Somewhere to review books I'm reading without giving away any spoilers!
Here it is – the exclusive interview with the highly talented author of the Spirits series of children’s novels, Rob Keeley! Read on to find out more about his inspiration, writing process, characters and future plans . . .
Where did you get the inspiration for the Spirits series?
I’ve visited lots of stately homes and castles over the years and was always fascinated by the ghost stories that surround them and tales of the people who lived there. I’ve always kept an open mind as regards the spirit world – I feel that people who dismiss it as unscientific are not being very scientific themselves, because they’re ignoring possible evidence. But I think spirits, if they exist, are probably of psychological, rather than supernatural form.
The first book in the Spirits series, Childish Spirits, came from reading tales of naughty children who died young and whose spirits are still said to haunt their former homes or workplaces. There are quite a few reported sightings. I also read about a former governess said to haunt the schoolroom where she once worked. Putting these ideas together created the spoilt, badly-behaved but rather endearing Victorian boy Edward Fitzberranger, and his former tutor who has unfinished business with him in the first novel in the series. I wrote Childish Spirits as the assessed work for my Master’s in Creative Writing, and I’m pleased to say it won me a Distinction before going on to be longlisted for the inaugural Bath Children’s Novel Award and nominated for the People’s Book Prize.
Once I had my protagonist Ellie, I realised there was potential for a series, with Ellie meeting ghosts from different eras. Giving her a Mum who worked for Journeyback, a heritage organisation, allowed Ellie to visit places from different historical periods. I then started to create the ongoing story arc that would link all five books. The Spirit of London visits Georgian times, while The Sword of the Spirit is rooted in the Middle Ages. As for the remaining two books – you’ll just have to wait and see!
What is your writing process?
I don’t have a particularly regimented form of writing. I work to a schedule and try to be very disciplined, but the writing process itself is organic and I can only make rough notes, not plan scene-by-scene. I’m a Creative Writing tutor’s nightmare as I ignore all received wisdom on how to write – not that there is a “right” way anyway. I know where I’m going in a story – the destination – but like freedom to plan the route as I go along. I usually do this in the first draft and then sort out structuring and outstanding plot points in later drafts. I often write scenes out of order too, and assemble the book like a jigsaw. Purists say you shouldn’t do this but it seems to work for me.
Do you write using pen and paper or on a computer?
On a computer, straight onto the screen. I only use pen and paper for notes. I haven’t done a handwritten manuscript since I started writing in my teens. Possibly because typing up is so tedious! I also like the freedom a word processor offers to construct the story organically, as discussed above.
Who is your favourite character out of your stories and why? If you were a character in your story, which would you like to be?
For both of these it has to be Edward, because he’s got an eternal childhood and can have so much fun. But there’s a lot of sadness to him too, because he never grew up and all his immediate family is gone. I wouldn’t fancy the loneliness he suffers before meeting Ellie. Really, I don’t think about my characters in this way and I don’t want to be physically present within a story – I’m just the puppeteer and should be invisible. It’s for the puppets to tell the story.
How and why did you choose the names for your main characters?
Edward was Queen Victoria’s eldest son, so it would have been a popular name in the late nineteenth century when our Edward was alive. It has a good, traditional aristocratic sound to it, which suits his background as the last survivor of one of the oldest families in England. One of the main characters in the first children’s novel I ever attempted in my teens was called Ellie, so I used it to give me a feeling of security as much as anything else! Judith – Ellie’s Mum – sounds a suitable name for a tough, independent, hardworking woman with a successful career. Jon – Ellie’s Dad – has a cosier sound that suits his easy-going character. Finally, Marcus, the manager of various Journeyback sites, is an empire-builder – so I went for a Roman Emperor’s name.
What is your favourite moment in the Spirits series?
Lots of possibilities, but I think it has to be the early tearoom scene with Sir Francis Fitzberranger in The Sword of the Spirit, the third book in the series which has just been published. It’s set at a medieval castle and Journeyback is expecting an actor to come and play the part of a knight for their medieval fayre. What only Ellie knows is that Sir Francis is a real thirteenth-century knight who has somehow been transported into the present day. Having him struggle to get to grips with a modern meal provided lots of opportunities for comedy – and dramatic opportunities too, through the love-hate relationship he has with food operative Tina, which becomes central to the plot.
What’s next in the series?
I’m already well ahead with work on the fourth and fifth novels in the Spirits series, which will bring the ongoing story to a climax. There are lots of big shocks coming up. Anyone who thinks they know the series inside out from the first three books is in for a surprise. The tone is set to become much darker as Ellie starts to grow up and come to terms with what she does and who she is. She still doesn’t know why she is someone so special as far as the spirit world is concerned. There are testing times ahead for her, and for Edward too. But I think fans of the earlier books won’t be disappointed. Having covered the Victorian, Georgian and medieval periods, I’m keen to move the series into more recent history, and to take a look at how this impacts on our modern world. Ellie’s actions in The Sword of the Spirit have far-reaching effects, as she learns you can’t interfere in history without consequences.
And what’s next for Rob Keeley?
I’m hard at work promoting The Sword of the Spirit and hope to give it its official launch at the Heswall Arts Festival later this year. I’m about to do a library visit with a local school, whose classes will get a sneak preview of the book as a result. I also have other projects on the go which are so secret I can’t even discuss them!
For all the latest news, please visit www.robkeeley.co.uk or follow me on Twitter @RobKeeleyAuthor.