Sep 022015


A darling of the Scottish literary scene whose best-known work concerns alcoholism and doomed love affairs, A. L. Kennedy might not appear the most likely candidate to pen BBC Books’ latest Doctor Who novel, The Drosten’s Curse.  But as Kennedy herself said during a wryly humorous talk at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, it simply represents the latest step in her altogether unpredictable career, and one that she found challenging in new ways.

Kennedy’s reading from The Drosten’s Curse revealed (amongst the carnivorous monsters and sinister hotels) a Douglas Adams-esque humour embedded in the prose, presumably not an accident given her fondness for the Tom Baker era during which Adams served as writer and script editor.  Indeed, the book features the 4th Doctor as played by Baker, an emulation which Kennedy admitted was “a little bit exhausting” to maintain.  The novel was challenging in other ways, too; writing about “goodness” was, she said, rather strange for her, and although the people at the BBC were lovely to work with, there was always a feeling that the corporation was keeping a close eye on any author working with their characters.

Kennedy was insistent that The Drosten’s Curse should be considered a children’s book, albeit one that will bring a touch of nostalgic joy to adults of a certain age.  The story is, she said, very much informed by her younger self’s memories of and frustrations with the television show as it existed in the 1970s, and writing in an emphatically science fictional context also gave her a chance to play with the genre’s capacity for political subtext, rendered subtly but simply enough for children to understand.  While she’s not sure that she’d ever write a ‘franchise’ book again, Kennedy said that, whilst writing the novel, she was continually surprised by the sheer fun of it all.

Aug 292015


When the New York Times described Andrew Smith’s work as “mad science and vomit turned into art”, it was meant as a compliment.  The Californian author’s penchant for crazed science fiction, dark humour and searing insights into the human condition have resulted in nine (soon to be ten) books of stunningly inventive young adult fiction.  Last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though, Smith insisted that the fiction he writes is about young adults, rather than being exclusively for them.

Indeed, such is the universal appeal of Smith’s lovably bizarre yet heartfelt stories that it’s surprising more UK readers haven’t heard of him.  That may be about to change, though, with Spaced and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright getting set to adapt his 2014 novel Grasshopper Jungle for the big screen in the near future.  Smith’s talk at the book festival was centred mainly on that book and his 2015 coming-of-age/historical drama/monster story/techno-thriller The Alex Crow, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – the unclassifiable nature of his work was one of the main talking points.  Critics generally can’t pin his novels down, said Smith, so just end up comparing him to a whole raft of different authors.  He was, however, happy to acknowledge the influence of Kurt Vonnegut on his work, a writer with whom he shares an impressive talent for making the extraordinary seem ordinary, and an ability to captivate readers with wilfully fragmented and beguiling narratives.

Smith also talked briefly about his creative process, and how he constantly feels the need to strive for originality and freshness in his work.  Despite dealing with story ideas so byzantine it’s impossible to ever condense them into an “elevator pitch”, he never outlines his books before writing them, a tendency which has led many a high school English teacher to denounce him as an insurrectionist!  Everyone has to find their own way of writing, he said, and his just turned out to be a little unconventional.  Often he’ll come up with a host of wacky ideas and then synthesise them into a single story; this is what happened with The Alex Crow, where a historical expedition to the Arctic, the true story of a kid from Syria and a deep mistrust of humanity’s unchecked technological progress resulted in a story that is equal parts funny, scary and moving.  This refusal to conform to genre convention allows Smith to carry on creating wildly imaginative work, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing.


In 2011 the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece which claimed that young adult fiction was becoming “too dark” for teenagers, and made reference to Smith’s 2010 fantasy-horror The Marbury Lens.  The idea that his work might be considered harmful to children was deeply unsettling for the author, and for a while he considered giving up writing altogether.  Thankfully, though, he bounced back with Grasshopper Jungle, a work of boundless imagination which won the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in contemporary American children’s literature.  Not one to be cowed by the threat of controversy, Smith continues to forge ahead writing fascinating, funny and frightening stories with a profoundly human heart.  The one he’s working on just now, he said, will be published in Autumn 2016, and concerns the prosaic subject of robots and zombies….in space.  Knowing Andrew Smith, though, there’ll be far more to it than that.

