Debut author Damien Love didn’t set out to write a children’s book. “I didn’t decide it was a book until I was almost done writing it,” he says of what began as a free-writing exercise in his spare time. A freelance journalist since the 1990s, Love has had his plate full covering TV, film, and music for outlets such as the Herald, the Scotsman, and various nonfiction collections. But, he says, “I’ve always wanted to write fiction.”
Love’s first foray into middle grade, Monstrous Devices (Viking), could be pitched as Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Toy Story. The initial spark came to him in the form of an establishing shot. “Back in 2009, I had an idea for the opening scene, which takes place in a creepy toy shop,” he says. “I saw, and then wrote, the scene without knowing who the characters were or what was going on.” In terms of the novel’s setting, the Scottish author says, “I hadn’t had a holiday in a long time, and I knew I wanted the story to be in Prague—I had good memories from a visit years ago, and I was writing it as a way to escape back there.”
The opening sequence evolved into the adventure of a boy named Alex who, along with his dapper yet daring grandfather, becomes caught up in a battle over an antique toy robot with magical powers. The story’s MacGuffin was inspired by an actual object in Love’s collection. “Above the desk where I work sits a toy robot I was given as a gift,” he says. “It’s been there for 20 years. So the idea of the robot and of Prague started merging.” Just as the plot zigzags across Europe, he says, “the book was written on trains in between places, on the backs of tickets.”
The book also draws on Love’s passion for pop culture, with homages to North by Northwest, The Maltese Falcon, and more. “The book is kind of like an inventory of my influences,” he says. “It’s also my way of thanking all the creators who’ve inspired me. When you’re growing up, your first encounter with cinema is very special. I wanted to nod to the films that moved me and opened up my mind when I was Alex’s age.”
In 2010, Love began his search for an agent. Though he found representation in London, after struggling to land a publisher, he considered self-publishing. He ended up parting ways with his agent, and by 2013, he says, “It became clear that it wasn’t going to work, so I kind of gave up and put the book in a drawer.” For the next few years, Love returned to focusing on his day job as an arts journalist.
Cut to the end of 2016, when Love revisited the manuscript. “A part of me always believed other people would like my story, too,” he says. “I realized the only thing I hadn’t tried, the only other market, was the U.S.” By the time he began querying American agents, he’d received 99 rejections. “You build up so much scar tissue, it doesn’t hurt anymore,” he says.
Love’s persistence paid off: 24 hours after querying Catherine Drayton at InkWell Management, she called with an offer to sign him. Within three months of their first conversation, Drayton sold North American rights to Alex Ulyett, then an associate editor at Viking Books for Young Readers.
With Love in the U.K., Drayton based in Australia, and Ulyett in New York, the trio collaborated through “a very strange ping-pong of time differences.” Love says the edits were fairly light. “In terms of revision, it was more a process of clarifying and amplifying,” he says. “One of the main things was translating my British vernacular into something Americans could understand. The grandfather character usually has a pocket full of candy—over here we say sweets. There was quite a lot of talk of ‘getting rid of the sweets.’ ”
The debut author says his life hasn’t changed much as of yet. “The book isn’t published in the U.K. [LAW Agency in London represents U.K. rights on behalf of InkWell], so there isn’t really excitement over here,” Love says. “I kind of feel like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey; I mention I have this book out, and I imagine people here sort of roll their eyes and nod their head. It’s a strange thing; I’m just going on with it.” However surreal the experience, reviews have been positive. The book received a star from PW and landed on Barnes & Noble’s Best Books of 2018.
On the possibility of a film adaptation, Love says, “Mary Pender-Coplan at UTA is handling film rights. Fingers crossed.” On the chances of a sequel, he is more certain: “Definitely! I’m working on one now. All the questions that were left open-ended were left so intentionally.”