Vanessa handed me an ARC (advance reader’s copy) of Lockwood & Co. with little warning, other than mentioning that it had had to be pried out of the hands of another reader, much younger than me, who was somewhat unwilling to let it go. I had to swear to return it. I was allowed to read it, I was told, only because I knew how to look after books!
With elements of adventure, ghost and detective stories, Jonathan Stroud’s new series Lockwood & Co. looks set to enchant a host of new readers, young and old. The first book, The Screaming Staircase, is a supernatural thriller, featuring the investigative team of Anthony Lockwood, George Cubbins and newcomer Lucy Carlyse, as they track down and lay to rest ghosts. In a London where ghosts present a problem of epidemic proportions, invisible but lethal to adults, it’s up to the children, armed with their wits and swords to lay them to rest. And to find out what unfinished business keeps them walking to begin with.
The author of the Bartimaeus trilogy gives us a thrilling, intelligent adventure, with a female protagonist as capable and determined as any of her peers. It’s thrilling and often humourous, but most of all, it’s creepy.
Hauntings are our business . . .
Ghosts crowd the streets and houses of London. Anthony Lockwood, with his slightly grumpy deputy George, and his junior field operative Lucy, make up LOCKWOOD & CO, the small, shabby yet talented ghost-hunting agency.
After a series of calamitous investigations into the supernatural go awry, the team are desperate to prove themselves. Their opportunity comes in the form of a terrifying ghost, the Red Duke. But little do they know what perils lie in store for them at the haunted Bliss Hall .
With the opportunity to ask Jonathan some questions about his work, his plans and Lockwood & Co, how could I resist? But where to start? At the beginning, of course.
My first question to Jonathan was when he had started writing? He told me, “I’m happy to say that I’ve pretty much always been doing it. A few years ago my mum and dad unearthed a box of ancient dust-covered rarities from their attic, including lots of little books and stories made when I was about five. Bound in old bits of wallpaper, they already show breathtaking variety, ranging from ‘A Book of Dinosaurs’ to ‘Robin Hood and the Silver Arrow’ (which was a spirited adaptation of the Ladybird version). The box also contained a later story about a genie, ‘The Three Wishes’, proving (rather worryingly) that my preferred subject matter hadn’t much altered in over thirty years.
With writing obviously important to the young Jonathan, I wondered which writer had influence him most. He explained, “I think it all depends which age we’re talking. As the Robin Hood book proved, I tended to respond very strongly to certain books and immediately seek to try my own versions. So at various times, different authors ruled. At six, for example, I discovered Enid Blyton and devoured her Famous Five: for several years afterwards, numerous similar tales poured from my pen. A little later, Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings gave me a taste for fantasy; and Puffin’s ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series (beginning with Jackson and Livingstone’s Warlock of Firetop Mountain) gave me the impulse to write stories with multiple routes. All of these stages were, in retrospect, significant. Fantasy and adventure are still important in my writing, and multiple routes have distant echoes in Bartimaeus’s footnotes, which give the reader temporary choices of direction.”
So which writers influence him now? “Hmm, a tricky one…” he said, “I tend to respond to writers with a certain clarity of style. I love Orwell’s Essays, for example, Waugh’s use of dialogue, Stevenson’s panache at melding high adventure with moral complexity and ambiguity of character. I suppose I view Treasure Island as the apogee of the kind of book I write. It’s the Everest around which we all pile up our foothills.”
The young reader we had to extract Lockwood from in order for me to read it, reads widely, and assured me that this was one of the best books she had ever read. So what inspired the story? Jonathan explained, “For some years I’ve been keen to try my hand at a ghost story – I’ve always been partial to fine chilling tales. I wasn’t quite sure how to do it, though – most ghost stories are very short and (necessarily) somewhat morbid. I wanted to combine this darkness with a more upbeat adventure narrative. One day I sat down and wrote a short scene in which two children – dressed in modern clothes, but with swords – knock on the door of a house in London. They’ve come to deal with the ghost that lives there. I had absolutely no idea what the wider story was, but I liked the potential of this. In my book of ghosts, the kids are going to be empowered. Nasty things are out there, but bravery, teamwork and a sense of humour (not forgetting some big swords) will provide the means to save the day.”
