Maybe we have arrived too early. I don’t know. My photographer and I want to case the joint, even though we’ve interviewed many times in this hotel. We want to find the table with the best light, that will best suit our needs. But Michael Grant and Alice, his publicist from Egmont, have got here almost as much too early. After hugs all round, Michael orders a roast beef sandwich to go with his coffee. It’s hungry work, this travelling. And he’s got an event in Charlotte Square soon after.
‘So how are you doing?’ he asks.
‘Not bad at all. How are you?’
‘I know, but it’s preferable to not being older I always think.’
He laughs. ’It beats the alternative, yeah.’
‘It does, and you are looking very nice and slim.’
‘Am I?’ Michael goes on to ruminate on how having children can make you fat, talking about his son Jake who’s ‘just gone off to university, and my daughter is just starting high school.’
‘Yes, I saw the graduation photos.’
‘Empty nest syndrome.’
‘Yes, poor you.’
‘Not much, but a little bit,’ he smiles.
‘I was looking at your website which hasn’t seen a lot of action recently. Probably because you didn’t pay Jake?’
‘No, he’s just got too f*cking busy. Can’t get him to work for me. He was supposed to get a website done for Front Lines, but Jake has been halfway out the door since he was ten. He’s not a kid who’s going to hang around.’
‘A bit like you.’
‘Yes, a bit like me, sadly.’
’At our first meeting you said you owed him a lot of money for doing your website, and I thought maybe you forgot to pay him again.’
‘He gets paid. You know what? He’s got this little thing you insert into your phone, so whenever he does a project for me he comes in and says here you go and the 2% charge for the transaction, he charges me for that…’
I laugh. ‘Just write more books.’
‘And have you seen my daughter’s hair? The most expensive hairdo. [searches his phone] Here it is.’
‘Oh wow!’ It’s very blue.
‘Seven hours! At $100 an hour. And then my son dyed his purple for university.’
I point to Michael’s new book, The Tattooed Heart. ‘I’ve not got very far with this. I had to find time to sleep as well. It strikes me that this isn’t quite your normal stuff.’
‘No. I’m not entirely market driven because I consistently push to make it more intelligent. I would make more money if I dumbed things down a little. But I’m still market driven, so I sat there thinking, “well, we’re all sick to death of dystopia, the writers are sick of it, the editors are sick of it, I’ve got to believe the readers are sick of it at this point. And so what do we do?” I thought, “I’ve got two possible bets – it’s like putting down two chips on the table – so I bet on horror, which is Messenger of Fear, and alternate history.
We’ve essentially created this market for strong female action leads, and the only way we found to fill that need is in fantasy or in dystopia. I’m sick of thinking up another reason to why a 16-year-old girl can save the world. I wanted to find a different way of using the same kind of strong female action lead, so I came up with an alternate history of the American involvement of WWII, in which a supreme court decision has made women eligible for the draft.’
‘I didn’t want to just keeping writing the Gone series over and over again, or BZRK. So yeah, this is more stylised than my usual prose, which tends to be very straightforward and not very good.’ He sighs apologetically. ‘Not ornate.’ He laughs. ‘I had fun doing it, and I hadn’t written in first person for a long time. So I thought let’s do this, let’s have fun with it, let’s talk about some big issues, talk about right and wrong, good and evil.’
‘I was wondering whether to call it political?’
‘I was inspired by the kid whose name I of course immediately forgot, and by Malala and how she has stood up against evil.’
‘Yeah, I just didn’t expect you to go in that direction. Three years ago you mentioned your plans and I don’t remember anything like this at all.’
‘What was I talking about three years ago?’ He thinks about this. ‘I keep threatening to quit. I’m just now signing for yet another trilogy. We’re calling it descendants of the Gone series, it will take place in the Gone universe, like ten years later.’
‘That would be fun.’
‘Yeah, I think so!’ Michael sounds enthusiastic. ‘Yeah, I’m always excited by things, when I haven’t actually started writing.’ He laughs. ‘Because in my imagination it’s going to be easy, yeah, and then I get to Front Lines, and old history is just a miserable job to write. Like were they Messerschmitts or Focke-Wulfs?’
‘Apart from putting girls in the war, is everything the same as it was?’
’It’s as close as I can get. All the major events are exactly right, but I wasn’t interested in doing the generals. It’s not about them, it’s about the grunts, about the GIs, and I didn’t want anyone to have any special powers or anything, I just wanted regular people. They dig holes and they sleep in the mud and get eaten alive by bugs.’ He sounds happy at the thought. ‘They’re scared. So all the usual fun…’
‘And is this just one book?’
