We talk to Michael Grant about his World Book Day £1 book Dead of Night.
What was your favourite book or character as a child and why?
I was a big Hardy Boys fan, as well as Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. But I tended to be reading something more challenging at the same time, Dickens or one of those guys. Then in my teen years, it was pretty much all science fiction.
What are you currently reading?
At present I am finishing The Maltese Falcon (again), starting on part 2 of the The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, and plowing through an audiobook biography of Rasputin.
Tell us about how you work. You collaborate a lot with your wife Katherine?
We used to collaborate back in ANIMORPHS days, but not much recently, though we do consult each other. She asks me for plot solutions she never actually uses, and I tell her I need to get her advice but then never shut up long enough to hear it. So, basically your typical married couple.
And what does a typical day look like? Where do you write, and how long does it take to complete a book?
I work about 3-4 hours a day, sitting outside whenever weather allows, drinking coffee, smoking a cigar, often with earplugs in and playing some band like Rancid. Then I keep doing that till I’m done, which for a 400-500 page manuscript takes from 3 to 6 months depending on what domestic crises have erupted.
You’ve written over 150 books. What do you do in your spare time – if you have any?!
Other than writing, I spend time obsessing over politics, which should be even more interesting with a nasty, ridiculous man-baby in the White House (can you guess who I voted for?). Sometimes I binge watch TV or go down the YouTube or Wikipedia rabbit hole, just following links and asking questions, making up for my lack of formal education. My embarrassing vice, I suppose, is that I am addicted to British game shows. I could watch David Mitchell and Lee Mack on Would I Lie To You? for six weeks straight. WILTY, QI (both Stephen and Sandi), 8 out of 10, Buzzcocks, Taskmaster, Only Connect, HIGNFY, yeah, I’ve got it bad. I quite like the cheeky cruelty, and the little-guy-punching-upward attitudes in British humor. Sorry, I mean of course, humour. Because it’s better with an unnecessary ‘u’. I am also a big fan of Grand Tour, the Amazon replacement for Top Gear. Yes, Clarkson’s a bit of an idiot, but he’s funny and interesting and I like cars.
You’re called ‘the evil genius of YA fiction’ on your website. Do you think it’s important for young people to be confronted with darkness and horror? Why do you think your books are so popular with fans?
I have the same approach to YA as I have to driving, to whit that a 50 mile an hour speed limit obviously means 65. Probably not 70, but definitely 65. If I sense that there is some kind of implied limit in YA, I’ll always go just a wee bit further.
As for popularity, I don’t know. My approach is to write about kids, but not as if I’m writing to kids. If I want to talk down to teenagers I’ve got two of my own, right here at home; I never talk down to readers.
How did you get started as a writer?
My wife made me. We were in our 30’s, in all kinds of trouble, broke, without future, losers with a capital ‘L’. We were cleaning homes and offices, scraping the brown stains out of people’s toilets. For some reason my wife did not enjoy this lifestyle and said, “Let’s get careers.” So we did.
Why did you decide to writing YA, over younger children or adults?
Well, I may soon be writing some adult-directed stuff, but kids are more fun. Writing for adults I can toss off more cultural or political references, which is helpful; but writing for kids I can trust their imaginations to keep up and if anything, leap ahead. It’s like having them do half the work. As for much younger readers, well, I just wrote a scene in a yet-to-come book that involved a giant version of the Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar being blown apart by a Royal Navy destroyer. If I did that in a book for five year-olds I think I might get some sharply-worded emails from parents.
Any advice for other budding writers?
Sure. Listen to all the lessons, read all the books, but in the end the fact is no one can teach you to write because we all do it differently, and you’re going to have to figure out how it works for you.
What’s the best part of being a writer?
You mean aside from a short work day, complete control over my own schedule, relatively high pay, reasonably high status and the ability to show up for work in sweat pants and a pizza-stained t-shirt? I’m sorry, did you need more?
Tell us about your World Book Day £1 book, Dead of Night, that readers will be able to redeem their World Book Day token against. It’s a spin-off from Front Lines…?
I am very inexperienced in shorter fiction. (Cue wry laughter from people who got through all 3000 pages of the Gone series.) So I started with a familiar template and basically told a version of A Christmas Carol, where our heroine is visited by the ghosts of War, past, present and future. But don’t worry, unlike Mr. Dickens I made it much bloodier.
Front Lines is a real departure from Gone. What was it about WWII that caught your imagination? Have you always been a bit of a history buff?
I’m interested in history as the backstory of the character called homo sapiens. If you want to understand where X is today, it’s helpful to know where X was yesterday and last month and ten years ago. WWII is just a great story. I realise that’s a small word to encompass what was millions of stories and indeed 60 million lost lives, but as pure story it’s amazing. That much story is just like a great big toy I get to play with. And the time and place let me also talk about gender and race and religion in a context where such considerations can be broken up by lots of shooting and running around.
Are the gender debates we’re currently witnessing in world politics and business influences on the book?
Of course the world affects me, and to some extent what I write, but I’m often impatiently waiting for the world to catch up. Women in combat? Read the character Rachel, from ANIMORPHS. We were writing very bad-ass girls back in the 90’s. It’s not exactly news to me that women can be tough, determined, brutal, ruthless, even cruel – after all, I’ve been married for 37 years. Joke! It’s a joke!
What’s next for you?
Next up the thing I said I’d never do: a sequel (kind of) to the Gone series. The first book will be called Monster. Basically, I want to create a whole new approach to a superhero universe. So I’m setting it in the GONE universe four years later. Now what happened in the Fayz is getting worse, and it’s spreading across the globe. Run for your lives! Coming end of September, I think. And of course Silver Stars, the second book in the Front Lines trilogy is out like right now! Go get it! Now! Silver Stars follows our girls through Sicily and Italy. We’ve got crazy, raging battles, and incredible courage, and victory and loss, and pain and suffering . . . all the stuff that makes war ever so much fun.