Sunday 31 May 2015

Review of MY NAME'S NOT FRIDAY by Jon Walter

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From the author's opening comments, you know you're in for a treat.
'This book appeared out of the darkness... an unsettling experience, trying to use all of the senses other than sight... and then a voice... clear as day... a boy in the pitch black with me... and he believed he'd been brought there by God.'
That voice belongs to Samuel, and it's as real and true as any voice you'll find between the pages of a book. From the opening paragraph, I was sucked in by its vulnerability and unwavering faith. What follows is Samuel's sale to a slave-trader by the priest who runs his orphanage. From this point Samuel is given the name of Friday and is taken to a cotton plantation where he spends most of the book, until the American Civil War comes to his doorstep and the boy escapes. I especially loved this part, where Friday escapes to freedom, reclaiming his own name. And even though he is nearly killed by a mortar, he is unrelenting in his quest to be reunited with his little brother.  This is a book about fate, loyalty, freedom, love, hope and family. As a teacher, I especially loved the theme that education is the axe to break the chains of slavery. I also loved Samuel's journey from darkness on page one to light on the final line - 'Some time soon I'll stand in sunshine.'
This story of slavery and cruelty and the American Civil War is one which feels familiar to us, and though history isn't something I normally like to read, when I do, this is how I like to do it - with a book that's not fuelled by historical events, but by the loves and losses of a character that is so real, you feel he is sitting beside you. Highly recommended.

Saturday 2 May 2015

Hauling the Water from the Well

Today I get interviewed by Kathryn, a fellow middle grade author.

Hello Kieran, 
Firstly, congratulations on The Black Lotus. I'm looking forward to its release on August 6, 2015, and thank you for allowing me to borrow your blog today for this interview. Which leads to my first question. These days, there's an expectation for authors to become social media darlings. I feel intimidated by this, yet some writers embrace it, including you. How do you handle social media? Any reservations about it?

I didn't grow up with social media so it's all relatively new to me. I was reluctant to embrace it, but
finally took the plunge with Twitter and now I love it. I've met so many bookish people there, REAL people. And even though they're e-quaintances, I feel like I know them as acquaintances. I have found the community to be hugely supportive. So many people I've never met seem genuinely enthusiastic about my book release. It's been a great way to spread the word about my novel. I also find it to be a treasure trove of information - articles, advice, reviews etc. It's also a great place to go if you have a question. For example, I just tweeted that I'm thinking of launching my book in Dublin and wondered if anyone knew of any good venues. Immediately, I received a great list. I love how you can connect with writers almost instantly. I often tweet authors of a book I'm reading, or have read, and most seem thrilled to get the feedback. I hope readers will contact me, too. I'd like that.

So yes, it's great. The downside is it can be a time vortex that can suck up extraordinary amounts of time - time when you should be writing!

Blogging is new to me, too. And I guess I'm less attracted to this. Probably because I don't really like writing about myself, and the 140 character limit of Twitter suits my single-digit-hen-pecking typing better. Though I do like having the blog space to post reviews, pictures and stuff - like this interview! 

I've yet to allow Facebook in, though I am feeling the pressure to join. But I spend so much time on Twitter already, I don't want to open another vortex!

You went through several revisions of The Black Lotus before you were satisfied. If you had to repeat the entire writing and editing process, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Jeez, where do I start? I did everything wrong. When I started writing I knew nothing about point of view or voice or anything. I learned as I went along, which was not ideal because it resulted in cutting vast tracts of text and starting again. But on the other hand, isn't learning from your own mistakes the BEST way to learn? So I'm really not sure if I'd do things differently. Do I wish I hadn't gone through the heartache of rewriting my entire novel? Yes! But I think it was only by writing the thing the wrong way, that I figured out (with the help of my editor!) how to write it the correct way. In some writing advice by one of my favourite authors, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, he talks about how Roald Dahl's manuscript of Fantastic Mr Fox was already with the publisher before he thought of the idea of having Mr Fox tunnel into the farmers' stores of food and drink. And yet 'it reads like the very first thing he thought of.'

