James Harris – Q&A

Steve May
Steve May
Hi! I’m James. I write funny books for kids. I am a writer, filmmaker, performer, pole-vaulter, wizard and exaggerator and I live in Middlesbrough.

I only went and won the New Writing North and Hachette Children’s Novel Award for my first book The Unbelievable Biscuit Factory! I know! I’m as surprised as you, but here we are.

I love comedy. I’ve spent my time making silly short films, comedy sketches and animations, sometimes just for fun, sometimes for places like the BBC and Channel 4. I’ve also run comedy nights in Middlesbrough, and I often perform live comedy with my friends. I can’t stop. I’ve tried.

I am a mentor and workshop leader for Writers’ Block North East, a Teesside creative writing and development service.

My super powers include time travel (forwards), making the most excellent mashed potato and inventing new words like an absolute blambletruff.

James can be found at:
Website: www.theunbelievablejamesharris.com
Twitter: @James_D_Harris
Newsletter: pencilbooth.com/theunbelievablejamesharris

Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?

I’ve been writing silly, funny bits and bobs for a few years now, mostly for my own amusement – I wrote short films, sketches, stand up comedy, I made my own zine, I did a bit of writing for Shooting Stars. I carried on doing all that for a lot longer than most people would think was healthy. Eventually my partner suggested that I give writing a children’s book a go. I say “suggested”… it was more of a demand if I’m honest. So I thought I’d better give it a go. I was 47 when I started, so I had a lifetime’s worth of ideas about what I’d like to see in a children’s book – anarchy, silliness, monsters, explosions, fun, heart, dinosaurs, loud music, science, flying surfboards etc. I threw it all in, and even though I had to take the dinosaurs out I’m very proud of it.

What came first the characters or the world?

I always think of the mad situation or “what if” first. In the case of The Unbelievable Biscuit Factory the “what if” was “what if there was a Stranger Things-style science lab opening holes in reality near a British town, and what if monsters kept coming out of those holes, and those monsters were making life very difficult for everyone. And what if everyone KNEW exactly what was happening but chose to ignore it?” (I’ll admit that climate change and Brexit were playing on my mind at the time.) Once I had that idea it was a case of asking “who would be the best/worst person to have to sort this problem out” and that’s how bolshie, overconfident punk guitarist Haddie arrived in my brain.

How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?

It was weirdly easy, just because I submitted it to the first New Writing North Hachette children’s novel award in 2019, and it won, and the prize was to get published, so I avoided most of the hurdles that usually stand between an author and their first publication. I was very, very lucky, especially when you consider I’d submitted the same book to the Northern Writers Awards the previous year and got nowhere.

How long did it take to write?

From first chapter to final draft, I’d say it took 2 years.

Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?

I love having music on in the background when I’m writing but I don’t have a set playlist. The Go! Team were on a lot while writing TUBF – fun, dancey, summery, poptimistic throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it music. It seemed to fit the mood I was going for.

How many publishers turned you down?

A lot of agents said “no thank you” before I won the award. And a lot more said “no thank you” afterwards. The general gist of the rejections was “I can see what you’re doing, and you seem to be doing it well, but I haven’t a clue what I’d do with it.” Can’t argue with that, really.

What kind of reactions have you had to your book?

Generally good. The word “bonkers” is used a lot. It’s the best feeling to meet a reader who’s loved reading a book you’ve written.

What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?

I think the best reaction was the girl who dressed up as one of the orange monsters to go to school. Her mum sent me a photo. It wasn’t World Book Day or anything. She seemed like my kind of reader.

What can you tell us about your next book?

I have a picture book coming out next year. It’s a fun story about the power of play and creativity (just like all my books so far) and I have seen some roughs of the art and it is going to be lush.

Do you take notice of online reviews?

I do! I can’t get enough of them. I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had a scathing review yet. My favourite was a lady who basically said she’d tried, she’d really tried to read it but it just wasn’t for her and she’d had to give up. I felt for her. My stuff is not for everyone!

Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?

I would like to try a straight-up horror. I think horror and comedy are very close relations – you can’t fake ‘em. You know when you find something funny, and you know when you find something scary. You’re going for a primal, visceral reaction, and I enjoy that challenge.

What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?

I have done all sorts, but nothing you’d really call a job job. For the last 20 years it’s mostly been based around the things I love – creative stuff – theatre in education, drama teaching, writing workshops, filmmaking, drama-based training.

Which author(s) inspire you?

For the sort of things I write the touchstones have got to be Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Funny, crazy, weird and exciting. I do try to aim more for Pratchett’s kindness over Adams’ cynicism. I’ll never be as good as either of them, but you might as well aim for the stars. Having said that, when I was writing TUBF I was reading a lot of David Peace (super-hard-boiled crime dramas) and I found my sentences getting shorter and more rhythmic like his, so I take inspiration from anywhere I can get it.

Which genres do you read yourself?

I tend to exclusively read genre books. Sci fi, fantasy, crime, horror. They all deal with the same themes as more literary novels but they have monsters and explosions to sweeten the deal. I like monsters and explosions.

What is your biggest motivator?

It’s the writing itself. The creating, the doing. The fun of it, the challenge of it. Trying to delight and surprise myself. The sense of achievement when you finish something is very rewarding. Creativity keeps life interesting. I was writing, making and performing silly stuff for years before I was published, and hopefully I’ll never stop.

How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?

Not a great deal. I managed to wrangle a guitar onto the cover of The Unbelievable Biscuit Factory, but I figure publishers know how to sell books and I should probably get out of the way when marketing decisions are being made.

Were you a big reader as a child?

I was an avid reader. Books, comics, magazines, the backs of cereal packets… The only things I didn’t like to read were books that people told me I should read. That would put me right off. Still does, really.

What were your favourite childhood books?

I grew up in the 1970s, and the books that have stayed with me are things like the Narnia books by CS Lewis, A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts by Carey Miller, Dr Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts vol 1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Batman from the 30s to the 70s by various, Fascinating Facts by Giles Brandreth

Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?

Drake in Stockton is my current favourite – they are so supportive of authors, always organising events and schools visits, and it’s such a lovely, friendly shop. My all-time favourite is no longer open – Saltburn’s second hand bookshop. I bought so many books there over the years. I still dream about it sometimes.

What books can you not resist buying?

I have zero impulse control when it comes to buying books.

Do you have any rituals when writing?

I used to think I needed a whole day free to do any writing, but recently I’ve learned that if I have half an hour free and somewhere to sit I can write what I need to write that day.

How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?

Oh lordy, an awful lot. Novels, manga, comics. Loads of em. I’ll get round to them, I swear.

What is your current or latest read?

I’ve started to work my way through the Jack Reacher books. They are really well written, and sometimes you just want to read about a big man kicking baddies in the face. It’s cathartic.

Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?

All of them. As long as they have monsters and/or explosions, I’m in.

Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?

I’m working on getting a very silly chapter book into publisher’s hands this year, and hopefully another picture book or two. We’ll see how it goes!

Any events in the near future?

I’m appearing at York Literary Festival in March.

and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?

If “monsters and explosions” is a genre, and it definitely is, then what other genre could I write? What other genre would I want to write?

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