Which are you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?
I was shown some of the concept art a while back, and there’s all sorts of stuff I can’t wait to see. Apart from the huge things, like the cities and the Shield wall, I’m looking forward to seeing what the airship Jenny Haniver looks like - it becomes the nearest thing the main characters have to a home once their adventures begin, so I spent a lot of time aboard it in my imagination.
Have you seen Robert in films/TV before?
I must confess I hadn’t - I’m a bit out of touch with the movies these days. But I think he’ll be great as Tom.
The main character, Tom Natsworthy, a young orphaned boy, is somewhat naïve to the effects of conquering another city and what that means to its inhabitants. He soon gets a first-hand look at what it’s like on the other side of that equation. Even so, his perspective is slow to change. How do you see Tom’s transformation coming to fruition in the span of a movie?
I can’t be sure that the movie Tom will take exactly the same journey as the book Tom. In the book he’s a bit useless - he’s scared all the time, and whenever he tries to help he just makes things worse. I’m not sure that would work in a big action movie, he’ll need to be a bit more heroic! But he definitely starts off as a good Londoner, believing everything he’s been told about the city, and his adventures will open his eyes to a few truths about the world...
Will Tom’s age be advanced for the film to match Robert’s or will Robert will be made to look younger, closer to Tom’s?
You mustn’t take anything I say about the movie as gospel truth, because I’m not directly involved with it, but I think movie-Tom will be older than book-Tom. That’s fine by me, because when I first wrote Mortal Engines Tom was in his early twenties, and I only made him a teenager when I realised I could publish it as a children’s book. It actually makes very little difference to the character, because London is a rather old-fashioned society where young men have to do as they’re told and respect their elders and betters.
Could you sum up Tom Natsworthy in three words ?
Decent. Honest. Impulsive.
There are several noteworthy characters in the book with unique personalities. Other than the main character, is there one character you’re particularly anticipating coming to the big screen?
Hester is my favourite character in the book. Tom daydreams about having adventures with a beautiful girl, but he ends up getting paired with Hester, who's violent, ruthless, angry, filthy, and hideously scarred. I was trying to make her as unlike the usual movie heroine as I could, so I’ll be very interested to see how she turns out on the screen!
Did you ever imagine a dream cast and are you pleased with the casting choices?
I sometimes toyed with a fantasy cast while I was writing, but that was so long ago that most of the actors I had in mind have grown too old or even died by now! But I think one of the things that Peter Jackson and his team are really good at is casting - the Lord of the Rings movies are full of actors who I’d never have thought of putting in those roles, but who turn out to be just right - so I’m confident they’ll find the right people. I’m very pleased with all the actors who’ve been announced so far, and looking forward to learning who else will be involved.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always written, ever since I first learned how! Stories, comics, plays, sketches, movies… It was only in my late twenties that I decided to try and get something published, which is when I started writing Mortal Engines.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Mortal Engines took years. From the first inklings of the idea to actual publication must have been ten years at least. But I was working as an illustrator and doing lots of other things at the same time, so writing was very much a hobby - it wasn’t ten solid years!
Pantser or plotter?
I never plan things out in advance, because I get bored if I know what’s going to happen. I usually just know what sort of world I want to write about, and what the tone of the book will be, and I start writing and see what happens. And I go off down all sorts of blind alleys, and generate loads of scenes and characters who I end up not being able to use, but it all feeds in somehow, and a story starts to develop. Then I start to edit and edit and edit until it looks like a book.
How did you come up with names for your characters? And the cities?
I sort of collect interesting sounding words and save them up until I need a name for a character. ‘Natsworthy’ is a place on Dartmoor, just up the road from where I now live. Some of the other Mortal Engines characters have bird names, like Shrike, and Crome is named after a 19th Century artist. I took a walk through Brighton cemetery while I was writing the early drafts and came back with a lot of good names I’d read on gravestones - Pewsey, Gench, Beecroft (Beecroft got cut out!). As for the cities, most of the big ones are named after real cities. I thought it was very important that the Mortal Engines world should be this world in the future, it needed that little connection to reality. If they were made up cities on another planet it wouldn’t interest me at all, even though they could look just the same and the same story could unfold. So we have London and Anchorage and places. But there are lots of smaller traction towns as well, and those sometimes have made-up names.
Which of your characters was the most fun to write?
Hester, for sure. Also Chudleigh Pomeroy, who’s Tom’s boss, a rather pompous old historian. And the cyborg bounty hunter Shrike was fun, but I glanced at the book again recently and realised I'd made him speak ENTIRELY IN CAPITALS ALL THE WAY THROUGH - what was I thinking? It looks awful. I’d kind of like to change that in future editions, but I guess that would be cheating!
If you were abandoned on a desert island, which character from your book would you want to be trapped with?
Ha ha, none of them! I guess Tom, he’s a pretty dependable sort. Or Anna Fang, who would certainly find a way to escape. Valentine would a find a way to escape too, but he wouldn’t necessarily take me with him.
If you were writing a book about yourself, what would the title be?
I wouldn’t write such a book! I have a great title for a book about my illustrator friend Sarah McIntyre; we create books together for a slightly younger crowd than Mortal Engines, and she’s famous for her hats and brightly patterned frocks. We were at the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai last week and everyone was amazed by her and asking her to pose for photos. We decided her autobiography should be called International Show-Off.
What's an aspect of being a writer that you didn't know about going in?
When I was writing Mortal Engines I was just worried about whether I could find a publisher for it - it seemed likely that no one would want it and I was just wasting my time. Then it got published, and I had all sorts of new worries - would I be able to think of another one, for instance. And looking back, I realise I knew almost nothing about the business side of being a writer: how to publicise myself, etc. I could probably have managed that far better.
If you could be a character in your book, which would it be?
I wouldn’t want to be anyone in Mortal Engines, that’s a very dangerous world! Lately I’ve been writing a series called Railhead which is sort of the opposite of Mortal Engines - the future again, but a much more hopeful, high-tech, progressive future; I’d like to live in that one please.
Any advice for new writers?
Read a lot, and make sure you read outside the genre you’re writing in. If you only read fantasy you won’t be able to write very interesting fantasy. Go off and read historical novels and science books and literary fiction and poetry and classics and everything else you can find: then you’ll have something more interesting to bring to the party. And write a lot. And re-write a lot; I never understood that when I was young, but so much of writing is about editing. It’s a lot like moviemaking in that way!
What was your first reaction when you knew that your book would be produced by Peter Jackson?
A massive YAY! It was unbelievable, really. And then nothing happened for years and years, so I had to assume that it wasn’t going ahead, and I sort of forgot about it and got busy doing other things. Then about a year ago I heard the movie was finally going into production, and people in New Zealand were going to be busy building all these things I’d dreamed up twenty years ago. It still feels quite unreal. I won’t fully believe it until I can see it at the cinema, and perhaps not even then.
Thanks so much to Kelly, Montse, Clara, Barb & Sarah, who all contributed questions xxx