A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Dan Smith is a writer whose enthusiasm for survival and adventure is infectious. Talking with Dan recently, his conversation took in references to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and of course, the process of writing Big Game, his novelisation of the recent hit movie starring Samuel L Jackson. Dan’s latest project is Boy X, a breakneck jungle-based action adventure. Intense and gripping, Boy X follows the trials and tribulations of young Ash as he fights his way across the mysterious interior of an unidentified and isolated island, seeking a way out. But this is Dan Smith, folks. So things are never going to be what they seem…
M: Summarise Boy X for us in a paragraph, Dan!
D: My ‘elevator pitch’? Right, I’ve been practicing! Ash McCarthy is drugged and kidnapped and wakes up in a seemingly deserted research black site on a remote tropical island. He discovers that he has just 24 hours to cross the island, rescue his mum, and prevent a deadly virus from being released into the world. But this is no ordinary island – it is the result of years of unchecked genetic research, where the flora and fauna are unlike anywhere else in the world, and Ash begins to notice changes in himself . . .
M: Brilliant! When we last spoke you described your writing process. It struck me that you enjoy the freedom of seat-of-the-pants making it up as you go along far more than, say, plotting every chapter in minute detail. How do you find – excuse the phrase – ‘pantsing’ rather than ‘plotting’?
D: ‘Pantsing’ is such a horrible word! But yes, I do enjoy the freedom of making up a story as I go along, which is why I always find it so difficult to pitch story ideas for books before I’ve actually written them. I usually have a rough idea of what the story will be about, who the main characters will be, and where the story might go, but that’s about it. Writing the first draft is me telling myself the story, enjoying the twists and turns and unexpected surprises. I did once start a chapter by chapter plan for a book, but the further I progressed, the more I realized that when I had the detailed plan, I would know everything that was going to happen and . . . well, where would be the fun in actually writing the book?
M: So, tell us about the gestation period for Boy X – where it began and how it changed as you conceived of it, thought it through and then committed it to paper.
D: Ah, well, this is the thing about not planning! I often end up changing the story – adding something here, taking something away from there. Boy X started life as a straightforward jungle adventure in which Ash McCarthy has just 24 hours to save the world, but it needed higher stakes, so I came up with the idea of the island being unlike any place on earth – and what is more exciting than a mysterious island full of strange creatures and weird plants? But still my fantastic editor at Chicken House wanted more, so I came up with the idea of the island having an effect on Ash McCarthy himself. That was a little more tricky because I wanted to ‘enhance’ Ash, but not make him some kind of invincible super-awesome action-adventure machine! It was important to me that Ash remain vulnerable.
M: You’ve mentioned the way time works in this novel before now – each chapter featuring a dramatic, tense countdown. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like plotting and writing within such a strict and tight time scale?
D: I thought it would be easy. Countdown? No problem, I can do that. Except that the original draft of Boy X was too long and I had to do some serious cutting which meant that all my timings ended up all over the place. It became quite a task to rein it all back in again so that things were happening at the right time. I have my copy-editor to thank for a lot of this work – she produced a fantastic timeline which helped to put everything right!
M: Setting always seems so important in your books – ideas of the wild, particularly of a young protagonist facing something threatening and mysterious. Where does this fascination come from, do you think?
D: Setting is always, always a big deal for me. It’s usually the first thing that comes to me when I get an idea for a story. I think it’s because setting does so much to provide the tone for a story, and a great setting can immediately suck the reader into the story. I’m particularly drawn to wild settings because they can provide situations where protagonists have to use their wits and their courage to survive – they can’t just pick up their mobile phone and call for help. A lot of this probably comes from my own upbringing – growing up in places like the Far East and in a very remote area of Brazil meant that I had my own fair share of adventures. Oh, and the setting for my next book is awesome!! Just saying.
M: Excellent! Your protagonists always strike me as interesting – resourceful but vulnerable too. Tell us a little bit about how you created Ash McCarthy.
D: Thanks very much! I hope they’re interesting. I definitely wanted Ash to start his story as a vulnerable character who is thrown into a dangerous situation. After all, if a character isn’t vulnerable, why would we fear for them? I also wanted Ash to become stronger as he faces up to his fear. I have the belief that people are often much stronger than they think they are, and I wanted that to shine through with Ash McCarthy. I wanted him to show his bravery not by being unafraid, but by doing what needs to be done despite being afraid. And when the island begins to have its effect on him, I wanted to be sure that there would be a downside to that as well as an upside! I see Boy X as Ash McCarthy’s origin story – maybe another book will show what happens next for him, or maybe not, but his story continues in my imagination for now . . .
M: And finally – anything we should look out for in Boy X? A scene or section you want to mention, something you found challenging or joyful to write – or a secret you’d like to reveal about the book or the writing process?
D: Actually, I had a blast writing all of it – the helicopter crashes, the bugs, the river crossing, the zip-line, the virus, the silent terror of Thorn, the monkeys, the spider, the bunker, type 24, HEX13, the monstrous creatures . . . what’s not to love? I had a lot of fun writing the early section too, where Ash and Isabel have to make their way through the research facility in total darkness, while stalked by a terrible, terrible killer. I had to cut quite a lot from this section for the final version which might be a good thing – when my ten year old son read it the first time, in its entirety, it gave him nightmares! I still feel bad about that. A bit.
M: Thanks Dan – great answers, and a really gripping advert for the book itself, out today!
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Growing up, Dan Smith led three lives. In one he survived the day-to-day humdrum of boarding school, while in another he travelled the world, finding adventure in the padi-fields of South East Asia and the jungles of Brazil. But the third life he lived in a world of his own, making up stories . . . which is where some people say he still lives most of the time!
Now settled in Newcastle with his wife and two children, Dan writes his stories to share with both adults and children.
Dan’s first book for younger readers, MY FRIEND THE ENEMY, was long-listed for the Branford Boase 2014 and shortlisted for the NE Book Award 2014. It was published in the US in Fall 2014. MY BROTHER’S SECRET was published in the UK in 2014 and will be published later in the US. Early 2015 saw the UK publication of BIG GAME, to be followed by worldwide publication in over 24 countries. The movie, starring Samuel L Jackson, was released in May 2015. Dan’s latest book is BOY X, out from Chicken House now.
Martin Griffin writes sci-fi and fantasy adventures for young readers. His debut novel, THE POISON BOY, won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition in 2012 and somehow managed to get shortlisted for Staffordshire Young Teen Fiction Award, the North East Book Award, the Leeds Book Award, the Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year, the Kent Themed Book Award and the Branford Boase Award, without winning any of them. A teacher at the time, he wrote using the name Fletcher Moss to keep it secret from his students. He returns to his real name for his second novel, LIFERS, a super-dark contemporary prison-break adventure, his first novel for teen readers. Martin lives in Manchester with his wife and child.