Chris d’Lacey has published over 20 books for children. He describes his first attempt at writing as a “gentle Christmassy story” about polar bears that was aimed at adult readers.
He started writing children’s fiction after a friend suggested he enter a competition to write a story for nine-year-olds. That became his first book, A Hole at the Pole, an environmental tale about a boy who wants to mend the hole in the ozone layer and enlists the services of a polar bear to help him.
His books have been translated widely and one of his novels for children was highly commended for the Carnegie Medal.
Chris d’Lacey spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.
What was your first story called and in what way was it ‘Christmassy’?
I was writing about a cuddly polar bear I’d bought my wife as a present! It’s the sort of romantic thing I do. Realizing I knew very little about polar bears, I began to read about them and the book just grew out of my continuing fascination. It was called White Fire. I refer to it in the dragon books, but it is still to come out of my bottom drawer.
Is there a connection between A Hole at the Pole and White Fire?
By then, polar bears were a real love for me, and I’ve always been concerned about the environment. It was a natural step.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
When I was 32. I’d always had a ‘creative streak’ but it had always been expressed through songwriting. In my early thirties I decided I wanted to try something different and stories seemed the most logical option.
I found it incredibly difficult at first, but stuck at it and eventually, after a few years, I had a short story published in a small press magazine.
Who would you say has influenced you the most?
Hand on heart, no one. My biggest influences were always musical. I had never read very much and still don’t, but when I began writing children’s stories I enjoyed the output of Roald Dahl, Allan Ahlberg and Michael Bond (Paddington Bear) the most.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
Unlike most writers I know, I don’t have an overflowing well of ideas. So I do worry, sometimes, about drying up. But my biggest worry is that now I’ve become reasonably successful, the writing has become more stressful because it’s now my main source of income. Ideally, I’d like to recapture the joy I had when I was starting out, and still be paid for it.
Several of your books have this underlying concern with the environment. Why is this?
Just look around you at the changing climate and the decline of species. Those are my concerns. It amuses me when people say, “We need to protect the planet.” Wrong, the planet will ultimately protect itself. What we need to protect are the creatures that inhabit it. We’ll be gone long before the planet will.
I do want people to wake up to the idea of what’s happening in the Arctic etc. We watch TV programmes week in week out saying, “Polar bears will be extinct within 50 years” and we all go, “Oh dear.”
At what point do we go, “Hang on, shouldn’t we be trying to do something about this?” Twenty years? Ten years?
How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
For many years as a children’s writer I dabbled in all sorts of styles and genres, but the stories that always brought me the most critical acclaim were those based around true domestic events.
I came very close to winning the biggest prize in children’s fiction, the Carnegie Medal, with my first novel Fly, Cherokee, Fly, which was about the time I found an injured pigeon and nursed it back to health.
I often transpose events that have happened to me as a man into the experiences of a fictionalized boy. I’m presently working on a Young Adult book about bullying, set against the backdrop of my parents’ divorce. That has been cathartic — but harrowing. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to write. It’s very powerful and needs to come out.
How did the idea behind Fly, Cherokee, Fly come to you?
Cherokee is based on the true story of me finding an injured pigeon on my local park and nursing it back to health. I kept it for 14 years, as a family pet!
It took me about four months to write the novel. The biggest challenge was research. I knew very little about pigeons or pigeon racing but I wanted my hero to be involved in the sport.
In the end, I sidestepped the issue by having the bird not compete in a race, but in the sequel to Cherokee, a book called Pawnee Warrior, I actually visited a professional pigeon loft and learned all about it. That was great fun. Very rewarding.
You are best known for your series of fantasy books about dragons. How did the series start? What would you say inspired you to sit down and start writing the first book in the series?
Fly, Cherokee, Fly was so successful that my publisher wanted me to write another animal rescue drama. This time I chose squirrels, because I’ve always liked them.
The set-up of the squirrel book involved a single parent family in which the mother worked from home. I wanted her to do something artistic, but for a while I couldn’t think what. Then one day I was out at a craft fair and saw a woman making beautiful clay dragons. I thought, “That’s what the woman in my book could do.”
My editor thought the dragons were a great idea and asked me to involve them more in the story! It took a long time to work out how to do it, but it opened up a whole series. I’m currently working on the fourth of them, The Fire Eternal which will be published in September 2007.
Do you write every day?
I try to. The writing time varies hugely. I try to do 500 words a day. Sometimes it’s more.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?
Finishing a book on time! I’m hopeless with deadlines. I like to let my stories evolve at their own pace. Unfortunately, my publisher isn’t always in sync.
I suppose one challenge we all face is trying to develop something new and different. It’s an eternal quest.
How do you deal with these?
Deadlines: I work hard to hit the dates I’ve set for myself, not necessarily those laid down by my publisher, which are often arbitrary anyway. If I really think a book needs more time, say another six months, I’ll discuss it with my editor. After all, what’s a few months if a book can be ‘great’ rather than just ‘okay’?
This raises one of my biggest gripes about publishing: the uneasy relationship between creativity and business.
Publishers may love books, but they also want to make money. In an ideal world, they would run to strict business schedules. But inspiration doesn’t come in handy, manageable nine-to-five pockets, it comes in dribs and drabs, in snatches. I don’t like my work being thought of as ‘product’, but sadly, that’s exactly what it is.
How would you rather your work was viewed?
As entertainment, which I think all literature should be. I simply don’t like the attitude that sometimes goes with publishing that a book is simply out there to make money.
What is your latest book about?
It’s called Fire Star and is the third book in my series about dragons. I’ve never liked the idea of dragons as fire-breathing monsters. In my books, they are the spiritual guardians of the Earth.
In Fire Star, the hero, David, is caught up in a mystery to unravel the origins of dragons, which I speculate may have been off-world…
How long did it take you to write it?
Ten months! It was published in the U.K., in hardback, in 2005. The paperback has just been released. The whole series is breaking ground in the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan as well, which is very exciting.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?
Only one: trying to work out the plot. Actually, I’m not sure the book has a real plot because it’s so multi-layered and complex. And it’s told from several different viewpoints. I always tell people that I like my stories to have an ‘X Files’ quality.
In other words, the truth is out there, but you’re not quite sure where. For me, as long as a book leaves you buzzing with intrigue, or makes you want more, it’s done its job.
Which did you enjoy most?
There is one particular section that goes off at a fantastic tangent. It involves a monk who finds a dragon’s claw. I won’t give away any more than that. I love taking risks with narrative, and this was an enormous leap. I was very proud of this section. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing.
What sets the book apart from the others you’ve written?
Well, the ‘leap’ as described above. But Fire Star is also a book that explores the nature of human consciousness and the power of thought. If you’re thinking, “Hang on. How can he be using themes like that in a children’s book?” read it.
In what way is it similar?
It follows the path of the same characters. We always like characters to develop or go on a journey. Some of mine have gone through huge changes during the course of these books.
In all, how many books have you written so far? What would you say unites them? How many of them have been translated into other languages?
I’ve written 23 now. I guess the only thing that unites them is my style. Lots of people write about dragons, but only I do it my way. The same is true of any author. About half have been translated, everything from Thai to Japanese to Italian to, erm, American!
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Being highly commended for the Carnegie Medal.
How did you get there?
Discipline, self-belief and hard work.
In July 2002, you were awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leicester for your services to children’s fiction. How did you feel about this?
Surprised, but very flattered. I tend to play it down a little bit because there are other writers who’ve done far more in the field than I have, but it was very warming to receive the degree from my workplace of, then, 24 years.
A podcast of this article is available on OhmyNews International.