OTHERWORLD is more than just a game; it’s an adventure, a way of life, a glimpse into an all-too-possible near future. Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller have created a world you’ll fall completely into and this got the Rock The Boat team thinking… What other worlds would we want to escape to for an hour or two (with the caveat that we’d be allowed to leave at the end, of course)?
Here we pick the films we feel inspired to watch (or rewatch) and disappear into, either in preparation for the experience of reading OTHERWORLD (or in fact after reaching the end, and needing some further escape from our everyday reality)…
Kirsten Miller (author)
Ready Player One: Virtual reality brought to the big screen by Steven Spielberg? Count me in. I loved the book, and can’t wait to see what Spielberg does with Wade’s trailer park.
Jason Segel (author)
Time to rewatch The Matrix. You may be too young to remember when The Matrix first came out in theaters but take it from me, The Matrix changed everything. The ultimate dystopian virtual reality tale.
Shadi (Commissioning Editor)
OTHERWORLD really reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and I’d love to pull an all-nighter and watch the trilogy in one sitting! Just like the ring, the realms test the gamers’ lower selves and basic instincts – namely power, greed and wrath! I found it so interesting that Simon and his gang need to overcome these desires in order to beat the game, rescue their friends and, ultimately, survive – much like Frodo Baggins and his unlikely crew of heroes.
Harriet (Senior Editor)
After watching Inception I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The 2010 science fiction film features Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious. The idea of people acting consciously in a dream world struck me as both fascinating and horrifying. I had exactly the same feeling when reading OTHERWORLD, of reality bending and distorting in a terrifying way. In OTHERWORLD, gamers are provided with a chance to play out fantasy lives in a new realm. In a world with no consequences, what would you do?
Kate (Senior Publicist)
I will never forget going to see The Matrix when it was first released, so have to pick that. It was a real game-changer. To imagine what could happen when the worlds of real and virtual reality collide seemed so far away then. Reading OTHERWORLD it was amazing (not to mention a bit worrying) to reflect on how rapidly technology has developed in such a short space of time. Thankfully we have not got to the stage where we are leaping in and out of different realms and getting stuck in virtual worlds, though I fear it might be closer than we think.
Mark (Marketing Guru)
Personally I am inspired to watch the original 1972 version of Solaris, a Russian film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It’s such a strange movie and the first art house/sci fi movie I had ever seen, and created such a strange and bizarre image of life in space.
Nina (YA Publicist)
I am inspired to watch the new Ready Player One film after reading OTHERWORLD. The idea of an imminent future where the sentiency of AI has reached outwards and far beyond the scope of what we see today – and that has changed our world almost beyond recognition – feels like a timely thing to be reminded of right now. (Have you seen the news that AI robots began talking to each other in a new language they made up themselves?!)
Writing a second book is hard. Really hard. The first one is written for yourself, with the freedom to explore, to be creative, to find your own style, to dip in and out of different writing methods, to lose yourself in words. That feeling of being in the zone, utterly at one with your writing and your passion. No one’s looking over your shoulder, not really.
Then comes the second, and the deadline looms just as you’re in mid publication frenzy for your first ever published book. This time it’s different: as well as writing the thing, you have your daily life to maintain, complete with job, (in my case lesson planning, teaching, exam marking), and family commitments and all of the tiny things that make up your daily existence. Eating. Food. That sort of thing. But this time, there’s another set of pressures, because now you have to learn how to be a self-promotion guru, a whizz at keeping up with the white noise and nuances of social media; an organiser of events, school visits, trips to London, split train tickets, best Premier Inn offers; an arranger of school assemblies, book tours, book sales.
And somehow, in the midst of all of this, you have to try to find the time and head space to write another book. You have to keep your head clear as reviews come in, news of others’ successes, triumphs, fellow authors who all seem to be doing bigger and better things than you. You have to not cringe as you post yet another promo author post on Facebook, wondering whether your friends are truly sick of the sight of you and your damned book yet.
It’s hard. And scary.
I hit the wall three times at 30,000 words with The Circus and each time had to start from scratch. I started to sweat as my word-count crept up to the 27,000 mark, wondering when that truly awful blankness and book hatred would strike. And it did. Every time. By far my best circus act with this one was Hitting The Wall: a death defying feat of pure unperformance and inaction.
