This is an interview I did with Sirius Holmes of Mundotuneles.com late last year. If you click on the photo below it will take you to the website to see the original.
Hi Roderick, it’s great that you wanted to do an interview before the release of your new book, which we learned recently is to be called Summerhouse Land.
Well, thank you, Sirius. I’m just grateful that anyone is still interested in what I’m doing! I certainly never take it for granted.
Can I jump straight in and ask you about the Tunnels movie? I know a lot of readers are keen to know what’s going on with it after Relativity Media went bankrupt. We’ve seen some promising announcements over the years, but then there were long stretches when there was no news at all.
Yes, if I said it’s been frustrating that would be an understatement. Brian’s attitude has always been not to believe it could be real until it’s signed and sealed and some money’s exchanged hands. He was right. I’m afraid I let myself dream that it was going to happen because first Vincenzo was appointed as the director which I thought was brilliant and I really liked his energy and approach when we spoke, then Mikael Håfström came on board instead – a heavyweight, but I never knew why there was a changeover and that’s been a big problem for me throughout the whole process – it wasn’t as if I had any meaningful contact at all with the producers or Relativity at any stage in the game. People were running around and working on it in the US, but I was always the last to be told anything. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling with all that momentum behind you and loads of influence, the writer tends to be treated as a second or third class citizen and kept in the dark.
But you thought the movie was really going to happen?
Well, after five long years it finally seemed to be coming together in leaps and bounds, with a full presentation on the budget being made to Relativity early last year so they could give the sign-off. From what I heard the screenplay had been approved and all the pieces were in place and ready for preproduction to start – the special effects company (a really cool London-based one), artistic director, and so on, even down to the costumiers and the design of a new Tunnels logo – but then Relativity simply let their option lapse.
What – they didn’t renew it? Why?
I really can’t tell you why. I never heard anything from them after that, but they obviously lost confidence in the project when it was just the sort of thing that might have saved their business. From what I can see they were building international alliances for their film and TV programming output, but they just didn’t have enough good product to feed these distribution channels. I started to call them “Relatively Mediocre” after they let us down.
Relatively Mediocre. That’s funny! But if Relatively Mediocre are out of it, is there any chance that the movie might still happen?
Barry and I certainly haven’t given up yet. There’s still activity over in the US and the outcome might be better than a movie. Look, it’s at an early stage and there’s nothing in writing yet and I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up so I’m not going to say anything more at this stage.
Okay. A few months ago you revealed that your favourite artist agreed to do the cover of Summerhouse Land. We’ve been following the progress of the linocut on MT, Facebook and Twitter, and now that the work is finished… who is the artist?
The illustration hasn’t been quite finalised yet so I don’t want to say who it is until then. I first got in touch with him in 2012 after he made a reference to my great grandmother, Elizabeth Oke Gordon. She wrote a book in 1914 called Prehistoric London – its Mounds and Circles, and I dedicated The Highfield Mole/Tunnels to her. I don’t think her book is at all historically accurate, but it didn’t stop me pinching ideas from it for the Tunnels series – examples of this are the ancient race of incredibly tall humans who built the Eternal City under London which I put in the first book, and also the references to the Bishops Wood and other ancient druidic religious sites in London I used for Terminal. But, anyway, the artist replied to me saying he’d read Tunnels, and I kept in contact with him, hoping he’d do the cover illustration for the new book, and he finally said yes this year. I love his work and have quite a lot of it on my walls at home. He’s also known for his work with a certain band and is doing the cover for their seventh album at the moment …
The end of the year is approaching and you mentioned that Summerhouse Land might be released by then. How’s it going? Have you got a publication date in mind yet?
It’s all up in the air at the moment, but I’d ideally like to get it out by Christmas so I can move on to the next project. Just like I was when I was self-publishing The Highfield Mole, I’m obsessive about getting Summerhouse Land absolutely right, and I still haven’t had the typeset proof from my designer to check it through yet. I’ll do this over and over again because the prose can look so different when it’s reformatted for the book page – it’s rather like when you view a painting in a different light and you notice things about it that you hadn’t noticed before. I do spend ages on this particular stage – which is probably why Chicken House found me rather trying to work with! So the short answer to your question is as soon as it’s ready.
