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Interview: Alex Scarrow, Author Of TimeRiders & Ellie Quin Series

Posted by simdude101 (correspondent) from Cardiff - Published on 14/08/2015 at 10:50
0 comments » - Tagged as Creative Writing, History, People, School Holiday Activities, Topical

  • Alex Scarrow

Recently Cardiff Central Library Hub, as its now apparently called, celebrated the opening of the new Teen Section on the ground floor, as part of a wider refurbishment.

As part of this, they brought in the author of the bestselling young adult (YA) series TimeRidersAlex Scarrow to take part in the event. July's Sprout Editorial Group meeting coincided with the launch, and because of this, I had the opportunity to interview Alex, and ask him a few questions about his TimeRiders series and his new book.

You are most well-known for the TimeRiders series, how would you describe it to a new audience, and are there plans for more books?

A: Well, it's a nine book series, and the last book in the series came out last Christmas and it always was going to be a nine book series, the whole thing was mapped out as a nine book story, so I have had people asking me a 10th, 11th book and it's like, no not this story, but time travel being time travel, there's always the possibility of taking it at a later date.

How would I describe it? Well, when I was a kid I was a big big fan of a series of films that probably would look a little dated to youngsters now, the Back To The Future movies, because the storytelling in them is brilliant, and also The Terminator movies, so it is very much that those two things were influences as a child. Doctor Who as well.

I wanted to write a time travel series that felt like it had all the ingredients, but also felt like it had a gritty realism, that it really could quietly be going on behind our backs, and explain a lot of the stuff from history that can't quite be explained.

It's a series about three teenagers who are recruited in the very last moments of their lives, the last few seconds, in a way that wouldn't change history, recruited by an agency who's one role is to stop people from the future where time travel technology exists from coming back and corrupting everything.

I know that one of the books, at least, seems to keep going back to the day of 9/11, is there a significant reason for that?

Yeah, so the team have a field office once they've been recruited by the agency, and they're based under the Williamsburg Bridge, which links Brooklyn to Manhattan, in an old, disused, archway. They are also based in two days that they live through over and over in an endless cycle, and these two days are the day before and the day of 9/11.

The simple reason behind that was that it would be the perfect cover for this team, no one's going to be looking at the strange comings and goings from this archway, when quite simply, the world is falling apart around them - it's the perfect cover - but from a writer's perspective, its also really interesting. For historians there is definitely a world before 9/11 happens, and in the space of like 30 seconds, values around the whole world change, it's a nexus point in history.

So where did you get the idea for Ellie Quin, your latest series, come from?

Ellie Quin, it's a personal project, it's a girl who thinks she's the most boring girl in the universe, yet she discovers she has coded into her DNA a message that will transform all of humanity. Pretty soon, she finds herself on the run for some bad guys, but Ellie Quin is more about the universe itself.

One of the things that tires me a little bit about science fiction is its picture of a rather dystopian thing, the Blade Runner cliche where its also sort of neon lights and grim and raining. One of the films I really enjoyed watching about ten years ago was a film called The Fifth Element where the future is colourful and bright and fun and zany, and I thought that's a great place to set a story. So Ellie Quin is best described as Hitchhiker's Guide meets Bridget Jones's Diary - its full of really cool stuff, like they've got this nail varnish in the future where when it dries you can watch TV on a different channel on each finger - its got loads of cool stuff like that.

You have a dedicated section on your website for readers fan fiction, why is that?

Because I love the idea of fan fiction, I love the idea that it becomes a playground writers can use to practice their own skills - they don't need to come up with a concept, they can use somebody else's concept, and then hone their craft. It's an opportunity for them to do that, but also it's an opportunity for me, as the creator of TimeRiders to see what other adventures they can come up with; I've had fun writing it, but I'd like somebody to write some TimeRiders stories.

You write adult and young adult books, is there any difference as to how you write them?

There should be... okay, I'm going to make a confession here. When I started writing TimeRiders I had written about four adult novels, and I thought I was going to set aside about nine months to read lots of YA (young adult) fiction, and learn how its written and I just didn't do the homework. The deadline was looming, I thought I better get started, so I just wrote a book like I'd write it for adults.

It worked out well, and I realise now with hindsight, you don't write specifically for children, you're patronising if you do that, they're smart enough to get it, and if you write down for them, you will just irritate them, so all I really did was take out the profanity and the sex and violence (I'm kidding on that last point).

Do you know before you write who the audience will be, or does it form whilst you write?

A: I think you know pretty much know who you're talking to from the get go but with TimeRiders, as I was writing I did find, because the writing style was quite mature, that I didn't find myself mentally seeing in my mind an audience of one or two adults dotted around.

