Discussing the Summer 2022 must read middle grade adventure, Spellstoppers, with author Cat Gray

It is always such a highlight of blogging to be able to pose questions to the author of a book that I know readers will want to know the answers of to, and I always advocate being able to do this sort of feature after having read an exceptional read, and that is exactly how I would describe Spellstoppers, the new middle grade title from the extremely talented Cat Gray. This book is due for publication in July so this interview gives you some insight directly from the author, and further validates why this is the must read book of Summer 2022. You can also read my full review here.

– Summarise Spellstoppers for us. What can readers anticipate in your upcoming publication?

It’s about a boy called Max, who has always thought he was cursed, given that anything electrical breaks as soon as he touches it. However, it turns out he’s a spellstopper – a person who can drain misbehaving magic – and he’s sent to stay with his grandfather and learn the family business. His grandfather lives in Yowling, a magical seaside village that’s dominated by a sinister castle and the Keepers who look after it. Max soon finds out that his grandfather is in terrible danger and he’s the only person who’s able to save him. Readers can expect lots of magic, and quite a few explosions.

– The story centres around a young boy, Max, who has adapted his routine in order to cope with always breaking anything electrical with his touch. Is there a message behind this characteristic that brings awareness to our dependence on electrical devices?

I wanted to write about a character who was struggling with something that was making their life really unbearable, and their journey to overcoming that issue, but instead of picking a real-life problem, I decided to make one up. I suppose it is a reflection of how dependent we all are on electrical items – even just not being able to use the internet would terrify most people, so I had a lot of fun with all the awful ways that it made poor Max’s life a misery!

– Max is sent to his grandad to hopefully learn to control his ‘power’, and in doing so he enters a world of spells and sorcery. Where did the inspiration come from?

That world has been with me for a really long time. My grandmother had a shop in the Cotswolds, and when I was a child we’d visit her every summer. She lived above the shop – the house was very old and creaky and atmospheric, with a kitchen that seemed to be in a time-warp from a different century and a grandfather clock that chimed too often. The shop sold quite a peculiar mix of things – you’d get knitted jumpers, Beatrix Potter ornaments, fossils, packs of playing cards and marbles, all sitting alongside each other. The village and her shop were so different to my life in Ireland that they seemed to belong to some sort of parallel dimension. It seemed quite plausible to think that a magical world might be coexisting happily with this one, unbeknownst to most people.

– Is the village of Yowling based on anywhere real?

It’s mostly made up, but while I was writing Spellstoppers I kept looking at a picture of Mermaid Street in Rye and that definitely influenced parts of Yowling. I love how steeply sloping Mermaid Street is, and the way all the houses are so irregular. But the way the village is huddled into the cliffs and the geography of it is probably more inspired by Ireland, which is where I grew up. If you drive around the Irish countryside you’ll see ruined castles everywhere.

– At present the book is a standalone read, but would you like to return to Max, his friend Kit, Grandad, and their magical world with a sequel?

I’d love to write a sequel to Spellstoppers – I actually have one planned out in my head – but I’ve got another standalone coming out next year, which I’m really excited about, so I think it’ll have to wait.

– Spellstoppers is due to be published on 7th July, and will undoubtedly be an incredibly popular read over the summer (and beyond) with chapter book readers, what are your plans for celebrating publication day?

I’ll be cracking open the champagne – I’ve been waiting a very long time for this day to come! What’s nice is that another Usborne author has his debut coming out on the same day, so we’re sharing a book birthday! His name’s PJ Canning and the book’s called 21% Monster – you should check it out.

– Psychic ice cream features in the story, adding some fun to a powerful scene that unfolds on the beach. What is your favourite ice cream flavour?

This is quite a hard question to answer. Probably pistachio, but chocolate is also a strong contender, especially if it also has chunks of chocolate in it. 

– Do you have a favourite scene from the book, and if so why?

I think it might be the big showdown scene at the end. I remember I wrote it in one sitting, on a winter’s evening, and completely lost track of time. Sometimes you get so into a story that it unfolds in front of you like a film and that’s a very exciting feeling.

– Owls play a huge part in the story, working for the powerful castle keeper, who is the stereotypical ‘baddie’, what made you decide on owls?

I read Alan Garner’s The Owl Service when I was a child and the atmosphere from that book has always stayed with me. The idea of owls turning into humans and vice versa is also a very common theme in folklore, and it fitted in well to the story as it explained why no one could get to the castle except for the Keepers.

That said, I do feel a bit bad about how horrible the owls were in my story, as they’re such beautiful birds!

– Was there any part in the research process for this book that has stood out to you, and if so what was it and why?

I had to read up on electric cars in order to write that first chapter, as I needed to know how they worked. I also had a lot of fun browsing auction catalogues to find inspiration for the misbehaving antiques! 

– What are you currently writing? Any clues as to what we can anticipate in the future? 

I’ve got a second book coming out next year – this time it’s set in a mysterious London alley that’s being plagued by a magical creature called a spiritsnatcher. Funnily enough, I wrote that book before Spellstoppers, but because of the way publishing schedules work, it’s coming out second. I’ve also got a third story that’s currently half-done, so that will be my next project.

– You have previously been a journalist, working in some incredible outlets including Harpers Bazaar. How does writing children’s literature differ? 

Style-wise, it’s really different. Harper’s Bazaar, in particular, was very literary in tone and I definitely got into the habit of using lots of long words. The first middle-grade book I wrote had a reading age of about 15! I’ve had to consciously adapt my writing to suit a different audience. I really love the opportunity to use humour though – my favourite books are always the ones that make me smile. 

– Fans of Catherine Doyle, Abi Elphinstone, Amy Wilson, and Sinead O’Hart would be amongst those that will devour this book this summer. Who are your children’s book authors that you enjoy?

All the above writers are fabulous! There are so many fantastic middle-grade authors at the moment – I have an enormous list of new releases that I’m longing to read. I still can’t believe I’ve found a home at Usborne, as there are so many talented writers there. 

I was a very keen reader as a child and even as an adult I’ve always had a soft spot for middle-grade books – they have the best stories. I didn’t discover Eva Ibbotsen and Diana Wynne Jones until I was in my late 20s, and they are now some of my favourite children’s writers. When I was younger I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. The Narnia books, the Harry Potter series and Joan Aiken’s Wolves chronicles were long-standing favourites – they were such complete worlds that you could almost live inside them.

Spellstoppers is published by Usborne, and due for publication on 7th July 2022. You can pre order yourself a copy now from all good booksellers.

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