Slam. Three times.
What should I do? My deadline was scarily close, and all I really had to show for it was a girl named Willow and a few nicely described circus scenes. What did she want? I wasn’t sure. Why was she running away? I didn’t really know. Where was she actually running to? Nope. Didn’t know that one either.
I did have her voice though. I knew she had a story to tell, if I could only access it and stop panicking. In the end I took a deep breath and sent my agent, Clare Wallace, an email with the header: HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
She phoned me straight away and listened calmly as I hiccupped my way through all of my worries and frets. Within the hour she had got my deadline extended, offered practical help with my upcoming launch and reassured me that she got this a lot from debut authors and I wasn’t alone. Immediately the huge burden had lifted and I was able to focus on enjoying the publication of The Island.
Clare gave me permission not to write anything at all for a few weeks. And paradoxically, because I wasn’t supposed to be writing, the ideas came flooding in. I grabbed the dog, took myself off to my caravan and sat outside the pub with a pint of SA, staring over unspeakably beautiful Cardigan Bay, daydreaming.
And that’s when it came to me. Willow needed a friend. Of course she did. She needed someone to complement her spoilt selfishness and lighten up the darker moments of her experience of being on the streets. I thought about my favourite film, The Midnight Cowboy, the poignant tale of a naïve country boy seeking his fortune in New York City, starring Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his trickster friend, Ratso. That was it:
Willow Stephens needed her Ratso.
So Suz was born, Willow’s companion through all of her adventures. She was already present in my story, although I hadn’t realised it. In an early scene I had a brief description of a homeless girl feeding ham to the pigeons in Charing Cross, and this girl grew to become Suz, Willow’s friend and circus manager.
Next, how to fix the setting? Originally, The Circus was set in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an evocative town which manages to be seedy, magical, squalid and glamorous all at the same time. I’d visited Plovdiv the previous autumn as part of my research and watched children throwing each other up into the air on trampolines outside its Cirque Balkanique. Miniature ponies pulled at trampled grass in the circus grounds – a carpark outside Lidl. I sat in our hire car, scribbling notes and watching. I loved the juxtaposition between the tawdry and the surreal. Those descriptions made their way straight into my circus adventure, but I kept drawing to a halt every time I tried to get Willow there. How to get a runaway to Bulgaria? I didn’t have enough technical information, hadn’t had time to travel by train to follow her possible journey.
I tried setting it in Paris, made her a stowaway in a coach (that was the second draft that grinded to a half at 30,000 words). No good. Panic.
Then I visited my brother in Hastings. Immediately I stepped off the train I knew I had found my setting. Hastings has it all: edge, street performers, a creative vibe, down-at-heel bits, upmarket bits, tattiness, an ineffably lovely seafront and plenty of weird and wonderful places for Willow to stay as she attempted to find the circus and herself.
Suz. Hastings. These were the missing ingredients. The rest was a whizz to write, a breeze after all of the juggling acts, the tightrope walk, the knife edge.
Ultimately, there was the final performance: an amazing book launch at my school, complete with talented student and staff performers!
What have I learnt about writing book two? What I’ve always known, what all writers know in their hearts. You’ll get there. Just keep doing what you’re doing, one wobbling step at a time.
The show must go on.
Right from the beginning of City of Saints & Thieves, I was taken with Tina: stealthy, smart, courageous and determined. We need more characters like her. How did you go about creating her?
I knew I wanted to set the book in modern, urban Africa, someplace like Nairobi, Kenya (where I lived for three years). I started with the idea of a Robin Hood type character – if Robin Hood was an orphaned teenage refugee girl in Africa. And then I thought, to survive alone in a place like Nairobi (or Sangui City, as it turned out) you’d have to be really tough, savvy, and street wise. Tina’s character developed from there – what would make her like that? What would have had to happen to her to toughen her up? How would she have survived? And under all that, what would her hidden weaknesses be? Her back-story all evolved from figuring out the answers to these questions. And that history helped shape her character traits and strengths and flaws.
You have spent some working for NGOs in Africa. Can you speak about your experiences and how it helped shape this book?
