Andy Ruffell - Lily Grim and The City of Undone - Author Interview (Q&A) - Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

This is another fantastic debut author interview. This week, we're delighted to introduce Andy Ruffell and his new book - we are really looking forward to reading this. Lily Grim and The City of Undone will be published by Hodder Children's Books on the 11th May, 2023. We hope after reading this interview you might dare to put this gothic adventure on your reading list. You can preorder it from all the best places you usually buy your books from and help LILY GRIM unravel her mystery. 
  1. Your book sounds wonderful, can you tell us something about the book that we might not find in the publisher's synopsis? 

Although the story is set within the claustrophobic streets of Undone (and the sewers and tunnels beneath them) there’s a whole world that already stretches way beyond the city walls which I’m itching for readers to discover. If I get the chance to share the sequels, you’ll see the frozen lands of the Wintermen with their ghosts, the walking dead, volcanoes and wolfriders, and you’ll visit the Cities of Fire far to the south of Undone, deep within deserts whose coasts and dunes are plagued with pirates.

The map in the front of the book (which I absolutely love!) hints at some of these future possibilities and I can’t wait to bring the places on the map, and the people who live there, to life. Incidentally, the name of the northern port of Freeside is a nod to real-life Teesside, the area that welcomed me nearly 30 years ago, as is the name of one of my favourite characters from the book (all Teesside readers will instantly know which one when they read it!) 

  1. Undone is a dark and dangerous place to live, what survival tips can you give to potential readers to stay alive? 

First of all, trust no one… Except for Dekka, he’s great: he’s the kind of friend we all wish we had and the person we wished we were. 

Secondly, make sure you’ve got a strong stomach as you’ll be spending a lot of time intimately acquainted with the insides of the sewers and all that gathers there.

Thirdly, if in doubt, just trust your feelings and go for it.

Lastly, beware of the flesh-eating sewer pigs! If you hear a snorting in the darkness, you’d better start running or you’ll be eaten alive.

  1. The main characters in the book have a second-hand shop, what would be able to purchase if we were to visit, and would we get a bargain?

Lily’s guardian Gabriel is so kind that everyone ends up with a bargain! The shop sells anything and everything: old false teeth, jewellery, second-hand clothes, watches, tools, glass eyes, umbrellas, books, maps… If I were you, I’d buy a good pair of boots (because you’re bound to need to run away from someone at some point), a hat or scarf to disguise your face, and some old clothes to help you blend into the crowd because, if there’s anything that’s going to put you in danger in Undone, it’s standing out and getting noticed by the evil Master.

  1. When and how did this story start to take shape? Did it start with a light bulb moment? 

I was driving to work one morning (in ‘real-life’ I’m a primary school headteacher) when Lily Grim’s name came to me. Funnily enough, it arrived in the first person, as though she was speaking to me and she said, “I am Grim, Lily Grim.” I loved the name and knew I wanted to tell her story, but I just let her sit awhile and put on a bit of flesh before I was ready to write.

I’m terrible at getting started on anything and had basically managed to put off writing a book for several decades because I was so worried that I’d fail and would have to kill off the last of my childhood dreams. However, my amazing wife Joanne, told me I had to find something to do to take my mind off the stress of running a school during the pandemic, and she insisted I tried writing the book I’d always said I’d write someday.

Within eight weeks, I had the first draft finished and couldn’t believe I’d managed it after all those years of procrastinating. I was obviously just waiting for the combined powers of Lily and Joanne to kickstart me into action!

  1. Would your younger self enjoy reading this book?

Absolutely! I loved anything dark and mysterious and devoured books by Alan Garner, Ursula K Le Guin and Susan Cooper. I liked a bit of magic in a story, but always preferred magic that was unpredictable and dangerous and put the user at risk (like the magic that Wart experiences in T H White’s Sword in the Stone). I kept the otherworldly powers of Lily and the Others well within this branch of ancient and shifting magic as I didn’t want them to find things too easy, or too safe!

Lily Grim and the City of Undone is full of darkness and danger but, at its heart, is the great friendship that grows between Lily and Dekka, the Other boy who rescues Lily and helps her discover who she is. With two daughters, I wanted to write a book that had a really strong girl as the lead character, but Dekka is such a fabulous friend to Lily and such an easy character to love, that I ended up writing a book that essentially has two leads. 

