Larry Hayes talks about siblings, imagining the future, and a trip to Nasa that helped inspire his new book, How to Survive Without Grown-Ups. When he's not writing, Larry helps run an investment fund, and is a trustee for a homeless charity. Before lockdown, he homeschooled his two kids every Friday, letting them decide what to study. In the future he hopes to become a treasure hunter, invent a yoghurt that makes you happy, and solve the maths behind the human brain.
Katie Abey is an illustrator who lives in a teeny hobbit-like house in Derbyshire with a cat, a hedgehog, a small human and a rainbow-haired husband.
Read a chapter from How to Survive Without Grown-ups
How to Survive Without Grown-Ups (Simon & Schuster Children's Books)
Author Larry Hayes tells us about siblings, imagining the future, and a trip to Nasa that helped inspire his new book, How to Survive Without Grown-Ups (Simon & Schuster Children's Books).
Mum and Dad have left – gone to Mars, and they’re never coming back . . . But this isn’t one of Dad’s weird jokes; it’s real. It’s up to ten-year-old Eliza and her genius little brother, Johnnie, to find out what’s going on, and launch a rescue . . . Can they handle vampire squids, a suspicious villain, a secret island full of traps and a trip into space? And – more importantly – will they ever get their parents back?
Q&A with Larry Hayes
1. What brought you into writing for children? Do you have another job?
I do some other stuff. I help run an investment fund - turning money into (hopefully) more money. And I also help run a charity for helping homeless people get jobs and somewhere to live.
But since I started writing children's books - that's by far the most fun. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a children's author, but somewhere along the way I forgot.
Now I've started writing, I can't seem stop - so it now takes up most of my time and I've written five books and planned out another three series of books. I think I might just be a 10 year-old trapped in the body of a grown-up - so writing books for kids is just the best thing ever.
2. Can you tell us what your new book is about?
How to Survive Without Grown Ups is about a super-anxious kid, Eliza Lemon, who is always worrying about bad stuff happening. And then really bad stuff actually happens when her mum and dad decide to leave home. So she's left in charge of her little brother, Johnnie and their angry dog, Myrt.
The mum and dad have been brainwashed into being the first people to go to Mars. But it's a one way trip, so if Johnnie and Eliza want their family to survive - it's down to them to launch a rescue mission. But dark forces are blocking their path, and the adventure takes them on an impossible, nightmare journey where the only way to survive is by working together and learning to stop being afraid all the time.
It's set in the near future, the year 2053, so we get to see all the tech and gadgets that are going to be invented soon.
3. Was this story of a reclusive billionaire and a space mission at all inspired by some real life billionaires currently planning their missions to Mars?
Yes, without naming names, I met quite a few billionaires when I lived in Silicon Valley, California. And it was inspired by a meeting with one, particular, very famous billionaire who in real life is a bit bonkers. The trouble when you have all the money in the world - is that sometimes the world is not enough. It takes a special personality to become a billionaire, and then having all that money can feel like a huge responsibility and it really does seem to change how people think. Sometimes for the better - sometimes for the worse. The reclusive billionaire in my story is trying to save the planet - he's just going about it in a very bad way.
Billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are doing exactly what I'd do if I had that much money. It looks like Mars will just be the start. With a bit of luck we'll be sending robots out to new star systems by the time today's kids are adults.
Personally, I'd love to set up a moon colony - so we can practice growing plants on alien planets and make new worlds to live on. And once we get a rocket base on the moon then going further gets a lot easier. Because the hardest bit is escaping the Earth's gravity, so with a moon base, you're halfway there.
4. If you were given the chance of a one way trip to Mars, like some of the characters in this story, would you go?
Definitely - if you're ever offered a seat on a rocket, don't ask which one, just get on. Life is either a daring adventure story - or nothing at all. But don't tell my kids, because they might try to rescue me. Or worse, they might not bother.
I recently entered the competition to join Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire on his first spaceflight around the moon. My kids asked me whether there was any chance the rocket might blow up and I had to explain that some things in life are worth that risk. But I'm pretty sure they wrote to him and asked for me to be taken off the list.
