Q: You have left quite a few doors open at the end of The Convicts. Are you planning to write a sequel? If so, we were wondering if Tom’s seasickness would play a part in the next book. Does he eventually get over it, as well as his fear of the sea? Will Tom ever get his diamond?
A. The Convicts is the first book of a trilogy. Next is The Cannibals. Then The Castaways. (I think of them as my C stories.) Tom’s seasickness will lessen as he spends more time on the water, but he’ll never overcome it. (Admiral Nelson, the great hero of Midgely, was seasick at the beginning of every voyage.) I don’t know yet if he will conquer his fear of the sea, or if—instead—he will learn to be a master of his fears. But he will certainly come to understand his father’s love of the ocean.
As for the diamond, I’m not sure what will happen. I have two or three possible endings in mind for The Castaways. Tom might well discover that he just doesn’t want the diamond, that he has no need for its wealth.
Q. How did you develop Midgely as a character, and why did you choose him to be the supporting character? Why did you choose for his eye to be blinded? Why not choose some other horrific event? Why does Midgely seem so calm after he loses his eyesight? Why did you choose Penny to be the one responsible for Midgely’s blindness?
A. I wanted Midgely to be instantly appealing because I didn’t think he was going to be around very long. But I grew too fond of him to bring about the nasty end I had in mind, and instead gave him a deep knowledge of ships and sailing so that he could be Tom’s help and guide. Now I’m pretty sure that Midgely will stick with Tom right to the end.
He is blinded because that is a true story. On the real hulks, a group of boys blinded another, and that incident summed up for me the absolute horror that these ships must have been. The real boy was too scared to name those who’d attacked him, and so suffered his blindness much as Midgely does.
But Midge remains fairly calm because his life has been so hard. He’s the youngest boy on the ship, yet already he’s had his father desert him, and his mother cast him onto the streets, and he’s kept himself alive by sticking wires into dogs. It seemed right to me that a boy like that, too small to fight against anyone, would suffer through his blinding as he imagined that his heroes would—with a quiet courage. I liked the idea that Tom would be led by a blind boy. In the sequel, Tom and Midge try to find their way through the islands that Midgely knows only from his book.
Benjamin Penny was originally going to be a kind and gentle boy. His role was supposed to be the one that Midgely took on. I first imagined him as “Little Penny,” Tom’s closest friend. So, in a way, Midgely and Penny are really one character divided, much like Tom and the Smasher.
Q. Why did you feel compelled to begin the story with death? Was there a message or theme you were trying to get across by writing this book?
A. The beginning that you read in the finished book isn’t the first one that I wrote. But your question interests me, because my very first stab at the story also began with a death, though a different one. It began with the Smasher’s death, and the ringing of the passing bell. But I realized there were things that had to be said before that point in the story. I began with the death of Tom’s sister because that, to me, really shaped him into the person that he is at the start of the tale—a boy with a mad mother and a fear of water.
This question reminded me of a quotation about beginning and ending a tale with a death. But I couldn’t think of who said it, and couldn’t find it again. In this story, the death is not meant to carry a message.
Q. While writing this book, did you find yourself getting emotional and reacting to the story even though you were the one writing it? Did it make you feel sick to write about Midgely’s eye? Did you feel disgusted when you wrote about the moldy food? Did you feel depressed while writing such a sad story?
A. To answer this I have to explain how I write. I type the story on a computer keyboard, but as I’m typing, I’m telling the story to myself, speaking at times only half aloud, under my breath, and at other times loudly enough to be heard in the next room. So the story seems quite real to me. I’m hearing, and speaking, the words of the characters. I see in my mind what they see in their real, but fictional, lives. So, yes, there are parts of the story where I feel the same emotions as the character. But Midgely’s eye was different. I had to talk with a doctor to find out what would happen to an eye that had been punctured by a needle, and I wrote about it with a clinical mind. The moldy food did not disgust me, but the story did leave me depressed at times. I had some quite troubling dreams during the worst part of it.
Q. Why did you name Worms, Worms? What were the doctor and Worms going to do with the bodies? Was Worms helping Tom because Worms was kind or was he trying to use Tom?
A. I can’t say how I chose the name Worms. I remember that the name came later than the character, and that I then thought about changing the man to suit the new name. “Worms” seemed to suggest someone thin and oily, who would move as though slithering, while I’d imagined the grave robber as being rather big and hefty. He would have to be, really, to hoist corpses out of graves, so I left him as he was.
The doctor needs dead bodies for dissection. This is true to the time. There were people who made a living delivering bodies to the doctors—usually anatomists—who needed them. The way that Worms goes about lifting the Smasher’s body from the grave is how it was really done.
Worms is based on the description of a London scavenger of the time. In the 19th century, the city swarmed with a wonderful and bizarre assortment of people who combed the streets for things they could sell. They picked up the castaway butts of smoked cigars, and sifted through sweepings for bits of wool. They collected birds’ nests, and horse manure, and dog droppings, which were used for dressing the leather of gloves and book covers.
Q. The book groups were very interested in the character of Tom’s mother. What happens to her? Why was she the only woman in the book? Why did you write with such feeling about the mother grieving over her child’s death?
A. To be honest, I don’t know yet what happens to Mrs. Tin. The scenes of her grieving were meant to show her madness, and to make Tom seem a bit selfish for not sympathizing with her. She’s not exactly the only woman in the book—the Darkey is another, and there’s the fisherman’s wife who appears near the end—but it’s true that women are scarce in the story, and don’t come across very well. That, again, is a reflection of the hulks. Girls were not imprisoned with the boys.
