Your ‘ACE Gamebooks’ series continues to expand with NEVERLAND. What’s your process for choosing these classic stories and settings, and what is it that personally excites you about writing in these existing worlds?
My decision to publish Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland in 2015 was not only motivated by my desire to revisit adapting Lewis Carroll’s original classic, having written the Pax Britannia short story White Rabbit back in 2010, it also happened to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
After writing Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland, people asked if I would be writing a sequel based around Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. However, as readers of Alice’s Nightmare will know, I had included characters and events from Through the Looking-Glass in the adventure already. Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie had reimagined three children’s classics in their graphic novel Lost Girls, and so I decided to use the same three stories to produce my own semi-linked trilogy of gamebooks.
Hence The Wicked of Wizard of Oz came next, and now NEVERLAND – Here Be Monsters! The originals that have inspired the ACE Gamebooks to date are also all out of copyright, which is an important factor, but more importantly they are already well-known.
I also enjoy the challenge of reimaging such well-known stories. When you’re not having to come up with the characters and settings yourself, you’re free to spend your creative energies working out how you can put a spin on the original to come up with something new, and something that will appeal to 40-something gamebook fans as well as today’s 10 year-olds.
In NEVERLAND we’re expecting to find an ancient land full of dinosaurs and other creatures, pirates, relics and treasure – what won’t we be expecting?
If I told you that, you’ll be expecting it and that will spoil the surprise. I can tell you what you won’t get; you won’t be getting a twee story involving fairies, boys dressed up in raccoon costumes, and comedy ‘Red Indians’.
The project is funding now on Kickstarter, as NEVERLAND – Here Be Monsters!, and runs until 10:00pm on Saturday 2nd December. It’s currently 82% funded with 11 days to go, so it’s not too late to join the fun!
Tell us a little about the ‘young dreamer with a fruitful imagination’ and of his comic strips, maps and manuscripts. How would that younger version of yourself react to your career to date?
For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a writer. Aged 6 I would make books from bits of paper stapled together, but they usually didn’t get further than a cover and a catchy title. I then moved on to drawing comic strips, usually without any words.
The breakthrough with my actual ‘writing’ came when I was 8. My class was given a writing task by our teacher and I came up with the character of Big Eye, a benign alien, and what started out as one story ended up filling exercise after exercise book after exercise book. It was absolutely dire, but it was my first foray into long-form writing.
The next colossal step came with the release of the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. From then on I began emulating my heroes, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, slowly writing longer and less derivative adventures, until I ultimately contacted Puffin about writing for the series. The rest, as they say, is history…
I think my younger self would feel very much like my older self, delighted that I’m making a living from doing what I love but also wondering why I haven’t written a best-seller yet that’s been turned into a blockbuster movie.
Do you still have any of the strips, maps and manuscripts that you created back then?
Yes. I am a habitual hoarder (of paper matter in particular). Some of those items are doubtless in a box in the garage. I’m just the same now; when I finish a project, I put the papers away in folders and boxes, but I never get rid of any of them.
You’ve made it known that you weren’t a serious fan of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, nor fond of the 1939 musical film adaption, before deciding to write The Wicked Wizard of Oz. Was it simply that you could add your own ‘dark spin’ to this tale that resulted in you choosing it as a gamebook setting?
Yes, that and that fact that after writing Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland, people asked wanted a sequel and so I started considering which other children’s classics I could give the Nightmare treatment.
How would you summarise the recent Fighting Fantasy Fest 2? Did this 2nd convention meet your own expectations, and what was the response from those who attended?
It was a great success and a lot of hard work. (That is no coincidence.) It was bigger and better than the last one, and having Iain McCaig give a masterclass on the day really made the event something extraordinary.
Following the first Fighting Fantasy Fest back in 2014, I asked those who had attended for some feedback. They raised three things, the lack of space, the lack of time to game and socialize, and the lack of variety/high cost of food available at the venue. I am pleased to say that we fixed all of those problems this time, thanks to a change of venue and by lengthening the day quite considerably.
A key announcement at FFF2 was that Charlie Higson will be writing a new Fighting Fantasy gamebook for Scholastic in 2018 – and that you will be working with him in an advisory role. Are you simply imparting expert knowledge about FF history, rules etc, or more broadly providing guidance for an author unacquainted with gamebook structure and writing style?
Both. I helped Charlie choose the setting for the adventure, developing a few areas of Titan that haven’t been visited in gamebooks before, and I am helping to balance the mechanics of the gameplay. I am also his first reader, so when he has completed part of the adventure, he sends it to me for checking. I then make sure there aren’t any recursive loops, continuity issues, and the like, and give it a copy-edit before sending it back to him.
As of writing, the first draft of the adventure is complete but we are just checking the structure before heading into draft two.
I know that some people wondered whether I would actually write the adventure based on Charlie’s notes, with him polishing the text to give it that Higson feel, but I can confirm that The Gates of Death is all Charlie’s own work – and it’s awesome!
Fighting Fantasy fans have regularly described your early books as challenging, often ridiculously hard, and sometimes unfair. Your adventures have changed over time and now seem to provide more entertainment, less frustration, and don’t rely on the old ‘one true path’ approach. Was this shift the natural evolution of a gamebook writer/creator or a direct response to feedback?
I suppose both. In the early days I was trying to beat the cheats, people like myself who no longer bothered rolling the dice and won every battle. However, in the arrogance of youth, I forgot the most important thing – people pick up these books to have fun. If you make it too hard/unfair, you take all the fun out of the experience. If people want to cheat, that’s up to them – maybe they’re enjoying the story so much they just have to find out what happens next – but as the gamebook’s author and designer, you have to write it for the person who intends to play fairly, following the rules as set out in the book.
The loss of the ‘one true path’ approach comes from computer games; when you finish a game you can still get hours of enjoyment from it exploring the world or completing other quests set within it. I now write my gamebooks so that they include a fair bit of re-playability.
You Are The Hero: Part 2 is now complete and available. Was there another race to the finish to deliver this book in time?
Yes! It has never been so tight! The Kickstarter funded on 1st April, I delivered the manuscript to the publisher on 21st July and the finished books were delivered to me at 5:00pm on Friday 1st September, the evening before Fighting Fantasy Fest 2, ready for some backers to collect on Saturday 2nd September.
I don’t intend to do that again! But what you intend and what actually ends up happening are often not the same thing…
You must be pleased that the inclusion of Andi Ewington’s interview in YOU ARE THE HERO: Part 1 directly resulted in funding being found for his Freeway Fighter comic. Did you enjoy your role on the project?
I did. I was amazed that the comic book was effectively made possible by my book, and I enjoyed editing the comic and would love to do something like that again.
Don’t forget to support Jon’s Kickstarter for NEVERLAND – Here Be Monsters! There are plenty of unique Add-ons to pledge for in addition to your copy of the gamebook, including: themed dice, dice bag and playing cards; exclusive T-shirt design; and a cloth-printed map of the island. The campaign ends 2nd December.