5. What were the best things you invented for 2053, the year your book is set ? Is it hard to write about the future when we don't know what it will look like?
I've always been a bit of an amateur futurologist - and I saw some amazing things, when I lived on a NASA research base in Silicon Valley. It gives you a great understanding about the direction the world is going in, because they're working on the tech now that won't be in shops for another 10 to 20 years. Thinking 30 years ahead is trickier, but we can make some really good guesses.
In 2053 we'll have some stunning new tech that will literally blow your mind - blow it up to the size of the internet. We're already linking computers directly into brains - but in the future anyone who doesn't have a "brain implant" risks being left behind. Imagine the "mind power" possibilities - you'll be able to do everything a Jedi can do, and watch YouTube cat (or Minecraft) videos at the same time. But you'll also be able to link up your dog's brain too, so he can actually talk to you. And your cat - but they'll probably be really mean.
It was also fun thinking about what school would be like in the future. Not just how the lessons would work (if the kids' brains are hooked up to the internet they'd know Wikipedia on day 1 of reception), but also the day to day stuff. Like, how will bullies do their bullying stuff when they have all that tech? In the future bullies won't have to flush your head down the loo because they'll be able to hack into the smart toilets and give you a butt flush whenever they want. Wedgies can be done by drone. Surviving school in the future could be seriously tricky. So how will kids defend themselves against bullies? Or mean teachers who can actually see what you're thinking? Or pushy parents who can watch you all day on your school cam? It's creepy stuff.
By the year 2053, today's kids will be parents - so they'll have to figure all this stuff out. Will you put a chip in your baby's brain so they become super clever? Will you genetically change your baby so he's 7 foot tall and really good at basketball? Or will you give them the reactions of a mongoose so they can win every video game ever invented?
6. Siblings Eliza and Johnnie have some crazy adventures during their mission to rescue their parents. What was the most exciting moment to write?
There were so many bits based on my own random adventures over the years - and it was really fun re-living those. Like the time that I thought I was being attacked by dolphins off East Africa but they were actually trying to rescue me up to the surface. And the time I got lost in a jungle in Vietnam but stumbled across a huge mansion, hidden in the middle of the rainforest, and they invited me to dinner.
Possibly my favourite bit to write is when Eliza and Johnnie break into the secret pyramid at the heart of the mystery island and discover its terrible secret. It was inspired by "Hangar One" which belongs to NASA, the space agency. You should google it, a beautiful, massive space-hangar big enough to hide an alien spaceship. It's hidden away on a NASA Research Base in California where I lived for a bit.
When I lived on the research base it was one of the few places that was strictly off limits. Over the months, we got more and more curious about what was hidden inside (Aliens??!), and so on my final night there, a few of us snuck inside to find out. We found a lot of weird stuff that was hard to explain, and if you read How to Survive Without Grown Ups, you'll get some idea what it felt like.
7. Despite the dangers, there is also lots to laugh about during their adventures. What kinds of things make you laugh?
There are loads of funny kids books that I love - Tom Gates, Captain Underpants, Big Nate and anything by David Walliams. They're all funny because they laugh at pompous grown-ups, annoying teenagers, and mean kids, all getting their come uppence.
I also like adult comedy writers like Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld Novels) who laugh at how the world we live in is actually, 100%, totally ridiculous. The world is completely bonkers but grown-ups don't normally admit that to kids - so I love writing comedy that shows just how weird and wonderful the world actually is (I mean, school tests - what's that all about?).
My goal is to write books like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett - but for kids, because children are way cleverer and way funnier than we give them credit for.
8. Eliza and Johnnie also learn a lot about each other during their quest. As a child, how did you get on with your siblings?
I have the nicest big brother in the world - but my cousins used to have the most brilliant fights. One time my cousin locked his little brother in the downstairs loo for the whole morning. And so the little cousin got revenge by taking a fishfinger out of the freezer, warming it up in the sun, and then smooshing it into his brother's new football boots. By the end of the season those boots were the most disgusting thing on the planet. I've heard loads of stories about battling brothers and sisters, and they're brilliant for putting into a book.
