John Christopher Week – AUTHOR INTERVIEW

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This is just too good to be true, folks, an interview with John Christopher, actually Sam Youd, the author of so many books that I loved as a kid and still do: The Tripod Trilogy, The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy, The Lotus Caves, Empty World and more.

Read the previous John Christopher Week posts for information about these and other books.

Interview with Sam Youd / John Christopher, November, 2007

Samuel Youd

It seems like the great theme of your work is freedom, which unfortunately is rarely in the proper amount. Sometimes there’s too little, like in the moon Bubble or a Wild Jack city, and sometimes there’s too much, like in The Ragged Edge where anarchy brings terrible suffering. If that‘s right, can you tell me why?

As with the overwhelming majority of writers I don’t have a moral programme to enforce, and I feel it should fall to someone else to analyse any preoccupations that crop up. But I also feel that the main one is not freedom but responsibility. The apple tempting my characters (in The Lotus Caves especially) is not from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil but its sinister twin, the Tree of Ignorance. See also The Guardians: wouldn’t it be nice to accept the good life and not worry? Or would it?

Of course, the other great theme is the civilization-destroying catastrophe. Can you remember the first time you were exposed to this idea? Why has it fascinated you so much?

I can’t recall any particular exposure though I did find those ancient ruined cities of Mars in the early days of SF compelling. In writing I think I’ve been more attracted by the thought of what happens after the catastrophe. The Sword trilogy exemplifies this, and also goes back to my answer to the preceding question: do we want development with all its complications, or primitive simplicities? (Simplicities for the sake of argument).

When I list my favorite authors, it seems that a common factor among most of them, including yourself, is service in WWII. Do you have any idea what it was about that experience that led to so much great writing? (Oddly, those I’m thinking of have all straddled or blurred the lines between childrens books and adult literature.)

I was in the Army (Royal Signals) for nearly five years, over three of those overseas in the Mediterranean sector. I wrote a couple of non-Christopher novels with that background (out of close on seventy) but don’t think I was much affected by the experience as far as writing went.

You mentioned [in a previous e-mail] that “Dom and Va” drew a lot of criticism. I did find it disturbing, but I also think it was probably accurate. Once again, there was a lot of freedom then and no rules. What do you think about that now, looking back on it?

Dom and Va was originally written in an English-as-a-foreign-language and much shorter version, entitled In the Beginning. It stemmed from a theory, advanced by Robert Ardrey in The Territorial Imperative, that our human evolution has been from a race of killer apes who wiped out a race of less belligerent but more civilized anthropoids. My suggestion was that the two could probably still interbreed and that what may have happened was absorption rather than annihilation.

The story told of a boy from the killer apes (Dom/Adam) who first rescued then mated with a girl (Va/Eve) from the more cultured apes, and suggested that between them they founded our mixed and chaotic humanity. The book was fiercely attacked by feminists and never got into paperback. Years later a fellow writer who regarded herself as a champion of women’s rights told me she could not understand why: after all, I had given Va all the best lines and she wound up in control of the relationship and their joint future. I pointed out that I had also had her acknowledge, when she and her baby were threatened by killer apes, the usefulness of a strong right arm in helping to defend them both. My fellow writer, herself married and a mother, said that was obvious and plainly valid. But not, I pointed out, to those particular feminists, who did not value the sustaining bond between the sexes but rather anathematized it.

Your books do lean a little toward male characters. Who’s your favorite female character?

 I think my adult novels have enough female characters, and quite strong ones. (See The Ragged Edge/A Wrinkle in the Skin, and the three books written as Hilary Ford).In the early stages of writing children’s books, an experienced lady editor said that while girls read boys’ books the converse was not true, and I may have been influenced by that.

I suppose my own favourite character was April in The Ragged Edge but I have a soft spot for the heroine of A Bride for Bedivere who introduces herself: “I cried the day my father died — from joy.”

What do you think about the Boys Life and BBC adaptations of your work?

I’m not really a cartoon person so can’t comment on Boys Life. The BBC version started well, but then went so far away from what I’d written that I lost interest.

The best adaptation was a German version of The Guardians (Die Waechter) in six parts by Bavaria (who made Das Boot). I’m probably influenced by the fact that they stayed very close to my story line. One of the production team apologized to me over a passage in which the hero watches a squirrel cross what he’d thought was an electrified fence and realizes he can too. “We had to make that a cat, Mr Christopher — we are short of trained squirrels in Germany”. Who said the Germans have no sense of humour?

You also had the experience of “No Blade of Grass” being turned into a movie. So, knowing how movie-making works, how do you feel about plans for a Tripods movie?

