Out now! Special 20th Anniversary Edition, with a new short story featuring the witch, Dragwena, Morpeth and many of your favourite characters.

Out now! The Special Edition, including a new story featuring the witch, Dragwena.

Guardian interview

Author Cliff McNish means very different things to different people. For Angel-fan Alex from teenage book group Millennium RIOT Readers Cliff is his favourite author of fantasy fiction. For JDBookGroup, he's a dog called Ralph. Both sides of the author are covered in this interview!


Cliff McNish with JDBookGroup after a tail wagging interview! Photo: Emily Drabble
Cliff McNish with JDBookGroup after a tail wagging interview! Photo: Emily Drabble

The first part of this interview is by some brand new fans of Cliff's, JDBookGroup:

Laycie: What inspired you to be a writer?
The answer to that is my daughter Rachel when she was nine she lived with her mum and we'd been separated since she was two. I used to see her at weekends because her mum and I were separated but it wasn't quite enough as she got older. I'd always told her stories and I thought I'd write her a little one. I started writing it and it just got bigger.


Do you imagine dogs really have complex feelings like your characters in Going Home?
Not really! At one point the dogs in Going Home talk about insurance, but it's funny how dogs in books can get away with things like this and it's believable. It's the same in Disney films, one minute the dogs will be really serious like adults then they are mucking around like little kids, with animals you can get away with them being both at the same time!


Nabila: Which of the dogs would you take home if you had the chance out of Ralph, Bessie, Thor, Mitch or Fred?
It would have to be either Bessie or Ralph, Mitch is a bit too lively. Probably Ralph because he's very calm.


Denzel: have you met dogs like the one you have written about in Going Home?
I've only started working with Dogs Trust recently but my wife and I fostered have fostered many dogs from Battersea Dogs and Cats home. So I've met dogs that don't like being touched like Bessie, dogs that are afraid of people often because they'd been abused so you've got to gradually get them used to the idea of being touched. I've met a lot of dogs that chase cats like Mitch. I've met a lot of old, ugly dogs that have health issues. It's very hard to rehome dogs like that. So they often get left behind. That's sad.


Rianna: Do you have a dog now or did you have one when you were growing up?
I didn't have a dog when I was growing up. My mum didn't like dogs then my parents split up when I was 10, then my dad got a dog, so I had dogs when I was teenager. Then my wife started to volunteer at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and since then we've looked after a number of dogs.


Aminata: How sorry do you feel for dogs who don't have a home?
I feel really sorry for them it's horrible to be an unwanted dog, they don't know why they are left.


Cameron: What was your favourite subject at school?
I liked history and geography and I did like English. But when I was your age didn't read novels, I read comics.


Nashita: Who was your favourite author as a child?
CS Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles which were amazing – and Enid Blyton.


Princess: How would you feel if you had a dog like Bessie in Going Home that you didn't like being stroked?
It would be really hard to have a dog you couldn't' touch. I would accept it if I chose to take a dog like that.


And now some questions for teen fan Alex from Millennium RIOT readers:

Alex: Do you have a preferred writing style?
No. The voice tends to choose itself. I don't consciously experiment with style, but I guess the multiple first-person perspective I use in the Silver Sequence is fairly unusual for younger fiction and I'm sometimes described as a "bizarre" stylist where my pure fantasies are concerned, but that's mainly because my creations are fairly non-standard fare and because I do like to write first-person perspective from the villains' viewpoint. That's always a joy. The overall truth is that I just find a voice that works for each kind of story I'm writing and once I'm comfortable just go with it. If people read Going Home and can't recognise that person as the one who wrote Silver World – well, that's terrific. Form/content over style wins.


How important are your characters to you as you are writing?
Very. In some novels like Breathe – which almost never leaves a house – and Going Home – which never leaves the dogs' home – you'd better get your characters right because you have no interesting locations to distract the reader from underdeveloped protagonists.


Are there any characters in your books which you particularly relate to?
The torn Nyktomorph in Savannah Grey. Mestraal and Hestron in Angel. Walter in The Silver Sequence. I can't even begin to tell you why. They just felt the most human – though only one of those is actually human at all. In lots of ways I like to do that – explore what it means to be human. And monsters, or archetypal angels, are perfect mirrors for that.

What sparked the initial idea for Angel?
A saw a little girl lying in bed, with light gradually increasing on her sleeping face. When she wakes she sees a beautiful angel. But here's the part that made me write it – the angel starts crying in front of her. An adult weeping at the bed of a child. I didn't know why. I sort of wanted to find out.


Your YA novels are always so different from each other, with Angel being more of a "chick lit", Breathe being such a chilling ghost story and The Hunting Ground more of a horror. Do you think it's important to keep upping your game and differentiating between styles of writing and genres?
Angel as chick lit? Really?! To me it's more a kind of moral fable. I don't consciously do "different" books. I just wait for a story idea to grab me from amongst the many that flit in and out of my head. At the moment those are mostly humorous, warm storylines. They used to be darker. I honestly can't chart why, but I like both strands. I just wait for a gut emotional reaction – a wrench that says, "Yes, this is worth writing."


Where do you draw your ideas from? Personal experiences, everyday experiences or a mix or things?
Hardly anything from personal experience until my latest novel Going Home, which is definitely informed by my days fostering dogs. I genuinely have no idea where most of my ideas come from.


When beginning a new novel do you plan the characters first and then fit the story around them or do you plan the whole thing out methodically?
I tend to have the idea first – and instantly embedded in that are usually one or two main characters who will carry it. I then play with the idea – see if it has 'legs' as they say. If I'm still excited, I start to develop the characters to carry the idea, and sketch an outline plot. If that still looks good, I'll sketch certain scenes in more detail, and start thinking about character motivations – and so on, ad infinitum. The entire cast/plot develops in a higgledy-piggledy, meandering, blind-alley-galore riot of confusion and feedback loops from that point. There's nothing linear or consistent about it. I just use what feels right and works – and discard all the rest.