'You have to go out and haul the water from the well and pour it into those jugs and cart it over to the wedding feast. Then and only then will some AMAZING GRACE come along and turn it into wine.' Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Not that I'm saying my writing is wine, by the way. More like fizzy cola - not very nourishing, but fun to drink (hopefully!).

So despite all the mistakes I've made, I'm not sure I'd do any of it differently, except perhaps for the research. I spent a lot of time researching stuff about feudal Japan, stuff which never made it into my book. I feel like I wasted – no, wasted is the wrong word - SPENT a lot of time researching fascinating stuff that never got used in my story. On the other hand, all this knowledge did perhaps allow me to write more confidently about a period in history which I knew little about.

I realise this is a very bumbling reply to your question. So perhaps I'l sum up by saying: I wish I had done everything differently, but am glad I didn't.

The writing and revising process is exhausting. Finding an agent, and then waiting for a publisher to commit to your novel is just as tough. During those times when you really wanted to give up, what motivated you to keep going?

My wife was a great source of support to me, as was my agent. But so were my critique buddies, Nobody understands a writer like another writer does. And because some of us were at the same stage in our writing career, and writing for the same audience, I think they understood my disappointments better than anyone. Because they’d seen the work I put into my book. So for that I will be forever grateful.

How did The Black Lotus develop from ideas in your head to reality? Was it a few disconnected thoughts you built a novel from or did you have a whole universe of ideas you pared down until you had a novel outline?

 The book started with a single idea - an image in my head. It was of a Japanese lord standing on the battlements of his castle at night. The wind whipped his long black hair out of his topknot and fluttered the butterflies on his silk kimono. He looked down at the road below where he saw a trail of torches making their way through the darkness towards his castle. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and smiled.

That was it! That was what started the ball rolling. Unbeknownst to myself I had created my villain - Lord Goda. I spent ages fleshing out this opening scene. I was immensely proud of it. Then I began to wonder who these visitors were that were arriving at his castle in the dead of night. And why? But I also knew I wanted to write a contemporary children's book, and this opening scene felt neither contemporary or for children.

So I began to wonder what sort of children could take on a villain like this They couldn't be ordinary kids, could they? And from there the whole thing started to evolve. I got ideas and suggestions from loads of people - my agent, my critique buddies and my editor. But they are sworn to secrecy. The Black Lotus knows where they live.

The first person I showed the book to was a renowned literary agent who said she loved the story but thought I needed to cut that opening scene. What?! My first and beloved scene? My seed of inspiration? I was delighted and devastated at the same time. But that's what writing is all about isn't it - lashings of disappointment with a sprinkling of euphoria.

So yes, it was a few ideas, feelings and images, fleshed out into a brand new world. I wish I had plotted it all out and saved myself years of hardship, but where would the fun be in that?

What book on the market would you say is most similar to yours?

I would like to say it's like nothing on the market but my publishers have already said it'll appeal to fans of Chris Bradford and Anthony Horowitz, so who am I to argue? And I'm more than happy to have those two authors mentioned in the same sentence as me. In fact, I'm thrilled.

Without giving too much away, what was the most difficult scene in the book for you to write? What scene was the easiest?

I like writing action scenes, so my three opening chapters where I introduce Cormac, Kate and Ghost and their superpowers were fun to write. I also particularly enjoyed writing about these three kids breaking into Lord Goda's castle. I guess because I'd done the research, I knew exactly what this castle would look, smell and sound like. I knew how vigilant the samurai guards would be. I knew how dangerous it would be. The only thing I didn't know was HOW they were going to get in. I left that bit up to them.

I suppose the scene I found hardest was the climax. How would three kids and a handful of ninjas take on the might of Lord Goda, the Swords of Sarumara and the Samurai Empire in a battle which would leave the reader breathless and gasping for more? Guess you'll have to read the book to find out!

