Xtrabitz

I was asked to do a blog tour recently.  I posted a schedule for it, of course, but that will disappear into the archives over time.  So for anyone who missed it, here are the three most interesting pieces, beginning with an interview with my favourite UNICORNE character…

INTERVIEW WITH AMADEUS KLIMT, A HIGH-PROFILE MEMBER OF THE UNICORNE ORGANISATION

Tell me about your name. It’s rather unusual.

Is it?

Yes.

Very well. It is a combination of the middle name of the composer, Mozart, and the second name of the artist Gustav Klimt.

A combination? You didn’t…inherit the name then?

It was given to me by my…father. Is that uncommon?

No, it’s just… You hesitated on the word ‘father’. Why was that?

Let us just say that my upbringing was complex. Shall we move on to something more interesting?

Okay. Basics. You run an organisation called UNICORNE.

No, that is incorrect. I do not run it. I serve the director.

That’s an odd word to use, ‘serve’.

I find it appropriate – for the role I play.

And what would that be?

The business of UNICORNE is to explore what is sometimes called ‘the paranormal’. I believe the common phrase is, ‘Things that go bump in the night’. When an unusual incident occurs, I assign an agent to investigate, then monitor their progress.

To what end?

End? I do not understand this question.

What do you do, Mr Klimt? What is UNICORNE’s purpose?

You do not find the paranormal stimulating?

Of course. What I meant was, when you discover something, what happens next? What do you do with the information?

We record it in a file.

[LAUGHS]. You’re being evasive.

Our work is highly-classified. It would not be appropriate to share our discoveries with…the world at large.

So UNICORNE is a secret organisation?

Yes. And secret organisations, as I am sure you will appreciate, are, by their nature, secretive.

Touché. All right, let’s wind back a little. UNICORNE is an acronym for UNexplained Incidents, Cryptic Occurrences and Relative Non-temporal Events. What does that last part mean exactly?

A relative non-temporal event refers to anything outside the normal spectrum of human experience.

Sorry? Can you clarify that?

Ghostly sightings. Astral projection. Past-life regression. Telekinetic ability. Remote viewing. Our most recent case involved the phenomenon of cellular memory.

That’s when people who’ve received an organ transplant take on the personality of the donor, isn’t it?

Correct.

Can you tell me about it?

No.

You promised me an in-depth interview, Mr Klimt.

Then ask about…my hobbies. I enjoy mathematics and mathematical conundrums. Would you like to know how fast I can solve the Rubik cube?

I’m sure it’s impressive.

It is.

You’re playing games, Mr Klimt. Tell me about the missions – the UFiles I think you call them. Give me something exclusive for my blog. If you want money…?

I want nothing but the price of your secrecy.

You have it. This tape won’t be heard by anyone else.

[PAUSE]

Yes, I believe that will be so. Very well. I will share a UFile with you. My youngest agent, Michael Malone, has just solved an intriguing case. He was sent to find out why a dog was running loose at the edge of a cliff. This led him to a classmate who was having…visitations from a girl called Rafferty Nolan.

Hang on. I’ve read about this. Wasn’t Rafferty Nolan the girl who came off her bike a few years ago, struck her head on a rock and died?

That is the official version of events, yes.

And this Michael kid has discovered…what?

That the death of Rafferty Nolan was not an accident.

Wow. How?

Through the phenomenon of cellular memory. Tell me, is your recording device digital or analogue?

Digital, of course.

Excellent. Would you pass it to me, please?

Why? What for? What are you going to–? Oh, hello, who’s this? I thought this was going to be a one-to-one conversation?

Her name is Chantelle. She is one of my most experienced agents. In a moment, she will look into your eyes and make you forget everything you have heard.

What?

The device, please.

But…?

Thank you. I am constructed from a substance called graphene, which can conduct electrical impulses many times faster than any silicon-based computer. One of the side-effects of my speed of thought is the creation of a highly-polarised magnetic field around me, which can cause interference to digital devices.

Interference? NO! Please don’t wipe the rec–

[INTERVIEW ENDS]

 

REMEMBERING RAFFERTY NOLAN

When I was at university, studying biology, there was a particular lecturer I really enjoyed hearing. His name escapes me now (it’s been a long time since I was a student) but his field of interest was genetics. Over a period of weeks he taught us, among other things, about the discovery of the genetic code and the structure of DNA. He told it like a real story, chapter by chapter – the four bases, the alpha helix etc. – and I remember being so gripped that I would get to the lecture theatre early to be sure of getting a good place. That was the closest I came to being a science nerd. Not too long after university my life began to move down a literary path and science became something I relied on simply to pay the bills. But I’m certain that lecturer had a huge influence on my writing. I still love a good scientific mystery now, and occasionally it shows in my books.

