From the Author...

P.B. Kerr

Q. Where did the idea for Children of the Lamp come from?
A: I guess the idea for it came because I was worried about my eldest son's lack of interest in reading, and I thought if I wrote a book specifically for him, then he would have to read it. I could really blackmail him into reading something, even if it's m book. Blackmail, that was the fundamental motive -- to get my son to sit down and read a book.

Q: Why did you write about djinn?
A: The concept of djinn was one area I didn't know anything about. And in terms of popular culture, the djinn are underrepresented. Maybe the fact that there isn't much written on them is a good reason to believe that it would be an interesting subject.

Q: You are from Scotland and you live in England. Why are John and Philippa American?
A: I thought that there were an awful lot of books about English kids, and I was very interested in the idea of their uncle being English. I wanted Nimrod to seem more English; I like the idea of extreme Englishness. Having the kids be American helped that. Also, I think it helps make the book feel more universal and international.
Moreover, I don't consider myself to be English. I've always felt a bit of the outsider. I'm a Scot. My grandmother was a New Yorker; she was the housekeeper for a wealthy New York family in the Bronx. So, I've always had an affinity with New York.

Q: How were the characters developed? Are they based on real people?
A: Nimrod is bits of me. Pompous. A little bit.
With the kids, I tried to introduce things my own kids would say. John's dislike of vegetables comes from my own son's dislike of vegetables. Little bits of them are in the characters. The rest, like Mr. and Mrs. Gaunt, are based on real people, but I won't say who.

Q: Which character in Children of the Lamp do you identify with most?
A: Nimrod. He's slightly pompous, good hearted, supremely well-informed--someone I can really identify with.

Q: How did you create this parallel world of the djinn?
A: I just made it up as I went along. I had ideas of how I thought the djinn should be, but I haven't plotted out all the books in advance. I like having surprises when I write. Writing is a bit like unwrapping a parcel-- you unwrap and unwrap and in the end you give yourself a surprise. That's the fun of being a writer.

Q: Did you do much research in preparation for writing this story?
A: I've already been to a lot of places I write about, like Cairo. For the djinn themselves, I read a little bit of The Arabian Nights, but I made up most of it. I just sat down and wrote it off the top of my head because I wanted to have fun doing it. I had huge fun writing this book; it was like being a kid again myself. It was like being twelve, and I never thought I'd see twelve again.
And it was very fortunate for me that it had only been six months or so since I'd been to Cairo, and I've been to all of the sites in the book -- the museum, the tomb of Akhenaten, I went on a camel ride. And so it was pretty fresh in my mind.

Q: You clearly love Cairo. What is the city's best quality?
A: I've been to Cairo three times. The reason I like it is that the people from Cairo are very friendly. They see themselves as very sophisticated, and they love the idea that their city is the beginning of civilization. It is so old, and there's a feeling when you're there that you've been there before. It's very hard not to be touched by the romance of Cairo, of the desert, of the pyramids.

Q: Have you actually obtained a copy of the Baghdad Rules?
A: That's my get - out clause -- if I get myself into a spot in the book, then it's very useful to have the Baghdad Rules. It gives a reason for contradicting something that someone might thought was the case. Like a get-out-of -jail-free card.
I don't have a copy. That's the fun part is that it's a never-ending series of rules and no one will ever know them.

Q: I have a technical question: If a fourth wish undoes the previous three, does the fourth wish come true, or does it simply undo the others?
A: It simply undoes the previous three. Uttering the word "wish" the fourth time does it. I've worked out a lot of the technicalities over a period of months, answering children's questions. In the Arabian Nights, djinn warn humans not wish for a hundred more wishes. If you go ahead and wish for a hundred more wishes anyway, the djinn will remain silent, and as soon as you make your fourth wish, it undoes the previous ones. I like to warn children that you need to be careful what you say, because you might actually get what you wish for.

