Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of
Jacob Sager Weinstein’s debut novel The City of Secret Rivers was edited by Gill Evans for Walker Books. The judges found it ‘clever, funny and well controlled; ‘hugely inventive’; ‘a joyful caper’.
Can you tell us about the inspiration for The City of Secret Rivers?
One day when I was taking a walk along Embankment, I found myself marveling at how much artistry the Victorians poured into something they built just to house a sewer pipe. I wondered: what if the sewer project was just a cover story for something else? Something that was as magical as the Embankment felt to me? I went home and researched the real-life story behind London’s plumbing. When I learned that there used to be numerous rivers running through the city, and that they now flow through sewer pipes underground, I had my answer. Obviously, those rivers were powerful magical forces, and they had to be buried to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. What other explanation could there be? Once I figured that out, it was a short and entirely logical step to magical underground cathedrals and a giant pig in a bathing suit.
As a debut children’s book author, what was the thing you found most hard to get right?
The narrative voice. I wrote my first draft in an arch, Lemony Snicket-esque third person voice. When I gave it to some kids to read, they got bored after a few chapters. It turns out that you can’t pull off Lemony Snicket if you aren't Lemony Snicket! So I rewrote every single sentence in a new first-person voice. Instead of trying to imitate somebody else’s style, I let Hyacinth speak for herself. That was when it stopped being bad Lemony Snicket, and started being decent Jacob Sager Weinstein. (It took several more drafts to move it from “decent” to “good”.)
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and what do you think was the most important suggestion or piece of advice that Gill gave you?
After years of writing, rewriting, and rejection, the best part of the editorial process was just knowing that somebody believed in my book. Imposter syndrome is a major job hazard for authors, and I have to fight a Groucho-esque urge to doubt the sanity of any editor who is willing to acquire my work. But Gill’s knowledge of children’s books is beyond dispute. If she thought British kids were going to enjoy my book, I believed her.
On a much more fine-grained level, I also relied heavily on Gill’s ear for British speech. In The City of Secret Rivers,·a group of magical scavengers called “Toshers” have been living underground for generations. I wanted them to have evolved their own distinctive speech— but in my attempt to create an English dialect that almost-but-not-quite belonged to London, I ended up straying into Dick Van Dyke territory. Gill rolled up her sleeves and dived into the nuts and bolts of phrasing and pronunciation. Fantasy worlds live or die on the strength of hundreds of details, and a good editor doesn’t let any of them slip by.
What most excited you about Jacob’s manuscript when you first read it?
There is an immediate lightness and humour in Jacob’s writing and although when the book opens he is writing about a terrible smell from sewerage in Victorian times, not an obviously attractive topic, he establishes Hyacinth’s character as a lovely blend of cynical and receptive. The reader is immediately prepared to join Hyacinth’s journey to discover the truth behind the lies she realises she has been told, both by her mother and by history. Here is an interesting resourceful girl arriving in a city crammed with amazing history being plunged into an extraordinary story.· Let’s go!
Within a very few pages the story has become surreal and hilarious and by the end of chapter three I was howling at the brilliantly funny scene where Hyacinth has released a drop of magical tap water which becomes personified as it is pursued by Hyacinth. ·
“Then the drop turned back the other way, as if it were looking at the wall.
I followed its gaze (or, at least, where its gaze would be, if it weren’t a drop of water). It was looking at a crack in the wall…. We stood there for a moment, the drop of water and I. And then we both leapt at once.”
There was something very assured about the beginning of this big adventure, above all humour, but action and skilful story telling about a resourceful protagonist who could really meet all adversity and the demands of an extraordinary range of characters good and bad. It felt like some of the best stories can, with its uncomplicated message, inviting the reader to join the protagonist on this wild and very tangible adventure as equals and unencumbered by adults or other real-life considerations.
On a personal level, beyond the good writing I was very strongly drawn to a story which uses and subverts London’s history so inventively and creatively. It was clear that Jacob had embraced and loved many of the quirkier aspects of London’s history and they had inspired him. I enjoy many of these detail myself, but especially in a book for younger readers it feels that this approach opens up a whole world of realisation that what came before is worth discovering, it can be fascinating and frequently bonkers and very often much stranger than anything invented. It felt like a book that could leave its readers looking at the world with a new sense of questioning and understanding.
What were the aspects that you worked on most when editing it?
Sharing Jacob’s love and knowledge of London history was a pleasure beyond that of normal editing. We had many conversations about obscure underground discoveries and we continue to exchange tidbits of obscure information about stones and holes in the ground! Our most detailed editorial conversations were about his creative Cockney language and his phonetic rendering of the toshers’ speech. I remember asking him not to go ‘all Dick Van Dyke’ on me at some point. Jacob planned to use a phrase ‘doing the Lambeth walk’ which wouldn’t have worked for readers who knew it to be a dance so we agreed on ‘glasshousing’ which gave me an excuse to send him pictures of the roadsign by my work. Otherwise the main editorial task was to keep the grand action scenes to manageable proportions, Jacob works on an epic level!
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
With so many brilliant action scenes, near misses, narrow scrapes and grand chases it is quite a task to select one favourite scene.· But I’ll go for the small exquisite detail which is Jacob’s hallmark. Oaroboarus is great favourite, such a surreal character and the use of his elegantly printed speaking cards feels so inspired. I enjoy all scenes which involve him but on pages 212- 213 Hyacinth questions how it is possible for him to have a card with the right words for absolutely every occasion and she asks ‘What if the Queen of England spilled peanut butter on your pet electric eel?’.· The three cards which he then produces always make me laugh aloud when I read them -·
Fear not, your Majesty
Does NOT have a nut allergy.
Thanks to Jacob and Gill for answering our questions.