When London-based teen/YA author James Dawson hit Lancashire for a whistle-stop tour of three South Ribble teaching establishments to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, writewyattuk was there to meet him.
The Yorkshire-born and bred writer was promoting debut novel, Hollow Pike, supported by Lancashire County Council reading development officer Jake Hope and independent retailer Silverdell Books, meeting around 300 students at Balshaw’s High School and Runshaw College in Leyland and nearby Lostock Hall High School.
And it’s fair to say James proved a big success – giving readings, discussing literary and big and small screen influences and that infamous 1612 Lancaster Castle court case, then signing books for already-devoted and newly-found fans alike.
The engaging author and former teacher – specialising in PSHCE – proved a natural in front of three young audiences, early concerns with technology batted away as he swiftly got into his stride, sharing memories and encouraging involvement, discussing everything from his tattoos to MR James – ‘the godfather of ghost stories’ – and from Philip Pullman to, erm, Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger (explaining how his mum decided he could watch the horror flick aged just 12 as it was on Channel Four so should be okay – something he now deems a seriously-flawed decision).
And despite Wes Cravens’ influence, this son of West Yorkshire clearly retains a child-like innocence, his engagingly camp teen-style oration (with Northern undertones) helping him spark with his students, talk of being ‘properly traumatised’ but always up for a bit of horror clearly striking a chord, not least his description of all those dark shadows and silhouettes on bedroom walls at night.
Yet James also defined a distinction between scary stories and real-life horror, and stressed that at least with a book – just like Joey in Friends – you can always put it in the freezer if it gets too scary. Besides, in JD’s world, genuine fear is ‘walking through Stockwell at two in the morning’.
There’s a serious side to this bubbly author, talking frankly about the bullying he endured at school, getting in with a group of friends who proved not very nice, becoming the butt of their jokes, not being invited to key events etc. But he explained how a decision to swap A-level chemistry for sociology changed his world as he got to know three girls that remain closes friends, discovering a mutual love of certain films, TV, music, books and magazines that made him what he is today.
It was returning to those themes and cultural influences in later years, while working as a teacher and when writing a weekly column for a Brighton newspaper – penning the Kemptown Chronicles – that he finally realised there was a market for his style of writing.
You never stop becoming a teacher of course, and James soon launched into his appraisal of the Pendle Witch Trials and the background to that sorry episode, stressing how he viewed that original witch-hunt a hate crime against a minority group, one to be commemorated rather than celebrated, an atrocity where 12 people were killed for nothing, scapegoated to appease King James. He also drew parallels with modern persecution of ethnic, religious and social minorities and general intolerance of everyone from gays to goths or those with physical or mental handicaps.
James only started writing seriously in 2008, aged 28, having been teaching year sixes for around six years, inspired by a new generations of books like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, while in his youth there was comparatively little to choose from, heading straight for the likes of James Herbert and Stephen King instead, books he felt in hindsight ‘way too explicit for a 13-year-old’.
There was also a spell as a writer for Smash Hits and Top of the Pops magazine, but it was his newspaper column that gave him the confidence to strike out alone as a novelist, the first fruits of that literary labour seen in Hollow Pike, set to be followed next August by Cruel Summer (another nod to old school pop maybe?), set in Spain and described as a compelling psychological thriller with a dash of romance, or as he put it, ‘a murder mystery in a cabin’. And its author candidly revealed ‘I sometimes think I’m a teenage girl on the inside’ as he talked of that and a current project – a ghost story, I believe – involving a spell of research in an all-girls boarding school (something The Fast Show‘s 13th Duke of Wybourne would have loved, no doubt!).
In answer to questions about his craft, we learned of a love of listening in to conversations on public transport, before James made some reading recommendations, not least Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, Philip Pullman’s Clockwork and His Dark Materials trilogy, and Malorie Blackman’s Nought and Crosses – ‘page-turners’ all. But he was quick to encourage his audience to ‘read anything, good and bad’ – identifying what you like and dislike and learning from that.
James was also quick to dismiss the concept of writers’ block to one student, suggesting writers using that old line ‘spank their inner muppet’ instead. Indeed. He did admit ‘days when you find yourself emptying and reloading the dishwasher’, but put any procrastination 0f his own – not least watching films or working on mood boards – down to research.
