Robert, you were recently a guest-speaker at YALC (the Young Adult Literary Conference) which was part of the London Film and Comic Con – how did that go?
Booktrust hosted an ‘in conversation’ thing with me and my friend (Girl, Missing author) Sophie McKenzie. It was the first time I've ever given a talk while people were walking about in the background waving lightsabers. It was quite surreal, and certainly different to the kind of audience I’d get at the Edinburgh or Hay Festival.
Lone Wolf – the latest in your Cherub series of books – is out on August 1. Can you tell us about the idea behind Cherub?
CHERUB is a secret organisation that hires child orphans as spies. Everyone’s familiar with the basics of spy fiction, but I didn't want to make Cherub like James Bond – all slick and over the top. Instead I made it as gritty and believable as possible. The thing I most wanted was for kids who read the books to come away thinking 'this could really happen to me'.
Where did your inspiration for the Cherub series come from?
About 15 years ago I went to visit my sister in Australia for a month and I got to know my nephew – Jared – really well. He was the classic kid who was bright but regarded books as naff and boring. Harry Potter was huge but he just wasn’t into fantasy, so I decided to try and write something he’d actually want to read… that's why I made Cherub very grounded and set in the real world.
Did your job as a private investigator help?
When you say ‘private investigator’ you’re probably think of a guy hired to follow someone who’s up to no good. Most firms don't do much of that sort of work because it’s very expensive. If you’ve seen the TV series Heir Hunters (BBC show following the work of probate researchers who attempt to track down the distant relatives of people who have died without making a will) well, that was the mainstay of the work I did. The great thing about that job was that most of my work colleagues were ex police officers. When I was writing my second Cherub book, Class A, instead of doing my research online I'd have my tea break with the guy who used to be Head of the Manchester Drugs Squad, and I’d just ask him instead. It was a useful environment to be in.
Can you tell us more about Lone Wolf?
There are 12 books in the first Cherub series, and Lone Wolf is the 4th book in the second series, so it's the 16th Cherub book. It’s about Fay, a girl whose mother and aunt are both drug dealers and are killed by a drug baron, so she sets out to seek revenge. Meanwhile the Cherub agents try to get close to Fay so they can infiltrate the drug gangs.
Was writing in the voice of a teenage girl a challenge?
No more of a challenge than writing for teenagers in general – you’re writing for a group of people who have fundamentally different thought processes and attention spans to adults. The thing I think I would find challenging would be to write a teenage female character in the first person. I'm not sure I'd have the confidence to do that. Maybe I'll try it one day.
Who reads your books, who’s a typical Cherub fan?
They’re aimed at boys from year 7 up (age 11+). But when I do a book signing I find that, these days, the ratio is probably 60/40 boy/girl. There are quite a lot of girls who reject those really girly books and are into things that are typically seen as more masculine. Female Cherub fans don't turn up in dresses and sparkly pumps, they wear jeans and hoodies.
Is that why you’ve got a girl on the cover of Lone Wolf…?
My books are still primarily aimed at boys, and my publishers think they're being quite bold because there's this fear that, if you have an image of a girl on the cover of a book, boys won't pick it up. My take on it is, as long as the girl looks cool, it doesn’t really matter. If you ask a boy of 9 or 10 if he likes girls he'd probably be embarrassed but if you ask a boy of 13 or 14 ‘Would it be good to have a really cool girlfriend to hang out with?’ he'd probably go ‘yeah’.
What’s the secret to writing a really good story?
There are a lot of 'how to' books out there that claim there's a formula for writing a great novel or screenplay. They say things like 'in the third act so-and-so has to happen' but, to be honest, I don't really agree with that. What I always try to do is get to a point where you can take any chapter from any of my books and pull it out and read it as a standalone and it will still be interesting and compelling. You can't always do that, because sometimes you need a certain amount of exposition to move the story along, but, as a writer, I think that should be your goal.
What’s the secret to writing a really good series?
The short answer is a quote from the folk singer Malvina Reynolds: 'If I knew where my inspiration came from I'd go there every day.' But the slightly longer answer, or the way I do it anyway, is to look everywhere. I tear things out of magazines, I print things off the Internet, I tape documentaries. I've got a tray full of ideas on my desk. When you're looking for ideas for your next book you're not just looking three weeks before you're due to start writing, you're ALWAYS looking.
Which contemporary teen/YA writer do you most admire and why?
I'm quite a fan of John Green’s books which is odd because I don't massively like the subject matter. I think he has an amazing way of getting into the head of a teenage girl, which is something, as I mentioned earlier, that I've always been a bit intimidated by. I admire him because, as a writer, I think he’s done something really clever.
Who was your favourite author when you were a kid?
I used to love a series of books called The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison. I read them over and over. Then, about 18 months ago, someone from my publishers who knew I was a sci-fi geek, found out they were being reprinted and got hold of them for me. I was so excited… and then I read them… and they were awful. The 12-year-old me couldn’t get enough of them, but when I was re-reading them as an adult all I could think was 'ah, that's such a cliché!'.
CHERUB: Lone Wolf is published on Friday 1 August 2014 by HODDER CHILDREN’S BOOKS Price £12.99 ISBN: 9781444914092
For more info on Robert and CHERUB go to:
Look out for the second instalment of our interview with Robert where he tells us: how he deals with writer’s block; what he thinks are the best and worst things about being a writer; and the three qualities you need to a succeed as a teen/YA author.