How would you describe your book Justin Thyme to potential readers?
The first part of an interactive time-travel whodunit series aimed at readers aged nine and above.
What was the original inspiration for Justin Thyme?
Having gained a reputation for creating complex picture-puzzle books, I’d long toyed with the idea of doing something similar but with a novel, hiding clues in the text rather than the illustrations. However, the right “vehicle” for this idea hadn’t presented itself. Then, one day, a documentary about the 9/11 disaster, (which mentioned how a man returned an unwanted gift that morning and so escaped), led to a discussion about family history, in which I discovered ancestors whose lives had altered dramatically as a result of the most insignificant decisions.
Shortly afterwards, Justin stepped into in my mind and started explaining his own theory about the random influence of Chance, the orderly nature of Time, and how the two are inseparably linked – Tartan Theory. He later showed me around his ancestral home, as well as introducing me to his eccentric family – and I knew, at once, I’d found the project I’d been searching for.
Am I right in thinking you have planned this to be the first book of a four-part series? If so, did you plan the complete story arc when you wrote the first book?
Yes. Time travel plots tend to be non-linear. Therefore before writing a single word of the first book, not only did I plan a complete story-arc in meticulous detail, but I also wanted a thorough knowledge of events both before and afterwards. So, although the story I’m telling takes place during the summer Justin turns thirteen, I got to know five generations of the Thyme family (and friends) and plotted out their interlocking lives over more than 100 years. This means that while I can complete my initial story-arc in four books, I know what happens next should I wish to continue. Even if this in-depth material is never shared with readers, it’s still very valuable to me, as it enables me to write the characters from a thoroughly informed standpoint. I really know what makes each of them tick.
Can you tell us more about the hidden clues contained within the book?
Mmm ... part of me wants to say: Hidden clues? What hidden clues? Primarily, JT is a novel, and can be enjoyed on that level alone. Traditional clues are seeded throughout the narrative, so that all readers can solve the mystery in the usual way.
However, I also wanted to offer something different – something that would allow readers, to become detectives themselves, should they so choose. Therefore, I hid a variety of cryptic clues and secret messages, which, if found and solved, might enable them to identify the “whodunit” ahead of Justin. (Most people seem to read the story right through first, then re-read it, specifically looking for the hidden elements). Concealed clues vary from overtly obvious to deviously difficult, so they work on one level for younger readers, whilst remaining sufficiently challenging for adults. (Interestingly, with sharp eyes and open minds, kids are often better at spotting clues than many grown-ups!)
Not all the hidden clues are specific to book one; some hint at future plot developments in the series. Again, these vary in complexity; the easiest offering tantalizing possibilities, whilst the more complex might reveal surprising secrets. Of course, some readers will be content to let the story gradually unfold – but for others, these hidden elements are like secret bonus levels in a game; not essential, but well worth the extra effort!
How did you manage to keep track of the hidden clues and the time travel elements?
Exhaustive notes! I have a bulging ring-file, two box-files, several hand-written notebooks, charts, drawings, timelines, calendars, and hundreds of pages of typed characters notes. I also have an annotated copy of JT itemizing every hidden clue in book one, all colour-coded to remind me which book in the series they point to.
You have created some great characters in the book. Do you have a favourite?
Really that’s a bit like asking if someone has a favourite child. Judging from reader feedback, the most popular characters seem to be either Eliza, a gorilla who can communicate using a computer, or Mrs Kof, a cook of ambiguous gender with a knack for malapropisms. As much as I adore these two, and have a lot in common with Justin, it’s his father, Sir Willoughby, Laird of Thyme, who interests me the most.
It is no secret that Panama Oxridge is not your real name. Why did you choose to publish the book under a pseudonym?
Using a pseudonym was partly to distance myself from my previous picture-book persona – partly because (like Justin), I’ve never liked my name – but mostly because I think it helps the reader connect with the story. How? Well, whenever I read a book I always hear the author’s voice in my head; obviously not their real voice – but an impression based on their writing-style, vocabulary and humour. If that voice is vivid enough, I might even “see” the person telling me the story – and their name often helps contribute to that image. But if I find the author’s photo or learn too much about them, that image and voice may be affected – sometimes destroyed. My enjoyment of the book suffers because I’ve lost my personal storyteller.
With JT, I wanted to provide readers with an ambiguous name and a hidden face, allowing them to form their own imaginary narrator. It’s quite fascinating how many people make immediate assumptions about gender based on little verifiable evidence (something I demonstrate in JT).
