The 2009 publication of Kieran Mark Crowley's debut novel Colm and the Lazarus Key marked the arrival of a serious new talent on the children's fiction scene. A compelling ghost/ detective/ adventure story, it is jam-packed with laughs and enough mystery and mayhem to keep even the most committed hellraisers quiet for hours on end.
Colm & the Lazarus Key was shortlisted for the Bistro Children's Book of the Year Award in 2010 and was chosen as one of the Irish Times recommended reads for 2009. And if you haven't read it yet, it's a cracker. Double thumbs up from this corner. I'd go as far as a triple but I ran out of thumbs.
Crowley has followed the success of Colm and the Lazarus Key with a sequel entitled Colm and the Ghost's Revenge (2012). Other titles we can look forward to in the future are Shadowmen, Monsters and a football story called Dynamo Chomsky. With a writing schedule this hectic, I'm chuffed that he's taken the time out to do this interview with YBR!
What inspired you to write Colm and the Lazarus Key?
It was a combination of things, really. I wanted to write a book for my niece, Jessica, (who was ten at the time) and I wanted to write a mystery story set in contemporary Ireland that was light-hearted with a few scary moments. That was where it began. I had an idea that it would be a Sherlock Holmes style story, but as soon as I started writing it different characters and plot lines started popping into my head and it became something different from what I first imagined. Anything I write now is outlined, but Colm was my first real attempt at writing a children’s book so I was unsure of how to craft it and just got swept along by the story, throwing in situations and places from my childhood into the mix. The idea was to get Jessica to smile and be spooked at the same time which is why there’s some ridiculous dialogue and situations in there.
The Brute is the bane of Colm’s life and you certainly seemed to have a lot of fun writing this character! Yet, he is also a sympathetic character at times and even a reluctant ally. Is there more to The Brute than meets the eye?
I did enjoy writing him and any time I do a reading in a library or school, he’s the character that gets the most attention. While not loveable, he is hard to ignore. The Brute is the type of character I loathed when I was a child: full of himself, certain that he’s right about everything, and boorish. But he’s not really that bad a person at all, he’s just very different to the bookish, quieter Colm. In fact, he would be astonished to find that Colm dislikes him. He sees the punches and insults he throws at his cousin to be a normal part of family life. The Brute has his own set of morals, which are mainly taken from action films, but nevertheless, he still believes in this code and if asked, would definitely consider himself to be one of the good guys. I think he’s just in that intensely awkward phase of life where he simultaneously wants to be noticed and remain hidden. He acts a certain way because he thinks that how you should act and the fact that. Colm is comfortable being different gets under his skin. I started out writing him as a bully, but I grew to like him as the novel progressed, especially in his persistent, yet misguided, attempts to woo the girl of his dreams.
I enjoyed the way you played with official history in Colm and The Lazarus Key by inserting Bram Stoker into the narrative. Could you talk about that please?
In the Lazarus Key the main characters arrive in a library and find a mysterious book called The Book of Dread. It’s a dusty old diary detailing the discovery of a creature and a dark secret. As soon as I’d written the first section of it I realised it reminded me of Jonathan Harker’s diary (not in terms of literary merit, obviously) which wasn’t a surprise as Dracula was a book I loved as a teenager. I thought the diary worked well within the Colm story, so I decided that since the parallel was already there between Harker and the Dread diary, why not expand on it? So I introduced a section which involved the writer of the diary meeting Bram Stoker and realising that the story of Dracula and they legends of the Lazarus Key are interlinked.
I’ve always enjoyed books and films that rewrote official history, work like Fatherland or The Man in the High Castle, or real characters appearing in otherwise fictional films like Midnight in Paris. It was enjoyable to write and it led to a brief appearance for Vlad the Impaler in the sequel. I also felt it was a good way of grounding the more supernatural elements of the story.
Colm and The Brute are back in Colm and the Ghost’s Revenge. Can you tell us about this book?
It’s set around eighteen months after the first book. Colm’s life has returned to normal, but he’s not a happy twelve-year-old. He’s got the feeling that someone’s still on his trail. And of course, he’s right.
