Today I would like to welcome author, Simon J. A. Turney, and illustrator, Dave Slaney, to my Interview Café.
Thank you both so much for dropping by for a chat about your up and coming book, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, it’s really lovely to see you both here.
You are my first victims… er… I mean, my first interviewees…
I thought I would start with the quote which can be found on amazon for, Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure, to give our readers some idea of what lies in store for, Marcus and Callie, the sibling protagonists.
The prefect of Egypt needs money. And the men of the 22nd Legion must brave mazes and tombs and curses and crocodile gods to get to it.
Marcus and Callie, orphaned in ancient Alexandria and taken in by their uncle, the standard bearer in the legion, are about to travel up the great river Nile with the legionaries in a tense and funny adventure to grab the gold of the Pharaoh Amenemhat.
Join the legion and discover ancient Roman Egypt.
If I may start with you, Simon; the Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure – Book 1, is an inspired piece of writing for children between the ages of seven and twelve.
The two children featured in your book are your own children, though older than they are now. So, I think my first questions for you, Simon, are these:
What gave you the idea to write Crocodile Legion, and use Marcus and Callie as your child protagonists? And, why Crocodilopolis?
Heh heh. Actually, the initial draft of Crocodile Legion included no children at all! My ever-intuitive and horribly smart agent read the draft through and told me that it was good but could be better. That it needed more of a focus for the younger reader. And at the time, I had a photo on my desk of Marcus when he was 2, dressed up for fancy dress in a toga and laurel wreath. From there it seemed natural to take my kids and put them in the tale. How could I create characters more realistic than real people, after all? The personalities of the two in the book are my children to a tee. And why Crocodilopolis? Well while researching pyramids, completely independent of this book, for the record, I came across Hawara and Herodotus’ description of the labyrinth. A labyrinth built by a crocodile obsessed pharaoh, and a city that worships the scaly monsters? Sounded too good not to use. Everything just came nicely together.
Dave Slaney has designed many of your book covers, Simon, so I can well understand your choosing him to do the book cover of Crocodile Legion, he has also superbly drawn the various cartoons throughout the book. Having seen photographs of both Marcus and Callie on your Facebook page, I can say, with all honesty, that there is no mistaking them, and that is down to the great talent of Dave Slaney.
How do Marcus and Callie feel about being featured in your book, and have they seen Dave Slaney’s drawings of them?
I don’t think it’s particularly sunk in with them yet. They have seen the drawings, though. Marcus, in his usual pragmatic manner, just nodded and smiled and then went back to his game, taking it all easily in his stride. Callie, terrible narcissist that she is, just keeps wanting more and more pics of her! And let’s face it, with Dave’s superb drawings, that’s no surprise. I’ve not yet read the book to them, though. With just an electronic version it seemed wrong at this stage. I’ll do that for the first time when I have a paperback in hand and can do the whole bedtime story thing.
Dave, if I could bring you in here; first of all, I would like to congratulate you on your drawings, not only for the cover of, Crocodile Legion, but also for the cartoons throughout the book. They are quite simply superb!
Bless you Louise, that’s so very kind of you. Glad you liked them.
You have a talent for bringing to life the essence of a whole book in its cover, and I know that you have designed many book covers, Simon’s and mine, included. I know that Crocodile Legion, is a collaboration between both you and Simon, so were you given carte blanche regarding the cover, and the cartoons within? Would you like to tell us about the process?
Yes, Simon gave me free-rein to do as I pleased. I asked for a few lines from each chapter that Simon thought would be best suited for a cartoon and then I was off. There were several aspects of each drawing that I asked Simon’s help with, such as armour and other bits that I wanted to be accurate, but as they are cartoons, Simon wasn’t overly worried about historical accuracy for my part.
Once I’d read Simon’s text I just tried to visualise the scene in my head and how best to match it to the action and look fun too. As for the cover, I had done the cover we’ve used as one of the very first concept designs. I had done a couple since, but found, looking back, I preferred the original.
I feel as though I should recognise some of the Roman soldiers in the cartoons, and I think perhaps I do. I certainly recognise Marcus and Callie, having seen their photographs on Simon’s Facebook page on numerous occasions. You have captured them perfectly!
Phew, that’s a huge relief! When Simon introduced Marcus and Callie into the story I was very nervous about getting their ‘likeness’ just right. Simon and Tracey were pleased, so I was very, very relieved and for you to say so is fantastic.
Drawing Caricatures is an art in itself, what is your starting point when doing this? Do you start with the eyes, or the nose, or from which point?
It’s funny you should ask that, I always start with the nose! No particular reason, just seems a good starting point and the character ‘radiates’ out from that central point. Whenever I’m on the phone, I always ‘doodle’ faces, my notepad is full of noses!
