The man who wrote beyond the universe

  • Christopher Edge

Award-winning children’s author Christopher Edge isn’t afraid to grapple with big and baffling ideas.

In The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, a bereaved young boy uses quantum mechanics to travel the multiverse in search of a world where his mother is still alive; and in Christophers most recent book, The Jamie Drake Equation, the titular character feels estranged from his astronaut father - until an extraterrestrial intelligence helps to bridge the gap.

We chat to the Gloucestershire-based writer and music enthusiast about mixing wild science with heart-stirring stories.

Hi Christopher. Tell us - what did you enjoy reading when you were young?

Oh, I was the Incredible Book-Eating Boy! I used to devour the shelves of my local library. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper…And comic books, too. 2000AD, Batman…I really roamed far and wide.

How did you make the jump into writing as a career?

Whenever children ask me this at school, I always tell them that the first book I wrote was produced when I was only four years old, with folded bits of paper.

But as [a career]…I had a few jobs. I was an English teacher for a while. I worked in educational publishing, where I’d read a lot of children’s fiction to see if any would work in the classroom. In that time I read some great books from authors like Philip Reeve, and it just reconnected me with the books I used to love when I was younger.

It made me realise that children’s fiction is a really exciting place to be - that there are so many stories you can tell. And it inspired me to tell some stories of my own.

Which authors do you currently admire?

I think we’re in a golden age for children’s literature at the moment. Especially for ages 9-upwards. Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Piers Torday, Philip Reeve and Frances Hardinge - who won the 2015 Costa Book Award with The Lie Tree (Editor’s Note: The Lie Tree was the first children’s book to win the award since 2001’s The Amber Spyglass.)…There’s so much ambition at the moment. It’s so exciting to be a part of it.

Speaking of ambition! Your last two books, The Jamie Drake Equation and The Many Worlds of Albie Bright deal with some extraordinarily complicated stuff: quantum mechanics, multiverse theorythese things give even the experts headaches! So how difficult was it to work these really big, strange ideas into your narratives?

[Laughs] Well I think it was especially difficult for me - I got a grade D for GCSE Physics! But what gives me inspiration is that both science and stories help us make sense of the world.

Some of these theories of quantum physics, and parallel worlds, and the possibility of alien life…they are big ideas, but you can use them to tell very human stories. Stories about family, about love, about loss, and loneliness…The challenge for me is to stay true to the scientific ideas and present them in a truthful way - I get my books checked by professors of particle physics, astronomers et cetera - but to use them to tell a truthful story, too.

That’s the challenge. And sometimes I drive myself mad with reading these weighty tomes about quantum physics just to make sure I understand it, and can then translate it into stories that a ten year old can understand and enjoy.

So has it been a case of you being interested in a theory, and writing a story around it, or coming up with a scenario and finding that some fascinating scientific theory has a role?

I wasn’t brilliant at science at school, but I’ve definitely grown fascinated by it in later life - partly thanks to people like Professor Brian Cox, who speak so engagingly about such big ideas. I tend to find when I’m watching something, or reading a popular science book, a little nugget will suddenly lodge in my mind…

What I’ll usually get is a character comes to mind. So, in the case of The Jamie Drake Equation, it was partly inspired by the excitement I saw in my own children after they came back from school having learnt about Tim Peake on the International Space Station. And later as I was watching the ISS fly past at night… I wondered: ‘How would a child feel if that was their Dad up there?’

So that was the starting point - a character is leading it. Similarly, with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I was inspired by something I read that described cancer as almost like ‘a quantum killer’ - a disease caused by a single cell in your body going rogue.

From there I was reading about quantum physics, and how some quantum physicists believe that the world we live in is not the only one, that there could be many different parallel worlds. So [I had] the notion of a boy losing his mum to cancer and being determined to use quantum physics to find her again in one of these parallel worlds…

It’s usually that science provides the spark of an idea and then the character ties it all together.

Reading your books made me think me think about the current landscapeof science - and science is definitely in a strange place. Theres a lot of misinformation being spread, and outright science denial, in the case of global warming

…But on the other hand, its encouraging to see so many people rallying and marching around the globe to support scientists. What role do you think authors can play?

Well, this is the thing! We are living in strange times at the moment. One would never have thought you’d find science and reason under attack, so hopefully…well, with books like mine, I’m trying to use the wonder of science to inspire.

I had a lovely message on Twitter the other week, from a father. He said that The Many Worlds of Albie Bright had changed his daughter’s ambition from wanting to be a singer to wanting to be a quantum physicist! So if any child reads my books, and is inspired to investigate the science behind them, then that’s a wonderful result.

The world is in desperate need of scientists and engineers, but also storytellers. Whatever people take away from the stories, hopefully it’s a positive message.

You were recently on BBC Radio 6 to discuss making a soundtrack for The Many Worlds of Albie Bright. What role does music play in your writing process?

It’s a strange one. I love music - I used to work in a record shop in the dim and distant past - but I cannot listen to music when I’m writing! It interrupts the rhythm of the sentences in my mind.

But when I am working on a book, I usually find there’s lots of serendipity in the things around me, and music fits into that. Sometimes I’ll try to evoke a mood for a scene with a certain song.

For the most recent book, I was listening to a song by Tim Burgess (from The Charlatans) called Around. The lyrics really resonated with the emotions I thought Jamie would be feeling when he was missing his astronaut dad, and longing to see him again. And in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I actually have a scene where the Beastie Boys’ song Intergalactic provides the soundtrack to a dance-off the characters are having!

The songs sometimes find their ways into the narrative, but when I make a book soundtrack this is mostly a displacement activity until some Hollywood director phones up and asks to make one of my books into a film…[laughs].

And are you working on a book at the moment?

I’m working on a new book that’s scheduled to come out Spring next year. It’s similarly kind of science-inspired, but I can’t say too much about it at the moment!

Finally: whats the best thing about being a childrens author?

I think the best thing is the freedom that it gives you. Look at the range of ideas out there. There’s not much that’s off-limits. Children as an audience will [engage] with huge concepts like quantum physics - give them the ideas and they’ll run with them.

When I go out into schools and festivals, and meet the children who read my books…They’re such a passionate audience, and ask such brilliant questions. It’s an honour and a privilege to write for them

Find out more about Christopher and his books at www.christopheredge.co.uk

Enter our competition to WIN a signed copy of both The Many Worlds of Albie Bright and The Jamie Drake Equation.