A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“That’s not a book!”
“It most certainly is,” I say and slide the neon cover from the paperback. “Tah Dah! Book!”
“Woah!” No 1 son’s eyes light up in the reflection of the electric orange sleeve. “Can I have it?” I can hear the hunger in his voice.
I pass over the book and have never seen it, or him, since.
Luckily, I had the foresight to buy more than one copy of The Joshua Files: Invisible City and can therefore tell you all about it.
The trouble with sayings like “you can’t tell a book by its cover” is that sometimes they’re just plain wrong. As I look at the electrifying outer skin of The Joshua Files, I find myself thinking of men in bars, blinged up to the nines and dressed to kill. You instinctively know that they have made so much effort to cover up the fact that they’re tedious. The Joshua Files : Invisible City on the other hand has a wholly appropriate skin. In fact I would go so far as to say that they could easily have added some flashing lights and a siren and still not upstaged the contents.
The story is about Josh, he’s thirteen and his archaeologist father is killed in an aeroplane crash. His mother falls apart and he is left to deal with his feelings alone. Is his father really dead? Was he killed? Were there UFO’s flying around on the night his Dad died? Josh tries to come to terms with what has happened by putting his thoughts down in a Blog. While browsing through his Dad’s old emails Josh comes across clues that catapult him into the adventure of a lifetime. This adventure almost wholly takes place in Mexico as Josh searches for the lost book of the Mayan civilisation: the Ix Codex. And I almost feel I’ve been there too. The vivid descriptions of the scenery, of the humidity, the colour and vibrancy of the landscape are so beautifully captured that I almost felt the muggy heat, smelled the hibiscus and tasted the tortillas.
To me one of the biggest attractions of this book is the deep characterisation of Josh. He’s just any ordinary boy. But he’s a boy dealing with the loss and pain of the death of his father and he’s having to do this alone. This underlies and propels the narrative and the journey he takes is not only one of action and adventure but also the stages of grief as he fights to discover the truth. The interplay between both the physical and emotional journey leads to a powerful connection between reader and character. Don’t get me wrong this book is not all doom and gloom, far from it. In fact the subtle way these themes are played out are a credit to MG Harris’s skill in keeping the reader emotionally charged yet not bogged down in psychological overkill.
To say this novel is exciting is an understatement. Now, I am well known for my lack of patience, my hundred mile an hour mentality and my miniscule attention span. I am therefore well placed to opine on books for kids – since in a lot of ways I am one! And I was exhausted at the end of The Joshua Files. There is not one page that doesn’t make you have to turn over to the next one. And incredibly the pace increases towards the dénouement and you’re practically flicking them over to get to the end. I needed a cup of tea and a lie down when I closed the book.
The Joshua Files is a mystery, an adventure and a dramatic tale of loss, loyalty and personal responsibility. It’s a full throttle adrenaline rush that will appeal to the kids (and adults) of the 21st Century but it will also help them to see that battles can be fought and won, determination pays off and you should never give up.
If you’ve ever really wanted to buy a kid a book but were afraid they’d find it boring, naff, un-cool then now’s your chance. Go for it – they can’t help being impressed at your obvious funkyness. And I’m first in the queue for the next instalment (two copies again!).
Interview with MG Harris
Eve: I’m holding a breathtaking copy of The Joshua Files : Invisible City in my hand. It is the most striking book I have ever seen, this amazing cover is unique. First of all, how do you feel about its gorgeousness and how did this innovation come about?
MG: I really can’t take ANY credit for the innovative cover at all – it’s all the brilliant Scholastic design team! I was happy to let Scholastic just go ahead and take care of the cover design – after all what would I know about designing something to attract a 10-year old child? I became aware of just how crucial the cover was, when Julian Esposito, the former Buyer for Children’s Books at Borders took me aside at a Scholastic Christmas party and whispered “Make sure they give you a GREAT cover! It’s the most important thing for children’s books…” What I love is that in several ways the slipcover completes the book cover; it’s truly a design of two halves: it disguises the orange colour-burst around the title (which you don’t really see until the slipcover is removed), it completes the black lines of the J logo and it protects the book. My editor first showed the finished product to my agent and I at a meeting and we were all cooing over it. I’d heard that the edges glowed but I couldn’t imagine how. So I totally love it! As my editor said at the time, it’s a Gorgeous Thing!
Eve : The Joshua Files is set in both Oxford and Mexico and I get the impression from reading that these are both places very close to your heart. In particular the vivid descriptions of Mexico that bring the book so much to life. Can you tell me about your relationship with these settings?
MG: I live in Oxford and have done since I came to study biochemistry here as an 18-year old. It’s a popular place to base a children’s adventure story – and I know it well so that cut down on research! I was born in Mexico City to Mexican parents and am still actually Mexican. I’ve been lucky to travel quite extensively in Mexico, both as a young adult and since. We always seem to be on yet another road trip when we arrive in Mexico; often with British friends as well as family members. The Yucatan, Veracruz and Campeche settings are all based on time spent in those parts of Mexico, which I really love but in particular the state of Veracruz.
Eve: The book is steeped in Mayan myth and legend and the fact-based background adds enormous depth to the novel. How did your interest in this civilisation come about and how do you research this fascinating subject?
