“Mortal Engines” is now on general release. Author Philip Reeve talks about his dystopian novel in which steampunk cities on wheels roam the land.
“I’m spectacularly lazy,” declares Philip Reeve. “Often I’m just flopped around the house, reading or watching telly. I do get a bit itchy if I don’t write. I haven’t done much for a while and I need to get back to it.”
One of the main reasons his writing output has slowed for the moment is the whole fuss about Mortal Engines. He has just returned from the film premiere in London’s Leicester Square and the glamour of red carpet, paparazzi and movie stars. He has also been overseeing a spin-off publication – an encyclopaedia of the Mortal Engines world. And before that, there was a trip to New Zealand to see the movie in production and even take part as an extra. Did he enjoy his cameo appearance?
“It was tiny,” Philip says. “You can see us for about a fifth of a second on the screen which was a fifth of a second more than I was expecting. I thought it would be fun for my son to be in it but actually it wasn’t. It’s hard work making a movie and it was a very early start – about 6am. We hung around until about three in the afternoon. Then they filmed our fifth of a second. I was wearing some old cast-off hobbit costume.”
The hobbit costume was due to the involvement of Peter Jackson, the man responsible for the screen adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Jackson first became interested in Mortal Engines in the early 2000s and optioned the book but work on the Tolkien epics meant that the project gathered dust on the shelf.
“I assumed it wasn’t going to happen,” says Philip, “And I sort of forgot about it. Then it all came to life again about two years ago, and it rolled into production. Actors were cast and all that kind of stuff.”
It explains why he appears so unfazed about the whole big movie experience.
“I’d done all the getting excited ten years before that so I just thought hmmm..” he admits.
It has been so long since he wrote Mortal Engines that he has found it very easy to hand over his creation and has no proprietorial feelings over the changes that were inevitably made to get it from book to screen. Fans of the original novel will find that the film doesn’t quite match. As Philip observes, it’s almost like something new has split off and gone in its own direction.
“You realise there is so little space in a movie compared to a novel,” he says. “Mortal Engines is only a short seventy thousand words, but you can almost create whole characters and civilisations in a sentence. But you can’t do that in a movie, it takes screen-time. They have kept it to two hours and it has involved lopping out about half the story line. There are a lot of incidents and sub-plots that don’t make it onto the screen, which is fine because you need a sort of simplicity to a movie.”
There may have been ruthless pruning including, sadly, the dropping of ‘Dog’ the white wolf companion of Katherine, but the premise remains the same. The relentless progress of technology has been upended and broken by war and natural disaster. It is now thousands of years in the future and people have abandoned the ‘Out Country’ and are living in mobile towns and cities. London is like a huge mechanised sweet trolley stacked with different boroughs and districts.
It is topped off with some old buildings including a rickety shored-up St Paul’s which endures the vibration as the city trundles over dried up sea beds looking for small towns to eat. Technology has sunk back to the Victorian era so even when ancient inventions from the past turn up – for instance a CD – they have no idea how to use them.
The whole imagined world is located somewhere equidistant from Mad Max, Harry Potter and Star Wars. Like the book, the film plunges straight in because Philip favours sci-fi fantasy which immerses the reader with no warning. He explains:
“CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein are the origin of this kind of stuff and they are like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You either buy into one or the other. With CS Lewis you start in our world and go into the made-up world and with Tolkein you start in the made-up world and have to work it all out. That’s the one I go for, that’s the one that excites me.”
His early influences were authors like Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. He claims sci-fi was the lens through which he saw life and that between the ages of ten and eighteen he ‘absorbed all sorts of stuff’ including Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. It has given him a dual nature – serious and comedic – and both play off one another in his work.
“Mortal engines isn’t as gaggy as Hitch Hikers’ Guide but it’s getting there,” he says, “It’s certainly not meant to be taken entirely seriously. With Mortal Engines my comedy side and my serious side were both working in unison. And in some ways that’s good because it produces something quite strange.”
The original idea came about because Philip wanted to do something about mobile cities but realised that it was a concept that had been touched upon by others before him. The Archigram group in the sixties who created hypothetical futuristic urban designs and Christopher Priest’s ‘Inverted World’ are just two examples. It was always going to be a dystopian tale since, as Philip points out, “It’s very difficult to write a utopian story because nothing happens.” However, the London on wheels theme needed a twist.
“So, I thought of why you might want a city to move and I thought that it could catch and cannibalise smaller moving cities who in turn were chasing and gobbling up villages. I didn’t think I’d seen anyone come up with the food chain notion. It was a very fertile idea.”
