The British author Nick Lake has a day job in London as publishing director for HarperCollins Children’s Books U.K., but in his fiction he travels the globe. His Printz Award winner, In Darkness, was set in Haiti. Last year’s Hostage Three followed the fate of a family kidnapped by pirates off the Somali coast. And his latest novel, There Will Be Lies, takes readers to the American Southwest. Bookshelf caught up with him at the end of his London workday.
Have you written any books that are actually set in England, where you live?
Curiously, I have not. The Blood Ninja series is set in Japan, where I have never been. My first novel, The Secret Ministry of Frost, was set in the Arctic and I’ve never been there either. There have been some major stylistic shifts in the course of my career, but I suspect they will not result in a novel set in the U.K. I wouldn’t say never, and I don’t know that I could explain it, but, part of the reason I read books is to experience other lives. I don’t read much that is set in the U.K. now. I didn’t grow up in Britain. I grew up in Luxembourg, and all the television we had access to was American – American TV with Dutch subtitles – so all the dialogue I heard growing up was American. That’s my private theory, anyway.
Can you say how you came to set a book in Arizona?
Well, I actually have been to Arizona and I was inspired by an encounter with a coyote. I was there with my editor as part of a book tour, staying at a hotel north of Scottsdale, on the edge of the desert. The hotel had large grounds and lush gardens. We’d been drinking in the bar and when we parted, I went out to walk the grounds a bit. I may have still been smoking at the time. A coyote came skittering along the path, stopped, and looked right at me. It was one of those really weird moments, very intense. The coyote then ran off but he had implanted himself in my mind. We met a local couple for dinner the next night and they were really offended when I told them about meeting the coyote because they had lived in Scottsdale for quite some time and had never seen a coyote themselves.
Okay, so I need to press you here because I’m not seeing how the coyote encounter itself resulted in this story about Shelby, who is deaf, and completely overprotected by her mother, until a car accident turns her world upside down.
Well, it was only partly inspired by the coyote encounter. [A shape-shifting coyote appears in There Will Be Lies.] But the rest... I’m not completely sure I know where it came from. I mean, I have an idea. And I know that an author is supposed to have a story about how their book developed, and that the story they tell you is probably to some degree true, but I don’t think anyone should believe authors when they say they know where the story came from.
Okay, that is not the most helpful answer I’ve ever gotten to the question, “Where did this story come from?”
Well, I guess there is more to it than I have let on. I had a one-year-old daughter at the time and I was thinking a lot about children and parenthood and safety and the parent-child relationship. My daughter had been very ill when she was born and we spent a lot of time in the hospital and that fed into it, too. And the portion of the book about The Dreaming (part of the story takes place in a dream state Shelby enters that is infused with Native American mythology) actually came to me in a dream. I had a dream about Shelby but in the dream I was Shelby and the coyote took me to this ancient, mythic land where all these creatures wanted to attack me and the coyote protected me. Hostage Three also came to me in a dream.
Both Hostage Three and There Will Be Lies are written in first person. How did you decide to write in the voice of an American teenage girl?
Well, in Hostage 3, the main character, Amy, was initially a boy but I showed what I had written to my wife, who is my first reader, and she said, ‘This is not a boy, it’s a girl, and he’s not English,’ so I changed it to a girl and made her half American. And with Shelby, my challenge there was to make sure she sounded different than Amy. I worried about that because Shelby is nothing like Amy. She’s more naïve. More pliable. She believes what her mother has told her. Whereas Amy was full of snark. I got a lot of comments about her being unlikable, which was not my intent. I liked her very much myself. But it could be that those readers were adults and sympathized more with Amy’s father. My mother-in-law read it and said, ‘Oh, her poor dad.’ But it’s strange, this voice thing. I don’t feel like I choose it. This sounds so pretentious but, in some sense, the voices come to me and I just put them down on paper.
