Nick Lake | I've always been one of those 'escapist' readers. My worst nightmare would be writing a book set now in Britain"

Nick Lake | I've always been one of those 'escapist' readers. My worst nightmare would be writing a book set now in Britain"

Ninja vampires in feudal Japan put Nick Lake on the map as a children's author but now he has taken a break from the fast-paced thrills of the Blood Ninja series to write about a very different sort of horror.

In Darkness (Bloomsbury, January), Lake's first book for adults and older teenagers, is set in Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. A teenage boy, Shorty, lies trapped under the rubble of a collapsed hospital where he was recovering from a gunshot wound—all he knows is that the world has fallen down. While he waits for rescue, injured and dying of thirst, his mind starts to wander. We learn that Shorty is a child of the notorious Port au Prince slum Site Soléy. Dragged into the warfare between rival gangs Route 9 and Boston, he has had no real choice but to "roll" with a local chimere (gangster).

Within the novel Shorty's story alternates with that of Toussaint l'Overture, a real person who led Haiti's slaves in a successful rebellion against the French in the 1790s. "I'd been slightly—obsessed is too strong a word—but fascinated by him for years and years because his story is so extraordinary" says Lake, who first became interested in Haiti when he studied the Kreyòl language as part of an MPhil in Linguistics.  

Shorty may be a fictional character, but the shocking realities of his life are not. A baby abandoned on a rubbish heap, 12-year-old boys with guns; it's the brutal world depicted in the documentary "Ghosts of Cité Soleil". But, Lake says, "there's a line in the blurb, 'sometimes on the other side of darkness there is light', and that for me sums up what I wanted the book to be. I very much wanted it to be a book about hope and the possibility of redemption. I felt like it had to be really unpleasant in order for that to work. That message of hope wouldn't really work if there weren't really horrendous things happening beforehand."

Multi-tasking
In Darkness is a very powerful read which stays with the reader long after the book is finished. Lake has woven vodou, politics and gang culture into an engrossing and eye-opening story about Haiti's past and troubled present.

As well as writing novels, Lake's day job is editorial director at HarperCollins Children's Books. He was inspired to write the aforementioned Blood Ninja series by what he saw as a gap in the market: "[I was] thinking: 'There's Twilight for girls but there isn't much for boys.' I was quite influenced by the market and I was deliberately writing for a certain audience."

In contrast, he says In Darkness didn't start with him wondering what might work commercially, rather "it was purely a kind of bolt of inspiration. I just wrote it and I didn't really know who it was for." In fact neither Lake nor his agent Caradoc King could decide on whether the book was for adults or children, so the manuscript ended up being sent to both sets of commissioning editors. Bloomsbury pre-empted, and will publish as a dual edition, with the children's edition recommended for readers over 12.

Working as an editor has proved very helpful for Lake's own writing. "For me it's been the equivalent of doing a creative writing course . . . Structurally editing books I think makes you aware of the underlying shapes and structures in stories. That's helped me enormously." And becoming a published author has also strengthened his editing skills, making him especially sensitive when giving comments to authors about their work. "I know now just how emotionally invested you are in something you've written," he says with a laugh.

The most difficult part of writing for Lake is actually finding the time to do it. He's kept very busy working with his existing authors—Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams and Derek Landy (who he's shelved next to in bookshops) to pick out just three—and reading new submissions. The solution he's found is to write during his lengthy commute from Oxfordshire—"but I also type incredibly quickly, which sounds like a flippant thing to say, but I think it makes a big difference".

He's certainly prolific for a man with such a demanding day job. The final part of the Blood Ninja trilogy will also be out next year for Corvus, and he's currently working on a second book for Bloomsbury which will involve Somali pirates. With novels set in exotic locations of feudal Japan, Haiti and now the coast of Aden respectively, would he ever write about modern Britain? "In my editing and in my writing, and in my reading, I'm interested in things that take you to another place. I've always been one of those 'escapist' readers. My worst nightmare would be writing a book set now in Britain, I just couldn't do it."