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Background on Philip Reeve

Winner of the 2008 CILIP Carnegie Medal for 'Here Lies Arthur'

Early Life
Born and brought up in Brighton, Philip Reeve started writing stories at the age of five but it was to be another 25 years or more before he became a published author. As he grew up his local library helped cultivate his love of reading, enabling him to discover new authors and new books every week. He now lists Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner (both former CILIP Carnegie winners), Lloyd Alexander and HG Wells amongst the writers he admires.

Reeve always thought it would be nice to be a writer but from the age of 12 his attention turned to illustration and film-maker. When he was 15 he saw John Boorman's film, 'Excalibur', which not only strengthened his film-making ambitions, but also sparked a fascination with the story of King Arthur. As a teenager he read everything he could lay his hands on about the man and the myth which in effect turned out to be the initial research for writing a CILIP Carnegie winning book.

His talent for drawing ensured a place at art school in Cambridge to study illustration. Half way through the course he decided he wasn't that good at drawing, and took himself back to Brighton to a part-time job in a bookshop. He could now pay the bills whilst continuing to co-write, produce and direct what he describes as 'no-budget theatre projects' as well as pursue his film-making ambitions. He now admits it took until he was 24 and many reels of 'super 8' film to establish that although passionate about it, film-making was too tough a career.

Although he had quit art school, he was a good cartoonist and subsidised his wages providing cartoons for women's magazines. Around this time his talent for drawing was spotted and he was commissioned to illustrate the popular children's series: 'Horrible Histories', 'Murderous Maths' and 'Dead Famous'.

His love of writing stayed with him and when he gave up on film-making he started to write fiction. It was just a hobby at the time; he had always been fascinated by the power of story and the cultural importance of myth but never imagined he would be a writer himself.

It was around 1993 that he began writing what became 'Mortal Engines'. In 2001 Scholastic published it to instant acclaim. It won the Nestle Smarties Gold Award 2002 and the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award 2003. 'Mortal Engines' was the first of the 'Mortal Engines Quartet' - an adventure series set many thousands years in the future, an electric mix of action and fantasy sustained with wit and humour. A Sixty Minute War has destroyed civilisation and humans are rebuilding society based on an ideology of Municipal Darwinism. People live in vast moveable cities that roam the planet, attacking and looting smaller, weaker cities; it's a world where only the fittest survive. This is superb storytelling for adults or children, and Reeve's frivolity masks his underlying seriousness. And, fittingly, the fourth and final book, 'A Darkling Plain' won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2006.

Here Lies Arthur
Reeve is a master of creating 'alternative worlds' with the 'Hungry Cities' quartet set thousands of years in the future, a more recent title, 'Larklight' set in a Victorian age where space travel is possible and then 'Here Lies Arthur' set 1,500 years ago in Britain's Dark Ages when the Romans had left and the Saxon invasion was imminent.

But why pick such a well-known story? Reeve has had a lifelong fascination with the Arthurian legends, and this is the novel he had always wanted to write. However, due to the story's mythical status it had taken him years to decide how to tackle it.

Reeve returns the story to its Welsh Celtic roots; his choice of the young orphan girl Gwyna as the narrator gives a fresh perspective on Arthur's world and time; we get to see just how tough it was to survive in the Dark Ages; a violent time dominated by men and the brutality of war. The character Myrddin (Merlin) is no magician, but relies on trickery to set Arthur up as a powerful and credible leader against the Saxon invaders when in reality he is merely a self-interested thug.

Myrddin comes to rely on his young assistant Gwyna, dressing her as a boy to protect her identity when needed. It is a fast-paced adventure story, full of atmosphere; a tangible sense of fear pervades every page as the Celts await the Saxons.

What about Myrddin as spin-doctor rather than magician? All Reeve's characters, including Myrddin are complex, ambiguous and totally credible and he's described Myrddin as a metaphor for what's happened to the Arthur story over the centuries. Many a knowing reader has described the book as political satire and he acknowledges the parallels with our current political situation and image makers and he's clearly delighted to hear that many children 'get' the pun of the title.

Reeve's primary motivation for writing is to tell a story. With 'Here Lies Arthur' what he set out to do was to write a really good adventure story for young readers, and to pay tribute to the power and beauty of the stories that surround Arthurian legend. He's succeeded on both counts and also won the most sought after of children's book awards, the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

What else & what next?
Reeve has a series for younger readers - 'Buster Bayliss' - to his credit as well as illustrating 'Urgum the Axeman' and 'Urgum & the Seat of Flames' for Scholastic. There are currently two books in the 'Larklight' series published by Bloomsbury with a third due out this Autumn. In 2009 Scholastic will publish 'Fever Crumb' in which he returns to the world of the 'Hungry Cities' quartet but at a different time and with different characters. Meanwhile, he continues to live on Dartmoor with his wife and young son.


26 June 2008