Here is the transcript from the interview, video links coming to the blog soon!
AGS: Thanks for interviewing me, Joanna, it’s awesome to be here!!
JA: Your Escape from Furnace series is one of the scariest, most heart pounding, adrenaline pumping series I’ve ever read. How did you come up with such dark, horrific ideas
AGS: Wow, thanks for the compliments!! J To be honest, I’m not sure where all the ideas came from, I think I must just have quite a dark, horrific mind… I set out to try and write the scariest, most exciting book I could, because I love horror stories, and l love action stories, and I especially love horror action stories. With Furnace I essentially decided to use my worst fears as inspiration – I figured that if you write about what scares you then readers will sense that fear is genuine and be carried away by it. It will feel real because it is real. Luckily I’m scared of most things!
JA: How much influence did the Holocaust have on this writing? I know that the works of Darren Shan were a huge influence on you but what were your other influences?
AGS: I try to be influenced by everything. That’s part of a writer’s job, to keep your eyes open for interesting ideas and characters and history. The Second World War did provide a great deal of inspiration, because it was a time of unparalleled horror and violence and inhumanity, but because of that it was also a time of incredible heroism and hope and humanity too. That’s what I think horror fiction does so well – when things are at their worst, you see people at their best. Darren was a huge influence too, because I love his books. But every single book I read is an inspiration, either for what I want my books to be, or what I want to avoid! Reading is far and away the best way to improve your writing.
JA: Have you ever been in prison? What, if any, research did you do on prison life?
AGS:Luckily, I have never been in prison, but there was a time in my life where it was a close call! When I was about fifteen or sixteen I went through a bit of a bad patch. I started skipping school and hanging out in a notorious biker bar getting drunk and getting into fights. I even started stealing from my parents, my friends, and from my school. It was awful, and I hated the person I was becoming, but I just couldn’t seem to find a way out of it. One night I got into a pretty bad brawl – lost a tooth and nearly ended up in a full-blown knife fight – and after that I made the decision to stop being such an idiot. My family were great, and helped me find my way again, and I started doing well at school and writing books. I’m so lucky to have the friends and family I do, and that nothing seriously bad happened.
That stage in my life was actually the inspiration for the Escape From Furnace books. When I was looking for a scary story to write I couldn’t think of any ideas, but I had this person in my head, this version of me when I was sixteen. I’d gone on to live my life, but this ‘me’ hadn’t, he’d never had the chance to tell his story. So I gave him that chance, and wrote the story of what would have happened if I had carried on down that path and something terrible had happened. That’s why the character is called Alex.
Incidentally, I did manage to get locked inside a cell when I was researching the books. My little brother Jamie and I had tried to get inside the main prison in Norwich, where I’m from, but they wouldn’t let us in. So we decided to visit a medieval dungeon instead. Norwich is a really old city, and beneath the streets are loads of creepy places, including dungeons. We went to visit some, buried deep underground. They are tiny cells with black stone walls and huge oak doors covered in graffiti from centuries ago. I popped into one to see what it was like, and Jamie locked me in! He kept me in there for fifteen minutes, and when he finally let me out I knew exactly what kind of place I wanted Furnace to be.
JA:Is the main character, Alex, named after you? How did you come up with the names of the characters?
AGS:Like I say, Alex was named after me. In the original draft he was called Alexander Gordon Smith. But Faber, my UK publisher, asked me to change his surname in case it confused people when I brought out a new series of books. I wish I’d kept it! The other names just kind of popped into my head. I spend a great deal of time thinking about characters before I start writing (instead of plotting), and as soon as I get to know them they have a name. Donovan was always Donovan, and Zee was always Zee. They couldn’t have had any other names!
JA:Are there differences in writing for a British market versus an American market?
AGS:Not really. There are a few tiny things, like we say ‘Mum’ instead of ‘Mom’, and ‘pavement’ instead of ‘sidewalk’. There are also a couple of cultural things, like guns. You never, ever see guns in Britain unless you go to the US Embassy or an airport or somewhere like that. In the first part of Furnace when Toby is killed he says something like ‘They’ve got guns, they’re not police!’ Because our police don’t carry guns! But obviously in America that wouldn’t work, so it needed a slight edit. I’ve just come back from a trip to Utah, and everybody I met seemed to have a gun. One guy called Eric even let me fire his assault rifle, which was awesome!
