A week celebrating middle grade science fiction wouldn’t be complete without stretching across the planet to writer Simon Haynes, who Midwest Book Review calls the “the Australian Terry Pratchett.” High praise indeed! I was excited when Simon agreed to interview on my blog, and not just because I have a weak spot for British humor and Australian accents – he gets a hearty cheer from the States for writing (and publishing!) middle grade SF as well!
Hal Junior: The Secret Signal is Haynes newly released SF novel for kids, and I’m glad to see an award-winning author of adult science fiction (the Hal Spacejock series) venturing into middle grade, even if we have to import him from the southern hemisphere (Haynes was born in the UK, but now writes from Australia).
Me: Simon, you’ve written four humorous adult SF novels, several short stories, as well as being a founding member of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. What made you decide to venture into middle grade? Is Hal Junior just like Hal Senior (lots of funny, but without the naughty words!), or did you find middle grade writing distinctly different from writing for adults?
Simon: I’ve always been a fan of plain writing. To me, a good story trumps flowery prose every time, and I want to suck the reader in with the characters and their surroundings, not a clever turn of phrase. When writing Hal Junior I didn’t have adjust my style much. The sentences are a little shorter, I swapped out a few words I deemed a little too complex, and I gave the narrative a very light sprinkling of exclamation marks and sound-effects.
Apart from that I made no concessions to the age of the reader. As a result I’ve written a middle-grade book which appeals to adults as well as kids, but one has to suffer these terrible mistakes from time to time.
As for theme and content, Hal Junior was originally supposed to be Hal Spacejock as a 10-year-old. Unfortunately, several readers pointed out that Hal Junior was way too smart to become the older Hal, and so I decided the character would be much better as Hal’s son. Hal Spacejock doesn’t know he HAS a son, and Hal Junior doesn’t know his real dad is Hal Spacejock either.
Now I’m itching to write a scene where Hal Senior gets the chance to scream ‘No! Nooo! Noooooo!’ as his son is threatened with some dire fate.
Me: Okay, I totally want to see that scene too! Or possibly a “Luke, I am your father…” moment, only funnier. And with British accents. Ahem. Tell us about the first Hal Junior novel, The Secret Signal.
Simon: The Secret Signal is set aboard a very large space station in deep space. It’s a long way from the nearest planet, and it’s primarily a scientific research station which means there are Rules. The labs are in A-section, which is off-limits, and the scientists and their families live in B-, C- and D- sections. The kids attend lessons run by a mildly sarcastic electronic teacher. They also do spacesuit training and have to spend time on simulators learning how to handle the suits in space.
At the start of the book Hal’s mother has just been promoted to head of research, and they’re about to move to bigger quarters in a different part of the station. A supply ship is due, their teacher goes missing, and that’s where things really kick off.
Me: Sounds fun! Can I come to spacesuit training? Because that would be awesome. Now that you’ve dived into writing middle grade, can we still expect to see more of the adult Hal Spacejock novels?
Simon: I took a break from the adult series to write a couple of Hal Junior books. Now that the first Hal Junior book is out, my plan is to finish off Hal Spacejock 5, then edit Hal Junior 2 into shape. Hal 5 features a large fortune left to a mystery robot, while Hal Jnr 2 features a wealthy businessman with plans to turn the space station into a luxury hotel.
Me: Sounds like you are very busy! Your adult novels are published through Fremantle Press. What made you decide to go the self-publishing route for Hal Junior?
Simon: I offered Hal Junior to Fremantle Press earlier this year, and while they really liked it they advised me to send it to a bigger publishing house. (Fremantle Press has a distribution deal with Penguin Australia, so their titles are widely available. However, they don’t get their books into supermarkets and department stores, and that’s a vital outlet for middle-grade novels.)
I queried a couple of large publishers, but two months later I had a change of heart and asked them to delete my submissions.
Why? The catalyst was a meeting I had with Fremantle Press. Two major bookselling chains recently closed down in this country, and pushing the fifth book in the ongoing Hal Spacejock series was already a big ask. (‘Order to net’ is the relevant term, and it’s responsible for the death of many series … even trilogies!)
The outcome of the meeting was that Fremantle Press would continue to sell Hal Spacejock books one to four in Australia, and I would get the print and ebook rights back for the whole series. I released Kindle versions within a fortnight, and was planning print releases in the US and UK when I remembered Hal Junior. By now my queries had been out two months or more, and I’d heard nothing. Why would I want to deal with a publisher for my middle-grade novels when I now had four titles to issue under my own imprint? Why not make it five? I could rule the galaxy! Muahahaaaa!
So, I signed up with Lightning Source, hired a cover artist/designer and an editor, and got things moving. Barely eight weeks later – after working 6am ’til midnight seven days a week – Hal Junior is out.
Me: It’s fascinating to me how distribution works differently in different markets. You mentioned your publisher couldn’t get your books into supermarkets and department stores, where middle grade sells big, but I can’t remember seeing a middle grade novel in a supermarket ever in the U.S.! Interesting. And now there’s been a lot of talk about middle grade possibly being the “next big thing” in e-books, as kids get kindles and nooks for Christmas, or parents hand down their outmoded readers to their children. Are you betting on this rise, or do you expect most of your sales to still come from paper?
Simon: Definitely paper. I truly love my daughters, but at eight or nine a delicate ebook reader would have lasted five minutes in their hands. For kids you want an ebook reader built like a flight recorder, yet costing under fifty bucks. We’re not there yet.
In fact, that’s the only reason I queried publishers in the first place. If Hal Junior were YA or adult, I would have gone straight to ebook without a second thought.
Because it’s middle-grade, ninety percent of my effort and costs have gone into the print version. I’ve also put a lot of effort into seeking reviews and speaking to local wholesalers (e.g. school suppliers), because if I DO manage to convince parents and educators to buy my book, I want the next step to be easy.
Me: I agree that middle grade is still a paper world! And kudos to you for putting in the effort to help Hal Junior find its way to kid’s hands! Thank you for sharing your book and your story with us! I hope Hal Junior has wonderful ride, shooting for the stars!
Simon: I hope so! With middle-grade books there are two important stages: appealing to the buyers (adults), and appealing to the kids. I think it’s going to be fine where adults are concerned: I had feedback from three women, all of whom read the book in a single sitting and one of whom admitted to a tear or two over the ending. (It’s not sad, just happy and uplifting.) As for the reaction from younger readers … I’ll tell you next month.
Me: Please do stop back and let us know how it goes!
Buy Hal Junior