In the latest in his series of in-depth interviews with published children’s authors, Geoff Barker discusses the difficulties and the joys of the writing process with Keith Gray.

How does the seed of a novel emerge?

Over many years, weirdly... So the book I'm writing now is a 15-year-old idea. The Fearful was a 20-year-old idea. I often have ideas at the back of my head, and if I keep coming back to them, then they just grow... and I think, yeah, this is what I need to write, and I build on that idea. In Ostrich Boys I knew I was going to write about teenage suicide and I didn't have a clue how. The first time, I wrote it as a detective story and I had this kid as a private-eye character who was investigating the death of someone from his class, in this Chandleresque kind of story. The themes were there, and there was a bungee jump! The road-trip emerged later. The main idea for the story is there: it's that bit of dirt in your head that gets cluttered up, and cluttered up, and hopefully grows into a pearl... I've got two or three, four or five, six or seven ideas in my head for things that I'd love to write.

What's so special about writing for you personally?

I love the creative process, when the writing's going well, with lots of ideas – and you think, wow, that went well, thank you very much. I write with music on in the background. I've got an old-fashioned CD player, and I fit three CDs in at once and I know I've had a good day when I don't hear the music. That means I'm in the book with the characters and you don't notice the words so much. That's a fantastic feeling when you look back and you think: How did I do that? That's just come out of my head, through my fingers. That's just wonderful.

What are you most proud of?

It has to be Creepers, because that was the first. It has to be Ostrich Boys because that's been my most successful. And then the others, I kind of swap and change. I'm not thinking of the story – the twist at the end or the exciting car chase – I'm thinking of where I was when I was writing it. There's a book called Warehouse which was the first book I wrote when I moved up to live up in Edinburgh. I'm just really proud that I managed to write it. I decided on the Friday and moved up on the Saturday. I had no friends. I knew one person in the city. I was basically on my own, in a rented room, and I went on to produce Warehouse, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Award and won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. For me, there's a pride in the ability to write, rather than the finished product sometimes. 

I could talk about Ostrich Boys having a good unreliable narrator and I like the thematic interlinking in a short story of mine called 'Burying Barker', but actually for me just managing to finish a book is the bit I'm most proud of under the circumstances that we all have in life... blocking real life out to get into the world of the book.

This is an extract from the in-depth interview with Keith published on Geoff’s website. Find the answers to these question in the full-length article here.
  • How did Keith go from reluctant reader to published writer?
  • What happened when Keith wrote outside his comfort zone? 
  • After over 20 years as a successful published writer, what are Keith's expectations right now?

Grimsby-born Keith Gray turned from young reluctant reader to passionate reader, and it wasn't long after that he became a dedicated writer. When he was only 24, he had Creepers published, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award. Since then, he has penned a number of critically acclaimed novels which have won, or been shortlisted for, awards all over the world. His best-known book, Ostrich Boys, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Children's Book Award. His long list of accolades also includes Scottish Book Trust Awards and the Smarties Book Prize.

Geoff Barker may have written over 50 published non-fiction titles, but what he really loves to do is to create children's stories... once upon a time written for his long-suffering kids, but now for anyone who thinks quirky animal stories are essential for a long and happy life. He is currently working on Booty and the Beasts, a comic caper for which he received a Mentorship from the Scottish Book Trust in 2017. 

Geoff thanks the generosity of the authors who have given their time to eloquently express their thoughts about their work and to provide fascinating insights into the creative experience of writing for this series.

Header image: Wikimedia Commons, date 1907; originally posted on the website Early Office Museum.

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