So little differences like that need to be changed. But in terms of story and character, people in the UK and the US are so similar, we all like the same kinds of things. That’s one of the things I love most about the ‘special relationship’, and that’s the reason that Furnace isn’t actually set anywhere specific – it could be anywhere on either side of the Atlantic.
JA:How do you choose your cover art? Do you design it or do you work with a graphic artist? How much influence you do have on the final creation? Why are the covers different in different markets – particularly between the American and British versions?
AGS:The short answer is that I have absolutely no say in what goes on the cover! Most authors don’t, not unless they’ve sold six billion copies and have a bit of clout. Usually what happens is the publisher sends you their rough for a suggested cover, and ask if you want to change anything, and you write back and say ‘Eek, I hate it!’ and they say ‘Too late, that’s your cover.’ But I have been so lucky with my covers, this hasn’t happened to me yet! I love the UK ones because they look like video game covers, but my favourite covers so far are the US ones, they are absolutely mindblowing. I’m not sure why different publishing companies use different covers, but I’m glad they do because it makes my bookshelves much more interesting!
JA:Why was Alex targeted? The books never really go into detail about why he was set-up and how the Warden and the black suits found him to begin with.
AGS:You’ll have to wait until books four and five to find out! J
JA:Tell us about the process of writing a 5 book series. Do you already know before you start book 1 how book 5 will end? How do you divide up each book or is that something that happens in the “dreaded editing process”?
AGS:I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen when I started writing the first book – I didn’t even know for sure whether it was going to be a five book series – and that was a deliberate choice. I wanted to see what Alex would do inside the prison, how he’d respond to this nightmare, because his spur of the moment choices would always seem more genuine than any rigid destiny I might have prescribed for him. I realized that if I knew in advance what was going on in Furnace and, more importantly, how (and if) Alex was going to escape, then the book might lose some of its dramatic tension. If I wrote like this then I’d know how he was going to get out, and what happened to him throughout the series, and I think some of that awareness, that relief, might leak into the story. Readers would know that everything was going to be okay because it would already be written into the text, invisible but unmissable.
So I just rolled with it, I just started writing. I threw myself into Furnace the same way Alex had been thrown in, without hope and without a plan. Because I’d done it like this, I felt as desperate as he did. Time was running out for him because the Blood Watch and the gangs were closing in. Time was running out for me because I was getting through the book and I still didn’t know how he was going to get out. I didn’t even know if he was going to escape! I think writing like this – writing at the speed of life – is what gives the books their relentless pace. I didn’t slow down when I was writing, I was living the story alongside Alex, so the story never lets up for a second. I love writing this way!
JA:I know that you own your own film production company. Have you thought about producing a film based on the Furnace series or has anyone purchased the rights to your books?
AGS:I set up Fear Driven Films with my sister Kate and my brother in law Simon. Kate and I are huge horror fans, we’ve been watching horror films together since we were kids. And one day we just figured that since we’d seen so many movies, we might as well have a go at making one of our own! We wrote a script for a slasher movie called Stagnant – about a killer mutant bride slaughtering people on the Norfolk Broads – and that’s currently being made. I would love for there to be a Furnace movie, I seriously think that would be the most awesome thing in the universe. But I don’t really want to try and make it myself! I want to go to Hollywood or Pinewood and see somebody else making the story come to life, it would be ace!
JA:I was so excited to learn that your books have been made into audio productions as well, however, it disheartened me to hear Alex with an Australian accent since he’s clearly British in the books. Did you have any control over that? Why would Brilliance Audio choose to depart so obviously from the book?
