Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of Cogheart
Peter Bunzl’s debut Cogheart was edited by Rebecca Hill of Usborne. The judges said of it: ‘what he does with the ideas is really good and the world-building is excellent’; ‘children reading this will feel inspired’; ‘imaginative and fun, it would make a great film’.
Have you always wanted to write for children?
I've always written and I always wanted to tell stories for children, but I only recently became a children's author. Before that I worked for ten years in the animation industry on various projects, and wrote and directed my own short films on the side. My scripts often featured child protagonists, so to me it didn’t feel a great leap from that to writing children fiction.
What gave you the idea for Cogheart?
Cogheart was inspired by reading stories about automatons - which were clockwork robots created in the 18th and 19th century. The clockmaker who created them tried to make them as life-like and complex as possible, utilising only the simple technology they had. That intrigued me because it brings up questions about what makes us human, and whether that spark of life could ever exist inside a machine.
You write films as well as children’s books, how did that help with Cogheart, and what are the main differences between the two types of writing?
Making films helped give my writing a cinematic flavour and taught me how to structure stories with economy. There’s a grammar in film in the way you arrange sequences and shots that’s similar to the way you combine clauses and sentences in fiction. Rhythm, point of view, focus, framing, those things bridge both mediums. But the main difference is that screenwriting can be quite technical because you have to think about what's possible within the confines of a film's budget and schedule. With fiction anything goes because you don't have to worry about those constraints. And fiction is great at evoking the senses; you can suggest taste, texture, smell, sight, sound, a mess of thoughts, or a flood of feelings. Film is limited to sound and vision, though I miss the music and movement it can add to a story.
What was it like working with Rebecca on your book? What was the best piece of advice she gave you?
I love Rebecca’s warmth and enthusiasm for great children’s writing. It’s fantastic to have someone who’s so supportive of my creative process, and whose insightful and emotionally intelligent suggestions enhance my·stories. When it comes to Robert, Lily and Malkin I know she cares for them just as much as I do; and gets just as excited about their each new adventure! Her best advice is; no matter how big the narrative gets make sure there’s a personal story at the heart of it. That can be hard to do sometimes, but I think she’s right in that it makes for the most rewarding books.
What’s your favourite scene in Cogheart, or which element of the book are you most proud of?
The scene I’m most proud of is where Robert and his Da are repairing Malkin after he's been injured. At the same time they’re discussing whether it would be possible for a mechanical to have a soul. The dialogue for that scene came to me quite late in the writing process, but I think it really touches on one of the main themes of the story in an exciting and intriguing way.
Do you have a piece of advice for first time writers?
I would say write the story you’re most in love with. Try and write a little every day. Finish your draft, then rewrite and rewrite. Get feedback from writer friends or a crit group; and when you’re finally ready and you know your manuscript’s as good as it can be, send it out to agents and editors. Realise that you will get rejections – that’s part of the process. There may even be many, but you can learn from your feedback to make the manuscript stronger. In the end you only need one yes, but you won’t get it unless you’re prepared to travel the whole rocky road to publication!
What made you most excited about Peter’s writing when you first read the manuscript of·Cogheart?
I found Peter’s inventive use of language and the musicality of his writing hugely exciting.·The distinctive jargon of his mechanicals, for instance, creates vibrant characters with a cadence all of their own.·
There is a brilliantly cinematic feel to Peter’s writing too. He crams in breathtaking descriptions which allow the reader to fly high with his soaring storyline and experience at breakneck pace the thrills and spills of this exhilarating adventure.·
What were the main elements you worked on editorially with Peter to help him make his book even better?
Peter is a hugely imaginative writer and to make his story shine even brighter we looked at which strands and information to leave off the page, to ensure readers weren’t overburdened but instead satisfied and rewarded.·
Another key area we developed was·deepening the highs and lows and showing the light and shade in the emotions of Peter’s characters, both to fully utilize the astonishing plot, and to play out the consequences so readers could experience it every step of the way.
What is your favourite scene and why?
The reveal of the Cogheart! As a narrative device, it is quite simply a heart-stopping moment.·To see our main character thrust into peril, to learn she is unique, to at once understand the book’s title, it is truly the stuff of great storytelling.·I also loved how this device gently leads·the reader to ask some deeply philosophical questions.·
Thanks to Peter and Rebecca for answering our questions.