‘Ann, when have I ever just written one? It’s going to be three.’
‘I laugh. ‘What about your new book?’
‘We’re stopping at two. I kind of got that out of my system. It was fun to write a more baroque kind of style. My original idea was I was going to do H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft is a writer beloved by I think everyone who has ever written horror. The general rule of thumb is don’t use adverbs and adjectives. Lovecraft uses every adjective and adverb in the entire dictionary, he just layers on. But for my audience it’s just too ornate. And he can’t plot worth a damn.’
‘Could you write more slowly?’
‘Could I write more slowly?’
‘No, to be honest with you. I just turned 61, and like everybody else you’re worried about getting older, mostly you’re thinking your imagination might go, might burn out, I’m 160 books into my career.’
‘Sitting here right now, the next after Front Lines is the follow-on to the Gone series, and I am desperate to start it.’ Michael laughs, sounding almost embarrassed. ‘I’ve got another two or three weeks finishing off Front Lines number two, and then something else and in the meantime I wrote a TV pilot, two TV pilots…’
‘You just had to do it.’
‘I write about three hours a day, but I’m always going to be a workaholic, a bit of a speed freak.’
‘So it’s really that you can’t stop? Or do you need to pile up the money, or are you thinking of your pension?’
‘All of that. I’ve got one kid at university, another one coming down the pipe. Fortunately my wife is doing extremely well.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard.’
‘New York Times bestseller, and she won the Newbery.’
‘I saw that, and I thought I want to read that book.’
’It hasn’t gotten anywhere in this country.’ He sounds incredulous.
‘That’s what I gather.’
‘You wanna know why? Because she was not able to get the rights to Egmont. Egmont would have sold that book. See, I do a separate thing with Egmont, because I don’t want to end up someplace where they’re not going to sell my book and Egmont sells books, and treats authors really well. And I love doing visits.’ His publicist laughs. ‘Now we’ve taken care of her…’ At this point Michael’s sandwich finally arrives, but he has to ask for his coffee again.
‘Would you like some tea instead,’ I ask.
‘Noo, goodness, no. It’s horrible stuff. I can’t believe you people conquered the world on nothing but tea, come on..!’
Michael returns to his writing choices. ‘You know, as much as I respect the market and am market driven, I’ve got to do some stuff that’s just, you know, not the same damned thing.’
Michael tries to offer us half his beef baguette. ‘I’m going to eat now and show you that I can eat while being interviewed. What were we talking about?’
‘You wanting to…’
‘To never in my career be in a position to follow anybody else. Gone actually came out before all the rest of the dystopia did. When Animorphs came out, it was the only science fiction out there, for that age group. I live in horror of ever following somebody else.’
‘Do you read anyone else? I mean YA.’
‘Only if they send me something for a blurb, and then it’s usually a friend. I probably read two YA novels a year. I tend to read history, sometimes politics, thrillers. I’m more of a genre guy; I’m not sitting around my house reading great literature.’
‘I was more wondering how you know what others are doing, so that you don’t copy them.’
‘Well, we read reviews, and we’ve got a book store. I’ve got to do something different, interesting, that’ll keep me involved.’
‘You must be getting new readers all the time because of their age. If you’re going to write about Gone again, who is that for? Is it for people who have yet to discover the first Gone series, or is for those of us who have already read it?’
‘It’s for the many children on Twitter constantly going “what happened to Dekka?”
Even when you say my readers, they’re not my readers. I don’t think in YA you have loyalty readers. I think you have loyalty to a series, loyalty to characters. Nobody cares about you, the writer. I mean, there’s a bunch of fans that I get along with, we all like each other, but they’re invested in the book, and that’s as it should be. Writers, what are we? We’re dancing monkeys.’
‘I thought you were a rock star. Last time you you were getting the rock star treatment…’
Michael sounds a bit embarrassed. ‘Oh yes, some girls were screaming, but that’s just because I’m that guy on the internet. You know, it’s a very nice kind of relationship I have with fans. They’re a lovely bunch of kids, and desperately loyal to Gone.’
‘I read almost everything Lee Child writes, because I like his thrillers, but if he suddenly went off the rails and wrote something really different… You consider it in the terms of the book, is that the kind of book I wanna read? It’s not the author, it’s the story.’
