Our journey to numbers one and two S*** Lane in a tiny Wirral village goes without a hitch, which in itself is quite remarkable. As our driver makes a slow getaway from the narrow lane, the photographer and I aim for the door to number two, and pull at some bell arrangement, which seems to work. Someone looking exactly like Jon Mayhew does on Facebook opens the door, and we decide we hardly know each other, so hug. He hugs the photographer as well. Jon seems to have learnt the ways of the publishing world quite fast.
He takes us through a large kitchen and we stick our heads out the door at the back to say hello to an assortment of children, a couple of dogs and his wife Lin. We chat about sales of his brand new book Mortlock while Jon boils the kettle and makes us tea. He talks about the difference in sales if he buys the books himself, instead of getting them from Bloomsbury. That way they count as sales. Jon drops a mug on the kitchen floor with a clang, but it doesn’t break. ‘Throwing the crockery around’ he mutters and asks if I’m OK with a mug covered in (pictures of) dogs. And he wants to know if I’m all right with tea made in the mug instead of a pot. I am.
‘We’ll go in the front room. It’s a bit more peaceful,’ Jon says, leading the way through their music room to a front room with a lovely old fireplace.
‘So many writers have these nice big kitchens..’
‘It’s two houses knocked together. We used to have two staircases, and when one of the boys was only little, he would go up one side and down the other. Absolute nightmare. But we got there. I ended up swapping one staircase for that piano, which I thought was rather neat. And we don’t normally have spiders on the wall. Honest. It’s for the party tomorrow.’ Jon asks what I normally do in interviews.
‘I’ve got my questions, but feel free to…’
‘… elaborate, waffle? There’s a new Mortlock website up. It’s great, and now I’ve got to try and get my website up to scratch.’
‘Do the publishers tell you to do things, like the blog. Have they said “you should have a blog?’”
‘No, I was blogging before. I’d written since I was a kid, just short stories and stuff. Then I broke my ankle. My lucky break. I wrote this thing that’s terrible, awful, awful stuff. But I thought it was great at the time, as you do. I was looking into how to get this published, and I’ve got a friend, Caroline Smailes, who’s a prolific blogger and she gave me some advice.
I know there are better writers than me out there, who aren’t published. Sometimes it’s a question of being lucky and putting yourself in the right place and meeting the right people. That whole blog thing, it showcases you a bit. Facebook makes a lot of links, you can message other writers, and they give you advice. It’s lovely. I did a book event down in Cornwall, and they wanted me to have public liability insurance, so I mentioned this to Philip Ardagh and he gave me some tips on what kind of cover he’s got.’
‘He’ll remember starting out as well.’
‘I do find that children’s literature is just, the people in it are just so nice. Supportive.
‘Did you go on Facebook specifically to network?’
‘Yeah, I don’t think I’d have been on Facebook naturally.’
‘You seem like a natural, though.’ We laugh, because Jon is a prolific Facebooker.
‘I’m quite friendly, I’m quite sociable, I suppose it’s useful in a way. I’ll come clean and say I use it for networking. Paradoxically, I took myself off the Wirral network, because I put a post up about my Bloomsbury book deal, and they said “that’s advertising”, so I left.’
‘A bit narrow minded.’
‘Yes, I left saying we really need to take the insular out of the Wirral peninsula. It’s so hard to get into the local press. They’re not even remotely interested. Chester and Ellesmere Port are quite good at advertising.
‘How does it feel to all of a sudden be doing an event and be the one who sits there signing?’
‘Embarrassing? I’m not used to that kind of attention.’
‘As a teacher at least you’re used to talking.’
