Taran Matharu: 'I think writing is like reading a story that you can decide'

The author of the Summoner fantasy series talks to teenagers from DGReaders book group about his hero Darren Shan, bullying and the wonders of Wattpad

Who was your favourite author as a teenager?

I was and still am a massive fan of Darren Shan. My favourite series is The Vampire Rites trilogy which is part of the Saga of Darren Shan. He was also quite a young author when he started out, and I just loved his books and the world he created. Of course JK Rowling was another big inspiration, as well as Terry Pratchett. The really cool thing was I got to meet Darren Shan recently at a festival. It was kind of weird because he was such a big inspiration to me and to meet him as a fellow author was pretty cool!

Did you want to become an author when you were growing up?

Yes. That was my end goal and then as I got older, my parents tried to influence me more towards business. But I still never stopped writing and the great thing about being a writer is that you can pursue another career and still write at the same time.

So were your parents supportive of your ambitions of being an author?

They were but they thought it was very risky for me to completely dedicate myself to becoming an author. They were very supportive of my writing but they wanted me to have a career in business. That turned out to be a very good thing, because of my degree in business, I got an apprenticeship at the publishers Penguin Random House. There I realised authors were just normal people who had a story to tell, as opposed to these literary geniuses. That was what gave me the confidence to try and write a book to completion, which ended up being The Novice.

Summoner Novice Taran Matharu

Was The Novice (Summoner book one) the first book you ever wrote?

No, I wrote my first book between the ages of nine and 11 years old. It ended up being 17,000 words long and was about this wizard/warrior called the Wizord (a mix between wizards and swords). There was an evil witch called Widower. The wizard and witch would create these creatures to fight each other. It was very Chronicles of Narnia, with all these trolls and goblins fighting. The wizard, he had these “Fuffles” they were these fur balls with eyes and a tongue they used to throw rocks at their enemies, there was colony of ants that would stand on their hind legs and carry spears. The wizard had this big castle and they were living on his lawn, creating this little civilisation. Perhaps I could come back to it… it would need a serious edit though!

Does your main character Fletcher reflect anything or anyone in your own experiences?

Yes. When I was younger I was bullied a lot in school and there was quite a lot of racial bullying because I was one of the only Asian people who went there. But perhaps the character who reflects that more is Othello, Fletcher’s best friend and who is the only dwarf to go to Vocan’s Academy. He gets some racial bullying while he is there for being a dwarf. The way Fletcher really reflects me is his hatred for injustice. I hated being bullied for my race because it was so unjust.

We’re so sorry you had a really bad time from your bullies at school, what do you think you would say to them now?

I’m not sure, that’s a really tough question. Interestingly enough, I was queueing at a cinema with my mum and she recognised the mother of the boy who had trapped my finger in a door and damaged it quite badly on the final day of school. The boy’s mum was actually being really racist about some women who were queueing up in front of us. I’m not actually sure how I would react if I spoke to the boys that bullied me. I’m not particularly angry now, I guess I would just want to hear about what their motivations are and if they still feel the same way.

So, what gave you the idea of writing The Novice/Summoner book one?

I worked at Penguin Random House for two months as an intern and it was very exciting to be around all these authors and people who had the same passion for reading as I did. I suddenly had all this access to so many books and I was trying to find a book with every fantasy element that I enjoy, so that’s multiple fantasy races, a magical school setting, with sword and sorcery mixed in there as well, fantasy creatures, political imagination, a vast medieval-style world with an almost 18th century feel and pistols and warfare. I just wanted to mix all these things into a book and I wanted to read that book. But I couldn’t find it anywhere so I just had to write it instead! I think that’s how a lot of authors come up with their ideas because they have this idea and they really want to read that book and they can’t find it. They just have to do it themselves. I think writing is like reading a story that you can decide. It’s like you choose your own adventure as you write.

Do you think reading good books helped your writing?

Yes. Reading helps you find the tools and skills that you need to write a book or story. It helps people in terms of their creativity and their ability to imagine abstract things and I think that’s very important for people to be able to do. To be like the pros you need to know how writing flows. When you read a lot of books you instinctively know how writers transition from scene to scene, sentence to sentence and it’s something you can only learn by reading lots of books. I had ideas for seven new books after I had written The Summoner series (book three is on its way!) and I am currently deciding on which idea to pursue. I just have all these different ideas for different worlds to explore. There is one idea that I am particularly focused on but I can’t talk much about but I can say that it would be a sort of science-fiction book. However I am also tempted to re-visit some ideas that I wrote down when I was younger and see if I can turn them into something now.

We know you published your book first on Wattpad first, can you tell us how that worked?

