Sunday, April 20, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday Salon: An Interview with Marcus Chown

Last Monday I went down to London to research in the library, and also go to Waterstones in the Science Museum where Marcus Chown was signing copies of his new book and his wife, Karen, was mixing cocktails for children.

Marcus Chown's latest book is a departure for him in that it is not only fiction (he normally writes non-fiction) but also for children. It is called FELICITY FROBISHER AND THE THREE-HEADED ALDEBARAN DUST DEVIL. I read it on the train going home. It is about a serious little girl called Felicity whose day takes a turn for the worse when a patch of her flowery bedroom wallpaper starts wavering 'like a mirage on a hot summer's day'. Rather inconveniently, a Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil has decided to visit earth, and his means of access is a worm-hole ending in Felicity's room. It's an entertaining story for children from about the age of six or seven upwards, I would guess. For more information see Felicity Frobisher's website.

While I was there I picked up a few of Marcus's other books (he has written quite a few and many are still in print after being published several years ago), and started reading THE MAGIC FURNACE as soon as I'd finished Felicity. This turned out to be such a mind-blowing experience that I've had to spend all the rest of the week finishing it. It's a brilliant book, quite literally, about 'the search for the origin of atoms' and I recommend it to everyone - including people who would never dream of picking up a book like that. I've just written a review which I shall post separately here - but it concludes 'It makes a fascinating read for anyone who has ever looked out into a clear starry night, however uneasily, and wondered why and how we are here.'

Very kindly, Marcus has agreed to an interview, but first a short biography.

Marcus Chown is a writer and broadcaster based in London. Formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he is now cosmology consultant of the weekly science magazine NEW SCIENTIST.

Marcus's books include AFTERGLOW OF CREATION, in the UK runner-up for science book prize and the most-read popular science book after Stephen Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. His other books include THE MAGIC FURNACE ("all the narrative devices you'd expect to find in a Harry Potter book are here” - the Daily Mail); THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR ( "a parallel universe where science is actually fun" - the Independent); and THE NEVER-ENDING DAYS OF BEING DEAD (“a limousine among popular science vehicles” – the Guardian).

The Interview. General Questions
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
MC: My cousin’s wife, Anne, has a giant land snail called Julie. She’s not very active (Julie, I mean) and seems to wall herself in her shell for most of the year. But Anne loves her! She’s had Julie since she was an egg. It was been thrown out by school. Anne saved two eggs but, unfortunately, Carl died young. Julie’s been going strong for 10 years now. How long do giant snails live?

CD: What is your proudest moment?
MC: Finding my cousin, Mike, who had been lost to the family for 50 years. Mike’s mum – my aunt – died of an asthma attack, aged 25, in 1954. Mike’s dad – presumably traumatised – took two-year-old Mike away and was never seen again. my dad always said “you’ve got a long-lost cousin”. and, when he died in 1999, it became important to me to find him. In 2004, while googling on the internet, up came a face. I called my wife, Karen, and said: “What do you think about this face?” “It looks like you,” she said.

Mike was totally shocked when I phoned. all I could think was “Dad, I’ve found him!” That week will always be impressed on my mind because London, where we live, got the Olympics and we got blown up. Karen and I were close to Edgware Road, our local tube station, when the bomb went off, and we ended up assessing the injured in the foyer of the local Hilton.

Mike had no idea his mum had a brother – my dad (in fact, five brothers and sisters). His dad had re-married and never spoken about his mum – or how she had died. From an aunt, I got Mike a photograph. He was 52 and it was the first time he’d seen ever seen the face of his mother.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
MC: They tend to be life-changing decisions rather than “road to Damascus” events. The decision to turn by back on research in astrophysics at CalTech, come back to England and risk trying to something I wanted to do more: write. The decision to spend my life with Karen. The decision to leave a staff job at “New Scientist” and go freelance, with a view to writing books… (my biggest life-changing event was actually my dad and mum meeting, aged 15 and 16 respectively, at Alexandra Palace in north London in 1950!)

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
MC: Just did a talk on my book “quantum theory cannot hurt you” at the National Museum of Scotland, which is close to the churchyard where Greyfriar’s Bobbie is buried. The thought of that dog spending 10 years – or whatever it was – waiting by his owner’s gravestone, well, it breaks your heart! Closer to home, it was terribly sad sending the children back. Yes, you read right. No one expects an adoption to fail but the reality is that an awful lot do. All of us – the children included - tried as hard as we could but none of us could make it work.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
MC: Worry less. but, as you grow older, you realise that some things are difficult to change because they’re ingrained in your personality. Karen tends not to worry so much. but then she is a Macmillan nurse and spends time with people with terminal diseases. They put things in perspective. after all, compared to dying nothing is worth worrying about!