This is partly what fuelled the central theme of A Dark Inheritance, the first in my new series The UNICORNE Files. I love anything that might be said to lie on the extreme edges of science, particularly those subjects that have no robust scientific credibility yet can’t quite be dismissed as hokum. The one that pops up in A Dark Inheritance is the fascinating phenomenon of cellular memory. To explain: people who’ve had organ transplants sometimes make the extraordinary claim that they have some memory of their donor or that they’ve inherited some of their donor’s personality traits. Imagine a forty-year-old man who has never been interested in gardening receives a new kidney and suddenly begins to know the Latin names for plants or has a strong urge to visit garden centres. He then finds out that his donor was a keen gardener. That would be cellular memory.

There have been many theories put up to explain it and I don’t have room to go into them here. Some people believe that every cell in the human body has full ‘consciousness’. And to hark back to my genetics teacher, in one lecture he dealt with the captivating subject of totipotent cells, which have the ability to differentiate into a complete organism from a single cell state. Wow. So where does this lead us?

Well, in an early review of A Dark Inheritance, the reviewer said they didn’t ‘get’ cellular memory. Fine. Hand on heart, I don’t ‘get’ telekinesis or past-life regression or out-of-body experiences – or my beloved dragons, for that matter – but I don’t have to believe in a thing to want to explore it in a work of fiction. Subjects like these are toys in a writer’s attic, there to be picked up, played with and re-imagined. With cellular memory, I did what all writers do, I lodged the idea into my subconscious and let it bubble away for a while. It eventually came back with an interesting question, “What if the donor had died in an accident, but the person receiving the organ remembered something that would suggest the death wasn’t an accident?” And away I went.

A Dark Inheritance is a kind of ghost story with a twist. The notion of cellular memory is used to unravel the truth behind the untimely death of a girl called Rafferty Nolan. To say any more than that would be to say too much. Writing the story hasn’t made me believe in the subject any more now than it did before I started. But my mind is open and the truth is out there. A fantasy writer wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

THE MISSING SHELF

The first children’s novel I wrote was a animal rescue story called Fly, Cherokee, Fly, a domestic drama about two boys who save the life of an injured racing pigeon. It nearly, but not quite, won me a Carnegie Medal. The book received a lot of generous praise, but the comment I always took out of that period came from my editor at Transworld, who said, “You write brilliantly for an adolescent readership, Chris. It’s a tricky age range, but somehow you get the ‘voice’ just right.”

The age range she was talking about was 11-13. I was pleased, because my two protagonists were in their first year of senior school. So imagine my surprise when I began to receive letters from children aged around 8, but none from children I’d perceived of as my target age group. Mystified, I went back to my editor, who explained that the book had been issued under the ‘Young Corgi’ imprint, which had a lower age bracket than the age of the boys in my book. At the time, Young Corgis were selling better than the older, Corgi, imprint, and as Cherokee was an easy read it slipped neatly into that category. From this I learned the golden rule of the book world: PUBLISHING IS A BUSINESS.

Fifteen years on, I’m still writing in that same adolescent voice, though I’ve upped it a notch with book one of The UNICORNE Files. In A Dark Inheritance, my young hero, Michael, is approximately 13. He gets sucked into a secret organisation and has to deal with some shady characters and a couple of seriously dangerous situations. So you would think that A Dark Inheritance might sit well on the 11-13 shelf in the bookstore – except no such shelf exists. In fact, there are basically only two categories for children’s novels: 8-12, what is generally called middle grade, and 13+ or ‘young adult’.

YA is a booming industry. The first YA literary conference in the UK was held in London not long ago and was a huge success. But middle grade is also a profitable market and the conundrum for the publisher when a book like mine teeters on the cusp of the two categories is, which way do we let it fall? If it goes to YA, will it become lost amid the high-powered novels on those shelves? Alternatively, will it be too strong for children at the younger end of middle grade? How well will an eight-year-old cope with the concept of cellular memory, for instance, which lies at the heart of A Dark Inheritance?

Without wishing to turn anyone away from The UFiles (I like that description) I can reveal that the decision was made to stay with middle grade. This meant I had to tone down some aspects of the story. No overt romance, no alcohol, no cigarettes, some violence (but nothing gratuitous). Yet there is still high-concept material in the book. The weird phenomenon of cellular memory, the quantum theory of alternative realities, the haunting mystery of a young girl’s death. And the plotlines are challenging, some would say confusing – but that’s me. I like books that work on different levels; a story that a ten-year-old might not fully grasp can still intrigue a teen, yes? Perhaps the best supporting argument for the way I write comes from fans of The Last Dragon Chronicles. Those books also made middle grade. Predictably, I received countless messages from young readers, but as the series became more established I started to see a new breed of letter. Teens of 15 and 16 were writing, saying, “I’ve ignored your dragon books because they were in middle grade. But I’ve just read one and it’s amazing! What are they doing in middle grade?” So all you young adults out there, don’t be afraid to have a look at The UFiles. Seriously, they are more than they seem. Enjoy.

 

 

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