Winning the Waterstones Children's Book Prize by David Solomons
My Brother is a Superhero began twice. The first time was in the Glasgow Odeon on Renfield Street in 1978, at the moment when Christopher Reeve’s Superman reveals himself to the people of Metropolis in all his red, white and blue glory. Just in case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you of the greatest superhero scene ever committed to celluloid. High winds snap across the roof of the offices of the Daily Planet as Lois Lane climbs on board a helicopter. The mooring cable breaks. Now she’s dangling over the edge, fifty storeys high! A crowd gathers far below. Clark Kent does his quick change. And then. Da da da dahhh daa. Superman flies to the rescue. He catches the falling Lois in one arm, followed by the plummeting helicopter in the other. The crowd cheers! ‘I’ve got you, miss,’ reassures the Man of Steel. And Lois, in the perfect comeback, looks down. ‘Who’s got you?”
Growing up I wasn’t much of a comic-book fan, but that film and particularly that moment have stayed with me. The combination of proper stand-up-and-cheer super-heroics, combined with good-natured humour, are irresistible. I can see now that I’ve tried to emulate that feeling in my writing. Sadly, I have to work without the benefit of a John Williams score.
I have a fondness for depressing novels set in dusty small-towns, preferably in a flyover state of the US, about lonely men failing in life and drinking themselves into oblivion. Naturally. But the big influence on my writing was worlds away from all that. I was 12 years old when I first picked up a copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He tells a story at once very suburban – concerned with bureaucratic details of council planning and road bypasses – and also on a galactic scale – concerned with bureaucratic Vogons and interspace bypasses. It’s about the end of the world, but firmly rooted in the ordinary. While I’m not fit to touch the hem of his towel, I recognize that he paved the way for the kind of fiction I endeavour to write.
There is one other novelist who exerts an even greater influence on me, and that’s my wife, Natasha Solomons. We help unravel each other’s plot tangles, discuss the finer points of character development, but through the years the most important things we offer one another are support and boundless encouragement. Also cake.
The night of this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize is as vivid to me as that first viewing of Superman the Movie. Maybe someone has written a searingly brilliant award ceremony scene, but it’s hard to get away from the clichés. When I heard my name announced as the category winner, I experienced that out of body feeling more typically associated with car crashes. I’d ignored the advice to jot down a few words, just in case, not out of superstition, but because I sincerely could not imagine winning. Children’s fiction is in a golden age, as evidenced by the strength of the shortlist. I had no inkling that I might win. As a result I stumbled onto the stage, empty-headed. On the scale of embarrassing acceptance speeches, mine wasn’t quite down there with Sally Field’s Oscar “You love me, you really love me” and the audience was kind to me. Naturally, I forgot to thank Waterstones. Hey, it’s not like James Daunt was standing next to me or anything. Oh.
In comedy writing there is a thing called the ‘topper’, which is the joke that builds on the punchline. And I was about to experience my own topper. Chris Riddell, or as he prefers, the Children’s Laundrette, stood up and announced my name as the winner of the overall prize. I’m still convinced that my editor, Kirsty Stansfield, and publisher, Kate Wilson, used telepathic mind control to will him to say my name. Anyone who knows either will understand that’s hardly a reach.
And finally we were treated to a sighting of that rarest of beasts, the Second Topper. We left the party, emerging onto Piccadilly to discover that at some point during the ceremony the amazing booksellers had re-dressed the window, filling it with a giant winner’s banner and a display featuring a sea of copies of my book. An incredible moment. I am so grateful to all the Waterstones booksellers who voted for Star Lad.
I began by saying that the novel began twice. The second time was on August 23rd 2012, when my son was born. Looking into his scrunched up little face I felt an overwhelming need to write something for him. Once I gave my protagonist my son’s name all those mixed-up feelings about fatherhood and childhood seemed to pour into the story. Luke is crushed to miss out on his greatest dream, but throughout the novel there’s a constant sense that everything will turn out all right. That’s me on the touchline yelling: You’re going to be OK, kid. It’s wish fulfilment for a new dad.
Though, to be honest, based on my Luke’s current interests, I’d have been better off penning a novel about a bunny teaming up with a jellyfish to ride a steam train that runs on a track around a volcano, in order to rescue his baby sister from a bunch of pirates. Any takers?