9. The children spend part of their adventures on an island eating ice cream. If you found yourself with an ice cream-making chimp robot, what flavours would you ask for?
The chimp robot in the story will stop at nothing to get whatever flavour you ask for. So I would ask for something so difficult to get that the chimp robot's story would become a movie in its own right. Maybe "Yeti-belly-button-fluff-flavour", so we could find out once and for all if Yetis really exist.
For my other scoop - there is a yellow and purple flower that grows by a frozen lake in northwest Outer Mongolia that is the most beautiful flower I've ever seen. I slept near it in a tent, but the next morning some wild yak had moved into the area and one of them ate it. So my guess is - it must be pretty tasty. I'd like a scoop flavoured with that flower please.
But failing that I'd probably just go for chocolate with solid chocolate bits and some crunchy chocolate bits. Three scoops please. With a flake.
10. What do you think of Katie Abey's illustrations?
The book is part text, part graphic story telling (a bit like Captain Underpants, Tom Gates and The 13 Story Treehouse etc.) so getting the right illustrator was totally vital. Katie Abey is a genius - she can make a picture hilarious, or cute or sad just with a few flicks of her graphic pen. It's amazing to watch on her Instagram feed. What I love about Katie is that she's constantly looking to make things funnier, she's not just drawing what I describe, she's making it so much better.
11. Will you be revisiting 2053? What are you currently writing?
How to Survive Time Travel, Book 2 in the series, sees them going backwards 7,000 years into the distant past. I massively enjoyed speculating about what really happened at the beginning of human civilization. I was a huge Erik von Daniken fan as a kid and so it was great fun writing an alternative but possible explanation for the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids based on all the wild theories out there about how humans really evolved.
And I'm just finishing Book 3, which is set in the far future (500 years from now). We get to see what happens once humans make contact with other planets and alien species. And we get to see what brilliant future tech gets invented. But we also learn that in the far future, 11 year-olds will be in charge, because grown ups' brains will be too old and slow to keep up with all the new tech. And I can tell you, when kids take over the world, everything becomes a lot more fun (right up until the point when the Aliens invade).
12. Where and when do you do your best writing?
There's a coffee shop near where I live, full of really friendly faces. And if I ever get stuck - or need to make something funnier - I'll go there and as if by magic it's all suddenly much easier than writing from home.
And there's also a moss-covered tree near where I live that's in the perfect shape of a deckchair - so sometimes you can see me sitting there with my laptop, leaning back in the sunshine, pretending to write.
13. What are your favourite things to do when you're not working?
Some sensible things, like tennis, and chess and cooking and yoga. And some less sensible things, I love doing experiments - at the moment I'm working out how to use chemistry to turn sand into fertilizer. Which could be pretty amazing for the Sahara dessert - just imagine it covered in jungle.
I've already developed a yoghurt that makes you happier by changing your gut bacteria. My next goal is to make a yoghurt that makes you live longer. The plan is to make it using heavy water (H30!) and give it to some worms to see if they live twice as long. If it works, I'm going give it to the dog, and if that works, I'm going to give it to my kids. And if they seem ok, I might even try it myself.
I also really like playing with my kids - because there are loads of things you can only do when you've got the excuse of having kids with you. When you grow up you run out of excuses for doing things like sneaking around graveyards, or defending sandcastles against the tide, or following people who look like baddies from a Tintin book to see if they commit a crime. Best of all, as a kid, you're allowed to try and solve real crimes without the police getting suspicious.
I'd love to solve a real crime. We once went to Blenheim Castle when they had an art exhibition on - it included a world famous, solid gold toilet. That night, the toilet was stolen and when we looked back at the photos there were some suspicious people in the background who looked like they were up to something. We went back to check out the crime scene and found a load of clues - including how the thieves had escaped from the palace, and some plumbing tools hidden in a ditch on the edge of the palace grounds. We've been trying to solve the crime ever since - and one day, we just might.