Q/A with Jacob Sager Weinstein

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Jacob Sager Weinstein is the author of four non-fiction books for adults and has written for The New Yorker, HBO and the BBC. He is also a former contributor to The Onion and has won a Writers’ Guild of America Award. We caught up with Jacob as he prepares to publish the first book in his trilogy for children, The City of Secret Rivers. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

Your biography states, ‘I work in a very small office with a very large bookshelf.’ Which book would you grab off that bookshelf if your house was on fire?
I have a book that I borrowed from a friend I have since lost touch with. The longer I go without getting back in touch, the guiltier I feel, which makes me put off getting back in touch with them even longer. I’d probably save that borrowed book, because when I called them and said “All my books burned down, but I saved the one you loaned me,” it would be such a noble act that it would immediately undo all those years I haven’t called or emailed.

When do you find time to read?
I used to read all the time while I ate. I still read often over lunch, but for the past few years, my wife and I haven’t read at the dinner table because it didn’t seem fair to our son, who couldn’t read. However, he is now becoming an excellent reader and we sometimes have meals where we all sit in companionable silence, each immersed in our own book. I also like to read before bed, but I can’t read anything too scary or (nowadays) too political, lest it give me nightmares.

I often have a couple of books going at once. Right now, I’m halfway through the very funny The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, which my daughter recommended. I get lots of great book recommendations from her.

 I’m also reading a book called Card College, Volume 1 by the magician Roberto Giobbi in the hope of improving my sleight-of-hand skills, but I need to hold a deck of cards so I can practice while I read it, which I can’t do while I’m eating or lying in bed, so my progress has been slow.

Your debut children’s book, The City of Secret Rivers, is publishing this month. Where did the idea for it come from?
In December 2005, I learned that the Embankment – one of my favourite places in London – was built mainly to house a giant Victorian sewer pipe. I thought that such a lovely place should have a more exciting origin story, and I began imagining a massive magical conspiracy centered around London’s sewers. Research into the history of the sewers led me to the story of London’s lost rivers, which became the focus of my story.

Pretty much everything in the book has its origins in London’s real-life history and lore. For example, there really were people called “toshers” who used to scavenge through London’s sewers. In my book, they’re looking for powerful magical objects rather than dropped coins, but except for that minor change, they aren’t too different to their real-life counterparts.

 The City of Secret Rivers seems to be a bit of a love letter to London. What does London mean to you?
London may not have the highest population density in the world, but I don’t think there’s anywhere with a greater conceptual density. I challenge you to find me a corner of the city that isn’t the subject of at least one work of art, or the location of at least one significant historical event. Walking down the Strand? Samuel Johnson wrote a poem about that. Looking across Hampstead Heath? Constable painted that view. On the way to my local post office, I pass the building where the Beatles once had a disastrous audition for Decca records. When I take my kids to school, I cross over the buried river Westbourne, making its way beneath London towards the Thames. If there’s a square meter of this city that seems dull, it’s only because it hasn’t yet revealed its secrets to you.

Tell us about your route to becoming a children’s book author. You’ve previously written books for adults and for screen.
I thought my first three books featured very sophisticated humour that only university-educated adults would appreciate, but they turned out to be popular with kids. That planted the seed in my head that I should write an intentional children’s book. When my daughter was born and I started reading more children’s books, the seed blossomed.

Starting off as an accidental children’s author has some advantages. It taught me that 10-year-olds today are at least as sophisticated as I was when I graduated university. Whether that says something about kids today or me in my twenties, I don’t know! Either way, I can write at the top of my intelligence and kids will easily be able to keep up.

Was the process of writing The City of Secret Rivers any different to writing your previous books?
Yes! My previous books were pure humour, with almost no story. Not only does The City of Secret Rivers have a story, it has a huge backstory, stretching through centuries of London’s history. I had to do a lot of research and a lot of worldbuilding before I could even start. That’s probably why it took me a decade to write the first book in the series, but I was able to write book two in about a year.

What was on your playlist for this book?
While I was writing The City of Secret Rivers,  I listened endlessly to a playlist of songs with some sort of London connection. In some cases, that means they explicitly reference the city.  These songs range from a 1930s recording of Ella Shields singing Burlington Bertie From Bow to Wiley’s 2007 Bow E3. Along the way, the playlist visits the Kinks’ Denmark Street, Mary Hopkins’ Kew Gardens, Eddie Grant’s Electric Avenue, and Elvis Costello’s Hoover Factory.

Other songs are there simply because they’re sung by a performer with strong London ties — Billy Cotton, Dizzee Rascal, Amy Winehouse, and many others.

At what point did you decide to write a trilogy? Was that a deliberate decision from the outset, or did it become apparent that the adventure was too big to be contained in one book?
I originally planned The City of Secret Rivers to be a sprawling 9-book series, but over time, I compressed those nine books into a tighter, faster paced six. My agent warned me that a publisher probably wouldn’t commit to more than three books at the outset, which was something of a dilemma. The last thing I wanted to do was draw in my readers with intriguing mysteries and then leave them frustrated by ending the series halfway through.

I therefore did some fairly serious re-plotting and shaped my six books into two semi-independent trilogies. If the series ends at book 3, I hope readers will feel that I’ve answered all their questions and taken them on a complete and satisfying journey. But if there’s the demand for more books after that, I think I’ve left myself room to raise new questions, which will take my characters to unexpected and interesting places.

Events and social media are now considered a key part of promoting children’s books and engaging with young readers. How do you feel about those elements?
As of this writing, I’ve only done one school visit, but it was great and I’m looking forward to more. Social media is more of a mixed bag, since I find I write best when I can forget about the real world, and nowadays, I have to confront it straight on when I go on Twitter or Facebook. I’m sure I’ll figure it all out about two days before Twitter and Facebook become irrelevant and I have to start figuring out something entirely different.

What’s the best part of being a writer for you?
The freedom. I can work anywhere, at any time. That means I can spend a lot more time with my family than many working parents do.

And are there any down sides?
The freedom. With no external office and no regular working hours, I’m never really off the clock. That means a lot of the time I spend physically present with my family, I’m secretly engaged in animated conversations with imaginary people.

Tell us something about you that will surprise or shock us.
I spent eight years in jail for masterminding an elaborate heist to steal the Crown Jewels. (Hey, you asked me to tell you something shocking. You never said I had to tell you something true.)

What’s next for you?
I’m finishing up my first draft of Book 3 in the Secret Rivers series. Once that’s off to my editor, I’m going to turn my attention to a picture book idea I have. I’ve written the text, but it involves some complicated paper engineering, and I need to build a prototype to convey how it’s supposed to work. So if you see me hunched over some complex gadget, it’s definitely for a picture book, and not part of a new and even more elaborate plan to steal the Crown Jewels. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go assemble a ragtag team of criminals with individual specialities in alarm disabling, stone carving, and raven taming. For, er, picture book purposes.

Follow Jacob on Twitter @jacobsw

The City of Secret Rivers by Jacob Sager Weinstein is available from 1st June 2017, published by Walker.