With this spark of a starting point, I asked Jonathan if he planned his books, or followed where the story led?
“I do both and for me this is the crux of the writing experience: it’s a weird and ever-shifting mix of the two sides. It’s like two halves of the brain, each essential, each trying to be dominant. I tend to always begin with the improvisational side – riffing and scribbling, seeing what comes out, going with the flow and so on. I wait to see if it gets me excited. As with Lockwood, I just jump into a scene and let the characters develop. If they start to work, I know that I’m on to something. Should everything go well, I can carry on with this phase for quite a while. With the first Bartimaeus book I wrote about 60 pages almost without pausing for breath. But sooner or later I have to stop and start planning. Questions pile up. How does it all hold together? Where’s the story going? I have to create interim plans, which then immediately change once I carry on writing and discover new potential paths to go down. From then on, it’s back and forth between the two sides until my chapter plan is suitably robust and I can more or less stick to it.”
Jonathan told me a bit about how he structures his writing day: “I’m working on a novel now (the second Lockwood book), and am therefore trying to keep to a strict routine. I work best in the mornings, so I get up early, trudge to my desk, and sit there in silence with my computer, printer, pens, paper, notes and not much else. The fewer distractions, the better. The internet is a particular danger; also the telephone, though I tend to ignore it while I’m writing. I aim for a 9 to 5 working day, with five pages the occasionally achieved objective. If I manage to follow this routine, I can get an initial draft done fairly quickly in a matter of a few months. Building momentum is essential. Apart from regular cups of tea and the occasional biscuit, that’s me set for the duration. I’m a simple fellow.”
There are shades of Sherlock Holmes and Victorian ghost stories throughout Lockwood and I was curious as to whether this intentional or did they present themselves as Jonathan wrote? “Detective stories and gothic tales are close bedfellows, and have been tightly bound together since the days of Poe. Conan Doyle himself wrote ghost stories, while Sherlock Holmes dabbles in (seemingly) supernatural adventures in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sussex Vampire. I think of Doyle as writing during the first great epoch of English adventure stories, when many fine writers were producing popular, dynamic narratives, often with a decidedly gothic bent. I’m definitely trying to echo this kind of fiction with The Screaming Staircase. In fact, within the text itself Lockwood rather consciously models himself on that sort of heroic template: there’s the odd reference to all the detective fiction and popular thrillers he has on his bookshelf.”
Our junior reader who enjoyed the book so much made me promise to ask Jonathan when can we expect to hear from Lockwood & Co again. He laughed, “Next year! The second book, currently entitled The Whispering Skull, is scheduled for autumn 2014. I’m halfway through it now, and having fun.” We’re both looking forward to it! I wondered if Jonathan had any other projects on the go but he assured me, “Lockwood is central at the moment, but on my shelf I have several files (marked A – E), with fragments of other stories in them (all produced by the riffing, improvisational side of my brain). There’s sci-fi, some classic fantasy, various other bits and bobs… I’m letting them all bed down at the back of my mind, and we’ll see which is strongest and most enticing when I open the files again.”
My last question for Jonathan was, if he could have a CD on repeat, what would it be? “Ooh… hard. It would probably have to be the Beatles’ Red Album – their best songs from the first half of their career. It would take longer for endless repeats of this to drive me to drink than almost anything else.”
I, for one, can’t wait to find out what happens to Lockwood & Co next, not to mention which of those files is most enticing in the future. The Screaming Staircase is published on August 29th 2013 by Random House Children’s Books.
(c) Ruth Frances Long
The Treachery of Beautiful Things, (Dial books (Penguin USA), 2012) is now available in hardback, ebook & paperback. As R. F. Long she also writes fantasy and paranormal romance (The Scroll Thief, Soul Fire, the Tales of the Holtlands series, Samhain Publishing).
She lives in Wicklow, the Garden County of Ireland, and works in a specialized library of rare and unusual books. But they don’t talk to her that often. Or maybe she’s learning not to listen. Maybe.