Andrew Kells, the Epic and the Importance of Writing it Down.
I first encountered Andrew Kells’ writing at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, young adult and children’s fiction writing group (affectionately known as the YACs). My first reaction was to groan inwardly. A story about steam trains was really not my idea of fun. As I began to read, this view rapidly changed. When the group next met, we were pleading for more. These were no ordinary steam engines. The chief protagonist was no wimp, but someone who proved exceptionally resourceful in the dire circumstances into which he and his family had been cast, through one act of treachery. Now read on.
What genre are you writing in?
I would say it sits somewhere between steampunk and alternate history, in the fact that a little bit of the past is altered to make a different world. Steampunk in itself, talks about a lot of exploration of the technology of the past and then explores the social and cultural ramifications attached to that. In the same way, science fiction is a great way of talking about where we are now; giving us the distance of being in a far future or planet they might be on.
In terms of my story, it’s more about bringing in the culture of the twenty-first century and putting it into the late nineteenth century, then seeing what happens with it. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw some parallels and see how their world and our world in some ways is pretty similar and marvellously different in others.
With things being slightly different in this world, to what degree do you feel you had to provide an explanation for your audience?
I did a lot of research to pick up bits of language, locations and cultural references that would be as valid in the world that I created as they would be in the Victorian England of our past. So what should emerge is a Victorian England that has echoes of history that you’ve might have read about our reality of Victorian England.
In fantastical stories like The Parasol Protectorate, (which I love) vampires and werewolves are seamlessly inserted into Victorian England, and everyone behaves as if it’s normal. I’m approaching my story from a different direction. My world is not strictly Victorian England, but vaguely familiar and normal people do extraordinary things in that world. So it’s a slightly different slant. I like that notion of saying ‘what if?’ and pushing that world to see where it goes.
Your novel is actually based in Nottinghamshire isn’t it?
It’s spread initially over Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. My central character lives in Derby. Then disaster strikes when his father is killed in a steam train accident which everybody blames his father for. Nicholas actually sees the accident and knows it was sabotage. Because he thinks it’s a well-known hated rival who’s created this accident, Nicholas feels his purpose is to avenge his father’s death and clear his name.
So in amongst dealing with the poverty of having lost everything, his father is seen as being negligent. The family lose their house and are forced into destitution. Nicholas has to leave his private school and work to bring money in for the family as a miner. Even now, this is not one of the safest jobs in the world.
What is interesting about Nicholas, or [Cole] (as he becomes known), is that he sees opportunities and takes them. I wanted to write a character who, no matter what dire situation he is in, always looks at how he can move on and what he can do next. This was because I wanted people who read the story to take something away from it. He’s always adventurous, positive and go getting. This echoes books that I’ve read as a kid and I’ve re-read recently, like Call of the Wild, where you have characters who go forward and don’t look back. Troubles might beset them, but they just keep going forward and doing whatever they need to do to keep forging ahead.
I know that the story’s gone through quite a few changes. What was the whole process of these changes from start to finish?
I had a basic vision for the story, which was an almost complete start to finish idea of how the story went. At the same time I’m quite willing to accept that’s where I’m not ultimately going to finish up by the completed draft.
It gives me a beginning, middle and end within that and gives me the confidence to keep writing until I’ve finished. If I don’t do that I might spend my entire life writing a brilliant chapter one. So I wrote an initial draft of the story, then worked with the young adult and children’s writing group at the Nottingham Writer’s Studio, by presenting the work to them; very nervously. Fortunately they really enjoyed it. They gave me some brilliant feedback in terms of helping me to improve how I told the story (things such as the relationship Cole has with other characters).
This helped me focus my craft; when you write a story and you look on the page and even if you read it back, you can sometimes trick yourself into thinking it’s brilliant, when it needs a rewrite. This is why a writing group’s good. They haven’t invested the blood and sweat and tears you have into the piece, which gives them some distance from it. They only see the words on the page and may say, ‘This looks great but these words need some work’. After twenty minutes of thinking ‘What! I can’t believe you said that!’, you realise they are absolutely right. Then you look at it again and rewrite.
Since then I’ve worked with a couple of other people outside of that group to hone and sharpen the story again and develop it a little further, to the position it’s currently at. That’s the brilliance of writing groups. They encourage you to go further forward and to be better than you think you can be.
So how do you weave in information about the world you’re building without slowing down the story?
I’m very conscious that the kind of stories I like to tell have to move forwards and want to make people see more. At the same time you want to give people a little bit of the world, because they want to see what you see. But the more you write down, talking about the world and the characters, the more it slows getting to the next part of the story. So there’s a continual balancing act, giving more of the world you see and moving the story forward. It’s just the challenge we all face.
Some people make a conscious decision to say, ‘I will have less plot and more character, because I want to explore how these characters work with one another’. Some people go the other way, certainly in terms of a thriller, saying ‘I want lots of plot. That’s what drives me. That’s what my readers enjoy’. So you just have to find your own ground and work it through.
But the only way you can find that out is by writing it down. If you make a commitment to writing something on a piece of paper, whether it’s in a beautiful notebook or the back of a bus ticket, it is a commitment to say, ‘These words have value’. It could be as simple as a thought, a diary entry, a character saying something, an observation, anything.