For about three years I was based in Kenya, but spent most of my time travelling around Africa for work. My job was to interview refugees who were under consideration for resettlement to countries like the US. Basically, I listened to their stories and made legal arguments for why they should be considered refugees. I would start interviews by telling people, “I need you to tell me about all the bad things that have happened to you that made you have to leave your country, starting at the beginning.” (I kept it light and fun like that. J) It was fascinating work, but as you might imagine, it could be mentally and physically draining. I calculated at some point and estimate that I probably listened to around 4,000 stories. So a lot of the refugee-related parts of the book come from there – no one story in particular, but the basic bones of what might cause someone to flee Eastern Congo, and what it might be like to live as a refugee.
What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about life in modern day Africa?
So much! That it’s not all wild animals and child-like people in tribal dress. Or on the other hand, that it’s not all famine and corruption and wars. I know the most about Nairobi, where I lived, and the thing is, there are so many cool things happening in IT and entrepreneurship and social justice and art. Lots of it way beyond what’s happening in the West. I mean, yes, there are animals and very strong cultural identities, and conflict as well, but you can also find all the latest gadgets; and extremely passionate social justice warriors; and smart, creative ways of getting around things like not having a reliable power grid or municipal infrastructure (solar-powered communal toilets that make fertilizer, for example).
The cities tend to be very young, with a lot of people coming from the rural areas for work or school, so there’s all this energy and vitality. I think Westerners like to think of “Africa” as this monolithic place stuck in time, and yes, there are places where people continue to live like they have for centuries, but Africa is huge, and incredibly diverse. And it’s not like people aren’t connected to the modern world. Often you see that people take the useful bits of modern life and adapt them to their current situations. In Kenya at least, everyone has a cell phone. Doesn’t matter how far out you live, whether you herd goats for a living, you’ve got one. Even if the only way to charge it is to pay the guy at the one-room kiosk in the middle of pasture land who has a solar panel a few cents. Like many places in the world, it’s both very global and very local at the same time.
There’s a line in the book that particularly struck me. It’s when Mr Greyhill, an American businessman now living in Sangui City, Kenya, says to Tina, a Congolese refugee: ‘It’s funny. We hardly ever get to choose where our souls find their homes.’ Can you talk about what he means there?
I think that people are often surprised to find themselves attached to a place they weren’t intending on loving, or even liking. Mr. Greyhill didn’t go to East Africa because he liked the scenery; he went there to make money off it. But Sangui City and the region got under his skin and he found himself more comfortable there than back in the US. I think it’s one of those things that can happen with anyone who reluctantly moves into an entirely different culture. You hear about the same thing from the opposite perspective. Immigrants who come to the UK or the US don’t necessarily want to be there – “home” is where they came from; moving away is a way to make money – but over time it becomes more and more difficult to go back and feel comfortable as well. Mr. Greyhill is one of the lucky ones who realizes that he really does feel more at home in Sangui, and that he loves it and may never leave, even if he’s one of the “bad guys” who are taking advantage of the region and profiting off of it at the expense of the locals. He justifies his work, saying that if it wasn’t him doing it, it would be someone worse. It’s a rather colonialist mentality, extremely flawed, but you feel a twinge of sympathy for him, which is pretty much exactly who Mr. Greyhill is.
After the murder of Tina’s mother, Tina needed to look after her younger sister and take care of herself. She also fled the Congo with her mother at a young age because of how dangerous their life became. Despite this very difficult life, Tina has a good head on her shoulders and a strong moral compass. How have her circumstances shaped who she is?
Even though Tina lost her mother at a very young age, she still looks back to her as a sort of moral guide. She’s constantly thinking back to when her mother was alive, using what she said and did to help Tina make her “rules” for survival. This looking back, in a way, counterbalances everything Tina’s learning with the Goonda gang. At the same time, dwelling so much on the past leads to Tina’s obsession with getting revenge. Which then again, has to be tempered by her very here-and-now need to take care of her sister. (People are complicated, right?) A big part of the story, though, is that very Young-Adultish theme of figuring out who you are – understanding where you came from, what part of you is like your parents and what part is all you. She’s learning throughout the story who she is and who she wants to be.
Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from City of Saints & Thieves?