If you haven’t read Hollow Pike yet, I recommend it for (less impressionable) year eights and way upwards, not least for its valuable insight into modern high school life and pressures surrounding young adults struggling to find a path in life, exploring that desire to fit in rather than stand out among the crowd, and ultimately survive school.
For all its scary and dramatic twists and turns, it’s a book about the power of friendship, and as much about growing up, individuality and self-confidence as a murder mystery, macabre adventure and allegorical spin on the age-old witch-hunt concept.
In a nutshell, key character Lis London leaves Mum in North Wales to join her grown-up sister in the Yorkshire Dales, hoping to escape a culture of bullying. But her fresh start is not all it seems, and there’s something familiar in this remote setting, Lis soon facing new friendship issues and ever-more elaborate nightmares relating to her new surroundings, as she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation while perhaps inevitably being drawn towards her school’s own circle of outsiders.
I won’t go any further (my review is here), but will move straight on to our interview over a (non-witches’) brew at Runshaw College:
MW: You certainly proved a hit with the youth of Lancashire today. Do you picture a key age or target audience and write specifically for them?
JD: As a teacher you’re very aware of the convention of young adult writing, what flies and what doesn’t. You have to think about what to say to a group of 16-year-olds, for example, and I avoid the f-word. But in broader terms all you can write is a book you would enjoy. How can you possibly know how others will interpret it? The only person I really write for is myself.
MW: You’ve documented your own trials at school with bullying and friendship issues, with elements of that in Hollow Pike. I picture you as Jack (one of the main characters), but wonder now if you identify more with the heroine, Lis.
JD: In the early drafts, Lis was probably more like Beth (a close friend since later school days) because I wasn’t at that stage of confidence then. But as you get on you realise this isn’t Beth, this is Lis, a lot cuddlier, and less certain of herself – that’s more like me. Certainly the relationship Lis has with (school hunk) Danny has to be from my experiences of dating! I think Jack’s more the boy I wish I had been at school. He fits the dynamic in the group, but has much more in common with Xander in Buffy The Vampire Slayer than me. He’s the clown and comedian. Not sure if that was me at school. But Jack is fulfilling a narrative role as well.
MW: You mention locations that inspired Hollow Pike, not least old haunts in Bingley, Haworth, and I guess Pendle too.
JD: I was taken on a Witch Tour with my Dad as a teenager and the Pendle Hill Museum was brilliant in its slightly ropiness. I love things like that and Whitby’s Dracula Experience, all those schlocky horror museums. When you grow up in Yorkshire it’s part of your identity too. We’re particularly famous for the Brontes, but it would have been much cooler if it was famous for witches. But the Pendle Witch Trials were an atrocity, not something to be proud of. I was drawn into the supernatural side, but you can’t forget these were just people.
MW: You’re in Lancashire today, so have to keep your White Rose links to yourself of course, but do you still have strong links with West Yorkshire?
JD: There’s a similar kinship with all these Northern counties, and a definite north-south divide. We are after all bred from miners, hardy people. I lived in Brighton for 10 years, and it was dead soft there. It’s colder up here anyway, so you’ve got to be tougher!
MW: How does London life suit you? And do you think you’ll ever head back North?
JD: It’s the right place to be for me and my career now, and also when you’re used to living in a 24-hour city …. I love Leeds and recently revisited Manchester and it’s looking fantastic, but my next step is probably New York. I’m getting bigger and bigger as I go!
MW: You mention a love of MR James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary collection. But I understand it was James Herbert and Stephen King for you as a teenager.
JD: I was in my 20s when I first read MR James, and when I recently tried Chris Priestley and his Tales of Terror, which is like a junior version, it revived my love of his stories. Teenagers will still read Stephen King and James Herbert, but perhaps they need safety wheels on. Those kind of books can be sexually explicit, and I wasn’t ready for that back then. In a weird way, I got a lot of my sex education from those books, which is not ideal.
MW: Was it being a teacher that inspired you to start writing for a teen audience?
JD: It was the pupils that intrigued me, but all UK writers of young adult fiction owe a lot to Philip Pullman. He changed the game, before JK Rowling’s impact, with a book outwardly aimed at children but read by adults too. Between Harry Potter and His Dark Materials the industry changed, cottoning on to the fact that there was a market there. There is absolutely still a place for To Kill A Mockingbird, an amazing book, but nowadays you’ve got to come up with something from the last 10 years too – books for teenagers about teenagers.
