I’m thrilled to bring you this Q&A with Marcus Sedgwick, to celebrate the release of his new book The Ghosts of Heaven, which was published on October 2nd by Indigo Books, in a stunning hardback edition. My beautiful copy arrived on Monday and I’m really looking forward to reading it, but in the meantime, here’s Marcus to tell you a bit about the book’s key themes, spirals and destiny, as well as the way it’s written, as four interlocking stories…
When you are writing, do you find certain stories or themes are haunting you like ghosts you or spiralling through your writing? Why do you think that might be?
Many writers have consistent tropes that they return to again and again, sometimes conspicuously and other times less so. As much as I try and write a different book each time I write, there are a few things that come up with me time and again, and it would be very accurate to describe this as a spiral process; because although it might feel like a circular thing to come back to the same theme, it never can be; in some way you will have moved on and so even though you might address the same story again, you will probably do it a little bit differently, because of who you now are.
Why has it been so important to emphasise that the four stories in Ghosts of Heaven can be read in any order, even though they’ll be printed in a certain order in the book?
It’s not vitally important to the enjoyment of the book; but I enjoyed creating a story that could be read in a number of different ways. Each reading provides a subtly different flavour to the book, and some readings can provide explanations that contradict others. The order in the physical book is the one I like best, but I think others have something to say too, and alter the meaning of the book. Which I like because it’s more interesting when a book has multiple possible meanings.
When you’re dealing with the idea of destiny, that the end is already decided, how do you keep a such a sense of tension in your stories for your readers?
Tension is one thing; suspense and surprise are two more. All three have their place in writing but are different, though interrelated, concepts. If, by one definition of tension, you mean how do you keep a reader reading when the ending is decided, then I would say this: firstly, you might only let your readers think they know the destination, but actually be taking them somewhere else. This is the same way that a stage illusionist works, and it’s called misdirection. But there is something else: suspense is not what people often think it is; not knowing where a story is going. Suspense is when the reader DOES know what is happening, and the drama is provided by the tension between what the reader knows that the protagonists may not. And surprise is something else again; when the reader doesn’t know something until it emerges suddenly. The interplay between different concepts like these is how we try to generate the desire in the reader to keep reading.
My favourite spiral when I was little was the spiral staircase in a medieval castle – I learned it spiralled a certain way so the knights defending could swing their swords at the attackers, which I thought was so clever. What is your favourite spiral, and why?
Yes, most spiral staircases in castles spiral so that a right handed defend can wield their sword more freely going down, than the right handed attacker coming up. I have lots of favourite spirals, having spent so long thinking about them; I think my favourite of all would be the spiral staircase in The Octagon, a converted former insane asylum on Roosevelt Island, New York City.
A huge thank you to Marcus for answering those four questions, to accompany the four stories within The Ghosts of Heaven, which is out now.
Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on the book; thank you to Nina at Indigo for kindly sending me a copy, which arrived on my birthday.