Monday, 26 April 2010

Interview with an Author: WILLIAM HUSSEY discusses WITCHFINDER and writing teen horror

Hi William and welcome. 
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

All that follows is true, I swear…

I was born the son of a fairground showman. For the first year of my life, my family and I travelled the southern byroads of England, pitching up on town greens with helter-skelters, ghost trains, waltzers, sideshows and the infamous ‘Wall of Death’ (an almost vertical circular track around which a motorcyclist would hurtle at phenomenal speeds). When I was still in nappies (‘diapers’ to our American cousins), we settled in the seaside town of Skegness. ‘Skeggy’, as it is known to the locals, is famed for its ‘bracing’ offshore winds – which basically means it’s bloomin’ windy up here! Anyway, the Husseys may have stopped travelling, but we were still fairground people at heart and so, during the school holidays, I helped out on my uncle’s infamous ghost train ride – the scariest spookhouse on the East Coast!

At school, I was always a fairly average student – rubbish at maths and science but pretty good at English. It was only when I went to secondary school that my grades started to improve. It was all down to an amazing English teacher – Mrs Breeds – who inspired me to read and write my own stories.

I went on to study Law at university. Why, oh why, did I study Law?! Not got the foggiest. Just seemed a good idea at the time. What I really wanted to do was write. But I always felt that writers were these mythical, god-like beings that lived in a kind of literary Olympus: powerful, unknowable, untouchable. How could a mere mortal such as I aspire to such divinity? Of course, now I know better. We writers are the least god-like and the most human of, well, humans. Prick us and we bleed. Wrong us (like with a bad review) and we’ll revenge! Or, more likely, mope about the house for a bit filled with loathing and self-doubt! Hmm, seem to be going off on a tangent there…

Eventually, after pursuing a half-hearted legal career, I started a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, bagged myself an agent pretty soon afterwards, and embarked on the life of a writer of horror stories. Last year, after being challenged by my bookseller friend Deborah Chaffey to write a horror series for kids, I sat down and penned the first Witchfinder book. It was a revelation. Witchfinder is the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer.


What inspired you to write WITCHFINDER: DAWN OF THE DEMONTIDE?

As I say, it all began with Deborah. She’s absolutely committed to children’s fiction and basically threw down the gauntlet. I’d had a couple of adult horror books published by this time (Through a Glass, Darkly (2008) and The Absence (2009)) – now Debs set the challenge to write a genuinely exciting, spooky, inventive and mysterious horror book for kids. For one of my earlier books I’d done some research into the history of the 17th Century witchfinders. Men like the infamous Matthew Hopkins, who went from town to town trying and torturing people on suspicion of witchcraft. This gave me a germ of an idea which quickly developed into a modern horror story with links to the witchfinders of the past. As soon as the notion (and the twist at the end) hit me, I was up and running.

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

Actually, not that long at all. Witchfinder had a very smooth writing period. In fact, I wrote like a man possessed! Most of my books take about 9 months to complete, from first draft to final copyedit. This book just wanted to be written as quickly as possible. I loved the central idea, I was intrigued by the characters, the concepts, the possibilities. I’d wake up at 2am, fixated by a certain character or scenario, and would rush to my study and boot up the computer. I’d write until dawn, sleep a couple of hours, and be back at the PC as soon as I opened my eyes. This has really been the most pleasurable writing experience in my life, and I think that sense of pace and excitement comes over in the finished book.

As soon as I’d completed the third draft I sent it off to celebrated children’s agent Veronique Baxter of David Higham Associates. Veronique is a big noise in the children’s publishing world, representing huge figures like Michael Morpurgo and Geraldine McCaughrean. She was not my agent at the time but, incredibly, got back to me in less than a week saying she had read the book at breakneck speed and had loved it. Offering immediate representation, she pitched Witchfinder to Oxford University Press. We were lucky here because it fell into the hands of the new Senior Commissioning Editor at OUP, Jasmine Richards. Like Veronique, Jasmine loved the book and wanted to publish in March 2010. Even more surprisingly, off the back of this one book she commissioned the other volumes in the trilogy. From conception to publication it was about 14 months, I guess – pretty fast work in the publishing world!

Reading the book I get the impression you really know your stuff about witches and witchcraft. How much historical research did you do and do you enjoy this part of the writing process?

Here’s the thing – I’d actually done most of my research years ago. While writing my first adult horror book, I’d had this very minor witch character called Elspeth, the Isle Witch. She’d existed at the time of the English Civil War persecutions, so I did a lot (probably far too much, in fact!) research on what life would have been like for her at the time. So when it came to these books I already had most of my old notes stored away.

