A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Payback has an official birthday of 5th July 2018, but I’m one of the lucky ones . . . I’ve already read it. As usual, Chicken House has done a fantastic job with the presentation – a matt black cover with reflective gold foil lettering, and an image of five mysterious, masked teenagers. But it’s what’s inside that really counts, and now that I’ve re-surfaced (breathless) from this edgy, cool thriller, I bring good news; it’s awesome!
D: You know you’re going to have to do this every time someone asks ‘What’s it about?’ so here’s your chance to practice the elevator pitch. Go.
M: You know what? Luckily enough the staff at The Bookseller did it wa-ay better than I could. Here’s how they described it: “The teenagers of the anti-capitalist Payback group have one mission: to steal from the rich and give to the poor. A timely political thriller.” Exactly what I’d have said!
D: You always do a great job of writing believable teenagers – they think, behave, and speak like teenagers. Now that you spend less time in the classroom with teenagers, how do you keep up-to-date?
M: Thanks. I’m actually still spending a little time teaching. Nowadays my radar has to be up immediately cos I know we’re only going to be together fleetingly, so I’m always paying close attention. I love language and I’m fascinated by the slang of any group or culture, so I watch out for things all the time. I ended up taking a lot of argot and subject-specific language out in later drafts, actually. I was aiming for a shorter book – a lean 60,000 word-er that felt cleaner and more simple than Lifers.
D: During the course of Payback, the gang plans and executes a number of ‘grabs’. Are any of these inspired by real incidents?
M: Yes! The book is part-dedicated to Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a Spanish Mayor and politician famous for his ‘Robin Hood raids’. He and his supporters stole food from supermarkets in Seville and Cadiz and handed it out to poor families and food banks. Direct action…in action! I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the #metoo movement, which has affected social change far faster than a government-passed law ever could, or recently changing attitudes to single-use plastics, where government legislation has been passed following public outcry.
But Payback’s pearl-theft, the Jaguar steal, the antique vases… that’s all made up. Don’t try it at home, folks…
D: One of the things that really interested me in Payback – and I don’t want to give away too much here – is the moment when we see a shift of location from city to countryside. There was a great sense of your main character, Tom, being out of his depth when he finds himself outside the city.
M: Yes. There’s a heist on a train; the gang have to board an overnight sleeper heading for Edinburgh. But the theft goes wrong and all hell breaks loose – our protagonist finds himself fleeing the Scottish constabulary across bleak moorland.
I wanted to make Tom as uncomfortable as possible. He starts out urbane, privileged, comfortable… so his journey is metaphorical as well as literal. He finds a wilder, more desperate part of himself out in those empty moonlit spaces. I was partly thinking of Buchan’s 39 Steps as I wrote those sections.
I was initially a little worried about whether I’d got it right, but my publisher loved it. “From the moment they board that train it’s unstoppable!” they said.
I can recommend the other sections too, though!
D: There’s a political edge to Payback, which makes it feel current. Was this always your intention? Is there a message here, or is it just part of the story?
M: I always wanted to explore wealth. When I first pitched Payback to the gang at Chicken House I opened with the line, “The richest 1% control half the world’s wealth. It’s time for a new Robin Hood; a company of trained thieves called Takeback.”
(We changed the title because later in the process the cover designers really wanted “They take from the rich” written across the front and needed to avoid awkward repetition.)
D: We’ve talked about heist stories before, so I know they’re swimming about in your imagination. Is Payback your heist story, or do you think there’s another one in the tank?
M: I do love heists. There’s something about the challenge of getting the reader to root for the criminal that fascinates me. Director Steven Soderbergh keeps coming back to heist stories; his recent movie Logan Lucky is a tremendous example of how characters normally regarded as villains are handled as warm, funny, down-trodden victims of circumstance who have the courage and determination to fight back. So thematically the heist story is a rich vein for me.
There are so many different ways of exploring the premise too. Phil Robinson’s Sneakers is one of my favourites. So is the much maligned Hudson Hawk.
I reckon I’ve got another one in me…
D: I know how interested you are in the writing process (style, structure, story-generation etc), so I’m wondering what the process was for Payback. How easily did the ideas come?
M: I had a great meeting with my publishers at the start of the process. They set me straight just as I was beginning. “We need to see it going right for the gang,” they said, “before it all starts to unravel.” The structure fell into place after that. Seems super-obvious in hindsight, but as soon as I had that sense of structure, Payback came much more easily than Lifers did.
Maybe, just maybe… I’m getting the hang of this!
D: Payback is the kind of book that could come with a soundtrack. Are you a ‘write to music’ or a ‘write in silence’ author?
M: Music all the way! I borrow soundtracks from other movies. Cliff Martinez was on pretty heavy rotation during Payback. His work is edgy, moody and atmospheric – particularly the score for The Knick.
D: Is there anything in particular that you want the reader to take away from Payback? How do you want your reader to feel when they reach the last page?
M: First and foremost, I want it to have been a thrill. An exciting ride. I don’t want to get all preachy.
If readers have a blast, I’m happy. If they take a moment to reconsider the world around them, I’m even happier!
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 returned to his real name for his second novel, LIFERS, a super-dark contemporary prison-break adventure, his first novel for teen readers. His second YA novel PAYBACK was published in July 2018. Martin lives in Manchester with his wife and child.
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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 MY BROTHER’S SECRET was selected as USBBY Outstanding International Book 2016. BIG GAME accompanied the movie starring Samuel L Jackson and is published in over 24 countries. BOY X was winner of the Essex Book Awards, The Phoenix Book Awards, and the Coventry Inspiration Book Awards 2017. His latest novel BELOW ZERO was published in Jan 2018.