At the high school library that I manage in South London, we have a lot of Taran Matharu fans. His brilliant The Summoner series is a MG/YA epic fantasy adventure story featuring an unlikely hero, his demon Ignatius and a horde of angry orcs.
One student in particular, one of the library’s amazing student assistants, devoured the series when it was brought into the library.
That’s why, when we had a chance to conduct a telephone interview with Taran Matharu from Los Angeles, I asked her if she’d like to speak with him. The answer was a hearty “yes” of course, Taran was more than cool with it as well.
So we conducted an phone interview from the library!
Please enjoy our student’s telephone interview with an amazing fantasy author, Taran Matharu!
Taran Matharu: Absolutely. So, The Summoner series is often described as a mix between Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Pokémon. It’s about an orphan blacksmith apprentice called Mr. Fletcher who accidentally summons a demon and then goes to a magical military academy where he learns how to control his powers.
GHS: You wrote your first book at age nine, would you be able to describe it for us?
TM: Sure, it was my first attempt at a novel, and it ended up being about 17,000 words. And I believe I called it “Wizswords”, which is a mix between the word wizard and the word sword. It’s about a good wizard and an evil witch who live on opposite sides of the forest. And every night the witch sends lots of evil creatures to attack the wizard. And the wizard defends himself by creating lots of benevolent creatures to fight with him. And it’s about how the wizard loses: one day his castle is reduced to rubble and how he has to build up his forces and ally with lots of good-hearted creatures to help rebuild it and fight back against the evil witch.
I remember that I think my favourite part about the book was this nation of ants: these sentient ants that stood on two legs and had four arms and would ride around on bumblebees and grasshoppers and had a little civilization that they built on the wizard’s lawn, the castle lawn. And I remember thinking that was so cool.
But obviously, I’ve moved on since then, unfortunately. Though my mother still does occasionally forward me that book and tells me that it’s good enough to be published, which it definitely isn’t. But it’s nice to know at least there was one fan of the book.
GHS: How did you come up with the idea for that storyline?
TM: I don’t know, actually, I think it was just me kind of combining all the things I loved about fantasy into one book. I love fantasy creatures in particular, so that was my way of getting as many fantasy creatures into one book as I could. Into the story. And I think that’s where I went with the Summoner series as well. Because you’re able to summon lots of different types of demons so I got to put in all the kinds of coolest creatures that I wanted to, for the Summoner characters in my book to be able to summon.
GHS: Yes, that’s really great. How did becoming an intern at Penguin Books shape your career, to what it is today?
TM: It was interesting, because I studied Business at university and I always thought I would end up going into business, like my father, and my uncles. But actually, I ended up becoming a writer, and that was because Penguin Random House came to my university and said that they needed Business students to come and work in publishing. Because publishing is mostly made up of English Literature grads and Journalism grads, and History grads.
So I kind of got brought along, and I applied and I ended up getting a job there and it was while I was there that I saw how the sausage is made. How publishing decisions are made, you know. How they choose which books to publish. How do they predict sales. How do they market books. What’s the process of marketing a book. And in learning all that…I learned a lot from that and it helped me in my book deal eventually, it helped me make the Summoner series the success that it is today.
But the other thing about interning at Penguin Random House was that while I was there, I met with a whole bunch of authors. And I’d always pictured authors as being these kinds of people who studied creative writing at Oxford or Cambridge and then they would wait until they were forty years old and they’d write a book.
But I started meeting a lot of authors who were much younger and didn’t have any kind of specific training in writing. They were just people who loved reading and writing, had a story to tell and had finished a book, and that was the commonality. And I realised that I could become an author as well. If those people could be an author, so could I. And that’s when I finally decided to try and finish a book and become an author. Because I realised that you didn’t need to study it, you didn’t need to wait until you’re forty, you just needed to have a passion for storytelling.
GHS: For those who may not know about it, can you describe National Novel Writing Month and how it helped you to become an author?
TM: National Novel Writing Month is colloquially known as NaNoWriMo and it’s basically where people, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in one month. There’s lots of forums online where they get together online and discuss their books. There’s an app that you can use to track your writing. And it creates a graph for you. There’s even meet ups in different cities where people go and write together in coffee shops and bars and things like that.
But for me, I just took it as a challenge, I didn’t do the social element. I just challenged myself to write 50,000 words. It is tough, to do that much in a month, you know. It’s about two hours of writing a day, or only one if you’re really fast. So you know, it’s a difficult challenge but I completed it, I succeeded and that helped me write the first half of The Novice.
