We are delighted to welcome Justin Somper, bestselling author of the Vampirates novels to the YLG blog to talk about his recent trip to Australia, his wedding, the challenges that he faced with the unravelling Covid-19 and how this fed the idea of devising a series of creative challenges.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Saturday March 14th 2020. I’m standing barefoot on Redgate Beach in Margaret River. This glorious region of the Western Australian coast is celebrated in equal measure for its surfing beaches and wineries. Alongside me, also barefoot, is my partner PJ. Before us are arrayed a gaggle of family and close friends. To our left is Anita, our celebrant. After fourteen years together, eleven as civil partners, PJ and I are “upgrading” (now that it’s legal) to marriage.
This isn’t entirely the Australian beach wedding I was promised! Beach – tick. Barefoot – tick. A select gathering of our nearest and dearest - tick. But where’s the afternoon sun? It’s been raining on and off for most of the day. As we drove to the beach - in our friend’s uncle’s vintage Jag! - the rainfall became more persistent. We’ve all got umbrellas – several of them borrowed in haste from the reception of our guest house. Anita has brought her own - a rainbow one.
As the brief but beautiful ceremony progresses, the rain becomes heavier. By the time we are signing the wedding certificate, on a nearby rock, we’re deploying multiple umbrellas to keep the paper dry. We sip locally produced fizz to the sound of Kylie singing All the Lovers from a tiny speaker, then throw our umbrellas – and caution – aside, and allow the heavens to thoroughly drench us. It feels like we’re in a movie – an Aussie spin on Mamma Mia. Anita tells me that the rain is a good omen. It means the marriage knot will be tighter.
The morning after the wedding, reality hits like the heaviest hangover and the movie we’re living in – along with the rest of the planet – is suddenly something far more dystopian. It’s now clear that we’re not going to be able to fly out the next day to Tasmania, to see my father-in-law, nor from there to a weekend of friend catch-ups in Melbourne – in case we get stranded in either location. A more fundamental question looms as we drive back to Perth. What if we aren’t going to be able to get back to the UK?
The question hangs over us throughout the next week. Now that we’ve cut out the week of interstate travels, we find ourselves with time on our hands in Perth – and, surreally, the freedom to move around WA. Australia is well behind the UK in terms of cases of Covid-19 and there aren’t even social distancing measures in place yet – simply scrums in the supermarkets to secure loo roll and liquid soap, pasta and porridge oats.
That week, we drive up the coast to Cervantes (I love a town named after a writer, don’t you? *), to the Pinnacles and Nambung National Park, to Scarborough and Hillarys Boat Harbour. With the brilliant revamp of my Vampirates books by UCLan Publishing in March, it was always our intention to capitalise on the sun-drenched Australian coast to record some short films to deploy on social media at a later date. Now we have time and space to do this, but it feels oddly frivolous to record the standard Q&A about characters and inspiration.
I’m aware of the brilliant resources illustrators including Steven Lenton and Rob Biddulph are creating for kids on social media – and now in these unprecedented circumstances, it feels all the more vital for parents, librarians and teachers. I begin thinking about what I can offer in a similar vein. The answer comes to me while we’re out and about. How about I issue some bite-sized creative challenges to young people which they can engage with, whether or not they have read my books? Buoyed on this wave of positive energy, we spontaneously film three challenges that day at Hillarys.
The next day is a tough one. The UK is about to go into lockdown. My sister texts me, “come home now!”. My brother simultaneously texts, “stay there!”. We can’t get Trailfinders or Qantas on the phone. We start drawing up lists of contingencies. Can our dog-sitter continue to care for Bella, our beloved black lab? Can we get a mortgage holiday if necessary? What items would we need retrieved from our home office if we had to set up remote working from here?
PJ suggests I take a break from this and focus instead on a list of Vampirate Challenges, which rather than being random will work in a coherent sequence. I’m hot. My brain is frazzled. My emotions are see-sawing. But I really want to do this. I want to make the most of the amazing location and I really want to make a positive contribution to the daily lives of children and parents entering this incredibly odd and scary set of circumstances. I pull it together over lunch and confirm there will be a sequence of 15 challenges! That very afternoon, we head to one of our favourite spots – City Beach. There, to my amazement, we record four of the short challenge films. I had a cry earlier and I’m wondering if that’s noticeable. It’s not the mood I want to project through these short films. I want them to be fun, inspiring and maybe, as a result of the locations, a tad soothing too. PJ assures me that I don’t look upset, just maybe a bit hot and red!
When we finally get Trailfinders on the phone, they strongly advise us to stick with the flight we always planned to return home on – the flight everyone wants – direct from Perth to London, departing Friday evening. But what if they cancel all flights by then? It’s a risk but, at this point, we realise that it’s a risk we’re going to have to take.
Within all the craziness of the following 5 days – trying not to dwell on the ‘what ifs?’, contending with increasingly stressful calls home and the beginnings of the goodbyes to our family and friends here – I find that making these short films is grounding me. My writing has always been a place of escape for me and I guess with my Vampirates books, it’s a world where readers and I can escape together. I’m relishing being back in that world. I’m enjoying this sense of connecting directly with my readers. I’ve always loved going into schools and festivals, whether to talk or conduct workshops, and what I’m doing here - in the dunes, at the harbours, in the searing heat around the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – feels like it’s harnessing that same impulse. I just hope people won’t be irked by the sight of me moving around freely in the Australian sunshine.
Friday March 27th – late afternoon. Perth airport is surreal, silent and largely empty. Every other seat is covered in black and yellow hazard tape like a crime scene. The few passengers are edgy. Many sport face masks. After a couple of eleventh hour scares, we are sitting in our seats on flight QF09. This will be the last direct flight out of Australia. The air crew are professional and upbeat despite the pervasive fraughtness. One of the stewardesses learns we have just got married and brings glasses of fizz to our seats. Our seventeen-hour flight commences. Before you know it, we’re eating cottage pie, watching Jumanji 2 in perfect synchrony, trying to make out like everything’s normal. But it isn’t. But you know that.
* In the interests of full accuracy, I have to acknowledge that the town of Cervantes was named after a ship, which was wrecked nearby. The ship, in turn, was named after Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.
You can find Justin Somper’s #Vampiratechallenges every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (all @JustinSomper) and the full sequence of challenge videos at vampirates.co.uk/videos.
Whilst in Australia, Justin was also able to record a “Ten Minute Writing Challenge” for Authorfy, which you can find along with a host of other resources at authorfy.com.
New editions of the first three Vampirates novels - Demons of the Ocean, Tide of Terror and Blood Captain – are available now from UCLan Publishing. They each contain bonus content including new stories, new artwork and Reading Group Questions from Jake Hope.