There are few jobs I find more difficult than interviewing people about something I didn’t like. I just really struggle to do it. I’d been keen to talk to Simon Mayo, the co-host of the legendary Wittertainment on Radio Five Live, about his new book, Itch. But I wanted to stay on the safe side, and made sure I’d read the book before cementing my request.
I’m glad I did: I find Itch to be a treat. The blurb suggests it’s aimed at a teenage audience, but I still got a lot of fun out of it. And thus, it was all the more interesting to be able to talk to its author about it. Here’s what happened…
Itch is a book you’ve written for a teenage audience, although not at the expense of it being an involved and complex story. The obvious starting point, then: how long has it been in your head?
I started writing it for my son, but pretty much ended up writing it for myself. All the stuff in there about Gaia theory, a normal reader will take away a discussion about energy and its resources, etcetera. So it is quite an adult story masquerading as a children’s story.
I think it came to me over the period of a number of months. The key thing was the discovery of the phrase ‘element hunter’, which is used to describe the small number of people that collect the periodic table. As soon as I put together element hunter as a collector, something boys like to do anyway, I thought there’s some interesting elements, some dangerous elements, some dull elements, so this could be the basis of a story.
Did you meet any element hunters when putting Itch together?
No. I really don’t think that there are that many! You have to look quite hard, although obviously online takes you to all kinds of strange places. But they’re serious collectors, and it’s an international thing, and it’s done online. If there’d been an element hunter convention locally, I’d have had a good time!
Itch though is a kid who operates on his own, so he doesn’t go to the conventions either.
Even preceding Itch, did you have a desire to write fiction?
None at all actually! The motivation was to write a short story for my son, who was ten at the time. He was into science, and I couldn’t find something that was ideal. So I thought I’ll write a short story for him.
Then in the course of the research, I came across the idea. I started writing, and as soon as I started ferreting around in this world, I found it utterly consuming. And once I’d worked out how I could introduce the idea of a new element – which I didn’t think I could do to start with, because you can’t insert an element into the periodic table, you can only add it at the end – it was only after I visited a nuclear science lab, where the professor of nuclear physics there said go for it.
He said if you add on something at the top end of the periodic table – and I’d already learned a bit about the island of stability, but hadn’t really thought too much about it. He encouraged me to go back to it and look at it again. And so as soon as I worked out I could have him discovering a new element, it was all systems go. I was absolutely consumed with this idea.
Whenever I’ve spoken to anyone who’s written for a younger audience, they always say that they don’t write for children. They don’t in any way compromise it by age group. Would that reflect your approach with Itch, because it seems that way?
I think so, yeah. I think that I was aware that if it was going to sell, it was going to sell to a younger audience. So I knew that was the case, and so there were issues of violence and language, that sort of thing. I also knew though that because the boy was 14, and there was that cheeky element to collecting the periodic table, I think it was always going to be aimed at the youth market.
I do think that grown ups will enjoy reading it with their kids, or for their own enjoyment. There’s a grown-up message there. But I never forgot the fact that ultimately, parents will buy it, or grown ups will buy it. I was always remembering that, I think.
What did your son make of it in the end?
He loved it! My target audience of one took away the 400 sheets of A4 that came out of my printer and pronounced it a hit! But it would have been a bit rubbish if he hadn’t liked it, given that it was written for him!
Your toughest critic!
Yeah, absolutely. I mean now they all want to have input into the second one, but I’m refusing! No one knew what I was doing anyway, I didn’t let anyone into the world that I created and envisaged. And I’m not letting the family know what I’m writing this time!
Is that a deliberate choice, because you can’t have them influencing it? It has to be your story, your words, your voice?
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, a magnificent book, says he writes with the door shut and he rewrites with the door open. And I followed that pretty religiously. Not knowing anything else, because I haven’t tried to write anything before. I followed that. I wrote with the door shut, metaphorically and literally, and once I got it into a relatively decent shape, I then showed it to Joe, and then to my wife, and showed it around.
You give us a taste of the second book at the end of the first, and you clearly have a real affection for the characters you’ve created. How far ahead do you see their adventures going?
That’s exactly what I’m asking myself at the moment. This particular story, although it does finished with book one, is very much part one of what I’m writing at the moment. So, I think this part of the story will conclude at the end of book two. That makes sense, too, as it’s just a two-book deal at the moment.
There clearly is, I would say, life behind two books. Not only do I think Itch, Jack and Chloe are a fun trio to hang out with, and I like writing about them, I think there’s a lot more to be had out of the periodic table. To that extent, we’ve just started.
I do have to ask, you have some very vivid teachers in the book. Are you tapping into your own childhood there, bringing back memories of any particularly unpleasant ones that you’ve channelled in?
[Laughs] No! I think his form teacher is an amalgam of every nice teacher I ever had. My sister is a head teacher, my father was a head teacher. So there’s a lot of schooling in me, and part of Dr Dart, the head of the academy, is my sister! So there’s elements.
The world of Itch, is it confined to books for you? Do you see anything on screen?
If it was down to me, yeah! The selling point of the character is really he’s an ordinary guy, he hasn’t got any superpowers, everything in this book is set in the real world, and is within the world of science that we have. It’s slightly fantastical, but the chemical reactions are genuine chemical reactions. I think, I hope that has a certain appeal. It’s a very English book, a very Cornish book, and I think that’d have an appeal elsewhere. Time will tell.
There’s an American book deal at the moment that’s been signed, but beyond that, who knows. The world of television and movies is a bizarre one!
For your legion of Wittertainment listeners, should Itch go on to make you many millions, with lots of books and movies, will it lead to a point where you’re not sat opposite Mark Kermode at 2pm on a Friday afternoon?
I can tell you in the writing of the book, I cast Itch’s father, that’s Dave Morrissey. Flowerdew is Michael Sheen. And the Colonel is Jason Isaacs. They all got copies of the book. Dave Morrissey didn’t spot himself in the book but said he enjoyed it. Jason, I know he’s had it, because he sent me a picture of his daughter reading it. And I know Michael Sheen spotted himself as soon as he got to the curly hair. A piece of vanity really, on my part!
Have you got them all working for scale for you?
No, I haven’t got that far down the line!
It’ll be interesting when it comes to the point where a film of it is up for review though!
Yeah, these are all fantasies. But they’re quite pleasant!
You’ve completed and published of book, which many people try to do, but few get this far. Now that you’ve proven to yourself that you can do it, would you want to stay in the universe of Itch, or are there other books in your head?
I don’t know really. Someone did ask me if I was going to write an adult book, and I hadn’t really thought about that, because I think of this as an adult book.
I don’t know. I have enjoyed writing it very much, and I’m enjoying going to schools and book festivals talking about it, which I’ve never done before. I guess, ultimately, it depends on how many people buy these books. It takes a huge amount of time, for a very small amount of reward, financially speaking. But the reward of going to schools, talking to kids, and seeing them as engrossed in the plot as you were when you wrote it, is fantastic. I’m quite keen to keep that going in some way.
Finally, I’ve got to ask you this. How did you become involved with Melchester Rovers?
Oh right, yeah! That goes back! They just wrote and said could we include you as vice-president of Melchester Rovers, and you will be included in the cartoon strips, and we’ll send you some of the original artwork. I said yes, and they published it. It bears no resemblance to me. I’ve got a square jaw and look quite masculine! But it’s up on the wall, I’ve still got it, it’s quite funny!
Simon Mayo, thank you very much!
Itch is available in hardback now, published by Doubleday Childrens.
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