The Dead Fathers Club: FAQ
Here are some of the questions journalists asked me about The Dead Fathers Club:
Q. What prompted you to write novels? What have been the defining moments in your career so far?
A. Nothing beats that first phone-call when you find out your book is going to be published. But generally the best moments are those when everything just clicks and the idea for a novel is suddenly complete in your head. It feels like reaching the top of a very steep hill and finally being able to take your backpack off. As to the prompt, well I’d always had ideas for stories but had never sat down to do it. It was a few years ago when my long-term girlfriend’s mum was diagnosed with cancer and we took quite a bit of time off to be with her. It was at that point, I decided to put something down on paper.
Q. Who are your biggest literary and non-literary influences?
A. Anxiety is my main influence. I think, really, anxiety is the key mood at the beginning of the twenty-first century, so being a naturally anxious person helps capture that kind of feeling. Shakespeare is my most obvious literary influence, I suppose.
Q.Do the ideas for your stories come first – and the link to Shakespeare later – or do you have a conscious project to recast Shakespeare for the modern age?
A. With The Last Family in England the initial idea was to tell a story of a family. The dog stuff, and the Shakespeare stuff, came later. With The Dead Fathers Club it happened very naturally. It was a father-son story that migrated slowly towards Hamlet. I believe all writing is based on other writing, and if you’re conscious of where it’s coming from you should acknowledge your sources. Once I was being honest about it, it gave me a free reign to mine all the big and limitless themes that are in the plays.
Q. In The Dead Fathers Club you write from an adolescent’s perspective. Why does this age group hold such a fascination for authors?
A. I suppose it’s the age between innocence and experience, and as most fiction deals with character transformation to some extent you’re on fertile ground from the start. I think it also helps with observational stuff, to put yourself inside a younger mind, because the world instantly looks a bit newer.
Q. On the page, Philip’s narrative is a hyperactive, unpunctuated stream of consciousness; disorientating at first, but inevitably drawing the reader into Philip’s nightmarish world. Was this the intention all along, and were there any editorial upsets over this?
A. No. It wasn’t my original intention. I experimented with various different ways of expressing Philip’s state of mind but this one somehow worked best. And thankfully, my editor didn’t have a problem with it.
Q. Unlike poor old Hamlet, Philip lives in an age when mental stability comes in little bottles. But the drugs really don’t work, do they?
A. In 1999, when I was living in Spain, I was prescribed diazepam for anxiety, but I didn’t get better until I stopped taking them.
Q. What sort of research into child psychology did you do in preparation for writing this novel? Have you ever experienced any form of mental illness?
A. I used to suffer from panic attacks, but gradually realised the worst thing that could happen was that I could make a fool out of myself.
Q. One thing I particularly liked about Dead Fathers Club is that you don’t rely on lots of topical references to TV or toys in order to make Philip sound realistic as an 11 year-old; this is done completely through his ‘voice’ alone. How did you establish this authenticity, through research or personal experience?
A. Not through research, so I guess it was personal experience. I grew up in Newark-on-Trent, and went to a school like Philip’s, so it was relatively easy to conjure that world. And as I was a rather anxious eleven-year-old I drew a lot from my own feelings from that time.
Q. The Dead Fathers Club made me think of the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who argued that when people seem to be ‘mad,’ they’re just articulating underlying worries and anxieties that they are prevented, by circumstance or convention, from articulating normally. Would you agree that Philip’s madness (like Hamlet’s) is a kind of coping mechanism?
A. I think it is. He clearly can’t come to terms with the sudden absence of his father so he ends up over-compensating through the creation of a world that only he can see. Grief’s a bit like that, isn’t it? It’s like the ‘phantom limb’ amputees feel. Your mind takes a while to get used to a devastating new reality.
Q. There are no exact correspondences to Hamlet in The Dead Fathers Club. Philip has lost his father, and his uncle Alan has usurped his mother’s affections and the proprietorship of the ‘Castle’. However, without giving away the end of the novel, is it safe to say that Philip breaks free of Shakespeare’s narrative, and if so, why is this significant for you?
A. Influence can’t be a straight-jacket, and I never feel obliged to stick rigidly to any plot structure. I didn’t want there to be a straightforward happy ending, but I wanted there to be some kind of hope.
Q. Your books deal with big, difficult issues in a way that appeals to both adults and teenagers. In regard the latter, do you feel that the reason a lot of young people don’t take to reading is because they feel that traditional teen-lit is a bit patronising? Is this something you have consciously addressed?
A. I wouldn’t say I was consciously trying to write a certain way, but yes, I do feel that a lot of writers underestimate teenage readers. Teenagers are among the best kind of readers, because they have the intelligence to understand big ideas, combined with that open-mindedness you tend to shed with age.
Q. There’s talk about a film! How involved would you like to be in this project?
A. I’m not too precious. As someone who plays fast and loose with the Shakespearian canon, it would be a bit hypocritical of me if I stopped other people interpreting my own work in a different way to how I envisaged. And David Heyman, the film producer who has optioned The Dead Fathers Club, has a lot of great ideas of how he sees the film, so I’m happy to leave it in his capable hands.
Q. What’s your next project?
A. I’ve got a children’s book, Shadow Forest, due out next year. It’s a fantasy book but in the Dahl rather than the Tolkien sense. I’m also working on another adult novel.