In a more general sense, I’ve always been interested in folklore, myth and legend, so a lot of that stuff I already knew. Like Jake Harker in the book, I have my own ‘dark catalogue’ of horror knowledge that I’ve been slowly adding to over the years. Since the age of six, I’ve been obsessed with all those things that go bump in the night, so I can pepper my books with little mythological nuggets. Stuff like ‘Yaga Passage’: Baba Yaga was this horrible witch from Russian folklore – a child-eating sorceress who lived in a house supported on chicken legs. I always get a kick out of layering those kinds of nods to old folklore into my stories.

Generally, I do find research a lot of fun. Too much fun, actually. I’ve said this before, but research can be a way of avoiding the real business of writing. Writers are great procrastinators – we find lots of ways to avoid writing, but most of those ways – like reorganising our paperclips in order of size and colour – don’t feel legitimate, whereas research does. It feels like we’re being productive, but it’s not really writing, is it? You learn these skills as you go along – efficient research and facing up to the fact that, sooner or later, you’ve got to get on with the business of writing.

Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself and tone down some of the horror elements because of your target audience?

Honestly, we haven’t changed or toned down anything from my original drafts. There was some talk of softening the decapitation scene, but then we thought – n’ah, let it stand in all its grisly glory! I’m extremely sensitive to the idea that we should never, ever infantilize children. They hate it, and are keenly aware of being spoken down to or mollycoddled in any way.

Recently, I had a discussion with a lady about violence in children’s books. She believed that Witchfinder had overstepped the mark in the horror stakes (no pun intended!), but I think that this idea that kids are sensitive little buttercups who can’t handle the harsh realities (or unrealities) of life is just nonsense. I believe that we forget how resilient we were as children. Grown-ups look back and think that we hit 18 and suddenly develop a worldly resistance to the horrors of life. Rubbish. We’ve been developing that resistance and fortitude since birth. We forget just how advanced we were in this respect at the ages of 10, 11, 12, 13. Horror stories can be a learning tool in this regard. They are a great way of developing this vital life skill of resilience within a safe environment. This is hardly an original thought: the Brothers Grimm were doing the same thing with their cannibalistic witches and bloodthirsty ogres over 200 years ago! Now those stories are seen as classic literature, but are they any less gruesome than Darren Shan? Horror stories and grim(m) fairytales are often allegories, preparing us for the true horrors of the adult world. As such, they must be truly, and hopefully enjoyably, terrifying!

What’s your experience of how children react to horror in books? Do they tend to love it more than perhaps the parents would like?

Most kids love to be scared! I honestly believe that. They love ghost stories, they love monsters and grisly tales from history. Again, I think that, as we grow up, we tend to misremember ourselves as children. We picture innocent little beams of sunshine – fragile beings that can be shattered by the slightest upset. Once again I say – rubbish! I’ve now taken the Witchfinder Tour around lots of schools and, let me tell you, as soon as we get down to the grisly business of executing and torturing witches the room comes alive! They love it. And if a minority of parents have a problem with that, well, I’m sorry, but I think their constant fretting and nannying will do more to warp their children than a stray (fictional!) vampire or zombie ever could!

In the blood and gore stakes, do you think less is more, that suggesting horror can be more frightening than going into intricate detail?

Often that is certainly the case. It is generally more artful, and more difficult, to creep someone out than to gross them out. That said, I’m not above a good gross-out, and there is a certain skill to that as well, let me tell you! Coming up with new and original ways to describe the spilling of guts and innards isn’t a walk in the park! Further to that, I think suggestion of the supernatural can only go so far. You can’t constantly hint and tease at something without ever giving the reader a pay-off – that sort of stuff makes very frustrating reading. But yes, it is often more rewarding for both reader and writer to hold back on the gore.

Can there be such a thing as too much horror?

Well, let me say here, I’m not a big fan of horror films and books that revel in torture. Films like the Saw sequels (I actually quite enjoyed the first one) are a big turn-off for me. But I don’t think there is any such thing as too much ‘psychological’ or ‘creepy’ horror. Eventually there has to be a pay-off, or a moment of release from the tension, otherwise the horror scenario would break under the weight of suspense and become laughable in itself. But I think horror in that pure, creepy form can be as intense and as unsettling as you like, even in YA horror.

What, if anything, do you think potential horror writers should bear in mind when writing for a younger audience?

That they are writing for children as they ARE, not children as adults often perceive them to be (those fragile little darlings again). Write for them as equals, because they are: in their tastes, their humour, their resilience and their intellectual potential. Do not talk down to them. Do not be afraid to truly scare them. If you infantilize them, even for a moment, they will not forgive you.

