Mitch Benn on Terra

terraHappy Publication Day to Mitch Benn and his brilliant debut, Terra! If you haven’t already, you can check out the first chapter here, and listen to a lovely song from Mitch to Gollancz, and some fantastic audio extracts. Truly, we are spoiling you.

But wait! What’s this? Mitch has written us a post on the tale of how all this wonderfulness came to be?  We really are *too* kind (well, okay, Mitch is…). Enjoy!


… and people seem to like it.

This is a story which has been told quite a few times over the past few weeks, but not quite in full and not by me yet, so here goes…

Like most comedians I know, I didn’t dream of being a stand-up comic when I was a child.  Most of us seem to have gotten side-tracked into it while pursuing other things.  In my case I’d always THOUGHT that what I’d wanted to be was A Proper Actor; that had been the ambition while at university, certainly, until a general disillusionment with the capriciousness of the actor’s career ladder (or indeed absence thereof) and the theatre in general set in in my mid-20s (around the time that stand-up began to beckon, as it happens).

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve remembered that what I wanted to do when I was LITTLE – the first thing I was actually any good at – was write stories.

I won a couple of little prizes for short story writing at primary school.  I loved it, and it was what made English my favourite subject back at Dovedale CP…  For some reason, at grammar school, little emphasis was placed on encouraging one’s OWN creativity in English lessons, and far more placed on dissecting the creativity of others.  In any event, I got out of the habit of writing stories and didn’t ever really get back into it.

Until about four years ago.

I have, as most of you know, two little girls; Greta (currently 7 and a half) and Astrid (5 and a bit).  This means I’ve spent a LOT of time in the last few years reading stories out loud.  For the first three or four years of that period, generally those large format bedtime story picture book efforts.  Some of them are wonderful – Julia Donaldson inevitably springs to mind (I know everyone loves The Gruffalo but check out The Snail And The Whale; amazing hypnotic rolling scansion); a lot of them – in fact, screw it, MOST of them – are dreadful.

As someone who writes songs – which are, let’s face it, poems with tunes – for a living, I found myself wondering if I could write one of these verse short stories myself.  So I did; it’s called Dreaming Dragons, it’s a few pages long and one day I might even find an outlet for it.

However, once I’d done it, I found the old long-dormant writing bug beginning to bite again.  I started to wonder if I could write something longer, more involved, maybe actually book-sized.

I’ve long been fascinated with the way certain ideas recur across genres…  the way, for example, the classical “prophecy story” has been reborn in the last century as the time travel story…  It’s the same concept, the perils and pitfalls of foreknowledge.  In many ways (just off the top of my head) The Terminator is an archetypal prophecy story, even down to the way the Evil Emperor with knowledge of the future (or in this instance, the Evil Supercomputer actually LIVING in the future), while attempting to defy fate by averting his own destruction (sending a killer cyborg back in time to kill the mother of the leader of La Résistance before his birth) ends up bringing it about (accidentally introducing said leader’s parents to each other).  People still just don’t get how prophecies work…

A particular favourite repeated literary meme is The Lost Child; the infant abandoned, cast away or otherwise transplanted to and subsequently raised in bizarre circumstances, with hilarious/scary/ripsnorting consequences.  Goes back at least as far as Moses (and no doubt those of you with a proper classical education will be able to tell me which earlier legend was being cannibalised there); one thinks also of Tarzan, Mowgli, Superman, Will Ferrell’s Elf, even Neil Himself Gaiman (from whom all blessings flow) has added to this list with his own The Graveyard Book (whose title seems to nod to Kipling).

So when contemplating possible themes for A Proper Book Type Book it was the lost child which sprang to mind.  In particular I found myself wondering what the science fiction spin on the theme would be… Human baby… abducted by aliens…  adopted by them and raised on another planet…?

That’s a bit good, I thought.  That’s a great idea.  Surely someone had written that story already…?

Well if they have, it’s tucked away somewhere Google couldn’t find it.

So about three and a half years ago I began to tinker, with no specific aim in sight, on this story.  The story of a little girl, spirited away as a baby by a well-intentioned alien and brought up on another planet.  Something about the essential loneliness of her situation – surrounded by friends, immersed in her adopted culture and loved by her adopted family but always ALONE – spoke to me in a way I couldn’t ignore.

There’s an image in the book – of Terra, perched on top of a high spire, gazing out across the city of Hrrng and up at the stars – which was in my mind from the very beginning (it’s even recreated in Billl Greenhead’s brilliant animated trailer for the book).  It summed up both the excitement and sadness of Terra’s situation and it popped into my head whenever I got a bit cloudy as to what exactly the book was supposed to be ABOUT.

Much of the early writing of the book was done on my phone, if you can believe it.  Given that this was, thus far, a bit of a hobby rather than a serious project, I would tap out a couple of paragraphs whenever I had a spare minute; on a train or in a café.   I didn’t write the book in sequence; I had an overview of the plot in my head and whenever a particular event became clear in my mind I’d just go ahead and write that bit.  One of the benefits of everything being electronically stored is that I could always make alterations later if necessary.