You are also the illustrator of the book. How rewarding was this for you?
Normally, most publishers give an author no say in their book’s design. In some respects I envy writers who send their manuscripts off and wait to see how the cover art and illustrations turn out. That must make their first glimpse of the finished book very exciting. However, although there are no wonderful surprises when you do the artwork yourself, there are no unpleasant shocks either. There’s nothing worse than seeing your imaginary world reinvented by someone who sees it very differently. From then on, readers’ interpretations will, inevitably, be influenced by flawed visuals. But when a writer illustrates their own work, readers get an accurate representation of the author’s true internal vision. That being said, most of the illustrations in JT are of things: letters, scraps of newspaper, Justin’s watch etc – I wanted readers to imagine the characters for themselves.
Did you create the illustrations as you progressed or do them once you had finished the writing?
Nearly all the illustrations are roughed-out as I write each chapter. Once the first draft of the story is complete, I redo the pictures properly before redrafting, although I may also make further amendments when finalising the layout. Only once the final draft is complete, can I create the full wraparound design of the dust-jacket (implanting any clues).
The way you have illustrated the title of the book is pretty special. Can you tell us something about ambigrams?
I discovered ambigrams several years ago, and the concept instantly appealed to me as an illustrator. For those who don’t already know, an ambigram is a word or phrase that can be read from two different angles, (ambi = both, gram = word). While designing JT, I realised this would perfectly convey how the mystery can be solved in two different ways. I also wanted to custom design a watch that Justin, (who, like me, never wears one), would be unable to resist. However, turning his name into an ambigram was a major challenge, especially as one word has six letters, the other, five!
Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series and when it might be published?
Not long to wait! If all goes according to plan, book two in the series: “????? - ??????? - ???” will be published autumn 2011. The story begins two weeks after “Justin Thyme” ended, or three hundred and forty-one years before it started, depending on your point of view. All the original characters return – plus one or two new ones. It’s almost impossible to give any hints about book two without creating spoilers for book one … but I’ll reveal a few chapter titles, and let readers of JT draw their own conclusions: “Card Tricks” – “Kof Drops” – “Eliza Goes Bananas” – “Back in Thyme” – and “Memento Mori”.
Which books/authors did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today?
Generally, in terms of quality and variety, modern children’s novels are light-years ahead of almost anything from my childhood. However, I think picture-book art has become stylistically bland and samey. My earliest book memories are of Beatrix Potter. Her whimsical work certainly influenced my desire to illustrate – and our lives have had several parallels. “Winnie the Pooh” and “Paddington Bear” were a big part of my childhood; I loved their humour. The “Borrowers” books by Mary Norton were also firm favourites. I don’t recall any books for teens. At the age of eleven I began reading adult’s books: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh started my fondness of whodunits, PG Wodehouse for humour, and Gerald Durrell, particularly “My Family and Other Animals” (which I’ve probably re-read every year since), for eccentric characters.
If you could time travel when/where would you go to and why?
Oddly enough, I’d rather stay at home. If there’s one thing Justin has taught me, it’s that time travel is not only risky, but can cause more problems than it solves. I’m not even a fan of travelling through the three standard dimensions of space, (I don’t have a car). I’m one of those stereotypical authors who prefer staying safely at home whilst sending their imaginary characters off on adventures. And who needs a time machine when you have books; reading can take me to every corner of the globe in the past, present or future ... and all without leaving my armchair!
If there is one question you would love an interviewer to ask you about your work, what is it? And what would the answer be?
Using interesting words is important to me, so, I guess I’d like to be asked about the mini-dictionary I’ve included in JT. Teachers often encourage their pupils to choose books that expand their vocabulary, but few young readers want to wade through a huge dictionary every time they happen upon an unfamiliar word. Therefore “Justin Thyme” briefly defines more than 450 of its most challenging words at the back of the book. This ensures no young reader need ever feel out of his or her depth. Feedback from teachers, librarians and home-schoolers has been very positive, and this is something I hope to continue throughout the series.
Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?
Thank you, Book Zone, for such interesting questions – and, if you’ve just read this interview, I thank you too; after all, that’s five minutes of your life you’re never getting back!
And a huge thanks to Panama for such detailed answers, especially when I know you have been feeling a little flu-ey recently. I am sure all of my readers will join me in wishing you a speedy recovery.
As mentioned previously.... come back on Friday for my first birthday competition announcement.