Q: As a mystery writer for adults, what made you decide to write a fantasy novel for children?
A: Well, it's a bit of a thriller, as far as I'm concerned. I think thrillers are really just children's books for adults anyway. But I wasn't aware of writing fantasy. It's just a thriller with magical overtones. People seem to want things to fit neatly into genres, but a good story is a good story, and sometimes a good story will exist between two genres. I wouldn't say I sat down to consciously write a fantasy.
All novels are fantasies as far as I'm concerned. The minute you've actually made something up in the book, it's fantasy. Which is why I do it. I like sitting here thinking of different things and making up a completely different world.

Q: As a mystery writer for adults, are there any real-life mysteries you've solved?
A: No. I've probably made a few. Not that I'm aware of.

Q: Do you perform your own magic tricks?
A: Oh, yes. I've got a friend who's a very good magician, and he tells me how things are really done. It's kind of sad how simple it is, really. I like to do little bits.

Q: Have you ever undergone an initiation like Tammuz?
A: No, but I went to an English private school, and there were lots of initiations.

Q: If you could have three wishes granted by a friendly djinn, what would they be?
A: (1) I'd love to speak every language on the planet, because I think it would make me immensely powerful. I think I could get the job of U.N. Secretary-General pretty quickly. It's the opposite of the Babel story in the Bible, because it talks about God trying to confound humans beings by creating so many languages. It's the only time in the Bible when God tries to get in the way of human progress. It would be a great skill to have, to speak to everyone in their own native tongue, also because a lot of languages are dying.
(2) I wish I could play every musical instrument expertly.
(3) I used to wish I knew who all my ancestors were. I used to have a variety of wishes. But now, I think my third wish would be to have a little remote control with a single button with the word mute on it. I could take it wherever I go and point it at people and make them mute. I think that would be a service to mankind. Presidential debates, when someone is talking on a mobile phone on the train, people having an argument in the street -- calm down and turn them off.

Q: When John and Philippa are in the desert, they have a chance to create just the right car for them at that moment. What kind of car would you create?
A: I think I would like an old Bentley, a really old, cool Bentle with whitewall tires. It would be gray-silver with dark red upholstery.

Q: And finally, would you ever allow a one-armed chauffeur to drive you around?
A: Yes. I think it would be quite cool to have a one-armed chauffeur.

It was six o'clock on Good Friday morning, last year, and my wife had just discovered me sitting at a makeshift desk in the bathroom of our suite at a hotel in Cornwall, writing.

What are you doing?" she asked, aware that this behaviour was a little unusual, even by the standard of my own compulsive work ethic (some people's writing is the result of healthy striving but, for other writers, such as myself, it often feels more like a neurotic drive for glory).

“I'm writing a children's book," I explained, guiltily, and braced myself for the accusation that I was trying to climb on to a wagon that was already carrying not just the band, but a full orchestra. "As a matter of fact, I've been working on it for a while and I couldn't bear to leave it alone over the Easter holidays."

I was enjoying myself a lot. For more than a year, I had been working on an exhaustively researched historical thriller. Writing, in my spare time, a children's book entitled Children of the Lamp felt like bunking off school. I hadn't had this much fun writing a story since... well, since I'd been a child myself.

"But you don't even like children," said my wife, and laughed. "I like my own children," I protested, feebly. But it is true; I've never been a particularly diligent parent. As slack dads go, I've been one of the slackest. Herod was probably a better father than I am. I have three children, but I wasn't at the birth of any of them. I never went to a pre-natal class and I've probably only ever changed a handful of nappies. I've certainly never spoken to a health visitor, or taken any of the children to the doctor or the dentist. I couldn't even tell you the names of my sons' teachers at school.

It's my wife, the novelist Jane Thynne, who attends the parents' evenings and the school concerts, who cooks the children's meals, and supervises their homework, and who listens, patiently, to their small problems. You couldn't think of a person less qualified to write a children's book than me. I'm about as avuncular as Richard III.

So when I started writing Children of the Lamp, it was with the thought that, in my own way, I might redress the balance and do something nice for my own kids. Something that, in future years, they might appreciate as another child might treasure a silver christening cup, or a case of vintage port. At the same time, however. I was possessed of the strong impression that writing for children would be much more difficult than writing for adults. I wasn't at all sure that I could shed any sophistication or that I could become sufficiently innocent and fresh -like a child not yet socialised -as would enable me to communicate with younger readers.

