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Interview: Dan Smith, Below Zero

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Dan is the author of both adventure books for younger readers, and thrillers for adults. When I was a younger reader myself (many many years ago!) I enjoyed adventure stories, and so I was keen to find out more about Dan's latest book when I was offered a review copy. It certainly didn't disappoint, offering a fast paced, interesting tale! Thank you to Dan for answering some questions...


Q) First of all, could you tell us a little about the premise of the book?


A) Well, the story is set at Outpost Zero in Antarctica, where 32 people are training for a mission to Mars. Zak Reeves and his family fly out there during a terrible storm because some machines, designed by Zak’s mum and dad have been malfunctioning. When the family arrives, though, all 32 mission members have disappeared. The power is out, communications are down, and everything looks as if the people have simply vanished into thin air. As Zak, his older sister May, and their mum and dad search for the missing people, things grow stranger and stranger. Zak begins to have weird visions. Machines act as if they have a mind of their own. A giant chasm opens in the ice. And when they finally locate the missing people, they discover that . . . I should probably stop there.


Q) I found it interesting that they were on the base as a preparation for travel to Mars… was the story originally planned to be Mars based?


A) It’s like you read my mind! My publisher and I were talking about Mars One – a project that plans to send explorers on a one-way mission to colonise Mars. The idea of it was so crazy, I just knew there had to be a story in it. My plan was, as you say, to write an adventure story about Mars, but when I found out that the Mars One training would take place in Antarctica, I realised I was far more interested in that! It’s such a fascinating and extreme place; it’s the perfect setting for a creepy story. So, I started out to write a story about travelling to Mars, but never even managed to leave our own planet. It’s also fun to misdirect the reader into thinking there’s a connection between the Mars mission and what’s going on at Outpost Zero.


Q) What sort of research did you have to do about the story's setting, and would you like to spend time there?


A) Sadly my meagre author earnings weren’t enough to allow me to travel to Antarctica for research – which would have been amazing! But we’re lucky that we live in a time when other kinds of research are so accessible. The internet is crammed with articles and information, and I was able to watch a lot of videos which gave me a sense of the place. Something that’s hard to get from that kind of research is how a place smells, but in this case that wasn’t too much of an issue – Antarctica is almost odour free! Ice and snow don’t smell of anything, and because the temperature is so low, most everyday items do not give off any odour at all.


Q) What are you working on next? Where will your next book take us?


A) I’m busy working on my next novel right now. It’s still in its early stages, so it will certainly go through countless changes before it sees the light of day, but I can tell you that it’s set somewhere remote, sparsely populated, mountainous, and cold. Think winter forests, wolves, and revenge.


Q) When you start a new story, do you plan it to be for either adults or children, or do you see where the story takes you first?


A) If you’d asked me that a few years ago I probably would have said that I see where the story takes me. But recently I have been concentrating more on writing for younger readers, so I guess I lean more in that direction now when a story comes to mind.


Q) Are there particular challenges when writing for your younger readers?


A) I don’t think the challenges are that different from writing for older readers. Maybe I feel as if I need to keep the pace a little faster, and there are issues with language and certain types of content, but I feel very strongly that it’s important not to underestimate or patronise young readers. They know when you’re talking down to them, and they know when you treat them seriously. There’s a sometimes a temptation to write books that I think parents will want their children to read, because they have an influence, and often buy the books for their children but . . . well, I want them to have fun, to be thrilled, to be scared, to be grossed-out, to laugh, to cry, and to see the world in a way they might not have thought about. So my aim is to write the kinds of stories that I would have wanted to read when I was that age.  

Q) I've seen on twitter that you do school visits… what is your favourite part of those? 


A) I do visit schools, and it’s always great fun. It can be a little nerve-wracking before you get there – worrying whether or not the tech will work, if the school is prepared, if the teachers are keen to promote the day etc. But the students are always fantastic. Favourite part? I love seeing the students get excited about the things I talk about in a presentation, and hearing all their questions. If I’m doing a workshop, it’s SO rewarding to see them writing something for themselves rather than the usual prescriptive writing they do in class. I encourage them to write what they want, in the way they want to write it, because I believe you crush creativity by forcing them to write to a formula. And it’s amazing to receive messages from the students after a visit, telling me how much they enjoyed the day, how they have been inspired to write, or to read something different. Best of all, though, is when a parent contacts me after a visit to say that their son or daughter, who has never shown any interest in reading has come home full of excitement, asking for books to read. It’s a real privilege to be able to inspire even just one reluctant reader.


Q) Finally - I enjoyed the Star Wars mentions within the book. I'm putting you on the spot… which one is your favourite film?


A) Ha ha! I was having this discussion with my children today! Really, I love the whole Star Wars saga. The original film was a massive influence on little Dan, and I’m glad I was there right at the beginning, and just the right age to be swept along in the wonder. But The Empire Strikes Back is the best of them. I remember going to the cinema in Leicester Square with my brother, beside myself with excitement to see the second part of the story. I also remember two shocking, SHOCKING, moments in that film. The obvious one is the revelation at the end - a revelation that generated endless discussion in the playground for the following two years – but the other was seeing Han Solo tortured, and frozen in carbonite. I think it was the first film I ever saw in which the bad guys won. Ten-year-old Dan was exhilarated and heartbroken at the same time!


BELOW ZERO by Dan Smith out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at chickenhousebooks.com and connect with Dan Smith @DanSmithAuthor



This is part of an action-packed blog tour... visit Tales of Yesterday  on Sunday for more!


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