Aug 262015







 That neither Tim Clare nor Colin MacIntyre are primarily known as novellists (poet and musician, respectively) is only one why reason why it made sense for the Edinburgh International Book Festival to pair them up at an event last week entitled “Moving into the Fiction Factory”; both Clare’s The Honours and MacIntyre’s The Letters of Ivor Punch are novels which deal in the strange and fantastical whilst being firmly rooted in the history of the authors’ respective homelands.

The Honours follows the adventures of a young girl in 1930s Norfolk as she discovers dark goings-on at an old country house, and has invited comparison to the work of Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.  During an animated talk, Clare admitted that he’d been a frustrated novellist before turning to poetry, and that his return to the form had reminded him how just much fun it is to “make stuff up”.  He also spoke briefly of the influence that apocalyptic Japanese culture of the 1980s had had on a novel seemingly steeped in the myths and legends of Norfolk.

For MacIntyre, it was the strange elision of fantasy and reality that characterised his childhood on Mull which informed the weird and wonderful plot of The Letters of Ivor Punch.  Through a series of letters to President Barack Obama, retired policeman Ivor divulges secrets about the strange occurrences on his island, including sightings of a headless horseman and a man falling from the sky, as the secret history of Mull is explored with surprising consequences.  MacIntyre said the novel felt like a continuation of the storytelling he usually practices through songwriting, where he’s better known by his stage name of The Mull Historical Society.

Despite having wildly different protagonists, the two books share a lot in common, particularly an approach to writing fantasy which is very much rooted in the mundane.  This is necessary, said Clare, to ‘tether’ fantastical ideas to believable reality, and MacIntyre agreed, suggesting that the contrast between the two realms makes for an effective storytelling tool.  Fantastical things, the two authors agreed, can be effective metaphors, but they are also things in themselves, and that’s what makes writing fantasy so much fun.

Aug 172015


David Mitchell admitted to wanting to build “my own Middle Earth” while discussing the shared universe he’s created for his novels on Saturday night at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  The event had the cautious title of Transports of Fictional Delight, which sounds like a tortured attempt to circumlocute science fictional implications, but as Mitchell himself said whilst discussing his latest novel, The Bone Clocks, he sees genres as a set of tools to be used in whatever way is most appropriate.  Nowhere is this more apparent in his writing than in the structure of The Bone Clocks, which experiments with 6 different genres across its 6 distinct sections, tying different writing styles to different stages of human life.

During an engaging and entertaining talk, Mitchell also spoke of the need to ‘tether’ his beloved fantastical elements to reality, often using a grounded system of ethics which he explores through different factions of protagonists.  He also touched upon the difficulties of writing good female characters, and described his method of seeking out bad examples in literature and then avoiding the mistakes those authors had made.  Prompted by a question from an audience member about the future of fiction in the age of social media, he said that he believes narrative is eternal, and will always adapt to new technological paradigms.  He will remain, he said, “a servant of the book”, and he continues to believe in the power of fiction to make political statements, particularly about ever more pressing environmental concerns.

To finish, Mitchell gave a brief reading from his new book, Slade House, due to be published in October.  The work is, according to the event’s chair Stuart Kelly, Mitchell’s darkest yet, and forms a sequel of sorts to The Bone Clocks, further expanding the author’s fictional universe.  A bleak mixture of twisted fantasy and gritty realism, it looks set to showcase once again his talent for telling fantastical stories with a powerful emotional core.

Aug 132015


Saturday 15th August sees the start of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s largest public celebration of the written word.  Although the programme’s a little light on geek-friendly works and authors this year, your humble Geekzine will endeavour to bring you reports and reviews of some of the best that the festival has to offer, including David Mitchell, Tim Clare, A.L. Kennedy and Emily St John Mandel.

Stay tuned for updates over the next couple of weeks, and if you’re planning to attend the festival, let us know which authors you’re most looking forward to seeing this year!