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Interview: April 2010’s Sarah Wood recently spoke with Philip Reeve about his latest work, FEVER CRUMB --- a prequel of sorts to his bestselling Mortal Engines Quartetthat follows a young, orphaned girl as she is called upon to save the city of London and uncover the truth about her mysterious past. In this interview, Reeve explains why he chose to revisit the world he created in his previous series (albeit centuries previous) and discusses the various elements he incorporated into its futuristic, post-apocalyptic society. He also elaborates on the book’s theme of rationality vs. emotion and instinct, reflects on his preference for science over magic in his fantasy novels, and shares details about where this new series is headed over its next two installments. You are best known for the Mortal Enginesseries of books, a city-eat-city world where roving cities devour each other for resources. In FEVER CRUMB, you take readers to the point where nomadic groups transition to traction cities. What made you decide to return to this world?

Philip Reeve: I enjoyed inventing the world of Mortal Engines, which in many ways was the culmination of all the fantasy and sci-fi worlds I'd tried to imagine while I was growing up. After HERE LIES ARTHUR when I decided I wanted to write another fantasy, I considered setting it in a new world, but the Mortal Engines world contains so many of the things I like that I was afraid it would be a bit pale in comparison. And of course FEVER CRUMB is set so many centuries before the other books that it feels like a different world: there are lots of things in it that don't appear in the Mortal Engines books, and vice versa.

TRC: One of the reasons I’ve come to admire Mortal Enginesis that your conflicts are complex without stinting on pace, action, or character. I think it’s very easy to portray conflicts in the light of “good vs. evil,” but what emerges in Mortal Engines is something far more complex. What made you decide to create such a conflict?

PR: I think that if you're creating an imaginary world, it ought to be at least as interesting as the real world, and one of the things that makes the real world interesting is that very few people are wholly good or evil. Having bad people do good things and good people do bad things makes it much more fun to write, and, hopefully, to read.

TRC: Technology is a major theme in Mortal Engines. As Fever comes to comprehend the plans for the technology they uncover in FEVER CRUMB, she says, “It is irrational to build machines whose principles you do not understand and whose actions you cannot predict.” This could act as a warning for what happens in the rest of Mortal Engines. Can you tell us a little about your sense of technology both in the books and in our time?

PR: Well, I went to art college, so for me that applies to all machines. Actually I believe technology can be an enormous force for good; I think it has improved our lives immeasurably, and most of the problems it throws up can probably be solved by the further application of technology. On the other hand, sci-fi stories are generally more interesting if the technology goes a bit mad and eats the cat or something.

TRC: FEVER CRUMB is set in a post-apocalyptic world where some great catastrophe (we’re thinking a nuclear disaster) has changed the way people live. How did you come upon your vision for this world?

PR: I had to get rid of our civilization to make way for all the things I wanted in Mortal Engines --- airships, mobile cities, etc. --- and saying that there had been a big old war seemed the easiest way to do it. When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s we were all basically waiting for the bomb to drop, so the idea of the future as a cratered post-atomic wasteland wasn't much of a stretch of the imagination; almost all the sci-fi I remember from my childhood had to get World War III out of the way before it could start creating its future world --- even Star Trek is post-apocalyptic in that sense. Nowadays, of course, the threat of all-out nuclear war seems to have retreated and eco-catastrophes have become the apocalypse-du-jour....

TRC: Fever is raised by engineers whose primary principal of belief is rationality. How did this inform your character and conflict? Was it difficult writing a character containing all these battles within herself?

PR: I basically agree with Fever that it's best to approach the world completely rationally and objectively. But unlike her, I can see that there might be certain problems with such an approach. It's quite interesting finding out how she responds to all the irrational situations she finds herself in. It turns out that trying to be completely rational is actually a very, very irrational thing to do, and part of Fever's continuing story will be about how she learns to compromise a bit and accept her feelings and instincts. I think some people find her a bit infuriating, but I rather like infuriating characters.

TRC: Immortality, and what is left behind for future generations, is a major theme in the Mortal Engines series. What do you hope to leave behind for future generations?

PR: I suppose it would be nice if the books were still being read in 50 years or so. (It would be nicer yet if I were still writing them in 50 years, of course!) Very few books last much longer than that. But it's not really something I've given much thought to.

TRC: You started out as an illustrator. Was it difficult making the transition to author? Is there any reason your illustrations haven’t appeared with your writing? Do you still do illustrations?

PR: I was always both a writer and an illustrator, it just happened that I was published as an illustrator first. My illustrations to date have been quite cartoony, and wouldn't really suit the books I've written. I have done some small pen-and-ink drawings for my book NO SUCH THING AS DRAGONS, and it's something I'd like to do more of in future.

TRC: There are rumors of a movie in the works for Mortal Engines. I know that making a movie is an incredibly complex process and that many books optioned for films never make it to the screen. Is there anything further you can say about this rumor or this process?

PR: I'd like to see a movie of Mortal Engines (as long as they don't make Hester pretty), but I have no way of telling whether it will happen or not. I know and trust the producer, Deborah Forte, who is hoping to bring it to the screen, so I think it's in good hands. 

TRC: You’ve often cited the work of C.S. Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner as childhood inspirations for your work. What are your greatest influences and inspirations as an adult?

PR: I think the important thing that happened to my writing as an adult is that I reached a point where I had so many diverse influences that my stuff started to look quite original. I couldn't possibly list them all. JG Ballard, Geraldine McCaughrean and Patrick O'Brian were all big inspirations at the time I startedMortal Engines, and it's hard to think of three authors with less in common.

TRC: You are probably best known for Mortal Engines, but you’ve also written the Larklight series of space adventures for younger readers and HERE LIES ARTHUR for older readers. I noticed that one thing these books have in common is that they rely upon science rather than magic. Is there any reason for this preference of science (even if it’s fantastical or futuristic) over magic in your books?

PR: I have absolutely no belief in the supernatural, and while I don't mind reading books about magic --- there are many that I love --- I can never seem to suspend my disbelief for long enough to write one. (Though of course most of the “science” I use is so unlikely that it might as well be magic.) I'd actually quite like to try something set in a classic, Middle Earth-style fantasy world next, so I may have to try and find a way round that.

TRC: Why read? Why write? I’m interested in both the reasons you have taken to these activities and why you would recommend them to others.

PR: They're just two things that I've always done. Books are a great form of entertainment --- far more visual than movies, and able to immerse you much more deeply in a story. And if you enjoy reading stories, why would you not want to write your own?

TRC: FEVER CRUMB works well as a stand-alone title, but also provides a lot of backstory for characters who appear later in Mortal Engines. The next book in the Fever Crumbseries is already available in the U.K., and your blog mentions there’s a third in the works. Do you have any sense of how far this portion of Mortal Engines will extend? Can you give readers any indication of what to expect in the upcoming books here in the U.S.?

PR: Actually Fever Crumb is set so far before Mortal Engines that it’s very unlikely she'll meet any of the characters from the later books --- except one! But she will get to witness the slow transformation of her world into something more like the world described in Mortal Engines. Also, I want to take off and explore places that were never even mentioned in the quartet, where anything might be happening. I'm quite pleased with the second book, FEVER CRUMB: A WEB OF AIR, because it doesn't really feel like a Mortal Engines book at all, despite being set in the same world. So I'm hoping there will eventually be lots and lots of books about Fever, although I do want to try some other things as well.