Christopher Edge grew up in Manchester, where he spent most of his childhood in the local library dreaming up stories, but now lives in Gloucestershire where he spends most of his time in the local library dreaming up stories. Before becoming a writer, he worked as an English teacher, editor and publisher – any job that let him keep a book close to hand. He also works as a freelance publisher and education consultant and has written several publications about encouraging children to read.
In this interview Chris talks to Kate Hancock about his book The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which was recently chosen by The Sunday Times as a Children’s Book of the Week.
The Many Worlds of Albie Bright has a very different subject and setting to the Victorian mystery and melodrama of your Penelope Tredwell novels. What inspired you to write a story about quantum physics and parallel universes?
At school I wasn’t very good at science (I got a D in my GCSE Physics). It’s strange that subjects I didn’t do well in, or particularly enjoy at school, I have suddenly become fascinated by in later life. I didn’t even take GCSE History, but when I was researching the Penelope Tredwell books I was suddenly knee-deep in research about Victorian London. Similarly, I’m fascinated by popular science programmes like those with Professor Brian Cox. I find myself fascinated by philosophical interpretations of science.
The science at school seems all back-to-front, you have to get to university before you study quantum physics but I’d start with that – with the magic and wonder. A subject like quantum physics – the idea that parallel universes could exist – sounds more science fiction than science fact. It struck me that those theories are a great resource to plunder for stories. I was reading a book called How To Destroy The Universe: And 34 Other Really Interesting Uses Of Physics and in the book it mentions in passing that cancer is a quantum killer in that it is caused by a single cell in your body mutating and going rogue. You’re very lucky if you go through life without cancer touching your family or friends in some way, and the idea of boy who has lost his mother to cancer and is using science to find her again took root. I had to read lots of books to try and understand quantum physics!
Yes! My memories of physics lessons are all about circuits and how light switches work. I would have found it much more interesting learning about the bigger questions.
The idea that it takes a single atom 40,000 years to go from the centre of the sun to the surface is much more exciting!
Albie Bright is a standalone novel, whereas the Penelope Tredwell books are a trilogy, how did your approach to writing each differ?
They are very different books and a reflection of the kind of books I read. I grew-up in my local library where I devoured the book shelves. I’d go from reading the Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle to reading Adrian Mole. So I have been influenced by different kinds of voices. There are lots of different types of stories that I want to tell.
After writing the three Penelope Tredwell books I was conscious that I wanted to write something that was a different genre. Getting the voice right was key for me. The Penelope Tredwell books are written in the third person and I try to mimic the Victorian voice (albeit updated for a modern reader). It took me a while to find a contemporary and first-person voice for Albie Bright. I remember writing the first chapter over and over again trying to find a voice that sang to me. When I found it, that then unlocked the book and the story flooded out of me.
It’s interesting to hear that, as I find there are similarities between the characters of Albie Bright and Penelope Tredwell in that they are both focused and driven. However as a reader I was gripped by the descriptions and atmosphere in the Penelope Tredwell books, whereas in Albie Bright it was character and voice, which I really enjoyed.
Your books are full of fascinating detail, from historical detail about Victorian London to all the information about quantum physics in Albie Bright. How do you go about researching your books and how does it influence your writing?
It’s an exercise in justifiable procrastination! With the Penelope Tredwell series I had a whole host of books about the Victorian period. When I’m setting out on a project I find myself buying lots of books, some of which I know I won’t get round to reading. But if a story suddenly goes down a different avenue, I know I’ll have the resources available to be able to find something out. I do use the internet as well, but I much prefer using books as you make serendipitous discoveries and often find details that can take the plot in a different direction.
In the Penelope Tredwell books apart from Penelope, Alfie, Mr. Wigram and Montgomery (the core characters) pretty much every other character is a real historical figure, even if they are only in the book for a page. That became a challenge that I set myself in Twelve Minutes to Midnight and followed through in the other books. Getting the chronology and the details right becomes weirdly important to me. I don’t know why but I think it adds to the believability of the books.
Similarly with the science in Albie, getting the details right felt really important. I wanted the reader to discover ‘quantum entanglement’ and then find out that it’s a real subject. It’s important to me as a writer, although I can’t really say why as I’m sure some readers will skim past those bits. I know some writers like to make things up and twist them to fit the story, but I prefer to twist the story to fit the facts if I can.
One of the things I enjoyed about Albie Bright was that I was not a physics fan at school either but I found the physics detail really interesting and I learnt a lot and it never feels as if the science has been simplified for a younger reader. It feels very detailed and very authentic which really added to my enjoyment of the book.
I’m really pleased to hear you say that. At times my head was tied in knots as I tried to teach myself quantum physics. There’s a quote I included in the acknowledgements from the American physicist Richard Feynman: “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.” I had to read enough to fool myself that I understood enough to write about it in the context of this story, and then write it in a way that the readers would understand. At the same time it was important that the story came first and it didn’t turn into non-fiction book, especially when Albie is finding out about quantum entanglement or Schrodinger’s Cat.
Albie Bright is about a boy searching parallel universes for his mum who has recently died of cancer, which is on the surface a very sad topic. There are however lots of very funny moments throughout the book (I laughed out loud in several places). How important do you think humour is and how do you strike a balance between sadness and laughter in your writing?