GHS: How did websites like WattPad help you to launch your writing career? Because in the first book, The Novice, there’s a little shout out to your WattPad followers?
TM: WattPad is where I originally uploaded a sample of The Novice, as I was doing National Novel Writing Month. And it was what helped me get the attention of agents and publishers. So I believe it was within four months of sharing the sample of The Novice, which was about a third of it, that the book was read over a million times and I think two months after that, it had been read three million times, so it kind of started accelerating. And as it stands now, I think the sample sits at about eight million reads on WattPad.
But it was when it hit the million mark that really stuff started happening. LBC News mentioned my book in an article and then an audio publisher got in touch, interested in creating the audiobook for the book. That was kind of what set me off into realising: ‘Oh, I can be an author. This book has value. I should really start thinking about getting an agent and seeing if I can get it published.’
And then I went on to send my book, which was still unfinished, to six different agents and they all pretty much responded within 24 hours and offered to represent me. And I chose one and now the book’s in 15 languages around the world, it’s in the all-time best-selling series, and it’s what I do for a living. So WattPad helped me a great deal. Perhaps not so much in getting sales directly but more so in helping me get the attention of the publishers.
GHS: What were the things that influenced you to create a character like Fletcher, as well as Sylva and Othello?
TM: The characters in my series, a common theme to them in that they rail against injustice and things that are unfair for other people and for themselves. That kind of harkens back to when I was a kid at school: I experienced a lot of bullying, a lot of it was racialized bullying, a kind of racist bullying. And that was something I felt was very unfair, and made up a big part of my childhood. And I dealt with it in multiple ways.
I’ve always been somebody who finds injustices particularly rankling. Unfairness frustrates me a great deal and I think that translated into my characters. They’re all people who have a dislike for people who over-extend their power and tread on the little guy. And I think that’s where it came from.
GHS: Can you describe how Pokémon inspired you to create the demons in your novels?
TM: I was a big fan of Pokémon when I was a kid. And I was very happy to see a kind of resurgence in Pokémon when Pokémon Go came out. But really, Pokémon was…The Pokémon I knew was from the video games and the TV show, and the trading cards, compared to what we have now.
But really, what I absolutely loved about Pokémon was this idea of having a little pet that comes along with you and fights with you, and there’s lots of different types. You can choose which one you have and they can become more and more powerful.
I loved those elements of Pokémon and they translated into how the demons function in the Summoner world. In that there are many species, they need to be captured in order to become your demon, they can grow more powerful. There’s many, many different types of demon species and that kind of stuff…So, I loved that element from Pokémon and it translated into what demons are in the Summoner series.
GHS: You mentioned Greek mythology earlier, and I noticed that some of the demons in the Summoner series are from the Greek mythology side, did you have to do much research into them to find out their main abilities?
TM: I love mythology. Not just Greek, but worldwide. You see the thing is, with the first book, I wanted to make sure that the demons that you see are recognisable and Greek myths are perhaps some of the best known in the western world. So in the first book many of the demons are Greek-inspired. So I’m talking Griffins, Minotaurs and that kind of stuff.
But as the series progressed I expanded the kinds of demon that you encountered to range from multiple mythologies from around the world as well as creating some of my own, of course. Perhaps one of my favourites is the Nanaue, which is a land shark that comes from Hawaiian mythology.
I’m in the States at the moment on a book tour and this is where the Wendigo came from. Native American mythology tells you about this kind of cannibalistic mythology, living in the jungles, living off kind of carrion, called the Wendigo and that’s also in the series.
I absolutely love mythologies from around the world and I spent many an hour, procrastinating on writing, instead looking up obscure mythical creatures from mythologies around the world and putting them into the series.
And that’s really what The Summoner’ s Handbook, which is out right now, is about, it’s about taking all this research that I did, all the different types of demon that you can capture, all the different kinds of spells that you can use. It’s a kind of supplementary guide for people who loved the world of my books and want to learn even more about it. And want to write fan fiction and want to get all the details, to get it absolutely right.
There’s even people who do Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and they’ve been using my books as a basis but they’re always messaging me, asking for more details, and now they can…you know, all these different people around the world who do campaigns with my books can now go and buy the handbook and have all the stats right there in front of them.
And it’s also a story, as well, which is cool. Not every kind of companion guide does that. If you read the book, it’s actually a diary of one of the characters from the world in there as well, which is pretty cool.
GHS: Did you have the entire series in mind or has it surprised you that it’s grown into as many novels as it has done?