  1. I love the book cover. Could you tell us more about the cover and what your thoughts are about it? Do you think it is a good reflection of the story inside?

I love the cover so much! Everything from the dark colours which make it feel different from most middle-grade books, to the skull detail on the lettering, to the jumbled cityscape of Undone, to Dekka featuring on the cover, to Lily’s own gothic style. The fabulous illustrator, Francesca Carbonari, and the design team at Hachette have done such a great job in using the book as a starting point and producing something totally new. 

Francesca has captured Lily’s bold wilfulness and spark of mischief perfectly. In the book, I deliberately avoided giving Lily much of a description, so that readers could see her how they wanted. My daughters love the extra details that Francesca has added – the dark eyeliner, the ghost hair tie, and the double ear piercings – none of which are described in the book. It’s endlessly fascinating to imagine multitudes of different Lilies existing in other people’s heads. 

The idea for the feel of the City of Undone itself came from a combination of mediaeval cities like Canterbury, York and Durham with their overhanging, tightly packed and crooked buildings, along with the joyless growth of Dickensian slums, mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution. Francesca has distilled this grime and claustrophobia so well on the cover and I’m thrilled to see the city itself featuring so strongly. I also love Francesca’s addition of the watchful ravens, whose beady eyes seem so malevolent and full of dark intent - they ramp up the gothic atmosphere and give it all a delicious air of threat and malice.

The cover captures the feel of the story so well and I will be eternally grateful for the fabulous job that Francesca has done! Thank you!

  1. Are there any stories that have been a key influence in writing and developing your storyline?

As mentioned earlier, I loved reading dark and mysterious books when I was younger. In addition to the writers previously discussed, as a child I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings pretty much on repeat (which may be why I absolutely LOVE a map in a book and why I was overjoyed when Hachette said I could have one in Lily Grim!)

I’ve always enjoyed folktales, fairy tales and ghost stories and I guess this back catalogue of reading experiences, coupled with a foray into horror as a teen and more recent TV programmes like Inside No. 9, all mixed together to create the dark, gothic adventure of Lily Grim.

Weirdly, about 10 years prior to writing Lily Grim and the City of Undone, I wrote the opening couple of pages for a different story. I’d forgotten that I’d written it, and only rediscovered it when I opened an old notebook. Although the characters have different names, the setting is undeniably Undone and it’s clear that the atmosphere and many of the themes of this unfinished story share their DNA with Lily Grim – to the extent that some sentences are spookily similar. 

  1. What are you particularly looking forward to as an author once your book has been published?

I can’t wait to see someone, somewhere reading the book and discovering Lily and Dekka for themselves. Knowing that Lily and Dekka are running around the City of Undone in that person’s imagination is so humbling. I loved creating the characters, the world, and the story that pulled them all together, but sharing it is equally important. The thought that everyone will imagine Lily in a different way is amazing. Through sharing stories, we create infinite characters and settings that are personal to their own reader and it’s really quite overwhelming when you get given the opportunity to do this.

  1. Who would you like to invite to your book launch and why? 

Ha! Despite spending 20 years in primary education as a teacher and headteacher and always having to be ready to ‘perform’ in lessons or assemblies, I’m actually really shy. Even the thought of a book launch where I am centre of attention makes me nervous so, certainly for this first book, I think I’ll just be enjoying the day of publication itself with my family. 

That said, if I was having a launch and could invite anyone, I’d definitely ask Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones and Michael J Fox (all childhood heroes) along with Laurie Lee, my favourite writer of all time.

  1. What do you love to do in your spare time?  

I absolutely love reading and, of all my pastimes, that’s the one I’d really struggle to live without. Reading in a hammock in the garden on a sunny day with our lovely cat Otis curled up on my chest would be my perfect way to relax.

I’m also a big fan of TV and, although I don’t watch a great deal of it, I love being drawn into a great story and I’m a sucker for a really compelling drama. 

I hate being stuck indoors, so I’m often outside and I’m happiest when I’m close to the natural world – either getting muddy in the garden, or out running or walking. I’m lucky enough to live near the North York Moors and I love being out in the hills.

From April to October, I try to go to the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea as much as possible to surf (really badly). It’s such a friendly place and there’s nothing like surfing for making you feel like a child again – it’s pure joy, even when you’re rubbish like me and spend more time underwater than riding the waves.