Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books: Author Interview with Ian Johnstone - The Bell Between Worlds (The Mirror Chronicles)

This was one of my favourite books of 2013. It was an amazing debut fantasy novel that I could quite literally not put down.  Now that it has finally been published in paperback, I still have the same positive feelings for the story that I had then. 

I would like to thank Ian for writing such detailed responses to my questions. I hope that they will inspire you to read a copy of his book,  if you've not already done so!

1. Tell us a little bit about The Bell Between Worlds.

The book tells the story of young Sylas Tate, who lives in peculiar old terrace called Gabblety Row. Between running errands for his peevish Uncle Tobias, Sylas escapes into his dreams, dreams that take him as far as possible from his uncle and from thoughts of his mother, who died some years before. But the world changes beyond his wildest imaginings when The Shop of Things opens in the Row. The shopkeeper shows him three wonderful “Things”: strange, magical objects that seem to prove that there is something special about young Sylas Tate. Before he is able to discover any more he is woken in the middle of the night by the ear-splitting toll of a bell, a chime that seems to shake the footings of the world but that astonishingly, only he can hear.  As the sound of the bell rages in his ears, Sylas begins a journey: a voyage of discovery that takes him into a world subtly different from the one he knows, a world where magic replaces science, a world of wonders that will soon unravel everything he has ever known. But he finds answers too, about the fate of his mother, about the two worlds and his own astonishing powers, and about the nature of our very soul.

2. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp? 

Well, like any fantasy writer a key preoccupation of mine is wonder – capturing it and evoking it – and I want to share my wonder not only at magical things but also at the endless potential of our imagination and the staggering beauty and power of nature. If that doesn’t sound too high-minded! I would like to take the reader on a magical journey but also show my wonder at the real world – our world. That’s why I chose to write the book as a portal fantasy, spanning worlds of both magic and science and teasing out a correspondence between the two. 
The trilogy also explores some basic questions: why is it that we doubt ourselves? Why is it that so much of our potential is often hidden to us? And why do we turn so readily to superstitions and mythologies to find answers? Obviously these are big topics to grapple with (I can only hope I am up to the task!) but they explain why this is a very big story that needs the depth and breadth of a series of books. The resulting trilogy, The Mirror Chronicles, will publish over the next year or two. Book two, Circles of Stone, is out in July!

3. Do you work to an outline or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you?

Both! I like to have at least a loose framework written out at the beginning but then be free to shape and change as I go. I once heard a great metaphor for this and I hope the owner will forgive me for forgetting where! They said that they like to create the blueprint for their book like that of a house, so that they know the structure and the layout – where the rooms are and how they are connected – but they know little about each room until they walk into it. It is like that for me. I know what chapter or scene is needed in advance but they come to life in true detail and colour as I reach them. Circles of Stone is much more closely planned than The Bell Between Worlds because it involves a very complex interplay of characters in both worlds, but as far as possible I still tried to come to the scenes fresh as I wrote them. I think that keeps the writing interesting, and it is certainly a lot more fun!

4. What inspired you to write your first book? 

Like so many of us, as a child I was absolutely transported, bewildered and enraptured by The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, and as ordinary and predictable as this may be for a writer of fantasy, I can trace much of my inspiration back to them. They both made me want to understand how a writer can create a world of wonders so vivid and enthralling that it almost seems real. So I knew from aged eight or nine that one day I wanted to attempt their wizardry in whatever way I could, and it was only two or three years later that I had the underlying idea for The Mirror Chronicles. I think it was reaching that age of terrible self-consciousness and self-doubt at twelve or thirteen that made me dream up a fantastical reason for our doubts and questions. And that was the beginning. I even wrote a synopsis, but I soon realized that I wasn’t equipped to write the book, so I decided to leave it until I had grown up. I now realize that may never happen, so I just have to get on with it! 