‘I’m all right to stand up in front of people and talk. Probably you have to tap me to shut up. Please do if you need me to. There’s something really strange about.., you go to the Bloomsbury party at Christmas, which is wonderful. You meet all these authors and it’s like, wow, and you kind of forget you’re an author yourself.’ He laughs. ‘I met Steve Cole and it was just wonderful, and we ended up having quite a few drinks. I didn’t even know it was him. I was going on about Frank, who is a huge Astrosaurs fan, and at the end of it he said “the next book’s gonna be dedicated to Frank”. I forgot about it, but sure enough he emailed me the other day and said “have a look in Volcano Invaders” and Frank was absolutely made up. What a nice guy! Our Frank is quite a reluctant reader, and he just devours them and it’s really boosted him on. Anything like that which gets kids reading is good. Now I meet people who say “oh I love your book” and I’ve learnt now how to say “thank you very much”. I’ve practised, you know. I’m not used to praise.’
‘And you have to look like it’s the first time you hear it as well.’
‘It’s really, really hard. What interests me as well (he strokes my copy of Mortlock)… the people who make these books fascinate me. I met a guy at the launch party who does the page layout. It’s just so interesting. And I quite like selling them as well. I was in Waterstones and they had got early copies, and there was a woman looking at The Graveyard Book, and I was stood there and my son Jack, he’s quietly cynical, but he’s sixteen and he said “sell her the book, sell her the book”, so I went “you should buy that one” and she said “why?” “Because I wrote it”. “Oh really” and she did. It was fantastic.’ Jon chuckles with delight.
‘So Neil Gaiman didn’t get his sale then?’
‘He didn’t, no, although I’m a big fan of his. American Gods is great; it’s a strange book because it goes all over the place and it’s all kinds of myths woven into, there’s a kind of mystery runs right through the middle of it. It’s sweet, it’s just brilliant. And quite horrible. Coraline I like as well. You’ve met him, haven’t you? Ooh, I want to meet him.’
We move on to the subject of Jon’s book launch the week before.
‘What I quite liked was that there were a few librarians and booksellers. It was like an old-fashioned launch party, with a play and performances. I thought it was my party, not Bloomsbury’s, so before Ian discussed it, I’d invited half my family, and it’s quite a big family as you can tell. He said “you can probably have about twenty people”, and I’d already invited about 37’, he laughs, ‘but it all worked out in the end.’
‘If your ankle hadn’t broken, would you have started writing anyway?’
‘Mmm’, he says into his mug, ‘I probably would have started but I mightn’t have finished. What that did was give me the time, but it also showed me that you could make time. I’ve still got the same responsibilities, but I don’t watch a lot of telly now. I kind of liken it to running. If you just start to do it, you start walking, then you walk a bit faster and then maybe you trot and after a while you find yourself running. That’s how I started running, and again, I didn’t know how to find time for that. I’ve trouble fitting them all in now,’ he laughs.
‘Yes, music, running, writing, and the odd bit of your day job. Family once in a while.’
‘These things don’t all happen at the same time. Sometimes, when I go for a run I do thinking time, and I’ve been able to drop down to four days a week, so I don’t work Fridays now, so that’s freed up a lot of time. I don’t write every day. I’m not one of these people who write a thousand words a day, so one day I’ll write quite a lot and then another day I’ll go for a run. And the music; that room there in the back has got all these instruments, so what we literally do is pass through, we take the mandolin off the wall, play a tune and then hang it up and carry on. Jack does the same with the piano, and then he’ll move on. It gets … woven is the right word.’ Jon repeats the word ‘woven’, the Merseyside accent prominent.
‘That sounds great.’
‘I do think if I hadn’t broken my ankle I probably would have carried on writing a lot of things, but maybe half a short story. I never finished anything ‘cause something else would get in the way. It was more of a kind of impulse writing, rather than an actual “right I’m going to do this”. I’ve always sort of told myself stories, when I walk to school or whatever.’
‘Are you going to have to write faster now? Because you’ve got another book that someone is effectively waiting for?’
‘Well, the second book’s on the editor’s desk.’
‘And number three?’
