A conversation with
Matthew Skelton

Q: There is no doubt that you were in the middle of an incredible personal journey while writing ENDYMION SPRING. How did your real-life experiences influence the novel?

A: I started writing Endymion Spring while living in a friend's empty flat in Berlin (October 2001). It was a difficult time for me. I knew no one in the city and I couldn't speak the language very well. Fortunately, I had an idea for a children's book, which had been percolating in my mind for several years, and I decided to start writing it while applying – unsuccessfully – for jobs all around the world.

I spent nearly all of my time in that empty flat, with only two invisible characters, Duck and Blake, to keep me company. The plot changed nearly every day and the characters took on lives of their own. It was exciting to see the story taking shape – Berlin is a great place in which to be a struggling writer – but it was also exasperating and incredibly lonely. I had no one to talk to. During my three months in Berlin, I spoke to just two people and I began to fear that I would lose my voice or my ability to speak if my circumstances didn't change soon.

I think it is this fear, this lack of communication, which is at the heart of the novel. I didn't realize it at the time, but most of my characters have trouble connecting with others. Endymion, of course, is mute, but Blake faces an even more intimidating silence. He is confronted not only with a blank book, which he tries to fill with words, but also by an emotional distance between his parents, which he tries to bridge with letters, postcards, and emails home. His feelings of alienation and uncertainty correspond, I think, to my own feelings during this unsettling period.

Of course, my life changed at the start of 2002. I got a job – which was good for my self-esteem, but bad for my writing.

On a less plaintive note, I was able to feed on my knowledge of two fabulous cities – Oxford and Mainz – in the novel. I worked briefly as a visiting lecturer in Mainz, Germany, in 2001 and spent several months living at the top of a splendid building in the centre of the city, with a fantastic view of the rose-coloured cathedral (which Endymion sees from his dormitory). And I spent some of the happiest years of my life as a graduate student at Oxford – surrounded by gargoyles, spires, libraries, traditions, and bizarre characters.

Fortunately, my job as a postdoctoral researcher lasted for only one year and I was soon unemployed again, having nothing but the book to keep me going…

Q: The characters in your book are so diverse and well-developed. You've pulled Fust and Gutenberg from history to make them relatable today. But the other characters, like Blake, Peter, and Endymion, are any of them, or their traits, pulled from people in your own life?

A: Only one character has been pulled completely and unapologetically from real life: Mephistopheles, the college cat. His real name is 'Pogo' and he can most often be found at Somerville College, Oxford, sneaking into the library. A few of the adult characters do share physical attributes or quirky traits with people I know, but my mother's initial idea that she was the model for Diana Bentley couldn't have been further from the truth!

Blake and Endymion exist purely in my imagination. Blake shares many of the insecurities and anxieties I felt as a boy, but he's much more courageous than I was at his age. I'm very proud of both characters, because of what they accomplish in the book.

Peter is an enigma. One young reader recently wrote to me to say how much he admired Peter's loyalty to Endymion, a response that surprised me, since there are flashes of vanity and fickle self-interest in his character, which do hint at the real Peter Schoeffer, who chose to follow Fust rather than Gutenberg. A lot of my adult characters are difficult to read, since they're seen from the perspective of either Blake or Endymion. It's not that they lack depth or motivation; it's simply that we have to judge them as Blake and Endymion observe them – often imperfectly.

Q: Which character do you most identify with?

A: Oh, Blake, definitely! It upsets me that a few critics have dismissed him as an 'obnoxious brat.' Blake is a sensitive boy, caught in a difficult situation. His world is falling apart and he is struggling to cope with new and unsettling responsibilities. Of course, like most boys, he cannot express himself properly, especially when he feels so much, so passionately. Blake means the world to me. He is the reason the novel exists.

Q: And your older sister? Was she the inspiration for Duck, or were you the precocious younger sibling?

A: I was the annoying younger sibling, that's for certain. I was the studious one, the one who excelled at school (except in Phys. Ed.), and I frequently showed off by pretending to do her homework (I was good at math and she wasn't). It wasn't hard, therefore, to create the sibling rivalry between Duck and Blake, although I was nowhere near as smart as Duck thinks she is. The most important thing, of course, is that the children do care about each other and are loyal … something my sister and I have come to appreciate over time. In fact, my sister helped me tremendously by encouraging me to finish the book.

Q: Where does the word “Endymion” come from?

A: 'Endymion' comes from Greek myth. He was a shepherd boy, who was so beautiful that the moon goddess (Selene) fell in love with him and asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth/beauty. This was both a blessing and a curse, for he was trapped in sleep – a sort of death – and was only visited by the moon at night. I love the sound of the name, as well as the myth surrounding it, but I have to admit that it's a highly improbable name for a printer's apprentice in the fifteenth century – let alone a German one! Still, I love the idea of an immortal book just waiting to wake up.

Q: You've taken bits and pieces of cultural lore and mythology to create an entirely original work. What was your most difficult task in blending the Faust legend, biblical myths, and medieval folklore into one flowing novel?

A: Gosh, it was all difficult – and yet great fun. I was bound to some extent by historical fact. I wanted Fust to follow Endymion to Oxford, for instance, but I knew that Fust's travels took him only as far as Paris, where he died in 1466 (from the plague, allegedly) and I wasn't confident enough to alter the course of history. On the other hand, I played with the Coster legend, since it is very apocryphal in its own right and it fitted, oh so neatly, with what I had already imagined. I think I had the most fun recreating the Dance of Death and I enjoyed making up entries in medieval bestiaries and planting a scrap of the Faustbuch in the book: I wanted young readers to stand side-by-side with Blake as he tries to figure out the puzzle for himself. Not all of the pieces help him, of course, but this is how life works: we all make wrong assumptions and come to dead ends. The most difficult part, however, was trying to blend the fantastic elements in Blake's story with the real-world setting. It was an ambitious thing to try, especially with a first book, and I can see that the complexity of the book created its own traps as well as its own rewards.