TM: Yeah, I mean, when I wrote the first one, I did have an idea of where the second and third book were going but it was kind of quite foggy in my head. I didn’t know exactly all the details. As it is with many writers. You know, you discover the story and where it will lead you as you write it. Even if you know the direction that you’re going in. So that was certainly something. I just didn’t realise quite how many books it would be. Currently the series is a trilogy, with a prequel and now the companion guide. Which is kind of an “equel”, in that it takes place around some of the events in the main trilogy.
GHS: What does the term ‘Young Adults’ mean to you and is it more than just a publishing genre? Because it’s mainly between children and adults that your genre and your books read in.
TM: My books are 12+ in the USA, 11+ in the UK. But like you said, many, many adults read my books, it’s set about a 50-50 split between adults and teenagers. I think Young Adult is a strange one because really, it should just be called teen but because so many adults like to read in the genre, I think they ended up calling it Young Adult. But really it’s teen, books for teenagers that adults happen to enjoy as well. I would say…people call it a genre, it’s more of an age bracket, to be honest.
GHS: For this interview, many of the readers may be parents. Do you have any advice for them in ways they can support their children during the years of 12 to 18?
TM: I think reading is hugely important, it’s where I kind of relate all of my success coming from. All of the reading I did as a kid. It gives you more empathy, it gives you a fluidity of language, it makes you more of a structured mind, it allows you to think outside the box, think imaginatively, picture things, it improves creativity, I mean, there’s a myriad of things that reading helps in with the adolescent mind.
And I think it’s such a shame that lots and lots of kids aren’t reading when they hit their teenage years. They kind of drop off and get into other things. And that’s why Young Adult is such an important genre, or age bracket, because that’s where you need to capture those kids that were reading children’s books and moving into teen. And that’s what I’ve hoped to achieve with my books.
I get lots and lots of messages from parents who say: either that their kid used to read and then they stopped and then they rediscovered my books and rediscovered reading with my books, or their son didn’t read before and then they got gifted my books for Christmas, now they can’t get enough…
So I think it’s such a shame…and if I could give a piece of advice to parents, you know, knowing what I know about books and kids, and how they choose which books to enjoy and read, I would say to not be prescriptive of the books that they read. I think there’s nothing worse than giving a child an old classic that they have no interest in reading whatsoever. When you could actually let them run loose in a bookstore, and pick a book for themselves. It makes a book so much more special to a child, when they chose it, they decide if they wanted to read it. And they go home and they’ll read it and they’ll enjoy it and then they’ll go back and they’ll do the same thing over and over again.
That’s something that I’d like to see. And I think that unfortunately schools, because they are so prescriptive, they create this perception of reading being a chore, or homework, or something that’s not enjoyable because so much at school isn’t. And I think that by taking kids to bookstores at an early age, before those kinds of writing essays about Of Mice And Men begins, they should be allowed to choose books themselves before it becomes something that feels like a chore or a task.
GHS: Yeah. You also run writing workshops. How do you help those young people to find their voices as writers? Because normally, some people are too shy to express their works and I would just like to know how do these workshops help to bring out the confidence in someone?
TM: What I do is often, I start off by talking about young authors who got book deals and write for a living. I mean, I was 22 when I got my book deal, which is a bit older than some of these kids that I’m talking to. But I give examples such as Helena Coggan who was 13 when she got her book deal, Beth Reekles who I think she was 15 when she wrote The Kissing Booth, which is now a major Netflix film. So I tend to give examples of people who are as young as them and have succeeded in becoming authors.
And I talk about how I thought that authors were people who were geniuses, and waited until they were forty, but actually they’re people who love reading and writing and have a story idea. But often people don’t have story ideas and that’s a lot of what my workshop is about. I tell them about how I came up with the idea for the Summoner series.
And effectively, I list all the inspirations for the Summoner series on the left-hand side and everything I took from them on the right-hand side. So if I put Lord of the Rings on the left-hand side, on the right-hand side, I would put multiple fantasy races, because that’s one of the things I loved about Lord of the Rings and then I do a big circle around all those things on the right-hand side, and I say: ‘Look, I’ve got a book that’s set in a kind of time period with 18th century technology, with multiple fantasy races, where’s there’s lots political intrigues and a magical school where people learn how to control powers’.
And I teach them how to come up with an idea that they’ll be passionate about because they’ll write down all their favourite things on the left, and all the things they think are cool on the right. And what happens is they end up writing a book that they think is incredibly cool and are more likely to finish because they’re including all the things that they think are cool in it.
