Donald Hounam is the custodian of fifteen-year-old Frank Sampson, a forensic wizard in Gifted, a young adult novel of magical mayhem and dark deeds. In it crime solving and sorcery go hand in hand to create some rather strange and inventive methods that make the high tech approach of CSI look pedestrian and so last year.
Tell me about yourself.
I went to St Andrews University to do History, with the intention of switching to English. But the English department at St Andrews at that time was not very good – it regarded Jane Austen as a dangerous modernist so I switched to Medieval History.
I did my PhD in London on Medieval Apocalyptic and the First Crusade. I went to the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then moved to Dublin to teach at an art school. I came back to England with the intention of pursuing an art career, but that didn’t work out.
So a friend from Dublin convinced me to try my hand at script writing and we wrote a couple of screenplays, but didn’t really get anywhere. This didn’t put me off and I carried on writing screenplays and got an adaptation of the Victorian sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret shown in 2000 on ITV. I also did an adaptation of a Mary Higgins Clark novel for American cable. As happens with these things I got the credit, although only one line of my script made it to the screen.
Most of the time I’ve made a living by working for newspapers. I got taken on by the graphics department of The Independent. From there I moved to the Financial Times and I’ve been working for The Economist upwards of 20 years on and off.
You had a period where you found writing very difficult, how did you turn this around?
After Lady Audley’s Secret and the Mary Higgins Clark screenplay Pretend You Can’t See Him (or as I and my scriptwriting friend Chris Bidmead refer to it, Pretend You Didn’t Write It) my writing career didn’t go well for a while. My literary agency imploded and dropped a lot of people out of the bottom, including me.
I lost the will to write for a few years and then gradually picked it up again writing a couple of screenplays that I never really did anything with. Then I started writing novels.
How did you come to write a young adult novel?
It wasn’t a deliberate move. I had an idea about a forensic sorcerer. I’d come across the idea in a couple of places, but didn’t think the writers had followed it through properly. The first draft of Gifted was called Spellbinder and was told from the point of view of a policewoman in her thirties. In that draft she’s the first character we meet as she walks into what is now the first scene of Gifted. She gets taken into a monastery, down a corridor and through a door, where she sees a guy in his fifties, but with a Peter Pan complex.
I played around with this concept until I realised it was silly having a character who’s a middle-aged man acting like a fifteen-year-old. That’s when I decided to go the whole hog and have a fifteen-year-old.
Once I’d made the decision to make my protagonist a teenager, market forces drove it towards the young adult market.
How did writing Young Adult change the dynamics of the story?
Not much. There are certain questions of register – you don’t want to write like Will Self, say. And you need to watch your language to a certain extent: there was a fairly high quotient of the ‘F’ word in early drafts.
After it was picked up by David Fickling – he was a subsidiary of Random House then – I asked about bad language and everyone said it wasn’t an issue if it worked in context. But in the end I dropped most of it because I really didn’t see the need for it.
So yes, you do have to place certain limitations on your vocabulary, in terms of the number of syllables. And to some degree you have to create a fairly straightforward syntax – like, don’t pile up the Proustian commas. There is also the absence of explicit sexual content, although again I think, compared to some other YA writing, Gifted is quite restrained.
But you still had to get your head into a teenager’s mind-set.
I think I did that through the language.
What actually happened was I realised that Frank was fifteen and that he, rather than the policewoman, was the central character. So it was his point of view. I had a first chapter that was third person past tense, but I wasn’t very happy with that. So I did an alternate version, first person present tense… and the voice was there.
I sent both versions off to Bidmead – he was a Dr Who script editor back in the Tom Baker days, so he was my touchstone in the proceedings – and he came back to me saying that it had to be the first person, present tense. It just worked better and in the end that was because Frank was in the voice. After that writing the book became entirely instinctive.
It’s still a tricky balance though, because I couldn’t write the whole book in Frank’s voice as I heard it in my head – and even saying that I hear it in my head is distancing it too much. But there are certain points where things have to be explained – there has to be exposition – and actually you can’t say it absolutely with the register. It’s a shifting register that I use and sometimes the language steps back from Frank a bit.
The prose is certainly very intense, because there is a great deal of very dense text and ideas, which makes for a challenging read at times, even for an adult.
There are several things going on. I agree that it is very dense at the beginning. While I was at the early draft stage I had this idea that this was Frank’s world and he shouldn’t have to explain any of it. Ideally I would never unpick any of the concepts. But in practice you can’t do that.
I didn’t want to do that thing where you read YA fantasy novels in particular and the first twenty pages consist of the writer telling you about the world the characters inhabit. I suppose this is because I’ve done screenwriting where you start right in media res. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark – you don’t know or care why Indy is up the Amazon, you’re just dropped out of the sky into the situation he’s involved in. So that influences the way I write and I tend to think very much in scenes.
I also think in dialogue rather than exposition. If I’m trying to figure my way out of a problem, it’s what the characters say that sorts it out. I used to be a big fan of Henry Green, whose books are basically driven by dialogue, and to some degree Elizabeth Taylor of whom I’m a huge fan.
I think people reveal themselves in dialogue. And again another thing I try to do that’s different from standard YA is that I use dialogue to provide subtext, so that there’s more than one layer to the writing. I want to have some depth behind what people are saying. And choice of word is important. There isn’t a simple level of signification within what someone says.
What is interesting about your characters is that your wizards lose their powers as they get older and the detectives lose their eyesight. Why did you decide to do that?
