Thursday, September 15, 2011

A master class in dealing with the undead

If you ever felt you needed to be much better informed in how to deal with an unexpected rising from the undead, you could've been in no better place than Abingdon School on Wednesday September 14, in the company of children’s author, Charlie Higson.

There is a suspicion that all the children who are avid readers of his books were already several steps ahead and knew that zombies don’t like sunlight and in a tight spot the bit to go for is the brain.

In a whistle-stop tour of despatching the undead, Charlie gave enthusiastic demonstrations of beheading, and stakes through the heart (good against vampires), before describing how popular entertainment in the Victorian era involved electricity and trying to revive recently demised corpses. Vampires were also the stars of the Victorian stage as people flocked to pay to be terrified.

Charlie led an enthralled audience in two sessions to 600 pupils from 12 schools across Oxfordshire, through the long tradition of stories to scare yourself stupid – weaving strands that can be traced back to the romantic poets.

What might have been new to the audience is that scare-the-hell-out-of-you stories are now considered classics when originally all they were out to do was to shock you. He advised everyone to go and read Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’.


Charlie’s talk was also a romp through the origins of some classic literature – for example, did you know that the image of a modern vampire is very much based on ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet Lord Byron?

Now it all makes sense that they are beautiful, charismatic and swish about in capes and lordly robes.
Zombies are, however, a different matter. Zombies are dirty, smelly, shuffling about and grunting. Charlie writes about zombies, so zombies were very much the subject of the day – as was how you manage to get the correct level of terror, gore, body bits and flesh eating when your audience is children.

The premise of his horror action stories is that a disease has struck the planet and has killed everyone over the age of 14 – and those not killed outright have been turned into zombies. So all the children must fight for their survival while also trying not to get eaten.

Charlie Higson relishes the fact that with his ‘The Enemy’ series, he is taking on the sky-high challenge of making reading as compelling as watching television or playing computer games.

When he set out to write a new series for kids he went right back to the stories that really gripped him as a boy – setting himself the challenge to make a story that packed enough punch that children would remember it for life. And here are some suitable exercised fans from John Mason School:


His starting point was that if it’s not giving your children nightmares it’s not working, so there was much sympathy in the room for Charlie’s ten-year-old son. We heard of his sweat-drenched night terrors (although it was possibly his own fault for night after night telling his horror-writing father ‘oh that’s not scary’).

His son’s sacrifices are, however, benefiting legions of teenage boys and girls who are now craving their next fix of Higson-induced zombie terror. The latest – ‘The Fear’, is out today (Sep 15):

So should you be recommending all this horror to your children?

Charlie Higson is probably still best-known to adults for his comedy writing. His long apprenticeship as a writer, including writing for television, plus some early (really nasty) adult horror means his books are very well written.

He told the audience he had written six full-length novels as a teenage boy, long before he was to make his living as a writer. He takes a whole year to write one of his children’s books – from initial draft to polishing, looking at the plot, the action and meticulously upping the body count, or deleting a character. The result is a roller-coaster thriller, full of strong character (including strong girl characters) and a seamless, gripping story, full of unexpected jolts and great moments.

Remember – if they do mean your children have nightmares you can be reassured they are in the long tradition of classic storytelling.

Of course if you’ve got a younger one, or a more sensitive one, Charlie Higson made his name as a children’s writer with his ‘Young Bond’ series – all about James Bond at school. Again, suitable from age nine upwards, it is the quality of the writing which means these will certainly become classics and they are readable for children right through their teens.

We hope Charlie Higson won’t have to resort to rising from his grave to grab a little piece of immortality.

We have signed copies in stock – while they last!



Charlie performed heroically over the course of six hours, and a huge thank you to him and Abingdon School for hosting the event so well. Charlie also very generously conducted a number of interviews - Gaskella has a fantastic write-up of the event over on her book blog - but we also were able to get a glimpse into the writing life of Charlie Higson...

Five questions with . . . Charlie Higson's writing life
Charlie Higson is the author of the ‘Young Bond’ series and now into the third of ‘The Enemy’ trilogy about a world where everyone over the age of 14 has either been wiped out by a plague. Those adults who weren’t killed outright were turned into zombies and are now after all the children as a source of fresh food.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am about one-third of the way through the follow up to ‘The Fear’. Originally it was going to be three books and then my publisher, Puffin, said make it five and now we’re up to it being seven.

Writing an ongoing series means that even when you think you’ve finished a book and you might think it’s time to break open the champagne or book a long holiday, in fact the next day you have to start on the next one. You have to keep the momentum up, because kids finish a book and they want to get on with the next one and they grow up quickly.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
My father said when I was a teenager ‘get yourself a proper job you can always do your writing in evenings and weekends’. Of course, as I was a teenager I completely ignored him. In fact I’ve never had a proper job. I make a living writing – although technically I suppose I have followed his advice because I treat it like going to work and keep the words coming. So I suppose I must have taken something on board.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing is the feedback. Only yesterday I met a boy having his book signed who was about 14 and said ‘The Enemy’ was the first book he had ever finished. When you get feedback from parents, librarians, teachers saying how much kids want to read them and through reading them they then find out what fun reading is – that’s the best thing.

The worst thing is that I sort of always have to think about behaving myself and think I had better not say this or do that and that’s probably not my natural behaviour. When Anthony Horowitz started writing for children (when nobody paid very much attention to children’s writers) he often followed around Roald Dahl on school visits. Roald Dahl had a reputation of saying very inappropriate things and probably didn’t even like children very much. My adult novels are full of sex and violence, but as a children’s writer you have to be an ambassador. And news papers being what they are I know that if my trousers accidentally fell down it would be the end of my career.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I try not to be superstitious about it. If you say to yourself you can only write with a certain pen it can become a bit of an albatross. I would probably find it difficult to write without a computer – it does make life easier, but I can write almost anywhere, although it is easier at home.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
The success of ‘Loadsmoney’ on Saturday Live, which I wrote with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, meant we were accepted as established comedy writers. People asked us to do stuff. It opened lots of doors and meant publishers were more interested as well. Publishers want a writer they can market – it’s a business and they want to sell books. And I saw the possibility that I could make a living as a writer.

2 comments:

  1. This is such an inspiring post. 600 children. OMG how terrifying!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Two sessions back to back. He was shattered but happy at the end...

    ReplyDelete