- How would you summarise your debut book, The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy, to new readers?
The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy is a quirky seaside adventure set in a strange town where seventeen fishmongers line the seafront, and everyone is obsessed with fish. Everyone except for Marina Minnow, a young girl who loves to tell stories. One day she sets out to prove that she can have a real-life adventure by rowing across to the haunted pier and inside, she meets an amazing boy named William – who has crab claws for hands and tentacles for hair. He has been waiting there for years, for the fisherman who rescued him from the sea to return. So, together with Marina, these unlikely new friends set out to unravel the mystery of his past. It is surreal, funny, a little bit dark but absolutely full of heart at its core.
- This is a great name for a book, is this the original title or did it start life with another version?
My working title was ‘Something Fishy’, which was just a placeholder literally meaning “I will come up with a fishy sounding title eventually”. After a while, it actually started to grow on me as I enjoyed the double meaning. I always knew it would probably change, and the team at Chicken House felt it was a bit too flippant for a book that also has some weight to it. I came up with a new list of suggestions, and after much discussion we all agreed ‘The Peculiar Tale of the Tentacle Boy’ was the winner. I really think it sets the tone perfectly, especially when paired with the incredible cover by Maxine Lee-Mackie.
- Marina is one of the central characters of the book. Can you explain to us what she is actually looking for?
Marina is a storyteller. It’s something she grew up doing, telling stories with her dad who has since gone missing at sea. Now she tells stories for herself, in order to keep her hope for his safe return alive after everyone else has given up on him ever coming back. She writes her own fantastical tales to explain his disappearance and to stay positive. But lots of people in the town think that she’s a troublemaker and a liar, so she sets out prove that she can also have a real-life adventure – and that’s when she meets William…
- Do you have an underlying moral or message for us to take away from this story?
Something I’m delighted to see readers are taking away is a message of tolerance and acceptance. What I hope Marina and William have proved by the end of the novel is that friendship and family can really be found in any place, if only we can embrace each other’s differences and see people for who they are in their hearts.
- Do you believe that your visits to the seaside have inspired parts of the story and, if so, which aspects in particular?
Absolutely! In terms of the setting, Merlington is a real mix of many different seaside towns including West Bay in Dorset, Lyme Regis in Devon, and Whitstable in Kent which is famous for its oysters and shellfish. Brighton’s dilapidated West Pier, one of my favourite UK landmarks, was also the starting point for William’s crumbling shack. That was one of the earliest seeds for the story – imagining what kind of character might live in such an inhospitable place, cut off from the land… A boy with crab claws for hands, obviously!
- I understand that two of your greatest childhood influences were Roald Dahl and Tim Burton. Are there any characteristics or features from their writing that you have developed or been inspired by to write your story?
With regards to Tim Burton, I’ve always loved his weird and wonderful characters. Especially those who find themselves living in a community of people who are often even stranger! Edward Scissorhands is of course a huge favourite, but more specifically it is Burton’s ability to blend the whimsical with the gloomy and frightful that has always excited and fascinated me. Equally Roald Dahl never shied away from taking his stories in a darkly funny direction. I really think kids love that kind of stuff. When I thought about the kind of town that a boy who is part-fish might be living in, the most deliciously dark idea was of course a town obsessed with eating fish! I think Dahl would’ve loved that, too.
- Would you have read your book when you were a child?
Absolutely. As we’ve discussed, I was a huge fan of Burton and Dahl growing up and I think the novel was written in the spirit of their work. I loved anything that was slightly odd or unusual as a kid, and I would have instantly been drawn to Maxine’s amazing cover illustration. I wrote the book hoping that it would find its way into the hands of readers who are similar to how I was at the same age – kids who like it when their adventure stories skirt the edge of darkness in a humorous way.
- How do you go about writing interesting and realistic characters and can (or do) they take you to places you have no control over?
My earliest characters are informed by the setting, which seems to come first for me. The abandoned pier cut off from land created William, and then his presence informed the kind of people who populated Merlington – hungry fishmongers, for the most part.
From there, without wanting to sound too pretentious, it definitely feels like the characters need to tell me who they are for themselves. For example, I never intended for Marina’s talent for storytelling to be so vital to the plot, but the entire structure would now crumble without it. That’s why my first draft has to be written by hand, as I need to let it spill out on the page which is impossible if I’m staring at a blank computer screen. When it’s ink and paper, I don’t feel the pressure to make it perfect.
- What has been the best/most surprising experience working with Chicken House books?
Chicken House had always been my dream publisher, so I was quite nervous before the real work started. I had no idea whether I would be able to make the novel any better having already put so much time and energy into it. In reality, I absolutely loved the whole editing process from start to finish. It was incredible to have a team of people so invested in my barmy story which had been private for such a long time. There were so many fantastic ideas and suggestions flying about – not least from my brilliant editor, Kesia – and I can’t believe how far it has come from that very first draft. I really surprised myself.
- Can you tell us about any new projects or plans that might be in the pipeline?
I’m just coming to the end of the first draft of my second novel for Chicken House, with the deadline just around the corner! This one is a full-blown summertime adventure. Much less fish, but a lot more sun and sea, plus another very odd family mystery…