The Museum’s Secret probably began when I found an obscure manual on Victorian Taxidermy techniques in a library. This was a how to book produced in the heyday of taxidermy when every town and quite a lot of villages in England had a taxidermist. Why? People were simply stuffed animal crazy. Everyone had a specimen or two — they weren’t expensive. And the local taxidermist was not a professional — he was a usually had another job — often as a hairdresser. Not surprisingly, a lot of this taxidermy was truly terrible. The animals bore little resemblance to what they had been in life, and it was usual to pad out their heads and bodies with newspapers. They may have looked a little like animals, but actually they were Victorian objects, inside and out. This got me thinking …
I’ve always liked dusty old museums. I had a vague childhood memory of visiting the Potter Museum in Arundel, which was a very strange place, (it has since been broken up) absolutely crammed with bizarre exhibits, a two-headed lamb, frogs playing tennis, rabbits at school, a rats drinking den … I remembered that, and many others. If place has inspired me more than most it’s the Ipswich Museum, which is different from the Scatterhorn Museum in many, many ways, (it’s lovely, really), but it does have a faded proboscis monkey — and, a mammoth.
People often assume that I know a lot about beetles. I don’t. But I do find them very mysterious and inspiring. As the great biologist J.B.S. Haldane said, when God created the World, he must have had ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles’, because there are more beetles than any creature on this planet. Why are there so many of them? Obviously they like it here. It suits them very well. They can burrow through the earth, crawl over it, fly … there’s plenty to eat … you might say, just in terms of the numbers, that beetles rule the world … what if beetles really did rule the world? Could they? Really? That’s how it started. There is, of course the tricky problem of that exoskeleton, but there is something else, too: beetles don’t live very long, as beetles. In fact the beetle part of their lives is often the shortest. Which gave me the idea for Don Gervase Askary. Life — or the lack of it — was his obsession. It consumes him. And I’d never read about a villain who was actually a beetle before …
When I started this book, in September 2005, I just began and immediately veered away from my carefully worked out plan. Each day I wrote a list of words or thumbnail sketches as kind of aide-memoire of what I was supposed to be doing. I’d read a lot of children’s fiction, but I’d never written any fiction before. Each night my wife read a chapter to our eldest son (who was nine at the time), while I sat on the floor outside his room listening in trepidation. If he liked it I carried on … if not … I carried on; nervously. Four months later I’d done a couple of drafts and I sent it to my agent to read.
Then in the following summer, 2006, the movie Night at the Museum came out, a huge hit that involved creatures coming to life in a museum … ah. I assumed that was the end of that. A deeply unfortunate piece of serendipity, something in the air that had permeated my shed in Suffolk just as it had the hills of Hollywood 8,000 miles away. Well at least I had something to light the fire with now. Fortunately, it turned out differently.
Having hinted at the extraordinary colony of beetles in the future world of Scarazand in book one, in The Hidden World I had to clothe the monster. The only thing I knew about Scarazand was that it was connected to everywhere and had a lift shaft thousands of storeys high with elevators flying up and down it driven entirely by beetle power. Which was an okay place to start. Nevertheless, being irresistibly drawn to odd facts, I thought I’d better read some books on insects.
I quickly discovered it’s a very, very strange world out there. The insect kingdom is one of stratagem and counter stratagem, where everything’s trying to trick, kill, or eat everything else, often in such peculiar ways its hard to get your head around it. There are insects that look like blossom. There are insects that look like foam. There are insects that look like berries but smell like coconuts. Insects that use gas as a force field. Insects that anchor themselves to the ground, carry twenty times their own weight, have a big smiling face at their rear end, fire hot acid at predators, spontaneously explode, live inside parasites that are already living inside other creatures (urgh!) As I said, it’s strange. Whatever I imagined for the beetles of the future would be tame compared to what they are already doing right now. So I borrowed some facts.
The idea of hyperparasites (the ones that live inside other parasites) I used in the last scene of The Hidden World. The way termites queens use magnetic force to control their colonies is very similar to the way the queen beetle of Scarazand controls her beetles. And the death scream (my sila scream) is something that happens when termite colonies implode. Even the mesmerion is not a million miles away from something found in the insect world.
And there are other more obvious inspirations from life in this book, too. In between writing The Museum’s Secret and The Hidden World I spent almost a year making a documentary about the Cold War. I had assumed the Museum’s Secret would never get published and I wouldn’t get asked to write any more. This documentary (1983, The Brink of Apocalypse) featured a lot of spies spying on other spies. Everyone was listening to everyone else in listening stations in obscure parts of the world … that probably gave me the idea for Arlo Smoot and his remarkable abilities.
During the same film I made a trip out into the Badlands of South Dakota to film an intercontinental ballistic missile standing upright in its silo. This ICBM, 20 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima lurking beneath the surface like some great white maggot gave me ideas for the Queen of Scarazand and how she might be hidden, yet connected, to the world above.
Other elements of the book were much less dangerous. The Deluge, August Catcher’s incredible piece of cantilevered taxidermy was inspired by some of Roland Ward’s creations made over 100 years ago. I doodled what August Catcher might have done had money been no object. What was the craziest thing you could make tableaux of? How about the contents of a zoo being tipped over a cliff?
Unlike The Museum’s Secret, The Hidden World had more many twists and turns and consequently it went through many more drafts. One whole section I had to ditch concerned a rebellion inside Scarazand that Don Gervase brutally suppressed. This was all great stuff and I loved it dearly but it took three chapters to tell. It held up the story, so it had to go.
The Forgotten Echo had even more chapters slashed away to clear path through the thicket. Originally it had an entirely different beginning, and it ran to thirteen drafts in the end, well over 300,000 words (the final book was 137,000). The reason for all this work was simple: as it’s the last book in the trilogy — everything has to make sense. Though I had an idea of what was over the final hill when I began the journey, various things had happened along the way: a new backstory of Nicholas and Dorian Zumsteen, and all the implications of the time travel, (solutions to the time paradox, anyone?) This meant that I had to change the order of things a little, which is just part of the creative process — for me, anyway. Writing books would be very boring if you knew exactly what’s going to happen at every point before you began. Personally, I don’t believe anyone does.
Some things in The Forgotten Echo are not so much inspirations as blatant thefts. The most obvious is the first chapter, The Visions of Betilda Marchmont, which are inspired by the Hawstead Panels painted by Lady Drury in the 1600s, now in Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. The pictures are different but I shamelessly stole some of her Latin epithets. Golding Golding’s garden is inspired by Edward James’ surreal garden at Las Pozas, and August Catcher’s mountain hideout is something like Meteora in Greece. If you are wondering what a stork with a spear through its neck looks like there is one in a cabinet in the University of Rostock. And yes, back in the good old days shellac from India and Thailand really was stretched by children, who used their teeth hands and feet to pull it into star shapes …
Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the books. Explaining things is not always helpful, and sometimes it is distinctly unhelpful, like unravelling a tapestry. There are hundreds of other odd facts that have inspired me in the writing of this series, and none of them matter in the slightest: all that matters is what’s on the page and whether or not that makes you want to turn to the next page … nothing else really matters at all.