ACHUKA Interview – July 2014
Jon Walter, author of Close To The Wind
I met Jon Walter on the eve of the presentation of this year’s Branford Boase Award for a first children’s novel and my prediction is that in 12 months time Close To The Wind will be a hot contender for the award in 2015.
Just published (in hardback by David Fickling books – one of the publisher’s launch titles as a fully independent house) it has already been selected by Nicolette Jones as the Sunday Times children’s book of the week. In reviewing the book, Jones (who has impeccable taste and judgement) spoke about the book’s “intense atmosphere of anxiety”.
Walter talks to me in the front room of his townhouse in the centre of Lewes, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for the past ten years.
We discuss how he has become a debut novelist on the cusp of reaching 50. Most of his early working life was spent as a photojournalist, working mainly for the trade press. He had established his own online image library which was financially viable up until the era of digital devaluation, by which time he had become somewhat bored with the life of a jobbing photographer.
So, with the help of a few creative writing courses – notably an Arvon course with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman, but more particularly a local adult education course with tutors Catherine Smith (who introduced the author at the launch party) and Susannah Walters – he transformed himself into a children’s author.
The first book he wrote – Tell Me When My Light Turns Green, a dystopian YA novel in which, after a spate of knifings, the public votes to lock teenagers away at the age of 14 – came tantalisingly close to being published, after being picked up by SallyAnne Sweeeney, an agent then working out of the Watson Little agency, but now part of Mulcahy Associates and still representing Walter.
The nearness to which that first book came to being published (a deal was on the point of being signed with one publisher) only to fall through at the final hour must have been deeply dispiriting, but Walter does not dwell on that aspect of the writer experience. Instead, and in retrospect, he is just pleased that it’s the second book he completed, the very different Close To The Wind (more accessible, less dark), which is being presented to the public as his first novel.
After giving up photography as a profession, he “didn’t do very much for six or eight months” then thought “I do need to find a job – what am I going to do?”
As a schoolboy and young man, Walter had written poetry and before taking up photography had thought of himself as a writer, but then had stopped doing it. So some twenty-five years later, he decided to sit down and see if he had a book in him. That first dystopian novel had four or five agents expressing strong interest in its opening chapters, which was sufficient signal that the new career path was worth pursuing. The interest subsided somewhat when the agents were sent the whole manuscript, and Walter realised “I could write a really cracking ten thousand words – I do beginnings very easily – but I don’t do endings very well.”
So he “went off and did an adult education creative writing course” – just a couple of hours every week for two years.
I wanted to know how Close To The Wind, which has such a unique atmosphere and feel had sprung up. “It came from this idea that everyone has a plan of escape when things fall apart – we have an idea of how we might salvage things and start again. Where we might go and what we might do.”
“I came in one day and the film Cry Freedom was on the TV. I just caught one bit where this journalist comes in from a day’s work and there are people at his house who say, ‘You get in the car NOW!’ And I thought, what must that be like to be in that situation where you literally pick up what you can find in two minutes.”
The idea of a diamond embedded in the grandfather’s tooth also came to him early on.
“With the first book I had planned it all out quite carefully.” In Close To The Wind, having got the kernel of an idea, he “just started writing”.
Walter is a big fan of John Steinbeck. He sees Close To The Wind as a ‘small’ book, closer to Steinbeck’s short novels such as Cannery Row than it is to a book like Grapes of Wrath.
He studied theatre at university and sees his novel having a play-like structure. What readers will notice straight away is that the book is not written in chunky bite-sized chapters. It has a free-flowing, dialogue-driven quality to it. “The first scene is huge,” Walter acknowledges.
I’m interested to find out about the editing process. He chuckles and says it was somewhat ‘mystical’. He was working with Heather Featherstone initially (and later Bella Pearson), and it started off with him having to remove the very first sentence, one he was somewhat proud of, but now sees as perfect advice. The other advice, which as a reader of the book I can see was good editorial input, was to remove references in the initial draft to specific times and places.
“As I was writing I was very conscious of wanting to get rid of clutter and concentrate on archetypes. Big images. Ship – escape. Home – security. Diamond – wealth.”
Another outside influence on the book, particularly in its second half, was Shaun Tan’s Arrival.
The final edit – “a lovely process” – took six weeks and involved some strengthening of the book’s middle section. The end of the book (containing both sadness and resolution), although essentially as originally conceived and written, did have some telling and touching details added as a result of the middle section edit.
“I came through it not really feeling like they’d told me what to do. Don’t quite know how they do that!” he adds with a laugh.
Having been self-employed since his twenties, the discipline of writing every day comes fairly easily. “I’m quite good on that.”
Now he is having to get used to the distractions being a published writer brings with it. And this has come just at the stage where he was due to start the edit on the next book.
At the end of our interview Walter makes an interesting comparison between himself and one of this year’s shortlisted Branford Boase authors, C J Flood, whose work he greatly admires. “Her writing is like she is looking through a 50mm lens the whole time and she doesn’t vary it. I think of distance a lot when I write, so I zoom in and zoom out. With her you feel she has this beautifully composed view that she moves around at the same focal length. You have to be really skilled to do that well.” [C J Flood’s Infinite Sky was awarded the Branford Boase Award the day after our interview.]
“I’m very nervous about public speaking. I’ve never done it up to this point in my life.”
“I think the best way to be a successful author is to write really good books – as many as possible,” he says in ending. One gets the feeling that this is exactly what Walter is going to do, and will not allow himself to be over-distracted by invitations to festivals and events.
At his launch the author thanked Alice Ingall at Riot Communications for her handling of publicity. The book’s distinctive jacket design is by David Dean, whose bold graphic style has previously been seen on The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, The White Giraffe by Lauren St John and Shine! by Candy Gourlay.
Gavin and Anna of Bags of Books, an independent children’s bookshop that ACHUKA will be featuring in our indie bookshop series very shortly, took care of sales at the launch (where they were using their iZettle card reader for the first time and seemed very pleased with it).
Both Jon Walter’s current editor Bella Pearson and David Fickling spoke at the launch, before the author himself gave a short reading from the book’s opening. Fickling was on great booming voice form: