Jenni Spangler writes children's books with a magical twist and her new book, The Incredible Talking Machine, has plenty of mystery and unexpected twists.
Jenni was elected for the first year of the 'Write Mentor' scheme and lives in Staffordshire with her husband and two children. She loves old photographs, picture books and tea, but is wary of manhole covers following an unfortunate incident.
The Incredible Talking Machine (Simon & Schuster Children's Books)
Jenni Spangler's debut, The Vanishing Trick, received a lot of attention and she is back with The Incredible Talking Machine, a spooky gothic mystery about a haunted theatre and a peculiar invention. She tells us more about it!
1. Can you tell us a little about your new book, The Incredible Talking Machine?
Paranoid Professor Faber arrives at Manchester's Theatre Royale to show off his invention - a machine which speaks with a human voice. But 12-year-old stagehand Tig realises it doesn't just speak, it predicts the future. She's the only one who can stop those dreadful predictions coming true before her beloved theatre - and everyone in it - is destroyed. It's set in 1849. There's secret passages, a sneaky villain, a loyal best friend and a ghost. All my favourite things.
2. Can you share a line or two from The Incredible Talking Machine that will give us a good idea of what to expect?
"And it has pockets!" Tig always had a hundred things to carry around - tools and chalk and string and a tinder box, ready for whatever job she might need to do next. She slipped her hands inside to see how big they were.
There was something inside the right one. Something round, cool and smooth to the touch, like a new marble. She drew it out and held it up to the light. It was white, with a nutmeg brown ring and a black spot. It wasn't a marble.
"What's that?" said Nelson.
"It's an eye." Her heart gave an almighty thud at the realisation. A one-eyed ghost had given her a coat with a glass eye in the pocket.
3. Did anything in real life help inspire the story?
A lot of my inspiration comes from real places and events - in this case, the Manchester theatres and the real Professor Faber and his talking machine. I was really taken with the descriptions of Faber as being a genius but also obsessive and haunted, so I set out to imagine what might make him that way.
4. What would you have made of Faber's original Euphonia?
I think I would have loved it. I've always been a fan of anything a little bit off-beat and creepy so I'd be in the front row.
5. What draws you to the Dickensian settings we see in The Incredible Talking Machine and your earlier book, The Vanishing Trick?
I grew up in Manchester and now I live in Stoke on Trent, both big manufacturing cities during the industrial revolution, so there's reminders of that history everywhere - the buildings, the street names, the statues etc. I think it seeps into your brain without you knowing it.
Scrappy Victorian kids also make great heroes - they were tough, they were survivors, they had to work and find their own way in the world at a young age. Self-reliance and danger are built into their world already, which is what I'm always looking for in a children's book - young characters with enough agency to face serious peril.
6. How much research did you need to do into aspects like the mills that feature in the story and the conditions for children working in them?
The mill life is not that distant from where we are now. Two of my grandparents worked in cotton mills. So although it does take research, it's close enough in history that we have lots of surviving first-hand accounts, advertisements, articles - even the mill buildings themselves. Researching feels a bit like rummaging through a dusty old attic for treasures. There's material everywhere, the hard part is not getting side tracked by interesting facts and trying to squeeze in too much information.
7. Your books also have magical or supernatural elements, why do you like to include these in your stories?
Because it's fun! As a kid I always loved the idea that maybe - maybe - there was magic out there and with a bit of luck/misfortune, any normal person could stumble into it. So I'm always trying to create that feeling of a real time and place with an undercurrent of magic waiting to be discovered.
8. In your new book, we meet a ghost, Cold Annie (*shivers*). What inspired her and have you ever seen a ghost yourself? What would you do if you did?
I've never seen a ghost. I'd love to! But I don't believe they exist. I've always loved ghost stories since I was very small. I hope that if I saw one I'd be brave, curious and a bit sceptical. But who knows - maybe I'd be hiding under the blankets waiting for someone to rescue me.
9. We learn a lot about working in theatre in this book - is this something you've done yourself? Would you choose the life of an actor if you could?
Not professionally, but I was in various drama groups, theatre classes, am dram etc from about age 5 so it's somewhere I always feel at home. It's such a gift as a story setting, since theatres are already places where the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. It's late nights and shadowy corners and clever tricks so it really does feel possible that you might encounter a ghost when the lights go out.
10. Do you have a favourite moment in the story?
The best bits to write were the scenes between Tig and Faber, because they're both very stubborn and annoy each other, but they also need each other. Faber is used to people tip-toeing around his moods, and Tig is having none of that. Great fun.
11. Chris Mould's illustrations are fabulous - did you always want to have the book illustrated?
Does anyone ever say no to that?? Of course - I'd have my tax returns illustrated if I could!
12. Are you planning to follow up on Tig's adventures?
For now, it's a standalone, but who knows in the future? I wouldn't rule it out.
13. Do you have any amazing hobbies or secret talents that you practice when you're not writing?
I have a terrible habit of changing hobbies every six weeks. I think I just really enjoy the beginner phase when it's all new and there's so much to learn and experiment with. My most recent one has been pen and ink lettering. I'm not very coordinated so it's been quite messy.