‘The deadline for book two is July, so I’m actually ahead of myself, and that’s what I want to try and stay. Whether that will actually happen, I don’t know, because Fridays for the next couple of months I’m going to be promoting Mortlock. I found that with The Demon Collectors I did three or four false starts. I wasn’t quite sure. I had an idea, but initially it was going to be young adult, with a modern setting, and I just couldn’t get my head around it at all. And then, it was Sarwat (Chadda) who was quite keen for me not to make it a YA, and I thought I’ll put it in the same setting as Mortlock and everything just kind of clicked. Then when I’d written it, it came out a little bit Hogwarts, because it’s all set around the Royal Society of Demonology. It’s a collegiate group of professors and scientists who observe and collect demons, and I wanted to try and get the idea that they collected, rather than being demon hunters, so that took a bit of knocking around. Once I had got the basic synopsis, it didn’t take long to write at all. We’ll see how it comes back from the editor’ Jon laughs. ‘She said she loves it, but…’
‘So that when you wrote Mortlock you weren’t thinking that this world could house a few more stories?’
‘I had an idea for Mortlock to carry on; there are a few very loose strands, but essentially the story has now been told, and I quite like that. It’s kind of self-contained and satisfying. Geraldine McCaughrean was saying how she dislikes trilogies and series. She says if you’re going to tell a story and it’s going to take a long time, make it a thick book. I kind of agree with that, but then again, go back to the ballads of Robin Hood. Everyone likes the Robin Hood character…’
‘And you want some more.’
‘Yeah, you can tell lots of stories, I can see that impulse and I don’t see anything wrong with that. A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. You close the book and you think; well that’s done. You’ll probably dredge that up in ten years’ time when I’ve just published my trilogy,’ Jon says and laughs.
‘Quite right, too. But I do like that sense of closure, at the end of a book, but then some people in reviews have said “we want more”. For instance, Alfie says “I had a fight with Edgy Taylor.” Edgy Taylor is the protagonist in The Demon Collectors, and in Corvis’s mansion Josie pulls a book off the shelf, called Practical Demonology by professor Evnry Janus, and he’s one of the characters in Demon Collectors.
‘So you could read the books in reverse order?’
‘Yes, they’re both standalone. The one character that I think will run through all three is Evenyule Scrabsnitch, with his Emporium of Archaic Antiquities, because I quite like him. He’s a bit of a shyster but actually, he’s the real deal. He knows his stuff, but in order to make a living he has to sell fake stuff as well. So he crops up, he turns out to be a member of the Society of Demonology, and then in book three I’ve got real plans for him.’ Jon mumbles a bit to himself. ‘Quite central to the plot, really.’
‘Are you going to have anything else horribly birdy? They are a bit…’
Jon laughs heartily, ‘Yeah, you know I didn’t really think about that, it had never occurred to me.’
‘And those quotes at the start of each chapter…’
‘The Demon Collectors has got quotes in again, but in book two there aren’t any birds. So you’re all right there. There are other things, but there aren’t birds. I must admit I’d quite like the ghuls to come back. Aunt Mag gets turned into an egg, and Corvis is about to stamp on it, and Josie stops him…’
‘It’s such a loose thread that, you know…’
‘That you needn’t do anything with it, but you could.’
‘Yeah, you’re not a big fan of birds.’ Jon laughs. ‘I’ve got two childhood memories of crows, or things that frighten me. One was an episode of The Avengers, and there was a guy and he had this mask to murder people. It was like a crow mask and it scared the living daylights out of me. I remember having nightmares about it. And the other one is someone turned into a crow, and that really freaked me out as well. That whole transformation thing, I found really horrible. In my mum and dad’s house there were certain books that you didn’t even have to read, you just knew, and there was one which was Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales of Midnight, and I remember actually daring to open it. One of the stories was the short story the film The Fly was based on, and I stupidly read it. I’ve never watched the film. I couldn’t watch the film. Anything to do with transformation, is actually quite.., it touches quite a deep root I think. So yes, there might be a bit more transformation in book three.’ He laughs.
‘Your language is quite modern; you’re not trying to sound Victorian.’
‘Not at all, and yet funnily enough, for some of the characters I tried to, and it was Sarah Davies, my agent, who said “this is a book for modern kids. That’s how people spoke 150 years ago, they’re not going to want to read that.” It was things like that which really changed the book. She said what you need to do is put modern children into that Victorian setting. Initially I had trouble with the prologue. Sarah suggested a prologue, and the received wisdom is that prologues are death, apparently. I think very cinematically, very visually, and the prologue kind of spells it out, so the mystery is there, unravelling.’