The book I’m working on now is about a girl who lives in New Jersey who can hear voices and I’m thinking of these three books as some sort of trilogy. They are all thrillers, with a teenage girl narrating. Working on these books helped me work through something that was bothering me and by writing them, I think I’ve put that to rest.
Can you explain a little more about what was bothering you?
The next book, Whisper to Me, is a horror story, about a girl who hears voices, who lives in a small town on the Jersey coast where there is a serial killer at work. The voices she hears have something to do with the killer and she takes it upon herself to find the killer. Shelby, of course, can’t hear anything at all. I’m half deaf myself and hearing – or not hearing – is obviously something I’m very interested in. I have a master’s degree in linguistics and what I studied was acoustics and sound. There’s something about not being able to hear, not hearing the car because it’s coming at me from the deaf side, that makes one feel very uncomfortable. Although perhaps I have now said too much because I don’t want to spoil There Will Be Lies for those who haven’t read it.
Nor do I! Although I think it is revealed pretty early on that Shelby is deaf.
Yes, that is not the big twist. Actually, I wanted to have two twists. One, a third of the way through and one, two-thirds of the way through. I love books that have twists and I thought it would be cool to try to write one myself. I really wanted Bloomsbury to focus their marketing more on the twist and they were kind of adamant that we shouldn’t be telling people there were twists.
I think the title itself puts the reader on high alert for twists.
Right. And I think that just by telling people, ‘there is a twist,’ you are affecting their experience of the book. So, enough said about that.
Are the books you edit yourself at HarperCollins all young adult books?
We don’t have very clearly marked lines but mostly what I edit is what you would call middle-grade: Michael Morpurgo, Lauren Child, Will Hill – who is also a good friend, and my second reader, after my wife.
When you write, do you find it difficult to shut off your editor self and get the story out?
I don’t know that I have an answer for that. I do think no one is able to edit themselves, whether they work as an editor or not. I very much want another editor to read my work and see what I can’t see. On the other hand, I think both roles are extensions of the same thing. I don’t think they’re opposites. Although most of my time is spent reading submissions from agents, it’s not unheard of for editors to generate ideas and commission books, and to work on books that need a lot of work, or to help shape a story.
Which role do you prefer?
As an editor, you’re part of the creation. You can have lunch with the author but then it’s he who has to go away and write the bloody book. Being a writer I think, and hope, has made me a more sensitive editor but being an editor is easier.
Let me get out in front of this and predict that the most quoted line from this interview will be, “Being an editor is easier.”
I’ve done it now, haven’t I?
Do you write before you come to work? Late at night?
I live really far out in West Oxfordshire, very close to the Gloucestershire border. It’s about two and a half hours to London and part of that is a train journey. I have a particular seat in carriage B of my train, noise-cancelling headphones, and my laptop, and that gives me an hour and a half of uninterrupted time to write. I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old so I can’t write at home. If I don’t write in that hour and a half, it’s not going to happen.
Finally, I have to ask you what you thought when the Printz committee called last year to tell you In Darkness had won their award?
My book wasn’t terribly well known, and I was relatively new to writing, so I think winning the Printz was a surprise to everyone, not least myself. I didn’t know anything about the Printz. (In Darkness) had been shortlisted for the Carnegie. That’s what you’re aware of as an U.K. author. Then the phone rang and there’s this big “Hello! hello!” on the other end. I thought it was my colleagues, messing about. I literally said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and ‘Are you sure you don’t want to give it someone else?’ and they laughed and said, ‘Oh! You’re so British.’ The whole thing was a complete shock beginning with the thought, ‘How did these Americans have my number?’ After the fact, of course, I learned that there is no longlist or shortlist and, in fact, the entire thing is carried out with the utmost secrecy, but at the time I just didn’t know you could win a big prize over the phone like that while you are home working on a wintry January day. Amazing.
There Will Be Lies. Nick Lake. Bloomsbury, $17.99 ISBN 978-1-61963-440-4