A couple of weeks ago I posted about the passing of children’s author Sam Youd, AKA John Christopher. I’d emailed Sam back in 2002, we’d chatted for a while and he had agreed to sign two of his books for me. You can read the original blog post here.
I’d thought our emails had been lost forever, but just after I published the blog post Sam’s daughter, Rose got in touch. She’d searched through her father’s computer and found our correspondence there, filed away for a decade. Rose forwarded the emails to me and has agreed for me to publish them here, for which I am very grateful.
Its a fascinating insight into the later years of a mature and successful writer. Even with a list of best selling novels under various pseudonyms his frustrations at certain aspects of his career are evident. I started by asking him why so many of his books were now out of print.
I’m afraid you need to address your question to the publishers! Currently I have nothing in print in the UK, just the Tripods series in the US, but something like ten titles in Farsi. Unfortunately Iran does not recognize international copyright, but I did have some visitors recently from Tehran who brought me a carpet, several enamelled boxes, and a load of pistachio nuts (which two of my daughters took back to Bath to feed their pampered local badgers). I suppose things may change if Disney actually make their projected multi-movie epic based on the Tripods: my American publisher is bringing out a special 35th anniversary edition in hope of that. I’d like to use it to get some others back into print — notably the Sword (Prince in Waiting) trilogy, which were my personal favourites. Might even get Death of Grass back in print, nearly fifty years on.
And somewhat surprisingly, I have a new (adult) title coming out next year. When I say new, I wrote it about six years ago and have only now found a publisher. He approached me in recollection of a book his father gave him as a boy, which he’s now handed on to his son. Title was Malleson at Melbourne, under another pen-name, a fictionalized account of an Australian Test tour. Life is odd at times. (The new one is not about cricket, I should say, but a near-future speculation on Virtual Reality and our European destiny)
A decade on and the proposed Tripod feature films have yet to be made. The last mention seems to be in 2009, when Alex Proyas signed on to develop it. [Source: Digital Spy]
The Death of Grass did make it back into print and is now available widely, but few of Sam’s other books are in general circulation in the UK today.
The virtual reality book Sam mentions was called Bad Dream, published in 2003.
Talk of Disney’s Tripod’s deal raised the ghost of the expensive mid-eighties BBC adaptation of the Tripods. Famously the BBC made only two series, adapting the first two books of the trilogy. The third was never made, leaving fans to speculate as to why it had not returned.
The BBC eventually decided they would like to complete their series, but by that time Disney had taken over and of course they take everything, throughout the known and alternate universes, over a time period stretching from before the Big Bang until after Entropic Death. Whether they will ever make the movie (or movies — they talked about it as “our Lord of the Rings” at one time — is more doubtful. I have a feeling they’ve stalled on the very expensive screenplay they commissioned from Terry Hayes.
But who knows? Maybe they will; and maybe it will even be a good movie.
Other TV adaptions of Sam’s work did see the light of day in Germany.
Empty World did reach the small screen once. A German company, Bavaria (Das Boot) did a 6-part TV serial of The Guardians and followed with a 90-minute teleplay of Empty World. Both in German. A German girl wrote to me saying they’d done the book in school, and she was shocked by the “kitsch-horror” Bavaria came up with. I asked to see the video, but they refused. Das ist das Leben.
[There are] no Prince in Waiting adaptations. I was told a few years back that some anonymous but famous star had a project in mind, but he presumably changed it; or couldn’t raise the money — a perpetual problem. The notion I did like goes back about twenty years when a musician who had read the books as a boy told me he’d like to write an opera trilogy, based on them. I told him I’d reserve operatic rights, but it never came into question. About a year ago there was an American who wanted to make a movie based on Lotus Caves. He seemed to have interesting ideas, but my (NY, NY) agent blew him out of the water. He lived in Plains View, NY, and my agent said that ruled him out as a serious contender: he’d grown up there.
I asked Sam about his working practices. Did he work on a computer? Had he consigned his typewriter to history, or was he a pen-and-paper man?
I’ve used PC since 1984 (first one, Olivetti, had no floppy and all of 10 MB memory) — used to use a typewriter. Even when young my own handwriting defeated me.
I asked him how he felt about the internet – after all here we were happily exchanging emails. He seemed to have taken to a relatively new technology in his 70’s. Did he have any plans for a larger presence on the web, an author’s website perhaps?
Several decades ago it used to be said that the rare Edward Heath books were the unsigned ones. Since then things have escalated and not for the better. I had a publisher here a few months ago and we talked about a book called Spike Island, the history of a military hospital (where my parents probably met), near Southampton (where she was born). A few weeks later she sent me a copy, having retained other copies for herself and her brother. All signed. When I think of the sweat the poor sod of a writer put into that signing… only to have maybe hundreds of signed copies piled up awaiting remaindering…
It’s getting the same with websites. OK if you’re Nelson de Mille or Arthur Clarke, but otherwise verging on the feebly pretentious: photos of the writer’s dog/cat, lunatic CVs, favourite recipes ….. Altogether a bit squirm-making. Indeed I’ve always had some difficulty with “interviews”, which invariably wind up embarrassing me — though I do succumb from time to time, God help me. And there is another negative point. A few years ago a chap called Terry Jenkins did me a website — the John Christopher Cavern — which was unauthorized (though to be fair to him not actually disapproved). He spent a lot of time and effort on this — scanned in jackets of dozens of books, and stuff. Last year he understandably got bored or fed up with poor response, and dropped it. That was fine by me, especially since I hadn’t sanctioned it in the first place. But while appreciating the favour I’m not inclined to encourage someone else to do the same, incurring mutual embarrassment when the same result ensued.
Finally I asked if he still had a passion for science-fiction, and was he working on anything at the moment?
I used to enjoy SF, but that’s a long way back. It’s changed a great deal since Gernsback and John W.C.
No, I’m not working on anything at the moment.
So our brief conversation drew to a close. Sam dutifully signed and returned the books, which I cherish to this day. Its sad to see Sam’s published work in decline over the last decade, and its a sobering reminder that even the most popular writers can fall off the public radar in later years. How a writer deals with a shrinking readership is probably an even greater challenge than getting published in the first place.