As the last stop for the Book Blog tour for The God of All Small Boys (review posted below) I have the immense privilege of being able to publish an interview with Joseph Lamb, the author.
I have interviewed authors before in a previous career as a journalist, and with some of them it’s like wringing blood from a stone. Not Joe. He was gracious, funny and provided more than I could have hoped for. So please find below what I think was a great interview – entirely due to him! And if you enjoy it, or the review has whetted your appetite, then you can get a copy of The God of All Small Boys at local bookshops or at Cranachan Publishing’s own website here.
I’d always felt that it could stand being expanded into a full length novel, but, thanks to one thing and another, it wasn’t written until 2014 for the Dundee Great War Children’s Book Prize – for which it became one of only three shortlisted.For the extended novel, I suppose my inspiration was simply my own family. Many of my immediate family make an appearance in the book, and the characters of James Gunning and Christina ‘Teeny’ Robbins are named after my maternal Grandparents – who would have been around the same age in 1917.At the risk of sounding cheesy – it’s a bit of a love letter to my family.
As a professional actor (which I was for around 30 years) I wrote a lot of Historical Dramas which played all around the country. What I very quickly discovered was that, if you get something wrong – someone will notice. So, whenever I write anything at all, (even non-historical) there is usual some sort of research required.For The God of All Small Boys, being set just over 100 years ago, there was an awful lot of research to be done. Within Lochee (a part of Dundee where the bulk of the book is set) I spoke with The Headmistress and ex Headmaster of St Mary’s school, I also spoke with the resident priest in St Mary’s Church, as well as the Manager of the Lochee swimming baths. Some of the incidents in the book (False-Line payday!) are taken directly from somethings which happened to my grandmother! I had to research the make-up of the Camperdown Mill (of which the Chimney remains, and some of the buildings (now flats)), the cost of stamps, where trams ran to, the placements of rail and tram depots that don’t exist anymore, when gas lamps went out of fashion, what kind of cars existed in 1917 (and how much they cost)…
Here’s a thing…
At one point in the book, it is mentioned that a soldier called William Hill was killed on June 12th. This was included as, when looking at the casualties in Dundee for WWI, I found the grave of that very soldier. It struck at me, because June 12th is my birthday. I felt it fitting to commemorate him in the story.
But, one thing that I would urge anyone looking to write historical literature – don’t put all of your faith in one source. Literally, right up to the very last fine-tooth edit, I had a particular type of match box mentioned (and really nicely illustrated by my daughter , Charlotte). But, (and I don’t know why I did this), I decided to check this matchbox again, and found more sources stating it was not in use until 1930… so I had to change the type of box and Charlotte, thankfully, was able to illustrate the new one – unfortunately, we both think that type of box is not nearly as interesting to look at than the one I first had.
In the book, James and his friends have to face a great deal of tragedy, loss and trauma, how important is it to include these themes in children’s fiction?
I felt that, in a book about WWI, it would be remiss of me not to include the harsh realities of war, as seen from the children’s point of view. (And the difference in reaction from those who did not have a parent off fighting in it.) I also think that it is something of a dis-service to avoid such topics as, sadly, these things still happen. Even in some of the classics these themes are found: Gandalf falling to the Balrog, Aslan sacrificed by Jadis, Fred Weasley, Severus Snape, A great many rabbits in Watership Down. Charlotte, scuttling into the shadows across her web…
Realistic fiction should never be afraid to touch on these subjects, as children will always know when they are being ‘spoken down’ to.
James and his friends live a childhood that very few children will be able to recognise these days, with freedom and independence, but they pay a steep price. Do you think children you don’t experience this kind of childhood are missing out or are they better off now?
I honestly feel that there is something missing from childhood these days. And the perceived lack of independence, unfortunately, has not shown any sign of ending such tragedies. There is an argument to be made, I suppose, that social media is (ironically) responsible for this, and that children don’t need a physical hang out to call their own to be with their friends, as they can have exactly that in a gaming chat room, or whats app group, or any number of others. But, to me, nothing has ever bettered lying on a patch of wild grass, in the blazing sun, and reading a pile of comics with my pals. Yes, we did a number of stupid things, but they were experiences to treasure. I worry that children are losing those opportunities.
If you could predict where the children end up after the book finishes, where do you see them?
The sad truth is that they would probably both eventually have been conscripted into the army during the 2nd World War, as they would only be in their early 30’s. Ever since I wrote the first draft of The God of All Small Boys, a kind of sequel has been buzzing around my head, but I always see it as being set a good 10 years on (around 1927), but I haven’t developed anything on it. What I will say is, James does go to WWII, becomes an officer, takes a bullet in the nose (sideways on) and marries Teeny. Billy becomes a policeman – and might not actually have to go to WW2 because of that.
