first half of The Foreshadowing is set in Brighton, the second
half in France. The scenes in the first half are mostly internal,
mainly domestic. Most of the action in the second half takes
place outdoors or on the move. Were you more comfortable writing
one half compared with the other?
Not really – but each half does have a distinct feel to
it, and it was enjoyable to try and get this across. Overall
I enjoyed writing the second half more, but then that’s
often true – the set-up is done, plots and relationships
are established, and the challenge and excitement of bringing
everything safely down to earth is a thrill.
Brighton scenes are filled with impressive observations (through
the main character's eyes) of parental behaviour, particularly
in the section when Edgar comes home on leave. When writing
in the first person like this do you tend to feel and sense
the other characters form an authorial viewpoint or from
your main character's point of view.
A bit of both. If you’ve successfully created a character
and understand them, then as an author you should be able to
see things from their point of view, and know how they would
feel in any given circumstance. This is of course especially
true when writing in the first person – you have to get
that voice just right.
grows up quickly in the first part of the book and her learning
is in large part gained through seeing the faultlines in
her family and loved ones. "How can all the people I
love have such different views on things?" she asks.
Teenage readers are really going to identify with that feeling.
But did you have to work hard to exclude the typical attitudes
of a twenty-first century teenager.
This is interesting. The book is a historical piece. I made
all the mechanics of it – setting etc – as accurate
as possible, but when it came to characterisation things were
a little different. I read lots of first hand accounts of young
women who’d served as voluntary nurses in WW1, to get the
facts but mostly to get a sense of the voice of an upper-middle
class 17 year old girl. However, we (my editor and I) quickly
saw that on first draft the voice I had created was too formal
and this was making her remote to the modern reader. We softened
her voice up a little, making her speech less formal and so on.
As to her feelings, it might be 90 years on, but Alexandra’s
feelings are I hope a fairly universal human reaction to her
its core the book is an enthralling, emotionally riveting
fate and free will. "Is there any sense in our lives
if everything is
already out there just waiting to happen?" is another
question Sasha asks early on. As an author do you consciously
aim to pose (via your characters) this type of question for
your young adult readers to ponder?
Sort of. Put like that it sounds like I’m trying to
embark on an educational program when I set out to write a
book! But maybe I’m guilty, because yes, I do want to
make the reader ponder the things I’m raising in the
book, and fate versus freewill was one of the main things I
was trying to address here. You just have to be very careful
that you do these things subtly enough, or the book becomes
didactic. This can be a hard balance to get right.
her powers of premonition Sasha comes to compare herself
with Cassandra. I have to say that the use you make as an
author of this association is extremely adroitly handled,
in that it must have been tempting, because easily accomplished,
to make much more of this and to labour the parallels more
heavily. Was this the case at all in any early drafts? Did
you have to draw back from overplaying the Cassandra card,
so to speak?
I was prevented from doing so by the fact that Cassandra’s
and Alexandra’s stories, though initially the same, veer
in different directions. Although Cassandra was the starting
point for the book, once I’d decided to move the story
to WW1 it was important not to do a slavish translation of
the book into that new time, but find my own story to tell
about the curse that the girls live with. From there, therefore,
I used what parallels I could, for example, their sea journeys,
but trying not to swamp my story with the source material.
I think readers ‘get the point’ fairly quickly.
But talking of first drafts – one thing we did cut down
after a first run through was the number of references to the
raven. I’d loaded it with almost every literary reference
I could find, but cut out most of this by the final draft.
my notes on the novel I see that I have used the word 'adroit'
about another aspect of the narrative, namely the way you
slip effortlessly from past to continuous (or in this case
discontinuous) present, sometimes within the same sentence,
but more commonly from one paragraph to another. What are
you aiming to achieve by mixing the tenses in this way?
Tenses were a big issue in the book. The book works essentially
in diary format – it’s just that the dates aren’t
there to see. It’s as if Sasha is telling us a bit more
of her story each night, at a moment when she has a chance
to reflect. This did however lead to some convoluted tenses,
even within sentences, as you say, with much use of the present
continuous which is a less common tense generally in a novel.
But then it has to mix sometimes with a past historic etc and
at the end of the day I hope the reader won’t worry at
all about any of this!
a key point in the novel you jump forward
six months. Subsequently you back up again, but there are
compelling reasons for having this sudden time-jump. The
book is essentially episodic, moving forward in time, so
what are you aiming to achieve when you do what we could
call narrative backing-and-forthing?
Yes, you’re right. This is the one area in which I cheat
the diary format I talk about above. The jump is to speed forward
after Edgar’s death. Firstly, there were very complicated
plot reasons (to do with conscription amongst other things)
that meant that I needed the first part of the book to happen
in 1915, but the main action to happen in summer 1916. I needed
to bridge this gap, and I chose to do it using Edgar’s
death. Why? First, because I didn't’t want to bog the
book down with ‘months’ of mourning and grief and
bereavement on Sasha’s part. If I’d got into this
at all it would have been very hard to have made it convincing.
it was better to have nothing. If the book is diary format,
then I imagined that if you were keeping a diary and your brother
died, you might very well stop writing it for a while. So this
is effectively what I have Sasha do. It seemed to me that it
gave a sense of her shutting down, while she struggles with
her loss. The chapters after this, when the six months have
passed, are short and broken, and relate her powerful trauma
matter of fact ‘entries’. This is a stylistic thing – I
prefer the understated when handling such things. And the whole
was supposed to bring the first part of the book to a rapid
ending, with her deciding to head for France. But this did
then of course mean that I had to use the first part of Part
two, almost like the beginning of a fresh book, to do some
more ‘set up’, relating how she got away and to
must have been a host of circumstantial detail that you needed
to research or double check. An example would be Daylight
Saving Time and the particular regulations regarding passports
during WWI. Did you enjoy this aspect of the work? Did you
do it all before you started or as you went along?
