Monday 26 April 2010

*** Interview with Jon Mayhew (author of Mortlock)

Back in February I published my review of Jon Mayhew's brilliant new horror book Mortlock. Back then I described is as "a dark and twisted horror story in a glorious Victorian setting; it is so good that I am still struggling to believe that this is Jon Mayhew's debut novel." And it would appear that I am not alone in thinking that this book is brilliant. It is receiving rave review after rave review across the blogosphere, and the Observer selected it as their Children's Book of the Month for April. You should also visit the book's great new website to find out more about Jon and his work.

Jon is very busy promoting Mortlock at the moment, but he kindly took time out to answer a few questions for The Book Zone. 

How would you describe Mortlock to a potential reader?

Mortlock is an exciting, adrenalin-surge of a story based in the dark streets of Victorian London. Josie and Alfie dodge, battle and flee from flesh-eating crow-like witches in a struggle to find the Amarant, the flower of life and its owner Mortlock. Only then can they stop the evil Lord Corvis and the crow-like ghuls from using the Amarant to comdemn the world to a living death.

You obviously have a strong interest in, maybe even a passion for the Victorian era. What is it about this period of time that appeals to you?

We often think of the Victorian Era as a civilised time when charity reigned and manners were everything but life was hard then. London and all major cities were rife with disease and crime. Going out on the streets could be an adventure and one you might not survive!

But it was the point at which things began to change and so you can see elements of our modern world forming. In one scene, Josie talks about the possibility of underground railways as a solution to the traffic congestion that was strangling London. Nothing changes really.

Whilst reading Mortlock the Victorian setting really came alive for me. How did you go about researching the book?

Some of it was from online sources like Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London other was looking at artefacts of the day, clothes, hearses all kinds of things. Ackroyd’s London: A Biography was important too but I think that a lot of it was ‘hard-wired’ into me. I’m of an age when I can remember the thick smogs that used to blow up over the Mersey where I grew up. My Grandmother was a Victorian and I can remember her attitudes. In fact Josie wakes up on a sofa, a battered old thing stuffed with horsehair. I remember sitting on one just like that at my Nan’s. And I can’t escape the influence of Hammer horror films which crystallised the stereotyped Victorian foggy street scene.

Did you research any real events, legends, or myths to get ideas?

Initially, I ploughed through a lot of London Illustrated News articles to drop into the story but they didn’t really stay. I did research London stage magicians of the time and one is mentioned in the early chapters. No myths or legends but of course, the ballads that permeate the story were important to me. I do believe that if you want to talk to the dead, listen to their music and song. You learn so much as well as discovering that they loved a gory, spooky tale as much as we do.

Who are your greatest literary influences?

Dickens is one. I love A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. The Signal Man is a super creepy story. I also love the strong tradition of English Ghost Stories, MR James for example. The first novel I wrote tried to include creatures and ghosts from many of his stories. Being an English teacher by original profession, I love a lot of children’s literature. Holes by Louis Sachar and Skellig by David Almond are strong favourites of mine but I love Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls too. Eoin Colfer and Darren Shan are firm favourites as well.

Are you a fan of horror literature? Do you have any favourites?

I’m a total coward. I remember reading the original short story that inspired the film The Fly and not being able to sleep for days after. The ghost stories of MR James make me shiver as I’ve said. My all time favourite story is The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs. So understated and it seems clich├ęd now but it is so powerful and turns your imagination against you.

I know you grew up watching the Hammer Horror films. What made these films so special for you?

Looking back now, they were so corny but they used to terrify me. Midnight sessions watching Dracula and Frankenstein followed by the panicky dash from my mate’s house back to mine used to leave me in a right state! I loved the characters, the over-the-top settings. They were the real horror stories of their time and great fun.

What do you think it is that draws so many young people to horror books?

I think imagination has a purpose when we used to squat at waterholes looking warily around us for the prowling sabretooth we needed our imaginations to keep us alive. What kept us out of those darker caves? Our imagination. What stopped us from wandering into the dark forest at night? Our imagination. Kids love to connect with that primal sense of threat and danger, it’s only natural.

Horror stories, by their very nature, often contain some degree of violence and Mortlock has some pretty gory moments – how do you gauge the right level of violence in your stories?

Erm… I’m not sure really. I don’t think there’s a need to go over the top with graphic description. Shan usually drops in one hideously graphic scene in a book and then gets on with the plot. It’s not an endless gorefest. I suppose I ask myself if I’d be comfortable with my own children reading a scene. Much of the violence is implied in Mortlock rather than full on description. Apart from the bag of entrails of course…

Have you ever come up with anything so wild that you scared yourself?

There is one thing I wrote which lingered in my mind but that doesn’t crop up in any of the Gothic stuff. I try to keep it reasonable, remembering that I’m a total wuss myself when it comes to scarey stuff.

Do you have time to read any of the many books for children that are published these days? If so, are there any other books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?

I try to read as much as I can which never seems enough these days. I have so many unfinished books. I love the Demonata series by Darren Shan, particularly Demon Thief. Eoin Colfer too, I love Artemis Fowl. I also enjoy Chris Priestly’s stuff, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, which carries on that great tradition of telling ghost stories. Kate Thompson’s New Policeman is great as well. Devil’s Kiss by my mate Sarwat Chadda is a good read for older followers of the blog.

Mortlock is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of books set in the same Victorian era – what can we expect from you in the future?

The next offering is The Demon Collector which involves a young man called Edgy Taylor who gets involved with the intrigue and adventure in the Royal Society of Daemonologie, nearly dying in the process.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of this blog?

Just thanks for taking the time to read this and if you haven’t read Mortlock yet, get out there and do so before the ghuls get you!

A big thank you to Jon for providing us with some great answers to my questions. I agree with Jon - if you have not yet read Mortlock then get your hands on a copy as soon as you can. Coming up in the next day or two I will also be giving you a chance to win one of two signed copies of Mortlock so please watch this space.

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