However, getting buy-in was not easy and Philip tried for a long time to find a literary agent before deciding on a change of tack.
“I’d been assuming it was a grown-up science fiction novel which was the sort of stuff I used to read when I was a teenager. And then I thought if it’s what I read when I was a teenager maybe a children’s publisher would be interested.”
Philip reduced the ages of the protagonists and re-presented the novel, this time to an editor friend at Scholastic, the publisher where he was working as a freelance illustrator. After running into brick walls suddenly the door had opened, and it all became very easy.
“I guess she knew I wasn’t some sort of random lunatic on the street,” Philip says wryly.
Mortal Engines turned out to be the first book of a quartet and if the current film is a box office hit there is clearly the possibility that it could turn into a franchise in the style of Harry Potter. Philip is not holding his breath.
“I think it’s odder than Harry Potter; I don’t know whether it’s got the same sort of mass appeal. Which is fine by me, I’d like to be a bit more niche.”
Although he has always been interested in writing, Philip’s career started in illustration and his move to Dartmoor was inspired by childhood holidays with his parents and the knowledge that Tolkien artist Alan Lee lived here. This year they finally got to meet.
“It is strange because I grew up looking at all these pictures of his and then back in the summer I went to his [Alan Lee’s] house where they were all painted and it was a very odd experience: suddenly meeting your heroes and finding they treat you as an equal.”
Next year will see Philip hooking up with friend Sarah McIntyre for the ‘Chagword’ Festival in March. The partnership has resulted in a series of books for young readers and started with a chance encounter.
“We met at the Edinburgh Festival,” remembers Philip, “And just got talking and kind of never stopped nattering away and swapping jokes. And then we finally thought we were going to have to do something with all this creative energy.”
They decided to create funny books for seven to ten year olds, spotting a gap in the market that these kids want a proper story but still enjoy plenty of illustration. They’re a half-way house between picture books and so-called chapter books and a perfect complement to Philip’s sci-fi work.
“They’re pretty much pure comedy: knock about adventure,” he explains. “We sit around laughing at our own jokes and then I go home and transcribe it all. Because these books are aimed at younger kids it’s almost like a new career. That’s why I dived in. I heard someone saying the other day that they’d heard a publisher talking about a Sarah McIntyre-type book. I’m more proud of that than I am of having a movie,” he adds coyly.
It is the quirky and surreal which always captures his attention and perhaps explains a rather bizarre detour early on in his writing career.
“I have a friend called Brian Mitchell. Twenty-five years ago when I was living in Brighton we used to write things together. One day he came round for tea and we found some nice biscuits. They were McVities dark chocolate gingernuts which are no longer available but they were like the king of biscuits.
‘He said that what’s happened is that the designer at the Ministry of Biscuits has fallen in love and it has inspired him to create them. We both thought – DING! – that’s a good idea and so I got writing. I think it was going to be a little movie script. It was going to be called ‘They Baked by Night’. It was basically a 1984ish world in which biscuits are ruthlessly suppressed by government.
‘I never got round to making it. It was very slight, too slight to make a story but it was just the right weight to make a musical because you don’t really want too much story. You just want a story to hang the songs and ideas off.”
The Ministry of Biscuits had one or two performances at the time but has enjoyed an impressive revival this year, touring around the UK. Brian Mitchell has masterminded a way of doing tiny productions – they can be fitted into a car and taken to village halls and venues that don’t often get the luxury of a musical turning up on their doorstep. The formula has proved very successful, selling out and attracting excellent reviews. The tour will be continuing into the New Year with a two week run in London and then a return to the South West and a date in Exeter. Perhaps the next stop is an adaptation to the big screen?
“It would be nice; it would make a lovely film,” agrees Philip.
The anecdote shows how little comedy gems can turn up when you are least expecting them and oddly enough, another pops up as a result of the interview. Philip has mentioned that when he was the middle of writing Mortal Engines, he was worried that someone might beat him to it, so he dashed off a short story called “Urbivore” to stake a claim to predatory cities that hunt for prey.
The story was published on a little fanzine and he wonders if it might still be hanging around the internet. After we meet, I decide to see if it can be tracked down. A search fails to find the short story but instead Google comes up with another result for ‘urbivore’ which is as far removed from Municipal Darwinism as you could get. And it would definitely appeal to Philip’s sense of humour.
It turns out a company has re-appropriated the name for its website. Urbivore is now an eco-friendly business that sells yoga mats to vegetarians.
The Chagword Festival will take place in Chagford on the weekend of 22-24 March 2019