Interviews

Here are a selection of interviews I have done over the years. Many of these questions appear frequently in the q & a, so some of  the answers may seem familiar!

The first one is an interview that featured in the Independent in March just before the Seventh Son was released in the UK.  

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-spook-author-joseph-delaney-on-how-seeing-his-books-be-made-into-films-is-not-easy-10103788.html

This appeared in June in SFFWorld in June. 

http://www.sffworld.com/2015/06/joseph-delaney-interview/

The Jake Hope Interview

Jake Hope was the reading and learning development manager for Lancashire County Council, a freelance consultant and expert on children’s literature when he interviewed me in the summer of 2007 and edited my answers for inclusion in the ‘Achuka’ and ‘Writeaway’ websites.  It is fairly early on in the series but the answers I gave here are still relevant today. (apart from the film reference and of course the first series is now concluded).

(1)   ‘The Spook’s Battle’ is the fourth book told in the first person by Thomas Ward. What limitations, challenges and opportunities has this extended narratorial viewpoint held for you?

A first person narration helps to create a feeling of authenticity as if Tom is a real person telling his own story. It is also accessible for children making for a relatively easy read. At one point Tom says that he writes as he speaks. This is true because he will never use any fanciful and imaginative metaphors and similes; he speaks plainly and keeps to the point.

            One limitation is that the reader can only know what Tom sees, hears, feels and deduces. We will never be able to get inside the head of one of Tom’s foes and see things directly from their perspective. The challenge and opportunity of an extended narration is to keep continuity of voice yet allow Tom to grow slightly more knowledgeable and sophisticated as he ages. In part, the series is a narrative of ‘education’; Tom is learning the ways of the fictional world of which he is a part and, in order to survive, may have to change and not necessarily for the better.

(2)   The roles of prophecy and predestination are highly important to the novels. How much do you yourself believe in these and to what extent – if any – have these influenced your writing?

I’ve always been fascinated by prophecy and predestination. I like to encounter it in other fictions and have made it an important part of the Wardstone Chronicles Series. I do think that some things that happen in our lives are meant to be. It may only be a trick of the mind; sometimes, retrospectively we think that things could only have happened in that way. But I can think of occasions in my own life that I feel very strongly that something was meant to happen; where I made a sudden decision and it did change my life. But I was free to choose – or was I?

      With reference to the books it seems to me that I was always meant to write the series. I moved house to the village of Stalmine which has its own boggart and wrote that in my notebook. Over seventeen years later, looking for a story idea, I came across that jotting and the story of Tom Ward began. I was also an apprentice but wasn’t taught how to deal with the supernatural; I learnt how to repair machinery. That also helped to shape the books.

(3)   ‘The Spook’s Battle’ sees a polarization of the battle between good and evil with the rising of ‘Nick’. This places the books amongst the discourse of many established classics of the fantasy genre. Has this been a deliberate manouevre and what do you feel your contributions are to this?

Yes, it was deliberate and it is very much a piece of fantasy genre writing. Every genre writer takes things from the repertoire and then adds to it placing new ideas (or permutations of existing ideas) into the public domain. Any originality probably lies in the sense of place (Lancashire but always referred to as the County) and the fact that a spook does not use magic but follows a trade and keeps notebooks, learning from the past. There are other slight touches of originality too but you can never be sure that someone somewhere hasn’t used them previously: for example lamia witches which I evolved from the lamias of Greek mythology and also ghasts.

            As for polarization, that is very much part of the genre but good and evil also struggle within the minds and hearts of each character. Alice was trained as a witch but is neither totally good nor totally bad. She is like each one of us.

(4)   Knowledge and learning play a key part in Thomas’s apprenticeship and you make astute references to the process of learning both experientially and through books. Which books have been important and 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 both influenced me strongly. Both created different worlds into which I could escape; both stimulated my imagination; both made me 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. 

(5)   How important to the story is the sense of detachment and enigma that surrounds the Spook? You revealed a little of his story in ‘The Spook’s Secret’, is there more that you plan to reveal?

I can’t give too much away but, yes, there are more secrets and background to come. There are also big revelations about Alice and Mam to come in books Five and Six.

(6)   A great sense of impending doom – like banks of clouds building before a storm – have pervaded ‘The Spook’s Battle’ and ‘The Spook’s Secret’. Do you have an overall plan as to the overarching story and how many sequences or books will there be within this?

Again, sorry I can’t say too much, but I do have a general idea of where the books are going. But I’m very much a writer who discovers the story as he goes along. There will be at least nine in the series (I have a contract for that number) but see a definite need for a Book Ten when things will come to a head.

(7)   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.

(8)   In ‘The Spook’s Secret’ we learn a little about the Lamia witches and in ‘The Spook’s Battle’ we discover more still about these. Was this world established prior to the books, or has it arisen organically through the writing process?