I have no idea if this is How It’s Done, or indeed Not How It’s Done.  It’s just How I Did It.

One of the FIRST sections I wrote was the ending.  I’d always known more or less how I wanted the story to end and I think it helped me to write the middle sections of the book, knowing where the plot was headed.

So it was that by the summer of 2011, I had the beginning, significant chunks of the middle, and more or less all of the ending of Terra written.

Here’s where it gets interesting (and this is the bit you might have heard already).

I did a voice over job for a travel agents that summer, and part of my remuneration was a good deal on a holiday to Corfu for me and the family (hadn’t been on a proper holiday for five years previously, and indeed haven’t been  since).  We’d got Greta her first passport as a baby and now she needed a new one (baby passports only last five years).  There’s a way of renewing passports where you go in early in the morning and you get it that same afternoon; it’s a bit more expensive but SO worth it if you can afford the money and time off because by the end of the day you’re actually HOLDING the damn thing.  So I went into the passport office near Victoria station at my allotted time (11.30), handed over all the money and documentation and was told to return at 3.30pm.  There was no point going home – it takes about 90 minutes on public transport during the day, so I was stuck in town for four hours.

So I turned, as I often do in time of need, to Twitter.  “Guys,” I tweeted to whoever was receiving, “stuck in town for four hours.  Any thoughts on how I might usefull occupy myself?”

Replies started to trickle in, recommendations of places to have lunch or exhibitions to visit…  then out of the blue I got a message from Gollancz publishing: “Come and talk to us about writing a novel”.

The weird thing was I don’t remember feeling particularly surprised, more intrigued and excited.  I didn’t know whether this was a serious suggestion but it certainly merited the benefit of the doubt.  I replied “You’re probably joking but I’ve Googled you and you’re in St. Martins Lane. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes later I walked up to the front desk at Orion Towers and said to a slightly bewildered but very helpful receptionist, “I don’t know who I’m here to see but if you find out who does Gollancz’s twitterfeed and tell them that Mitch Benn has actually turned up, we’ll see what happens…”

Who I Was There To See turned out to be Simon Spanton, Associate Publisher of Gollancz, the sci-fi and fantasy division of Orion Books.  Over coffee he explained that he knew me from The Now Show, he knew I was a bit of a sci-fi nerd (that’s basically the running joke about me on TNS; Jon’s tiny, Marcus is posh and angry and I never shut up about Doctor Who) and also that I could write STUFF, he just wondered if I’d ever thought about turning my hand to writing sci-fi books…?

Well, said I, as it happens…

Now I’d like to point out that this was merely the start of five months of negotiations, of me emailing chapters and Simon emailing notes, of discussions and meetings and conflabs of one stamp or another.  We didn’t actually sign a deal until December, at which point another interesting wrinkle arose…

I’d known in vague terms – as we had discussed it in vague terms – that the book would have to be delivered by “the spring”; this can mean anything from late February to late May depending on what the weather does (I’m not even sure we HAD one this year) but on the contract the date was specified as April 1st.  Specific cultural resonance of that date notwithstanding, my problem was this – I was contracted to do The Now Show AND tour with my band for the whole of February and March…  My only “window” was a two-week gap at the end of January…

“Clara,” I asked my Infinitely Superior Half, “do your uncle and auntie still own that barn in the middle of nowhere in the Peak District?  Think they’d lend it to me?”

They did indeed lend it to me (thanks again Ken & Liz) and so it was that the book, which thus far had been lackadaisically pieced together in idle moments over the course of about two years, was finished in a burst of furious industry in two weeks flat.

It’s now 18 months later and the book is three days from publication (officially anyway; I’ve noticed it already turning up in a few shops).  I’ve written a sequel which should see the light of day about this time next year and once I’ve got the Edinburgh Fringe out of the way I’ll start work on book three.

Reviews have started to come in; positive beyond my wildest expectations.  I’d hoped people would like this book and thus far it seems they do; what’s gratifying and exciting is that they seem to really GET this book.

I’m still HORRIBLY nervous though.  Over the years, I’ve trained myself not to get too emotionally invested in my little projects, be they albums, tours, videos…  Otherwise it’s just too painful when they almost inevitably go off at half-cock.  Everything I’ve done has been perfectly successful within its own sphere but the ones which might have bumped things up a notch kind of haven’t.  So I try not to get too invested in them.

I have completely failed in this regard this time round.  I’m TOTALLY invested in this book because I had to be to get the thing written.  But so far the signs are good.  They’re very good in fact.

So what I’d like to ask is this:  If you buy a copy of Terra, and you like it, all I want you to do is persuade ONE friend to do likewise.  That’s all I need.

I’m doing signings this week in Liverpool, Manchester and London and there will be more in due course; going to try and do some while up in Edinburgh and then maybe fit some in around the Hitch Hiker’s touring schedule in the autumn.

I’m on an interesting journey right now and I hope to meet lots of you on the way.


M x