Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
Meeting of the Minds
Stewart: We met in front of our sons' nursery. We've both got boys and they were two years old when we met. We had friends in common and they said, "Chris, you illustrate books, Paul, you write books, why don't the two of you work together?"
Riddell: It never works, does it, because you think you've got things in common but all you think about are the things you don't have in common. I remember Paul coming over to my house for tea and I put a few books out for him to see the sort of things I did.
Afterwards, years later, Paul said he came over for tea and all he could see was my work everywhere. He was thinking this man's so conceited I can't work with him.
Stewart: They lined the stairs, they lined the rooms, it was just his success everywhere.
Riddell: There were two or three on the coffee table. Yeah.
Stewart: I used to live in Germany and every so often somebody would bring an English person up to me and say, "This person is English. You will like them," and I never did. I thought it might be the same deal with Chris. Just cause we were working in the same area didn't mean I'd like him.
Stewart: Of course, I don't.
Riddell: Well, I've never liked you. We went to a party in London and it was in a gallery, a circular gallery. I didn't know anyone and so I gravitated towards the walls. They were lined with fabulous works of art so I kept being told off by men in uniform for brushing up against the paintings.
I finally ended up near the fire escape. I looked around and there was one person in the entire room I recognized and he was standing right next to me, and it was Paul. We got out of the party as quickly as we could, took the train back to Brighton and started talking about some of the books we liked.
Riddell: I think the way we started working was a conversation, and it was a conversation we had on the train initially. We were talking about the sort of books we enjoyed and we started to talk about the sort of books that we would like to do. I think the beginning of all the books we do begin with a sort of supposition "What if?"
Barnaby Grimes Begins
Riddell: Sometimes it's as simple as the way a cover might look. An imaginary book that we've yet to write I might do a little thumbnail sketch of what a cover might look like before we've even decided what's going to be in the book.
Certainly with Barnaby Grimes it began, I think, in Dublin Airport, didn't it?
Stewart: Yeah, I don't know why, I was just sitting there and this little phrase came in my head, "The life and times of Barnaby Grimes". I liked the rhyme. Chris was sitting there sketching. Whenever we travel, he sketches the whole time. I turned to him and I said, "What do you think of this — the life and times of Barnaby Grimes", and he ignored me.
Riddell: Totally. Totally. I had the book with me and I was sketching. In fact, I have the book with me. I was sketching and I was just doing a little doodles. As I drew, I drew a little imaginary book with Barnaby there and the life and times of Barnaby Grimes, and Paul Stewart, the author's name, nice and small, Chris Riddell nice and big.
The design department didn't go for that. Anyway, this was the look. I just said to Paul, "What about this? We could write a book like this".
Stewart: I hadn't said anything but the name itself sounds a little bit Victorian anyway and then he drew the character with a sort of top hat and tails and so, again, it looked like a period piece.
Riddell: We talked it through and we talked about what the character should do. You just throw out these thoughts. I think there was the idea of what what would his occupation be.
Stewart: We thought what would be the best sort of job he could have so that he'd see a lot.
Riddell: Yes. I mean, the messenger boy idea came out of that. We just talked it through and we came up with all sorts of ideas, but the one that stuck was the idea of being the messenger boy.
Stewart: I always wanted to be a pizza delivery boy. I think perhaps that's where it came from. But we'd been reading lots about this park called Urban Running, Street Running.
Riddell: Yes. Yes.
Stewart: The French thing where they leap from roof to roof and anything other than touching the pavement. We thought, in fact, it wasn't the French who invented it; it was Barnaby Grimes. He called it high stacking.
Riddell: It made great sense to actually put these two things together, this urban running thing, very modern but give it this Victorian spin, and then have him jumping over the rooftops and we could invent a whole vocabulary for how he did this.
It also gave him a completely different perspective on the city below. He would see things that other people would miss. It introduced this whole notion of Gothic and the spooky into the stories. So he could be up on a glue factory at midnight and see a great sort of hell hound, suddenly bounding across the rooftops.
Grabbing the Reader and Earning His Trust
Before we begin to write I think we talk through all the possibilities. But what we don't like to do is plot things out. We don't actually want to know what the story is. We want to set all the parameters.
Figure out who are character is, what he does for a living, where he lives, sort of setting. Then we want the story to take over and the actual writing process becomes fun because we're never quite sure what the story is until we actually start telling it.