I do not have a full story arc, only a vague sense of the direction I’m heading towards so creatures such as the lamia witches have certainly arisen organically through the writing process. I ‘discover’ such things through dreams, sudden flashes of inspiration and hours spend jotting down possibilities on pieces of paper.

(9)   The books are grounded in legend and lore. How much research have you had to do for this?

I do little direct research but I have accumulated much material by reading over many long years. I don’t have the sharp memory that allows instant recall of things I need but items seep to the surface of my mind when I’m looking for something. I do research when necessary.

            When writing ‘The Spook’s Battle’, where Tom and his master go east to struggle against the power of the Pendle witches, I did quite a lot of research. I read accounts of the events of 1612 plus novels such as Robert Neill’s ‘MistOver Pendle’. Having done that, it was a case of deciding what to leave out. I left out a lot leaving history behind to let imagination be my guide.

(10) One of the strengths of the books is the method via which the landscape has been appropriated to fit the locality 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-two 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.

(10)     You explore a great deal about genetic inheritance and thereby negotiate ideas of free will …

These are deep philosophical problems of 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.

(12) 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.

(13) Are the books metaphorically representing modern struggles that are applicable to young people?

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. But 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.

            (14) Parts of the book 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.

            (15) 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.

            (16) What stage is the film at presently?

Kevin Lima who directed ‘Enchanted’ is still the official director of the film. But he has spent over a year in pre-production and there is still no sign of the film getting made. My intuition tells me that soon the producers will appoint another director. If so, that director will then develop a new script. The process goes on and on and takes a great deal of time. However, I do feel it will be made one day, hopefully in 2011.

(17) You write in a very visual sense. 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 analyzing 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.

            (18) Family ties and vocational necessity are played against one another. Is there any redemption for the family or must family and relationships be cast aside as a Spook?

That’s what Tom’s master, John Gregory seems to believe and what he teaches his apprentice. A spook is like a priest and a girl or woman is a distraction. But Tom has different views. If he lives to become the next Spook he will live a very different life to that of his master.

            (19) Concern has been raised by a minority of critics that the representation of women is misogynistic. 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. It 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. Next year I will write a book that tells the tale of Alice in the years before she met Tom.

            (20) Do you receive much fan mail?

It’s gradually increasing. Under the guidance of a teacher, sometimes a whole class will write to me. I try to reply to every letter but it takes time and there is always a delay before I get round to it..

(21) If there is one question you would love to be asked, what would that be and how would you respond?

When being interviewed for teaching posts, the opening I dreaded was ‘Tell me about yourself ….”

            It was just too open-ended and I never knew where to begin. With reference to my books my feelings are completely different. My favourite question would be: ‘What are the books about?” It’s a question I’m rarely asked because I usually begin my talks with the answer to that anyway! It gives me my chance to get to the heart of the books and explain what the series is all about.

(22 ) You yourself have had a tutelage not dissimilar to Tom’s as a writer. Are parts of the books allegorical to your own background as a writer?

I worked as an apprentice fitter at the Courtauld’s factory north of Preston, Lancashire. I carried a tradesman’s tools about and even had a notebook to make sketches of machinery we’d taken apart. So the influence on the Spook’s series is clear. I lived in a house very similar to the haunted one Tom faces in ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’ and had a recurrent nightmare there. I lived almost in the shadow of St Walburge’s steeple, Preston; that church became Priestown Cathedral in ‘The Spook’s Curse’. So it’s all there in my early childhood almost as if I was being readied to write the series. Choice? Or predestination? You decide!

  The Book Collector 

This featured in the Book Collector in 2010.

What would you say was the first book that had a major impact on you, and set you on the road to becoming an author?

It was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and it gave me a real taste for the fantasy genre and for many years I was trying and failing to become the next Tolkien! I got rejected by publishers over 96 times.

Could you tell me a little about your personal history. What were you doing before you became a full-time author?

I was working as a teacher at a Sixth Form College: my subjects were English, Film and Media Studies. Prior to that I had worked as an engineer in my twenties and had actually completed an apprenticeship just like Tom Ward in the spook’s books.

How/why/when did you first set out to become an author.

I read a lot and every time I read a book that I really enjoyed I’d think: ‘I wish that I’d written that!’

Your first published work was a SF book. Did it take you a long time to see this in print? Could you talk a little about the process of getting it published.

My first book was published by a small independent publisher. It was very exciting to be in print but the sales were relatively small. It was good to have my work available in bookshops though.

When did you first hit upon the idea of the Spooks series?

I had to come up with an idea at short notice and I checked back through my notebooks. This was the Year 2000 and I had to go back all the way to 1983 where I found I’d jotted down a story idea about a man who dealt with boggarts. I developed this into ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’, the first book in the series. From then on I drew upon the folklore of Lancashire which I tweaked and modified to create my fictional world.

What's your usual working practice? Do you have a particular regimen that you adhere to?

