Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween Thrills & Chills: Chris Westwood on ideas, inspiration and gothic horror.

© Artwork: Jim Kay
Halloween Thrills & Chills ~ 
tall tales & short stories is thrilled to welcome Chris Westwood,
author of the gothic horror books,
The Ministry of Pandemonium,
and its sequel,
The Great and Dangerous,
to the blog.

Hi Tracy, thanks for inviting me to add to this fabulous blog!

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

I’m often asked where the ideas come from, and I’m always curious to hear what other writers have to say about theirs. In my case the short answer is: everywhere! But the longer answer might be more helpful, so here I’ll try to explain where I found the various bits and pieces that led me to Ministry of Pandemonium and its sequel, The Great and Dangerous, which will be published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in March 2012.

© Artwork: Jim Kay
One of the great pleasures of writing for young readers is that it gives me a chance to recapture something of my own childhood, to tap into the fairy tales, comic books and TV shows that inspired me to spend long hours building plasticine monsters and hand-drawing my own comics. With model soldiers and Matchbox cars I played out fast-moving action scenes, doing all the voices and adding the screeching, exploding sound effects as I went.

So you see, I haven’t changed all that much! When I was seven I didn’t think of what I was doing as storytelling, but I suppose that’s exactly what it was, and storytelling for me is still a kind of playtime. As a boy with his toys I entered my make-believe world, a place so real to me I could almost touch it, and now when I settle down to work each day I’m doing (or trying to) a very similar thing. On bad days when the muse is AWOL and words don’t come easily it doesn’t feel much like play at all – but that’s the main difference between childhood and now. Now it’s a job!

If Hansel and Gretel and Marvel Comics crept under my skin at an early age and stayed there, years later it would be great fantasy writers like Ray Bradbury, whose way with words – in particular his ability to view the world through a child’s eyes – had a massive impact on me. In his novel Dandelion Wine there’s a passage which goes: “Crossing the lawn that morning, Douglas Spaulding broke a spider web with his face. So, with the subtlest of incidents, he knew that today was going to be different.”

© Artwork: Jim Kay
That sense of magic everywhere, about to happen, was something I very much wanted for Ministry of Pandemonium. I wanted the lonely, talented Ben Harvester to have this wide-eyed view of the world, so in one scene I have him in Victoria Park, watching a red squirrel skirt up a tree as he stands on a carpet of four-leaf clovers. Magic, he thinks. Something like magic. Everything’s alive! It’s just a little nod to my hero, Bradbury, whose short story collection The October Country also helped me find a name for the mysterious, many-faced Mr October.

Of course real life is always adding to the pool of memories and influences too. Good and bad stuff happens. We love and lose. Other people come and go from our lives, sometimes changing us forever while they’re here. All the highs and lows are potential material. In fact, without them, I don’t think a dark fantasy novel like Ministry with its shape-shifting demons and ghostly apparitions would work half as well. No matter how “out there” and other-worldly the story may be, you still have to write what you know, which is why my boy hero Ben Harvester’s relationship with his mother, Donna, is so central to the book. This part of it comes very much from life, and I like to think it gives MoP an emotional pull alongside its thrills and shivers.

© Artwork: Jim Kay

A strong sense of place is important too. I now live in Hackney, East London, but I was still getting to know the area when I started MoP, and I soon found the alleyways, parks and canal towpaths between home and Islington triggering lots of ideas, almost becoming characters in their own right. Most of the locations in the novel are absolutely real while others – Ben’s new school on Mercy Road, the hidden alleyway off Camden Passage, Islington, where the Ministry’s headquarters are found – are pure invention. Quite early on I thought that, like me, Ben should be new to the city, taking it all in with an outsider’s eyes. I also decided he should live near to where I did, so I installed him and his mother in a maisonette across the street on Middleton Road.

© Artwork: Jim Kay
Given a choice, I’d prefer not to be in or around the places I’m writing about. I’d rather re-imagine them from a distance than simply describe what I see. On the other hand, as I tapped away at the first draft of MoP I would often look out to see ravens flying past the window, or a dishevelled-looking man turning off the street to root through the communal rubbish bins outside my building, filling his backpack with spoils. Then there was the day my sunglasses were stolen from a shop counter on Broadway market, snatched up by a thief who quickly ran outside to vanish into the crowd in the park as I fumbled for change. All grist to the mill, as they say, and in MoP you will now find ravens aplenty and a chapter entitled ‘The Sunglasses Thief and the Clover Chain’ in which the thief becomes a demonic entity with shape-shifting abilities – I’m afraid that’s just the way my mind works!

© Artwork: Jim Kay
So it isn’t as if you have to go out searching for ideas. They have an uncanny knack of finding you! You’ve probably found, as I did, that when you’re well underway with a story your senses become finely tuned to everything you hear and see around you. Conversations overheard on buses, newspaper headlines, the people you pass in the street can all add a little extra colour and believability to the work in progress – as good a reason as any to keep a notebook handy at all times. And it’s not a bad idea to sleep with pen and paper within easy reach in case some brilliant idea wakes you in the night. It doesn’t often happen... but you never know.
© Artwork: Jim Kay

Oh, and one last thing about the urban ravens. They’re everywhere in and around London Fields, hopping around the grass and perching on rooftops. I just had to include them too. And now, thanks to the great design team at Frances Lincoln, they perch on the drop caps at the start of each chapter and even on the barcode on the cover. Not so long ago I looked out to see one of them dive-bombing a cat across the street. If cats have expressions, this one’s seemed to say, “What the hell was that?” as the raven soared away. You can probably guess where my imagination went with that one. It was very quickly added to my notes for Book Three...


Ben Harvester sees what no one else can.. 
A cobbled alleyway where it’s always night ... hidden behind a crack in the wall.

Mr October, a man of many faces and secrets, knows Ben has a unique gift. He sets out to recruit Ben to a top-secret, highly classified Ministry department – to help in an eternal war against an unspeakable enemy.

And so Ben begins to understand just how great and deadly his gift may be, and why it puts him and everyone he loves in grave danger ...

Read a tall tales & short stories review of Ministry of Pandemonium here


Ben Harvester and Becky Sanborne have found their true calling at the Ministry of Pandemonium, guiding the souls of the newly-dead to the afterlife. 

But the enemy, the Lords of Sundown, still smarting from their catastrophic defeat at Halloween, are keen for revenge. The theft of thirteen souls following a bomb explosion on Bad Saturday heralds the start of an all-out war ...
and little does Ben suspect just how personal that war is about to become.


Chris Westwood was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the son of a coal miner and a school teacher. His first published writing was for the London music paper Record Mirror, where he worked as a staff reporter for three years.

His first children's book, A Light In The Black, was a runner-up for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. His second, Calling All Monsters, was optioned for film three times by Steven Spielberg. After a break from writing, spending several years caring full-time for his father, Chris returned with Ministry of Pandemonium, the first in a series of novels set in a secret, alternative London.

The second in the series, The Great and Dangerous, will be published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in March 2012.

Watch this space for a review of The Great and Dangerous.



Sue said...

Fascinating glimpse into how one creative mind works. I love the graphics and illustrations - subtly creepy!

Anthony Cowin said...

A spellbinding interview that takes us into the mind of the writer. It also gives us a sense of the dark and magical world his thoughts conjure up in the creative process while writing.

Also once I hear a writer say they love Bradbury I'm sold.

Looking forward to the review.

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