerous ghosts, but also points to a wider truth – that the young ARE more sensitive and open to new experiences than the average jaded adult.

The story seems to be set in a sort of alternate present to the one we live in now, though perhaps with a bit of a Victorian tinge. Why did you decide on this imaginary time setting?

My initial image for the book was a boy and a girl arriving at a house to deal with the ghost there. They wore ordinary clothes, but with one big difference – they had long, shiny rapiers at their sides. I instantly liked the fact that this was going to be a skewed vision of modern London. I could include as many pairs of jeans and trainers as I liked, but could equally well remove any contemporary element I didn’t fancy. I like to have my characters talking in an up-to-date way, and I like their essentially modern self-awareness, which means we can have lots of irony and jokes. Best of all, it becomes a kind of thought experiment into how one fantastic element (here, an epidemic of ghosts that’s lasted around 50 years) might have altered society. Everyone’s perspectives have shifted, and the most powerful organisations in the country are companies that provide iron, salt, silver and other defences against the supernatural. Children are central to the economy because they’re the only ones who can see the dangerous spectres. It’s an almost recognizable world, but seen through a distorted lens.

Modern technology such as mobile phones and so on are conspicuously absent from the book. Why did you choose to leave them out?

This is a prime example of the advantages of selecting an ‘alternative present day setting’ for the series. It allows me to avoid elements that might quickly date, or prejudice the action. If available, mobile phones would have to play a major role in the action – a ghost hunter would use them all the time when on a case and would thus be less alone than in my more technologically restricted present. And inevitably, any details I gave about the workings of the phones would soon become outmoded. I think it’s best to keep things a little timeless in this kind of fiction.

What was your favourite book when you were growing up?

Favourite books at different ages included Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman, Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and so on. There was a clear disposition towards fantasy, though that began to alter in my teens, and I actually don’t read so much of it today. The book that I hold up now as the model for all children’s authors to aspire to is Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which manages to be both supremely entertaining and supremely well written, both morally complex and with instantly accessible mythic power.

Do you have a top tip for any aspiring children’s book authors reading this blog?

Read Treasure Island for a start. But also to keep in mind that you are not writing for ‘children’ so much as for the child within yourself. YOU have to enjoy what you’re producing. If you manage to create something that frightens or enchants or enthrals you, chances are your readers (of any age) will share that pleasure too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently in the middle of the second Lockwood novel, tentatively entitled The Whispering Skull. It features further weird mysteries, acts of heroic detection, jokes, spooky cliffhangers and a slow uncovering of the appalling truth hidden beneath the ghost epidemic. In short – I’m having fun! All being well, it should be published in the autumn next year.

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and is currently working on a young adult novel set in Hackney. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster

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