Thursday, 6 November 2014

Author Interview: Jon Walter (Close to the Wind)

Close to the Wind was such a surprise for me this year; I wasn't sure if I'd like it but I ended up loving it. It's such a lovely story with beautiful writing, and is one of the best debut novels I've read recently. I've been recommending it to everyone since I finished it!

Big thanks to Jon for answering my questions, and I hope this might make you want to pick up a copy of the book. It's David Fickling Books at their best!


Wondrous Reads: Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication? 

Jon Walter: I have been writing for about four years and for two of those I studied on a creative writing course in Brighton where I completed my first novel. My agent, Sally Anne Sweeney, liked the book and signed me up but the novel never found a publisher despite an exhausting year of near misses and maybe’s.

When Sally Anne started the submission process for Close to the Wind I wasn’t sure it would get placed because it’s very different to a lot of books out there and it doesn’t sit neatly into a single age group.

In fact, it sold quite quickly and I couldn’t believe my luck when it was chosen alongside Tim Hall’s fabulous Shadow of the Wolf to launch the newly independent DFB.

WR: Why did you make the decision to keep Close to the Wind's location a bit of a mystery? Was it intentional? 

JW: It’s been really interesting to see how people have reacted to that aspect of the book. To me there’s no mystery. A story can work just as well without having a specified place and time and I always felt that trying to impose these would reduce the scope of the story and overcomplicate it. I suppose it uses similar devices to a fairytale. What I like about it is that the reader uses their own imagination and experience to fill in the gaps.

So yes, it was intentional, but it wasn’t something I found easy to achieve. In the first draft I tried to draw attention to it and that confused a lot of people but my publishers were very good at suggesting how I might be able to make it work. To give an example, I originally gave the characters names from very different cultures to one another because I wanted to show that they could be from anywhere. I can’t remember why I thought that might be a good idea and I ended up changing all of them for the final draft, using names that were common across cultures – well, all except Malik. He’s always stayed the same.

WR: Malik and Papa have such a close relationship throughout the book. Did you base that on your own experiences with your grandfather? 

JW: Not intentionally, no, but I think it’s almost impossible to write characters without putting something of yourselves into them.

I only ever knew one of my grandfathers and he was a Baptist minister who’d begun life in a small Welsh mining village. He certainly had a glint in his eye, a bit like Papa. But perhaps there are also elements of my father in there and of my own relationships with my sons.

And of course your characters have this fantastic way of inventing themselves and doing things which completely surprise you. They really need to be their own people if they’re going to convince.

WR: The tooth scene made even me cringe (I'm terrified of dentists). Did you have any trouble writing it? 

JW: Absolutely not. I had a great time writing it!

But I don’t like dentists either.

Just before it was published I went to the dentist with toothache and he told me it was my wisdom tooth and he would take it out there and then. I panicked a bit but I can’t tell you how easy it was. No pain. No tugging away with a foot planted on my chest. I came away feeling guilty that I might have exaggerated just a little in the book, so I’d like to say now that if any readers haven’t had a tooth out yet, don’t worry, it won’t be like it is in the book… unless you let your Dad have a go with his pliers… don’t do that!

WR: I'm a big fan of book cover art and I'd love to know what you think of yours. Did you get to follow its design? 

JW: I absolutely love mine. It’s by David Dean and I already liked his work with Candy Gourlay and Siobhan Dowd so I was very excited to see what he’d come up with.

I used to be a photo journalist and this is the scene I would have chosen for the cover myself. I was involved right from the start and it did go through a few changes before it was just right.

And I like the back of the book even more than the cover! The queue of anxious people snaking up the side of the book is so detailed - I keep going back to it and studying the faces.

WR: What are you working on next?

JW: The next book is pretty much finished and is with my editor at the moment. It will probably be called My Name’s Not Friday and it’s set in America during the Civil War. I think that’s all I want to say about it for now but I’m very excited about it being published.


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