W&P's roving reporter Sarah Broadley talks to Peter Bunzl about writing series, stand-alones and leaving characters behind.

Lily, Robert & Malkin have now flown the Bunzl nest. Was there a bittersweet feeling that Shadowsea would be the last adventure or was it a natural finish to the series?


I thought I might do one more adventure after Shadowsea, but it doesn’t look that way anytime soon. Maybe one day I will, but in retrospect Shadowsea was a natural place to finish or pause the series in terms of where the characters were by the end of it.


Since 2016, you have been immersed in the world of Cogheart and everything that came along with it. What will you miss the most about writing such a familiar world? Did you plan each novel as you wrote it or the series as a whole?


Funnily enough, to start with, when it was first over, I really did miss the characters, and my mind kept returning to the possibility of doing one more book with them. But after a while I got engrossed in writing new things. I became so enamoured with some of my new characters that I forgot all about Lily, Robert and Malkin. A terrible thing to say, but they are receding in my mind a little.


In terms of planning, I didn’t plan for the Cogheart Adventures to be a series at the beginning, because I thought Cogheart was going to be a stand-alone book. Even when I pitched Moonlocket for the second one, it was only as a sequel, not with the thought that it would necessarily be a series. The same with the third book, Skycircus. That was supposed to be the end, but then I thought there was a little further I could take the characters and it fitted with a dark adventure idea I had, so that was why I did one more with Shadowsea.


Your latest novel Featherlight, which just came out in April 2021 with Barrington Stoke, moves you from a series to stand-alone. This may mean a change to your writing routine and mindset. Did you find this was the case?


Featherlight was a different writing experience because it was a shorter book, and so has a more condensed and simpler plot than a full-length novel like Cogheart would have. It was also a lot quicker to do than a full-length novel. I really enjoyed writing it. I loved creating something so succinct that has to fit into a short structure. It’s a different type of writing. More like doing a longer short story.


Working with the illustrator Becca Stadtlander over four books must have been a dream. I'm sure she was as invested in the Cogheart series as you were. The cover art is so important. Can you tell us what you love about the illustrator relationship and process, and did it change as you went from the first book to the fourth? 


I love Becca Stadtlander’s work and illustrations for the characters, but I don’t have a working relationship with her. That’s the publisher’s job. She’s briefed by the publishing designer who’s called Kath Millichope. Kath is an amazing designer. She comes up with the fabulous concepts for the covers, finds the illustrators and puts them together.


Following on from Cogheart, I did have some verbal input on the design of each cover. I got to give my opinion on certain details. With Shadowsea I had a very specific idea of how I thought the cover should look over all. In that case, I sent them an image of my idea, and they went with that concept. But that’s unusual I think.


In your new novel there are chapter illustrations by Anelli Bray and cover art created by Evan Hollingdale. Were you privy to these changes and drafts, or was that left more to the publisher?


I love the work both Evan and Anelli have done on Featherlight. But, again, it’s down to the publisher to brief the cover and the internal illustrations. In this case that was Barrington Stoke. I think they’ve done a great job picking the right illustrators and style for the book. I also got to feedback a little on the roughs when they came through, but obviously, again, the final decision is the publisher’s. 


The feeling of holding your new book in your hand never goes away. What do you look forward to now that you are embracing new ideas, yet still experiencing the joy of changing lives with your magical words?


I love that moment when you see your cover for the first time. It’s then that the book starts to feel like it’s truly happening. After that, the day you receive a bound copy is even more special. That’s usually quite close to publication, and by then everything finally feels very real! 


I had that experience recently with Featherlight. It has been a double joy to get a book with internal illustrations too! I can’t wait for people to read it and experience the story along with the beautiful artwork. 

Has the relationship with your agent changed now that the Cogheart books are complete? Do you feel you've gone full circle now that you're back to pitching new ideas and writing for different publishers?


I would say that my relationship with my agent hasn’t changed that much. There wasn’t actually a process of writing a whole new manuscript on spec with her and submitting it, which might be more typical of what happens when you finish a series.


Before the Cogheart books were over, we discussed and pitched the next idea to Usborne, and they had already decided they wanted take it. So, when I finished on Shadowsea, I went straight into writing that. 

What happens now? What other exciting projects are you working on?


The stand-alone book I pitched to Usborne is called Magicborn. It’s inspired by the true tale of Peter the Wild Boy, a feral child brought to London to meet King George I and raised at Kensington Palace. The story is told through the eyes of a young girl called Tempest, another of the palace’s imprisoned curiosities, whose story is quite as startling as Peter’s.


I was introduced to Peter’s story at a school event I did at Kensington Palace. The real-life Peter the Wild Boy was found naked and unable to speak in a German forest in 1725; he was brought to London and became a sensational public curiosity, written about by the likes of Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and painted as one of the characters in a mural at the palace. 

If you were writing a series again, would you change the way you create it or carry on and see where it takes you? Any advice for those about to leave a familiar world to start something new?


A Middle Grade series doesn’t normally have an over-arching plot like a Young Adult trilogy might. My advice is to set up each story as a stand-alone novel. That way anyone, especially kids, can pick up any entry in the series and read it by itself. 


Story-wise I think you can look at the process as building variations on your themes – themes that create growth for your characters. 


So, without getting too specific on spoilers, Cogheart is the story of Lily realizing she’s different from others around her in some ways, coming to terms with her uniqueness and being true to her authentic self. It’s also a story about losing loved ones and finding a home and a place for yourself in a new version of family. This second theme is more associated with Robert but it applies to Lily too.


These are the big archetypal themes of the series. And they are present in lots of other Middle Grade stories too. So, it’s a case of using your characters, world and setting to echo them in different ways through each adventure.


Out of all the books you've written so far, which character do you wish had been in a book you'd read as a child? Do you have a favourite?


Malkin (a talking mechanical fox) is my favourite character in the Cogheart Adventures series, mostly because he’s so cheeky and fun to write. I have a similar character in my new book, Magicborn, who I really love, but I can’t tell you about her yet because she’s still top secret!


Peter Bunzl is an author, filmmaker, and animator who 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. As a child he found inspiration visiting TV and film sets, including James Bond and Postman Pat, where his mum worked as a costume designer.

After art college and film school, Peter worked as an animator on commercials, pop videos, and two BAFTA-winning children’s TV shows, and wrote and directed several successful short films. He lives in North London with his partner Michael, a fox who visits their garden and a clutter of house spiders.

Website: peterbunzl.com
Twitter: @peterbunzl



Sarah Broadley lives in Edinburgh with her family and two cats. She is a member of SCBWI Scotland. Follow her on Twitter.

Natalie Yates is Writers' Minds editor for Words & Pictures. Follow her on Twitter. Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org.

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