If I may go back to you, then, Simon; writing for children is quite a different art from writing for the adult world. When writing for the diverse age group to whom you have aimed your book, that is, seven to twelve years-of-age, the language has to be understood equally by the seven year old reader, as well as not coming across as too young for the subsequent older child. How difficult was it to strike a balance?
Can I answer that after the first ten or twenty reviews? Ha. I have no idea whether I succeeded. To be honest, I was originally looking at maybe the 9-12 age group, but the categories available offered 7-12, and let’s face it there are 7 year olds who can read better than 12 year olds out there. Literacy levels are very hard to pigeon hole. I certainly didn’t dumb anything down. Long gone are the days when kids needed things dropping a level for ease of understanding. They are so advanced these days. So I tried to use less obscure terms and write more directly, and with more humour, but other than that I didn’t dumb down. Because to be honest even my grown-up books generally contain little in the way of sexual content and only minor cussing, so there wasn’t much to drop from my usual style. There is a lot of gore usually, though, I’ll admit. The biggest challenge for me was not the language or the lack of swearing or adult content, but missing out the extreme violence for which I’m known. And there’s actually no fighting or bloodshed in the book at all. THAT was tough! Try writing a book about soldiers that includes no fighting and yet maintains excitement!
Some of the language is geared to make children laugh; and who doesn’t laugh at the ‘fart’ word? I can imagine the giggles from the younger children, and the loud guffaws from the older children. The element of comedy which pops up now and then is genius, as it balances well between the tension and the scarier moments. The age groups you have written for, deal with tension in quite different ways. What was your modus operandi for not going too far, but just far enough, with the scary moments?
Aha. Essentially, I tried to take the Roman military and apply to it the strictures of Scooby Doo. Because if you’re looking for a creepy kid’s story that hits just the right level every time, then look no further than everyone’s favourite investigative Great Dane. So any time I worried whether what I was writing was too much, I tried to imagine it in the middle of a Scooby Doo episode. And although I’ve not yet tackled a proper fight with the legions in book 1, when that time does come, I shall try and channel Asterix the Gaul into the mélange. Lots of old-style Batman ‘Sock’ and ‘Pow’ and ‘Blam’ moments. Crocodile Legion is, I would say, a cross between Scooby Doo and Asterix.
Staying with the theme of writing for different age groups within one book, Dog is the perfect foil for Marcus and Callie, his antics made me laugh out loud, so true to form were they. How important do you feel it is to have a comedic animal character in your book to contrast with the well-known killer reputation of the crocodile?
I’m a dog lover. Quite simply that. It is my deeply held belief that dogs make absolutely everything better. So the addition of Dog to the story was a natural choice. And it’s always nice for any sort of team to have a mascot of some type, isn’t it? It is only while I write this, in retrospect, that I realise it takes the team one step closer to being Scooby Doo. At this rate I’ll have to have them find a chariot painted up in greens and psychedelic colours! Dog’s inclusion also has something to do with the fact that I put a dog into the Praetorian series, but in that I’m a little restricted and can’t run the full gamut of gags and laughs. I am unfettered in the kids’ books and can make the dog as funny as I like.
Indeed, Simon, and it works really well!
Dave, there are many details in your cartoons, for example, in one of the chapters, where they are looking at a map; there are scrolls on the shelves in the background; there is the map; the detail of the Roman armour; and even the leopard skin draped over Scriptor’s helmet, has its eyes on the map. For me this shows great insight, as children really love elements like these. One of my favourites has to be for a later chapter. It speaks volumes, I won’t give away any spoilers, so I’ll leave it there, but suffice it to say, for prospective readers, look out for it.
I’m glad you spotted that. It was an idea I put to Simon who was all for it. It’s the little details I love to add to drawings, some that might be missed on first viewing. It’s like the little things that happen off to the side of the main action in the wonderful Pixsar films and such like.
If I may stay with book cover designs, Dave; I know that you rely on information from the author about the story within, special elements, perhaps, and maybe the author provides artwork of their own. Either way, how do you begin? Does the title of a book help you, and, maybe the fact that it is part of a series? Or even if it is just a one-off, what kernel of an idea starts you off?
The title certainly helps, but the subject matter is the main thing. If it is historical fiction, getting the right imagery is very important, not being very historically ‘clued-up’ as the wonderful authors are, (I know they work very hard researching and making sure everything is authentic and accurate), I have often included armour, helmets etc., that have been centuries too late or too early!