‘How did you get the idea for the Amarant? Is it actually straight from Milton?’
‘No, I started off with this character, the Amarant was a person at first. It was a kind of Lazarus character, someone who had been resurrected and never died, but he was just getting in the way all the time. Alfie ended up with the ability to raise the dead, but this Lazarus character had it initially, and he was like a divine spirit everyone was trying to catch, and it just became really complicated. Researching the Lazarus myths I came across the eternal flower, and the Amarant came up, so then the Lazarus character had an Amarant tattoo, which was quite cool. Then I thought “why don’t you just get rid of the person altogether?” When people ask me about redrafting, I say I just turned one of my characters into a flower. I do like Paradise Lost, and that’s where it came from which is why I put the quote in. It just gives it a more biblical tone.
I quite like piggybacking other people’s work’, he laughs. ‘I love WW Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, it’s a short story, it is the best, it’s wonderful. It’s basically a “be careful what you wish for” sort of thing. I thought “how did he get that paw?” What a fantastic back story there must be to that. And that’s what I wanted to write. The inspiration for the undertaker in Mortlock was straight from Oliver. My son had a walk-on part (of the school play). The rest of the play is a blur, but you remember him. I started to research all the undertakers in Dickens. There’s loads of them, so initially Josie and Alfie, in my very very first draft, went to all of these undertakers. Just like cameos, but one by one they got edited out.’
‘What about the other side to Jon Mayhew? Your day job; how did you end up working with autism?’
‘Right, gosh. Well, I’ve got two nephews who have Fragile X Syndrome and associated autism, so there’s always been a family link there. I grew up with them, so when I went into teaching I found myself very drawn to that area, and ultimately I worked in a special school on the Wirral, and I ended up working with children with severe autism and associated challenging behaviour. That was quite a thing really. From that I went back into mainstream. I ended up being a special needs coordinator at a school in Chester. Cheshire at the time were reorganising. They’ve got resources and provision in mainstream schools.
Basically parents were coming to my school, they talked to me, I was autism friendly. I didn’t have all the answers, but I had instinct and understanding, so I ended up in this particular high school with quite a large number of cohorts of children on the autistic spectrum. I spent a lot of time brokering between staff, and by and large got along quite successfully. It wasn’t autism heaven, there is no such place, yet. Maybe one day.
From that a job came up with the autism support team. It wasn’t a step up, financially it was a step down, but it’s something that really appealed to me, and I did feel with my experience, I could talk to other teachers and try to spread the word a bit. I’ve been doing that for about two years now. It’s satisfying and frustrating in equal measures, really. You meet teachers who are brilliant and really, really good, and you meet teachers who just don’t want to know and it’s so frustrating, that whole “he’s just being a naughty boy, manipulative and controlling”! Have you ever thought why they’re controlling? Some people just see it straight away and other people don’t. It is a fascinating area.’
I mention Jodi Picoult’s new book on Asperger Syndrome, which Jon hasn’t read.
‘What’s your interest then? You have a whole page on aspie books.’ He laughs a little. ‘It fascinates me. When I talk to staff, when I talk to parents sometimes as well, I wonder sometimes whether I’m not somewhere on that spectrum.’ Jon goes on to talk about Wendy Lawson, an aspie who says “we might all be on the spectrum, but you don’t have to do deep breathing exercises every time they change the soups display in the supermarket”. Wendy says she can’t “use anybody’s toothbrush, or sleep on either side of the bed”. Jon says ‘I just look at my own routines. I think it’s really good if you look at yourself, at your most anxious.’
‘You should have seen us trying to leave the house this morning…’
He giggles delightedly, ‘I must admit, when you were saying “where do you want to meet?”, that’s a decision, and I’m dreadful at making decisions. I have to look at what will happen every step of the way. I like the NAS’s (National Autistic Society) stands, so much of it is just understanding, we write social stories, those kinds of resources we generate. But more and more I just feel that if you can just generate a bit of understanding. If someone’s in a wheelchair, someone will build a ramp. I always use a cheesy kind of analogy, and I always say what I try to do is build ramps in people’s minds. That’s what it needs.