You mentioned Chicken House – I have to ask you this but why aren’t they publishing your new book?
That’s a good question. Barry read it and said he liked it and seemed to be on the verge of picking it up but wanted a second opinion from the US. Chicken House is owned by the Scholastic in the US. A couple of weeks later the feedback from them appeared to derail any chance of it being published by Chicken House. He rang me and said no. I don’t know precisely why Scholastic didn’t want it, and I didn’t get any clear feedback about what they thought needed to be changed to make it, in their opinion, a viable proposition.
How do you feel about that after the Tunnels series?
Quite frankly rather stunned and quite hurt. Maybe the income from the Tunnels series declined as the latter instalments were released, but it will have been quite substantial in publishing terms for the overall series, which I’m told is approaching two million copies sold across forty countries. I had such a great working relationship with Barry because he’s a wonderful editor and I trust and value his opinion, and the other members of his team such as Rachel and Elinor are fantastic too, so it’s weird not to have them with me on this project. What’s crazy is I know some of my overseas publishers will want to run with Summerhouse Land, so maybe the first proper commercial edition won’t be in English!
You sound as though you miss Chicken House.
I do – most of all Barry because of his vision and guidance. He certainly jumped at The Highfield Mole back in 2005 when no other publisher saw what I was trying to achieve. The Mole was very different to anything being released at the time, a classic-ish science fiction thriller in the mould of those big adventure books that Brian and I so loved when we were kids. That’s probably part of the problem – I strive so hard to write something that isn’t bang in the mainstream, that is fundamentally different, and maybe this works against me. It’s difficult for a publisher or agent to immediately categorise and market it, so they move onto the next book that they can say is like the new “Hunger Games” or “Maze Runner” or whatever and just shove out with a glitzy cover.
So you’re talking about Summerhouse Land too? It’s not easy to classify it?
I truly hope not! I never want to write what everyone else is writing and I really do believe that each book has a “cost” to the writer if it’s worth anything. It rips a pound of flesh from you because you have to invest so much of yourself in it to make it work. And Summerhouse Land cost me – it’s certainly cost me four years of my life on and off!
People have asked me about the plot because you haven’t said anything publicly about it yet. What can you tell us?
I’m not sure how to describe it, which goes back to the problem that it can’t be easily pigeonholed. It’s crossover literature, although I hate that label – I’ve written it so it can be read on different levels, by readers across the age spectrum – so far I’ve had test readers from 12 to 70 give me their feedback on it. The story started out as my thoughts on death and heaven and what happens when we die – after all, somehow or other, I’ve grown old and I don’t quite know how that came about! I’m afraid I’m not spiritual at all but I still wanted to put forward an idea of what might be waiting on the other side, a place you might go that isn’t heaven or hell or limbo or whatever. So I started off with a vaguely magical story, then the scientist in me took over because I needed to provide a logical explanation for this new place and how you might get there.
So like Tunnels, there’s no magic involved?
None at all – I can’t write those sorts of books because it’s so hard to define the limits of what the magic can do – I often feel as if they are pulling one rabbit out of the hat after another in order to make the story work, so you never really know what the boundaries, the arbitrary limitations of the “magic”, are. However, just to be perverse, I might try one at some point in the future.
Then Summerhouse Land is about some sort of heaven?
Yes, but in a gritty, un-Disney way, and the people who are fortunate enough to end up there have typically suffered very badly. The book’s also not solely about this new place or set entirely in it as the story progresses, because the characters still interact with our world.
Juan Pablo Moreno left us a question that he wants to know what the main character’s name is. Juan follows you on Twitter.
Hi, Juan, the main character’s name is Sam White, although there are two or three other characters who are nearly as important. In fact, they’re all close friends of mine now! I’m not sure how they’d get on with Will and Chester though.
And where did the original idea for the story come from?
From two places really, and from way way back when I was around ten. The idea for it has been knocking around in my head for decades. I had a school friend called James who also lived in Highgate and was quite introverted like I was back then. He was great fun and always had this big smile pasted across his face. He suddenly stopped coming to school and I wasn’t allowed to see him in the afternoons. At that age, when you’re ten, you don’t get the full implication of events around you but your imagination is still working away, and it was a terrible shock when I was told he’d died and there hasn’t been a month since then, since 1970, that I haven’t thought about him. He should have had a life like mine, but it was stolen from him by cancer, and Summerhouse Land is my attempt at unburdening some of that sadness. It hasn’t worked, but at least I tried.