The decision to make Frank’s powers temporary was one of those things where you’re writing something… and it’s just there. I tend to try and go with that if it happens, on the assumption that it comes from where those things are supposed to come from.
The presbyopia, the blur thing with the eyesight, was even more weird in its origin. In a way it came around because I had to justify Marvo’s role in the proceedings because she’s also a teenager. Otherwise there’s a teenage girl in the story for no apparent reason. I didn’t want her to have a complete set of superpowers – it isn’t Batman meets the Silver Surfer. But there had to be something that made her necessary.
Matthew, Frank’s Master, hasn’t lost his powers to the extent you would think for his age group.
It’s very vestigial. And I’m not really sure how far I’m going with that. Again it was one of those things where I was writing away and it just sort of happened…
I would like to talk about the forensic side of things because it appears to be highly technical and feasible within the setting of the story.
The forensics arose out of the crime.
When I started the book I tried to do some world building and I couldn’t do it, even though I spent about six months on it. Again I referred back to Bidmead and he said, ‘You need to approach this from the inside out. It’s like film noir in Hollywood in the late 1940s to mid-1950s: the reason it all looks so dark is that the Poverty Row studios couldn’t afford a complete set, so they built as much as they could afford and only lit those bits, leaving the rest in darkness. So don’t worry about building your world from the outside in, just build what you need from the inside out.’
I started just with Frank and the policewoman. I took them out on a case. It seemed reasonable that it should involve a cleric, because if you’ve got something where you’re using ceremonial magic it has to be in a religious context and it has to be a neo-Catholic context. So that’s why the victim is a Bishop. I cut his head off, just for the fun of it. Although I suppose it’s as good a way of kicking things off as any.
Then I started reading up on forensics. How do you deal with a headless body? In order to make magic work with forensics you have to do away with things like fingerprints and so on. It all came from the writing – things like the Bishop’s head turning up where it did, just came out of nowhere.
Around that point was where I really began to try and find out more about forensics. I read up quite a lot of stuff like rigor mortis and livor mortis, time of death and so on. You decide that these procedures or their equivalent have to occur and then ideas like the pig’s heads used in the autopsy come out the end of the pen. That’s the only way I can put it. I suppose part of the trick is just to have some fun with your writing. You go with the thing that bounces off the page.
Normally the police would do the on-the-ground investigating. How do your police work?
It’s a little shady. I think it’s happening behind a screen. They would be carrying out standard investigations that I would simply not look at. In the second book there’s a little bit more sign of them at work on something. Marvo is partly there to keep Frank under control which is the function of the character.
You must have had some interesting conversations with the editor, because there is so much going on in the book.
I got very lucky with my editors. I think it’s one of the things that justify traditional publishing. I got two edits from Stephanie Thwaites, my agent, then I got two at David Fickling, followed by another one or two at Random House.
You start with the broad structural edit and chop inwards. But there was nothing drastic. The main thing was the note from Stephanie that Marvo had to be a teenager. The advice greatly improved the story.
The thing about editor’s notes is that you don’t necessarily deal directly with the issues they raise. What I found particularly helpful and I really enjoyed was that I would get notes and they would say ‘This isn’t working’ and I’d find a solution… but that solution takes place in a different place in the narrative and also solves yet another problem. There’s that feeling that if you’ve got a solution that solves more problems than the editor has outlined, then you have a good outcome for the writing.
In the end the only person who’s right inside the story is yourself and people are seeing an issue, but it’s not necessarily the issue. So it’s like two things connect across the narrative. Quite literally, several scenes would get mashed together or moved. Characters would combine. Whatever it takes. But the thing I noticed with the edits was the story always emerged stronger. I may not have liked some of the notes that were sent me, but I never had any notes where I said, ‘That’s not right’. People always seemed to be pointing to what seemed like a genuine problem, and my writing just got better as a result.
How much did your doctoral work come into the book, as there are some elements that could be said to be related to it?
I suppose there was an element of it, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the detail. One of my starting points is a novel by James Blish called Black Easter. It’s about a black magician who gets hired to unleash all the demons in Hell for one night to see what happens. Some mad businessman pays him to do this. Blish went back to the grimoires and reproduced the magic rituals in quite minute detail.
In the end Black Easter turns into a kind of Roald Dahl Tales of the Unexpected, and gets far too bogged down in the detail. I went to the grimoires, too, but then chopped and chopped to try and pull out as much of the tiresome detail as possible and keep the essentials in order to keep it moving, make it picturesque.
Where do you see yourself going with your writing?
I feel comfortable with Frank. I have other things on the blocks. I have a story for young children, but it’s not really a story for young children…
I have a tendency to write slightly outside the boundaries of genre. Like the Russell Hoban book The Mouse and His Child. It’s about two clockwork mice who are joined together. I think someone once described it as a post-Dachau Wind in the Willows. The first few chapters are very upsetting. So it is a children’s book because it’s about a clockwork mouse, but it’s clearly not a children’s book. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books are another example of something that’s not really a children’s book, but now it’s a children’s classic and you’ll find it on the shelves alongside Treasure Island and Charlotte’s Web. I guess I find the way bookshops put books into specific categories difficult. When I first began working on Gifted I went into my local bookshop in Chiswick and I was astonished how narrowly banded children’s books are, particularly in terms of age group.
I have a couple of adult books up my sleeve, but one of my problems is time, particularly as I still have a day job…