By Miriam Craig
Gareth P. Jones has now written enough books that he can’t remember if he’s on his 26th or 27th. Last week he even had not one, but TWO new books come out: the fourth in the Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates series, and Death or Ice Cream. The latter is a series of thirteen interwoven stories set in the surreal town of Larkin Mill, where the ice cream comes in flavours such as Summer Fruits Suicide, Banoffee Burial and Vanilla Vengeance, and life expectancy is mysteriously low. Each story is part puzzle and part morality tale, with something for adults as well as children, aged (roughly!) ten and up. With each tale – and each death – the broader story of what lies behind the town of Larkin Mill starts to take shape. The book has wonderful chapter header illustrations and cover art by Adam Stower. Though of course, all I needed was to hear the words ‘ice’ and ‘cream’ to be lulled me into a suggestive state and immediately ask Gareth to tell me more.
|Beautiful cover art by Adam Stower.|
What’s Death or Ice Cream about?
It’s a series of connected stories, set in a place called Larkin Mill. Death is very prevalent there – at the end of each story, somebody dies. Larkin Mill is a surreal place, with a League of Gentleman feel to it – there are sharks in the sewers. As you read the book, you learn why it’s like that.
What gave you the idea?
I often read short stories aloud at schools; I use them as performance pieces. I was doing a school visit in Romania, and I said, ‘I’m going to read this story and at least one person is going to die, and you have to guess who’s going to die, and how.’ We had such a good time doing that. They don’t see any darkness. So I thought I could write twelve stories where somebody dies at the end of each story. I sat down and wrote the first story and at the end, there was a question left hanging, so I wrote the next story, and the same thing happened again. I wrote all the stories, subtly connected, in about two and a half weeks. It splurged out like that. Then I had to go through the redrafting process. I worked hard with the editorial team to thread it all together.
It sounds almost like a series of puzzles.
Yes, it is like that. But also, what I’m often trying to do when I write is create mysteries where you don’t know what the mystery is – mysteries where you didn’t know you wanted to know that answer until you got to that point. By the end you feel, hopefully, that your questions have been answered, but they’re not the questions you had at the start.
Were there things you thought of putting in, and then decided not to because they were too dark?
I always just go with my instincts. My Mum thinks some of it’s too dark for children, and my wife thought two deaths were too horrendous – one was sharks, the other was burning in a house. So I changed them to make them less awful! But as I was writing the stories, they became like morality tales – the characters who suffer terrible deaths do so because they did something really, really bad.
What are you doing today?
TV work – as well as writing, I’m an edit producer for a TV show called Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, an antiques show on BBC1.
Is there any overlap between that and writing?
When you’re editing it’s the same process as editing a book. You have a certain about of material and you have to hack away until you’re happy with it. But there are lots of other people involved in TV – you have to deal with other people’s concepts of how it should be. When you’re writing a book, everything is in your control.
There was also a moment when my writing and my TV job became disturbingly intertwined. I was writing a story for this book that’s based in an edit suite, which is where I am right now, because I was doing this job when I was writing the book. The story is about a hardworking man who is therefore neglecting his child. His child wants to go trick or treating, but his father has to stay late at work. I was so engrossed in writing it at one point that I almost forgot to pick up my son from school. Luckily I realised and ran to school and did pick him up just in time.
How do you decide what to write next?
I think you know when you’ve got a good idea because, on school visits, the kids go for the one-sentence summary. For example, The Thornthwaite Inheritance is a pair of twins trying to kill each other. With Death or Ice Cream, whenever kids hear the title and I ask them that question, every single time everyone shouts 'ice cream', except for four kids at the back who shout ‘DEATH!’. That’s my sales pitch.
What do you find are your biggest challenges when writing?
Everything. Just all the words, I’d say. I’m fine with dialogue and would quite happily write entirely in dialogue. But what I struggle with is describing the stuff, like people coming into rooms. Or, how do I show that this character’s female? Sometimes, ‘I’m a girl’ is all you need to say.
You have to respect the process, which is that you write it badly first, then try and make it better, then try and make it better some more, etc. Like right now, I’m trying to create sequences of people buying antiques. They film them walking in, they film them saying what they’re doing, they film them chatting outside the shop. Gradually you cut all those bits and keep only the content. That’s what makes editing TV like writing a book. It’s all storytelling. You just have to not worry about the fact that you don’t know how to describe somebody entering a room. Sometimes I go back to a book I’ve written and look at it in wonderment, thinking, ‘How did I do that?’
How do you get over a plot problem?
Do something else and come back to it. If I’m plotting, a long rambling walk is useful. Interviewing the characters is quite useful sometimes. Often I struggle with finding the emotional truth of the scene – otherwise they’re just doing things I want them to do for the plot, so asking them how they feel is good. Think hard. Don’t think too hard. Ask my son the answer. In the new Steampunk Pirates book, I was trying to come up with a way of using Captain Kidd as a character. I told my son and he said, ‘Is he a little boy?’ Now he is.
Who or what are you influenced by?
I often quote Douglas Adams. These days it tends to be more or less anything I see or hear. A book, film, play. It just drips in. In Death or Ice Cream there’s a lot of taking the mickey out of the terrible formats of TV shows. And I included a lot of antiques that were actually featured on the show. If it’s good enough, it’ll stay, and if it’s not, it’ll fall away and you’ll put something better in its place. In this book there’s also a character called Mr Morricone because I was listening to a Morricone soundtrack when I was writing.
How do you want people to feel when they read Death or Ice Cream?
I really would like people to play the guessing game as they read it – try to guess who’s going to die, and hopefully be surprised each time. And when they reach the end, I’d like them to feel satisfied. As you would after eating a large ice cream with no death in it at all.
Thank you, Gareth, for talking to me about the book. And making me irritatingly hungry.
Hearing about Death or Ice Cream got me thinking about what other ghoulish and deathly ice cream flavours there could be. And as with any question of this importance, crowdsourcing is key. Here’s what Twitter came up with. Please do add your thoughts in the comments below – and extra points for contributing your own DEATHLY ice cream flavour. Personally I’m going for two scoops of Clotted Spleen.
|YUMMY! Illustration by Adam Stower.|
Va-killer (Michelle Toy)
Sleeping With The Phishes Food (Michelle Toy)
Masc-of-the-Killer-Pony (Michelle Toy)
Strawberry Strangler (Elli Woollard)
Raspberry Ripper (Polly Faber)
PistachiOW (Polly Faber)
Cookies and Scream (Polly Faber)
Rocky Roadkill (Emma Finlayson-Palmer)
Meringue Mangler (Emma Finlayson-Palmer)
Coffins and Cream (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Clotted Spleen (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Knickerbocker Gory (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Blood Drip Cookie Dough (Tamsin Cooke)
Mint Choc Chip Pan Fire (Sarah Baker)
Peppermint Pulveriser (Natalie Smillie)
Banana Bludgeon (Natalie Smillie)
Eviscerated Vanilla (Elli Woollard)
Pistabio (Elen Caldecott)
Strawbloody Cheesecake (Elen Caldecott)
Beaten Black and Blueberry (Jason Rohan)
Dead and Berried (Jason Rohan)
Assaulted Caramel (Jason Rohan)
Mint Choc Woodchipper (Miriam Craig)
Strangliettella (Miriam Craig)
Chocolate Mousseleum (Miriam Craig)
Combine Harvester Crunch (Miriam Craig)
Or take your pick from these delights in the book itself:
Trigger Finger of Fudge
Chocolate Knuckle Duster
Summer Fruits Suicide
For more info about Gareth visit his site garethwrites.co.uk