That is very sad. And you said there were two places you got your inspiration from?
Yes, about the same time I kept having a recurring dream – it related to an area at the end of the garden where I used to play. I dug some really extensive holes and trenches there.
Sounds like Will Burrows.
Yes, you could say Tunnels sort of started in that stretch of earth too. But beyond it there’d been an incredible old Victorian summerhouse which had to be pulled down because it was so rotten, and behind where it had been was a small strip of land that didn’t seem to belong to anyone. My dreams kept taking me over the rickety fence and into this strip of land and leading me to a wonderful place which was very “Laurie Lee”, with beautiful unspoilt countryside where the sun was always high in the sky and so warm. It was probably my psychological antidote to the grey London weather in the late sixties and early seventies, but I had the dream so often about this idyllic place that I called it Summerhouse Land. And that’s the second element of my story. And please don’t think the book is all dying people and doom and gloom – it’s not. It’s as fast-paced and I hope as gripping as any of the Tunnels books. Maybe more so.
People are wondering where they’ll be able to buy the book. Have you decided if you’re going to set up a dedicated website? And is it going to have an electronic version?
Both, perhaps. I’m intending to do a run of five hundred hardbacks which will all be numbered and signed by me – I might set up a micro-site to sell them. They’ll probably be quite expensive and if they don’t sell, then so be it. When I self-published The Highfield Mole, collectors and dealers were buying multiples of the hardbacks for around £13 each (sometimes even less because I was giving them discounts) and a good number of these books subsequently went for silly amounts on AbeBooks, eBay and other sites. I didn’t sell a single copy at these levels – I think one even went for $3,000!
What’s even crazier is that I didn’t benefit from it in any way when it cost me a fortune to get The Mole out! So this time I’m going to raise the price a bit to try to recoup my costs, particularly because there won’t be a paperback edition issued in parallel so that’ll increase the rarity value. I’ve also become very fed up with my books being pirated over the years, something that publishers just don’t want to hear about because there’s nothing they can do to stop it. I reckon I’ve lost as much as twenty per cent of my income from the series due to people who’ve stolen my work from illegal download sites and, believe me, it’s not easy trying to keep afloat based on what a writer earns. It hurts. So my limited edition of Summerhouse Land is my rather childish response to them! They won’t find it easy to get hold of a copy and scan it. However, I might also put it out as an ebook at some point so at least people have a way of actually reading it.
Can I go back to Tunnels – Emilia Lozano and Santiago Nequiz want to know what happened with the characters (Will, Elliott…) after the ending of Terminal? And also what happened with the Earth?
Hi, Emilia and Santiago. That would be answered if there was ever another Tunnels book, which is up to Chicken House. I’ve already got the first scenes for a new instalment in the series, but Barry isn’t interested at the moment so I’ve shelved it. I also quite like it that the current ending leaves things unresolved, just as things are so often left unresolved in real life. Readers can make up their own minds as to what comes next …
So you can’t give us a clue about Will and Elliott?
Well, I suppose it’s inevitable that they would at least get to see each other again if I had to write a whole book. Or maybe I could make it really frustrating and not have them cross paths again! I also began to write a prequel about Drake when he was around Will’s age. It meant I could spend more time with him and also bring Sweeney back into play. I miss Sweeney – I regret losing him like that.
So what’s happening with this book?
Nothing, I’m afraid. Barry had my synopsis and again didn’t think it was the right time, so I stopped work on it. It had the working title “Drake’s Progress” – a play on “A Rake’s Progress”, the paintings by William Hogarth. I could maybe send you a scene if you like.
I’d love to put that on MT!
It’ll be very rough and full of typos but let me dig one out for you.
And another reader, EliasibJv, has said that you seem to be in favour of the Hollow Earth theory. If so, when and why did you become interested in this topic?
