Click on any headline to view the full article...

A Conversation with Toby Frost

Ten Thousand Cheers for the Internet!  Now when we find new authors whose books we enjoy, we needn't just sit patiently waiting for them to write the next one: oh no, we track them down on Facebook and bombard them with impertinent questions*.  By way of example, Philip Reeve has been talking to Toby Frost, author of the Space Captain Smith series of sci-fi comedies.

*Not that I mind if you want to track me down on Facebook - in fact, I encourage it. PR.. 

PR:  Since my own books are marketed to children, and half the people reading this may be school librarians, I ought to kick off by pointing out that the Space Captain Smith series aren't childrens books; they contain sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and also a great many references and in-jokes which will probably whip straight over the heads of the Youth of Today.  I noticed nods to dozens of influences I remember from my own teenage years, from Blade Runner and Alien to Kate Bush, Kenneth Williams and JG Ballard (and what a supergroup they would have made!) I think I even spotted a line from Excalibur.  Can I take it that you did your growing up in the seventies and eighties too? 

TF: Yes, I was born in the late seventies, so that’s where a lot of the references come from. Good work spotting Excalibur, by the way. I love that film. 

PR:  I think I owe my whole career to it: it led me to all the other versions of King Arthur, to Tennyson and Eliot, the Pre-Raphaelites, the symbolists - it's what I had instead of university!  I saw it so many times when it was released that I think the whole screenplay is engraved line-for-line on my memory.   Anyway, how did you come to write Space Captain Smith?

TF:  Smith wasn’t my first novel, but it’s the first I got published. It was actually a diversion I wrote while writing some longer stories (serious ones!) set in a fantasy world inspired by Leonardo’s drawings, a sort of clockwork Renaissance. One day I happened to be talking to a friend who was reading HG Wells. We got joking about the idea of Victorians conquering the moon and demanding gin from its baffled inhabitants, and it all went (downhill) from there. Smith slowly changed from a set of sketches to a full novel, and then I had this idea about tea... Finding a publisher is, unless you’re immensely lucky and writing about vampires, very difficult. I actually sent my manuscript to Myrmidon, my publishers, before I entered a competition in The Telegraph to send in the first 1000 words of a novel. I got to the last 50 entries, which helped my application to Myrmidon very much. Basically, anything you can point to that shows you know your stuff helps. How did you get published?

PR:  A similar process, I suppose.  I tinkered around with various versions of Mortal Engines all through the 1990s, and sent it off to lots of literary agents who weren't remotely interested.  Then I showed it to Scholastic, for whom I'd done some illustration work. One of their editors, Liz Cross, liked it, and encouraged me to re-write it as a children's novel.  Were there any other writers who were particular influences on the development of your style?

TF:  Whenever people ask me about my comedic influences I tend to mention George Orwell and Raymond Chandler. Perhaps not the best joke-tellers, but they both perfected the difficult trick of saying very intelligent things in an unaffected way that packs all the more weight for its simplicity (actually, now I think about it, their styles both get parodied in the novels, along with H P Lovecraft).  I’ve always liked comedy that can say stupid things cleverly, or be clever about stupid things, and I always think Blackadder is a great example of that. There’s one episode where they’re being pursued by a mad bishop who wields a red-hot poker, and suddenly Percy starts to quote Richard II by Shakespeare. Then Blackadder childishly insults him and makes a joke about poo. Great stuff!

PR: Personally, I have a slight aversion to double entendres and blue jokes.  I think it goes back to my early teens when the only TV in the house was in the living room and I had to endure the awful frosty disapproval of my mum if I was watching Not The Nine O'Clock News or Kenny Everett and they got a bit risqué.  I'm sensing you have no such qualms?

TF: As far as jokes are concerned I’ve cut about two out of my drafts for being too vulgar and tasteless (and a fair few more for being too rubbish). I didn’t consider child-friendliness when I wrote the novels: I always saw them as 12+ in terms of cinema ratings, and probably 13-15 or so reading-age wise. But it depends how you define bad taste: vulgarity of the farts-and-burping sort doesn’t both me too much, where as mocking the afflicted is cheap. For all their crassness, cowardice, promiscuity and homicidal mania, the main characters are a pretty decent bunch. When it comes down to it, they’re alright. Even Carveth isn’t really cowardly – she’s just sane. Not that I’d hold them up as role models as such...

PR:  Most 'Steampunk' books which deal with the British Empire seem to do so in order to denounce it, but your books seem more Ealing Comedy than Steampunk, and your future British Space Empire is basically benign, championing freedom and the common man against totalitarian foes.  It's also full of odd little affectionate details of British life like Airfix kits and branches of Debenhams.   Do you hanker for a return to decency, tea-drinking and stiff upper lips? 