Stewart: We've worked on these in quite a different way from other things we've done. We started off with a climax, just before the final kind of working out of the story and then went backwards to work out why it had happened.
In a way the way we wrote the stories was the same experience that the reader has. They read something that's a bit dramatic to start with and then, well why did that happen, why did it? We were doing the same as we wrote it.
Riddell: In our mind's eye I think we both have had books that we've found. I think some of the most exciting books are the books you just find somewhere. No one's given them to you. Just they're lying around, and we wanted Barnaby Grimes to be the sort of book that if a kid found it, picked it up, they would look at this cover. We hoped the title would draw them in and they think, ah, Curse of the Night Wolf sounds nice and gentle little story.
Opening up, read that first chapter and just be grabbed by it. What on earth? You know there's a sort of transformation going on in the first few pages, and then just not be able to put it down. It was that sort of trying to generate a real excitement right from the first page that you then have to justify as you go through.
Stewart: Structurally it then builds up to that same point again and then it's resolved. All of the Barnaby stories that we've done have the same sort of format — dramatic start, build up to that point again, and then resolution.
On the fourth one at the moment, The Phantom of Blood Alley, we're exploring it again.
Riddell: There's always a lovely moment I think when you're writing where you set up the whole premise and you start to look around and you digress and you put in little details. I love that thing you have with the reader where they learn to trust you. They sort of ask where are you going with this?
I'm not quite sure where you're going. Once you deliver one surprising factor, you move on and deliver something else. They think alright, okay. You're going off message. I'm not sure what's gonna happen but I know you're gonna come back and deliver something on this.
I think certain with Barnaby, I mean, what we tried to do is set out a sort of a very unusual, slightly odd beginning that throws you off kilter, and then the reader trusts us to bring them back in and justify exactly why Barnaby has ended up with the stone knife in his hand about to sacrifice the head master.
Trusting Each Other
Riddell: Quite recently Paul moved in about four doors away from me in my street.
But what happens now is because Paul can see my studio from his study
Stewart: And I can see whether he's working or not.
Riddell: I can see whether you're in. What happens is we'll talk things through. We'll have a long conversation. We will start to talk maybe about a particular chapter or structure of the book. Then Paul will start with the first draft. Then at some stage when he's written the first chapter he will walk out of his front door, down the street, down through some gates to my studio, knock, deliver the chapter to me.
I get this wonderful chance to read it through and with a pen just score out paragraphs, put little notes in.
Stewart: It's a brutal process.
Riddell: I enjoy it. It's really good.
Stewart: I never thought that collaboration was going to be like this. But it actually works very well, and I think because we met when we were quite old neither of our egos are so big that we don't want to be corrected.
Riddell: What it means is that there are two brains working on this the whole time but independently. What we don't do after our initial conversation and working out the premise of the story we don't then sit down in the same room and physically write at the keyboard together.
Paul will write on it on his own, bring the first draft over to me. I'll produce a second draft on my own and bring it back. What we do between these two phases is often Paul will read the first draft to me aloud, and I'll go back over to his house and I'll read the second draft to him aloud and then we'll create a third draft from the two.
It's been sort of two processes before we even get an editor involved.
Stewart: The whole thing of reading aloud is really very important, and I recommend to any kids that want to write something read it out loud because you can tell so much more easily then whether it's working, whether it's boring or not.
Riddell: It's basic. That comes across really well. You know how are the sentences working together? What sort of pace are you adding? Pace can often be misinterpreted as something fast and furious particularly when you're trying to write an adventure story, something to grip.
Often it's the calm between the highlights that can really make the pages turn, and I think the actual structure can often help, how you decide on the length of chapters. Where you want to actually intersperse the text with pictures all creates a pace that'll direct the reader through.
I think we come back to this whole notion of the reader trusting the writer to deliver, and after you've done that a few times, they've read a few chapters and they've seen what you're doing they begin to trust you and you can start to lead them through the story and do some surprising things and they will go with you.
Digging Into the Past
Stewart: One particularly nice thing I found was that the Victorians were terrified of being buried alive. Quite a lot were. Epidemics would sweep through these filthy areas of New York, London, Berlin, wherever.
Riddell: It was one of those Gothic things, wasn't it? I know Edgar Allen Poe, I think, wrote stories about waking up in a tomb or waking up when you're buried, and it was just something in the popular imagination that really made some people, that's the worse thing that could ever happen. Pretty bad I think.