Probably because of my ancestor William Buckland and his work as one of the first palaeontologists. Because of him I was always fascinated by fossils and what lies hidden in the ground, then I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which really fired my imagination. I must have been fifteen years old when I read it and it blew my mind, although I think the ending’s pretty crap. And, sure, I know geophysicists don’t think for one moment that the earth is actually hollow or riddled with holes as in JTTCOTE, but I like to think that there’s more down there as yet undiscovered that we can’t even guess at. Last year I also read a load of other Hollow Earth fiction, such as the books by the originator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs. His Pellucidar series is set in the hollow earth and I was a bit shocked how close some of my ideas were to his when Will and Dr Burrows finally make their way through to the inner world in Freefall. I suddenly broke out into a sweat because I wondered if people might think I’d read the Pellucidar books beforehand – I hadn’t!
Soso has asked if you like the TV show Doctor Who, and wrote the message: “I’ve noticed that a lot of things in the books (the last ones, especially) feel similar to TV series. It would be great if you were the scriptwriter”.
Hi, Soso. I grew up watching Doctor Who. When I was away at boarding school in the seventies, it was rather like being in prison as we were only allowed a few hours of television every week – it would be football with “Match of the Day” which I wasn’t even remotely interested in, and probably “The Professionals”, but always Doctor Who on Saturday afternoons. I used to watch it because I was so desperate – I watched television all the time when I was at home during the holidays and missed it like anything. Doctor Who was very low budget back then, but it was compelling because the plots could play out over quite a few episodes rather than being restricted to one or two.
So it influenced the way you tell stories?
It’s probably somewhere in the mix with all the other stuff I watched or read or experienced. When it was brought back I started to watch it again with my two sons. We liked David Tennant’s series, but our interest began to wane with Matt Smith, and I haven’t watched a single episode with the newest Doctor. But the quality of the writing has improved massively since it was resurrected in 2005 – I particularly liked Steven Moffat’s “Blink” in 2007, and the episode written by Neil Gaiman also sticks in my memory. I can’t comment on the last couple of series – maybe I should start watching again, and I’d jump at the opportunity to write one if they asked me!!
Pedro also sent this question: When is your birthday? The same date as any Tunnels’ character?
Hi Pedro, no, it’s not. I was going to bury it in one of the books but never did in the end. It happens to be coming around again very soon, and I’m keeping it secret!
Emilia and Roberta Lozano want to know Drake’s real name? And his age?
Hi Emilia and Roberta, his real name is revealed in the unwritten prequel, which has a key scene early on about how he came to be called Drake, so I won’t spill the beans on that one. And I think he’s around forty years old at the time of the last Tunnels book – I think forty-three to be precise. I hope that’s right. Somewhere I’ve got a whole schedule with everyone’s ages in Tunnels. I thought I should work them all out and out them down on a piece of paper, particularly if I was going to embark on any prequels.
And after Summerhouse Land what’s next?
I could do Summerhouse Land 2 (SHL 2) as I’ve got a whole raft of scenes from a previous version of the book that I’m dying to use, and I feel so comfortable with the characters now that it would be a pleasure to spend more time with them. But I’m reluctant to get locked into another series so soon after Tunnels.
Why? Didn’t you enjoy writing it?
Yes and no. I loved it and hated it. Building a series like that and trying to make each book better, yet different from the last is a real killer. I always think, when I set out on a new book, that it’s like trying to come up with an answer when you don’t have the faintest idea what the question is. You can send a story in so many directions that it sometimes makes you freeze and unable to write. I used to imagine that writers walk around their houses asking the empty rooms, “What happens next? What happens next?” as they struggle to come up with the next scene. I’ve never had that problem – the question is always “Is this the very best thing that can happen next? Is this absolutely the right choice?” because I sometimes have this overpowering, crushing fear that I’m committing to a development in the plot which isn’t the best thing for the story. And, having committed to the new scene, it often feels as if it’s a gargantuan task to go back and undo it.
So if you don’t go straight on to do SHL 2, what’s next?
Something totally new. I’ve been stuck on the opening chapter for about six months, trying to live in the story, and I think I had a breakthrough on it last week. It’s a book about the origins of good and evil, with two teenagers – male and female – as the lead protagonists. Can’t really say any more about it yet.
Right, we’d better wrap up the interview there. Thank you for answering so many questions!
No, thank you, Sirius. As ever, I’m flattered by your interest and really appreciate your support!