Saturday 27 August 2016

Angie Sage & The Magnificent Seven

Blur or Oasis?

Harry or Septimus? 

Both seem to have their equally fervent and loyal fan-bases, but there is, of course, plenty of overlap in their readership. The Septimus Heap books have enough darke doom and peril to veer towards the gothic aspects of Harry Potter, yet enough wacky weirdness to steer them along the borders of Gormenghast grotesque. Even the Dickensian character names, evoke Peake’s world - Titus Groan could, believably, live down the street from the Heaps - no relation to Uriah?  

The main arc follows the story of a boy growing up and finding out that he has unusual magical talents and then embarking on special training as apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand. Along the way, he befriends a dog, a message rat, a boggart, a boat that was once a dragon, and a dragon who was once a stone… and there are witches and ghosts, and quake ooze brownies… well, enough said – this is Fantasy. 

As a rule, the Septimus Heap series manages to avoid many of the usual Fantasy genre pitfalls. It does not often get bogged down in merely describing the made-up world we are drawn into – if there are secret passages in the castle walls, then those secret passages will have a narrative role to play. If a character wears shoes made from purple python skin, then this detail will help to reveal relations between characters and establish a back-story. No gore or gratuitous cruelty, but a peppering of peril and suspense. We are not made to revel in nastiness, although the villains are rather nasty – and there are moments of genuine ‘horror’, but usually tempered with a light touch of humour to follow. It is probably the humour, and unbridled imagination, that elevates these books above much of the current fantasy fair foisted upon young adults.

Angie Sage, creator of Septimus Heap
Angie Sage has been writing the world of Septimus Heap for over twelve years and the series comprises of seven (that is 7) Septimus Heap novels. Plus a trilogy of sequel stories, the Todhunter Moon books. Oh, and two companion volumes - one of short stories and the other is a sort of ‘guide book’… So that is a dozen in as many years! Plus! The Araminta Spook series, for younger readers.

Araminta Spook a fun and spooky series of books...
Angie Sage talked to Remy Dean about her writing, suitably starting off with some Septimus questions:

They say there are only seven basic plots – and that Shakespeare already did them all. Fittingly, there were seven books in the Septimus sequence, but now there is an eighth in The Darke Toad, and in a way the story continues with the Todhunter Moon books. How do you hope to keep your ideas fresh and avoid repetition?

What I love about writing a series is that with each book I get to know the characters a little better. Also I can build on the things that have happened in previous books so I hope I’m able to write more complex situations and characters too. I’m not sure how it works, but that seems to be enough to keep ideas fresh and interesting. I don’t do a lot of plotting – apart from a few way points plus the ending - as I find it best to get ideas from the characters and the situations they are in. I think that keeps things interesting too.

Did you know you were going to write so many related stories in such an epic trajectory? …and did you have a planned-out arc for all the books? If so, how similar or different are the final results to that planned arc?

I was planning on writing a trilogy! But the world just kind of grew and so many interesting people began to arrive in it. So why leave? I didn’t have an arc planned at all, I felt it was a bit like life really. It was just going to happen and I’d do my best to make it interesting.

What location research did you find necessary? I ask because it seems the Badlands may have been inspired by where I live – in Blaenau Ffestiniog! Have you ever visited?

I did draw quite a lot from where I was living at the time I wrote Magyk – near a creek in Cornwall. So that is definitely where the Marram Marshes come from, especially the muddy bits at the end of the creek when the tide goes out. Also the little channels that are left. I did take a canoe along them and managed to get stuck and thought at the time how great it would be if they actual went somewhere exciting.

The Castle was an amalgamation of all the castles I’ve visited and made into the kind of place I would like to live. Quite a bit of wish-fulfillment there, I think.

And yes, the Badlands are indeed all those slate quarries around Blaenau Ffestiniog! I went there years and years ago as a kid and it has stayed with me. I actually loved the place and thought it was so atmospheric.

…and the characters that inhabit these environments, where do they come from?

People … I am really not sure where they come from. I don’t consciously base them on anyone I know. They just arrive, usually complete with their names, which is very convenient.

Which character has the most Angie Sage in them?

Well … I suspect I am a peculiar mixture of Marcia, Septimus and Beetle. If you’re going for only one, then it has to be Marcia. Of course.

Was DomDaniel originally named ‘Daniel Doom’ in the first draft?

I got the name DomDaniel from the wonderful Roget’s Thesaurus. I looked up synonyms for ‘Hell’ and there it was. I do like the idea of Daniel Doom though.

