A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Happy book birthday to The Wilderness, the sequel to The Disappeared. Rhian Ivory interviews CJ Harper to celebrate…
Rhian: Can you sum up The Wilderness in one paragraph?
CJ: After exposing the shocking truth about the Leadership, Blake and Kay are running for their lives in the Wilderness – a wasteland that the forgotten, mutilated and criminal call home. Here, in an abandoned city they find the Resistance, a group that wants to bring down the Leadership as much as they do. But the Resistance aren’t want they seem, and as Blake and Kay uncover their brutal secrets, they realise that the fight for truth and justice is going to be bloodier and harder than they ever imagined.
Rhian: That was good, so hard to do the paragraph pitch isn’t it, but you nailed it. When you started writing this story did you know how many books it would take to tell it?
CJ: When I started writing this story I was a teacher and too poor for therapy, so I wrote about strapping fictional students to their chairs and punishing them with electric shocks to help me get through the school day. I wrote The Disappeared as a standalone because I thought I only had one book’s worth of supressed rage in me, but it turns out that my enjoyment of putting teens in life-threatening situations is pretty much endless.
Rhian: Sounds like writing as a form of therapy is working for you. How about as a reader, do you prefer trilogies/duologies or stand alones yourself?
CJ: I do love a good trilogy. There’s something wonderful about getting to the end of a brilliant book and knowing that there’s more to come. Plus, if you read a really great trilogy straight through, you get that amazing sense of complete immersion in another world.
But people who leave books in a series on a cliffhanger should be made to hang off an actual cliff until the next book comes out.
Rhian: So would you say you write the kind of books you like to read?
CJ: Yes. It’s truly amazing to me that I get paid to dream up stories that I like. I used to get sent out of the classroom for doing that. (Admittedly I probably shouldn’t have started telling the stories to the rest of the class while Mr Kempton was attempting to explain the carbon cycle.)
Rhian: I can relate, spent most of my science lessons sat in S1 on my own thinking about my behaviour (not thinking about behaviour at all thinking about how I could make my school skirt shorter without getting another detention) ah happy days. So rage, teens being placed in peril, teachers despairing – I’m seeing a pattern here, why did you choose to avoid swearing directly in the novel? For example ‘King hell’ and ‘effword’, I can’t imagine teen CJ shying away from the odd swear bomb.
CJ: Some people disapprove of swearing, for example my Nan seemed very unimpressed that time my son went to visit her the day after I’d attempted to rewire our kitchen. (What can I say? He picks up new vocabulary fast.)
Also, a theme in book one (The Disappeared) is language and its power. One of the ways that the Specials in the Academy are controlled is by being deprived of vocabulary. I felt that swearing would probably be banned in Academies, but that the students would have come up with their own ways around that. (This was actually explained in an early draft, but my world-building was quite dense and I had to cut a fair bit.)
Rhian: Are there any books/films/other sources of popular culture that influenced the writing of The Wilderness?
CJ: Not exactly, but I have recently discovered Babylon 5 and I was very impressed by the increasing tension in the second series; every time you think things can’t get any worse, they do. I wanted a similar feel to the end of The Wilderness, so I tried really hard to keep ramping up the stakes.
Rhian: You certainly did that, so watching TV really is a form of research, fact.
What about music, do you listen to any when you write?
CJ: I always like to think that I can listen to music and write, but every time I try, I realise I’ve lost an hour singing along to mid 90s indie tunes.
I mean, obviously any time spent with The Manic Street Preachers isn’t a complete waste, but even I can’t pretend that it’s adding to my word count.
Rhian: I like your style.
CJ: It’s funny that I can’t listen to music because I am quite capable of working whilst listening to my children playing, which involves a lot of ‘THAT’S MINE! GIVE IT BACK OR I’LL SIT ON YOUR HEAD!’ at high volume.
Rhian: Do children come with any other volume? I’ve looked for the mute button on mine but can’t seem to locate it. Speaking of sitting on heads did you have to squash any darlings in your MS I mean not in real life!
CJ: Loads. And my darlings tend to be sweet chubby idea-babies made up of many many words, so it’s always painful to turn them out of the warm shelter of the manuscript. Sometimes I imagine I can keep bits of them to fashion new darlings, but anyone who’s ever tried to make a dolly out of spare parts will tell you that’s not a good idea.
Rhian: Were there any difficulties or surprises (apart from sitting on heads) when you began to write The Wilderness that you hadn’t experienced when writing The Disappeared?
CJ: Yeah, it’s only when you’re tied to your sequel that you think of longing of your wild and carefree times with book one. Back then if it wasn’t working out you could just start all over. Once you’re writing the sequel you’ve got responsibilities and ties. Fortunately, in a feat of organisation skill that I’m entirely unable to apply to my kitchen or handbag, I did set up some stuff in book one that plays out in book two.
Rhian: How do you plot out your novels or are you a panster?