I never actually got round to viewing the No Blade of Grass movie, switching off at the first commercial break when it was shown on television.

The situation with the Tripods is currently fluid, but there are exciting hopes of the project being taken over by a new team with better ideas. Writers of screenplays command huge fees: nothing wrong with that except that it encourages — maybe requires — them to produce an input to justify the money. One script for the Tripods apparently had the White Mountains topped not with snow but beryllium dust, sprayed out from the factories in which human slaves were building Tripods …..

On a similar subject … do you have a favorite book cover?

None in particular, but I do recall a particularly striking one for an edition of The Death of Grass — a simple photograph of an ear of corn dripping blood.

I thought I had read a lot of your books, until I found the bibliography on Wikipedia. I have a long way to go, especially with books written under your other pseudonyms. Where should I start? What book or books do you really want people to read most?

My personal favourites are the books of the Sword trilogy, but I have a special affection for The Gull’s Kiss by Peter Graaf. It only appeared in England, only sold about 600 copies, and did not make paperback, so it’s just about unobtainable.

John Christopher Week – The Lotus Caves

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Oh, man, how many times did John Christopher blow my mind as a kid?

Many times and here’s one of the big ones!

The Lotus Caves

This book appears to be out of print.

Of course, that may be because it’s not titled “MoonZoomers in Peril: Cave Spawn of the Lotii.”

Likewise the jacket copy describes an “insidiously solicitous interstellar superintelligence.”

This is a perfect description, but it may not have made books fly off the shelves.

Luckily, there’s no sentence in the book that’s anywhere that difficult to read. Once again, Christopher introduces BIG ideas through an adventure story, this one involving a stolen lunar crawler, a clue to the disappearance of an early astronaut and an unforgettable cave.

In an attempt to hook the reluctant, I’m going to divulge a little more of the plot. No ending spoilers, but if you already want to read the book skip this part and discover it for yourself:

The two boys, who are already in big trouble  for breaking lunar colony rules, take an unauthorized, but kind of boring, ride hundreds of miles across the barren lunar surface to visit the original, abandoned lunar station. There they find a notebook, overlooked for 70 tears, written by an astronaut who went missing. They learn that he had become obsessed with the idea that he had seen a giant flower during a lunar exploration.

They follow his trail to find that … the astronaut had been right. In fact there’s a lot more than a flower. There are all sorts of Strange with a capital S things. But by the time they discover this, they’re trapped in the cave with the flower, the Strange things and something even Stranger which I won’t even tell you about here.

Folks, I recommend you read this book yourselves and urge you to encourage bright mid-grade/YA readers to read it, too. A little bit of mind-blowing can do a lot for a kid. AND a book this good it can help him/her become a voracious reader for life. (Though they may be disappointed that not every book can do what this one does.)

Nearly 40 years after it was written — and despite a zillion space books and movies since — this book is amazing.

I said this at the beginning of John Christopher Week and I’ll say it again:

The Lotus Caves (and more)  should be in print, on library shelves and in the hands of kids.

John Christopher Week — other books for young readers

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(To view all the John Christopher Week Posts, click here.)

Here are a few more John Christopher books which I haven’t profiled in detail, mostly because I haven’t reread them as recently as the others.

Empty World

Empty World

This is one I really want to reread.

It’s a similar plot to “The Ragged Edge” and, even, “I Am Legend,” sine vampires.

First a boy is orphaned when his family dies in a car accident. Then EVERYONE dies. Will he find any one else? Will he be sorry he did?

This book is a great example of what makes Christopher great and his stories so memorable.

Yes, he’s got a wild setting and an exciting plot, but in the end it’s the interactions between characters that make them great. The surprising ending of this one had stayed with me for 25 years. Highly recommended.

Dom and Va

Dom and Va

I hate to keep using the word disturbing, but…

John Christopher has some very interesting things to say about this in the interview I’ll be posting soon.

My own take on it is:

This is a story about early man and early woman. He humanizes these hominids to the point where, as a young reader, I was greatly disturbed by the things that happened back before there were rules for decent behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book! It just means that bad things happen IN the book. Christopher is showing us a part of our human history and it’s not pretty.

Fireball

The Fireball TrilogyI read the first book, Fireball, but didn’t know that he continued the story in “New Found Land” and “Dragon Dance.” If I can get my hands on these books, I’ll give them a proper read and review.

A Dusk of Demons

Likewise, Dusk of Demons is another I need to reread before writing about.

And what about the Lotus Caves? That one, being an all-time favorite book of mine, gets its own post tomorrow.