Wattpad is basically the YouTube of books where people can write their chapters and upload them to this website and then people from all over the world are able to access them. They can comment, read and vote on your writing, and you can see how many people have read a book or chapter. Sometimes if a book becomes really successful on Wattpad, all kinds of publishers take interest and they will contact you and publish it so it becomes a book that you see in a shop and are able to buy. I uploaded a sample of The Novice onto Wattpad and after the first month it had been read 100,000 times, after four months it had been read one million times and now it’s almost seven million. I’m not the only author who’s managed to do that; there are perhaps 20 different authors who’ve started out on Wattpad and eventually become published authors. It’s not only because of their success on Wattpad, but perhaps it identified them as potential authors to publishers.

How many words did you upload at a time, and how excited were you when so many people started following you on there?

I tend to write chapters that are between 1200 words at the shortest and about 2500 at the longest. Many authors write chapters that are about 8000 words long, so mine are particularly short. I was very excited about the feedback that I was getting as no one other than family and friends had read anything that I’d ever written until I put my work on Wattpad. As an author it’s very hard to tell if you’re any good at first, so when people are responding it’s all very encouraging. At first there weren’t that many people reading it because it does take a while to be discovered. There was this one guy from Indonesia who would write a little chapter review on every single chapter that I wrote, so he got me over the hump of not getting a lot of feedback on that first week, and I owe him a lot and I’ve messaged him explaining how much it meant to me. I don’t think he gets why I’m so appreciative but I’ve read and voted on some of his work on Wattpad and he’s a really nice guy.

So you actually credit all the people that helped you on the back of your hardback edition don’t you?

Yes, every single one of my British readers who either commented or voted on my book were included on the back. There’s probably 10 times more people that just read it. We were going to do the same with the American edition, but as 50% of my readers are American there are too many, there’s no way we could fit them all in.

Do you think publishing on Wattpad made you change the way you write? We thought maybe having to write more cliffhangers and more excitement?

Yes definitely. First of all I was uploading a chapter a day on Wattpad for that first month. That meant that I needed to have a finished chapter by the end of the day, so I needed to write shorter chapters in order to do that. That’s why my chapters are so short to this day! It’ become a writing style of mine which people particularly enjoy it seems as I get a lot of reviews saying “I love how short the chapters are as you can just pick it up and put it down whenever you like”. Cliffhangers are a useful tool to use in Wattpad because if readers need to know what happens next they will wait until the next day to read or the next week to find out. It’s important to keep them hooked and I think that’s true in books as well, especially the first chapter where someone might read it in a bookshop so they say “I need to buy this and go and read the rest” so I think that Wattpad really helped me in that regard.

How many books are you going to publish in the Summoner series?

At the moment three are planned. Summoner book two The Inquisition has just been published, and the third book (The Battlemage, due to be published May 2017) will end the series comfortably. I have ideas for another series but I am not necessarily sure if that’s going to happen or not but what I am saying is, it’s a possibility.

So if you write another book series, will it be set in the same world?

If I was to continue the Summoner series it would be set in the same world. I am tempted to set it in a slightly later time period than the events that take place in the Summoner trilogy at the moment but I also have ideas for other books which I might pursue as well because it can be quite difficult to live in the same fantasy world over the course of three years without exploring other ideas. I have lots of ideas for things that might not necessarily fit into the Summoner world so I might have to explore them in another series.

The Summoner reminds me a little bit of the video game Assassin’s Creed. Are you a gamer or have you ever thought of writing stories for games?

I love writing books. I’ve been interested in writing video games and I know Terry Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna Pratchett is huge in writing video games but my issue with it is that I would need to be writing in someone else’s world rather than creating my own. The video game subject has usually already been decided when you write for games, and as a writer you are told to write a plot within that structure. But it’s certainly something I would be willing to explore if the world was right.

SUmmoner book two Novice Taran Matharu The Inquisition

What advice do you have for us if we want to be writers?

I would recommend reading a lot – but when you read, try and understand why this book is so good. Why do you like this character so much? How did the author make you like them? How does the author transition from this scene to the next? What is the author describing when a character enters a room? I think a pitfall which a lot of young/new authors fall into is that they’ll describe everything. So they’ll start off with the alarm going off and their character will wake up and look all over their room and then they’ll go and they’ll brush their teeth so you end up with a whole chapter and all they will have done is got out of bed, brushed their teeth, had breakfast and talked to their mum about the day at school! They’ve described the wrong things and choose the wrong scenes so that’s something I think you learn from reading.

You can buy Taran Matharu’s absolutely thrilling Summoner series so far from the Guardian bookshop: Summoner book one: The Novice and Summoner book two: The Inquisition. Book three is called The Battlemage and will be out in May 2017.

DGReaders book group

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