Chris was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to sit down with Teen Librarian and take part in the Eight Questions With… interview which follows below.
Robert Swindells had a lot to do with it. About the time I was starting out, struggling with a first novel I never finished, I heard he was conducting a writing workshop at my local library so I went along to say hello. Robert was incredibly generous with his time, read the sample pages I’d brought and recommended a number of YA novels he thought I should read. I had a background in the music business as a journalist with a weekly paper called Record Mirror, and Robert suggested I try writing fiction for a similar young readership. My first novel (A Light In The Black) wasn’t actually planned as young adult fiction but as soon as I started the first chapter, the voice – the tone of the piece – took it that way. I guess that’s what Robert was getting at: writing in the voice that comes naturally to you.
How do you get into the heads of your characters?
I suppose it’s a little like acting, role-playing, putting myself in someone else’s place. There’s a lot of me in my characters anyway, and I like to think most of us have enough in common emotionally that we can relate to the same things in similar ways, whether it’s the heartbreak of being jilted or the fear of the sound of a dentist’s drill. Also, characters do have this alarming way of taking on lives of their own and beginning to speak for themselves, whether or not I agree with what they’re saying. I’m just hoping the reader will pause and go, “Wow, I didn’t know anyone else felt that way too.”
Do you know instinctively what will appeal to Teens or is it more a hit or miss process?
It’s more about finding something that appeals to me. I try not think in terms of what will grab, say, a thirteen year old reader; you can’t second-guess what others will like, I’m not sure you should even try to. First, entertain yourself. If an idea gets its hooks into me, I’m hopeful it will do the same for others. Does the story I have in mind already exist? If not, I’d better settle down and write it…
What is the most satisfying part of the writing process for you?
It’s nearly all good. There’s the first spark of inspiration that kicks off an idea… and lasts for about ten seconds. After that there’s a lot of hard work, which often feels like pushing a dead-weight uphill, but there are also times when the story seems to be writing itself – when I’m not absolutely sure where it’s going but I’m willing to go along with it to find out. If I’m lucky I’ll eventually see what my subconscious has been doing all along… and if it all makes some kind of sense, that’s the best. Oh, and finishing work is hugely satisfying too!
Do you ever read the works of other Teen/YA authors? If yes what can you recommend?
There are so many fine writers in this area – Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman – but I’d like to mention a few of the books which made the greatest impression on me as a young reader, some of the ones that made me want to write:
JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye; William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies; Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. There’s also Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is simply magical no matter how old you are; and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the granddaddy of the zombie novel, which is booming right now.
More recently, I was really knocked out by Louis Sachar’s Holes and John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and I’ve just finished the first of ND Wilson’s 100 Cupboards trilogy, a fabulous fantasy from a writer with a lovely, surprising turn of phrase. Can’t wait to start the next in that series.
Are any of your novels based on personal experiences?
I’m not sure I could write anything without making it personal – whether it comes from family life, school days, or all the ups and downs between then and now. For Ministry of Pandemonium I drew a lot from my own experience of losing my parents; that’s what the book is really about, and writing about it was a way of coming to terms with it. When I came back to London for the first time in ages, I started discovering parts of the city I’d never seen before, made some wonderful new friends, had my sunglasses stolen from a shop in Hackney… those things found their way into the story too. Sometimes personal experience adds extra colour and believability to a scene. Sometimes it gives you so much more, entire story-lines and themes.
Are you working on anything new at the moment or do you have anything planned?
I’m now adding the final touches to a sequel to Ministry of Pandemonium, and looking ahead to the third book in the series, which is only very vaguely planned so far but at least I know how it will begin and end. I’m less sure about everything in between!
Do you ever do Library visits to Teen Reading Groups? If yes, what is the best way to get into contact with you or your agent about it?
Yes, so you could either call the publicity team at Frances Lincoln or email me or my agent at the addresses on the Contact page of my website http://www.chris-westwood.com