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Keith Mansfield 2009 on Johnny Mackintosh and the spirit of London

Keith Mansfield

Photograph of the Interviewee

Keith Mansfield 2009


How can one not ask questions of author Keith Mansfield who has not one but two Gherkins standing next to each other in his book Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London, which  Jayne very much enjoyed reading and asked the questions.


J: What gave you the idea to write a story like this?

KM: I've always thought it was such a waste that there's this wonderful universe out there but we're stuck in such a minute portion. Ever since I was little I wanted to see more of it, so I fantasised about being kidnapped by aliens and ending up with my own spaceship. Johnny's story came out of that, though it took me a long time to get around to writing it down.

J: Have you always enjoyed fantasy fiction?

KM: I know at an obvious level, Johnny Mackintosh's story is fantasy, but it was vital to me that his story is grounded in reality. That's why he's on Earth in the here and now and goes to school, plays football, lives in his children's home and all those sorts of (relatively) normal things. I think the most important thing with books or films is to be able to put yourself in the place of the characters and imagine it's happening to you. Harry Potter has no idea he's a wizard until he turns 11 years old. Johnny Mackinotsh is the same - just an ordinary boy until things start happening to him when he's 13. I think it would be great to be his age again and unexpectedly be taken into space. It would even be great at my age! I'm less keen on those books that are outright fantasy.

J: Have you ever stayed in a children's home or had a friend who has been there and experienced what Johnny did?

KM: I have to confess that I've not lived in a children's home, for which I'm grateful. When you're writing about someone younger and want to make them appear quite adventurous, sometimes you have to get the parents out of the picture. Johnny's story wouldn't have worked if he'd had his mum or dad running after him saying "you've forgotten your lunch" or "have you got a clean hanky?", so putting him in a home was useful. It also opens up interesting possibilities for later stories, but I can't tell you about those now as it might spoil the later stories.

J: Do you enjoy computers and can you programme the way that Johnny did?

KM: I love these questions. When I was Johnny's age computers weren't everywhere like they are today. I wanted to study maths (I acknowledge I was odd) and, at that time, it seemed to me that using computers to do maths was somehow cheating as it removed you from understanding exactly what was going on. Happily I've changed my mind. I ended up spending seven years finding authors to write books on how computers work, so I learnt a fair amount about it too. I hope the computers in the book are accurate, if quite special. The original Kovac that Johnny programmes is based on how a talking computer should work. When he's "improved" later in the book, that's based on computing technology at the forefront of current research.

J: The people that looked after Johnny and his sister on the Gherkin were robots were they put in because of the characters like those in the star wars films.

KM: Another brilliant question - I'm so glad you noticed. When I first approached my publishing company, I pitched the Johnny Mackintosh stories as "Harry Potter meets Star Wars". Particularly when I was writing the dialogue for Alf (who's an android), I'd think of the golden robot C3PO in Star Wars, although Alf looks more like a regular person.

J: What do you think people would do if there were two Gherkin's suddenly side by side in London?

KM: They might realize that the Johnny Mackintosh stories are based on real life and that one of the two Gherkins was a spaceship. But would they be able to tell which was which?

J: Who have been your most important and influential books and authors over the years?

KM: One of the things about being a writer is that it's important to read loads of books, and everything influences you in some way once you've read it. Without doubt, the biggest single influence on writing the Johnny Mackintosh stories is the Harry Potter books. I loved them so much, even though they were full of stuff I would never normall enjoy (magic and dragons and stuff). So, I thought, why not write about another boy who doesn't realize he's special, but have all the things I like - space, football, computers, dinosaurs, science and so on? That's how it came about.

I did read a lot of Isaac Asimov when I was growing up (the first three of his Foundation series were great) and nowadays Iain Banks is probably the author I admire the most - and I love the way he writes some science fiction and some "regular" books. Paul Auster's Moon Palace is perhaps my favourite novel of all and I had to include Atlantis in Johnny's story because of Edith Nesbit's Story of the Amulet. It's not only books that have influenced me - I only listened to Douglas' Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the radio and didn't read the books, but it captivated me. I could go on for ever, but I think this answer's long enough.

J: Did you enjoy the work that you did for The Science of Spying Exhibition at the London Science Museum and what was your role?

KM: That was a wonderful job because the exhibition had a story to it, rather than simply being something you looked round. So it's similar to what I was saying about the type of books I like - in this case, you actually became the spy. We had an organization called Osteck that you had to infiltrate (after your Spymaker training) and uncover information that could stop their evil schemes.

J: I worked on specific exhibits. One was about garbology (looking through people's rubbish to see what it told you about them). It's made me far more careful about what I throw away! I also researched two different computer hacking exhibits - a sort of global supercomputer which was a centrepiece of the exhibit and also Osteck's own systems. I also had to find out about safe cracking. The other piece that was mainly mine was to come up with an intelligent vending machine in Osteck's lobby that would recommend personalized items to people based on the information that had been collected on them. We had a great writer (Chas Walton) who wrote most of the text, but sometimes I had to do a little scripting as Chas wasn't onsite in the Museum, and just coming up with exhibit ideas felt very creative and helped build on the storyline.

J: What light entertainment TV shows were you involved in?

KM: The first show I did most of the writing for was The Junior Eurovision Song Contest, 2005 (live, from Hasselt in Belgium!), which Michael Underwood presented. Sadly, I don't think as many people will have seen it as watch the grownup version,

Most recently I scripted a lot of An Audience with Lionel Richie: Live (for those younger readers who don't know, that's Nicole's dad and he's actually quite a good singer) and some sections of a guess the lyrics show called Sing it Back, which was presented by Hider in the House's JK and Joel, and the great Paul Gambaccini.

I've also had a writing credit on The British Soap Awards and the project I worked on the longest was called Movie Music Mania, combining my love of music and film, but that was mainly finding clips we could put into the show.

J: Did you have brothers and sisters who you enjoyed adventures with, during school holidays?

KM: Absolutely. When I was little me and my older brother, John, made up stories together and were always outside having fun (though nothing quite as exciting as Johnny). I wished I had a sister too and I really enjoy Clara's part in the action and the fact that she can do things that Johnny can't. As you get older, families sometimes become more complicated so now I'm lucky enough to have two more step brothers and two step sisters too!

J: Have you always had an urge to go into space yourself or are you one of those who likes to have your feet on the ground?

KM: I would jump at the chance to go. Last year I applied to the European Space Agency to train to be an astronaut. Sadly, they rejected me, which was a shame because I have the right scientific background as well as being able to tell people about it in what I'd like to think would be an interesting way.

One of my other influences was the great Cosmologist Carl Sagan, who wrote a book called Contact. In it, scientists receive a message from space, decode it and build a machine that takes them to the centre of the galaxy. It's so beautiful and awe-inspiring, one of them says, "They should have sent a poet." I'd like to think, had they chosen me they would have had a scientist and a poet (or at least a writer of some description).

Of course it's still not too late...

J: Will there be another story about Johnny and his sister in the future?

KM: I've just sent the second story to my publisher. I'm very excited about it and hope it will be published in January or February 2010. Then, from next week, I'm spending a month in Hawthornden Castle in Scotland where I'll be writing as much as I can of the third story. I'm incredibly lucky to be going. It's a scheme to encourage writers, paid for by the Heinz family. They feed me while I'm there too - I'll have no complaints if it's all baked beans and tomato ketchup.

Thanks for taking the time to ask such interesting questions - I've very much enjoyed trying to answer them.


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