Alex Shearer on Writing, Worms, Ghosts and More

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Alex Shearer Interview PhotoAlex Shearer is the author of numerous books for both adults and children. These include Hunted, Canned, The Speed of the Dark, and, most recently, Ministry of Ghosts. His novels Bootleg and The Greatest Show in the World were adapted for television by the BBC. Bootleg was also adapted into manga and anime under the Japanese title Chocolate Underground. In addition to being a novelist, he has written for theater, movies, TV and radio, worked as a worm picker, and spent time as a computer programmer.

Here he takes the time to talk with FangirlNation about writing and ghosts

FangirlNation: Your biography mentions a number of different jobs in addition to writing. One, in particular, caught my attention: What is worm-picking?

Alex Shearer: Well, it wasn’t a job I did for long – nor one I’d much care to do again. I was in Canada at the time and needed a job. It was night work. The employer was a man who ran a fishing tackle shop and he would sell the worms on as bait. A gang of pickers went out to a local golf course once it was dark. The worms would come to the surface of the ground in the moonlight and you would pick them and put them into a tin strapped to your leg and then, when the tin was full, transfer them to a tray.

You had to count them as you went along, for it was piecework and you were paid so many dollars for each thousand worms. To make a living at this you probably needed to pick eight thousand (yes, 8,000!) worms a night. I only stuck the job a few nights, yet for some of the guys there, it was their sole occupation. It was backbreaking, tedious and exhausting work, and you got bitten by mosquitoes all night long. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a career.

FGN: When do you know whether you writing a book for adults or children?

AS: I think you know immediately you start – though I have never consciously sat down to write for a specific reader. It’s just how it comes out. Paradoxically, some books with children as their main characters are not really children’s books at all, and similarly, some with adults at their focus are actually for children – Roald Dahl’s The Twits for example. 

FGN: What do you do to prepare yourself for a day’s writing?

AS: Get out of bed, drink some coffee, eat some toast, and that’s about it!

FGN: Are you an author who works set hours, or do you tend to have a more varied schedule?

AS: No, I don’t really have a set schedule and I don’t work every day. But once I get started on something I tend to work fairly intensely until I get it all done – then I go back through it all at a more leisurely pace.

FGN: What would you say is the most significant difference between writing for TV and writing a book?

AS: There is less interference in writing a book. You do get editorial advice and suggestions, but usually just from one person. In film and TV, everyone has an opinion and there are an awful lot of people to please before you get the backing and the finance to have your project go ahead. And then, of course, there are actors to deal with – most of whom are quite charming (hence why they are actors) but they may not want to say a particular line, or they may feel that their character is wrong—and so on. There is always some reworking in books, but scripts can be rewritten until they no longer bear any similarity to the original – though, sadly, they aren’t always any better for it.

FGN: Are there any ways in which working as a computer programmer has helped you as a writer?

AS: Possibly, yes. I used to program in a language called Cobol – I don’t even know if it is still used. But I remember that each program used to have three main sections: Identification Division, Data Division and Procedure Division – which in some ways corresponds to a narrative: you need the people, the information about them and what they do. Also, computer programs require a beginning, a middle and an end to function– if you don’t have an end in view, you can’t write them. Books are similar. I think you need to know where they’re going before you start. You can always work out the middle section as you go along (as in programming) but if you don’t know where you’re going or the purpose of what you’re doing, you’re lost. And books – like computer programs – need an internal logic.

FGN: You have seen books of yours developed into manga and television shows. How do you step back and let other people play with your material? Is it hard to do? Did you watch the shows after they were made?

AS: They have varied. Some I have written the scripts for, some I have had partial involvement in, and others, none at all. The results have been equally varied too. There was really only one adaptation that I actually hated, but I don’t think I’ll say which one!

FGN: How does Thruppence of The Ministry of Ghosts manage to smell of fresh strawberries even though she works in a fish shop?

AS: I think only Thruppence knows that and she wouldn’t tell anyone. But she’s a very determined girl and she wouldn’t let living above a fish shop hold her back. Possibly she uses the strawberry scented shower gel from the Body Shop—

FGN: Have you ever met a ghost?

AS: Maybe yes, and maybe no. When I was a child, I went with my brother and a friend to explore a local, derelict house that was said to be haunted by a deceased monk. It was an old, hollow mansion, with creaking floorboards and we sneaked in through a broken door. But as we crept around, we suddenly heard a creepy sound, as if someone were coming down the stairs. We were all so scared we ran out of the house and never looked back. But was it a ghost? Maybe it was just a squirrel.

FGN: Do you plan on coming back as a ghost? If so, where?

AS: I’ll just hang around my usual haunts.

FGN: Thank you for taking the time to do this!

AS: My pleasure. Thanks for asking.


We’d like to remind everyone that we are hosting a giveaway for Alex Shearer’s latest book, The Ministry of Ghosts. Enter by following this link & leaving a comment on what kind of ghost you’d like to meet

Alex Sherer’s works are available through Amazon, in bookstores, and in libraries.

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