Today it’s my great pleasure to welcome author Peter Bunzl to the blog. Peter’s debut Middle Grade novel, Cogheart, is already causing a considerable stir and was a Waterstones Book of the Month for August.
Peter grew up in South London in a rambling Victorian house with three cats, two dogs, one little sister, an antique dealer dad and an artist mum. Peter has always wanted to tell stories, and as a child found inspiration visiting TV and film sets including James Bond and Postman Pat, where his mum worked as a costume designer. After studying at art college and film school, Peter animated on commercial, promos and two BAFTA winning kids' TV shows. He has written and directed several successful short films, and lives in North London with his partner Michael. Cogheart is his debut novel and was published by Usborne on the 1st of September 2016. Peter is represented by Jo Williamson at Antony Harwood.
To find out more about Peter check out his website, alternatively connect with him on Twitter or Instagram. Cogheart is available through Usborne or from Waterstones, Amazon or any independent bookstore.
Welcome to the blog, Peter, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Congratulations on the publication of Cogheart.
To start off the interview could you please tell the reader what inspired you to write Cogheart?
Thank you Christina, it’s a pleasure to chat with you! Cogheart was partly inspired by an amazing non-fiction book called Living Dolls by Gaby Wood. It’s a popular history of automatons - which are clockwork robots that existed in the late 18th century. The inventors of these automatons strived to make them as life-like as possible, and that intrigued me because it brings up the question: What makes us human, and could those qualities ever exist in a machine? Aside from that, I really wanted to write an epic, swashbuckling children’s adventure story, and I began to wonder - in what world could these two ideas combine? The answer was a Victorian steampunk one, so that became the setting for Cogheart.
How fascinating! Could you go on now to give us a brief idea of what the book is about?
The book is about a girl called Lily, whose father, a famous inventor, vanishes in an airship crash. Lily’s determined to hunt down the truth behind his disappearance. With the help of Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and her wily pet mechanical fox, Malkin, she runs away from home and makes for London. But shadowy figures are closing in, and danger lurks among the city’s smoky spires, along with a life-changing secret…
Ooh - so intriguing! Let's turn to the characters in the story. Which one is most like you and why?
Robert, Lily’s best friend, is the character most like me in the story. He’s quiet and thoughtful, a bit introverted, and he worries about things before he acts. Lily is more impulsive and emotional, more extrovert and outwardly confident. But perhaps these are both different strategies for dealing with the difficult things that happen to them in the story…
Which character would you be loath to meet on a dark, windy night?
Mr Roach and Mr Mould – they are the old-school villains of the piece. Sinister, violent men with silvery eyes and evil designs, whose dark purpose is not quite clear. During the course of the story Lily and Robert do encounter them on a dark and windy night!
They sound very scary indeed! Moving on now, what part did research play in crafting the story?
Research played a big part in the crafting of the story. As I said, the inspiration came from reading about automatons, but because I set the book in a Victorian steampunk world I tried to research those aspects as well. I read about real airships – there’s lots of zeppelin battles and swashbuckling air-piracy in Cogheart. And though I didn’t stick to the physics of flying, because I saw from great steampunk that you don’t have to, I tried not to go too wild as this is an alternate reality not a total fantasy world. In terms of the Victoriana, I wasn’t a fanatical researcher, quite the opposite. I prefer fiction that gives a flavour of the era, rather than dry history books. So I read a little bit of Dickens for the atmosphere, Treasure Island for the adventure, and some Penny Dreadful type books like: Hooligan Nights and Mord Em’ly - for their sensationalist accounts of Victorian street life.
That was really interesting, Peter. Thank you. So how long did it take you to write the whole book, from initial idea to final proof?
Oh goodness, about three or four years! Not all the time of course, but still it felt like a long process. And at each stage it changed a lot. At the beginning I just had the themes and world, but didn’t have a clue who the characters were or how to structure the story. It took a long time to work all that out. Then the biggest changes were with my agent, and the editors at Usborne. They gave good, clear advice that tightened the story and helped pull the loose threads together.
Let's talk now about your amazing book cover. Who's responsible for it and did you have any say in the final design?
Thanks, I absolutely love it and was chuffed to bits when I saw the final version. I got to see an early draft and comment, but it looks quite different with all the gorgeous bespoke illustrations in place. It was designed by Kath Millichope who is one of the in-house designers at Usborne, and illustrated by Becca Stadtlander. They’ve both captured the adventure, excitement and magic of the book spectacularly. I had great fun animating the cover for promotional purposes and you can see that, and other fun bits and pieces, at cogheart.com.
Speaking of animation, you’re a successful film maker and animator so what made you want to become a published writer?
