... Alan Skinner on Muddles, The Land and Sibling Press

Flagge... Alan Skinner on Muddles, The Land and Sibling Press

We met Alan Skinner during the Frankfurt International Book Fair in 2007, in the huge and cluttered Hall of Englishlanguage international publishers. He had one of the smaller booths that seemed threatened to be overlooked among the big gaudy booths.

My eyes stuck on this booth because the man behind this table looked really likeable on first sight - and because the cover of the book presented there had a tantalizing title: "Blue Fire and Ice" (we published a review in German: See here ).

We had an interesting conversation and when we ended I was convinced that I wanted to know more about.

That's why we made this interview, given to us by mail since Alan seems to oscillate between Australia and Great Britain.

Zauberspiegel: Alan, Blue Fire and Ice is the first book you wrote. How did you get the idea of writing this story?
Alan Skinner: Blue Fire and Ice is my first work of fiction, though I feel I have been writing all my life. I have been writing all my life, but for one reason or another, I just never got around to putting it on paper.
The concept of the Muddles came to me when I was in Nuremburg at the beginning of 2007, for the toy fair. When I got back to Australia, I talked to my brothers and sisters about the concept. I have six sisters and brothers and we had formed a creative development company called Sevenista. As a group we share our concepts and everyone contributes suggestions and ideas. They are a very bright, creative group of people.
I didn’t have a very full idea about the Muddles apart from the basic characteristic of the Mix. And the title. Blue Fire and Ice was literally all the text I had. I understand now how the English playwright Harold Pinter can claim that many of his plays start with just a line or a title. Once I decided to write Blue Fire and Ice, the story came as I wrote. It is a very immediate process. Characters, situations, themes and detail come as part of the writing process. Once I had the voice of each character in my head, they emerged on the page fully-formed.
It was not like the reports of JK Rowlings, who apparently had the whole series in her head from the beginning.
It was quite a departure from what I had ever thought of writing and from the books which I have had in my head for many years. I had not given very serious thought to writing juvenile fiction, though several ideas had come to me over the years. Most of the books in my head are adult fiction. I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it and how much it rewarded me writing it.

Zauberspiegel: Are there authors that serve as a [role] model for you? Who is it and why?
Illustration aus Blue Fire and IceAlan Skinner: No. I can’t say that I have consciously wanted to imitate any authors but there are authors who, in some way, you might call role models. Among children’s authors, I am comfortable with the style of Kenneth Grahame; I love the inventiveness of Lewis Carroll and I admire the wit ofJM Barrie. Apart from Philip Pullman, I think CS Lewis is the greatest children’s author I have encountered. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is one of the greatest books written in the last 150 years, whether for adults or children. Yet, I can’t say that Pullman served as a role model for I realised very quickly that the Muddles stories would never offer the same opportunities for examining such metaphysical questions as Pullman does in the Dark Materials books.
All those authors are British, and apart from Pulman, they are all dead. It would seem that I am stuck in a past world but I do think there was a golden age of children’s writing and it emerged in England more than a century ago. Yet, I was always aware while I was writing Blue Fire and Ice that I did not want it to be too embedded in an old-fashioned, country-cottage English literary culture.
As well as Pullman, there are modern children’s authors that I admire either for their story-telling or writing style. Maurice Gleitzman and Madeleine L’Engle come to mind as first-rate children’s authors, though their content and styles are very different.
Blue Fire and Ice falls, I suppose, into the fantasy genre. But not in the Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind or Anne McCaffrey style. It is about the fantastical rather than the magical. There are so many science-fantasy books available and few that are genuinely original or truly imaginative.
Perhaps the only one that I think has some similarity is Terry Pratchett, but the style of the Discworld books is so very different from the style of Blue Fire and Ice and the other books that will follow.

Zauberspiegel: The story seems to me like a well designed half-timbered house, thoroughly planned. How do you proceed when writing? Do you have the story completely planned from the beginning or does it evolve while you’re writing?
Illustration aus Blue Fire and IceAlan Skinner: It’s most definitely evolution! When I first started, I had the basic Muddle concept of the Mix (though I didn’t even know it would be called the Mix.) I had the title, and I had the vague concept of the Beadles. I had started a children’s story over 20 years ago, when I returned to university and in it was a race of characters called the Beadles. I had a rough outline of them, but not developed as they are in Blue Fire and Ice.
Beyond that, I didn’t have anything. It all came from the process of writing. Character names, plot events, the Myrmidots. They all evolved as I wrote.
Some sections of the book were written quite quickly and stayed as they were originally written. In fact, probably about 80% of the book is actually as it was when it first poured from my finger tips into the computer.
I’d like to say that I had it all planned in my head, that I knew what was going to happen, who was going to do what and so forth, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I made it up as I went along. Once a character sprang forth, and I was happy with the character’s role, purpose and voice, the character wrote itself.
There was one section of the book that was a result of a more deliberate and objective review. When the book was finished, I read it through and realised it needed some dramatic reinforcement in one part, so I added an event that gave it more dramatic tension but didn’t alter the plot.
It’s a very exciting way to work. Some of my favourite characters came alive in front of my eyes. They developed in my head as I wrote.