MW: I’m sure Hollow Pike will help many teen readers adjust to school pressures, not least questions over fitting in. Did you set out to do that?
JD: How can you possibly write a book without agenda? As a professional I would have called it ‘protective friendships’. As a human you just say having the right friends is the best defence against bullying. People aren’t thrilled with the message that bullying is inevitable, but I think it is. In Lis’s case it’s just a case of she hadn’t made the right friends yet, rather than she is tainted by it all.
MW: You’re clearly a big horror fan, just like Lis. And it seems to me that you enjoy that notion of being scared. I notice Lis and Danny’s first date involves a horror movie. Is that your experience?
JD: Even before Nightmare on Elm Street my favourite book from childhood was ‘Vampires’, from a series about werewolves, witches, and so on. It was a cartoony series, written by Colin someone. I can’t recall his surname. Not very fashionable, but an influence all the same. As for dating at the cinema, there’s that whole feigning thing, hiding behind someone’s arm at it all. Weirdly, horror films would be a prerequisite in partners for me. I have to ask, ‘what are we going to do if we can’t watch horror films all the time?’
MW: After spells as a teacher and as a journalist, you’re now a writer first and foremost. Was that always the intention?
JD: I didn’t really think I could make any money from writing and was led by teachers to believe I wasn’t particularly good at English, when what I really wasn’t good at was reading comprehension. The biggest failing of our education system is that we judge ability in English by comprehension. I wasn’t very good at giving the answers required, and know as a teacher I was guilty of drilling year sixes on how to answer SAT questions. I just wasn’t very good at exams. With creative writing I got good grades, but only a small amount of English is creative writing. I always say just write loads, don’t worry about your results. My English teacher was very well meaning and really encouraged me to do drama and creative writing, but sadly due to the constraints of the curriculum we spent half our time doing meaningless comprehension tests.
MW: Do you find yourself working on future characters for books when you visit schools and colleges?
JD: Certain characters you see emerging. I went into a school recently where there was a character straight out of my third book – the glasses, the hair, the attitude. It was almost uncanny.
MW: One of the key literary nods in Hollow Pike is to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. Why do you think that still resonates?
JD: I have to say I got into it via the Winona Ryder film (1996), and didn’t read it until I was writing Hollow Pike, which is really terrible! But there are five to six really big cultural touchpoints regarding witchcraft – from Malleus Maleficarum and The Crucible down to films like The Craft and Hocus Pocus. The concept of the witch has been with us hundreds of years, and Pendle got there well before the Salem Witch Trials, which was more like a sequel! It was important, but Pendle was what I had my eye on, and Arthur Miller had already used the idea allegorically about the communist witch-hunts, so the precedent was there to use witchcraft as a metaphor.
MW: Away from your love of horror (depending on your viewpoint!), you have a passion for pop music, interviewing such notables as Atomic Kitten and Steps in your journalism days.
JD: It was all because of Kylie! When Kylie Minogue released her first album I was sold on pop music, and I’ve always championed it. Very few writers do, but if you’re a journalist who doesn’t want to write about dreary guitar bands and David Bowie, you can make a career of it. A friend of mine, Peter Robinson, is now the authority on pop, but if he ever retires there will be a gap in the market.
MW: Finally, if that doesn’t come off, there’s always your love of a certain TV timelord. Will we ever see James Dawson’s name as a scriptwriter for Doctor Who?
JD: That was a really big part of my childhood. When everyone else was going out and getting drink as a teenager I was inside watching Doctor Who videos, which I’m really quite grateful for. It kept me on the straight and narrow. Genuinely, when I look at programmes like Skins where there’s all these 15-year-olds out of their faces on meth … I was just just watching Doctor Who! And I guess writing for it would be my dream job. I have an idea for a script, but the BBC is quite insular. I do have friends who have worked on it though, so maybe I’ve got a better shot.
Hollow Pike is published by Indigo, part of the Orion Publishing Group, and available from all good booksellers, priced £8.99 in paperback.
For more about the author, head to http://www.jamesdawsonbooks.com