A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Though I have already spotted it in bookshops, LIFERS officially hits the shelves tomorrow. The latest YA thriller from M A Griffin, the artist formerly known as Fletcher Moss (who gave us Poison Boy in 2013), LIFERS is a dark and edgy story that is guaranteed to have wide appeal. Set in the unseen parts of an alternate version of Manchester, the story is about . . . well, maybe Martin should tell you . . .
Dan: It’s time for that elevator pitch – can you summarise LIFERS in one or two paragraphs?
Martin: Now there’s a challenge! ‘Lifers’ is a sci-fi prison-break adventure telling the story of Preston Faulkner, a Manchester schoolboy who discovers a secret research organisation running a covert government project in his neighbourhood. Our old Victorian prisons are full – the system is creaking and collapsing – but what Preston discovers is a radical new system; and it’s being tested on kids. He needs to forge an alliance with a group of feisty allies (Chloe Ellwood, daughter of a murdered politician; an old school friend Alice Wilde; an urban explorer named Ryan…) and set out to bring down the powers behind the dastardly scheme. Phew!
D: There’s some interesting tech scattered throughout the story – is any of it inspired by technology that actually exists?
M: I began by researching. Then I saw a time-travel movie called ‘Looper’. There’s a scene where one character is asked to describe the science behind the system. He refuses, claiming that if they begin a discussion, “we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” I love that. Such a neat way to sidestep info dumps. So I dropped my research, made it all up, and had my mysterious scientist utter an equivalent line when the moment came.
D: The way the teenagers talk in LIFERS, the way they interact, and the things that are important to them, feel very realistic. How much has your other life influenced your writing?
M: My ‘other life’! You’re referring here to the fact that I was a teacher for close to twenty years. You’re right of course; I’ve spent my working days listening to young people talk. I absolutely love it. At school, I appear a little David Attenborough about it; I stop conversations – “Hang on, folks. Just say that again, will you?” Once, there was a kid in my class who used the word ‘screb’. I stopped the lesson; “Wait. Quiet everyone. What was that word?” I had my planner out, taking notes. They think it’s hilarious. From moments like that, I can start making up reasonable approximations so that I’m not just copying. Though I loved ‘screb’ so much I just took it wholesale.
D: Crime and punishment lie at the heart of LIFERS. You specifically mention The Count of Monte Cristo, but did any other books or movies inspire/influence your story?
M: Yeah, I wanted an explicit reference to another prison story in Lifers. It had to be Alice Wilde – older, wiser, cleverer Alice – who made the reference and at first she was going to be studying Sociology and quoting eminent sociologists on the subject. Then I thought about King’s The Green Mile or Shawshank, about Birdman of Alcatraz, about Oscar Wilde. In the end I figured Count of Monte Cristo suited Alice’s personality best. And as I went on, I found a few neat parallels emerging; the prison on the island, for example. The miscommunication that consigns the central character to incarceration. As an aside, I’ve only ever read Monte Cristo with my ears; on talking book. I was just out of university. I reserved it at the library. It came in a yellow plastic box with eighteen cassettes in it – eighteen! – and I listened every night for about three months. Magic stuff.
D: Is there a specific moment in LIFERS that particularly stands out for you? A message you want the reader to hear? An emotion you want them to experience?
M: A number of the prisoners have what I hope are interesting stories to tell. There’s a character called Lewison, a lad I like very much, who tries in his own way to express the frustration of having almost nothing in a world which measures success by ownership and consumption. But what struck me most was the distinction between physical imprisonment and being trapped in other ways; by circumstances or expectations. Choices can be prisons, too. I thought about that a lot. Then threw in some explosions for good measure.
D: When we’ve spoken in the past, I’ve always had the sense that understanding the writing process is important to you. Can you tell us something about the process that brought LIFERS to the page?
M: Yes, we’ve talked about the writing process before! I’m still trying to fathom it. Lifers came easily in places; the main characters and their relationships, the setting, the key ideas. But the central section of the novel – our visit to the prison known as Axle 6 – took much longer to develop successfully. I realised through discussions with my editor that my characters needed to quickly unify behind a single mission against a common enemy. So Axle 6 had to be initially terrifying, but ultimately the prisoners needed to be disenfranchised, angry, and ready for leadership. In my first few goes through, the prison was a totally feral environment – ungovernable. It didn’t work. It took me 50,000 words to figure that out…
D: There is a moment in LIFERS when the main character is faced with hundreds of young people who need to be saved – but he is only able to save three. An impossible decision. Have you ever faced an impossible decision?
M: Nothing, thankfully, as hard as those that face Preston. I’m trying to create a life for myself where the hardest decision I have to make is what book to read next. Fat chance!
D: Can you tell us something about your reasons for changing the name under which you publish?
M: When I was first published, I used the name Fletcher Moss. (There were some botanical gardens near where I lived with that name on the gates so I appropriated it!) I was a teacher at the time, in a pretty senior position and I wanted to make a distinction between the two halves of my life. Plus part of me was scared; I didn’t want kids reading the book and knowing I’d written it. With Lifers, I was beginning to step away from teaching. And Lifers is more me, really. Much as I love fantasy, I’m batting for the contemporary-thrillers-with-a-sci-fi-twist team at the moment! So I discussed it with my agent and the team at Chicken House, and we made the change.
D: If you could send someone or something Beyond The Valve, who or what would it be?
M: Peanut butter. The M6. Global warming. The Opera Singer from the Go Compare advert.
D: And now to find the truth of M A Griffin. The question that reveals all . . . Star Wars or Star Trek?
M: C’mon, Dan. You know there’s only one answer. Wars beats Trek every day of the week!
D:It’s reassuring to know you’re on the right team, but I’m afraid we’ll have to disagree where peanut butter is concerned. Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions, and everyone here at Author Allsorts wishes you the best of luck with LIFERS.