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Pádraig Kenny on Creating the World of Tin

Posted on 8th February 2018 by Martha Greengrass

From Blade Runner, to Pinocchio, via The Wizard of Oz and 1920's industrial innovation, the author of our fantastic Children's Book of the Month, Pádraig Kenny, takes us on a journey round some of the inspiration for the innovative, alternative mechanical world at the heart of his novel Tin.

I blame Neil Gaiman. It’s entirely his fault. There I was, minding my own business, toddling along and writing spec scripts in a fiercely competitive market with a slim possibility of success knowing I’d have to curtail my imagination because of budget restrictions, when one day I happened to read his story A Study in Emerald. It was a mashup of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft, and I loved it because it was blatantly obvious that Gaiman had enormous fun writing it. I put the book down and thought to myself, I want to have that much fun. 

Fast forward a couple of years, and there I was, still writing scripts for a fiercely competitive market with a slim possibility of success knowing I’d have to curtail my imagination because of budget restrictions. I was enjoying myself, sort of. A little maybe. Not a lot, more likely. Then one day I woke up and the image of a man attempting sell a robot boy to a childless couple popped into my head. 

This isn’t unusual. Very often I’ll be pottering around and something will pop into my head: a snippet of conversation between eldritch beings from another dimension, a room filled with vampires, the occasional dragon. Normally most of these images will vanish like smoke, but sometimes, just sometimes, an image will stick. This image stuck. It was still there when I went to bed at night, and it was there when I woke up in the morning. Weeks passed, months. I thought the image would eventually disappear and stop annoying me, but there it was, nagging me at every turn.

After a while I started to add things to the image: a street lamp, some snow. I realised this scene was set before Christmas. Suddenly another boy popped into view. He was the robot boy’s friend. I knew more than ever that there was a story behind this scene, if only I could figure out what it was. So I did what I always do when an idea starts to nag me and asks to be written.

I started walking.

As I walked the story began to make itself known. The robot boy and his friend belonged to a man who owned a junkyard. They lived in England in the 1930s, but it was an England where robot children were used for labour. So far so good. I kept walking, and as I walked the story developed. I started to hear the voices of other characters. I saw the junkyard and more figures started to emerge – a small robot girl, wonky eyed, and with one leg shorter than the other. There was a boy holding her hand. His body was made from a round cooking pot. They started talking, their voices babbling in my head as they began to describe the world they lived in. The man who owned the junkyard had made these children from odds and ends. It reminded me of one of my favourite images from Blade Runner, the first time we see genetic designer J.F. Sebastian and his ‘toys’, little friends he’s made from salvaged bits and bobs. Except the motives of Mr Absalom, who owned the junkyard, were a lot more self-serving than those of J.F.

I decided that the story was set in the 1930s between two world wars because it just felt right. As it turned out it added another layer to the story. I started to ask myself questions. How did robots come to be part of this society? What were the rules that governed their use? How were they animated? The answers came from the babble of character voices. A phrase appeared: ‘Gross Systematic Propulsion’. No, I had no idea what it meant either, but as I wrote more of the story I found a place for it, and it became clear that the robots were powered more by a magical system than a mechanical one. 

I decided that robots had been around for a long time, and it was fun to create a fake history. Could this be any more fun, I asked myself? Yes it could was the answer as I came across the true-life story of Eric, ‘Britain’s first robot’. Eric was built in 1928 and was presented at the opening of the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers at the Royal Horticultural Hall in that same year. I discovered that Eric could fire sparks from his mouth. What if he could do something more lethal, I asked myself. What if you had an exhibition where things went slightly awry?

Thanks to the advantages of making stuff up for the sake of an interesting story, I came up with my own counterpart for Eric. One that allowed me to expand on some of the themes in the book. I now had a world where the creation of adult-sized mechanicals was outlawed. One where only child-sized robots were permitted. 

People pointed out that there were echoes of The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio in what I’d written. I liked that. It meant more layers. More fun to be had with the form. I could expand my universe and people it with anything I wanted to. No more being shackled by writing scripts in a fiercely competitive market with a slim possibility of success knowing I’d have to curtail my imagination because of budget restrictions. I could add giant robots. I could add as many giant robots as I liked. Because let’s face it, giant robots make everything better.

When I was finished writing the book my mother asked me what it was about.

‘It’s about child robots in 1930s England,’ I said.

‘Would you not write something normal for a change?’ she sighed.

Normal? Maybe I could. But where’s the fun in that?

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