The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pete Johnson

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pete Johnson

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Summary: Bookbag really enjoyed The Vampire Blog by Pete Johnson, with its one liners and a horror element at a level perfect for late primary school readers. We jumped at the opportunity to interview Pete Johnson.
Date: 27 May 2010
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Bookbag really enjoyed The Vampire Blog by Pete Johnson, with its one liners and a horror element at a level perfect for late primary school readers. We jumped at the opportunity to interview Pete Johnson.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Pete Johnson: I do a large number of visits to schools, libraries and bookshops. And often while I'm waiting I picture the children who I've met there. I especially remember their enthusiasm, their love of a good laugh and their impatience! This stops me getting carried away or lapsing into pretentiousness. Sometimes, also, when I start writing, I hear voices of children who I've met or of my nephews and niece, who are roughly the age of many of my characters.

  • BB: We really enjoyed The Vampire Blog, and it does end on a note that suggests we might meet Marcus again some time soon. Will his blog get any further entries?

PJ: Yes, it will. Random (my publishers) want me to write two more books about Marcus and Tallulah. I can exclusively reveal that the second one will be called The Vampire Watchers, and in this one Tallulah, still haunted by her dreams of vampires sets up a website to meet other people who believe vampires are real. Of course, Marcus is very alarmed when he hears this and tries to stop Tallulah going to meet a mysterious woman called, Mrs Lenchester. Meanwhile Marcus also gets to know another half-vampire, called Gracie. It is Gracie who tells him something astonishing about half-vampires, which his parents had kept from him and changes everything for him. I've nearly finished the first draft of the Book Two, so all this info really is hot from the press. As before, I want to combine horror and comedy – but I'm raising the stakes even higher for Marcus in this one.

  • BB: Vampire or werewolf?

PJ: Oh, vampires every time. Yes, they're mean and greedy and untrustworthy (and those are just their good qualities) but there's something cool and exciting about them too, living outside society and changing into those magnificent capes, while werewolves always seem to me like total victims – unfortunate characters who just turn hairy and fierce every so often. I can't imagine ever wanting to be a werewolf.

  • BB: Geek or jock?

PJ: Whisper this – but geek every time. At least I was a geek who made people laugh. I was always the boy who girls liked as a friend: UGH.

  • BB: We also really enjoy your blend of horror and humour. Do you enjoy the mashup, or do you prefer the horror or the humour element?

PJ: First of all humour creeps into everything I write; I can't keep it out. But also, I greatly prefer horror stories that have a few laughs too. I actually think it strengthens the story. I believe too, one of the characteristics of human beings is that we can't generally be serious for long. Hooray for that, I say.

  • BB: Jill has two teenage sons and they both mock her in exactly the same way your characters mock their parents. Is this something you've observed? Please tell her she's not alone?

PJ: No, Jill, you're not alone. I collect comments from teenagers about their parents. But also, parents tell me stuff too: one mum recently prepared some sandwiches for her son and his friends, and made what she thought was bright conversation to put the boys at their ease. Afterwards her son said: Great sandwiches, Mum, but probably best if you don't talk to my mates again. You only embarrass yourself.

  • BB: That's oh so familiar! We have read that you have a panel of young readers to whom you refer on all things relevant. How valuable are they in the writing process and how much input do they have?

PJ: They're really valuable and I have many teenagers who I 'consult.' Some I write to and send extracts inviting them to be as critical as they like and they are!) Other times I will chat through ideas with a class or book group. This is really helpful, as you can see if a theme is going to work. So for instance, when I first suggested the idea of The Vampire Blog, I was overwhelmed by all the responses and the interest. I knew then this theme had great potential. There have been moments though, when an idea has dive-bombed – for instance, when I thought of writing about a class election. Nothing in the discussion caught fire. I haven't completely abandoned this idea, but I know it lacks something and needs a fresh perspective. Finally, my nephews and niece have strong opinions about everything I write!

  • BB: We have fond memories of Swallows and Amazons, but we must admit that it feels a bit dated these days. How important is it to you that your books maintain a contemporary feel?

PJ: Actually, I have mixed views on this one. I am naturally curious, so there are aspects of teenage life which really interest me and I enjoy consulting 'readers' about them. It's great sometimes, to see your life today reflected back at you in a story. But when I first started writing I was obsessive about putting in the names of current bands, etc, and even before publication they were often out of date. Also, trying to be 'down with the kids' can be a real trap for an author. Children can 'smell' it when you're trying too hard. The important thing is to write compelling, humorous stories with vivid, dynamic, lively characters. Finally, I grew up reading many books – such as Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories – in which the world described was very different from mine. But that was part of the pleasure of these stories. Sometimes it's great to escape life now and venture into another time. So I would strongly encourage children to read Just William and Swallows and Amazons and The Family from One End Street (by the way the sequels are even better) Their apparent datedness very quickly fades!

  • BB: What made you want to write for children?

PJ: I was and am, a really keen reader. But I don't think I ever read with such pleasure as I did when I was a child, and in my early teens. That is the primary reason I write for children. I find it quite easy to empathise with children and teenagers – often easier than with adults, to be honest.

  • BB: What book should every child read?

PJ: So many but for a child in their early teens it has to: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. The narrator's voice will either entrance or repel you. But it's a book you will never forget.

  • BB: What next for Pete Johnson?

PJ: Well, I have two more books about Marcus and Tallulah to write – as mentioned earlier. Also, I wrote a book in 2004 called Diary of an (Un)Teenager, about a boy who dreads turning into a teenager. It has become one of my most popular stories and I've recently finished a sequel: Return of an (Un) Teenager in which Spencer faces up to modern teenage life, including Facebook! That comes out in January 2011.

  • BB: Fantastic. We can't wait to read the new books. Thanks very much, Pete!

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