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Interview with Julian H. Lewis

UK Bookselling Series

by Claire Main

#95, 28 May 2007

Once more BookThink's intrepid UK interviewer ventures into the unknown, armed only with a deep knowledge of Indian curries and an affection for Indian elephants. As I pressed the doorbell, I wondered if this was indeed a house or a time machine? Was Julian H. Lewis himself from this time or another? Would I be transported back in time? Had he got any chocolate? As questions mounted, it was definitely time to get them answered. Julian opened the door dressed casually in English style. But was that sitar music I could hear?

BOOKTHINK: Julian where are you from?

LEWIS: I was born and bred in London, and that is where I still live - although I have moved about a bit over the years!

BOOKTHINK: So that explains the time travel. Tell us your latest news?

LEWIS: I am tremendously excited about the launch of my book - both Waterstones and WH Smith, the two largest book selling chains in the UK are really getting behind it and will promote it very heavily. It will be great to have my book on the children's shelves of these bookstores alongside the great J.K. Rowling and the latest and final Harry Potter book in July.

BOOKTHINK: Why and when did you begin writing?

LEWIS: I have always loved stories, and I have been telling stories - as opposed to writing them down - for very many years. Mainly to my children, but also to anyone else who would listen. I suppose I first started writing down stories when I found myself away on business. I wrote some short stories and faxed them to my kids. Then I moved on to longer stories, and eventually a book.

BOOKTHINK: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

LEWIS: I don't know ... when does one become a writer? Perhaps it was when I was about 8 or 9 years old at school and when I handed in my (supposedly) factual account of "what I did in the summer holidays" - an account filled with such fantasy and tales that my teacher read the essay out to the entire class. I think he meant to shame me, but it only encouraged me to write more stories.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to write your first book?

LEWIS: As I said, we moved house quite a few times over the years. When we bought our current house, which was built about 80 or 90 years ago, we discovered an old abandoned chest in the corner of the attic. My children were very excited and we carefully carried it downstairs, hoping that it would contain something valuable - possibly treasure! Instead there were some old clothes and an invitation, carefully preserved, to an old fashioned ball in India in 1912.

BOOKTHINK: Who or what has influenced your writing?

LEWIS: I loved the books that I read when I was growing up - old fashioned adventure stories, stories of heroism, companionship and good-heartedness. I can't point to any particular author, but I think there is a whole genre of books written in those days that don't seem to exist any more.

BOOKTHINK: How did you come up with the title The Magic Lantern of Kimbustan?

LEWIS: The book features a magic lantern, so the first part was easy. For a long time I was going to call it simply that The Magic Lantern. Then we did a search on Google and Amazon and discovered a large number of books with "The Magic Lantern" in the title. So, we added "of Kimbustan" to make the title unique. Since Kimbustan is a made-up kingdom, it is unique to my book!

BOOKTHINK: What is the book about?

LEWIS: I wanted to write an old fashioned adventure story that would appeal to both children and their parents - a tale full of mystery and suspense, with a strong, compelling, fast moving plot and a raft of colourful characters. I wanted to create something bursting with interest, with big themes that would grab and hold the young reader's attention - love and death, excitement and peril, heroes and villains. I wanted to blend fantasy and reality in a way that would really grip the imagination. Imagine, long ago, the faraway kingdom of Kimbustan, near India - a land full of magic, some say. A realm of colour and character - jungles and mountains, castles and palaces, fortune-tellers and soldiers. A land of poverty and great wealth, ruled nominally by the Maharajah, but in practice by the British Raj. A place full of intrigue, conspiracy, suspicion and xenophobia. A place where, once upon a time, a young Scottish girl fell hopelessly and tragically in love with the heir to the Kimbustani throne; and fabulous treasure went unaccountably missing ... Now imagine two English children, years later, sent to live in a big, creepy old house in Scotland in a quiet, remote village where the locals dislike them and their new schoolteacher seems remarkably like a witch ... This is a book where children take the central roles, and certainly the two principal characters - twelve-year-old twins, Tim and Kelly - have all the attributes of traditional hero and heroine. But adults play a part too. The book touches on some darker themes - jealousy and unfaithfulness; deception and death; politics and betrayal. These themes feature in the book, but do not dominate. I have tried to treat them as sensitively as possible.

BOOKTHINK: Is the book part of a trilogy?