Do you think an element of humour is an important consideration when writing horror?

It helps to lighten the mood, certainly. And that is reflective of life, isn’t it? Even in the grimmest, the most horrible situations, humour can be found. In fact it is often abundant. I remember my grandfather telling me about the horrors of his wartime experiences, and those memories were always leavened by the comedy that he and his friends found in the darkest of days. Gallows humour, he called it. Horror and humour – they are always with us, side by side.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

I do. My first port of call after finishing Witchfinder was Deborah Chaffey’s son, Jacob. He was the first kid to ever read Witchfinder, and I have to say, I waited for his response with bated breath. Luckily for me, he loved it! His response highlighted all those things that I had been striving for with the book: a whip-crack pace, a likeable lead character, villains with shades of grey, mystery, intrigue and a punchy twist at the end. I was also encouraged by his desire to learn what happens next – a vital component for any series! The great thing about kids is that they will be brutally honest with you; unlike most adults, if you’re book sucks then they won’t sugar the pill. I’m thankful to say that, of the kid critics I’ve had, most absolutely love Witchfinder.

DAWN OF THE DEMONTIDE is book one of a trilogy. Was it always intended as a series before achieving the book deal or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?

It was always a series. As soon as the central idea for Witchfinder struck me, I knew that the story was too broad, too rich, for a single book. And as the story developed I realised that I wanted to explore other characters as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is Jake Harker’s story first and foremost. An alternative title could be ‘The Mystery of Jacob Harker’, but there are characters like Adam, Rachel, Simon, Dr Holmwood and the mysterious Pandora (more of her in Book 2, Gallows at Twilight) that I wanted to explore. I’ve also become wrapped up in the internal mythology of Witchfinder. In Gallows we’ll see the world of Witchfinder develop to epic and mythic proportions. So, yes, it was always a trilogy. And, who knows, maybe there is life after Witchfinder for some of these characters.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of DAWN OF THE DEMONTIDE?

There’s a well-worn phrase among writers: to write is human, to edit, divine. After years and years of writing I’ve learned to love the editorial process. The first draft is always a fun but nerve-wracking time: a voyage of discovery in which you sense the excitement of new lands, new opportunities, and yet there’s always the fear that your ship may run aground at any time. Once the first draft is complete you know you’ve more or less made it. The story is virtually there. Sure, it’s a bit flabby and little tatty around the edges, but it kinda works and you’re kinda proud of it. After the celebratory pizza and pint, it’s time for the real work to begin. I usually have to do three full redrafts before I’m ready to show a book to anyone. Once that is done it goes off to my editor and agent. I’m pleased to report that both really love Gallows at Twilight (they haven’t seen Book 3 yet!), my agent describing it as one of the best books she’s read in recent years! All good, but very soon now I’ll be getting the full, frank and exhaustive editorial from Jasmine, my editor. It will be hard work – practically another two drafts – but it will be worth it. I know a better, cleaner, brighter and more exciting book will emerge after the editorial storm!

You’re already a published adult fiction author, what made you want to write for a younger audience? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

As I said, it was a challenge from my friend Deborah. After the gauntlet was thrown down I went away and read as much children’s horror and thriller fiction as I could. I found myself blown away by the quality of the stuff out there. It really did inspire me to make my own book as thrilling and as surprising as I could. The most pleasant surprise for me was that, as soon as I started Witchfinder, I found myself loving the writing of these books. There is something so freeing with this genre. I don’t know how to describe it – it is an area of fiction with infinite possibilities, especially compared to adult horror, which can seem so formulaic and rule-bound. Young Adult horror is a vibrant and exciting world.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

The sad thing is, when I was growing up, we just didn’t have the kind of horror books available to children today. Even Goosebumps came too late for my generation! So I went from reading the perennially popular Roald Dahl to Stephen King, by way of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe. So, really, I have nothing to compare the current crop of phenomenally talented YA horror writers to.

As to what children of today want to read – anything and everything! We have brilliant historical novels for kids by people like Julia Golding, we’ve got gruesome, humorous mysteries in the vein of Derek Landy, straight-out horror by the Darren Shans, adventure-horrors by Anthony Horowitz, and, of course, vampire romance by… well, just about everyone it seems! I must say, I’m really jealous of kids today!

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I do set out with a plan. I call it a ‘skeleton outline’ because it is really just a guiding document, very short on detail. I guess I use it as a crutch to help me in those difficult first 30 pages or so. That’s the danger area, those 30 pages, the place where your ship can really run aground. But if I know I have the plot more or less worked out then that’s unlikely to happen.