The Black Lotus is chock full of ninjas and samurai swords, and part of the book is set in feudal Japan. What is your interest in this period and place, and how much research time did this save you once you began writing?

We never went to the cinema as kids but my first cinema-like experience was in a boy scouts' hall where we watched a Bruce Lee movie. This had a big influence on me. Later I took up Karate and I guess my interest in Japan started there. But I also grew up watching TV in the 80s and programmes then were full of ninjas. As a kid I dreamed of performing the same acrobatics as these masked warriors. As I got older I got interested in video games and gamebooks and again, I sought out martial art content. I particularly remember loving 'The Way of the Tiger' series of gamebooks by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson.

As an adult, I took up Karate again, for a while, and was particularly inspired by our sensei who taught us much more than Karate. He taught us about the language, the customs, the culture, the food and the people of Japan. I guess I've always had a fascination with all things Japanese. I think a lot of people have a foreign destination that they feel a strong kinship with - for me it has always been Japan. I'm a Japanophile, of sorts.

The only thing that bothered me about the portrayal of ninjas on 80s TV was that they were always the bad guys. And more recently they've become a bit of a joke in popular culture. So I wanted to write something where ninjas would be the good guys, and they'd be taken seriously. And when I say serious, I mean deadly serious!

As research I used the old (un)reliable internet , but also read a lot of fiction set in this time. Novels like Shogun by James Clavell were brilliant for giving me tiny details which brought feudal Japan to life. I also loved Blue Fingers: A Ninja's Tale by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel as well as Lian Hearn's Otori trilogy. I also watched a lot of movies and documentaries - anything I could find.

As I said earlier, I think I spent too much time researching stuff which never was used in the books but I guess it did help me write with a certain confidence.

Your main characters, Cormac, Kate and Ghost, are from three different countries: Ireland, the USA, and Brazil, respectively. What made you chose these particular home countries? 

I wanted my three kids to be of differing sexes and nationalities, because The Black Lotus is a gender blind, international organisation. The reason why I chose the USA and Brazil as destinations is because I've visited these places. I chose to have Cormac from Ireland because at least that would be one part of the story I wouldn't have to research!

Thanks to the same comic books being made into movies (over and over again) everyone in the world knows origin stories are a critical part of a superhero: Peter Parker's spider bite, Bruce Banner's gamma research, Bruce Wayne's tragic family history. Will we learn the origin stories for your characters in book 1 or will you make us wait until book 2?

The origin stories are hinted at in book one but you'll have to wait for the sequels to find out the rest. 

If you could be one of your characters, who would you chose?

Not sure if I'd choose any of my protagonists because they've had tough lives prior to joining The Black Lotus. And things don't get much easier for them after they join. So I think I'd like to be Lord Goda, just for a day. I wouldn't want to rule the world but I would like to sample his power - My villain has always been a fascinating character to me, and I actually wrote loads of chapters about him alone - chapters that didn't make it into the book. Perhaps when my Middle Grade readers grow up I'll write an adult book about Lord Goda.

The Sword of Sarumara, the most powerful samurai sword ever crafted, has just fallen into your hands. You can now go to any place and to any time. Where would you go?

What a great question! I love history but the more I read about it the less I'd like to go back in time. I think I'd miss my comforts too much. We've never had things as good as we have today. Bearing all this in mind, I'd like to travel into the future. When I was a kid I could never have imagined smartphones and the internet. So I'd like to go forward 50 or 100 years to see what cool things we've invented. And I'd like to see if we've improved as a species. How do we treat the poor, the sick and the marginalised in the future? How does the planet look in the future? Have today's endangered species become extinct or survived? Are there any rainforests left? What do people do for entertainment? How is space exploration going? Have we discovered aliens? Or have they discovered us?

Have you had any ninja training?

Yes. But if I told you how much, I'd have to kill you.

Thank you, Kieran!

Kathryn is the author of Sirin and the Wardogs of Shanidar