Welcome to the haunted funhouse | John Bonello

Fantasy author John Bonello speaks to us about his new book from Merlin Publishers: Irvin Vella: Investigatur Virtwali, a quirky mystery novel for children embellished by Lisa Falzon’s illustrations.

John Bonello
John Bonello

At what point did you decide to write a book in this mode? Did you feel like you needed to stretch out of your comfort zone as a writer? Was it a challenge to focus a novel so specifically to a young adult audience?

In July 2012, I met [Merlin Publisher Chris Gruppetta] in Rabat to discuss a crime novel I had recently pitched to Merlin. One of the problems of this novel was that its target audience was not clearly identified. During our discussion Chris asked me if I would consider adapting the same novel for a younger audience, to address the lacuna that exists in that genre for children.

His idea hit home, but instead of adapting the novel on the table, I took up pen and paper and started drafting a brand new story based on a character I had running around in my head. It wasn’t difficult moving out of my comfort zone – although my preferred genre is fantasy, I like to experiment and try my pen at different styles.I saw this as an opportunity, and a very challenging one at that.

I took various measures/techniques to focus the novel to the specific audience: I involved my eight-year-old son Luke continuously, discussing the plot with him, reading bits and pieces to get his feedback (he also described a scene which I put in the book AND which Lisa Falzon depicted without us ever discussing it); I involved a number of pre-readers to obtain valuable feedback; I researched a lot, read books for children, and even utilised a readability analysis tool developed by a friend of mine which helped me keep my writing on the right track. And when it was done, Chris’s editing experience greatly helped improve and shape up this novel into its final format. 

What can you tell us about Irvin Vella? What makes him a protagonist kids can relate to?

The first thing that comes to mind is that he loves food and is quite overweight! He is happy, not bothered at all by his appearance, which seems to catch everyone’s attention. Looking at him with a more critical eye, we observe that Irvin is a determined guy, naïve at times, but his strength is his focus on the job at hand. He is an only child: quite a loner, but recently he became very close to his two twin 11-year-old cousins Luca and Laura. They are Canadian-born Maltese, who came back to Malta after their dad died in an accident. They have no friends, and Irvin helps them orient themselves by involving them in his investigations... this partnership is a recipe for success for all three of them.

The book appears to touch upon elements of both detective and gothic fiction – softened appropriately for kids, of course. Were these elements fun to play with?

The story has elements of both, most definitely. It was indeed fun to mix the Chandleresque with the haunted-house-mystery, and at the same time ensuring the plot remained adequate to the right audience. I think I got inspired by so many different sources that it would be difficult to pinpoint them all. Enid Blyton’s The Five Find-Outers, Detective Columbo, Philip Marlowe, Alfred Hitchcock's The Three Investigators to name a few – I believe they all lent a hand to this story.

Were you at any point anxious about the approach Lisa Falzon would take with your characters? What do you make of the end result?

I was actually thrilled when Chris informed me he had approached Lisa to do the illustrations and cover and that she had accepted. I'm a big fan of Lisa’s. I find the darkness in her art very engaging and her designs are sublime. I must say I was very impressed with what she delivered: it was as if she managed to see the pictures inside my head, through my words, and that is a very remarkable talent.

Can we expect more adventures from Irvin Vella in the near future?

From the day of his inception, I knew I would be writing more than one adventure based on this character. There is so much more to tell about him and his companions. And the wheels are already turning on a new Irvin Vella mystery. I enjoyed myself so much working on this project, and everything felt so natural, that it is only sensible for me to explore and develop this character to his full potential. 

Read our interview with Lisa Falzon

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