GHS: You found great success with the Summoner series and have now released The Summoner’ s Handbook. Why did you decide to publish this companion title and was is more to help the D&D campaigners with their stats who kept constantly asking you?
TM: No, not at all, I think because I had all the information right there. When I write a book, I love to procrastinate with research and world-building and that means creating these documents with lots of information that doesn’t end up in the book, but it helps me kind of solidify the world that I’m writing in. And I actually had all these illustrations made to help me picture all the demons and to share online and to inspire me and just because I thought they were awesome. And they were an asset in terms of relating to the world and I thought it was a shame that nobody would ever get to see them. Especially as there are so many people out there who find the world fascinating.
So very much in the same way that JK Rowling released Fantastic Beasts afterwards, with this kind of side book with all the different creatures that existed in the world of Harry Potter, in the same way I’ve released a kind of handbook which tells you so much more about the world. It’s not something that people need to buy to understand the world of Summoner, at all, it’s more for people who love the world and want to learn more about it. So it’s certainly not something that… you’ll buy my first book The Novice, and then you’ll buy the Handbook, and as you’re reading The Novice, you’re flicking through both books, that’s not what it is. It’s really just an expansion of the world, giving you a glossary of everything, letting you see all the different types of demon.
And there’s actually a story in the handbook as well, it’s the diary of one of the characters in the series you don’t know too much about, but is this kind of mysterious figure and this diary reveals a lot about things that were happening in the background of the main trilogy. Which I think people will get a kick out of. So it is a companion guide, but it is also an extra, an additional story in the world of Summoner.
GHS: Linking on from the Summoner series, you’ve recently released the book Outcast, which is about Fletcher’s mentor. How did you decide to come up with a backstory to him instead of continuing on with maybe another plot twist to Fletcher’s main storyline?
TM: Again, I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example. I remember when I read the Harry Potter series, I found it so interesting to find out about all the teachers and the parents of the main characters in Harry Potter had been doing as students, and how much it shaped the world that Harry Potter grows up in. I thought: ‘I’d love to see a series told form the perspective of perhaps James Potter, Harry’s father and see all those things in a lot more detail rather than just referenced and seen in kind of memories in the Harry Potter storyline’.
And it’s very much the same in the Summoner world and the Summoner series. Where you have the parents of many of the characters and the teachers that you encounter at the school, you know. They all had very different lives as students and it shaped the world that my main character Fletcher grows up in, and ends up taking a major part of. And again, all of it is referenced in stories that Fletcher’s told, or things that he sees. But it’s not something that’s told as a story, in the way that Fletcher’s story is being told.
So I thought that would be an amazing thing to explore, to see what were those characters like that you see as adults, when they’re students. And I wanted to allow the reader to see how this world became what it is, you know. What were the events that set of this chain reaction that Fletcher now finds himself in. And that’s why it all came together like that.
GHS: Is there anyone you’re reading at the moment? And who or what would you recommend to readers looking for more like the Summoner series?
TM: The book I’m reading at the moment is called Zenith by Sasha Alsberg. It’s a kind of space-pirate story, very rich world and I’m enjoying it immensely. I wouldn’t necessarily say that that’s something that my reader would enjoy particularly more than any other book, just because it’s a different genre. But it is a very good book, and I do recommend it.
The books that the people who have enjoyed my books tend to enjoy are books such as Eragon by Christopher Paolini, it’s an old one, but it sold 30 million copies and it’s immensely popular and it has a lot of similar vibes to the Summoner series. The Ranger’s Apprentice series is a perhaps slightly younger book than mine, it’s for perhaps slightly younger readers and actually I found that a lot of people who have read Ranger’s Apprentice and enjoyed it go on to graduate to my series as they become older and want something a little bit more meaty, perhaps. And also the Percy Jackson series as well, a lot of people who have read that series also enjoyed my books.
So I’d say general teen fantasy tends to sync up quite nicely with my books.
GHS: This will have to be the last question. What advice would you give to your high school self, if you met them today?
TM: I would probably say: don’t sweat the small stuff, you know. I was a very anxious teenager, who cared a lot about what people said about them and what people thought of them. And when you’re being bullied, that becomes something that feels really potent in your life. But it turns out that people like that, their opinion shouldn’t matter to you because that opinion isn’t worth anything, if it’s coming from a bully or an unpleasant person. And I think that’s something that it took me a while to realise, until I was an older teenager. So if there was one thing that I could do, it would be to tell my younger self that.
GHS: Thank you so much for taking time out of your morning to speak with us in the Library.
TM: You’re very welcome, thanks for having me.