I remember seeing the title of your first draft and thinking I was not going to enjoy reading it because I could see the story involved trains. I have no interest in trains whatsoever, but as I read on I realised what I was reading was the start of a cracking adventure story.
That’s interesting because I write to soundtracks as I’m creating a story. Most people think of the Victorian era as being very genteel, but it wasn’t. The 1880s in England is just like the 1980s and twenty-first century England. There are some bits that are very genteel and very high culture and there are other parts that are loud, raucous and expressive.
Because I was playing around with this and I wanted to add this notion of razzmatazz, adding elements from my childhood that were thrilling to me, I ended up listening to a lot of American rock music. The theory is that heavy metal came from the Black Country. The continual pounding of metal which hammers through all the music happens because of all the ironworks and the machinery. I quite like that notion that it’s a noisy, exciting world. That soundtrack will come through in my writing. It’ll be interesting to see how other people read it.
I have a couple of younger test readers reading it at the moment. They love it and seem to get the attitude of it really well.
I was originally a copywriter, writing advertising copy. So one of the things that I am good at is punctuating and writing short punchy sentences. Hopefully that makes the writing more exciting to read and people will want to go onto the next chapter before they put the book down.
Would you say this is a crossover novel?
Maybe. I’ll be happy for anyone to get something from my writing. I wrote towards a younger readership because I thought it was more interesting if Cole was young. I don’t actually say the age of Cole in the story, but you get the impression that he’s 11 to 13 years old, leaving childish things behind and entering the working world. At the start of the story he’s looking to become an apprentice and follow his father into the train industry.
In that respect I thought it was more likely to be of interest to somebody that age. If you read about someone who is about your age and has some of your issues, some of your dreams and aspirations then it connects with you. Older readers may look at it and think, ‘This is how I was then’. So they may connect with it because of an understanding of how they grew up. I like to think it’s because it’s a good story.
What previous writing experience have you had?
My previous novel was a science fiction novel, called Hidden Daughter. Hidden Daughter is interesting because it’s a difficult book to explain, which is why I intend to go back and have another good look at it. There’s a brilliant story in there, but currently it needs to be worked on. That’s part of writing. You can only reach so many people by physically putting a book in their hands and asking them to read it. If you want to use the mechanisms that really push your work out there then you need it to be able to connect with publishers and agents.
How do you manage to fit in your writing, because you have a very busy life?
Life is busy for everyone. I remember an interview with Roddy Doyle who said that he wrote in very short bursts. I think it was Paddy Clarke. Ha Ha where he said he had to sort stuff out with the family, then run off, sit down at the computer and type furiously for 20 minutes, then get up and do the stuff of life which is really important.
We all have to find a way to get our characters’ voices onto the page, because otherwise they just don’t exist. If it’s just a half idea stuck in the back of your mind, then that’s not enough. It’s got to be on the page so you can share it with people. That’s what I say to everyone, if I were to look back on my life as a scattergram of the words I use, ‘WRITE IT DOWN’ would come up in giant letters. If it’s written down then you can do something with it.
What are you doing for the Nottingham Festival of Words?
I’ve put together a workshop for young writers aged between 7 and 12 years old, but I’ll also be happy if parents of young writers join in as well. It’s called ‘Your Epic Starts Here’.
The thinking behind it is that to young people everything is an epic. Going to the shops is epic. You can create huge stories with lots of things going on, with big discoveries, big disasters and big triumphs. I think as we get older we forget about that, so I want to do something that helps people who either want to write, did write or had something inside them they want to get out; to give them a way of saying, ‘Yes. I can do this’.
So what I’ve got is a workshop, where we create some characters and settings. Then we’ll do a bit of mixing and messing around with them.
By the end of the workshop all the young writers will have a little booklet that is the very beginnings of their epic story and a small number of words they’ve written down that tells what they think will happen. Then we leave them to take it away and hopefully will see some bestsellers in another 20 years.
Part of the idea of the workshop is just to stimulate their desire to start writing because there are stories everywhere. It’s just a matter of finding them and writing them down. Writing them down is so important. I meet so many people who have brilliant ideas they talk about with great passion and great fervour. So I have to tell them to write down five words and keep them somewhere, so that in six months time in six years time, they go back to them and realise they were good idea and then think of some more which they also write down. That will stimulate you to create and build and realise your potential. So if all the epic is, is a bookmark that sits in a book you can still look back at it and think, ‘I’m older now and I’m going to do something different, because I want to talk about something else’, then that’s fine. It’s hopefully something that inspires people to carry forward the idea of sharing stories and telling stories.
Why have you chosen epics for a children’s workshop?
Kids love stories that go on, particularly if it seems the story is going to go on forever. I hear stories being told that never seem to end, because there is so much to add with each telling. Children’s games seem to run on forever. My memory of having adventures and playing games was that they kept going on and the very last moment when it looked as if the enemy had been vanquished, they would always seem to come back. So you’d be across the fields and into the woods and having more battles. There’s something innate in us, wanting to be a part of something that has a huge nature to it. I think that’s why epic verse existed in the past. These stories could have been told in half an hour, but they weren’t and I don’t think it was from a lack of stories existing. I think people grew to love the characters in those stories and wanted to be with them as long as they could. The skill is, of course, in the characters not overstaying their welcome. That’s the risk you run into any type of storytelling.
Your Epic Starts Here is on Saturday 16th February, 12.15pm – 1.15pm at the Newton Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University