Today’s blog post is a bit exciting – not only am I posting on a Saturday (oh, so this is what a weekend is…), but I also have an author Q&A courtesy of the YA Shot Blog Tour. YA Shot is an author-led YA and MG festival that happens every year in Uxbridge. This year, YA Shot is happening on Saturday 14th April – for tickets and more information, check out their website here.
I’m joined by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, an award winning writing duo. They have worked on many popular tv shows (such as Thunderbirds are Go!, Danger Mouse, and Shaun the Sheep, and are currently working on the script for the new Moominvalley series), as well as being the brains behind the popular middle grade Defender of the Realm series.
Read on for a Q&A with Mark and Nick, and a (spoiler-free!) review of the first book in the series.
• Hi guys, thanks for answering my questions – it’s a pleasure to have you on my blog today. How did the two of you initially start working together?
Hi, Nick here. Mark was the very first person I met at the University of Nottingham in 1993, literally right in front of me in the queue to get our room keys. But when he tried to strike up conversation, I was so nervous (and embarrassed at having my dad still standing next to me) that apparently I totally blanked him! Fortunately he didn’t hold it against me and when I was casting a comedy play I’d written the following term, he agreed to be in it. We started writing together shortly after that and took comedy revue shows to the Edinburgh Festival, wrote and performed student radio shows and after we graduated started getting sketches used on BBC Radio 4. Quite an old-fashioned way in to the industry – the sort of Monty Python route – I’m not sure if it happens like that any more.
• What has been your favourite thing to write/work on so far?
We’ve been lucky to write on lots of great shows and to get some of our own stuff made too over the years. But if I had to chose a couple, I’d say Danger Mouse – getting to work on the reboot of one of our favourite childhood shows – and one which allows you to be as silly and surreal as you like – was a joy. Then of course Defender of the Realm – because it’s our own baby, inventing a big fantasy adventure book universe which we were completely in charge of was a lot of fun and a nice change from TV/film in which you tend to have much less power as a writer. And right now we’re adapting Tove Jansson’s classic Moomin books for a new TV series, Moominvalley, which has been a huge (and daunting) challenge, but the results we’re starting to see in terms of design and animation are stunning.
• How does writing as a pair differ from writing alone? Do you each suggest ideas for plot points and then each go away and write bits?
We’ve been writing together all our professional lives, so we don’t know any different! But yes, we’ve developed a pretty efficient system over the years – we outline whatever we’re writing then divide up blocks of scenes or chapters to draft, then swap, edit as necessary and repeat! Sometimes if we’re writing short eleven minute episodes for a TV series we’ll each head up and handle different episodes, but we’ll always outline together and we’ll each have eyes on every script at some point. We’re on and off Skype all day chatting about whatever we’re writing!
• For those who haven’t yet picked up the Defender books, can you give us a (spoiler-free) taster of what it’s like?
Defender of the Realm is about two teenagers, Alfie and Hayley, who seem to have nothing in common until they meet under extraordinary circumstances and become friends and allies in a battle against an evil super villain. Alfie is a reluctant and hapless heir to the throne of the United Kingdom who unexpectedly becomes king and discovers that all monarchs since Alfred the Great have secretly been superheroes protecting Britain from all kinds of very real monsters! He’s not only inherited the throne, but now he’s also expected to be a superhero – the Defender. It’s a steep learning curve! Very soon he runs into Hayley, a very independent and capable girl from a poor London estate, who’s had to grow up too fast in order to care for her ailing grandmother. She is equally surprised by what fate has in store for her – a central role in a world of superheroes she never knew existed. We wanted to create an action-packed, fantasy adventure which was a mash up of superhero lore and real British history, set in a contemporary, very recognisable UK – and I hope we’ve done that!
• I see from your website that the third book in the Defender series is out this year (yay!) – what can we expect from this instalment?
Like his namesake Alfred the Great, our teenaged Alfie goes through some very big ups and downs in the course of his young reign – just as he thinks he’s got to grips with his new dual role as monarch AND superhero at the end of book one, he is plunged into a fresh crisis in the second book, Dark Age, involving a traitor close to home and a great deal of very troublesome zombie Vikings! All seems lost for him and his kingdom by the end of that second instalment. The conclusion to the trilogy, King’s Army, which is out in June, is all about Alfie, Hayley and their ever-expanding rebel resistance trying to mount the greatest royal comeback in history to save the UK and the entire world from a powerful ancient evil.
• Was the Defender series inspired by any books from your childhoods? And what were your favourite books when you were younger?
It’s always hard to say exactly which of all the books we’ve read and films we’ve seen influenced us most in writing something particular – the truth is it’s probably all in there somewhere. Our roots are really in comedy – and we hope that comes out in the Defender books – we wanted them to be as funny as they are exciting. But yes, we both loved the works of the great British fantasy writers, like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicle’s of Narnia, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Alan Garner’s reworking of British folk tales, and more recently Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.
14 year old Alfie is no ordinary boy; Alfie is actually Alfred Henry Alexander Louis – heir to the British throne. Not only that, but he is also spectacularly brilliant at Not Being Very Good at Things. Feeling like a constant disappointment to his father, the King, and like a cheaper version of his twin, Richard, Alfie doesn’t really want to become the ruler of the country. Especially when he discovers that the job description also involves being a kind of superhero, protecting the country from vicious attacks from creatures like the Black Lizard.
Rewind a bit, and meet Hayley: a competent 14 year old who is the sole carer to her extremely royalist Gran. After a (supposedly fun) trip to watch the changing of the guard at the Tower of London, Hayley witnesses an attack from the Black Lizard, and soon becomes swept up in dangerous world full of (somewhat vicious) villains, monsters, superhero gear, and, unbelievably, The Defender, all thanks to Alfie.
As the two teenagers prepare to face the biggest threat to Britain in many years – and as Alfie prepares to become King – will they be able to succeed, or will the Defender fail for the first time ever?
With the fast-paced plot and likeable main characters, this was a riproaring adventure that had me hooked from the first chapter (although, admittedly, that was partly because two of the main locations in the book are very local to me). The first book ends on a cliff hanger that had me furious with Mark and Nick, and reaching for the sequel asap. With the concluding book coming out this year, now is the time to delve into this triology, and meet the brilliant Alfie and Hayley.
A massive thank you to Scholastic for kindly providing me with a copy of the books.
Thanks again to Mark and Nick for answering my questions., and if you’re curious about hearing more from the duo, they are on the Power, Privilege and Inequality panel at YA Shot. More details can be found about this talk and the rest of the programme here, and don’t forget to check out the other #YAShot2018 blog tour posts.