First and foremost, I hope they’re entertained! We love stories because they suck us in and keep us wanting to know more. We want to know what happens, and at the end of the day, I really believe in the power of being swept away in a story. And telling a compelling story is hard! For me to really love something, there has to be that element of mystery and suspense that keeps you turning pages. So I hope I’ve accomplished at least that. And then, of course, I hope that those people who weren’t familiar with this world and these subjects come away having seen something new, something interesting, a story they wouldn’t have otherwise known. And I would hope that they’re glad to now know it. Especially when it comes to global social justice and politics these days, understanding people and cultures and situations that don’t reflect just our own (Western) perspective is so crucial. And I would hope that they would see refugees as not just faceless masses, victims of violence and war, but as real individual people with so many more facets and identities. Tina wouldn’t call herself a refugee first; she’d call herself a thief, a sister, a daughter. That’s who she’d want to be seen as, just like anyone else.
1. Can you share the inspiration behind Room Empty? What compelled you to put Dani’s story to paper?
Room Empty came to me whilst listening to a self-development video on You Tube – I love self-help! I regularly listen to life coaches on YouTube and one session in particular inspired me. The coach focused on looking at what was in our ROOM. Everyone has a room, it’s the internal space where we keep emotional secrets hidden. It was such an arresting and visual image, I could not resist having a quick look at what was in mine. There are many skeletons in the cupboards of my family – mental illness, addiction, pain and death have all played walk-on parts – so it did not take me long to realise it was packed pretty full, and how difficult it is to detach oneself from such a place. It was from there that I started to think about everyone else’s rooms, specifically Dani, the protagonist in Room Empty. What was locked behind her door, and could she escape from it in order to be happy?
2. Room Empty deals with drug addiction, anorexia , rehabilitation and traumas. Mental health is currently a big topic in the UK and readers are calling for books dealing with these issues head on. Why do you think it’s so important that young adult literature talk about this?
As in so many areas of human development, literature and stories often lead the way. A well-told, moving narrative can get inside the human condition, showcasing inner truths about what it is to be human. In ROOM EMPTY, I invite readers to meet characters who are struggling with addiction and mental health, confronting their inner truths at full speed. Similarly, I think it is no exaggeration to say that for centuries we as a society have treated those with mental ill health in a shameful and barbaric way. There is so much more that can be done to get people the kind of help they need without feeling ashamed. If ROOM EMPTY gives just one reader a glimpse into the life of someone struggling with mental illness and helps opens their heart up a little, then it will have done well.
3. What do you hope readers will get out of Room Empty?
Apart from a story that grips and moves and makes the reader think, I hope readers will stop and examine themselves, their belief systems and decide to question reality a little more vigorously. I hope readers will identify with Dani and come to understand that however bright and shiny any family looks to an outsider, inside nearly all are people struggling, dealing and coping. Ultimately I hope the reader will feel they are not alone; you can find hope and love even in the darkest and scariest of empty rooms.
Meet Helen Donohoe, the author of Birdy Flynn, out now!
Helen studied politics at Manchester University and the LSE and has dedicated her career to speaking up for the powerless and invisible as a campaigner, lobbyist, volunteer and writer. She recently completed the MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University, London, winning the PFD Novel Writing Prize for Birdy Flynn, her first novel. She lives in London.
It’s wonderful to be in schools with my author hat on, after over twenty years being an English teacher. I get to do what I like, how I like, and talk about my own book instead of other people’s.
Since my book The Island was launched on World Book Day, I’ve been experimenting with different ideas for creative writing workshops, assemblies and author talks.
Ideas range from inkwasters about being a castaway, imagining how different random objects could be used in a survival situation, and how to write like a movie-maker: exploring structural editing devices such as cutaways and match cuts to transition between scenes.