I always loved creating stories. As a kid, before I got interested in animation, I wrote and drew my own picture books and comics. It was the idea of bringing characters to life I loved – animation and writing have that in common. Later, I made shorts and worked on other people’s film projects, but I really wanted to write something more ambitious for myself. I longed to send my characters off on a Hero’s Journey to see what happened. I started to write my stories as feature screenplays, but almost at once they turned into prose fiction because I loved that kind of writing so much. Then the pressure was off to make things ‘achievable’ because I didn’t have to think about creating my wild ideas on screen.
How has your work in film and animation prepared you for crafting fiction?
Film making taught me about story structure and how to tell a story economically and cinematically. There’s a grammar in film in the way you structure a sequence of shots that’s similar to the way you structure clauses and sentences in fiction. I’ve read some great articles on both editing processes that highlight those similarities. You want each shot, or each sentence, to ask a question that’s part-answered and part-added-to by the next one and the next one. And yet each answer also withholds information until you’re ready to reveal it. That’s basically how to create the illusion of a developing story with suspense. It’s when you have the elements in the wrong order that it jars and seems wrong.
Ah yes, I can see the correlation. Could you describe your writing process for us now?
I sit down at a desk with the computer monitor in front of me and try and write for a few hours each day. I use a word processing program called Scrivener, because I love the way you can keep all your documents and chapters together but separate. It lets you see the structure of your novel in one window and jump between different parts. When I’m not writing I have a notebook for the ideas that come at odd times, and a writing diary where I try and keep track of my word counts and how it’s all going - just a short note for each, so I know if I’m on track or not.
Which do you prefer, the first draft or editing?
I like the early days of the first draft where your writing flows, I hate the boggy middle where you get stuck. Then again, I enjoy editing - not the part where you have to rip out great chunks, but the part where you’re finessing sentences. So basically, the end, when it’s nearly done and you’re not worrying about it working at all!
How have you honed your writing skills?
I always wrote occasionally, but when I was trying to write more frequently I read The Artists Way, by Julia Cameron and that was a great book for getting started and freeing yourself up. It’s about the joy of creating with no specific goal in mind. I did some courses at City Lit, to improve my grammar and writing technique, and they helped me begin to realize my voice. I read structure books to shape my ideas, but they don’t tell you what to do to fix a story. The way I learned that was by writing every day until answers came and things started to gel.
An aspiring writer has come to you for advice. What would you say to her/him?
Write as much as possible. The way to learn to do anything, is to do it over and over until it becomes second nature. Of course, read books, do courses, meet people, study writing, but don’t let any of that dictate how you do it – learn by walking your own path, one step, one word, at a time. I don’t think it plateaus either. It’s a constant never-ending education!
Sound advice, Peter. I have a rather devilish question for you next: what would be better, being the sole winner of a BAFTA or winning the Carnegie?
The Oscars, and one of those glamorous post-Oscar parties!
Ha ha! I like it! Speaking of parties, how did you feel at the launch of Tales from the Blue Room? What impact did collaborating on this anthology have on your writing ambitions?
Tales from the Blue Room is a book of short stories that was self-published by my writers’ groups. It was so much fun putting it together, and we learnt a lot about publishing, like how MUCH work goes into making a book, and how much you need to polish a story to prepare it for publication. It was also a good distraction from Cogheart which was on submission at the time…
Changing tack but still with Cogheart in mind, you have the opportunity to spend a week in Victorian London, but there’s the slim chance you might be stuck there for longer than expected. Do you take the risk?
No, I don’t think so, because I’d miss my partner, Michael. Besides, have you not read that story by Ray Bradbury about a man who travels to the past, steps on a butterfly and changes the whole course of the future, so everything is completely different when he returns home?
Ah yes...quite! We're reaching the end of the main interview now but not before asking you this all-important question: are you writing anything at the moment?
I am writing the sequel to Cogheart - which features the same characters and will come out some time in 2017.
That is good news! So where do you see your writing career in ten years’ time?
It would be great to have written ten books in ten years. I want to write some YA as well as Middle Grade and, if I was a bit more organized, I’d try my hand at picture books too.
Excellent! Now to round off the interview, let’s mix it up a bit with a quick-fire round:
Here or there?
Everywhere and nowhere!
Breakfast or brunch?
James Bond or Postman Pat?
Probably James Bond - but I wish he was a bit less of a sexist bore.
Animal safari or Buddhist retreat?
Animal Safari. I went on one years ago and it was fun. A Buddhist retreat would be too quiet.
A night down the pub or cocktails at The Goring?
Zeppelin or Dreamliner?
Music or fine art?
Complete the sentence: poetry is…
a small fragment of truth polished to perfection.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions, Peter. I wish you continued success with Cogheart and the very best for all of your future books.