Happy Book Birthday to The Case of the Exploding Brains! Sarah Naughton interviews Rachel Hamilton
Happy Book Birthday, Rachel! The Case of the Exploding Brains is published today. It’s a sequel to The Case of the Exploding Loo, and follows 12 year old brainbox sleuth Noelle Hawkins as she tries to solve another bizarre mystery, this time involving a Moon Rock (which turns out not to be). Did you enjoy writing it as much as the first one?
I loved writing my first book because I just sat on the sofa with my laptop for a few months and made myself laugh. The Case of the Exploding Brains was even more fun because I left the sofa (only temporarily, obviously) and pulled my favourite people into the process. I began by dragging my sister and cousin around the London Science Museum trying to figure out how we’d steal the Moon Rock. Then, after I’d sketched out an outline, I returned to the museum with my kids and their friends to find funny ways to bring the story to life. By the time I actually put pen to paper, there wasn’t much left to do.
Is it hard to try and be funny all the time, even when the car’s broken down and the cat’s gone missing and you’ve run out of cake?
One thing I NEVER joke about is running out of cake! I’m getting palpitations just thinking about it. Seriously, though (admittedly, seriousness is not at all funny, but I think it would be exhausting for both me and everyone around me if I tried to be funny all the time), humour is my default setting in a crisis. Even the worst scenarios in the world have a funny side.
Your first book was extremely well reviewed and was shortlisted for several prizes. Was that the high point of being a writer so far, and if not, what’s been your best bit?
It has been the most amazing year of my life, so it’s hard to pick a ‘best bit’, but I think the highlight for me has been the way kids have responded to the book. I’ve been thrilled by the lovely emails and notes from readers. But I have to confess my favourites are the slightly-less-lovely ones because they make me giggle. I loved ten-year-old Joe’s indignant protest, ‘your book is ridiculous’ (he’s right) and Raghav’s wonderful review of my visit: “We were expecting a real old lady, but to my surprise she was about my mother’s age”. Brilliant.
You describe yourself as silly, but the book is actually pretty clever. Especially the bit about nitrogen in the blood boiling and causing fluid to breach the blood/brain barrier. You’re actually a total nerd aren’t you?
Haha. Sprung. Although I prefer the term ‘seeker of knowledge’.
Do you pretend not to be so as not to suffer the same fate of being chronically misunderstood as Noelle? Is this from personal childhood experience?
I am happy to confess to being an utter nerd. I love random factoids and did disgustingly well at school. I’m sure all the cool kids hated me, but as I never knew who the cool kids were, I didn’t notice.
However, despite having book-smarts, I have no life skills whatsoever, so the silliness isn’t an act. I’m utterly incapable of doing anything practical (it took me eight tests to get my driving license, last time I tried to sew on a button I sewed the shirt to the jeans I was wearing. And my cooking is usually accompanied by vomiting noises from small children)
My favourite character in Exploding Brains is poor old Smokin’ Joe. Who’s yours and is it based on someone you know?
I have a big soft spot for mum. I can empathise with her preference for a life spent on the sofa. My favourite character to write was Ma Slater and her frying pan of pain.
You actually used to work in a prison. Was that experience as funny as it sounds in the book?
It was a prison for male sex-offenders. So, not really! Although there were a few surreal moments that made me giggle, like the day I got into a childish argument with a large and angry prisoner because I’d accidentally used his favourite coffee cup. Also, everyone thinks I’m joking when I say I left because I was invited on a training course called ‘what to do when taken hostage’. I’m not.
What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?
Am I allowed three? I can’t narrow it down to one – Not Now Bernard by David McKee, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I’m not sure if I can count Tatum Flynn’s debut novel, D’Evil Diaries, as it’s not out yet but that would be up there too.
How many more mysteries will there be for Noelle to solve?
I’m currently writing the third mystery, but I also have lots of other ideas buzzing around in my head so who knows what will pop out next.
Due to mysterious circumstances involving Dorset postal shenanigans I didn’t get the book in time to finish it before this interview, but it’s a complex and skilfully handled mystery and I have no idea whodunnit. Are you a fan of mystery thrillers for adults, and if not, what type of books do you read for pleasure?
The books I usually find myself reading for pleasure tend to fall into 3 categories – funny books, mystery books, and books full of science facts (*nerd alert*). Maybe my next mystery could feature Noelle researching the science behind the Dorset postal service.
Thanks Rachel. Good luck with the launch, and save me a bit of Book Birthday cake!
Rachel Hamilton is a graduate of both Oxford University and Cambridge University and has put her education to good use by working in an advertising agency, a comprehensive school, a men’s prison and on a building site.
She developed a passion for story-telling as a long-suffering English teacher, when she discovered it was the best way to get her students to stop talking and listen to her. Rachel divides her time between the UK and Dubai, creating funny books for 9 to 13 year-olds and encouraging kids to be proud of the things that make them unique. After winning a prize in the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition at the 2013 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, she received an offer of representation by London agent, Luigi Bonomi, followed by a two book deal with Simon and Schuster. Rachel loves to make people laugh, especially when it’s intentional rather than accidental.
Sarah Naughton is the author of two books for young adults: Costa shortlisted The Hanged Man Rises, about possession and child murder in Victorian London: and The Blood List, featuring witches and changelings and a very nasty little brother. She lives in London with her husband and two sons. You can find out what she’s up to on her blog, or follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.