I suppose, if TGoASB does well enough to warrant it, (and Cranachan are interested) I could always flip the scenario and have Billy coming to live with James for a while! J I feel that one would be more of a romp, however!
What drew you to Cranachan Books as a publishing house and how have you found the experience of working with a smaller publisher?
Since The God of All Small Boys was shortlisted I took a leap of faith and decided that maybe I could find someone interested in publishing it. What I was determined was, if possible, that the publisher should be based in Scotland. (I’m a very proud Scot!) I actually became aware of Cranachan through a tiny article about independent Scottish publishers. I went to their website to find it ‘under construction’ and so kept an eye on it every day until it was open for business. I wrote to them immediately and the rest, as they say, is history!
Here’s the thing about Cranachan. There’s a little hashtag that you might see every now and again of #ClanCranachan. Now, for most other, big-name publishers, that might be a frivolous little phrase, but, with Cranachan, it’s a truism. The amount of support from the authors, given to the other authors, is staggering. On a personal level, it wasn’t until I worked with Anne Glennie that I realised some dreadful habits I had developed in my own writing and I can’t thank her enough for her belief and trust in both my story and my development to bring TGoASB to life.
As anyone who is looking to be published should know, you don’t go into this game for fame and fortune. And I doubt that a ‘larger’ company would have given the time Anne did. It has coloured my way of writing, and (being ridiculously loyal!) I would rather see my work put out by Cranachan than anyone else… I just hope I can repeat the process with some of the other manuscripts I am developing. (Obviously, without quite so much direct input being required!)
Are you able to tell me anything about what your next writing project will be, or what you would like it to be?
Well, as The God of All Small Boys was written in 2014, I’ve had a lot of time to develop and draft out a few ideas. I have around five or six full manuscripts – two of which I am going through again using what I learned during my time editing TGoASB with Anne. Another which is slightly more YA in theme (Vikings!) and a Sci-Fi/Spy comic trilogy which isn’t really in any way historical, but I’m hoping Cranachan will maybe look to be publishing some lighter titles in the future! I am also putting some ideas together for… something I can’t really talk about!
Where was your favourite den as a child?
Exactly where it was in The God of All Small Boys!
Who are your writing influences?
Without doubt, Ray Bradbury. But unless you are Ray Bradbury, I don’t think many companies would publish anything written in his style these days. (Which I see as a sad indictment.) He had a fluidity of prose which could read like poetry at times. (I strongly recommend The Halloween Tree to anyone. I literally read this every year at Halloween.) Others who I think may have influenced my style would be Isaac Asimov, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis and, to a certain extent, Stephen King. (And a touch of Ed McBain). Read them ALL!
What is your writing process like?
Because, like most writers, I also have a job, it can be a very slow process. I also have two young boys in the household (Murray and Finlay) who are always needing taxied to football or swimming etc, etc – so my time to write is quite limited. But insofar as the process itself is concerned I usually have some sort of vision of what the ‘end’ looks like. Then I wonder how it might all have started, and then I fill in the space in between! I can knock out a 1st draft quite quickly. (And if I have one piece of advice to give to any aspiring writer it is this… Just WRITE!) I don’t worry about mistakes or word count until I have the full story out, because it is too easy to bog yourself down worrying about craft and losing focus on the story.
Get the story down first, and then fix it. (Because you can’t fix a story you haven’t written!)
What was the first thing you remember writing? Were you pleased with it?
I always wrote daft little stories when I was young, but when I was around 14 (1977) heavily influenced by Star Wars, I wrote a small novella called “Rebellion” – populated by some of my friends, including dear ol’ John McLintock who appears in everything I’ve ever written.. and (spoilers!) dies in most of them! It was set in my own school and was very sci-fi. I remember the story, but unfortunately the book which I created has gone missing through the years. What’s worse was… I re-wrote it… and that went missing too!
Did I like it? Yes… I do have a very soft spot for it. Maybe I should revisit it again?
If you were to recommend one book to someone, what would it be?
The God of All Small Boys by Joseph Lamb (ahem…)
It has to be Alice in Wonderland, closely followed by the Narnia Chronicles, closely followed by The Halloween Tree.
These books have been with me all my life, and I’m not a bit sorry for that.
(BUT, if you can find copies of the ‘Nigel Molesworth’ books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, get them!)
(I know, I know, that’s more than one… but that’s a total Sophie’s Choice question!!)