Saturday 9 July 2011

An Interview - Malcolm Rose

When Gregor Kelly read "Forbidden Island" by Malcolm Rose, he had some questions. In a virtual interview, he probed the author relentlessly - until he got the answers he was looking for.

Did you enjoy writing stories when you were at primary school?

I remember writing a cops-and-robbers adventure, even designing a cover for the 'book'. The young goodies beat the nasty oldies, of course. Other than that, I didn't really shine at writing. I was more into maths, because I found it logical and easy.

Was this a better experience when you got to high school?

I got even worse results in English. I put my energy more into science and maths because I liked investigating things and messing around with numbers. My English lessons were more about learning the rules of grammar than the interesting imaginative stuff.

Did you get some help or advice from teachers about how to write a good story?

No. But I remember a lot about how the language should be written. That's been really useful but I wasn't encouraged to daydream and daydreaming lies at the core of coming up with stories. I wish I'd done more imaginative writing back then and I wish young people today did more of it in school.

When did your first book get published?


What was it called?

It's my shortest ever title: "Rift".

How old were you when you wrote it?

I started writing it when I was a university student, taking chemistry. Late teens and early twenties. I wrote it as a means of escape from my scientific studies.

How many publishers did you have to send it to before it was accepted?

I can't remember the exact number of rejections. It was four or five.


Your book, "Forbidden Island", has a very sad ending, what made you write it that way?
The book's about six young people (I include Claudia who makes a startling but late entry into the story) who stumble across some secret experiments into chemical and biological warfare. If I had made the ending a really happy one, it would have diluted the message that such weapons are awful and highly dangerous. And it would have been unrealistic to produce a fairy godmother, as it were, to wave a magic wand and make everything okay. There is just too much stacked against the young characters to allow them all to emerge in one piece.

I strongly believe that readers should be shocked and entertained at the same time when the topic of the story is so hard-hitting.

The storyline for "Forbidden Island" was fascinating, taking us back to when our grandparents were children and bringing it to life - what made you think of it?

I first heard about the Scottish island of Gruinard – where the British government prepared for germ warfare in the 1940s – about thirty years ago, when I was a scientist. Because of my background in chemistry, I'm fascinated by advances in science and technology. I was shocked that our country might have used my favourite topic to kill people. Ever since, I had it in the back of my mind to use those secret wartime experiments as the basis for a thriller. It’s taken me a wee while!

But "Forbidden Island" isn't anti-science. It's about the misuse of science and the corrupting effect of politics and money on scientists’ best intentions. The conflict does not come from iffy science but its corruption by iffy people.

Did you have another job before you were a writer? If so, what did you do?
I was a lecturer in chemistry for many years before becoming a full-time author. That career has influenced my novels a lot. I cram crime stories with poisons and forensic science. My thrillers - like "Forbidden Island" - often have a scientific controversy at their heart.

Which writers inspired you to write?

I have always been deeply impressed by "The Owl Service" by Alan Garner. A wonderfully imaginative book with a beautiful (some say mysterious) ending. That book more than any other made me wonder if I could be as imaginative.

What was your favourite book when you were a boy?

I didn't have a particular favourite until "The Owl Service" came along around 1970. Before that, I read adventures and horror - as gory as possible.

Did your parents encourage you to read or did you only read what you were told to by your teachers?

My mum and dad helped me to get hold of books and encouraged me. But when they - or teachers - told me there was no educational benefit in a particular book, that was the one I most wanted to read!

Do you only write books for children around my age?

So far, yes, because I really enjoy writing for young people like you. You have a much more open mind than us oldies who are so set in our ways. Sometimes, older people don't let new facts and new ideas get in the way of long-held beliefs.

How many books have you written?

I'm up to 38 thrillers and crime stories.

What did you want to be when you were little?

A mathematician or a film producer!

Do you do a lot of research before you write your books?

Yes. A huge amount. As an ex-scientist, I like to get my facts right. Anyway, research is fun. You find out such a lot of new stuff.

Do you base any of your stories on fact?

There's a basis in fact behind "Forbidden Island". As a trademark, I often put some science into my novels. By its nature, science is always inventing and discovering new things – often controversial things – so it provides a steady stream of new ideas and conflict for novelists. An obvious example is advanced DNA profiling in forensic science for catching the bad guys.

Have you based any of your characters on people that you know?

Not really. When a French author brought out a novel that included all his neighbours, they didn't like what he'd done and went round to his house and beat him up very badly! I don't want to lose friends by having them do something terrible or have something horrible done to them in a book. So, I make up my characters. But I sometimes "borrow" a mannerism that I notice in real people and give it to one of my characters to help them come alive.

Next time you write a story/adventure about children in Scotland, would you like to write about a 12 year old boy called Gregor?
I've used Detective Sergeant Greg Lenton in an old crime series, Gregory Drake was an anti-war activist in my second novel, and the official executioner in "Double Check" (part of my quirky crime series, "Traces") was Greg Roper. Perhaps it's time to introduce a 12-year-old Gregor. He'd be bright, very handsome, popular - and extremely cheeky!


Linda Strachan said...

Excellent interview questions , Gregor, and some great answers, too Malcolm!!

Lucy Coats said...

Fantastic interview, Gregor. Really enjoyed this one. It's always interesting to me to hear about the mix of science and story. Being a non-scientist, I am in awe of anyone who understands the finer points of chemistry.

Malcolm Rose said...

Update on Gregor's last question. I'm rewriting a dusty unpublished novel and giving it a modern setting. The bad guy has to have the initials GG - so, inspired by Gregor's question, he's become Gareth Gregor Rowling.

Thanks for the questions, Gregor.

Unknown said...

I loved the questions they were so successful they made the author and the books irresistible :D

Emma Barnes said...

Interesting to hear how you bring in the scientific material - don't think there are enough children's books with scientific themes at the moment.

Gregor Kelly said...

Thanks for all the great comments. Might have to find another unsuspecting author to interrogate...