It's meant that a lot of the fans are dads and sons, mums and daughters, both reading it at the same time, which I've got to tell you as a parent is just gold because when your kids become teenagers they're so few conversations you can have with them - you're lucky if you get a grunt, y'know - so if you can be sitting over the breakfast table - "Gosh, did you read that chapter last night, the bit where, yeah yeah it was so cool!" - to have another conversation that you can have with your teenage kids is brilliant.

Do you plan your writing or do you just jump straight in and if you do plan, how do you do so?

I plan meticulously.

There are two types of writers, there seem to be writers who can just sort of busk it or make it up as they go along, and there are planners, I'm definitely a planner, especially with time travel you've really got to know how the whole thing ends before you start chapter one. So I spent about a year building a nine book synopsis, and I had a folder at home all the way through for four years - I knew how this entire series would end, I even knew how the last sentence would go... you try not dropping a spoiler when you've got all that in your head!

So, what's a typical day for a writer?

Well, first for me it's up at about nine, I get my iPad or my laptop and I'm off down to the first cafe I can find with decent wifi, and I write for about two-three hours in the morning. It tends to be one very large latte and a chocolate chip muffin, and when I get to the bottom of both of those it's usually about three hours, that's kind of how I do it now, that last crumbs gone, I go right that's about enough, and that gives me about 1200 words a day.

Your brother Simon is also a well-known author, is there any rivalry between you?

Oh yeah! It's a healthy, fun sibling rivalry. We're always comparing stats in a very competitive way, but having a sibling like Simon is great because he writes a Roman series for adults but he also writes a teenage series called Gladiator and his things are very much Roman.

In TimeRiders, in the fifth book, my team were always going to go back to Roman times for the story to take place, and I said to Simon, you know, this is a great opportunity because I've just been checking your timeline with your characters and my timeline and they're both in Rome at roughly the same time, they could cross paths. I said would you mind if I had a crack at this, write your characters into my series for one book, and he was like yeah sure. The great thing being brothers is there's no need to bring in legal guys because we just said let's do it, so it's really easy.

Of all your books, which one would be the best starting point for a new Alex Scarrow Reader?

I think for teen readers I would start with the first TimeRiders. I have had people coming in on book four, five, six, I don't know how they get it, but they do, and then they look at the books before it as the origin story leading up to that story, and then carry on, but I would say TimeRiders book one.

What's your favourite book?

It's tough, it's like films, it changes day to day, but when I was about nine or ten, I was reading a lot of Stephen King books, big big fan of Stephen King, and one of the books that stayed with me, really really stayed with me, was his book Carrie. It's about a girl with telepathic powers who's bullied, she's picked upon, and then she finally snaps and turns on her bullies with these powers, and I'm telling you, the last two or three chapters of that book, I still have flashbacks. I mean 30 years later, I still have horrible, clammy nightmares inspired by those chapters, it was real book, a really good book.

What's your favourite book that you've written?

Ah, that's a tough one, well I think TimeRiders and well, Ellie Quin as well, but my adult books are all standalone books, so by the time you get to the end of the book you've written, you've just about started to really get to know your characters. 

Yet with something like TimeRiders, with nine books, I've really got to know them, and they've become like my kids, and writing book nine and coming to the end of it, by that point, the way I was writing was I was actually turning up at an appointed rendezvous with my characters and just taken dictation, they were alive off the page and speaking to me. Even now when I've finished the series, there are quite moments at night when I'm just not really thinking about anything else, I can sort of hear them yapping away in my head still. Part of me thinks I may have to go back to them at some point and do something else with those characters, because I've grown so fond of them!

Finally, do you have any tips or advice for budding young writers?

Yeah, a couple of tips. I would say reading is as good practice as writing is for a writer - the more you read, the more you'll understand how to handle dialogue and narrative and structure.

And the wider you read, means the wider the places you can withdraw your ideas from. So many readers who just read Twilight or just read Hunger Games, and they go, I want to write a book, and guess what, they end up writing Divergent and Hunger Games all over again, but if they were to read wider, the chances are they would come up with something hugely original. So the wider you read, the greater the number of places you can get ideas from, stir them up and come up with your very own mix.

The other bit of advice I would give is when you finally hit upon that idea that's so good you've just got to write it, my advice would be to work out what the ending of your story is going to be. Write that last chapter first, so that you can see the whole thing in crystal clarity and then start at the beginning because now your story has a direction of travel, and you're so much more likely to finish it, rather than write five or six chapters, run out of steam and go "oh I dunno?"

It really was a great experience interviewing such a great author. Get out there and read his books, I guarantee that you'll like them!

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