Author Interview: Keith Gray
Today I am joined by Keith Gray to talk about his career as a writer and his newest book, Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus, published today by Barrington Stoke.
Thank you so much for joining me Keith!
Keith Gray was born and brought up in Grimsby.
At primary school he avoided books thinking they were a chore and was labelled a ‘reluctant reader’, until he read Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, and discovered a love of reading, and, not so long after, of writing too. His first novel, Creepers (1996), was published when he was 24, and was shortlisted for the 1997 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
He has gone on to write several award-winning books for children and young adults, including The Runner (1998), which won the Nestle Smarties Book Prize (Silver Award); Hunting the Cat (1996), a story based on the legends of big cats; From Blood: Two Brothers (1997), about two 18-year olds; Dead Trouble (1997), about two teenage boys who find a gun; and Malarkey (2003), shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.
Further novels include Warehouse (2002), set in the docklands of a small northern town, also shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and winner of the 2003 Angus Book Award; Malarkey (2003);The Fearful (2005), shortlisted for the 2005 Catalyst Book Award; Ghosting (2008); and Ostrich Boys (2008), shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award, the 2009 Carnegie Medal, and the Booktrust Teenage Prize.
His most recent novels are Next (2012), You Killed Me! (2013) and The Last Soldier (2015).
Keith has been a judge for the Blue Peter Book Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize. He regularly reviews teenage fiction for both The Guardian and The Scotsman. In 2008 he was the first ever Virtual Writer in Residence for Scottish Book Trust; commissioning and editing short stories by his favourite writers and producing online creative writing videos to encourage young writers everywhere.
Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions – let’s get stuck in!
First, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?
I became a writer through failure followed by hard work followed by stubbornness. I struggled a bit academically at school. I was uniformly terrible in exams because I didn’t quite ‘get’ the hoops I had to jump through. But I loved reading, and writing fiction.
Fiction always seemed so great to me because there are no wrong or right answers – I could write any story I wanted to, and it was impossible to be ‘wrong’. So after scraping miserably through my A levels and then being asked to leave university because I failed my exams, I decided to focus on what I really loved. Which is when the hard work kicked in and I wrote and wrote and wrote until I got that first book published.
It was the third book I’d written, and I could wallpaper my bedroom with rejection letters from agents and publishers, but I never took ‘No’ for answer. That first published book was called ‘Creepers’, it went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award and then published around the world.
I’m still stubborn and ‘Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus’ will be the twenty-second book I’ve had published.
(Wow, 22 books is incredible! And, for any aspiring writers, clearly perseverance is an important skill!)
What made you want to write about Houdini before he became famous?
Before I wanted to be a writer I reckoned I wanted to be a magician and Houdini was the greatest of them all, so he was a hero of mine when I was younger. But as I got older and read about his childhood I became just as fascinated about him as a person as I did about his performances.
He tried to hide his background for a long time, felt embarrassed that he was a Hungarian immigrant, that he grew up in relative poverty, and I found the idea of his total reinvention an amazing magic trick in its own right. I found his rags-to-riches story uplifting and empowering. From penniless immigrant to someone described as ‘America’s first superhero’ – it’s one hell of a journey.
And I really, really like that he didn’t become a superhero because he accidentally got bitten by a radioactive spider, or inherited millions of dollars, or had magical parents. He was ambitious, driven, imaginative, hard-working and made himself into a superhero, rather than having it gifted upon him.
What kind of research did you do before writing this book?
I feel as though I’ve been researching Houdini for about 30 years now because of my interest in him over the years. I’ve not done any structured or purposeful research especially for my book. I chose some reported incidents from his childhood and figured out how I could work them into an interesting narrative.
Any strict Houdini ‘academics’ may be annoyed that I’ve shuffled bits about and that it’s not totally 100% true. I wanted a fun and original story for young readers not a scholarly dissertation. I’m hoping I can persuade some younger people who may not know who Houdini was to wanting to discover more about him for themselves – a bit like I did.
(I definitely want to find out more about him after reading this book! I also love how the book gets to know him before he became the famous Houdini and was just a boy called Erik, with a dream and determination)
What does your writing process look like? E.g. do you start by planning everything or from individual scenes, how much does the book change during editing, etc?
I never plan my stories. (If you are one of my pupils, please pretend you didn’t read this…)
I hate planning my stories. I find writing fun and creative while planning is horribly tedious and unexciting… Except for with this book.
I felt that because this book had to hit some real-life incidents I needed to decide how the whole story was going to be told before I started writing it.
Every single one of my other books has started with a small idea, an intriguing idea, that gave me a title and a first sentence, and then I just went for it! I never really know what situations, events, characters will crop up or what will happen next.
I usually find more ideas happen for me as I’m writing, rather than as I’m planning. So I write and write and write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and work the story out as I go along. I usually only write a single full draft of a book, but each page and chapter of the book has been rewritten many, many times to get me to the end.
Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus was different because I already had those key moments I wanted to get to – the ‘real-life’ moments. So my first draft of this book was twice as long as I tried to figure out how to include the important parts and how best to thread the story together. And the hard part was cutting back and editing.
Writing this book was a challenge because I was forced to write differently and it was frustrating because I had to stick to a plan but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And I hope it’s my enjoyment in the writing process that the reader feels, rather than the hair-pulling and hand-wringing.
Would you have joined the Five-Cent Circus? If so, what would your act have been?
I would have loved to be part of the Five-Cent Circus, but I would have just caused arguments because I would have wanted to be the magician too. I used to be able to burp the alphabet backwards when I was 13. But I’m not sure people would have wanted to pay any money to hear that…
(I don’t know may people with this skill…wonder if you can still do it?)
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of a new book I’m describing as ‘Die Hard with werewolves’ and really, really having a lot of fun writing it. Apart from that, I’ve recently moved to live in Vienna (where my partner originally comes from) and I’m working with a network of English-speaking writers, running creative writing workshops and spoken-word performance nights.
(Die Hard with werewolves sounds fascinating! And Vienna is a beautiful city!)
Colour: Genuinely, I don’t have one. Which you’d notice immediately if you met me and saw my terrible dress-sense.
Food: Hot curries, hot chillies, hot sauces.
Book: There’s too many I love to name a single title. Big, impactful books for me have been ‘The Machine Gunners’ by Robert Westall, ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾’ by Sue Townsend, ‘Crow Road’ by Iain Banks, ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd, ‘It’ by Stephen King, ‘Life: An Unexploded Diagram’ by Mal Peet, ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt, ‘Tender Morsels’ by Margo Lanegan, ‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson, ‘The Bottoms’ by Joe R Lansdale etc etc etc… So very many that have hit me big and hard and I’ll never forget.
Film: Easier than choosing a book, but there’s still a few. ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Jaws’, ‘Restless Natives’, ‘Wonderboys’, ‘Die Hard’.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers Keith!
Over to the readers:
Did you enjoy the interview?
Have you any further questions for Keith?
Don’t you want to read the book now?
Thanks for reading!