CD: What is happiness?
MC: Laughing with friends. Beans on toast. Swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park early on a summer’s morning alongside the geese and ducklings. Being mobbed by 5-year-olds (well, three of them!) waving their copies of “Felicity Frobisher…” in a restaurant in Bath. Having a takeaway from our local Lebanese restaurant on a saturday night while watching junk TV like “the x-factor”. A blue sky. A puffy white cloud. A coffee and a cake in an outdoor café. The realisation of how lucky I am to be able to “enjoy” all these simple things. Adopting has shown me that some children, because of what has happened to them, live in “survival mode”, a constant state of fear and anxiety and watchfulness that precludes actually being able to enjoy anything.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
MC: Make the bed – isn’t that dull? Maybe I should say, do one-arm press-ups or feverishly scribble down ideas for novels that have come to me in my dreams!

(website is here).
CD: Why did you decide to write for children after being a successful popular science writer?
MC: When I was at school my favourite subjects were English and Physics. But it was impossible to do both. So I ended up pursuing Physics, ending up at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena doing radio astronomy. It was there that I thought: “No, this is not for me.” and decided to try and get back into writing. I worked as an editor on “New Scientist”, then left to go freelance when I started writing popular science books. But the books were the route of least daring since they were only a short step from science journalism. But I always wanted to get back to the kind of things I liked at school and write things that were more imaginative and more me. I have many unfinished stories, novel ideas etc. But, for some reason, I thought I would write a children’s story. And that was the thing I pursued through the inevitable rejections by publishers. I actually discovered, when I started, that it was a lot of fun, not the chore that some factual writing can be. Now I want to do more!

CD: I think I know Felicity Frobisher! Where does she come from?
MC: you know her? I’d love to know more!
CD: I thinks she's me.
MC: I don’t know where the name came from. But it seemed to have the right rhythm for the title. Titles and their rhythms are very important. As for the personality of Felicity Frobisher, Felicity Frobisher is actually me! When I was at school I was dull and boring and polite and never got into any trouble, just like Felicity Frobisher. But I had a very bad friend – exactly like felicity’s friend Flummff. He got me into all sorts of trouble. I was chased out of a park by a park keeper waving his fist and shouting “hooligan!” just like Felicity (though I never went down a wormhole or visited the international space station).

CD: If you could see a three-headed aldebaran dust devil, what would it look like?
MC: I imagine Flummff as three intertwined, dusty tornadoes. If you look on the website… you’ll see what one 9-year-old thinks a Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil looks like.

CD; What sort of child do you think would read your book? Did you have him or her in mind when you wrote it?
MC: Felicity Frobisher should appeal to all children from 5 upwards (my wife, Karen, likes it – and she’s 48!) I hope most children will identify with felicity frobisher because she wears big glasses, is not very good at school, not very athletic and gets picked on by the school bully. She’s the underdog. Girls will, I hope, naturally identify with Felicity Frobisher. But boys will also enjoy the book since Flummff, Felicity Frobisher’s very bad friend who gets her into so much trouble, is a boy.

CD: The illustrations have an attractive, unusual style - reminding me a little of the flintstones era. Did you have any say in what they should look like and where they should go?
MC: Good question. My publisher, Faber, sent me an initial cover design by a particular illustrator, which I didn’t think was right. I hesitated about telling them this because some publishers don’t like author input. However, to their eternal credit, they met with me to discuss the illustrations. I took with me illustration samples I had downloaded off the internet and greetings cards showing little girls who looked the way I imagined Felicity Frobisher. One card in particular was perfect. It showed a real-life little girl, dressed up with a handbag, wearing glitter glasses. When we chose Ned Joliffe – from some illustrators Faber commissioned some samples from – Faber passed on the greetings card with the real girl in glitter glasses. And she metamorphosed into the illustrated Felicity Frobisher. So all the toing and froing was worthwhile.

CD: Do you have plans to write any more books about Felicity?
Mc: I have already started “Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil”. Faber, however, is waiting to see how the first one does before commissioning another. So please buy copies for you and all your friends!

CD: Now you have written fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children - where do you plan to go next?
MC: non-fiction is my bread and butter. It pays the electricity and gas bill. So I will keep on doing that. Fiction is still more speculative and something I do when I can. Of course, I hope that will change!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't resist a new children's book. Felicity Frobisher is now on the library list. Thanks for the tip.

Sun Apr 20, 08:19:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Table Talk!

Sun Apr 20, 10:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We thought you'd got embroiled and immersed, Clare. "Typical of you" was said - not by me, I hasten to add. But really, no doubts or worries or thoughts elsewhere need bother you. You made the moment and that's what counts.

You are you and that's what matters.

Sun Apr 20, 11:08:00 pm  
Blogger Debi said...

I really wish I could have made Marcus's launch, but reading this post is the next best thing. Thanks!

Mon Apr 21, 09:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad I got here. You seem to have a productive week. And wonderful post, this!


Sun May 18, 06:33:00 pm  

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