John Christoher Week – books for adults

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All the books we’ve talked about so far were written for a young audience but are well worth the attention of grown-ups, too.

But, among Christopher’s dozens of books are many that were written for adults.

I have read two of these and I found both disturbing. But, I’m sure that’s what he intended

The Long Winter– (The World in Winter)

Every once in awhile you hear some person who is heck-bent on fighting environmentalism say something like this: “Climate change? Big deal, the earth’s climate changes all the time throughout geological history.”

Hand them this book. It’s a look at what happens when a race of sentient beings (us) endures a climate change. And it’s not pretty.

Also, you even more frequently hear people complaining about illegal aliens “taking out precious resources.” Hand them this book. It’s a look at what happens when the tables turn and we become the illegal aliens desperate for a tiny share of the precious resources.

You know I hate to give away plots, but let’s put it this way: It gets cold. That’s all it takes to turn the word upside down.

The Ragged Edge (A Wrinkle in the Skin)

 This book is the one that disturbed me most. Maybe as much as any book I’ve read. This is the one you give to people who think anarchy sounds like fun. Again we have a civilization in collapse. The lack of rules leads to some really awful business, delivered not in generalities but in a very personal, upsetting way.

Honestly, I would have a hard time recommending this one, not because of it’s quality, but because it’s so painful to read. Although, I wonder if my reaction to it was even more severe than Christopher intended. Perhaps it just struck a chord in me.

John Christopher Week – Wild Jack & The Guardians

Here’s an interesting pair of books. Mirror opposites, you might say.

 

In Wild Jack, a civilized elite lives in walled cities, with savages prowling the lands outside.

In The Guardians, “savages” are trapped in cities, while a civilized elite prowls the land outside.

But are the civilized folks really civilized? Are their servants really slaves? And are the elite themselves really free?

That’s just the background, of course. The plots begin similarly, when a young man goes from one of these societies to the other. But here’s where they’re different.

In Wild Jack, a boy goes from the tightly controlled elite city to face starvation in the savage outlands.

In The Guardians, a boy leaves the savage city for a luxurous life in with the rural elite.

 Both come highly recommended. “The Guardians” might be a little weightier, but both will introduce kids to big ideas. (Actually, there are a lot of adults who could use an introduction to some of these ideas, too.)

(The upcoming interview with John Christopher will shed some light on The Guardians, by the way. As Christopher points out, it also has a similar theme to the Lotus Caves, even though that it a wholly different plot.)

John Christopher Week – Big News!

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As you may have seen, John Christopher himself — or rather Sam Youd himself — found out about my weeklong tribute and commented on one of the first posts.

Now he has very kindly agreed to let me ask him some questions for an online interview!

I’m putting a list of questions together, so if you’ve got a question you want answered, sling me an e-mail right away at sam (at) riddleburger.com

John Christopher Week – Tripods on the Web

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I’ve just got a few more pages to go before finishing The Lotus Caves, so here are a few things to think about while I read and try to think of adjectives to describe how great the book is…

BBC SERIAL:

Here’s some action from the BBC Series:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GDND-vavzc

GERMAN VERSION: (I think)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIlHoHiL4xE

OTHER YOUTUBE:

There’s also proof of a real Tripod attack:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_dr4AO_MJQ&feature=related

And I like this CGI :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=losbQA-1DXk&feature=related

BOYS LIFE SERIAL:

Many people also know the Tripods from Boys Life, which ran a serialized version of the story for about 217 years.

sample comic

They’ve got some of these over at TheTripods.org, which also has this incredible collection of different book covers. There is also a great deal of information about the BBC show and a little bit about the upcoming movie.

MOVIE: According to IMDB the movie’s status is “announced.”

It is to be written and directed by Gregor Jordan.

 

Who looks like the sort of guy you’d want to direct a Tripods movie.

By the way, there are two plot summaries for the “upcoming” movie on IMDB. Oddly similar but different.

Beings known as the Tripods have conquered Earth and turned the human race into slaves by implanting everyone over the age of 14 with a mind-control device. 13-year-old Will Parker and his friends, however, plot to defeat the Tripods before a humans are no more.

Robots with 3 legs and a hemisphere on top, known as the Tripods, have conquered Earth and turned the human race into slaves by implanting everyone over the age of 14 with a mind-control device. 13-year-old Will Parker and his friends, however, plot to defeat the Tripods before they take over the whole world and Earth will be theirs.

I’m not sure that this movie is really coming out. The latest real hubbub seems to be from 2005. But we’ll see…

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