Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Bestselling author John Connolly talks about writing for teenagers.
John Connolly is best known as an adult crime writer with series like the Charlie Parker books to his name. More recently, however, Connolly has turned his hand to writing for teenagers and his second book for this age group, Hells' Bells, has just been published by Hodder & Stoughton.
John Connolly's series began with The Gates, in which the hero Samuel Johnson saves Earth from being invaded by creatures from Hell after his neighbours inadvertently open the gates to the Underworld.
In this sequel, Hell's Bells, Samuel is now 12 and he and his faithful dog Boswell once again find their paths crossing with Hell as they are dragged (along with a couple of coppers, an icecream van and a handful of bad-tempered dwarfs) into the Underworld. His challenge in this story is to escape from the ensuing civil war that breaks out in Hell, preferably with his friends, and his life, intact. You won't need to have read the first book to enjoy the second.
Connolly had had the original idea of opening the gates of Hell some time ago but having a teenage boy in the house finally inspired him to start writing it. However, he still lacked a driving mechanism for the plot and it was science that provided the answer.
Connolly admits to "not being very good" at science as a child, which has always annoyed him. Because of that, he says, "I ended up studying physics and started reading writers like John Gibbons and others about parallel worlds and scientific developments, such as the Hadron Collider."
In the end, his extra-curricular reading about the Hadron Collider provided the missing plot devise as he uses the Collider to power a portal between Earth and Hell. Connolly says, "There was a lot of debate before they switched on the Hadron Collider about whether it could cause the end of the world by creating a miniature black hold, or turn Earth into a dead planet the size of an orange. There were loads of theories but when they eventually did turn it on, nothing happened.
"Still, I liked the idea of scientists doing something and not being entirely sure what would happen. If you told kids there was a danger the Earth would disappear if you touched that button, they wouldn't to near it but the scientists just said, 'Oh well, let's do it anyway'. So when grownups say something is okay - it might not be!"
Scattered throughout the book is a series of footnotes that cover everything from explanations of eternity and colour to rather less serious notes about brewing and the meaning of truculent. You don't have to read them to follow the story but they do inject humour and interest.
Connolly was inspired to write the footnotes by his son, he says. "Children read differently from adults and what they are prepared to take on is different. One of my sons liked to read things that were in boxes, the 'How Things Work' approach, so I decided I'd also use footnotes to give extra information about things I mention in the story. That way they don't distract from the story. The narrative voice for the footnotes is slightly different, slightly more sarcastic; someone who is letting you in on the joke but not talking down to you."
He adds, "As adults, we are very protective of children, of their reading material, what they watch on television, what they do, but kids want to know more about the world. I am very conscious of treating the reader as a young adult, someone who wants to know more about the world and who is curious and likes being challenged by other ideas."
The footnotes are used to tackle some complex ideas about time travel and the science behind the Hadron Collider, for example. Connolly admits it was difficult trying to explain this in a footnote, and adds, "The theories of the universe keep changing - I expect that in ten years time, people will consider our thoughts on it today as quaint."
He adds, "I particularly love the idea of parallel universes; the theory that, if I had decided not to call you today, is another universe where we still do talk. Time is like a little tree with lots of branches branching off. Somewhere in the universe is a 'you' who will not make the mistakes you made – although they might have made others...
The footnotes also provide humour in an otherwise rather gloomy Hell. He says, "I liked the joke about the grandfather and the time machine. Someone asks 'what would happen if I go back in time and kill my grandfather?' And the author responds, 'Well if you're planning on killing your grandfather then you're not going in the time machine!'"
Being allowed to be funny is one of the things he loves about writing for this age group, he adds. "In this book I put an icecream van into Hell. I had asked myself, what's the least likely thing you'll see in a desert? A man driving an icecream van. You can do anything you want, your imagination can run wild in books for young people, as long as it's consistent with the world you've created - and funny."
Connolly also wanted the book to be "a little scary" and to explore some philosophical ideas. "I had read Dante and one of the things he touches on is what happened to the people who were responsible for the Wooden Horse that accessed Troy. Dante consigns them to hell not because of the warfare but because the horse was a deception. Samuel ends up meeting them and having a conversation about their fate with a demon made of sand."
Samuel eventually triumphs in these stories through being clever - a bit like fairy tales, says Connolly. "They are not interested in whether you are good or bad, but in whether you are clever. Part of the pleasure for readers is seeing a character who is your age out-witting people who are much older and cleverer."
While he already knows what the next two books about Samuel will be, the issue is finding the time to write them, he says. "I love writing but it's not easy to write a crime novel every year and I have to balance my children's books with my adult writing. But I'd love to keep watching Samuel growing older and taking on the world!"