Some time ago I received a very exciting email from the lovely people at HarperCollins Children's Books, inviting me to an exclusive pre-publication launch event for Department 19 by Will Hill. If you have been following my blog for a while then you will no doubt have noticed that I am a huge fan of this debut horror thriller; if you are new to The Book Zone then you can read my review at http://bookzone4boys.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-department-19-by-will-hill.html
Since I started The Book Zone I have been invited to a number of events, but as a teacher I have not been able to attend many of them as they were either too early in the day (teachers can't take time off work), or they clashed with a parents' evening at school. A quick glance at my calendar brought an ecstatic whoop and a simultaneous sigh of relief - I was free, and come what may I was going to be there on the night!
Thanks to the fantastic directions sent to me by Geraldine Stroud, publicity director at HC, I managed to navigate myself out of the maze that is Hammersmith and up the road to the impressive HarperCollins building where I was warmly welcomed by a smiling team from HC, and also the lovely Mary Byrne, a leading figure in children's books PR in the UK, working with the likes of Darren Shan, Derek Landy and now Will Hill. I was taken straight up to the fourth floor media room where a much needed cold beer somehow found itself in my hand. I recognised a few faces (mainly from their Twitter photos), and very soon found myself chatting with Darren who runs the brilliant Bart's Bookshelf, and then Jenny from Wondrous Reads, both people I have been conversing with over Twitter for many months.
And then Will Hill arrived. Not with some great fanfare of trumpets, or with Carl Orff's O Furtuna from Carmina Burana piped through hidden speakers (although given the content of Department 19 this would, I feel, have been wholly appropriate) - no, he just casually walked in, accompanied by the legend that is Nick Lake, editorial director at HC and also author of the brilliant Blood Ninja (and I mentally kicked myself for not having brought my copy along for him to sign). As soon as I felt it polite to do so I excused myself from the group I was chatting with and went over to introduce myself. I felt quite nervous as Mary Byrne had already told me that Will was really looking forward to meeting me - surely that should be the other way around?! However, I managed not to become all gushing or fanboy irritating during the next ten minutes before the presentation started; Will was charming, enthusiastic and just a really nice guy in general, although maybe I shouldn't say that given the blood-soaked content of Department 19.
Once we were all sat down (me on the front row seat that I had managed to bag as soon as I arrived), we were shown a short promo video and then Will and Nick were introduced by HC Marketing Director Alison Ruane, who explained that HC they "thrive on finding and nurturing new talent, and in Will Hill we have exactly that", and then it was over to Nick Lake on conversation with Will Hill. Nick Lake explained that he had first read Department 19 about 18 months earlier, and then stated that there were only two books in his relatively brief publishing career where he has read the first ten pages, and then immediately felt that he had to buy and publish that book - if I tell you that the first one was Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy then you will know that this is praise indeed for Department 19. Nick also described it as "genuinely the best teen thriller I have ever read", causing me to let our a small sigh of relief as I had said pretty much the same thing in my own review of the book (as a reviewer it is always nice to know that your feelings about a book are shared by others). And then it was over to Will who gave us a brief introduction into how the story came to be:
"...when I was 13 I had this image of a boy basically finding his dad being shot in the garden of his home". That image stayed with him for a long time, but ultimately became the central story of Department 19: "a boy whose father is killed for reasons that he has no real understanding of, who survives for two years very lonely and bullied and very unhappy, only to find himself attacked by a girl....and finds him mum attacked by something even worse. He is rescued by a creature from the annals of horror history who shouldn't really exist and finds himself drawn into a secret government department called Department 19, that had been operating for a long time in complete secrecy and had been dedicated to policing the supernatural and keeping the supernatural out of the public domain". Will went on to explain that the premise is that: "what happened in Dracula was a real account that Bram Stoker acquired from the people who were involved: Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward and Jonathan Harker, and the idea is that in the aftermath of that they were tasked with forming a group that would defend the British Empire from the possibility of any further supernatural events".
Will went on to explain that he was a big fan of horror when he was a boy, but there was little around for teenagers at that time, and he had progressed from Roald Dahl straight on to the likes of Stephen King and Clive Barker, and therefore in writing Department 19 he was filling that gap that his 13 year old self craved to be filled. Having then read Dracula and Frankenstein at the age of about 14 or 15 he was left with questions, particularly with Dracula, questions that have stuck with him for years, and now he has had the opportunity to answer in his own writing. He also wanted to reclaim the vampire from the sparkly brigade and make them scary again - and having read Department 19 I can happily confirm that he has done exactly that.
Back over to Nick who somewhat gleefully proclaimed that Will suffers from borderline insanity, as he started to show us several print outs of family trees, access codes, etc that Will had created during the writing of Department 19, going into the minutest of details to create the ancestry of characters in the book, with more than half of these ancestors never having any form of mention in the story. Will then confessed that Nick didn't know the full truth - he had actually written half page biographies on every one of these people, the reason being that ultimately by doing this it creates a sense of belief in the reader as they are drawn into the world that he has created.
Finally, before the audience were asked of they had any questions, Nick asked Will if he would give us a sneak preview of the second book in the series. Will explained that "is a bit like Empire Strikes Back, in that it starts to deliver on the some of the things that get hinted at in the first volume" and that it is "a lot darker.... the first book is a rescue mission, the second on is more a fight for survival".
The questions from the audience were rather varied, the first of which was whether Will felt that the book jacket might alienate girls. He didn't think so, but teenage boys were the core demographic at which the book was aimed, but there was a hope that word would travel and girls would still pick it up and enjoy it. Nick then chipped in that in his opinion teenage boys had been not as well catered for as teenage girls in the last five years, and there was a feeling that they wanted to show boys that here was a book for them.
Will also answered questions on how many books there would be in the series? (three, is the current plan, but this may change - he knows exactly how it will all end, but it may take longer to get there); Werewolves? (yes, and Haitian/voodoo style zombies, but no mummies); Any other post-D19 projects (yes, and if he had to do a Hollywood pitch it would be The Exorcist meets On The Road); and then he rounded off my explaining that the vampire girl Larissa character started off as a very minor character, but then she just grew and grew until she became a key character, and also the somewhat bizarre love interest for hero Jamie. To wrap up we ere then shown a short and scary promo video that will play a part in the marketing campaign - watch this space to see it coming very soon.
After the presentation was over Will very kindly signed copies of the finished hardcover edition for everyone (this after having signed 1500 copies earlier in the day), and I also managed to get him to sign the proof copy that I received back in September. I had the chance to have brief chats with several other members of the HarperCollins team, where I was informed they were planning a Department 19 blog tour - again, watch this space for more news of this. My thanks go to Geraldine Stoud and Alison Ruane and their team for putting on a great event for us bloggers and librarians, to Nick Lake for his questioning, and of course to Will Hill for taking the time to talk to me about his work, and for signing my books. Department 19 is released on the 31st March and is perfect reading for action or horror loving boys aged 12+. If you like some of the images from this post then head on over to http://www.department19exists.com/ where you can download them as wallpapers, see some great images of weapons from the story and read an extract book.