At one school, I was asked to do an exam prep workshop to ninety year eleven students, who were preparing for their IGCSE and needed a booster class on descriptive and narrative writing. After pitching my castaway book, and explaining research and how I method wrote the castaway scenes, I played them the sound of the sea, and showed them a slide of a desert island shoreline. ‘You have been adrift on an inflatable liferaft for two days now,’ I informed them. ‘How do you feel? Are you sunblistered? Is your throat parched? This is the first time you seen land.’ I watch them busy scribbling as they try to build ‘voice’…
I also give talks in assemblies. Before I was published, I was terrified of the thought of public speaking, so deliberately followed the principle of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ by volunteering to give assemblies at school for World Book Day and Write For Real, my writers’ group. The first one I did, I was so scared, I had to get the school librarian and a bunch of sixth formers to stand up there with me!
But gradually, speaking to a large group of people began to feel ‘normal’, and I realised that it’s actually no different from talking to a class of thirty, which I’ve been doing forever. Now I’m an old pro. The only hairy moment is two minutes before the students start streaming in, and you realise that the projector/Powerpoint/pendrive isn’t working properly and there’s the ICT bloke scratching his head and doing unfathomable things to the laptop…
I love doing author visits. As a teacher, this is all of the best bits: not a learning objective or an exam target grade in sight. Instead, you get to share your passion for creative writing and hopefully inspire writers of the future.
We’re pretty dang excited to publish Dana Reinhardt’s eighth novel, Tell Us Something True, which will be coming out in the UK in July. We certainly wanted to get to know Dana better, and thought our readers would like to as well. So without further ado, let’s meet Dana!
I think the learning came later, though the mistakes came early and often. Part of growing up and growing as a person is recognizing that no matter how all consuming romantic love is, it cannot be the only reason you get out of bed in the morning. That’s River’s primary mistake. He pins everything on Penny. I think we all do that when we’re younger and in the throes of first love, and as we get older, it’s not that we love any less, or with less ferocity, it’s that we know that love has to be about more than worship, and we cannot nor should not lose ourselves in our relationships.
I don’t think of River as hapless, in fact I think of him as someone who is extraordinarily lucky, he just doesn’t know it, and part of what happens to him over the course of the story is that he begins to recognize the ways in which the stars have aligned for him. I think of River as more clueless than hapless, and yes, he was really fun to write because most of my novels are narrated by hyper-verbal, hyper-aware girls who tend to be more clued in than the people around them. River was a nice change.
I was walking my dog around Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where I currently live. This was while I was in the thinking phase of the writing process, meaning that I didn’t bring my headphones to listen to podcasts (something I typically do while walking), instead I was using the time to let my mind wander and sort through some unformed story ideas I’d been working on. It was a gorgeous day. The light was perfect. A warm breeze blew through the trees. I saw a young couple out in a pedal boat in the middle of the lake and for a minute I thought: Oh, how nice. How romantic. And then I thought: What if she brought him out here today, to the middle of the lake, just to break up with him? I couldn’t walk home fast enough. I was dying to write what became the first scene in the book.
I wish I could say that writing books has gotten easier. That I’ve nailed a routine. That I’ve become a pro. But unfortunately, if anything, writing has gotten harder. I’m not entirely sure why. I think I know too much now, and I tend to hear editors’ voices, readers’ voices and critics’ voices in my head while I write. When I wrote my first book I figured nobody would ever read it so I wrote in utter silence. Now, I spend a great deal of effort trying to find that silence again. But on the positive side, I’ve learned to relax. If I’m stuck, or I should say when I’m stuck, I don’t panic. I know there’s a way out. That I’ll find the path. That, as River’s step father would say, “There’s always a way through the thicket.”
I think the one common thread that runs through every book I’ve written is that there is always a strong sibling bond for at least one of the characters. In my family, I was the little sister. So maybe with River, it was easy for me to imagine the way he might adore the precocious little Natalie! If I’ve learned anything about myself through my own writing it’s that my relationship with my brothers was more important and impactful than I’d realized. It must have been, since it always infiltrates my writing. And maybe in returning again and again to siblings who adore each other, I’m trying to write the relationship I hope my daughters will have.
It’s what I know. Even though I am adult now and I am part of my own nuclear family, when I imagine family from a young person’s perspective, I imagine it fractured because that’s how I grew up, in a fractured family. Though I was a child of divorce, I never doubted my parents’ love. They did an amazing job divorcing. Truly. They had the kind of divorce I’d want to emulate if I wanted to divorce, which luckily I don’t because I’m quite fond of my husband. But before I married him, I did spend time imagining what type of person he’d be if things went south for us. Would he be spiteful and petty? Would he be there for the kids? I knew the answers were no and yes. He thinks this is the most unromantic thing ever. For me, it was practical. And ultimately romantic.