AGS:Yes I was exactly the same! I didn’t even realize there were going to be audio versions until Lockdown appeared in the post on disc. I listened to it in the car, and was so startled when I heard that Alex had become Australian I nearly crashed! I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t British, and to be honest I have absolutely no idea why they gave him the accent they did. I had absolutely no say in it. That’s the weird thing about audio books, especially from an author’s point of view: none of the characters sound like they do in your head. I guess it’s the same as when they turn a book into a film and you say ‘hang on, he didn’t look like that!’ and ‘she had blond hair in my imagination!’ and ‘I don’t remember him being a hamster!’
JA:I love your website and all the online content associated with the Escape from Furnace series. How important is it to maintain a strong online presence in terms of reaching your fans?
AGS:Thanks! J I love designing websites and things, I’m a total geek like that. Although saying that I had to get a professional to design the current site as technology moves so fast I can’t keep up! I think it’s important to always be available to fans, but it’s also fun, it’s one of the best parts of the job. I’ve got a Facebook page for the Furnace books (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lockdown/126095974414) and use it to chat directly with fans and readers. It’s one of the amazing things about living here and now – instant communication with pretty much anybody in the world. When I was growing up I had no way of contacting my favourite authors other than writing them a letter – which would usually go unreplied – or travelling to one of their events and queuing up with a million other people. Now, though, I get in touch with my favourite authors all the time through email and Facebook, it’s great! It really creates a huge, open community of readers and writers, where you can talk about writing and books and movies and everything else. It puts me in direct contact with people who have read the books, which is so awesome!
JA:From the epilogue online, Alex says "I don’t feel like a hero. What these people don’t know is that I’m a killer, and a coward too. Like I told you, I’m not a good person. I did some awful things before Furnace, and I’m guilty of much, much worse since. But I’m starting to understand that you don’t have to be perfect to be good. You can do bad things and still be a good person. And like I’ve said before, sometimes it’s better to do bad things for the right reasons than good things for the wrong ones. Right?" I love this part and I feel like this is the moral of the story and what I hope teens will take away from this book aside from just the amazing action and horror of it all. Did you do bad things when you were a teenager? :) What do you hope your readers take away from your books?
AGS:Thanks! Yes I think this really is the moral of the book. I mean, Furnace isn’t a moral book, I didn’t write it to try and teach kids to stay out of trouble. Alex is a bad kid to start with, but when you look back at the crimes he committed before he was arrested – breaking and entering, a bit of bullying – they are almost ridiculously insignificant compared to what he is forced to do to survive inside Furnace. He becomes a murderer inside prison, but that is ultimately the only way he can save himself.
But there are hopefully things that readers can take away with them when they read Furnace. I hope the books help reinforce the immense value of friendship; I hope they teach that sometimes doing bad things for the right reasons is better than doing good things for the wrong ones, and that just because you’ve made mistakes in your life doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and that you’re beyond saving. I think the most important message, the one I’d like readers to take away, is that no matter how terrible things get, no matter how bleak life is, there is always – always – hope. Things will get better.
JA:Your next venture is the Fury series. Can you tell us about that series?
AGS:Well, it’s horror (obviously, because horror is the best), and very gory (obviously, because gore is awesome)! It’s quite different to Furnace, though, much longer for a start, and told in a slightly different way. So I really hope people like it! This is the blurb for it:
Imagine if one day, without warning, the entire human race turns against you.
Every single person you meet becomes a bloodthirsty, mindless savage, hell-bent on killing you – and only you.
Friends, lovers, even your mum and dad, brothers and sisters – they will turn on you, and they will murder you. And when they have, they will go back to their lives as if nothing has happened.
The world has the Fury.
It will not rest until you are dead.
Cal, Brick and Daisy are three ordinary teenagers whose lives suddenly take a terrifying turn for the worst. They begin to trigger a reaction in everybody they meet, one that makes friends and strangers alike turn rabid whenever they are close. One that makes people want to tear them to pieces
Cal and the other victims of the Fury – the ones that survive – manage to locate each other. But just when they think they have found a safe haven, a place to hide from the world, things get worse.
Some of them begin to change…
They must fight to uncover the truth about the Fury before it is too late. But it is a truth that will destroy everything they know about life and death.
Spooky! J It’s out next year in the UK, and very soon in the States!
Thanks again for interviewing me on your site, Joanna, and thanks to everyone for reading!