When I was a teacher I used to get up before work and write from about 6.15 to 7.30 every morning. That way I could write a book in a year – which promptly got rejected! Now I write to meet deadlines but my working day is erratic. Sometimes I do what’s required in a couple of hours; on other occasions I pace about most of the day. I am anything but a 9 to 5 writer. Most of my writing is done when I’m neither holding a pen nor tapping the keys of my computer. I can be watching a movie or sitting on a railway station but I’ll be writing in my head.

Do you adopt a 'free-writing' style, or is it a case of a definite plan and joining the dots?

No I most definitely make it up as I go along. Sometimes I start at the end of a book or in the middle. The title usually comes last of all. My method of writing is a process of discovery. Mostly, I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it down.

Which writers most influenced your work, and why?

Tolkien and Frank Herbert were the biggest influences on my work. Both created detailed fictional worlds and stirred my imagination.

The books are thick with myths and folklore. Are these drawn from an in-depth knowledge, or months of research?

I have acquired some knowledge after many years living in Lancashire. I prefer things to come to me by chance rather than seeking them out but I do bits of research when necessary. However when writing ‘The Spook’s Battle’ I broke my habit and did lots of research into the history of the Pendle witches. Then, realising that I would be trapped by dates and facts, promptly threw 90% of it away. It was the right thing to do: I then invented Grimalkin, the witch assassin of the Malkin Clan and threw the Devil into the book. I enjoyed writing it and it is still my favourite book of the series because I associate it with a happy time.

The landscape of the County was, I believe, based on Lancashire. How do you capture the physicality of the landscape when you write? Is it drawn from childhood memories, or do you carry a notebook and jot down descriptive passages?

I draw mostly on childhood memories. Sometimes it’s a mistake to go back and take notes because things have changed – sometimes for the worst.

The books (I must admit I've only read the first two thus far) seem to have a very filmic quality at times. When you're writing, do you visualize narrative as you might storyboard a film? Or would you say it's a more organic process?

I do try to visualize the narrative and write down what I see. In terms of description I am a minimalist leaving a lot of work for the reader to do. Action I find difficult and have to work at it like a choreographer with a troupe of dancers. Dialogue is probably the strongest part of my writing – it’s certainly what comes easiest to me.

And on this subject, do you think films have influenced your work?

I taught Film Studies to Sixth Formers for many years so yes, I think the analysis of film structure and action must have had some influence on the way that I write.

The look of your jackets has changed since the series started. Did you find there was a backlash from established fans? Many fans don't like change!

Yes some fans were not happy because they wanted to collect the series in the same type of jackets. Other readers prefer the new covers. For that reason the latest book, ‘The Spook’s Sacrifice’ was later reissued with the old-style jacket.         

Could you give us the latest news on the film? Last I heard it's in pre-production.

The film has been in pre-production for about three years at least. The film option has just been renewed so they are still going ahead. I feel we will soon have a new director who may take a year to develop a new script before shooting starts.

Assuming it all goes ahead, are you nervous about seeing your characters on screen? Do you feel protective of them?

They will always exist as I intend them in the books and my first love is reading. As a writer you just have to let go and hope the film is enjoyable and as true to the series as possible.

When writing the first installment, were you already thinking about sequels?

I thought there would be three books and was starting to plan accordingly. Ideas came to me whilst writing ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’ that quickly showed me that more remained to be written. The spook told his new apprentice, Tom, “Never trust a woman!”. I needed to write ‘The Spook’s Secret’ to explain why he’d say such a thing!

Are your surprised at the success of the series?

Yes, very surprised. It has now been sold in translation to over 25 countries. I never thought that would happen.

When did you first realise you would be able to write books full-time?

When the Americans bought the series. I did my calculations and realised that I could stop teaching at the end of 2004. Even so it was still a gamble and as a younger man with children I wouldn’t have done it. But my kids had grown up so I took the risk and it paid off. It’s far easier to write full time than coping with the heavy demands of teaching.

What plans are there for the series?

I have a contract for 9 books (‘The Spook’s Nightmare’ will be out in June) and think there will probably be 10. There will also be spin-offs. ‘Spook’s Stories: Witches’ is already available and in October ‘The Spook’s Bestiary’, an illustrated encyclopaedia of the Spook’s enemies from the dark, will be published. Alice will also get her own novel in 2011 and I wouldn’t rule out a book which tells the full gory story of Grimalkin, the witch assassin.

And what other writing projects do you have underway (or on the horizon)?

I am in the early stages of developing a new Science Fiction series.         

With my collector's hat on, are there any plans for special/highly limited runs of any of the titles?

Not at the moment.

Are you a collector of books? What's the most prized volume in your library?

Although I own lots of books, I don’t collect them in that sense. For me a book is a sort of dream that lives inside your head. When you die you can’t take your collection with you but you just might be able to take away your dreams and memories.

What's your Desert Island book?

‘The Lord of the Rings’