Author's putting the fun into fantasy
When Philip Reeve got together with his friend, fun-loving illustrator Sarah McIntyre, to write a new fantasy book for children, they could not resist popping in a short-sighted chubby mermaid with attitude called Iris.
And she comes alive in Sarah's illustrations, her blue hair festooned with crustaceans and other sea debris, in the hilarious picture book with words they've just created together, Oliver and the Seawigs.
"It is a very McIntyre-esque kind of mermaid, and it became more and more like Sarah as we worked," says Philip. "Sarah really wanted to be a mermaid when she was little, that was her ambition at about nine – so we thought she could be!
"And there are so many mermaids that are slender, so we thought it would be fun to have a short, chubby mermaid."
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Philip, 47, is chatting to me at the home he shares with his wife, another Sarah, and 11-year-old son Sam at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on Dartmoor, where they have lived for 15 years.
It is a wild landscape quite different from the Sussex seaside resort of Brighton where he grew up, went to art college and worked as both a bookseller and illustrator.
"When I was a child, we used to come to places like this on holiday, and I think I connected these landscapes to places in my mind, with The Lord of the Rings and Alan Garner and all the sort of books I liked reading," he says. "It was more the books that got me into the landscape rather than vice versa."
The collaboration with London-based illustrator Sarah McIntyre, creator of the Vern and Lettuce comic strip in The Guardian, marks quite a departure for Philip, whose fantasy books include the Carnegie Medal-winning Here Lies Arthur, set in the Westcountry of 500AD.
"We met at the Edinburgh Book Festival almost exactly three years ago – Sarah was doing some picture books for Scholastic, who are one of my publishers, and I was sat opposite her at a publishers dinner. And she was just great fun, and I thought 'I like you!' and so we hung around at the festival together, and went for coffee and bought each other's books and stuff like that."
From here, a friendship blossomed, and, from that, a creative collaboration.
"For about the first year I didn't really think we would work together, because our stuff seems so different," says Philip. "I write quite difficult, complex and dark things, and Sarah's stuff is very sunny and fun and kind of younger. But then it sort of became impossible not to work together, really, because we spent so much time throwing ideas around. It seemed silly not to do something with them."
He had already mooted the idea of "a kind of sea fantasy, where somebody sets off and explores strange islands and meets mermaids and sea creatures".
"Sarah is on a committee of the Society of Authors, the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group, and the acronym for that is CWIGS. She said one day 'I've got to go to a CWIGS meeting, and we thought 'ooh, seawigs, what are those?!'
"She did a drawing with rocks sticking out of the sea with little wigs on top of them, and I thought, oh that is the idea we need to hold that sea story together.
"Once we got that it was really quick to write. We whizzed through it. Every time I got stuck I'd ring Sarah up and she'd throw in some kind of mad suggestion, and I would try and work that into the story. So it is very much a dual effort, this one."
For Philip, the work was quite a departure from his Predator Cities quartet, complex fantasy novels for older children, and his Goblins books, which started out as bedtime stories for Sam. They are, he says, a kind of humorous tribute to his childhood love of Tolkien.
The goblins, who live in a place of great cragginess akin to the tors of Dartmoor called Clovestone Keep, like "fighting, looting and eating. And more fighting". Their landscape features Cornwall-inspired place names, including the delightfully named Porthstrewy.
"Hopefully it is an affectionate spoof," he says. "The only excuse I could see for doing it was if it was funny. I couldn't write a serious fantasy novel.
"I was trying to pack in as many silly jokes as I could, though, strangely, to get the jokes working, you have to set up the world and describe it in some detail, so hopefully the sort of things I liked about Tolkien in the first place crept back in."
In imagining the craggy landscape of Dartmoor, he drew on the 1970s fantasy books of Brian Froud, who lives and still works at Chagford.
"I think I discovered a book of his when I was about 13; it was full of these Dartmoor-y landscapes, I loved it. Goblins is steeped in that stuff, the woods and ruins and things that are all very Dartmoor, but very much seen through the filter of (fantasy illustrator) Alan Lee's illustrations as well."
Oliver and the Seawigs sees Philip's talent for the ridiculous interpreted by Sarah in irresistibly wacky illustrations.
Hero Oliver is saddled with fanatical explorer parents who have, all his life, subjected him to crazy adventures. His baby buggy was nearly carried off by an eagle and another time a bear stole his sleeping bag.
Now, though, his parents have run out of places to explore and are parking their "explorermobile" – drawn by Sarah as a caravan driven by an old-fashioned motorbike beefed up with tractor wheels – to their house near the seaside town of St Porrocks overlooking Deepwater Bay.
After his parents spot the Rambling Islands in the bay, they speed off on their motorboat to explore them. Then Oliver meets a short-sighted mermaid, Iris, who has bumped into one of them on her way to find an optician to cure her shortsightedness in Farsighted Cove.
In an echo of Philip's earlier Mortal Engines book, which features moving cities, the Rambling Isles are mobile. And they are preparing to journey to the Hallowed Shallows for the annual contest of who has the best seawig. So Iris and Oliver, who have landed on one of the islands, set sail through the "sarcastic sea" to join them,
The book is the first of four Philip and Sarah are doing together, each of which will have a different setting.
"I thought it would be more fun to zip around and have different settings," he says. "Because they are at least 50% about the illustrations, I don't want to lock Sarah into drawing mermaids and fish for four years. So the next one is going to be a space adventure.
"She is very theatrical, Sarah. She's been wandering around Edinburgh this week [promoting the book at the book festival] in a huge lilac wig and a kind of a blue mermaid frock, with me dressed as a sailor. It would be boring if we had to do that two years running, so next year we will be in space suits and glitter!"