Q & A with James Norcliffe, author of Felix and the Red Rats – a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards

Posted: April 20, 2014 in adventure, children, fantasy, Interview

logoA finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, James Norcliffe’s Felix and the Red Rats is a fun mix of fantasy and adventure.

felix and the red rats

When David’s uncle comes to visit he sets off a bizarre series of events. Things become complicated when the pet rats turn bright red.

David senses that somehow the red rats are connected to the story he is reading, and he becomes more convinced when the colour red becomes contagious.

The parallel story sees Felix and his friend Bella inadvertently shifted into a strange land where they must solve a riddle. But this puts them into great danger. How will they escape and find their way home?

See review here

As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?

 I had been toying with the idea of writing a book with a dual narrative. It wasn’t conscious, but I think I may have been influenced by the Japanese writer Murakami whom I’d been reading a lot of and who uses the technique. It then came to me that a variation on the idea might be a book within a book and, even better, that the book within the book could have some bearing on the outer story. This quite excited my and because I love the intricacy of plot I found the process tremendous fun. I hit quite early upon the idea of alternating chapters and the book(s) began to flow quite organically once I set off. There were challenges, of course. I’m not terribly good at multi-tasking and I’d charged myself not only with managing two stories but also with trying to end each chapter of each book with a sufficiently exciting moment to keep the readers interested in both stories at the same time. I wasn’t sure I’d managed to pull it off until other people read the manuscript and found the concept worked. I was hugely relieved.

Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?

 I wrote the book in 2012 during my time as Children’s Writer in Residence at the Otago University College of Education. The residency allowed me to live at the Robert Lord Cottage in Titan Street, a twenty minute or so walk from the college. This allowed me to be completely focused on the stories and for a number of weeks I lived, dreamed, and rehearsed the story. I don’t take copious notes but tend to let my stories play out in my head. The red rats idea came in a eureka moment as I was walking across the Alhambra rugby field on my way to the college. I also played out conversations on the walk and when I’d get to the office at the college I’d hurriedly write them down before they disappeared. I imagine I was a danger to traffic. I’m not sure there was any especial challenge in publishing the book, just the usual nail-biting wait between the time it’s packed off to the publisher and the time you get the response. Luckily, Barbara Larson, my publishing editor lives in Dunedin, luckier the wait was not very long, and luckiest of all, Barbara liked the book very much.

Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?

I don’t consciously write for children. I guess if I did there would be a danger of ‘writing down’ and I like to think my readers are bright and don’t want to be condescended to. If I’m honest, I think I’m trying to write the sort of book I would have enjoyed reading as a young person: funny in places, scary in places, with a touch of the fantastic and a satisfying conclusion.

Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?

I don’t think any book consciously inspired or informed Felix and the Red Rats. Actually, I’m proud of the fact that it is so original. Subconsciously perhaps, Haruki Murakami (as mentioned earlier) was an influence, as particularly in his 1Q84 he uses the dual narrative technique with alternating chapters following the stories of two protagonists until they come together. However, Felix is completely different in every other possible way. A book I was reading at the time of writing Felix was A.S.Byatt’s wonderful and dark The Children’s Book and this put me in mind of the Edwardian E Nesbit who was the model for the central figure (who was a children’s writer). Nesbit was famous of course for The Railway Children but many of her other books were fantasies. Nesbit’s books are must-reads for any lover of fantasy.

Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?

One of the pleasures of having my time at the Robert Lord cottage – six months in a kind of bach – was the time it afforded for reading for pleasure and Dunedin is a city blessed with bookshops. I haunted them and found many treasures. There are too many books to list but I did find the time to follow the work of writers who were interesting me: Roberto Bolano, Murakami and Orhun Pamuk. I found too a whole set of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories and these were fun. Sadly while I was down south, Margaret Mahy died and I took the bitter-sweet opportunity to re-read a number of Margaret’s books.

What are your favourite things to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?

 Probably spending time in the garden. I’m passionate about plants and we are lucky to have a large garden at Church Bay which allows me to grow all manner of trees from interesting fruit trees to precious natives. It also affords me a large lawn which needs mowing regularly and I don’t mind this at all: it is my gym. Of course, spending time with family and friends. And crossword puzzles.

  1. […] in the Junior Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Here is James Norcliffe’s Q & A about the writing of this […]


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