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On the Edge with Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

Chris & PaulPaul and Chris collaborate on the very successful Edge Chronicles which Paul writes and Chris illustrates. They were in Christchurch to promote the ninth and penultimate installment in the trilogy of trilogies (+1).

How did you first get together to work on these books — happy chance or publishers’ machinations?
We originally met through our kids being at the same pre-school and a bit later were both at some publisher’s do and got talking and eventually shared a train home. Chris had just had to redo a large amount of work because an author changed his idea of how the character should look and Paul had had a similar experience dealing with an illustrator so they thought, well why don’t we do something together. Their first books were the Rabbit and Hedgehog books for younger children which were simple tales of friendship.
How collaborative is the process? 
What came first — the map, the characters, the illustrations?
It started with the map. Chris drew up the map and said well what about this? Then it took about 3 years to produce the first book. It was a very collaborative process and took so long because we had to work out how everything worked and what to do and also get used to working together. Paul said it was the longest he’d ever taken to do a book.
Chris has a huge set of black notebooks (sketch books) in which he’s made all the drawings with background notes and details of everything. For example, at the start he drew things like chairs. These are like research notes and give us a resource to refer back to which gives The Edge Chronicles a consistency. Often Chris has drawn some detail on a character or place, things that we’d just taken for granted, and later Paul will come up with the story behind it: Paul is often the one to explain WHY things are as they are. You have to take these things seriously for the kids to find the world REAL.
Did you deliberately choose to have male protagonists — Twig, Rook, Quint?
Partly to reach the ‘reluctant readers’ group which is largely boys as girls are voracious readers and read widely. We’re also writing the kinds of books that we would have enjoyed as kids themselves. We’re more into storytelling than fantasy per se. But lots of girls have really enjoyed reading about Maris, and in the last volume we think Maris and Twig’s daughter will meet up in some way.
The Edge characters are not necessarily black or white — you get the feeling that life on the Edge is a matter of looking out for yourself because no-one else is going to, that moral imperatives are driven more by circumstance than character? Comment?
A lot of kids' fantasy is heroic fantasy or based on mythology but The Edge books are more about just surviving in a difficult world. Sometimes things go well in life and sometimes things don’t and we think that kids get that. None of our characters are marked by destiny or anything like that, they’re not going to change/save the world, they just want to live their lives.
Paul is often the one that adds the darkness and seriousness into the stories whereas Chris tends to be lighter.
The image of Sanctaphrax very compelling — city on a stone on a chain floating in the sky. And the buoyant stones and wood, stormphrax and the great storms — are all turning assumptions about matter around to create new world and environment — how carefully did you have to think it all through? — create some new natural laws?
The Edge Chronicles are not your standard fantasy — the first book came out in the shadow of the Harry Potter books, but we didn’t want to have magic, because with magic it’s either too convenient or just silly. Which is why instead of creating a world with magic they just have changed some of the natural laws that we take for granted. Then those changes lead to other things like the effect on the Edge’s economics — so the economies of The Edge are based on the floating stones and wood which leads to problems when the stones start to get sick. In some ways it’s a little more like writing science fiction than fantasy as science fiction often deals with different environments.
Sky pirates — pirates are very much a trend at the moment in children’s and young adult books but the Edge was one of the first — where did the idea of pirates in the sky come from?
Having the pirates forced us to think about other kinds of things like, if you’re going to be a pirate, outside the law, then what IS the law and what does it mean to be outside it? Then that leads to thinking about the economics and politics of the society and why someone would choose to be a pirate or join the League. And there’s no sea on the map, so we had to use the sky.
Paul — you seem to have issues with parents — you have missing fathers, orphans, abandoned children — is this just a device to give some freedom of movement or motivation to your heroes?
Yes you find that in a lot of children’s fiction. Back in the fifties writers didn’t have to worry about letting their child heroes go out and have adventures, but nowadays if you use a contemporary setting you have to be terribly PC about it all. So you really have to get rid of the parents in order to empower the child character. Twig has to be independent to make his way in the world. But Twig’s abandonment is a bit Dickensian — though his parents knew that the woodtrolls would be excellent parents!
You have 10 volumes planned for the Edge — there’s a perceived danger that series can go on for too long, but the Edge chronicles seemed to have avoided this by taking the trilogy form — is this a deliberate move?
Its now a trilogy of trilogies but the 10th book is planned to be the last. We’ve used time, so that instead of having just one adventure after another, we’ve told the story of the present, the past, and the future. So that some characters that appear in one volume turn up again in another and their actions then will explain something about what has happened earlier. There are lots of inter-connections running through the books which give texture to the stories. For example in one book there’s a miniature portrait that’s a family heirloom which in a (chronologically) earlier book we actually witness being painted. The final book will draw together some of these threads and perhaps answer some questions about whatever happened to some of the characters. Its going to be quite sad though, finishing The Edge series.
Gulliver's Travels - coverChris — Gulliver’s Travels has become a children’s book with many abridged versions — for most readers it’s origins in political satire are no longer understood — did this make a difference when it came to illustrating Martin Jenkins’ retelling?
It was quite a complicated project but one in which everything really clicked into place. I really like black and white illustrations but I loved having the freedom to do big water–colour double–page spreads. Chris found that the text is still very relevant today.
Paul jumps in — actually he’d loved Gulliver’s Travels as a kid and we hadn’t realised how much it had influenced our books but there are lots of similar concepts right through them, such as the floating city.
Corby Flood - coverThe Far-flung adventures target a younger age group — they’re particularly popular with those readers whose reading age is ahead of their chronological age — not fantasy so much as a ripping yarn.
It’s really about the joy of storytelling rather than fitting it into the fantasy box. We have a lot of fun with these books — there are lots of devices and gadgets (we both like Heath Robinson). We’ve put in a cry for help at the end of each one so there’s one more book which will tie up all three stories.
Moving on to other projects? Is there life after The Edge?
Yes we have another project in mind for after The Edge but its going to be a big book and very complicated.