The only problem with an outline is if a writer treats it like a bible and never deviates from it. Character is the god of story, and good characters will often speak to you. That sounds mad and a little creepy, but it’s true. It’s really important that you listen to your characters – if they start saying that they don’t want to go down the route you’ve plotted for them then you must rethink your story. If you force them down that route then their decisions and actions will ring false, and if that happens then you’ve lost your reader. That’s the greatest crime a writer can commit. So use an outline if it helps you to get writing, and keep writing, but do not become bound to it. It is only a tool.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

A fair bit. Rejection, self-doubt, people telling you you can’t do it, that it’s all an impossible dream: these are problems that beset the best of writers. But here’s the thing: if you truly want to write then these things won’t deter you. They won’t matter because writing is what you do, it’s who you are, it burns within you. If you’re a writer worthy of that name, you will always write, whether you get published or not. I know that, even if I had never got that deal, I’d still be tapping away at my keyboard. Why? Because I have to. I have stories to tell and they just won’t leave me alone until I spill them out on the page. Writing is not really a vocation for me - it’s an urge, a need, an impulse almost as irresistible as breathing.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Finish something. You really aren’t a writer until you type ‘The End’ (that’s a figurative ‘The End’ for me, as I don’t think stories ever really have an ending; the characters go on, it’s just that the writer eventually has to let them go). Finishing is hard. It demands commitment, dedication, and long, long hours, but it is honestly the most rewarding experience in the process. I allow myself 10 whole seconds of euphoria when a book is done. Then I start thinking about redrafting…

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Wow! Mind-blowing information… Hmm, well I can give you a sneak peek at Book 2, Gallows at Twilight, if you like. So, next January you can expect –

The Demon Father preparing for war. Jake striking out to rescue his best friend. The Scream of the Banshees. The introduction of the disgusting and adorable Brag Badderson. The truth about Simon Lydgate’s demon heritage. Something very strange happening at Wembley Stadium. Jake’s tortuous journey on the ‘Scarab Path’. The predictions of the Seer of the Borderlands. The re-emergence of an old enemy. A battle wits between Jake and the darkest witchfinder in human history. The secrets of the mysterious Claviger. The unholy sisters of Marcus Crowden and… well… that would be telling…

Agent’s comments: Veronique Baxter of David Higham Associates.
Why I chose to represent William Hussey:

Bill's a brilliantly clever writer and taking him on as a client was a no-brainer for me. I don't usually read at work but I remember closing the door of my office and speeding through the last fifty pages of Dawn of the Demontide because I just couldn't bear to wait until I got home. I had a re-run of this experience a few weeks ago when I read the second book in the series, Gallows at Twilight.I probably wouldn't have described myself as a horror fan before I read Bill's work but he's shown me how massively exciting and sophisticated the genre can be. I would have adored these books as a child.

Senior Commissioning Editor, Jasmine Richards explains why Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide excited her when it was submitted to Oxford University Press:

Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide was my first acquisition for the Oxford University Press children's list and from the first page I was hooked. I knew that I had to be the one to bring this book to the world—even if it meant dabbling in the dark art of breakneck speed publishing!

Luckily the author William Hussey and the team at OUP were up for a bit of ‘Are we crazy, can we really publish a book this quickly?’ and although we only acquired the book in July 2009, Dawn of the Demontide will be in the shops from March 4th—at least a year ahead of a 'normal' schedule!

So why the crazy rush? Well, I’d urge you to read it and find out for yourselves. With its mix of magic and science, horror and beautiful writing, it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read and I envy you your first foray into the world of Witchfinder. . .


Nick Cross said...

It's interesting to read your comments about horror and gore - I'm writing for a slightly younger age group, which has limited my possibilities for gore but allowed me to push the psychological aspect way up. It's all a trade-off, I think - you do get much more opportunity to play with genre and tone in children's horror, because I think children are wonderfully open-minded, with less expectation of how horror books should be structured.

Ah, the joy of warping young minds!

Candy Gourlay said...

how fascinating! congrats to william - and to jasmine for the breakneck publishing! i know how that feels!

Beverley said...

thanks so much for this - a really interesting interview. Am not a fan of horror myself, but would be tempted by this. Good luck with it.

SarwatC said...

Interesting interview!
I'm somehwat envious William turned it around so quickly.
I loved the book and can't wait for the next. Real Hammer House of Horror and (if there is such a thing) had a real British, low-fi creepiness about it.

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