I don’t consciously try to strike a balance. I read a great article by teen author Holly Smale this morning in which she says there is darkness and light in every life and that’s what the story of Albie Bright tries to show. That even in one of the most tragic events– the loss of a mother – there will be moments where humour or laughter will surface. Laughter can happen at seemingly the most inappropriate times. Humour emerged out of Albie’s voice. The stealing the stuffed platypus for example developed out of the narrative. My son had a toy platypus when he was younger and I was thinking how I could weave it into the plot. I have a strange obsession to include things that amuse me that readers won’t necessarily know. So that’s where the episode Albie crashes into a display of stuffed animals set up to look like an orchestra, and lands in some flute-playing huskies, comes from. I didn’t put it in the book, but they are Alaskan Malamutes (which of course rhymes with flutes!). Nobody else knows that!
There are some very moving and poignant moments in Albie Bright, when he enters the parallel universes. How do you approach writing these kinds of scenes?
It’s in the flow of writing, but what I try and do is be truthful. With the Alba meeting I was thinking about my own childhood and how we all have moments that we wish had happened differently. I wanted to explore how changing the past would not always have led to fairy-tale endings. Putting the character of Alba in a wheelchair wasn’t a decision I took lightly, I was very conscious about the debates going on in children’s books about inclusivity and diversity. It was very important to me that that Alba was a strong and resourceful character.
Without giving away the ending, the Albie who climbs into the box at the beginning of his journey is not the same boy as the Albie at the end of the story. He has been shaped by his experiences and in a way he has come to terms with the fact his mum has died. It was important to reflect that grieving process, although it might not be as neat as the 5 stages of grief leaflet given to Albie by the vicar in the book, I wanted to be true to that process so a reader who might find themselves in a similar situation can identify or find some recognition there.
Having Albie travel to parallel universes means you were able to explore different relationships with the same characters and different versions of Albie himself. How did you find that as a writer? Which alternative version of Albie did you most enjoy creating? Was there an alternative Albie that was particularly challenging to write?
It was great and challenging at the same time. In some ways it was quite an easy book to plot as in a sense every universe is defined by the difference. Sometimes those differences have small implications, sometimes large implications, it’s about discovering that difference and what it means to the Albie in that universe and the plot springboards off that each time. So in the Alba universe the difference is the way Albie has lost his mum and the impact that has had on Alba defines how he responds to the universe and how he helps Alba and she helps him. There was a twitter discussion about the book that I joined in and they were having the whole nature vs nurture debate about ‘Bad Albie’ and is he purely a product of the fact that his mum died when he was just a baby and his father’s neglect. ‘Bad Albie’ was fun to write. It comes back to the idea of those different paths and choices having consequences and playing out if different ways.
Have a look on YouTube and you will find some videos that try and explain the Many Worlds interpretation. When it came to creating the versions of Albie and other characters it was playing with those different choices and how that would have affected character and personality, especially with Albie’s Dad in the penultimate universe where Albie finds he has all that he wished for at the start of the book – a Danny the Champion of the World dad.
When I came to work on the second draft, working on the plot was like playing with a Russian doll. I had to refer back and make connections between the universes. There would be a detail in one universe that would then flower because of a choice made in a different universe.
The idea of parallel universe is one that has a very long history is children’s literature from C.S Lewis’ Narnia books to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Which are your favourite examples?
I love Philip Pullman’s writing and His Dark Materials is a wonderful example of literature. One of the things I like is the way it treats parallel universes. The Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass have gone on a different evolutionary path and developed wheels rather than being bipeds or quadrupeds. I love the idea that are worlds where evolution might have happened in a completely different way.
I also love the comics I read growing up, DC comics that deal with parallel universes – they are a lot of fun. It was taking the wildness of those ideas and applying them to Albie’s very human story that I thought gave me that chance to do something new with the parallel universes idea.
[For more on Christopher’s favourite examples of books that feature parallel universes check out this Guardian piece ]
You’ve written about the soundtracks to your books and how important music is to you and your writing. What similarities do you think there are between music and fiction?
Good question! I think the best music has an emotional impact and that’s what the best fiction does too. I need to write without distractions, so I can’t listen to music when I’m writing which I find really frustrating. However, when I’m writing a story everything I seem to encounter is linked to music and how songs link to ideas in the novel. There is a Graham Greene quote about how the most important books and the ones that form you are the ones you encounter in your childhood and I think that applies to music too. Music helps to shape our lives and the key moments have a soundtrack. You can be standing in the middle of the supermarket and a song will come on that can instantly transport you back to a moment in your life when that was an important song to you. Music has the ability to allow you to enter other worlds and fiction does that too.
In this Guardian article, Christopher talks about creating a book soundtrack
Your past careers have included teaching, editing and publishing. How has working with other authors’ work in these capacities influenced your own writing?
I used to work for the educational publisher Longman who publish educational editions of children’s fiction. So I had to read lots and lots of children’s fiction to find ones that would work well in a classroom context. It reminded me just how much I enjoy children’s fiction and it showed me how many brilliant writers there are out there. That inspired me to write my own books and the stories.
In terms of my publishing background and seeing things from the other side of the fence as it were, I hope that makes me easier to work with from an editorial point of view but you’d have to ask my editor! The writer’s relationship with their editor is such an important one and I’m very lucky to work with Kirsty Stansfield (Head of Fiction at Nosy Crow). She lets me get on with things but always gives me really useful feedback.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I can’t I’m afraid as it hasn’t been announced yet – sorry! It is another stand-alone novel and should hopefully be out in spring 2017 so watch this space!
Thank you Chris for talking to Just Imagine…
Hear Chris discussing The Many Worlds of Albie Bright on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row programme.
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