How many books have you had published?
Seven whole books and a bunch of short stories. I finished the latest one, As Good As Dead In Downtown, in Aug 2002 but it won’t be out till Feb 2004. Because of all the planning and coordination that is involved in publishers making sure that two similar titles don’t come out at the same time etc, from manuscript to the book in the shop is a slow process!
Did you write for fun when you were at school?
I made up stuff in my head all the time. I read a lot and I was constantly drifting off - into other worlds, back through time, imagining myself as someone else in the thick of some drama or other. But I don’t remember writing for fun. The writing I did was almost always as a punishment. At my school if you were bad, you were either given lines or forced to write an ‘essay’ on some ridiculous subject. I was frequently in trouble and so forever having to write five pages on difficult and uninspiring subjects such as A Day In The Life Of A Grain Of Sand, The Private Life Of A Ping Pong Ball etc. I think it may have helped develop my imagination.
Have you always earned your living as a writer?
I was an actor for years. But I have also worked as a van-driver, shop window display artist, art critic, chauffeur and minder to pop bands, DJ, creche worker, youth-worker, artist’s model, lifeguard, swimming instructor, weights instructor, masseur, personal trainer, computer consultant, painter and decorator, stripper, dancer, features-writer, screenwriter... to name but a few.
When was your first book published and what was it called?
Brooksie. published 1998.
Was it difficult to get your first book published?
I had had two short stories published by Transworld and they encouraged me to write a novel. After I delivered the manuscript it took them a couple of months to get back to me - during which time I started to worry they weren’t going to like it and tried turning it into a screenplay and sent that into the BBC childrens drama dept.
Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
Probably As Good As Dead In Downtown. It’s the latest piece of work and so I’m closest to it but also each time I write a book I’m learning more about the craft, stretching myself a bit further, so each book is a progression for me. I wanted to make As Good As Downtown as fast paced as the best action movies. My previous book for Puffin - Playing On The Edge - had been shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award in the ‘book I couldn’t put down’ category. I was really chuffed about being up for that particular category and, as it didn’t win, determined that the next one should be even more unputdownable! Early feedback suggests I may have succeeded, but we’ll have to wait and see how it does next Feb.
Which is your favourite children’s book written by someone else?
Sorry, there’s a few. When I was a kid it was The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. More recently it’s been Holes, Artemis Fowl, Skellig, Tulip Touch and Northern Lights (but I wasn’t so keen on The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). Fantasy stuff generally doesn’t do it for me. It’s funny - the Harry Potter books are the most successful series of all time - I’ve tried to read them, but they totally bore me stupid. Clearly, I am not like other people!
How long does it take you to write a book?
Ages. The last one took me the best part of nine months, working on it all day every day, seven days a week.
Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?
I write on a laptop. Or should I say wrote - I fell asleep with the laptop on my lap (of course!) a couple of weeks back. Woke up at 3 in the morning sitting in the armchair, realised what time it was and moved to get up out of the chair. Only when the laptop crashed to the floor and broke did I remember what I had been doing before I fell asleep. So now I don’t have a laptop, I don’t write. Time for me to try out my hand writing.
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you feel like it?
When I’m writing I get quite disciplined and put in the hours (see above) but between the books I do a lot of idea mulling. It might look (to my agent and publishers) like I’m doing nothing, but I think this time is very important
Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?
I think I quite enjoy rewriting. Is that perverse? I’m certainly not a perfectionist, but I do like things that are ‘well made’. And I like that quality in writing. Sometimes rewriting can destroy the magic of a passage, but more often than not it improves things.
Have you ever belonged to a writers’ group? If so, did it help?
When I was just starting out I joined a writers workshop for people who wanted to write for children. It still exists and is run by Elizabeth Hawkins. I found it really helpful. Everybody comments on everybody else’s work. Criticism has developed a very negative connotation in recent times, but I’m one of those people who loves to receive criticism. I love to give it too. Not everyone can take it.
Do you have an agent?
I do. But it wasn’t till after several of my books had been published that I acquired one. It is still common to get published without one.
Why do you like writing for children?
I don’t know. But there’s big chunk of me that is still stuck back there. I write for adults too.
How do you get your ideas?
How does the bumble bee fly?
Do you draw the pictures for your books?
I don’t. I’d like to - I love drawing. But I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to be an illustrator.
What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
Read an enormous amount. Be very very critical. There are some fantastic books available and some really bad ones. Make up your own mind. Decide what you think makes a good book for children and then WRITE IT. (This last bit of the advice is very important, lots of people forget to do it)
Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
I do visits all over the UK. I have run a wide variety of writing workshops too - everything from getting started with a short story to writing for TV soaps. I can be contacted via my website - www.neilarksey.com
For a list of Neil's books in print, visit his website, www.neilarksey.com