Stewart: They went to extraordinary lengths not to be buried alive. I found a copy of a will where this women had asked that her head be cut off before she was buried just so she was sure she'd be dead. They also used to have these things called finger chains, and it was a chain with a ring at the end, and they would attach it to the index finger and it would go up through a hole in the coffin, up through the six foot of earth, be attached to a bell next to the gravestone.
So if you woke up and "Oh no, they've buried me and I'm not yet dead," you'd just wiggle your finger about a bit and the bell would ring and then they'd have the grave watcher there who'd come, as long as he wasn't drunk, and they would dig you up again.
Riddell: We thought what a great beginning to a story. I mean one of our beginning chapters with Barnaby just wandering through a spooky graveyard and just hearing a little bell in the distance.
Stewart: History fascinates both of us. I think we could very easily do some sort of historical book. The way both of our brains work means that we probably bring it some sort of fantasy element into it.
With The Edge Chronicles there's all sorts of things that you could look at a section and say well that's got some similarity with Mexican or Inca rites, or that bit could be a historical battle that we've taken them and used them for our own purposes.
It's not a straight re-telling of history or a political situation. It's adapted for our own reasons.
Riddell: I don't think either of us enjoy high fantasy as such — elves and goblins and theCeltic mythology particularly. I've always rather enjoyed the Victorian, the Gothic, and I think when we start to invent a fancy world I think it often is it's built from the outside in.
We start with facades, the looks of things, the cut of peoples' clothes, the character development. I often draw characters to people, the story. I'll give them to Paul, and I'm always surprised at Paul's interpretation of the characters I draw because it's never a straight forward interpretation.
He'll look at something within a character that I haven't suspected and he'll decide back and form how it might speak, what it might do, it's background. I always enjoy that. I think in some ways we're interested in the reality within fantasy and we're less interested in spells and runes and ancient curses and more interested in character and character development.
Stewart: They've got to be real, haven't they? They've got to have emotions. You've got to feel empathy, sympathy if they die, if they get injured, if they're impoverished, whatever. If it's complete high fantasy I think it's sometimes very difficult to identify with these characters that things are happening to.
Riddell: I think characters should be believable and be in charge of their own actions or be responsible for their own actions. I think once you introduce ancient imperative spells and whatever that motivate actions I think you're in another realm, and it's something we're less interested in.
I like to think that the way that we write would be as applicable to a high school novel or a historical novel. We just choose for illustrative purposes often to set these things in in parallel worlds.
Stewart: The other thing about high fantasies that neither of us really like. It's the whole concept of good versus evil, black versus white.
Stewart: I think both of us like plain shades of gray, and so we have good characters that do bad things, bad characters that do good things. Morally it's all sort of is peculiar and mixed up as real people.
Riddell: It also allows one to actually use things from the real world to come into our world because when we create a fantasy like The Edge Chronicles we're as interested in the formation of a political system or a set of religious beliefs that societies will start to form with the movements of population.
Lots of things that sound in themselves quite dry, but when you actually put them into a story, construct become dynamic and actually mean that our characters can move through this landscape and have very interesting experiences.
I think it's that way of introducing things that have a certain reality in the outside world into a fancy setting that we enjoy. Barnaby doesn't live in a real Victorian city of such, but all things around him come from the research we've done into all things Victorian.
Pleasure, Not Participles
Stewart: I don't know what it's like here in the States but certainly in England there's a tendency now to take a book and not to read it just for pleasure but to take something out of it — a paragraph and then look at the use of the semi-colon or the gerund.
I think there's no more guaranteed way to destroy a love of reading and the most important thing is for a kid to just open book after book after book and some of them they won't like but some they will absolutely grab them. When you find that book that you do like, then to explore other ones written by the same author.
Then maybe go to Amazon or Google and find somebody else that writes in a similar way or find what other people like along the same lines and just explore and explore.
Riddell: What happens with that, I think, when you start to just enjoy reading for it's own sake not because what it can teach you, not because your teacher said you have to or any of that stuff, you just enjoy reading for its own sake, you start to talk about books. And there's nothing nicer then talking about books, the last book you read, a book recommended to you, giving someone a book that you enjoyed and saying you're going to love this, read this.
Once you've become a reader, there's always that one book that tips you over the edge and you become an avid reader. I think if there's one thing that Paul and I want to do and strive to do through all the books we've done, is trying to write that one book, that one reluctant reader who's not interested and will find accidentally on a rainy Sunday afternoon and open up and start reading about a boy turning into a werewolf and think wow, that's not bad.
