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Hi Gaff. Or GJ. Or Sir! You’re a teacher and you’ve written books which are probably going to be called Young Adult fiction, in spite of the fact that this Old Adult really enjoyed them. What made you choose this YA genre?
Hi, Kath and thanks for having me. It’s really exciting to be in ‘the chair’ having read your other interviews. Especially since those interviews have helped me to discover some brilliant authors and some extremely compelling works.
Being a teacher was part of what drove me to write for the Young Adult age group. Up to that point, the advice I’d heard given most often had been ‘write what you know’; and being surrounded by a thousand potential characters every day meant that I had no shortage of inspiration to draw on. Young people aren’t constrained by the boundaries of possibility we impose on ourselves as adults. They have this wonderful way of believing in the fantastic (if only for the length of a book) that we lose as we get older.
The main reason I chose this age group was that I remembered how I felt when I picked up a copy of ‘The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night’ for the first time. The stories were so full of wonder and magic that I couldn’t help daydreaming that I was Aladdin, or Sinbad, or any one of a hundred other characters, and it was the feeling I looked for every time I turned the cover on a new adventure. That feeling has stayed with me over the years, and it’s the feeling I hope one of my stories will inspire in someone else someday. But I’m a firm believer that that feeling only comes from the part of us that still gets excited about gifts or bubble-wrap. It’s the childish place in all of us that still lets us believe in magic, even though we’re supposed to know better and, enviably, young adults can find that place without having to try too hard.
I know what you mean. Once you stop caring what's inside a wrapped gift you might as well give up. Your books concern young people with magical powers who are educated in a school especially set up for such children. You are bound to invite comparisons. Does the name JK Rowling set your teeth on edge?
*Laughs* not at all. I’d be quite flattered if anyone mentioned me in the same breath as J.K. Rowling – so long as it was positive, of course.
I felt quite bereft when I’d closed the cover on ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ and worse when the end credits of the last movie had rolled by. It felt like the end of an era, the same as it had done when I’d finished the last book in Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series that I’d owned. However, I didn’t want to recreate either of them - mainly because I admire them and could never do them justice if I did.
When I started writing ‘The Book of Jerrick’ series, I wanted each part to be a snapshot of the important events in the ongoing war. In that respect, when your protagonists are twelve years old, it would be less realistic if they weren’t at school; especially since we follow them for the better part of a year. But the academy isn’t Rowling’s Hogwarts by any means. Only one house is capable of the supernatural elements that are taught by the Inquisition, and those are very much a part of something clandestine.
Besides, I don’t think any one author has the monopoly on a school of supernatural ability. Pratchett’s Unseen University (mayherestinpeace) and Miss Cackle’s Academy for witches were enchanting imaginations long before J.K. Rowlings magnificent series was in print. Even then, I’d bet a steak dinner that they weren’t the first. But you’re right, readers will draw comparisons and it’s perfectly natural and right for them to do so. I can only hope that they will recognise and enjoy the differences between them as well.
True. Yours is very different. One thing I’ve enjoyed about your books is that it’s very difficult to tell the goodies from the baddies. What’s your take on characters? Do you actually enjoy pulling the rug from under readers?
Not only do I like pulling the rug from under readers (as long as it enhances the reading experience), but I think it’s a necessary tool sometimes. It’s healthy for a writer to use tension to build a good narrative. The best stories I’ve ever read are the ones I’ve invested in emotionally, even if I’ve hated the author at times for killing off a favourite character. For me, that connection makes the difference between a good book and a great book. It’s going to take a long time to master that skill, if I ever do, but it’s something I’ll continue to work on.
As for my take on characters, one of the advantages of writing characters in a contemporary setting, is that they can be caricatures of people you know, in surroundings and situations that you’re familiar with. This time, I’ve tried to pick on personal traits that we all have in common. One of which is this tendency to lie when it suits us – whether it’s the little white ones with good intentions or the whopping great big ones. In part 1 particularly, I’ve taken that tendency and exaggerated it until it’s hopefully no longer something we recognise within ourselves.
In my opinion, whether we see a character or a group as good or evil, is a point of view dictated to us by our sense of morality. So far both the Inquisition and the Elder Council as whole factions are as bad as each other, which is why it’s so difficult to tell the difference between them. It’s the actions of individuals within those groups that colour or views. People are not straightforward beings and I hope my characters reflect that.
Do you have any ambitions to write in other genres? Something more mainstream? Horror? Or is teaching satisfying your need for a good fright?
I love to read so many other genres, so I think it would make sense to explore them for myself. Like many writers who are fans of Fantasy, I’m a big fan of Science Fiction too and I have a few storylines in mind for the future.
There are a few places I wouldn’t venture – Comedy for example. I have a reputation for terrible and often obscure jokes that make people groan instead of laugh, so it’s probably best that I don’t go there. I don’t think I’d attempt Historical Fiction either, mainly because the amount of research involved is prohibitive at the moment and I’d want to insist that the details were accurate. Nothing pushes me out of a good narrative more than a few bad details. For now, though, I’m committed to finishing this series ... and perhaps a few stand alones in another universe before I’ll have the courage try my hand at a different genre.
Well, when you do, I'll be reading them.
I know it’s a cliché to say that teachers have loads of time but do you find your holiday times become big writing-fests and if so, how do you explain that to your other half?
One of the perks of supply teaching (at the moment anyway) is that I have a good amount of free time. But I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that all teachers have it in excess. Most of the teachers I know work hard throughout the half-term breaks, marking, or preparing work for the following half-term/term. In their shoes, I’m sure I wouldn’t have written as much as I have up to now.
Thankfully, I have a very understanding wife who supports my writing one hundred percent. But I suspect a part of the reason for it is that I tend to write after she’s tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle at night. On the days I’m on my own, I make sure that the household chores are done before I sit down to write and, on the rare occasions Mrs Gaff and I are off on the same day, I don’t let any actual writing interfere with our time together, even if plot ideas manage to creep into the conversation from time to time.
It’s fair to say that during the summer holidays I spend most of my waking hours behind a keyboard, usually with a movie on in the background for company. I’m a bit of a night-owl, so some of my best writing seems to happen between 11 pm and 2 am. The following mornings are usually spent cleaning up chunks of what I’ve written the night before, or writing drabbles and outlines for other stories and catching up with other human beings.
That's actually when I do my best sleeping!
If it’s not a state secret, what’s your work-in-progress?
Oh, that’s easy ... Part 3 – or to give it its proper title ‘Cull; The Book of Jerrick – Part 3’. I’m dying to tell you more than I should about it, but I just know that Mrs Gaff would slap my wrists if anyone were to find out what was going to happen before she does. What I can tell you is, we’ll definitely see some big changes for both the characters and their respective factions as the war spills out of the shadows and into the streets. And who knows, by the end of this part, we might finally be able to root for ‘the good guys’.
I'm always rooting for the good guys, until I find out they were a bad lot after all. I quite like a bit of misdirection. Thanks for the natter, Gaff. Its been a pleasure.