Justin Somper’s childhood ambitions were “to be a child movie star and to win Wimbledon. I’d drawn Bjorn Borg in chalk on the garage wall and hit some balls at him — but I really needed to take it to the next level.”
Fortunately, he was also writing stories and he did take these to the next level — and further.
His first published book was The Pyramid Plot — “a puzzle adventure chiefly memorable for the villain, Iona Fortune”. A few years later, he had the idea for “the ultimate teen novel, with vampires, surfing, fast cars and rock band”. It sank.
But, almost 10 years after that, Vampirates stormed on to the scene — and Somper has recently been feted by his publishers for reaching 100,000 sales of the first book. Vampirates volume four — Black Heart — comes out next week.
At the start of the Vampirates series, the Tempest twins are separated in a shipwreck. Rescued by different ships, they survive many adventures, including a mutiny by blood-hungry rebels.
Like Somper’s debut, Black Heartfeatures a distinctive villainess, Lady Lola Lockwood. This highwaywoman figure, whose calling card is a black ace of hearts, is “a tribute to Margaret Lockwood (I had been watching The Lady Vanishes) — terribly British; she has that clipped accent and she drinks blood from a Venetian glass. She’s very proper — but evil and demented through and through. Black Heart is also a detective story that will answer questions the reader has about Grace and Connor — it delves into their background and hopefully the readers will be surprised.”
Grace’s relationship with Lorcan, a vampire who looks 17 but is about 500, is also developed. “I’m a great fan of what Russell T Davies has done with Dr Who for the relationship he has with his travelling companions,” says Justin “his immortality, in contrast with their mortality — if I’m delivering 10 per cent of that I’d be happy.
“I didn’t consciously set out to write about vampires and pirates — I was just minding my own business when the word came into my head, so I didn’t know what the thematic connection would be when I started. Only at the end of the first book did I realise there was something going on with appetite.” The original vampirates, for instance, are very responsible — they have personal blood donors, whom they treat well, rather than seizing and killing their victims.
Though known for his pioneering work as a freelance publicist for children’s authors including Anthony Horowitz and Louise Rennison, Somper says he wouldn’t think of publicising his own books. He came to freelance publicity at a time when JK Rowling had not yet made children’s books sexy. But he had worked with Anne Fine and Dick King Smith and seen how their appeal to the adult public had widened dramatically when their books were turned into films. Post-JKR, for a while the story was always about the huge advance.
“Hopefully in this recession it will be something else — children’s authors need to learn to come out and talk about their work and themselves and say more than that they enjoy chocolate cakes and they have two cats.”
And does Somper eat cakes and keep cats? I go on long walks with my chocolate brown retriever called Bailey and read a lot (from thrillers to Charlotte Mendelson to Haruki Murakami).
He is now well into writing Vampirates book five and will be touring the UK in March, parts of America in April and also maybe Scandinavia. He has a contract for seven Vampirates books (they may not end there) and another couple of ideas to develop.
And perhaps, soon, he will be preparing for his barmitzvah.
“I’m still looking at how I fit in with my Jewish background. My parents both come from strong north London Jewish families, but towards the end of my dad’s life I think he lost heart with organised religion. And religion had been the source of arguments in my family.” He went to abbey services at school and also to Hebrew school — but his family removed him from the latter before his barmitzvah.
“I will be 40 this year, so as an adult I’m coming to Judaism afresh and working out what it means to me. Last year I had a Seder and celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Chanucah. I am on the lookout for the right community. I’d definitely have a barmitzvah now — I’m interested in doing the reading. I’m learning Italian — why shouldn’t I learn Hebrew? I’m looking for a connection with the Jewish community — and with something bigger.”