In some cases it needs a very specific environment that children can thrive in, but quite often it just needs a bit of understanding. We don’t all fit the same mould, we don’t all love football, we don’t all want to run around screaming in the playground. It worries me when people seek a cure, that (Simon) Baron-Cohen says there are certain genes we’ll be able to eradicate in five years.
People without drive won’t achieve things. What you might have is a gift. Look at Bill Gates; he’s not diagnosed and he seems quite antagonistic to the idea, but anyone spending their teenage years studying binary codes … Well you know, but on the other hand, wasn’t it a good thing he did? So, yes, that’s autism. All the children march in line, and for all the wrong reasons, really.’ He sounds sad. ‘I feel quite strongly about it.’
‘Would you ever write an aspie book?’
‘I don’t know if I would, actually. I quite like Curious Incident; I love that book, everything is just so well written and I always recommend that. I’d like to get Luke Jackson* to write it. You know?’ He laughs. ‘I’m a bit worried about bandwagons and things. I have got a book on my hard drive which I haven’t shown to anyone, about a boy who’s got ADHD, and that sprang from a conference I went to. I sneaked into a medics’ conference. I was doctor Mayhew for the day, which was really good, under cover. One of the paediatricians from Chester was talking, an ADHD specialist. He was talking about ADHD being very much context based.
There are times when you are paying attention to everything, and if this was ten thousand years ago and you were by a water hole, if a sabre toothed is behind you you’d know it was there. But it’s not very good in a modern classroom. You also know the fans are there, and I thought it would be really good; a boy with ADHD who knew there was something wrong in his school, but his mum kept giving him Ritalin, and he kept spitting the tablet out, to find out what the the mystery is. It’s quite horrible, actually, all based on some kind of parasitic wasps.’
The photographer points out ‘I don’t think I’ll read that.’
‘I had trouble writing it, to be honest. Stomach churning, but it’s great when the wasps come to maturity, if you like that kind of thing!’ He sounds happy, like a young boy enjoying shocking people. ‘In a Darren Shan kind of way,’ Jon laughs. He tells how he found someone else had published a book with a very similar plot, and how he wrote to him ‘complaining that I had a whole book about creepy crawlies, and he replied “don’t worry, there’s plenty of room for brain eating wasps in the world.” I worry sometimes that I’m not a great issues person…
Originally, in the book – it’s called Wasps – I did have a character in that who was on the spectrum, and of course no one pays any attention to him. I stripped it out; it was getting complicated, but I’ll come back to it. I like fantasy, really.’ He reaches out for my copy of Mortlock; ‘so you like this?’
‘Yes, when the proof arrived in its black jiffy bag, I thought this book has probably got something.’
‘They’ve put a lot behind it, you know.’
‘It’s an indication that they believe in it.’
‘Someone at Bloomsbury said “oh your book is so easy to sell!” and she just went wild about it. That excitement, you can’t quite believe it. It just puzzles me in a way. As I said to the page layout guy “I wrote this story, and they turned it into a book”. I quite like the idea of black edges, and I wanted some red on the cover,’ (while narrowly escaping the princess book look). It’s all fresh and new to me. I want to keep it that way. This fascinates me, it really does.’
Wanting to strike while Jon is fresh, I ask if he will sign my copy of the green, black-edged book. He goes to get a pen, and returns bearing a special Mortlock bookmark, saying ‘I got you a little stamp as well,’ which starts a discussion about Philip Ardagh and his stamp. We decide that he might be more of a cheat, as Philip only stamps and doesn’t sign. ‘I’ve just got a Mortlock stamp,’ he points out, and ‘this is my special secret santa signing pen from my team at work.‘
I hope they are proud of him. Good at ramp building, and already an accomplished, and excited, novelist.
*Luke Jackson is a teenager with AS who has written books on Asperger Syndrome.
(All photos by Helen Giles)