I spent a very ling time researching this book. Obviously
this is a subject (WW1) that you could read about forever.
I do enjoy research greatly, but it’s very easy to prevaricate
and time was pressing. However I am a cautious writer, and
don’t like to embark on something before I have crucial
details. In the end, I had to get on with it. The passport/identity
card issue though was still in the air when I was half way
through. A trip to the Red Cross museum finally got me the
answer I was hoping for, but I would have been sunk without
it. Not a nice position to be in. As to other details like
DST, these are the reward for too much reading! About 90% of
what I read didn’t go into the novel, but it does mean
you end up with little facts like that one to help you bring
the world to life.
influence did the writing of Cowards, a true story about
two men who refused their country's call to arms, have on
writing of The Foreshadowing?
The link is through poetry. I read Robert Graves and Herbert
Read for Cowards,
and this led me onto the friendship between Sassoon and Graves
about the role
of poetry in
the changing world of war. This led me mechanically to the
19th Brigade – which included Sassoon's and Graves' regiment – the
Royal Welsh Fusiliers – as well as the battalion that
Tom ends up in – the Public Schools’ Battalion.
I’d needed to find a unit to which Tom could easily sign
up, and get to France within my six months time frame and this
fitted the bill. But of course there are also hints at the
wider issues of conscription and conscientious objection, which
again I feel is as relevant (theoretically) to modern teenagers
as it was then, as witnessed by children on the marches against
the war in Iraq.
published about seven books now and it wouldn't be wide of
the mark to say that a darkly gothic seriousness runs through
each of them. So it comes as a big surprise to discover that
after-hours you are a drummer in a band called the International
Band of Mystery and described as 'the south's Premier Austin
Powers tribute experience'. Please explain!
Well, it’s true as I explain on my
website that for some reason I’ve
always loved the gothic. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s
got something to do with the fact that my earliest memory is
being pushed in the pram down the lane to the 12th century
churchyard in the little village I grew up in. Maybe not. But
although I love all this dark stuff, I do so with a sense of
humour, and actually also have come to like lots of different
musical styles. The band I drum for at the moment is run by
my cousin (who plays Austin Powers). We were doing original
indie rock material, all very morose and getting 10 people
turning up for gigs. We decided to give the tribute thing a
whirl – we play 60 and 70s disco basically, and now we
get paid for playing to large numbers of people who dance and
laugh and have a good time. And that’s enormous fun.
also work in publishing, and my contacts inform me that you
have recently returned to repping rather than working in
the office. Is that true and if so what prompted the move?
I won’t go into chapter and verse, but I was going nowhere
in my previous job, and I got the chance to work for Walker.
As you say I returned to repping, but I have to say that it’s
a job you either love or hate. I love it. A lot of people look
down on the rep as in some way the underclass of the publishing/bookselling
business. I think this is because it’s a sales job, essentially,
but I really don’t mind what people think, because I
love it. There is much more to it than walking into an account
and taking numbers. And it gives you lots of friends and contacts,
and the pleasure of not being in the same place every day of
your working life.
your dayjob and your life in the band, what is your working
routine as a writer.
I write every other weekend for all of Saturday and as much of Sunday as I
have the energy for. I can’t write in the evenings after work, because
I go to bed very early, but I do use this time to read and make notes etc. I
spend 6-9 months preparing to write a book - reading and research and planning.
Then I write. I write VERY quickly. I have done over 10,000 words in a day before,
though the average is about 4,000. It’s important for me to get the first
draft down, even if it’s a bit skeletal. Then I do three or four or five
rewrites, fleshing it out. I always work in my small study, at the back of the
house, and write straight onto my computer, again to save time and effort.
first novel won the Branford Boase Award. Subsequently you
have won other awards and been on many shortlists but what
role did this first award have on your progress as a novelist?
Yes, it helped my profile and so on, and sales a little bit, but in retrospect
I think the most important thing it did for me was validate me. By which I mean,
it gave me confidence to believe that I had a write to do what I wanted to do.
Writing is a very hard business, and one the biggest issues is committing yourself
to paper, and having people judge it. This can be very off putting at first.
you ever reviewed another writer's book?
I review quite often, mostly for BookTrust. There’s a big debate to
be had about peer reviewing, and all I will say is that I always try and review
a book with respect. As a writer I think it ought to make you more generous
as a reviewer – knowing just what is involved in writing a book, even
a not very good one! In the couple of instances where I have thought something
truly appalling, I have suggested that the publication involved find something
else to review – better to give the little space devoted to children’s
books to something worth reading than to something one person wants to lay
you could go back and rewrite just one page of any of your
books which would it be?
Blimey. That’s a toughie. I’m sure there’d be lots, but I
don’t know because I don’t go back and re-read my books generally.
If anything it would be the US version of Floodland. I had to give it a more
optimistic ending for the US market, a decision I regret now, especially given
that it got a review in the US saying it had an overly-optimistic ending!
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© 2005 ACHUKA