The first book was set in the Irish countryside while most of this one takes place in Dublin. The main characters reappear, but are not easily able to form their old alliances, which I hope keeps the book fresh. I wanted to write a sequel that was a little bit different to the first. As I mentioned, Lazarus Key was a spooky, haunted house type story, whereas this one is a more of a chase story. I don’t want to give too much away, as there is a little bit of mystery involved, but the one thing both books should have in common is they’re not meant to be taken that seriously.
I enjoyed writing this book more than the first one. I think part of that was I actually had completed a book before, so I knew I could do it again. When writing Colm and the Lazarus Key I was still trying to figure out things, which in retrospect seem ridiculous but seem huge when you’re unsure of yourself, such as ‘how many words should be in a children’s book’ (believe me, there are easier ways of finding the answers than taking a few books, counting the words on a page and multiplying it by the number of pages in the book. Not that I did that, of course). Knowing the characters made it easier too and a happy by-product of my visit to the schools and libraries was that children gave me lots of feedback on the story.
Are there any writers/books you particularly admire?
Probably too many to mention. Growing up I read the usual children’s authors: Dahl, Tolkien, Lewis, Blyton. Back in those days there was no real transition from children’s books to adult fiction like there is now with YA fiction, so when I was in school one minute we were all reading The Hobbit, the next we were all secretly passing around Stephen King books. For a long time I ignored children’s fiction and was reading writers like William Boyd, Iain Banks, John Wyndham, Donna Tartt, but one day I picked up a book with a black cover as part of a 3 for 2 offer in the old Virgin Megastore in Dublin (I never used to find three books I really wanted in those offers). I didn’t realise it was a children’s book until I’d read the first page. It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know Rowling has her critics, but back then I’d never heard of her or read anything about the book and I loved it and it immediately reconnected me with everything I loved about children’s literature. It gave me that rush I used to get as a child when I escaped into a book. That rarely happens to me.
Years later, when I started writing for children myself, I tried to re-educate myself in the world of children’s books. I’ve read plenty of authors that I think are fantastic: Charlie Higson, Geoff Rodkey, Philip Pullman; books like Eoin Colfer’s Benny and Omar, the Dahl books still seem fresh, Haroun & the Sea of Stories, and lots and lots of others. The variety and depth of children’s fiction out there at the moment is amazing.
Have you any advice for emerging writers?
Nothing awe-inspiring or original, I’m afraid. Read a lot. Write a lot. Finish the book. The one thing I have learned is that lots of people talk about writing a book, but few actually finish it. They seem to give up because they lose confidence in the work rather than completing it and learning why it wasn’t what they hoped it would be. As with anything in life, the more you do something the better you become. You learn from your mistakes. I know one of my mistakes was spending lots of time reading books on the craft of writing, how to get published, all that sort of thing. They may be helpful to some people, but I found they were no substitute for the actual experience of writing. You’ll learn most of what’s in those books anyway if you spend your time writing and you pay attention to your work.
Another thing I’ve found is that you can get something written even if you only have twenty minutes to spare. I used to make excuses for not getting any work done because I didn’t have two or three free hours, but the truth is you can get it done if you really want to do it. Other people are finding a way.
Finally, I would say – write what you love. I’ve had some work accepted, some rejected over the last five years. The work that I really care about, that I’ve put my heart and soul into, that’s the only work that has had any success. I think that’s enough pontificating from me.
Can you tell the readers what you are working on at the moment?
I’ve recently finished a couple of books for nine to twelve year olds, The Shadowmen and Monsters. I’ve just started to send them out, so I have no idea if they’ll be loved or hated. Just because you’ve been published a couple of times doesn’t make the path to publication any easier, it just means people are more likely to take your calls and personalise your rejection letters. I’ve also been working on a football story called Dynamo Chomsky which I hope to finish in a couple of months and a book for younger readers called The Santa List. There have been times when I’ve been writing these books that it hasn’t seemed like work at all which, for me, is the way it should be.