5. Where do your ideas come from?

I suppose I have just explained where one of the central ideas came from, but in truth the ideas in The Mirror Chronicles come from a range of places in my past. I think my love of the natural world comes from a lifetime of travel, particularly in Africa, where I have lived and worked for years. In Africa the natural world feels far more pervasive and powerful than it does here – it is very much IN CHARGE – and that has stayed with me in a way that became Essenfayle, the magic of Nature, in the novel. My fascination with science probably comes from my dad, who at twelve taught himself chemistry with a second-hand chemistry set and a hosepipe from the gas cooker (DON’T try it at home!). He spent a career in the world of chemistry and electronics without any formal education, great at it just because he loved it. He taught me the wonder of a scientific view of the world. Another example of ideas from my past is the Samarok, the endlessly expanding book of myth and history that underpins the trilogy. I have spent many years working in digital publishing and the Samarok and the Ravel Runes it is written in are of course modeled on web technologies and the endlessly unfurling connections of hypertext. Again, this is an example of magic mirroring the wonders of science.

6. What are your current projects? 

Well I am delighted to say that book two of the trilogy, Circles of Stone, is now all done bar the dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s, so I am about to return to the planning of book three! After a while in editorial I am very happy to be writing again. And talking of writing, I am about to begin a series of creative writing workshops in schools, which will be based on the Shop of Things and will involve a box of Things from the shop itself. VERY excited about that!

7. Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?

I don’t read as much as I would like to but I certainly read as much as I can. As a writer I think it is crucial to keep reading – it keeps your own writing fresh and it also reminds you of all the good reasons why you are doing it! I have LOADS of favourite authors from yesteryear when I used to read a lot more but of recent writers for children and YA, I have very much enjoyed a variety of books from Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Sally Gardner, SF Said, RJ Palacio to name a few. The authors I seem to come back to again and again are Dickens and Orwell: both have an incredible way of seeing the world and describing it in their own unique way. And of course I just love the language and humour of Dickens.

 8. Do you have any advice for other writers?  

Most importantly, keep going! It has taken me years to get from the kernel of an idea to a fully-fledged trilogy. None of the stages have been particularly easy, from the writing, to finding an agent and a publisher, and finally the editing, but each has had its very real rewards. And the final reward is the greatest of all – your story in the hands and minds of a readership. It is a constant wonder to me that my story is now out there, living in the imaginations of people I have never met. The rest may not play out as easily as you hope, but that part, the part about your story and your readership, that is exactly as you hope it will be.

9. What are your views on social media for marketing?

Ha ha! I am rather wondering if my agent Ben has put you up to that one. As he will tell you, I have mixed feelings. I think at times writing and the pressure to be present on social media can be at odds: the first requires immersion in your imagination, the other living in the here and now, being available, being active and immediate. I worry about getting distracted by it. But that said, I think if you can work out a way of giving both things their place – as some writers clearly do. It is great to have that contact with your readers and with bloggers, critics, booksellers, librarians, teachers and last but not least, fellow authors. So I suppose my view is that writers should do as much as they can make work without impacting their writing. How’s that for a politician’s answer?!

10. Is there anything else that you would like to tell us?

Just that I am very excited to see (on social media!) a recent revival of interest in “middle grade” writing. As SF Said pointed out in his great article recently “The Best Books of the 21st Century”, some of the finest writing in this wonderful, talented country of ours is – and has always been – children’s writing. For some reason we seem poor at recognizing it, celebrating it and encouraging it. With less and less titles and authors being championed in the mainstream press and in the big retailers it is becoming increasingly difficult to break through. And most recently Middle Grade, one of our particular gems, has been eclipsed by a transatlantic love of young adult writing, but I am thrilled to see the balance being redressed by excellent blogs like this and by much-needed new initiatives like Middle Grade Strikes Back ( and their associated Twitter hashtag #ukmgchat. I think those of us who want to preserve our tradition of excellent and varied children’s writing should all be following them and supporting them so that they might take up the slack left by traditional media and stores. Of course that’s not to underestimate the wonderful work being done by independent booksellers to champion good books and new authors.