His life has encompassed everything from reading for the Bar (the legal kind), working in the voluntary sector, helping children with their reading and I.T. in schools, and most recently, independently-publishing his way to success with short stories and novels for young people, which have been listed for the International Rubery Book Award, the Independent Author Book Award and the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
His first picture book for young children, My Favourite People, is published this summer. He’s best known for writing the Spirits series of ghostly novels for older children, and it’s these he’ll be considering today...
So, over to Rob:
I’ve got one big problem with the Spirits novels. I never know quite what they are. It’s tough for an author, these days.
You’re supposed to be ready to define, summarise and pitch your work at a moment’s notice. Particularly when you’re an indie author still in need of an agent after twenty years’ professional writing experience and several award listings. Publishers and marketing people want categories. They want books to be neatly boxed and labelled, ready with a BIC category, or Thema, or whatever they’re calling it now.
So they’re ghost stories. I guess we could glean that from the series title, and the fact that every book in the series has the word Spirit or Spirits in its title somewhere. But the official category lumps “Horror and ghost stories; chillers” in together. And they’re for children – up to young adult. I’ve met parents who run a mile from the word “horror”. I’ve encountered families at my signings, perfectly happy to discuss the books until you say something like “ghost”, whereupon the parents suddenly say: “Oh, we don’t like ghosts, do we, Maisie? Perhaps when we’re a bit older?” and then start steering the young reader firmly towards the coffee shop. (The child’s eyes, however, are usually telling me that they actually wanted to read it.)
So I can’t say “horror”, and have to be very careful about the word “ghost”. And that’s not the whole story, anyway. Childish Spirits, the first in the series, came out of my Creative Writing MA on Supernatural Novels for Children, and was a straightforward ghost story. But increasingly other genres are creeping in. The Spirit of London was as much historical mystery as ghost story. The Sword of the Spirit saw time travel enter the series for the first time. High Spirits, the most recent, is a time-travel historical paranormal mystery socio-political coming-of-age I-don’t-think-there’s-a-noun-coming-here extravaganza (yes there is), which begins in a priory and ends on an altered present-day Earth, meeting shape-changing ghosts and Nazis along the way. And wait ‘til you see where we go from there.
Think about the great classics of children’s literature. Nowadays, Winnie the Pooh would be labelled as 5-7 – but there’s a great deal of grown-up (as opposed to adult) humour in there, and some wordplay that would have to be explained to the young ones. Richmal Crompton’s William stories are written with very few concessions to the vocabulary of the young reader. What genre is The Wind in the Willows? Fantasy? Adventure? Humour? Social tract? All of these? And I’ve seen Treasure Island and Kidnapped on lists of children’s classics, even though you wouldn’t choose to read them as a cosy bedtime story. In the old days, it was story and characters first, genre and age group after, if at all. Audiences can be larger than we realise, and can straddle the generations.
Modern children’s authors such as JK Rowling understand this very well. Marketing and the perceived needs of a target audience are of vital importance – but should not be allowed to stifle creativity. We don’t want formula pieces or books devised by committee. (And in any case, successful series like Potter and its spin-offs have marketing campaigns designed to fit them.) Increasingly it’s within the talent pool of independent publishing that new forms are devised and literature grows, forcing the literary world to open up and modernise – much as the coming of ITV challenged the BBC to review its ethos in the Fifties and Sixties, with great results.
So the Spirits novels are “ghostly time travel tales”. Or “ghostly fantasy tales”. That’s about the best I’ve come up with. Kids seem to like them, anyway, and I’ve had various longlistings and shortlistings for awards, as well as four- and five-star reviews and the chance to work with schools and libraries on building children’s literacy through my workshops. In one of these, the children managed to find some extra ghosts on the cover of Childish Spirits, which was unnerving (I can’t see any except the ghost in the mirror. Can you? CAN you??). At the end of another workshop, one boy came up to me and said, eyes wide, completely straight-faced:
“Is there a lot of horror in it? Because I like a lot, you know. You can put in as much horror and gore as you like, for me. It’s good.”
I smiled, then started sidling towards the door. It obviously didn’t worry him as much as the parents I’d met.
But why should we be censoring children, anyway? It’s like people who ban wizard and witch books out of a belief they interest children in the satanic. It’s something an author of ghost novels has to beware of, too. I was asked about this recently and explained that my average childhood day probably encompassed reading Simon and the Witch before school, going in and rehearsing bemused fellow kids in my latest sword and sorcery play, and then coming home and watching Count Duckula or Knightmare. I’ve now published seven books of my own, all with fantasy elements in them somewhere (covers pictured below). I’m also a baptised and confirmed Christian. Well, where do you think all that stuff in my books about the afterlife and the spirit world comes from?
Now, what’s this ghostly casserole called the Spirits series all about? Well, it’s the continuing story of Ellie, a schoolgirl who becomes increasingly aware that she has the power to see and hear ghosts from all periods of history. Her mother works for a company called Journeyback which looks after historic houses, ruins and castles, and this gives Ellie every opportunity to get mixed up in ancient injustices and solve mysteries from across the ages. There’s always a new ghost, someone wronged in their lifetime – or sometimes, the perpetrator of a wrong. And Ellie has to try to put things right, while avoiding meddling with the timelines and trying to find out who she really is. Not much, then. It’s played out against the backdrop of her parents’ breakup, her arrogant teenage brother Charlie is always watching, and she’s also under observation from a mysterious woman from Viewpoint, the government’s ghostly watchdog which resents Ellie’s interference. But she has her best ghostly friend, the Victorian boy Edward, to help.
As we go into The Coming of the Spirits, history has been radically and catastrophically changed. Ellie’s mistake in a previous book has led to the barrier into the spirit world being breached – and any moment now, every evil spirit that ever lived is coming back to wreak its revenge on the mortal realm. Ellie finds herself alone, without home or family, cut off from friends and allies. All she has to go on is an old legend of the spirit world, which talks about her as “The Grand Defender”...
What else? The manuscript of the book currently contains the words “balloon”, “curse”, “lasagne”, “evil”, “supermarket”, “toad”, “railway bridge” and “hatch”. Someone says: “Now, listen to me, dunghead” (though I have to get that past the editors – I’ll cough or something) and someone else says: “We’ve got to find him”. Characters from all of the previous books will be back for the finale – and Ellie will finally discover her true destiny.
And that’s all I can say. The casserole is made, and is on a low light while I finish this year’s other big project, my picture book My Favourite People, with illustrations by the very talented Simon Goodway. It’s much lighter in terms of plot, being more a character-based piece, and I shouldn’t have any trouble explaining this one. But soon I have to lift Ellie out of the cliffhanger I left her in at the end of High Spirits, save the world from ruin, answer all the remaining questions from across the whole series and still get a few jokes in somewhere. Prepare for the genre-busting rollercoaster of a lifetime – or deathtime...
- For more information on Rob and the Spirits series, visit www.robkeeley.co.uk and follow Rob on Twitter @RobKeeleyAuthor. You can find his books here: