An interview with Conrad Mason

Conrad Mason‘s first novel, The Demon’s Watch, was published last year to considerable acclaim: Full of “rip-roaring excitement and energy“, it is “a terrific debut novel“, “which will entrance readers in its humour, setting and essential humanity, but which is original, witty and wise.” Conrad has a day job, as an editor of children’s fiction, but his second book, The Goblin’s Gift, is due out next month. He’s speaking on Sunday morning at conference, but here’s a recent interview with him to give you some background and a flavour of what to expect.

FCBG: You’ve admitted that you haven’t always wanted to be a writer, but have you always been a reader? What are your earliest memories associated with reading? Apart from the Redwall books, what other books had a particular impact on you as a child?

Conrad Mason: I remember reading Danny the Champion of the World when I was about seven and becoming utterly obsessed with Toad in the Hole. I pestered my mum until finally she agreed to make it. Unfortunately when the great day came I was so excited I put my lip on the edge of the pan and burned it quite badly. I’ve still got the scar today. I also have a vivid memory of lying on the floor in my bedroom eating fudge ice cream and reading a beautifully illustrated retelling of the Odyssey. And I remember being ill in bed with something or other, eating toasted-cheese-and-olive sandwiches (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and tearing through Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, trying to stay sick for as long as possible so I could finish them. Basically all my early reading memories seem to involve food, which I’ll admit is a bit weird.

So yes, I have always been a reader. At times I struggled to find the right books though. My parents wanted me to read lots of proper grown-up classics at an early age, which was sometimes wonderful but sometimes made me feel like books were difficult and boring. I think young people should be encouraged to read all sorts of things so they can figure out what they like. And they’re naturally good at that anyway – much better than adults. Tintin, Harry Potter, Charles Dickens… It’s all good.

FCBG: At university you studied Classics. Of all the stories you read as part of your studies, which are the ones you might be tempted to rewrite for a children’s audience? Do you have a favourite Classics retelling for children?

Conrad Mason: I’m so pleased you asked me this! I’d go for The Golden Ass by Apuleius. It’s one of the world’s first novels and it’s about a man who becomes fascinated by magic, accidentally turns himself into a donkey and then has various adventures trying to turn himself back into a human. Sounds like a great children’s story, right? Except that most of what happens to him in donkey form is, let’s say, not suitable for younger readers… I’d give it a go though. I don’t think many people realise how funny the Ancient Romans could be. My own favourite retelling when I was young was Tony Robinson’s Odysseus, The Greatest Hero Of Them All. I used to listen to the audio tapes on long car journeys (whilst eating fruit gums, if you’re interested).

FCBG: After completing your studies you worked at Usborne as an editor and writer of non fiction. What, to your mind, are the key differences when writing fiction as opposed to non fiction? How is writing these two genres similar?

Conrad Mason: Wow, this is a big question. I would say that writing fiction is more of an adventure, in that you have no map for the journey, no idea where you’re going, really, until it’s finished. You have to construct everything – the route, the terrain, the people you meet… With non-fiction all that stuff is, to an extent, already there. So that frees you up to think about tone at an earlier stage, and how you’ll present the information. There are other differences too of course, not least dialogue. That was the thing that felt most alien to me when I started writing fiction, and I worked hard at it because it’s one of the things I enjoy most as a reader. Overall, though, I’d say the similarities outweigh the differences. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the skill lies in how you communicate with the reader.

FCBG: Your first novel has been very well received and yet you continue to work full time as an editor of other people’s children’s books. Does this mean the editor of your own books has very little to do because you can revise your own drafts with an editor’s hat on?

Conrad Mason: I wish! And I’m sure my editors do too… Honestly, I don’t think there’s an author in the world whose work can’t benefit from a fresh pair of eyes on it. You just can’t edit your own writing – not properly – you’re too close to it. On the other hand, my experience as an editor absolutely helps when it comes to revisions. I think it gives me a better understanding of the points my own editors are making – perhaps I’m better at reading between the lines? I hope so, anyway.

FCBG: What does it feel like have someone else be your editor? How has this had an impact on your role as an editor in your day job?

Conrad Mason: I think all editors should try writing and all writers should try editing – whether it’s professionally or via a writing group, or reading friends’ manuscripts. There are so many benefits. From a writer’s point of view, doing both reminds you how malleable stories are. It’s tempting to think you’ve told the story in the only way it can be told; you haven’t, and editing other people’s work reminds you of that. As an editor, I think I’m more aware now of what I’m really asking an author to do, because I understand how personal a manuscript can be. Writing and editing are complimentary skills; it just makes sense to develop them together.

FCBG: How has writing your second (published) novel differed from writing your first (if at all)? Have you a third book in the series planned or something else entirely?

Conrad Mason: The second book was a completely new experience, just as tough but in a different way. On the one hand I had a deadline, so I had to keep moving. On the other hand I had more confidence – I knew I was actually capable of writing a book! Plus this time the world and characters were already in place, so that freed me up to focus on telling the best story possible with elements that already existed. I think in a way even the deadline has been good for the book. It’s a headlong adventure story, and writing it fairly fast has given it momentum. I’m planning the third book in the series right now, and I’m hugely excited about it. After that I expect I’ll do something different. When I started writing I struggled for ideas, but now I have the opposite problem – there are so many books I want to write!

FCBG: Exciting times, then Conrad! Thanks for talking to me today – we’re really looking forward to hearing more from you at conference.

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