Q: What inspired you to write this book from the perspective of two different boys living in very different times?

A: The medieval section of the story came much later than the Oxford part and was the result of a lucky, wonderful discovery. A friend who had read the first version of the manuscript – at this time, just about Blake in Oxford – wanted to know who Endymion Spring was, since I had named him as the author/creator of the mysterious blank book, but never accounted for his existence. He was a whisper rather than a voice, as Jolyon tells the children. I decided to do some research and started at the very beginning: the early printing press, which was a complete mystery to me. I uncovered an amazing legend about the press – that it had been stolen from Holland by a man named Fust … or was it Faust? – and became incredibly excited. It was my Eureka moment! So many parts of the Coster legend seemed to fit with what I had already written and I knew instinctively that Endymion should be a young boy, like Blake, rather than a wizard or a sage, which was my initial idea.

I was so lucky! Endymion breathed new life into the story. I had worked on the manuscript for so long and was on the point of giving up in frustration. But Blake now had a friend, several centuries removed, whose life quickly became as important and real to me as his own. The book grew into something much more magical and unexpected.

The historical dovetailing, on the other hand, was the result of hard work. Unexpected things happened: the fact that both boys are unconscious at the same moment, for instance, was serendipitous – as if their stories were truly interrelated. And the fact that two characters are defined by yellow coats … well, I still shake my head and wonder at that coincidence. The book did take on a life of its own.

Q: You are an expert on books and printing. What book or writer do you think has had the longest-lasting effect on you?

A: Actually, I never consider myself an expert on books and printing. I know a lot about the publishing career of H. G. Wells (my Ph.D. thesis), but nearly everything in Endymion Spring was new to me. That's why the research was so much fun. All I tried to do was share my love of books – and book history – with readers.

However, to answer the question: Susan Cooper's series of books, The Dark is Rising, changed my life when I was twelve or thirteen. I read all five books in one summer and remember returning to the bookshop, again and again, to pick up the next instalment in the series. The Grey King had to be specially ordered for me and the wait seemed interminable. Before then, I had merely picked up books at random, read them or discarded them according to the whim of a twelve-year-old boy, but Susan Cooper was different. Nothing had ever grabbed me like this before. I lived inside her books, sharing adventures with her characters long after I closed the covers. I suppose it was the J. K. Rowling effect, decades early. And it changed my life. Susan Cooper turned me into a reader.

Q: What is the most interesting book you've ever found in a library?

A: The most interesting books, I think, are the ones you discover by accident. They find you with their words; they speak to you in unexpected ways.

That said, the book I call up most frequently from the stacks of the Bodleian Library (you're not allowed to check the shelves yourself, alas) is a copy of Virgil's Eclogues, printed on special paper by the Cranach Press in 1926/1927. Parts of the book were designed by Eric Gill and the large folio boasts crude, but beguiling woodcuts by Aristide Maillol. It's a work of high Modernism, printed on a small press. Yet what fascinates me most is the fact that the book was interrupted by the First World War. The paper and pieces of type were ready to go, I believe, before the war, but the actual printing occurred years afterwards – after the horrors on the continent. Each time I open the book, I imagine the pages to be serene windows looking on to a violent, cataclysmic world. The book somehow transports me. It's hard to explain, but it's one of the most magical books I've held.

Another book I frequently call up from the library, and which always tempts me with its cute, menacing illustrations, is Laurence Housman's edition of The Goblin Market, which also happens to be Diana Bentley's favourite book. No surprise there, I suppose!

Most of my best discoveries, however, have occurred in second-hand bookshops – probably because I get to take the books home with me. I once found an old, scuffed leather volume from 1632, full of psalms and prayers, with the most evil-looking handwriting in the margins. This instantly fuelled my imagination and became the source of the Faustbuch in Endymion Spring (I gave the book to my Dad, a priest). Otherwise, my favourite book is a little gem called Histoire Aventureuse de Ludovic le Joli Petit Canard Vert (The Wonderful Adventures of Ludovic, The Little Green Duck). It's the story of a conceited green duck who flies around the world, experiencing different cultures. It was printed in Paris in 1924 and is full of breathtaking 'pochoir' illustrations, still incredibly vibrant. I received it from a woman on eBay. I am still searching, however, for its companion volume, Bumpybops the Pink Hippo.

Q: Some readers are calling ENDYMION SPRING “The Da Vinci Code for kids.” Any thoughts?

A: I have to laugh, because my main worry while writing Endymion Spring was that no one would want to read it! I started the story to please myself – and then finished it for Blake. Nothing thrills me more, however, than hearing young readers say that they can't put the book down. This has happened on several occasions. What greater reward could there be? Kids are fantastic readers and they have the most inspiring, refreshing things to say. I'm learning a lot from them.

Q: What message do you want your readers to take away from ENDYMION SPRING?

A: I hope that kids, especially, will want to carry on telling their own stories (whether to fill in the gaps in Endymion Spring or to follow their own imaginations) and I'd be delighted if adults rediscover the joys and passions that inspired them as children. This is certainly the effect Endymion Spring had on me.