Zauberspiegel: The three peoples in your book, the Myrmidots, the Muddles and the Beadles seem to me like the representatives of three stereotypes. Was it intentionally done that way?
Illustration aus Blue Fire and IceAlan Skinner: Most certainly! Well, the Myrmidots and the Beadles, at any rate. However, they are not to be taken as nationality or race-specific stereotypes. Each society is purely representative of a part of our society. If you want to look at it in social terms each represents a layer of organised society. The Myrmidots are the industrialists; the Beadles are the public servants or bureaucratic strata; and the Muddles are the general public – Everyman, in terms of the morality plays of the early Middle Ages.
That’s at a very intellectual level. At a literary level, they allow for conflict based on personality differences. And since the Muddles are definitely NOT stereotypes, it allows me to exploit humour based on different ways of looking at life. You can also look at them as collective characters. Dickens, one of the greatest story-tellers of us all, had many stereotypes, but that didn’t lessen the humour or the truth of his observations.
I tried, and succeeded, I think, to make individual Beadles or Myrmidots possess a character that was unique within the wider stereotype. Brian and Megan are both Beadles, but they have very different ways of looking at life and dealing with it.
What I think comes through the book, though, is that the stereotypical behaviour fades into the background when the crunch comes. They work together, they react very similarly; they even rejoice in the same way.

Zauberspiegel: I am most fascinated by the Muddles, wonder why. This feature of interchanging with other Muddles and/or animals is truly very special. How did you get this idea and is it “merely” a fact in order to establish more suspense - or is there a literary purpose to it?
The Muddle Book - KinderbuchAlan Skinner: The concept of mixing the bodies of different characters is not new. Years ago, in packets of sweets, or something, you’d have cards or little books in which the page was divided into three and you could flip the pages and see the sailor with the butler’s body and the policeman’s legs. In fact, the very first piece of commercial writing I ever did was to write a little bit of text for a book called The Muddle Book, which was a larger form of that. That was in about 1983.
But that is just the beginning of what the Muddles are. All the other characteristics of the Muddles and of Muddlemarsh are far more important. And those unique elements, such as their special skills - or lack of them – and their attitude towards life; the coffee, the bus, communication with animals, etc are equally important. Some I created because I thought it added a humorous element; some because I thought, “If people really did Mix, would they have greater sensitivity for each other? Would they have a different awareness?
The world has to be logical. Children are not simple; they are quick to recognise inconsistencies in logic and form. So Muddlemarsh – and The Land in general – had to make logical, if fantastical, sense.
I didn’t want to populate Muddlemarsh with only Muddle people. It is a total environment, interdependent and mutually respectful. So the animals had to mix, as well. The animals are as much Muddles as the ‘human’ characters.
The Muddles are unique in literature. If anyone can point me to similar characters, I’ll stand corrected, but they are unlike anything else in literature, in the same way as the inhabitants of Never Never Land were unique; or the races that Gulliver stumbles upon in Gulliver’s Travels. And that doesn’t happen too often.

Zauberspiegel: As far as I know, you do not have a publisher for Germany so far. Is there a chance we will be able to get the book in German?
Alan Skinner: Yes, if I have my way! Part of the reason I was at Frankfurt was to try and get opportunities to sell the publication rights. So far, we have had publishers from about 16 countries, including Germany, express interest in publishing Blue Fire and Ice. But we have to wait until after it makes its debut in the UK and Australia. That’s in March 2008.
The German-language countries are very important, and also close to home for me. I lived for quite a while in Switzerland and travelled quite a bit in Germany. I love Germany and am grateful that the world’s largest toy fair and the world’s premier book fair are both in Germany for it gives me a good excuse to be there at least twice a year.

Zauberspiegel: Will you continue with Blue Fire & Ice? And if ? when? To be honest, I can’t wait to see if they really do travel North!
Alan Skinner: After I finished Blue Fire and Ice, I realised that the story wasn’t really finished. I have started on the sequel, which will be called The Furnaces of Forge. And I suspect that there will be a further three sequels but because I haven’t planned anything, I can’t be too sure! Collectively, they will form a series entitled, The Land’s Tale. You will be able to follow all the characters from Blue Fire and Ice, plus new ones, as the whole tale unfolds. North will not be the only direction in which they travel!
It is an important aspect of each book that although they combine in a wider tale, each story is complete in itself. Most trilogies or series are constructed so that a book is not complete in itself. That cheats the reader in some ways. I want the readers to feel that each book gives the satisfaction of a conclusion and the anticipation of new adventures and horizons.
Apart from the books in The Land’s Tale series, there will be a series of stand-alone Muddles Books. The first of these, The Talisman Thieves, will be released later in 2008. Finally, there will be a series of Muddles picture-storybooks for younger readers. Muddlemarsh will be the first of these and will be previewed at Bologna when we officially release Blue Fire and Ice.

Zauberspiegel: Writing books is by far not the only thing you do. On the cover of your book is a very beautiful publisher’s-label: Sibling-Press. Sibling stand for - well - siblings. Tell me more.
Logo of sibling pressAlan Skinner: I also am co-owner of Sibling Revelry, a games development company. We launched our first product, a film-based board game, Cinematique, in July 2006. When I decided to start a publishing house, it made sense to call it Sibling Press. Sibling Press will handle the books and Sibling Revelry will handle the Muddles merchandising. Toys based on the Muddles will come out later this year.
The sibling part refers to my brothers and sisters I mentioned earlier. About 20 years ago, before I went overseas to live, we started developing a board game and we were going to call our company Sibling Revelry. We never got around to finishing that board game 20 years, but when I wanted to launch Cinematique, I resurrected Sibling Revelry as it was too good a name to lose. It is also a tribute to my brothers and sisters, who really are an extraordinary group of people.
The logo for Sibling Press is quite beautiful. It was actually created by an artist in Romania. The chap we hired to help design Cinematique came across it and showed it to me and I knew it was perfect. So we bought the full rights to it and made some changes. Naturally, when I started Sibling Press, it made sense to use the same logo and keep the association. There are plans to make some small changes to the logo to suit the publishing aspect, but we’ll not change it much. Like the Muddles, it is too good as it is.

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