chock-full, eyes-peeled, independent


Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward

Jake Hope interviews

Joseph Delaney

Born and 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.

Joseph’s 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 his books.

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?

Tolkien’s ‘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 English.

In many ways the books allude to changes in lifestyles and thinking that affect the modern world, has this been deliberate?

I 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?

It 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?

At 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?

I 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 the books.

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?

I 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?

These 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?

The 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.

Some 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?

I’ll let the Spook speak for me. This is what he says to Tom in ‘The Spook’s Secret’:

‘To 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.’

Tolerance 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 suppose 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.

In ‘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.

I have 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

Editor: Michael Thorn
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