In retrospect, I had two advantages that I didn't then appreciate. For more than 10 years, I have been a thriller writer, and this requires that you are story-led; a lot of thrillers, mine included, are really just children's books for grown-ups. Take out some of the violence and some of the swearing and several of my so-called adult books would be entirely suitable for 11-and 12-year-olds.

Another advantage I think I had was that, pace Harry Potter, I was working in a vacuum, not having read a children's book since I was a child myself. Even back then, most children's books seemed old-fashioned. The sort of books and comics that I enjoyed as a 10-year-old boy, almost 40 years ago, were the very same ones that George Orwell wrote about in his 1939 essay Boy's Weeklies: Billy Bunter, Tarzan, Biggles, Sherlock Holmes, Stalky & Co, Swallows and Amazons, and Tom Brown.

Indeed, it has often seemed to me that my whole world view was shaped by the likes of Frank Richards and Captain WE Johns. There seemed little or no danger that I could possibly be influenced by anything that was being published for children today. At the time of writing, I thought this might be a disadvantage, but I now believe that the reverse was probably true. Sometimes, when you're writing a book, it's best that you try to please only yourself.

Having finished writing the book, I decided to have it privately printed in a limited edition of 50 copies. Despite having published a number of novels already, I didn't think there was much of a chance that anyone would want to buy a children's book written by me. After all, there seemed to be so many people, much more famous, who were writing and publishing books for children: clapped-out actors and actresses, charity-minded pop stars, unfunny comedians, egocentric movie stars, and Mrs Dick Cheney.

So what was the point of the exercise? Above all, I entertained high hopes that the novel might encourage my two sons to become more avid readers. What better reason to catch the reading bug, I thought, than to be given a book that had been written and privately published especially for them?

It seemed like the answer to a problem that faces every parent. All my children watch too much television -almost as much as their father -and are too often glued to the Playstation or the computer. This, in one respect at least, makes them much less fortunate than I was. In the Edinburgh of the 1960s, where I grew up, reading was almost the only escape from reality. The weather was awful and telly -what there was of it -was in black and white. Children's "hour" started at 4.40pm with Jackanory, and was over by six o'clock.

Children of today, by contrast, seem to have so much more that is competing for their attention. I'm sure I'd probably never have read or even picked up a book if I'd had a PS2 game such as Splinter Cell, or a television channel like Fox Kids.

Concerned by research which proves that once the set is switched on, the beta-wave-generating centre of logical communication and analysis switches off, my wife and I have made a number of attempts to ration television in our household. The trouble is that schools, obsessed with league tables, seem to set children much more homework thanwe used to get, and television often seems to be about the only real pleasure and relaxation afforded to them in their increasingly demanding days. (Sometimes, I get the feeling that they're the ones who are going out to work and my wife and I are the ones loafing around at home.) We really don't have the heart to ban it altogether. Besides, just because you've banned all the tubes in the house doesn't mean that children are immediately going to start reading Oliver Twist.

As it happens, my book never was printed privately. Thanks to my agent in Los Angeles the well-named Bob Bookman-the film rights were quickly picked up by Dreamworks. And, following a news item about the film deal in The Daily Telegraph, I managed to find a publisher.

The book has now been translated; into 15 languages. What's more, I enjoyed the experience of writing for children so much that I have decided to write a series of children's novels featuring the same characters.

It was naive of me, however, to expect that just because I had written a book for my own children, they would swiftly become junior members of the Royal Society of Literature. Worse than that, it confirmed that I still didn't really understand child psychology. It was only when he heard a rather pretty 13-year-old girl telling me how much she had enjoyed reading an advance copy of the book that my eldest son, William, finally bothered to read it himself.

As for my two younger children, the thing that really impresses them is that my publisher has produced a facsimile of the book made entirely of chocolate.

The Daily Telegraph
Friday October 1st 2004