TF: As regards the (First!) British Empire, and its portrayal, I agree that it inevitably casts a long shadow. I really had a choice as to whether to make the Imperialists evil and callous or just a bit silly, and I felt that the former had been done to death and would make the books too sour to be the jolly, Biggles-style adventures that they are. Also I think it’s more interesting to talk about imperialists who sincerely believe they are doing good: that attitude permeates the space empire, even down to the fact that Smith’s huge revolver is called a Civiliser. That to me is far more interesting than a simple “Empires are evil” statement – and has more potential for comedy. Of course, it helps that the Ghasts and Yull are infinitely worse than the people they want to replace. Pretty much anything is better than being ruled by (ie murdered by) Number 1 or the Greater Galactic Happiness and Friendship Collective. And anyway, you can’t really rule people like Suruk with a rod of iron. They’d just take it off you and bash you with it.

Do I hanker for a return for tea, decency and stiff upper lips? Yes, although not a literal return with everything that entails . Although the past has always been worse than the present for almost everyone, it’s hard not to feel that something hasn’t been lost along the way – an idea of how we ought to be more than something we actually were. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t indulge ourselves too much in public, or that we put up with too much nonsense from people who like sounding off (unlike this particular rant. I’m much less of a reactionary than I probably sound). Anyway, I think there is something quite distinct about being British, a positive set of values beyond just a rather woolly sense of tolerance. I’ve certainly heard steampunks talk about trying to reclaim those values, chief among them politeness. Good on them!

I think one of the main problems with steampunk is that it can actually be difficult to find new things to say. If you’re not careful, you can end up shuffling a very small pack of cards until it all feels a bit like Cluedo: this time round it’s Charles Babbage versus Captain Nemo, and on the next shuffle, Holmes and Grace Darling will be fighting the Martians (both of which I’d happily read. Especially the latter). I like steampunk very much, but I think it needs to be approached carefully to avoid being defined out of existence. It’s actually one of the things I like most about Mortal Engines: although the setting is totally original, that crucial steampunk sense of home-made, one-off technology is still there.

PR:  Ooh, I'd definitely read the Grace Darling one: I had quite a major crush on her when I was about seven ( they did her life story on Blue Peter).  And I know exactly what you mean about Steampunk - although actually it seems to have become such a vague term that I don't really think it means much any more.  I was relieved at how un-steampunk Smith is.  I also thought the characters were unusually well-rounded for a comic novel.  Where did Smith, Carveth, and Suruk the Slayer spring from?

TF:  I always wanted the Smith books to be properly worked-out: that the world, however bizarre, would have its own logic and wouldn’t be just slapstick. While I like all the jokes, of course, I also intended the stories to stand as novels in their own right. I think that’s why I tried to make the characters rounded, and also why there is actual death. I also think it gives the stories a bit more weight. The main characters are in part parodies of stereotypes (explorer, noble warrior etc) and are foils for one another, but I always wanted them to be more developed than that. Sending them on adventures with each other makes them round each other out, too. Strange as it sounds, given that he’s a headhunting, war-obsessed alien monster, I wanted Suruk’s homecoming in Didcot to be a little poignant as well as absurd. In a funny way you find you owe it to your characters. (Please tell me I’m not alone in this!)

PR: I don't think you are!  Suruk is an utterly likeable character, despite the whole head-hunting alien monster thing.  And I found the friendship between him and Smith (and him and Carveth, in a way) to be oddly touching.  I think that's what makes the books, for me, ultimately more satisfying than things like Blackadder, where all the characters are basically villains or idiots.  They are also war stories, and despite all the comedy there is a very convincing sense of danger in the combat scenes  - Carveth's fear at going into battle is very well portrayed.  Do you have a 'serious' adventure story waiting to be written?

TF: I do have a serious novel: it’s an almost complete redraft of the clockwork Renaissance story, and I’m very proud of it. Basically, it’s a revenge drama about a woman returning to a city to kill a gangster who left her for dead. However, the gangster is now a wealthy merchant, and things become more complicated as, in her quest for revenge, the heroine is drawn into the efforts of various feuding nobles to seize the throne and ends up almost as a power in her own right. I loved writing it, but it’s proved hard to find a publisher as yet. It’s got the makings of a trilogy, but I’ll clear the first hurdle of getting the first story published before anything like that!

PR:  Good luck, and thanks very much for doing this interview!

You can find more about Toby and his books at

1 comment:

steviefinegan said...

Love Toby Frost's works. Really hope to see his serious piece some day. Honestly though, I think I'd give anything ago if it just had his name on the front!

Post a Comment