Jake Hope interviews
bred in Lancashire, Joseph Delaney is a keen raconteur whose infectious
fascination with local legend and lore radiates from his writing. First
published in 2004, “The Spook’s Apprentice” introduced
its readers to the world and views of Thomas Ward, a seventh son of
a seventh son whose initially uneasy apprenticeship to a Spook leads
him into a world where the familial environs with which he was familiar
are threatened by the scourge of a growing malevolence that is out-spreading
across the county.
books are available in twenty different languages. His writing has been
compared to that of Alan Garner and J. K. Rowling. Warner Brothers have
already snapped up the rights to his first novel and Amanda Craig, children’s
reviewer for The Times recently proclaimed: “this compelling new
series deserves a place on every confident child’s shelf”.
The series has been voted by school librarians across the country as
one of the 170 books to attract and enthuse eleven to fourteen-year-old
boys to read for pleasure. It was fascinating to talk with Joseph -
the recipient of multiple awards, accolades and commendations - about
Knowledge and learning play a key role in Thomas’s apprenticeship
and you make astute references to the process of learning both experientially
and through books. Which books have been seminal to you as a writer
and also to your own life per se?
‘Lord of the Rings’ and Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’
Series have influenced me strongly. Both created different worlds into
which I could escape; both stimulated my imagination; both made we want
to become a writer. Barry Hines’ ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’
taught me the importance of dialogue and creating fiction that works
well when read aloud. Finally, Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great
Gatsby’ is just about the best first person narration written
In many ways the books allude to changes in lifestyles and thinking
that affect the modern world, has this been deliberate?
just write stories and the story always comes first. In my fictional
world, I’d change the shape of Pendle Hill if that better served
the narrative. Lots of things can be read into the books and readers
are at liberty to do so but I’m not consciously doing the above.
Tom is a young person and his struggle to grow up and find his own place
in the world is still applicable in our modern age.
The books are very visual in style. Has your background in teaching
Media and film Studies influenced your writing in any ways?
must have. Years of analyzing shots and watching films over and over
again with different groups of students must have shaped my writing
in some ways. It’s probably had a better effect than years teaching
English and analysing literary classics. Film has to communicate efficiently
and instantly. I used to teach something called ‘The Hollywood
Narrative Method’. When I first started to work with my editor
I quickly realized that she was using something very similar to that
in order to get the story across more dramatically and efficiently.
A film of “The Spook’s Apprentice” has been optioned.
At what stage is the film at presently?
a very critical stage! The film option has been renewed and a script
is presently being considered by an ‘A-list Director’. That
director is interested in the project. Soon he will make a decision.
If he says no then the search will be on for another director. So I
think they’ll make the film in 2008/ 20009 or else years later.
I do feel it will be made one day.
One of the key strengths of the books is the method via which the landscape
has been appropriated to fit the localities of individual readers. What
do you feel makes the landscape so universal?
try to visit a new section of the County in each book. I think that
choosing a new area helps to make each book in the series fresh and
distinct from the preceding ones. Although based on Lancashire, Tom
dwells in the ‘County’. It is a mythical Lancashire not
set in any precise historical period and that, I think, is what gives
it universality. It’s been sold in translation to over twenty
different countries now (China, Japan, France, Romania, USA, Italy,
Spain etc) and maybe in each place some readers might think it is located
‘here where I live’. It suggests the rural landscape of
our common mythical past. We all share that heritage. I didn’t
set out to do that. I just drifted into it. Much happened by chance
and whim and I got lucky making correct early decisions that shaped
Folk lore and legend are interwoven and resurrected through the books.
Do you have a sense that you are keeping alive old local myths and how
important do you feel this to be?
think it is very important to keep alive local myths. Until this question,
I had never really considered the possibility that my books were doing
so. For one thing I tend to change things to suit the fictional narrative.
There are, additionally, many collections of myths and folk tales already
in print. I think people are really interested in such stories.
Tom’s genetic inheritance stimulates thinking around freewill,
what are your own thoughts in this area?
are deep philosophical problems. The kind that make your head hurt if
you think about them too much. I’m a dreamer, not an intellectual.
We are all shaped by our genes, upbringing and past experiences and
they help to form the decisions we make in life. However, it is possible
to make a choice that is far different than one based upon those determinants,
might have been predicted. As a writer I’m trying to present the
reader with surprises.
A minority of critics have felt the depiction of women errs towards
misogyny. Are you conscious of the gender of your characters as you
are writing and in what ways do modern values constrain or challenge
the writing of a realistic book?
Spook says: ‘Never trust a woman!”. This is not my view
- it is that of a fictional character. Aware that people might be offended,
I almost cut that line. How glad I am that I didn’t! It forced
me to consider the character of John Gregory and why a man I was shaping
as a hero would say that to an apprentice in his very first lesson.
The Spook’s misogynistic views are shaped by his past experiences.
He is flawed; not perfect. In uttering that controversial line he gave
me book three, ‘The Spook’s Secret’. There we find
out why he thinks in that way.
of the representation of women in the series is very positive indeed.
Mam is a strong character and so too is Alice in her own way. It’s
not just a book for boys. In the future I’d like to write a book
that tells the tale of Alice in the years before she met Tom.
Religion is ever-present through the books but is disempowered. What
are your feelings on religion in modernity?
let the Spook speak for me. This is what he says to Tom in ‘The
my mind it doesn’t matter which one of them [religion] you follow.
Or even if you walk alone and take your own path through life. As long
as you live your life right and respect other’s beliefs, as your
dad taught you, then you won’t go far wrong.’
is what we need. With more tolerance of other beliefs, the world would
be a far better place.
Parts of the books are quite horrific. How important is this to the
credibility of the stories you tell? Does the age of your audience cause
you to moderate your writing style in any ways and has the graphic nature
of some scenes ever caused question at the editing stage?
I have an instinct for what is acceptable. My eldest grandchild, James,
was eight when he read the first book. But children vary tremendously
in terms of what they can cope with. I rely on my editor Charlie Sheppard,
to moderate what I write if it proves necessary. After all, she knows
the audience better than I do and has experience over years of judging
the suitability or otherwise of graphic episodes.
‘The Spook’s Curse’ a priest’s leg is about
to be amputated. I had a choice. Should Tom be witness to this or be
sent away? The doctor rests his saw against the leg and then sends Tom
away. The readers go with him and are spared that. It was my decision
at first-draft stage but I’m sure that, had I put in the amputation,
my editor would have asked me to remove it from the book.
Amanda Craig in the Times has compared you very favourably to J.K. Rowling.
Have you read any of ‘The Harry Potter Books’ and in what
ways do you feel the comparison likely or otherwise.
read ‘The Goblet of Fire’. I think J. K Rowling’s
importance lies in the fact that the great success of her books has
opened up children’s publishing to many writers and got many children
reading who wouldn’t otherwise have read fiction for enjoyment
at all. My books are in the same genre but I feel are very different.
Amanda Craig wrote: ‘Ideal for the reader who has outgrown Harry
Potter’. Everyone must make up their own mind about that but I
do think the Spook’s books have a harder edge. And, of course,
although Tom and the Spook face dark magic they don’t use it themselves;
they have a trade.
©Jake Hope / ACHUKA 2007