The Septimus Heap story is epic Fantasy
I have been reading quite a bit of Fantasy for children and YA recently (as father of an eleven-year-old) and find that there is often what seems to be needless horror, cruelty and gory gruesomeness. Do you have any thoughts on such content? Because, in your own writing, you achieve suspense without resorting to such techniques, relying on the horror being recounted by a character – which then adds an emotional dimension – or laced with humour, occasionally bordering on slapstick…

I had no idea how hard-core some of the new stuff could be until I shared an event with another author and read her book. I was really shocked by the content and actually had to stop reading. I know I’m a bit squeamish about violence and cruelty but this seemed to revel in the nastiness. So yes, I know what you mean. And I think it is a great shame. Because I feel there is a danger that young readers can become hardened to these things and lose their emotional response to real suffering.

I’ve had some criticism for diluting the nasty stuff in Septimus with humour because it takes the edge off it. But it does mean that you can create a greater shock with the occasional nasty incident: like Marcellus cutting off Merrin’s thumb. Sometimes less is more…

Do you think there is a difference between fantasy written by men and women?

I’m not sure as I honestly don’t read fantasy! I love writing about different worlds but what really interests me is the people who live in them. But is that because I’m a woman? Hmm …

Did you even consider gendered pseudonyms - such as 'Andy Sage'? 

It didn’t occur to me at the time but now I do wish I had just stuck to initials. I think some boys are put off reading something by a female writer. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I have plans for a YA/adult trilogy and I intend to be just A.A. Sage for that.

When is your best writing time? 

I write best first thing in the morning before the day starts to get complicated.

Do you listen to music as you write?

Unfortunately, I find music distracting, much as I would love to listen to it.

Do you write long-hand and then key it in?

I just can’t think in longhand and I only began to write when I got my first computer. Once I’ve started on a book properly I make a schedule with a word count target for every day. If I don’t do that then it just doesn’t get done. I try to write 1000 words a day and write straight onto my laptop.

How conscious of targeting your audience are you during the writing stages?

I’m not really conscious of it when I am actually writing, but there are things—sex and violence basically—that I won’t write about as the books do need to be suitable for nine years upwards. However, I’m quite happy to put in stuff that maybe will be a little over the heads of the younger readers, but will be appreciated by older ones. There has to be something for the grown-ups too! And many fans who re-read the series in their late teens tell me they see so much more in it when they are older, which I’m really pleased about.

Are you allowed to say anything more about possible screen adaptations of the books?

We sold the film rights to Septimus Heap to Warner Brothers it must be about seven years ago now. There was quite a lot of development work at the time but then it just got dropped. And that’s about it, sad to say. I think it happens to a lot of books. I do think that such a complex world is pretty difficult to make into a film, however, I am convinced that it would be a brilliant TV series. The Septimus Heap box set is something I would love to see. However, all that rests with Warner Brothers…

What was the first book you can remember reading that really hooked you and carried you off into its world?

I think that has to be Titus Groan by Mervin Peake. It was the weirdest world I had ever come across. The world was so immersive and the characters were compelling too.

Sir Christopher Lee as Flay in the BBC adaptation of Gorermenghast (2000)
- click picture above to read the exclusive Scrawl interview with him -
What were you reading when you were the age of your readership?

It was a long time ago now so these are going to seem rather ancient.

When I was age of my younger readers it was E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Gouge, Rosemary Sutcliffe. And yes, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven too. Also anything by Arthur Conan Doyle. And lots of myths and legends: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Greek and Roman...

There wasn’t so much aimed at young teens then, so I pretty much went straight onto grown-up stuff. I read a real mixture of everything: John Wyndham, Alistair McLean, Dostoevsky, Evelyn Waugh, the lot.

When did you think, ‘not only am I a reader, I am going to be a writer’?

There was never a moment really. It just crept up on me. But I now realise I have always read books with half on eye on how they were written. And did used to wonder if it was something I could ever do.

What have been your favourite books or authors, and what did you learn from them?

I read mainly literary and historical fiction, - I never read fantasy - but sometimes good sci-fi. Favourite authors at the moment would include, Rose Tremain, Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson.

However, I am like a goldfish when it comes to books - apart from a few favourites - I find I’ve forgotten them five minutes later. I guess that comes of reading too many, too fast. This makes it hard to say exactly what I’ve learnt from whom, but I think I’ve just soaked up stuff over the years…Overall, the most important thing I’ve learnt for my writing is that it is the characters who tell the story.

After a long and successful writing career, do you have any tips or in-a-nut-shell words of wisdom you can share with aspiring writers of fantasy?

Find your own world! And, I guess, don’t read the competition. And if you do, don’t worry about it. Everyone has their own story to tell.

Thank you very much, Angie Sage!

Thank you – for some subtle and thought provoking questions.

Angie Sage was talking with Remy Dean

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