MG: I first became interested in the Maya when I was fifteen and visited the Mayan ruins in Yucatan with my father, sisters and stepmother. They are seriously impressive monuments; huge pyramids in the middle of sweltering jungle. It wasn’t a comfortable visit; a long drive on hot, dusty roads in cars without airconditioning, intense heat and few facilities at the ruins, vertigo on the temples, claustrophobia inside the pyramids; but that all added to the intensity of the experience. Back at the hotel’s shop I found a fabulously hokey book in the Erich Von Daniken mould – claiming that ancient Mayans were survivors of Atlantis and originally from space… The mixture of exoticism, mystery and intrigue was too much for me. When we returned to Mexico City my sister and I hit the Museum of Anthropology and scooped up all the books we could about the Maya. So I used a few of my books, but also did extensive research on the Web. Mayanists have put huge amounts of terrific academic information on the Web. In the USA especially it’s a very popular academic field for archaeologists, epigraphers and anthropologists.
Eve: Okay, on a more personal level, what brought you into the world of writing and what do you love most about it? And actually, if you could just tack on at the end anything that you hate, that would be great.
MG: I wrote fan fiction about 12 years ago, and actually started the first Blake’s 7 Webzine – about which I ended up being interviewed in one of those BBC documentaries about genre TV fans. Fan fiction is good for practising prose, storytelling, dialogue and characterization, and you immediately get many readers. But it has limits – you don’t learn enough about how to create original characters, and you can get away with poor structure because what readers really enjoy is the characters – which aren’t yours! So after about three years (one novel and about ten short stories/novellas) I stopped. I wasn’t learning enough. I came to writing as a possible career because I’d always had the idea I’d like to try it. But when I thought of what I could write, all that came forth were tediously derivative ideas. So I suppressed all those thoughts and kept thinking that one day I’d look up from my work (science or business) and have ideas brimming forth, from years of being kept in… But around 2004 I realised that if I didn’t make an effort to clear my mind of work, I would probably never do it – any story ideas were just too deeply buried. I started out thinking I’d like to write for the screen. I entered a contest to write a sitcom for the BBC – and made it to the final 10%. I would have forgotten about writing, probably, but for a very encouraging rejection letter. So I thought – well maybe I could break into screenwriting if I published a commercial novel. And at the end of 2004 I broke my leg and had to spend 12 weeks off my feet, which seemed like the perfect excuse to start writing full-time. Luckily my husband’s job could support the family, so I could afford to stop working. We agreed I could have two years to get an agent. If not, I would go back to work. I had an idea that a commercial novel, like a screenplay, was a highly structured construct. I didn’t have time or money for a creative writing course so I set about reading books on how to construct a novel – and resigned myself to writing three or four manuscripts until I managed anything that would attract an agent. But in fact the second manuscript did attract an agent. It wasn’t good enough to get published – in my agent’s opinion as well as at least two others and a publisher! He was at least prepared to take me on – provided I listened to his advice about its flaws and more or less totally rewrote the script. The central concept was the same – a 13-year old Oxford boy continuing his dead father’s search for a lost Mayan codex.
I love that writing is HARD! Not I-hate-this-and-it-hurts hard, but pretty intellectually challenging; enough that you feel you’ve had a good brain work-out every day. And there’s nothing I hate about it.
Eve: You’ve made it now, and you’re “living the dream.” But how was your road to publication? Short and smooth? Or long, bumpy and potholed?
MG: I’d say it was pretty smooth, but that’s because I expected setbacks, rejections, delays, mysterious lengthy silences from agent AND publisher, frustration and heartache… and I got all of that. I was just prepared for much more. To be honest my scientific training was the most useful thing. Science is about repeating your experiments over and over, having them fail much of the time, and waiting and waiting, having papers rejected, having to jump through hoops to please journal referees, being beaten to a result by a rival group. So at every setback I just gritted my teeth and remembered the lab and thought – this is no worse.
Eve: If you were able to go back and give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out as a writer, what would it be? And why?
MG: “It won’t take as long as you think!” There were times, like EVERY writer, that I felt despondent. But as a scientist I had a high tolerance for failure, and I knew just how much more rejection I was prepared to take…but envisaging that was painful…and in the end a waste of emotional energy because actually it wasn’t so bad!
Eve: The Joshua Files is breathtaking, exhilarating, edge of your seat adventure. Were you exhausted by the time you’d finished writing and what are you doing to build up your energy reserves for the next book in the series?
MG: You’re very generous to say that but the original manuscript moved like a sloth by comparison! Before we edited book 1, I wrote the ms for Joshua book 2, which is actually even faster-paced – there’s action-adventure from page 1. Then I came back to the leisurely version of “Invisible City” and with the amazing help and insight of my editor, shaved off about 10,000 words of slow-moving material. So “Invisible City” became a speedy read in the editing. Since then I’ve written two more manuscripts that hopefully move at that sort of pace or faster. It sort of IS exhausting because the characters rarely have even five minutes to sit down and reflect, and they’ve either just escaped a scrape or they’re headed for one. The adult reader in me does occasionally put in some more pensive sections, which I lose once I’ve seen the effect of reading them aloud to my yawning daughter! How do I build up reserves – I need a few months off between books! I try not to think of the enormity of 75,000 words. When it’s carefully planned it’s like sitting down to write a long series of short stories…
Eve: We have started a tradition here at VL that all interviewees should give their 5 favourite books and reasons for choosing them… so what would yours be?
MG: Don’t be surprised if they aren’t action adventure – I do read some action-adventure of course but actually that’s more of a movie preferance! In my own reading I prefer something less heart-stopping…
Our thanks to MG for sparing the time to give us this interview.
You can find MG Harris at her own Website.
There is also a Fan Website set up for The Joshua Files:Invisible City, where you’ll find reams of pictures, a members forum and details of the background to the novel. It’s fabulous – go get lost in there!
The Joshua Files : Invisible City by MG Harris. Scholastic. 384 pages. Paperback with gorgeous zingy neon hardcover. £6.99. ISBN 13: 978-1407104027. ISBN 10: 1407104020
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'