Q. We’re a little unclear about how the Smasher died. Can you elaborate on that? What history does the Smasher have that makes others fear him so? Why do you refer to the Smasher as a twin throughout the whole novel?
A. It’s never really explained how the Smasher died, because Tom would have no way of knowing. As I imagined it, the Smasher lived a very violent life on the streets—as a thug and a thief until he was rescued in by a charitable group—there’s a passing comment about “the sisters” taking him in—and lived “on the parish,” or under the care of a parish church. The parish was a church jurisdiction, with officials that often included an overseer of the poor. The Smasher must have become quite useful or popular to have had the passing rung at his death.
He is as referred to as a twin because that is how Tom imagines him. To Tom, the Smasher is his twin in a physical way, his look-alike or “doppelganger.”
Q. Why was the grave robber your favorite character? Why did he need Tom to see Walker? Besides being instrumental in introducing Tom’s look-alike to the story, what is his overall importance in the novel?
A. I liked the grave robber best because he’s a quirky sort of character. I liked to imagine him outside the bounds of the story—where he would go at night, and what sort of friends he would have, and how he became what he was.
Worms will appear again in The Castaways. His importance will then be obvious.
I’m disappointed by the puzzlement caused by Worms and his “Walker!” He’s not referring to a person when he says that. Walker was just an expression that meant “Nonsense!” There was a particular way to pronounce it, stressing the second syllable. If someone was particularly unbelieving, he might say “Hookey Walker!” If you’ve seen the movie of A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sims as Scrooge, you’ve heard the expression. When Scrooge, on Christmas morning, shouts down to a boy on the street to go and buy the big goose at the butcher’s shop, the boy shouts back, “Walker!” and starts to run away.
Q. What inspired you to write about this subject? What is the appeal of 19th century England? What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you intend the book to be for young adults? How long did it take you to write?
A. The inspiration for this story came from the true tales of the boy convicts. I thought, at first, I would write a story that would have far more truth than fiction—about the boys on the real hulk Euryalis, and the actual efforts of a kindly chaplain who did all he could to make their lives as bearable as possible. But I doubted if I could write that true story properly. There is a lot of information about the hulks that was never recorded, or is so hard to find that I would have needed years of research. Even for this version, where the hulk is almost like a background, the research was very difficult and time consuming. I have a friend who is a fabulous librarian, and she tracked down books and old newspapers, and transcripts of a government study. She sent her husband to a London museum to photocopy the actual plans of two real hulks.
I wrote the story in about four months, after a very long period of research and planning. Revisions took another few months, in various stages, so that I probably spent a good year with the book from the day I began writing until it was finished.
I like 19th century England as a setting for many reasons. I don’t feel at all familiar with modern children, so it’s easier to invent characters from a past that’s fairly distant but not really all that far away. My father, who is from Cambridge, is certainly not 19th century, but he saw the end of sailing ships. As a boy, he got his milk from a man on a horse-drawn cart, and kept his meat and milk in a “meat locker” outside. There were no refrigerators, and ice was too expensive.
I like a time when people used horses. I like a society divided into classes, and a city that includes everyone from a king to a bone grubber. And I love the terms that Englishmen invented, such the “beer engine” that was really just a pump to lift beer to a bar from the barrels in the basement.
Q. Do you relate to a particular character? Have you been involved in or seen conflicts that relate to the conflicts in the novel? Are any of the experiences that Tom goes through extracted from your life? If so, which ones?
A. Not one of the characters is based on a real person, and only one thing that happens to Tom ever remotely happened to me. Like him, I once got lost in a big city when I was about the same age, or a bit younger. I lived in Toronto where there is a huge Santa Claus parade just before Christmas. I had a job selling balloons along the parade route. When I ran out of balloons, I ducked into an alley to blow up some more. By the time I finished, the parade had passed, and the whole crowd was dispersing in different directions. It sounds impossible, but I lost the whole parade with its giant floats and clowns and everything. Then I lost myself trying to find the place where it was supposed to end—a downtown department store.
The rest of the story is imagined, and that’s one of the enjoyable things about writing. It’s like a big childhood game of pretending. What was it like to be a grave robber, or an old blind mudlark, or the captain of a sailing ship? Only a writer, I think, can be paid for thinking about that sort of thing.
Q. At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been a professional writer? Besides adventure, what other genres do you like to write in? When you write, do you set a schedule for yourself, or do you write when the story calls to you?
A. I don’t remember ever deciding to be a writer. In Grade 7, I was making little picture books for my younger brother, starring the stuffed duck that he had instead of a teddy bear. I wrote silly comics that were supposed to amuse my friends in school. When I started high school, I wanted to be a pilot, but when I finished I wanted to be a writer. I studied journalism in college, then worked for newspapers for the next 10 years. I was the editor of a small daily paper when I quit journalism to be a fish farmer, and to begin writing novels. But my first two published books were nonfiction, about my experiences sailing along the British Columbia coast in the summers. I hope that all my stories have some sort of sense of adventure, but I know what you mean about “besides adventure.” I like to write more thoughtful stories about characters growing and changing. I like it best if there’s a hint of mystery or magic about it.
Writing is my job, so I can’t sit around and wait for inspiration. I start work after breakfast, and keep going until mid-afternoon, when I take the dog for a walk. I write again after that, or take care of some of the business that goes along with writing.
Thanks to the following Teen Book Groups for participating!
Liberty Middle School Hungry Minds
Elizabeth Public Library Teen Book Discussion Group
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Brook Haven School
Flint Memorial Library Youth Advisory Board
North Reading, Massachusetts
Richmond Public Library
Richmond, British Columbia, Canada