To celebrate the launch of The Last Firefox by Lee Newbery, we are excited to share our interview with him from the latest issue of PaperBound. Read on to discover more about the inspiration behind The Last Firefox, a heartfelt, inclusive middle grade novel full of magic and wonder – with buckets of personality.
Can you tell us a little about your debut book, The Last Firefox?
Of course! The Last Firefox tells the story of Charlie Challinor, who’s got a few big life problems. He’s getting picked on at school, he’s pretty much terrified of everything, and his dads are in talks of adopting another child. How on earth is he supposed to stand up for his little brother or sister if he can’t stand up for himself?
But then he accidentally becomes the guardian of the last firefox, and his whole world changes. Because the firefox is covered in magical fire fur that’s governed by its mood, and now Charlie has to keep his furry little friend a secret from his bullies, his dads, and a sinister monster from another world that’s hunting it down. Cue endless hilarity, adventure and danger as Charlie uncovers his own inner fire! The book is published by Puffin, and it’s beautifully illustrated by the amazingly talented Laura Catalán. I’m a very lucky debut author!
Where did the inspiration for The Last Firefox come from? Why did you want to write it and what do you hope readers will take from it?
The inspiration for The Last Firefox came from a few places, actually. I’m a huge Pokémon fan, and when I was younger I was always making up my own fantastical critters. One of them was a fox covered in fire instead of fur, which it could use to protect itself or show affection (a close relative of Vulpix, maybe?).
But the true inspiration for the book came from my experiences of going through the adoption process. When my husband and I first embarked upon our journey towards becoming a family, I couldn’t really see many books out there with adopted children as the main character, books where the character has two mums or two dads. I wanted our future child to see himself represented in the world, so that was how this book was born.
We’ve now got a three-year-old son, and it warms my heart when he opens my book, points to an illustration of Charlie and his dads, and declares that it’s him and his daddies (there may or might not be some similarities between Charlie’s dads and myself and my husband!).
Your main character, Charlie, has to deal with/ overcome a few issues in the book, such as bullying. Was there anything that you found difficult to write about and, alternatively, was there anything that came more easily?
Actually, this was one of those rare instances where the first draft of the book wrote itself (alas, it hasn’t happened since!). I think because it was so closely tied to my own experiences as an adopter, and as a shy child who, a bit like Charlie, was intimidated by everything, it just sort of leapt from my fingertips. I was writing from the heart every step of the way. Even the bullying scenes – difficult to read, perhaps, but easy for me to write because they were so engrained in Charlie’s character arc.
Could you tell us a little bit about your journey to publication?
Ah, the journey to publication! I would love to say that I wrote a book, found an agent straight away, went on sub, entered a ‘hotly contested’ auction with several publishers after a few days … but that did NOT happen. It sort of happened the long way for me. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eight, and in the second year of University I started taking it seriously. I wrote a YA book about a girl who could see dead people and subbed to agents, but that didn’t get any offers. Then I wrote another YA about magical teen runaways, which did get me an offer of representation from an agent – but only one, and that was after intense reworking and rewriting according to her insight. We went on sub with that YA, and that didn’t get any nibbles from any publishers.
So, I wrote my first MG, The Last Firefox, and we went on sub with that. An editor from Puffin said, “Hmm, I like it, but not enough to buy it yet … come back to me if you don’t get any offers.” And that’s exactly what happened. No other publishers offered, so we went back to the editor at Puffin. We met in London (this was about two months before the UK went into lockdown for the first time), had a lovely dinner, and he offered me some editorial advice.
I went home, spent a few weeks editing, then resubmitted. I waited some more, and then in May 2020, Puffin offered a two-book deal! It just goes to show that it only takes ONE person to love your book. One agent, and then one editor!
What would be your biggest tip for anyone thinking of writing a book for the first time?
I know this sounds cliché, but write whatever the heck YOU want to write. Writing is so much more fun when you’re writing a book you yourself would love to read, not what you think other people want to read. It’s pointless trying to write to a trend – if the trend is current, then you’re already too late! Forget about all that and write the book of your heart.
What kind of stories/books did you love to read growing up?
I was a sucker for fantasies and horrors. I loved R.L. Stine and Darren Shan. But I was also a huge fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Joseph Delaney’s The Spook’s Apprentice books!
Are you writing anything else at the moment?
I’m currently waiting for edits on my second book with Puffin (which I can’t talk about yet, but I think I can at least tell you that it’s another standalone, not a Firefox sequel!), so I’ve been working on a just-for-fun YA. It’s a bit over-the-top and outrageous and dark and funny. It might never see the light of day, but I’ve had SO much fun writing it so far!
Lee Newbery lives in South Wales with his husband and their little boy. Their favourite thing to do is go on adventures together, which they blog about over on their family Instagram account. The Last Firefox is Lee’s debut novel, though there may or may not be a YA book of his hidden far away in the depths of Wattpad, never to surface again.
The Last Firefox was published 3rd March 2022 from Puffin (Penguin Random House).
Don’t forget you can catch up with the latest issues of PaperBound Magazine here. All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book.