Here’s a sentence I don’t get to type often: I was having a beer with Melvin Burgess.
It’s true. One of my heroes. We’d been involved in an event for kids at the excellent Portico Library, and afterwards, in the pub next door, we got to talking about books. Burgess tells this great story about a mutual favourite writer of ours, the sci-fi pioneer John Wyndham.
“This is John Wyndham, remember,” Burgess says as he begins. I’ve edited out the colourful language. “John Wyndham. Writer of Day of the Triffids. The Midwich Cuckoos. Apparently, between books, he’d always try and pitch this great, elusive idea to his publishers. The next book was going to be it. I’ve got two words for you, gentlemen, Wyndham would say.” Here, Burgess, does a perfect impression of a writer fuelled-up on the fever-potential of a new idea. “Two words for you. (pause) Killer. Spiders.”
And the response, the story goes, would be a kind of embarrassed silence. Yeah great, John. Sounds good. Anything else you’re working on right now? And downcast, Wyndham would shrug and say with a sigh, Well, I’ve got this thing called The Chrysalids…
We roared with laughter together at this story - both guessing it was semi-apocryphal. We imagined Shakespeare doing the same. Approaching the money-makers and gate-keepers of Elizabethan theatre at The Globe with this: “I’ve got three words for you, Gentlemen: Codpieces. From. Hell.”
Then, excited by this idea that all writers might carry a story around with them – a story they know is killer, but the world at large remains unconvinced - I told Melvin Burgess about mine. Melvin Burgess, the Jedi-master of YA. I told him, in a slightly drunken, unguarded moment, about Ghost Heist.
Looking back, I didn’t pitch it well. It’s a heist story, I said. Except the burglars are ghosts. They’re avenging ghosts. Four dead guys bankrolled by a super-rich kid. To his great credit, Burgess listened. Then he sipped his beer and said, very politely, “I’m not sure what the ‘ghost’ element adds to it.”
When I got home, I stuck John Wyndham Killer Spiders into a search engine. And whaddayaknow, Web turned up. It was published posthumously in 1979, ten years after Wyndham’s death. He never did convince anyone to take a chance on it.
I read Web recently. It’s not a great success. To be honest, I’m not sure what the killer spiders element adds to it.