This week we talk to children’s author and screenwriter, Rupert Wallis
Q: Hi Rupert Wallis, how are you? What have you been doing so far this year?
Hi, thanks for having me. Well, it’s been a strange old year so far for obvious reasons, with 2021 just feeling like a seamless continuation of 2020. Creatively, for me, that has meant forging on with a process of adjustment, taking a break from writing novels to focusing on developing TV projects, specifically in animation. The development process has been a learning curve because of the collaborative nature of TV and the time it can take, but I’m currently gearing up to pitch a couple of projects that I’ve been developing with creative partners.
I’m hoping to start a new novel later in the year that has been ‘composting’ in my head (I regard ‘thinking’ to be just as important as the act of writing when it comes to working on a book.) All my creative output has to be balanced with my ongoing work teaching on the MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge , which has undergone a lot of change in response to teaching requirements brought about by the pandemic over the last 12 months.
Q: Tales from the Badlands: “a hidden part of our world full of creatures which most people think exist only in fairy tales and nightmares”. Your book series plays on familiar childhood fears and conjures up pagan beliefs in ‘other’. Were there challenges in making these themes appealing to the 21st century reader?
I think a clue to the answer is in the word ‘familiar’. I was acutely aware that an important part of my job writing this trilogy was to create a world that felt different ‘enough’ from other fantasy stories about monsters. The typical 21st century reader is familiar with many different genres, so it’s always a challenge to subvert expectations, to surprise and engage a reader.
As well as grounding the world in believable mythology (hunting monsters has Anglo-Saxon roots in my case), I wanted to overlay some current themes to make the stories seem relevant and appealing to readers. The two main ones are: assessing the opportunities available to women and girls in society and the idea that bureaucracy can often stifle change and innovation. Hopefully, the monster-hunting idea feels a little more contemporary as a result.
Q: Your stories combine the supernatural and detective genres. What does this coupling allow you to achieve that you might not otherwise?
I guess I’m always trying to work around the looser edges of genre, so that may be why it feels like my stories straddle more than one genre as they sit precariously between the lines. It doesn’t dictate how I write, though, aside from trying to steer clear of clichés because I’m very much following my nose through the story. By this, I mean I allow the natural causality in the storytelling to guide me, usually hand in hand with the characters as they grow and develop and start to take control through their actions.
I talk a lot with my students about working within and outside genre because they are often trying to find the sweet spot that’s right for their particular story. In a workshop recently, a student remarked about a piece of work that all its main characters seemed to be operating in different genres in their own stories, which I found very interesting because the piece was working well. You can get away with a lot if the characters are believable and feel truthful.
Q: The Dark Inside, your debut children’s novel: “a contemporary fairy tale that touches on problems and emotions that affect human beings throughout their lives”. The Badlands protagonists, Jones, Ruby and Thomas Gabriel, are working through their problems too. Why do you weave real-life issues into an already strong storyline?
I’ve always believed that developing characters is an important part of my writing process in creating a plot on which to hang a story (as mentioned above). I think a natural consequence of this is to end up with characters who feel rounded and three-dimensional, people who seem to have had lives both before a story starts and after it ends.
For lots of readers, characters are the reason they keep reading, investing time in their journeys and lives, and hoping and fearing for them. I make sure I give my characters real-life issues to help with that connection. I always remember reading a quote from Stephen King alluding to the fact that his characters were always more important than the monsters in his books. Who am I to argue?!
Q: We have read that one of your books will be adapted for film. Can you tell us more about this? You’re a screenwriter too, so will you bring your screen knowledge to bear?
Yes, The Dark Inside is being adapted for film, and I’m pleased to say that a final (for now anyway!) draft of the screenplay has been written, and a director is attached. I didn’t write the screenplay because the producers were skillful and savvy enough to find a screenwriter whose star is in the ascendancy, which helps with the project when it’s all packaged together. Adapting one’s own work for film can be quite hard since it often requires not only a compression of the story but also a reformulation to fit a different medium. I was more than happy for someone else to do this!
Q: You lecture students, run a podcast for children on creative writing and mentor novelists. How do you spot and develop exceptional talent while making sure all participants take something from the process of writing?
I’m lucky because all the students I meet through the MSt at Cambridge have come through a rigorous application filter, so they’re all talented! I learn as much from them as they, hopefully, do from me. We encourage the students to really experiment creatively in the first year, trying their hand at different forms of writing. The creative marks are only indicative of the level they are at, allowing them the freedom to try something out on the page without any stakes attached.
Q: 1 in 8 schools across Britain do not have a library – have you had experience of the educational inequality within the school system or met anyone who has?
Yes, unfortunately, I have, and I find it very painful. I have given talks and participated in celebration events at schools and seen the poor physical state of some libraries. In some cases, I’ve discovered a school has no library because of the finances. The statistic you quote is distressing for all sorts of reasons. When I do a reading, I see how much words can light up children’s imaginations as they listen and engage with stories.
Q: What book or books do you think all children in schools should be given to read?
I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive in that way. I think children should be given books that inspire them to be enquiring and curious while opening up worlds to them they hadn’t engaged with before, whether real or not. Stories have important powers, ranging from generating empathy and imbuing knowledge to grappling with difficult issues and so on.
Q: Ok, so the final question – if all the libraries in the world were burning and you could only save three books, what would they be and why?
I feel this is quite an analogue question, given we do so much online nowadays and many stories are preserved electronically. I guess I’d be more worried about people than books! Those librarians are worth their weight in gold.
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