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May 23, 2009

Kenneth Oppel: The Times interview

The Children's author tells Amanda Craig that his storytelling skill is the result of years of gaming

Canada has given the world a growing number of great adult novelists, from Margaret Atwood to Robertson Davies, but until recently no children's authors. Kenneth Oppel, the boyish-looking man sitting opposite me in a London café, is the first. His Silverwing trilogy about a heroic bat, Shade, and how he saves his colony from the clutches of an evil vampire, must be one of the most eccentric and original hero tales yet, selling more than a million copies in America. Now the eagerly awaited third novel for 11+ involving the heroic Matt Cruse and his sweetheart, Kate, is about to be published in Starclimber .

If you have a boy who is a reluctant reader and only into gaming, Oppel is a godsend. He writes books that will enchant any child of 8+ who loves the Indiana Jones movies, Jules Verne or Tintin.

“I've never read Tintin,” Oppel says, “and I came across Jules Verne as a child only through the movie adaptations. They're not great books – the characters are flat, and they don't develop, but I do like their aesthetic. The zest for Victorian technology, the élan, the naive belief that science was going to solve everybody's problems . . . yes, as an adult I fell in love with that.”

The Matt and Kate books began with Airborn , and are set in 1912 in a world just like ours except that airships have become the major form of transport.

“I drew on a bubble of history largely forgotten now, inspired by seeing the blueprints of the Hindenburg Zeppelin from the 1930s. It was an amazing floating world, with secret passages and catwalks, and I thought, ‘What if that technology had happened earlier, and the aeroplane hadn't been invented?' Once I'd thought of a hero who was born in the air and realised he had to be a cabin boy who spent all his life in the sky, it flowed from there.”

Balloons and airships are favourite vehicles of transport or escape in fantasy literature from Conan Doyle's The Lost World to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials . Yet the world of Airborn is unique in that the skies and even space are teeming with mysterious life forms, such as cloud-cats and electric jellyfish or aerozoans. In addition, our hero and heroine are challenged by other forms of mortal peril: pirates in Airborn , a treasure ship mined with deadly booby traps in Skybreaker , and, in Starclimber , terrorists bent on preventing Man from touching the heavens. There is comedy and romance because poor Matt is in love with the rich, strong-minded and flirtatious Kate. The kind of hero who gives his sweetheart a star named after her for her birthday — and is rapturously thanked for knowing she would like this “better than a visit to the opera or a silly bit of jewellery” — he is a narrator that both sexes warm to.

Each novel sees them age by a year, and in Starclimber at 17, they stand on the brink of adulthood, with Kate's wealthy parents trying to marry her off — to Matt's deep despair. “He's an insecure action hero,” Oppel says. He read a lot of books about astronauts, finding them to be “alpha males who are capable, quick thinking and resourceful in a crisis, but without imagination”.

Matt, on the other hand, has courage matched by thoughtfulness. He repeatedly saves his comrades from disaster, and in the new novel prevents a chunk of Paris being destroyed in the opening chapter. It's what his author calls his “James Bond technique”: begin with a bang, then scale your story back.

It feels real, with richly drawn characters and a mass of invented detail. Starclimber has a wonderful website, with fake newsreels that convince kids that the Airborn world is historically accurate; certainly, the space escalator technology that Oppel describes is theoretically possible.

Oppel began writing seriously at 14, after a childhood enlivened by Airfix models, Arthur Ransome and Star Wars . His father got married straight out of high school and got a job in a small-town furniture store on Vancouver Island before deciding that he wanted to go to law school. The two Oppel boys were shunted from one side of Canada to the other, and for eight years were largely looked after by their heroic artist mother. Yet Oppel had an extraordinary piece of good luck in that his parents were friends of a friend of Roald Dahl. When the 14-year-old's first novel had been rejected by everyone, he rewrote it, and at 15 sent it to Dahl, who passed it on to his own agent, Gina Pollinger. She took Oppel on, and got it published. Twenty-one more books have followed.

Sadly, he never met his hero, for by the time the 23-year-old Oppel accompanied his wife to Oxford, where she was doing a PhD in Shakespeare studies, Dahl was dying. He shares Dahl's love of villains, weird animals, doughty heroines, treasure and the unexpected. But he is also a writer who isn't afraid to tackle death.

“My three kids were asking questions very early on about what happens after we die, and about God, Heaven and Hell, so I thought it was good to have a book set in the land of the dead, like Firewing . I got a lot of angry letters from kids, saying that it made them cry. I remember that when my mother finished reading me Charlotte's Web I bawled my eyes out. But when I stopped, I said to her, ‘Read it again'.”

Oppel, who read film studies as well as English at the University of Toronto, is exactly the kind of author who should be making the translation into cinema — but the Airborn books, optioned by Universal Pictures, ran into problems because “the two hot young scriptwriters who worked on it produced a travesty of the first book, turning it into Pirates of the Caribbean meets The Mummy ”. The option was shelved.

“I'm really the product of years of playing Dungeons and Dragons ,” he says. “A lot of parents get very concerned about kids gaming, but everything I learnt about storytelling . . . came from that discipline. My own son plays it now, but I can't enjoy it any more. It's too much like work.”

Kenneth Oppel's Starclimber is published by Faber at £6.99. To order it for £6.64 inc p&p call 0845 2712134 or visit