CJ: I sort of plan. Then I just start writing whichever bit takes my fancy. I can’t imagine starting at the beginning and working through to the end. I just jump about and then sew the whole thing together. I call it the Patchwork Method. Until I’m half way through and sobbing under the table. Then I call it an unholy mess.
Rhian: I like that, CJ Harper’s The Patchwork Method, quick copyright it minus the sobbing.
Rhian: How involved are you in the cover art choices and what do you think of the cover of The Wilderness and The Disappeared?
CJ: I was asked my opinion and I’m glad to say that I love the covers. It’s a super creepy way of representing all the children whose lives have been ruined by the Leadership. One of the photos is actually of teen me. I’m slap between the C and the J on the spine. Rocking some mid 90s dark lipstick.
Rhian: Too cool for school!
Rhian: What has been the most surprising thing about the reviews and reception you’ve had for The Disappeared?
CJ: Happy red-heads. In the Academy ginger hair gives you status. Quite a few red-heads have told me how much they enjoyed that idea.
Rhian: Yes as a carrot top myself those bits made me smile. *Fistbump*
Rhian: If you could go back and change anything about The Wilderness now it’s out there in the real world what would it be?
CJ: If I started to think about that I’d have to run round the bookshops with a pen and some post-its. I have a really good process for letting my book run wild and free in the big world without wanting to change or explain it: once I’ve written the final word and dealt with the last checks, I get blind drunk and forget I ever wrote it.
Rhian: *makes notes, buys more wine* And once you’ve got over the hangover what are you going to work on next?
CJ: In the immediate future I’m going to make a sandwich, after that, I’ll be writing another book about Faith.
Rhian: Sandwiches are always a good place to start and Faith has been well received so sounds like a good plan. And talking of Faith, why have you chosen to write as CJ Harper and Candy Harper (Keep the Faith and Have a little Faith)? Was this your suggestion or your publishers?
CJ: It was my publishers’ suggestion, and I think it was a good one. The books are very different.
Rhian: So do you switch mindsets and writing styles when writing as CJ or Candy?
CJ: Yes, but I do usually write as both during any one day. When I get tired out by writing chase scenes and intricate plot twists it’s very relaxing to become a sarcastic teenager.
Rhian: If one of these writers had to go (shock horror) which would it be?
CJ: That’s like trying to choose between chocolate and cheese. I love them both. Don’t’ make me do it.
Rhian: Alright I’ll let you off if you make me a sandwich as long as it’s chocolate OR cheese.
Rhian: What would you love to write more than anything?
CJ: I would love to write A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Only, she’s sort of gone and done that.
Rhian: How very dare she?
CJ: Although, if I ever get the flux capacitor going, I think you’ll find that actually it was me who wrote A Gathering Light.
Rhian: Look out universe here comes CJ and her flux capacitor. So time machines and flux capacitors aside if you could wave a magic wand what would you like to be instead of a writer?
CJ: A dancer. But we’re going to need a pretty big magic wand.
Rhian: *Paging Harry Potter* On the topic of magic do you remember that sparkly moment when you really felt and believed ‘I am a writer’?
CJ: I was in WHSmiths looking at books and my husband said, ‘This one looks good,’ and pointed to a stack of The Disappeared. It wasn’t officially due out for another week and I was really taken by surprise. The wonderfulness of having my book in a shop just crashed down on me and I may have trampled over a few small children in my eagerness to stroke it.
Rhian: Do you write fulltime or do you have a day job too?
CJ: I’ve got full-time children. I have asked them if maybe we could work out a part-time arrangement where they spend more time sleeping or reading educational books, but they’re still hanging about. I’m sure that when the time comes for them both to go to school all day I will be very sad. I’ll no longer have anyone else to blame my procrastinating on.
Rhian: Bearing the fulltime children in mind, what’s the best time of day to write for you?
CJ: I find the half hour after I’ve guilt tripped my husband into taking the children out works well for me. I also find days when there’s so much washing up that we’re having to eat out of ramekins and measuring jugs particularly productive.
Rhian: And on that ramekin shaped bombshell thank you CJ for such an interesting chat about The Wilderness which is going to make redheads everywhere very happy.
Rhian Tracey was found on the slushpile at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The slightly quirky title of her first novel ‘When Isla meets Luke meets Isla’ caught the eye of a commissioning editor and 4 book deals followed.
Rhian is now writing as R.M.Ivory (her married name) and has recently finished her 5th novel which is about art, witches, ghosts and a river with a past. She has started on her 6th novel which will be set during World War II and the present day.
Rhian has always wanted to be a writer but was told to get a proper job, so she trained as a teacher. Rhian currently lectures in Creative Writing and Children’s literature but spends as much time as possible on her non-proper job, writing.
Rhian is represented by Kirsty McLachlan of David Godwin Associates.
CJ Harper grew up in a tiny house with a big family. She is the fourth of five sisters, which means she still eats with her arm shielding her plate. There are enough Children’s and YA books in CJ’s house to build a fort with. But she absolutely hasn’t ever skived off work to do that.