‘That’s quite sensible. When Messenger of Fear arrived, I wanted to read it because it’s yours, but then I thought no, I’m too busy to read this one. But I’m finding it interesting.’
‘I think it’s credibly done. Competently written, but it’s not going to be for everyone.’
‘I keep thinking back to Gone. A writer friend said “he didn’t need that sub-plot” and I felt just wait, it’s going to be needed.’
‘I don’t plan anything, it’s instinctive and I’m thinking “can I use this later on? Is this going to be a seed I can plant, which is going to sprout in book three?” And sometimes they don’t. I’m very proud of Gone, mostly because from my position as a writer, it’s much more a question of “can I write six books, each one having a beginning and an ending, and then have the series have an ending, and in book six when they close the final page, will kids feel like ‘hey, that was a great ride,’” and the reaction fortunately was that 99% thought it was a great ride.’
‘I believe my friend criticised the bit where we meet Lana and her dog, because she couldn’t see a point to it, but of course there was plenty of point to that.’
‘Yeah, if Lana hadn’t worked out I would have killed her off at some point. Characters are my employees. They work for me baby.’ Michael laughs.
‘You come over here a lot. Do you travel the rest of the world as well?’
‘I’m going to Australia next year.’
’Is it mainly English speaking countries?’
‘Yeah, I’ve got lots of Brazilian fans on Twitter and they’re used to dealing with a book that’s been translated into Portuguese… It’s bad enough you know sometimes in Scotland and Ireland. It takes me a while. You have to listen. The cab driver from the train station; I didn’t understand him, but he also didn’t understand me, so you have that immediate reaction “I don’t have an accent!” Like my American English must be the default.’
‘Well in the films people speak like you… Are you doing all right for money?’
‘Will you have a pension? Or will the 85-year-old Michael sit there hammering away on his keyboard?’
‘I’m terrible with money. I live in one of the most expensive places in the United States. When I look at my life, I was a poor kid, I was a poor adult, and I was poor well into my thirties, and I’m extremely aware every day of how lucky I am. There’s never a feeling on my part that I deserved anything. I don’t deserve half of what I’ve got, you know. But I got lucky, frankly, so I’m going to enjoy it.’
‘Quite right. Have you just arrived here?’
‘Yeah, like minutes ago, just got in the train station at 12.30. I’ve been around the UK for about a week now. I went to Portsmouth, because I wanted to look at Victory, Lord Nelson’s old boat, which is by the way not a great place for tall people.’
‘No, I can imagine.’
‘I think the lowest deck was about four and a half feet. I got through it without braining myself. I’m using British submarines in Front Lines. I’m using a T-class, they had a diagram of one, so I walked down with my eyes, taking shots so I can get the feel. I went to London, where I discovered John Lewis, the store.’
’About time,’ I laugh.
‘Pretty much. It’s amazing, because I usually go to Selfridges. I used to go there to buy cigars, down in the basement, because you could buy Cubans, which we can’t get in the States. Well, they kept jacking the prices up, so they said try John Lewis, so I went there and my god! I was looking at things, like this can’t be marked right, there must be something wrong!’
‘Never knowingly undersold.’
‘I don’t mean to do an advertisement, but it’s a rare damn thing on Oxford Street. Those are words that don’t normally cross your lips in London. I got a nice wallet for £15. And I had a meeting with the Gone TV producing people, so we’re hoping that… I like these guys a lot. They are deeply committed, one of the girls, one of the producers, girls, because everyone under the age of 40 is a girl, and boys as well, they’re all children to me. The writer is the guy who wrote Our World War, a three part series for the BBC. I was very impressed and I like him. Good dude, so we think we’ve got between a 30 to 40% chance of actually getting something made.’
‘Do I take it that Front Lines is going to be Egmont? When is it published?’
‘February,’ Alice replies.
‘Well you know I never do interviews with an idea of what I should say. I’m here to push Messenger.’
‘I know. I just wanted to understand as much as I can about the past, the present and the future, and anything that comes after the future.’
‘Front Lines comes out end of January, [the new Gone] will come out late 2017, I think? Yeah.’ Michael is pondering what year we are in and what comes next, ‘and I don’t have anything after that.’
‘I obviously need to clear my diaries for all this reading.’
’It’s just an excuse to come and have coffee with you…’
I wish. It’s always good to see Michael, so here’s to his next UK book tour. We have Front Lines to look forward to, as well as more Gone a little later on. And maybe next time I won’t feel the urge to dig so deeply into people’s financial affairs.