An interview with Matthew Skelton

Matthew Skelton

Matthew Skelton was born in the UK but spent most of his childhood in Canada. He started writing while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Mainz and continued when he cam back to Oxford to work as a research assistant. In 2002 he won Richard and Judy’s short story competition.

The Story of Cirrus Flux is set in 18th Century London. What gave you the idea for the book?

Cirrus Flux started in an unlikely place: a book on clouds. I discovered all sorts of amazing things about the scientific world in the eighteenth century, not least the fact that the weather changed abruptly during the summer of 1783 – the same summer the first hot air balloons took to the sky. I was hooked. My imagination took off…

Where did you get the name Cirrus Flux from?

For the longest time Cirrus had no name. All I knew was that my main character had dark, unruly hair and a small metal sphere that he carried on a string round his neck. Then, one day, I felt a presence enter the room and stand beside me. It was like being visited by a ghost; there was a definite chill in the air.
‘My name is Cirrus Flux,’ it told me, ‘and I’m looking for a map to the land of the dead…’
I knew immediately that I had found my central character – or, rather, that he had found me. All I had to do was figure out his story. Of course, Cirrus’s motivation changed slightly as I worked on the book (the map to the land of the dead became an unconscious quest for his parents), and Pandora leapt into the limelight, but it was that crucial thing: a start.

The Story of Cirrus Flux takes us back to the dawn of scientific discovery. Did you have to do a great deal of research into early experiments?

Oh yes, I’ve done lots of research. But it was good fun. Being a writer is a bit like being a time-traveller; you get to go anywhere you like. As a result, I joined Captain Cook on his voyages to the southern hemisphere; I encountered the first Mesmerists, who practised an early form of hypnotism by strapping their patients to tubs full of magnetized water; I was shocked by the treatment of charity boys at the hands of Electricians, who conducted dangerous experiments for the benefit (and amusement) of a paying public; and I came across the sympathetic plight of children abandoned at the Foundling Hospital, whose mothers were often too poor to be able to care for them and who left heart-breaking tokens with their babies so that they might not be forgotten…

The Story of Cirrus Flux features one of the first hot air balloons and an all-seeing eye. Did such things actually exist or are they products of your imagination?

A lot of details in the book are true. Mr Sidereal’s chair, for instance, is modelled on a chair used by the showman ‘Merlin’ during the eighteenth century, and most of the Hanging Boy performance follows instructions laid out by the original Electricians (who used words like ‘Virtue’ and ‘Aether’ to describe what they were seeing). Even the Scioptric Eye reflects an interest in telescopes, camera obscura and panoramas prevalent at the time. But I did play around with certain facts. The portentous weather of 1783 was far more extreme in real life than it appears in the book, and the first hot air balloons actually appeared in France, not England. Not surprisingly, they weren’t fuelled by fiery birds.

The Story of Cirrus Flux is your second book. How long did it take you to write?

A long time! Partly because I’m a slow writer and partly because I’m never satisfied.  I’m always tempted to rip up everything I’ve done and start all over again. I also had great trouble controlling Madame Orrery, who was not supposed to appear in this book (she belonged to a separate idea of mine). But from the moment she caught Pandora hiding behind the curtain, I knew that she was my villain.

Can you give your 3 tips to becoming a successful writer?

1) Don’t rip up everything and throw it away. The best things often happen by accident: such as Bottle Top’s name or Pandora’s use of the word ‘moon-sail’. Keep writing. It’s worth it in the end.
2) Read as much as possible, in all areas. Reading helps to open up your mind. Plus, you learn how to write by reading!
3) Exercise your imagination. I do my best writing when I’m walking in the country. I watch the world around me and let my thoughts go off in all directions. My imagination is like an invisible dog: I let it off the leash and it runs wild.

Which authors did you love as a child? What was your favourite book as a child?

I loved Mr Tickle when I was very, very young (especially the way my Mum read it to me at night; she brought it to life). I then moved on to Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, the first authors I read by myself. But the book that really changed my life was ‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper. I lived in that book! I can still feel the thrill I felt when Will woke up to find a strange wood outside his window. Part of me is still there.

Who are the writers who have inspired you the most?

The best authors, I think, are those who manage to make writing look effortless and simple (which it almost never is). Among the many writers who have inspired me are David Almond, who never puts a word out of place; Robert Cormier, whose books for older teenagers are often brutal, shocking, psychologically complex, but oh so concise; and Sonya Hartnett, whose wordplay leaves me speechless. I’ve also learned a lot by reading Kenneth Oppel (Skybreaker is the most entertaining book I’ve read in years) and Tim Wynne-Jones, who has created one of my favourite characters of all time: Rex Zero. How I wish I’d had him as a friend when I was younger! The list, however, is endless…

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t own much, but one day I’d really like to purchase a piece of samurai cat armour.

Matthew Skelton books reviewed