LEWIS: I think this is very likely. I am already well advanced on the next book in the series, but I think it will take a 3rd book to deal with all the complexities of plot and characters. I'll probably leave it there though. I have a very strong idea for another book altogether - a true life, gritty children's crime novel, with some unique plot twists.

BOOKTHINK: Why did you choose to self-publish your book?

LEWIS: Self publishing seemed to be the obvious way for me to go from the outset. I had heard how difficult it was to try to find a publisher through conventional means and how cautious and conservative they were being these days. The difference between self-publishing and regular publishing is one of finance, and it seemed to me a simple choice to forego the normal "advance" in exchange for a greater share of the profits, more control over the process, more certainty over the outcome, and a timetable that suited me. So, I didn't bother to try to find a regular agent or publisher, bypassing this process completely. I looked on the Internet to find and evaluate the various self publishing companies. I thought from my research that Pen Press had the best track record and most professional approach. I also wanted to have as near to full service self-publishing as possible, and Pen Press seemed to have more expertise than the others did.

BOOKTHINK: What books have influenced your life most?

LEWIS: Probably text books, rather than fiction. I am very much interested in science and mathematics. Last year, for example, I studied the brain from a neuro-science perspective. It's absolutely fascinating to see how, mechanically, we perceive, think remember, etc. Fascinating and humbling.

BOOKTHINK: What book are you reading now?

LEWIS: As I write, I am between books. I finished Carmen Sqillante's "Flotsome is the stuff that floats" - a very interesting book. The next book on my pile is a Joanna Trollope - yes, even great authors indulge in a little light reading now and then!

BOOKTHINK: Are there any new authors that have grabbed your interest?

LEWIS: I really liked Henry Tumor by Anthony McGowan, and not just because of my interest in neuro science. I also liked Sharon Dogar's Waves.

BOOKTHINK: What are your current projects?

LEWIS: Writing-wise - I have almost finished the first draft of the book that will follow The Magic Lantern of Kimbustan. I don't have a title for this one yet, but it has certainly been interesting to write. It's longer, darker and set largely, although not exclusively, in Scotland, and based on some real life events that ended badly for all concerned, so writing a children's book around that is quite a challenge.

BOOKTHINK: Does travelling help with writing your books?

LEWIS: I love travelling anyway, and over the years I have been to very many places. As it happens, the two principal locations for The Magic Lantern of Kimbustan - Scotland and India - I picked because I find them romantic, mysterious places where almost anything can happen, and frequently does.

BOOKTHINK: I noticed that your book will be supporting SOS Children in India.

LEWIS: Yes it will. The India/charity connection came out of a trip I made to India myself about 25 years ago. We went round all the palaces, learnt something of Indian history, etc. That was where the ideas for the "India" parts of the book came from, but I was also struck by the enormous poverty and the number of homeless children living in the streets. When I came back, I found a charity that helps them - SOS Children - and I've supported them ever since. It seemed natural to me when I came to publish it to use the book to promote and aid SOS Children.

BOOKTHINK: What a good idea and such a worthwhile cause.

LEWIS: Yes, it feels good to be able to help a charity which is close to my heart.

BOOKTHINK: Who designed the covers?

LEWIS: The cover and all the art inside the book was designed and drawn by Alexa Garside from Pen Press - a really talented artist. As the book was self-published, I was able to work closely with Alexa in developing the ideas behind the art illustrations, and I think they have come out very well.

BOOKTHINK: What was the hardest part of writing your book?

LEWIS: The hardest part for me was finding the time to write - with everything else going on in my life, there isn't much spare capacity. Luckily, I don't seem to suffer from writers block. I also have a "draft" mentality - I don't concentrate on getting the words exactly right the first time, so I think of each chapter as a draft to be continually revised and improved. Perhaps the hardest thing, looking back, was deciding when the process should come to an end. I think you can go over your own wording and phraseology again and again - and in the end, although some words and phrases are uniquely important in a book, overall it actually matters less than you think.

BOOKTHINK: Do you have any advice for other writers?

LEWIS: Keep going, keep trying, keep pushing, keep your spirits up ... keep writing!

BOOKTHINK: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

LEWIS: Yes, check out the website. We have a fantastic competition and everyone is welcome to enter. A few days later a package arrived with the words:


Inside was a small casket filled with sand. As I tipped out the sand, a small bag of chocolate coins tumbled out and a gold card which said, "The sands of time will reveal the greatest of treasures ..."

"Best Wishes from Julian H. Lewis"

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