And start to read it and then maybe recommend it to someone else and then go out and just find another book and another book and another book and become a reader. That's what we're trying to do and we're going to carry on trying to do it for as long as we can.
Reading from Barnaby Grimes: Curse of the Night Wolf
Riddell: This is from Barnaby Grimes, Curse of the Night Wolf. We like very soft, gentle beginnings. Chapter 1.
Stewart: "Have you ever felt your skin being peeled slowly away from your arms and legs, your muscles being torn and shredded as every bone in your body fights to burst through your flesh? Have you ever felt every tendon and sinew stretched to breaking point as your skeleton attempts to rip itself apart from the inside?"
"I have and I'll never forget it. I remember moonlight, the great silver disk of the full moon beating down into my upraised eyes, its intoxicating light seeping into my pores and coursing through my veins stirring something deep, deep within me. And then the pain."
"Terrible convulsions wrapped my body. My skin seemed to be on fire. And looking down in horror I saw my fingers and toes contract into hard, claw-tipped paws. My neck strained, my belly cramped while the muscles in my chest and shoulders rippled and rolled as though a colony of trapped rats was writhing beneath my skin."
"At the back of my throat I felt a burning sensation as the roots of my tongue swelled and squirmed leaving me choking for breath. I coughed and my tongue lept out between my parted lips and lulled from the corner of my mouth down past my chin. Strands of drool splatted onto the floor and glinted in the moonlight."
"Such pain I endured, such terrible pain. It felt as though my very skull had been placed in a carpenter's vice which was being screwed tighter and tighter, and then the noises began. There was a creaking, cracking sound inside my ears and I knew that my jaw was thrusting forward even as my nose did the same."
"The next moment I realized I could see them both at the same time through my narrowed eyes. I shook my head violently and tried to scream, but all that emerged were growls and yelps that turned into a terrible howl as my terror grew. I tried to get away but was overwhelmed with an impossible heaviness that pinned me to the spot."
"I was trapped, scarcely able to move so much as a muscle, yet my senses were on fire. My hearing was more acute than ever before. My eyesight had sharpened so that everything looked bright and clear, though curiously elongated as if I was looking through a slightly warped lens."
"My nose quivered with excitement as a thousand different scents and odors assailed it. There was the pungent smell of linseed oil in the varnished woodwork. There was the fragrant perfume of a recent visit, as well as the sour underlying sweat she had been attempting to conceal."
"There was tile polish, spilled milk, crushed grass, pigeon feathers, soot, dust, tarmacadam, a trace of vomit, a hint of dog. And then the itching began all over my body, scabrous, overwhelming and impossible to ignore. It had me scraping and scratching at every inch of my skin with my claws using all the energy I could muster."
"And as I did so, my jaw dropped with a mixture of horror and shock as I witnessed my smooth, almost hairless skin begin to sprout thick, dark fur. Horrified I stared up and howled once more. My clothes lay in tatters about me. The cramped and dingy chamber was heavily padded."
"Each wall and surface had been covered with a heavy, pale gray felt quilting that deadened all sound, quilting which, even as I looked, revealed dried splashes of blood. Above my head was the skylight, a thick, double-glassed window in the low, sloping ceiling like a monstrous eye which concentrated the beams of light from the full moon down into the chamber."
"I stared back transfixed and then I heard it, a low, unpleasant chuckle that came from behind me. With great effort I slowly turned my head. A figure was looking down at me. He was dressed in heavy robes and a huge sinister hood which obscured his head and face completely."
"The moonlight glinted on the dark glass panels that concealed his eyes and on the huge, silver and glass syringe he had clasped in his gloved hand. I stared back unable to move so much as a muscle. The next moment the hideous apparition started moving towards me slowly, deliberately."
"The syringe was held out before him. I let out a whimper as a spasm of fear convulsed through my body. Thump, thump, thump. He took another step closer raising the syringe and letting a couple of drops of silvery white liquid emerge from the tip of the great needle and trickle down the side."
"My ears pricked up and my lips drew back in a terrified snarl. I couldn't get away from him. I couldn't move. Another spasm ran down my spine. Thump, thump, thump. What was that sound? Something thumping on the padded floor as if beating a rhythm with my pounding heart."
"The figure raised the needle-sharp syringe as I fought to regain control of my pain-wracked body. Thump, thump, thump. There it was again. With a jolt I realized what it was thumping behind me. It was my tail."