Interview: Thomas Taylor

Hello, Thomas! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, MALAMANDER.

Hi, Jarrett. Thanks for inviting me.

Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

UK edition of Harry Potter, with Thomas’s art.

I’m an author and illustrator of children’s books, based in the UK. I started out as an illustrator, and my first ever commissioned project was the cover art for a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which, er, some of your readers may have heard of. At the time though, the book and the author were entirely unknown, so I got the job, straight out of art school. After that I worked mostly on picture books, edging further and further into writing, until I realized that what I really wanted to do was write fiction.

Ha, yes! I think it’s safe to assume some of them have heard of that one! Now, as you’ve said, you are both an author and an illustrator, and you do it all – from picture books to YA and most everything in between. I’m curious if there’s anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

Actually, I haven’t written a picture book, or illustrated one, for a long time. These days I’m very much committed to writing middle grade fiction, which I love. I have written a YA novel too — Haunters, which was published in 2012 — but I think the tone and scope of middle grade suits me best. There is a great freedom in writing for children — freedom to write about wonder and curiosity and hope — which seems to fall away the closer to an adult readership one approaches. Children aren’t cynical or weary of the world, and this makes them a joy to write for. 

Okay – let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us what MALAMANDER is all about?

Malamander is about a strange seaside town, that becomes even stranger out of season. It’s about a boy called Herbert Lemon — Herbie to his friends — who helps a girl called Violet Parma to find her parents, even though they vanished in peculiar circumstances when she was only a baby. It’s about things being lost, and things being found, and about strange things being washed up on the beach. And it’s about strange tales, told around the winter fireside, of something extraordinary that some swear they have seen creeping in the mists at low tide. It’s a story about stories, and about wishes and friendship, and fish & chips!

Beachcomber’s mantelpiece.

You do such a great job setting the scene, and, thanks to your evocative prose, really insert the reader into Eerie-on-Sea. What inspired you to create this creepy locale?

I didn’t plan on writing Malamander. It began to grow in my mind as I walked the beach of the English seaside town where I live, something I have to do in all weathers and seasons for the sake of my very energetic dog.

Alpha, Thomas’s beach buddy and lead researcher.

This is how I discovered the pleasure of beachcombing, and some of the things I found on the beach — often very strange and mysterious things — informed the story that I soon began writing. I was also inspired by the people I met, especially out of season, when the weather is awful and only people with a good reason (or a very bad one) would visit the town. And then there are the tales and legends that seemed to attach to every headland, sand bar or lighthouse. Before long, as I walked on that winter beach, I was joined by a cast of characters, by the sense of a fictional town only a little eerier than my own. And behind it all, lurking in the mists, the legendary malamander itself…

Erwin, the Book Dispensary Cat, as found by Thomas on the beach.

Loss plays a large role in MALAMANDER, as does the act of finding. It seems every character has lost something or other, and every one of them is hoping to find something, too. What drew you to these themes? Did you set out to write a book about them, or did they reveal themselves to you as you explored Eerie-on-Sea and the characters you populated it with?

In a way, beachcombing is the key to this. I find things on the beach that have clearly been lost or discarded at some point, and I can’t help wondering about the story behind them, and what it means now that I have found them again. Perhaps these are things that had no real value to start with, but which have been transformed by the power of nature into something collectable, as is the case with sea glass.

Imagine, many years ago, a family has a picnic on the shore of my little seaside town, and afterwards they leave their empty lemonade bottle behind. Back then the bottle would have been made of glass, and considered worthless. The sea took the bottle and smashed it, and rolled the fragments tide after tide after tide. Decades passed until eventually — maybe 70 years later — the remains of that bottle are now just a few rounded glass gemstones, gleaming in the shingle.

Sea glass gems, found by Thomas and his dog.

Then I happen along, dragged by my dog, and I find one of these pebbles, glowing green or aqua or ruby red with reflected sunlight. I pick it up and marvel at how beautifully frosted it is, and at how it seems to hold the light in its heart. I remember that according to legend, sea glass is said to be the frozen tears of mermaids. I remember my friend who makes wonderful jewelry from pieces like this. I slip it in my pocket, pleased to have found a treasure. And as I do, I can’t help wonder about the hidden story that led to it being there.

So my interest in things being lost and found began there, and I pushed the theme as far as I could in Malamander.

Much of your work has a creepy-yet-comic quality. What did you read as a kid? What are you a big fan of now? If kids read and love MALAMANDER – and many, many no doubt will! – what other books would you suggest they check out?

I was slow to come to reading as a child, but once I had found my way into books, I read all the time. I loved comic books, mostly Tintin and Asterix, and read The Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes Stories, and Tolkein, Pratchett, and Terry Brooks. These days there is so much choice it’s hard to even know how to start offering recommendations. I’m reading The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan right now, and it’s brilliant. Readers of Malamander would probably also enjoy the Nevermoor books of Jessica Townsend and the fabulous adventures of authors Vashti Hardy and Abi Elphinstone. Or Kieran Larwood. Or Julian Sedgwick.  And have you read The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius? Aah, so many books…!

We spoke before about how you’re an illustrator, as well – and a very accomplished one! You’ve worked with other illustrators before, I believe, but what was it like working with Tom Booth on this book?

I haven’t actually met Tom Booth yet (the Atlantic Ocean is quite wide!) but I enjoyed working with him at a distance. He has captured that mixture of mystery, creepiness and fun that I aimed for in the writing really well, I think. I’ve sent over some sketches of my own at times, when I felt it was important to convey something visually, but for the most part I’ve been happy to leave him the freedom to imagine the world of Eerie-on-Sea his own way. Sometimes this has resulted in a few surprises — for example, I imagine Mrs. Fossil to be rather large, but Tom has depicted her tall and skinny — but there’s nothing wrong with this.  The US edition looks fabulous.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MALAMANDER?

I hope readers will enjoy reading Malamander, not just for its story, but as a book. I worked hard to make it as effortless a read as possible. A love of books and reading is a great treasure, and I’m worried that children are finding it harder than ever to find their way into books. I hardly dare imagine how my life would be now if I had given up on reading, as I nearly did, early on.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MALAMANDER to their classroom libraries?

I just hope, as in my previous answer, that children will love reading my book, and be drawn in to the imaginary world of Eerie-on-Sea. A lot of teachers have begun using the book in school here in the UK. I hope it finds a home in American classrooms too.

When can readers here in North America get their hands on MALAMANDER, and do you have any exciting events coming up to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Malamander should be found lurking in all good retailers once it is published in the US on September 10th. There is also an audio book version, both on CD and as a download. As ever, don’t forget your local independent bookshop if you would like to order a copy; they can get it for you, and probably recommend something else at the same time. As for events, I have been doing these in the UK since the book came out here in May, but I am planning a promotional trip to the US early next year.

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

I can be found and contacted on Twitter (@ThomasHTaylor), and I have a facebook page as well as an Instagram account. My website —  www.thomastaylor-author.com — is pretty sleepy these days, but worth a visit if you want to find out about more about me. For most things Malamander though, please go to www.eerie-on-sea.com. If you dare…

Thanks again for inviting me, Jarrett, and for asking such great questions. Good luck to you and your readers!