It’s not really a break up story in that technically, I don’t think we ever broke up, but I will tell you the story of my first love. His name was Matthew. We went to preschool together. He had a huge head of crazy curls and crooked teeth. He was undeniably goofy looking, but I absolutely adored him. My best friend married us beneath a tree in the play yard. We used baggie ties for rings. Eventually we graduated from pre-school and went to different elementary schools and time marched on and he became nothing but a sweet, tender memory. My Matthew. My best friend and I talked about that day of the wedding often over the years that followed and she’d tease me about it a little, but mostly with the passage of time, as I began to navigate the tricky waters of adolescent dating, he became the symbol of the perfect boyfriend. The gold standard. The one against whom I measured everyone else. And then, many years later and 3,000 miles from home, I ran into Matthew. It was my freshman year of college. He was a sophomore—apparently in addition to his dashing looks he was some sort of a genius, smart enough at least to have skipped the first grade. When I heard his name and saw his face I knew it had to be my Matthew. So I approached him in the dining hall. My heart was like a swarm of bees in my chest. Matthew, I said. Do you remember…? He didn’t. He had absolutely no idea who I was. No memory at all of me. Of our love. Or our wedding beneath the tree in the play yard. He did not idealize me or think of me as the gold standard as he began to navigate the treacherous waters of adolescent dating. I was nobody to him. That stung a little. Okay, so maybe it stung a lot.
Well, I guess it’s enough of a thing that there was a huge pop song in the late 80’s about how nobody walks in LA. I know that’s at odds with the other reputation LA has as a place where people spend an extraordinary amount of time exercising. If you head down to the beach, you’ll see throngs of people walking and running in expensive and flattering work out gear, but as a means of getting from one place to another, yes, I think walking in LA is really that unheard of.
Many of us have an “escape”. Somewhere or something that helps our mind make sense of the world, or lose sense of the world to regain focus and mindfulness. Having neglected my inherent fascination for nature during my teenage years through to my early twenties, it’s only now that I have begun to realise how important that time spent engaging my mind with one simple pursuit is.
Nature watching has become a huge part of my life again since starting on a new career path at the RSPB this year. For those reading who might not know anything about it, the RSPB is Europe’s biggest nature conservation charity and is best known for its involvement with birds. The charity has come a long way since its humble beginnings and is inclusive of all wildlife, as well as operating internationally in partnerships with other Bird Life partners.
As the editor for the children’s magazines at the RSPB, I’m immersed in the natural world on a daily basis. Being able to indulge my inner child, relive and reinvent adventures with wildlife through the magazines is a real privilege. Nest, or more specifically its lead character, intrigued me, to say the least, and I jumped at the opportunity to receive a copy and get reading.
What I was not expecting was the emotional intensity Nest demands of the reader. There is stark, uncensored realism in the story’s tragic events and Chirp’s character and narrative is authentic throughout. To me her struggle felt closely mirroring of nature’s daily grind, and by her engagement with nature, perhaps for a brief moment, her struggle was abated.
A particularly poignant component of the story for me was Chirp’s relationship with Joey. Uncontrived, authentic, natural; their relationship embodied the core message and feel of the book. Personally I found developing wholly truthful relationships at that age difficult, and Nest captures the tentative excitement shared by the two characters beautifully amidst their calvary.
Nest is a captivating, unerring representation of a young person’s struggle, when what seems so stoic, becomes so uncertain. The coming to terms with the realisation that your parent’s unwavering strength and comfort can be fragile is one of the most indelible memories for anyone growing up. Young people have to go through a lot, and everything has a part to play in shaping the person on the other side.
Wildlife watching carries a stigma amongst young people, and is a barrier to those who want to learn more about the natural world or share their experiences. Joining a wildlife organisation can give young people the platform to grow their interest and meet like-minded individuals. Nature is amazing; nature together is unforgettable.
We’ll never know, truly, how important each connection to nature is for a young person; for them and for our future.
–Jack Plumb, RSPB