Swanky Seventeener Matthew Landis chats with Samphire about the novelist’s middle-grade debut—a series opener mixing historical fantasy and sci-fi.
About the Book
The year is 1816, the place is Mars. Home of pterodactyls, spies, and clockwork butlers… All 12-year-old Edward Sullivan wants is to read his Thrilling Martian Tales in peace. But when a villainous archaeologist kidnaps his parents, Edward and his sisters must set out across the Martian wilderness to save them. They’ll have to dodge deadly beasts and murderous clockwork contraptions, and battle ruthless foes if they are to save their parents and uncover the secrets of the dragon tomb. Secrets of the Dragon Tomb is an exciting, funny middle grade adventure full of fantastic inventions, terrible danger, exotic creatures, and larger-than-life characters.
About the Author
Patrick Samphire grew up in England and Zambia. He holds a PhD in physics from the University of Essex and attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in Seattle. He lives in Wales with his family. This is his first novel.
Matthew: When and how did you know you wanted to write a book?
Patrick: I think I was about 14, maybe 15. I was a massive reader (of course) and spent every spare minute reading. At some point I thought, “I would love to write something that makes someone else feel the way these books make me feel”, and I made up my mind to do it. Back then, I was totally convinced I’d be published by the time I was 18. Ha!
I was lucky enough to have a fantastic English teacher at school, and when I managed to rope a friend into co-writing a book, she let us sit outside the classroom working on our book. She even said she’d help us find a publisher if the book was good enough. (It wasn’t; it was terrible.)
Matthew: How did you come up with the idea for your SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB? Did you know this was “the one”?
Patrick: This is one of those questions when I’m supposed to remember something, right? I have two small children. I do not have sleep. I do not remember my name most days.
The truth is, I don’t often have the single moment when a story comes to me in one go. It happened once with a novel (it happens more often with short stories). Most of the time, my novels kind of condense out of a cloud of ideas, characters, images, lines of dialogue, and random chance. Ideas intersect, influence each other. Some get dropped, others added in, and slowly I build up the structure and world of the novel With SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, there was a whole bunch of stuff that ranged from watching Pride and Prejudice with my wife to my former-physicist brain thinking about how water and electricity are actually really similar, from nineteenth century science fiction art to traveling in Egypt, and loads more. Eventually, the core of the story emerged, and then it was all go!
Did I know it was the one? Hmm. I knew it was good and I really believed in it. So, yeah, maybe. I reckoned if I could get it published, readers would like it.
Matthew: Specifically, what was the hardest part about writing/revising this book? Was there something particular to the topic/research that made it difficult?
Patrick: The hardest part by far was the revision. The book started out at 100,000 words and my editor made me cut it down to 67,000. My soul cried… But the truth is, the book was way better at 67k.
Stephen King has this thing in his book On Writing where he says you should go through and cut 10% from your book when it’s finished. When I read that I was like, “Yeah, but, no,” but of course he was right. No matter how tight you think your first draft is, you can cut at least 10%. In my case, it turned out I could cut 33%.
Matthew: Who’s the “perfect reader” for SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB?
Patrick: I’d say a twelve-year-old who loves exciting, fun, funny, imaginative books.
Matthew: Were you purposefully trying to touch on British Imperialism or was that simply an incidental outpouring of the story arc? Either way, I found it very clever. Do tell.
Patrick: I wasn’t intending to talk about Imperialism or colonialism when I started. I just wanted to write an action-packed, fun, funny adventure story. But the moment I decided I was going to set it on a planet that had a native population, it was inevitable that issues of colonialism were going to come up and I think bringing them in makes the story more three dimensional. I’m not hitting anyone over the head with the issues, but I think they make my hero more interesting as he has to face up to some of his preconceptions, and it also gave birth to some of the plot lines that evolve later in the series.
I love old pulp science fiction adventures, but even with the best will in the world, a lot of them are pretty racist and sexist, and there was no way I was going down that route. You can have great adventures without being a jerk!
Matthew: OK let’s get to some lighting round questions. Favorite writer?
Patrick: Oh, right. That’s not tough, then. If I had to choose one, I wouldn’t. I’d go for three: JK Rowling (not just for Harry Potter, but because her Robert Galbraith mysteries are excellent); George RR Martin; and Tolkien.
Matthew: The most recent book you COULD NOT PUT DOWN.
Patrick: Sweep in Peace, by Ilona Andrews. It’s a science fiction / fantasy hybrid with great characters, a fantastic plot, and piles and piles of imagination.
Matthew: Weirdest job you’ve ever had?
Patrick: This one? Seriously, being a writer is super weird. Everything about it is completely crazy. No one would ever design an industry like this, but somehow it works anyway.
Matthew: Robot or zombie apocalypse. Which is more likely?
Patrick: Robot apocalypse. Totally. I’ve pretty much worked out how I would survive a zombie apocalypse (What? Hasn’t everyone?), but robots? Robots are definitely going to get us. I’m already a slave to all the devices that beep at me in the house. My washing machine has been giving me funny looks recently.
Matthew: When/where is your prime “writing” time?
Patrick: Morning. In a nice, quiet café, with a pot of green tea, some dark chocolate, and good music.
Matthew: What were you reading when you were Edward’s age?
Patrick: SO much. I think my favorites were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. I also absolutely loved Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
About the Interviewer
Matthew Landis is the author of THE JUDAS SOCIETY (Sky Pony Press, Spring 2017). He was raised in Bucks County, PA, and returned home after four amazing years at Penn State to the greatest job of all time: teaching 8th graders American History. His passion is convincing my students that the past is actually hilarious, shocking, tragic, disturbing, and altogether UN-boring. While getting his graduate degree in History at Villanova, he realized that there was yet one more way to do this: write contemporary young adult books laced with history to convince my students that the past doesn’t have to be a life-sucking topic.