If it is part of a series I like to keep true to the ones that have gone before, try and evolve the ‘look’ and enhance it. As they say ‘Evolution, not revolution.’ Sometimes though a total ‘refresh’ of the series could be required. That way I can start with a blank canvas and let my imagination go off in all directions.
I know that it can take several versions of a cover, before the right one is settled upon. Do you find that frustrating, or do you just accept it as part of the process?
Oh no, I find it very rewarding. Sometimes you can get it right first time, if not – there’s a development process between myself and the author. We bounce ideas off each other and gradually achieve an end result that we’re both happy with. It’s all part-and-parcel of the creative process. My goal is for the author to be 100% satisfied. After all, they put SO much hard work into writing the book, sleepless nights, hours and hours of sitting in front of a PC or laptop visualising the story in their heads and putting it into words. The last thing they want is a bad cover letting them down.
The old cliché is, never judge a book by its cover, but we do, we all do, no matter if we deny it. I imagine that there is a certain amount of pressure in creating that perfect cover.
Absolutely! We all do the same, I know I do. I always try and put myself in the shoes of the reader. Is it something I would buy if I saw it amongst a shelf full of books? Does it stand out? These are all questions that I put to myself; hours and hours in delightful backstreet bookshops have been my ‘training ground’ as it were. I have cupboards-full of delightful looking books just waiting to be read.
So, do you find that authors have a particular idea of what font they would like for their title, and where they would like their name placed, top or bottom, for example?
Sometimes. If they have previous works to reference against, I try and follow their lead, name top, title bottom, etc. Generally, though, I just try and lay the cover out as best I can, a lot depends on the length of the name of the author and likewise for the book’s title.
So, Simon, if I may come back to you. You have made Marcus and Callie orphans in your story, but they do live with their uncle within the legion. What was your inspiration for this?
There’s a two-fold reason for that. Firstly, Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to have wives and families, but there is odd scant evidence of civilians living on camp, so an uncle who is an influential officer seemed the best way of including kids in with the legionaries. And secondly, the mystery of their parents’ disappearance gives me some lovely plot to work towards. It is already planned as a central theme to book 2.
Could I ask you about the cover of Crocodile Legion, and the Latin wording around the crocodile, ‘et ventilabas cornu in legionem’? Is it a genuine motto, or one that you have made up for your book?
The cover is Dave’s province and his brain-child. I believe the motto is something along the lines of, ‘and the horns of the legion burst forth‘. I could be wrong. Despite my education, hobby and career, sadly Latin is not my strongest point! My facility with languages is about as strong as my facility with carpentry, (everything slid off my one and only attempt at shelf…)
OK, I do understand, so enough said there, I think!
Crocodile Legion is book one. How many do you envisage in the series? Children love books that follow on, that’s my experience as a mother, so I can imagine a child waiting with bated breath for the next book. How long do you think it will be between books?
I already have Pirate Legion plotted out ready. I shall be writing it this summer as time allows for a release towards the end of the year. I hope to manage at least one book a year, with Dave’s schedule for illustrating them as a factor in there too, of course. And I shall stop writing them when I run out of stories or no one wants to read any more. Essentially, each book will tackle a new aspect of ancient Rome and a new province, so that the reader can learn more new stuff with every book. Crocodile Legion dealt with the province of Egypt and with tomb robbing. I’ll leave you to guess what Pirate Legion will be about. And there is a strong probability that book 3 with be Slave Legion.
Sounds wonderful, Simon, there is a lot for readers to look forward to.
So, finally, Dave, I would like to say that a good cover designer is worth his/her weight in gold, as a poor cover can impinge on a book’s sales. Perhaps you could tell us just how it feels to see a book for sale wearing a cover which you have designed. I imagine that it is up there with the author’s experience of seeing said book for sale.
A pure joy and delight, Louise! I will never get tired of the thrill and excitement of seeing something I’ve created in print! To be able to ‘physically’ hold a book with my design on the jacket still gives me ‘tingles’. It’s huge thanks to Simon and indeed your good self who have given me the great honour and trust to put a picture to your words, give an incite into the fabulous stories you tell. For that, I will always be grateful.
And, finally, Simon, I would like to say that I think that your book would be a great addition to any middle school library, and, indeed, in a public library. Would that be something that you would envision for Crocodile Legion?
I really hope so. I’d love to see kids reading the book at every opportunity. My books are floating around in libraries already, and from my general understanding these days kids represent a sizeable proportion of library users. Yay. Let the books roll out! Veni, Vidi, Scripsi!
Well, I would like to thank you both, Simon and Dave, so much for taking the time to answer my questions, it’s been an absolute joy chatting with you both.
So, happy readers, you can find out more about Crocodile Legion: A Roman Adventure here – just click the link and enjoy!