Our chat with Justin…
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I started bashing out stories in primary school, including my own spin on Enid Blyton. These got more ambitious and epic in Years 7 and 8. I started entering my school’s annual creative writing competition and had consistent encouragement from my teachers there. After I graduated from Warwick University – straight into the recession of 1990! – my first “proper job” was writing a book for Usborne – number 16 in their successful Puzzle Adventure series, The Pyramid Plot. That was published in 1991 so there was a bit of a gap until VAMPIRATES first appeared… but that’s another story!
I was looking for an agent and I drew up a shortlist, based on my own knowledge, inklings and recommendations from trusted advisors in the publishing industry. Everyone had only good things to say about Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown. She responded swiftly to my e-mail, we met up and - at the end of our chat - she offered to represent me. I was, as you can imagine, thrilled.
Good question! The pitch and chapter samples for VAMPIRATES was originally sent out to 8 leading publishers in the UK. You can imagine the level of nerves and excitement at that point. I felt it keenly because I knew most of the publishers through my PR & marketing work in the industry. Fairly quickly, half of them declined, failing to see the potential in the project. Then another dropped out. It was Christmas and it felt a bit bleak. It looked like what I had thought was an amazing idea – and all the work in getting it to the pitching stage – was going to come to nothing. But, in the new year, the remaining publishers showed their interest. What I take from this is, you only need one publisher in the end – the right publisher for you. Finding the people who really get what you are about and trying to achieve makes the world of difference.
I’ve been honoured to receive wonderful feedback from readers throughout the world. I think it’s those readers who tell you that it was your books that turned them into a reader or, indeed, into a writer that is really thrilling. I’ve also had readers tell me that the sequence got them through difficult times in their teens. I think this speaks to the fact that, although the sequence is fantasy adventure and in many ways escapist, the emotional journey is totally authentic.
I was doing a multi-school event in Cheshire with wonderful independent bookshop Simply Books. I was super-excited as I’d been wanting to work with them for ages. I pulled out all the stops in my “performance”. As I was talking excitedly about blood-taking on board the Vampirate ship, one child in the audience had a spectacular, spontaneous nose-bleed and had to be removed from the session. I am pleased to report they made a swift recovery but yes that was both awkward and embarrassing (for me) and unpleasant (for them). But a little bit funny, I guess, in retrospect.
I had so many beloved books growing up but the book I’m going to plump for is S E Hinton’s The Outsiders, which was quite a rarity in being a young teen read in the 1980s. (And what’s more impressive is that it was first published in 1967!) It’s a book I love to this day, return to often and have given to young people myself. I’ve often written about outsider characters in my own books and, for me, S E Hinton totally sets the benchmark.
Ha, so much advice… Most importantly, stay positive and maintain momentum. The industry actually loves welcoming in new voices so in many ways you have an advantage right there, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now. Believe in your work and what is unique and special about it. Don’t get derailed if you see someone has published something similar – it won’t be the same, because it isn’t in your voice. Try not to compare yourself to other writers/illustrators – which is hard not to do, especially if you are active on social media. Aim to write for yourself and your ultimate readers rather than any ambition to be the next “whoever”!
Another great question! The key thing for me is to keep the story and characters in my head and heart and try to maintain as regular a writing rhythm as I can. I can get a lot of writing done in two hours but it’s important to switch the phone onto silent and really dive into that space without distraction. I continue to experiment with different times of day. Often my head feels clearest first thing in the morning, but then around “teatime” somehow feels like a “low stakes” time to write and that’s often good for getting down a first draft of a chapter. In my experience, a story will generate its own rhythm and you can’t necessarily force it to go quicker. You want that “tap” to remain open – that’s the key. On days when other stuff gets in the way, that is frustrating but don’t beat yourself up about it. Just get back into it as soon as you can so that the trail is fresh. I find meditation helps with all the issues around this – from calming my “monkey mind” to helping me switch from one activity/gear to another.
I would, of course, love VAMPIRATES to be made into a movie or major TV series. There are lots of strong character roles, I feel, for the likes of Robert Downey Jnr, Dwayne Johnson, Angelina Jolie, Emily Blunt, Gemma Chan, Chris Hemsworth… wouldn’t you say? As to how to persuade them… I think I’d make the case to the director that I wouldn’t want to interfere unless asked. But I’ll definitely be paying a visit to the set.