Friday, 21 September 2012

Friday Feature: Interview With Simon Packham

Simon Packham has written one of my favourite YA contemporary books so far this year, the stunning Silenced, a powerful study of one boy's grief after the death of his best friend. I jumped at the chance to interview him a few months ago for The Bookbag and have finally got round to running it here as well.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

I started out trying to write something that I hoped would engage my then eleven year old son and wasn't about teenage spies or wizards. Now I imagine a group of Year 8s who've been dragged to a book reading by a writer they've never heard of. Only last week I was reading bits of Silenced at a school in Bournemouth and found myself making on the spot cuts if they looked a bored.

2. I loved the use of the second person narrative as Chris talked directly to Declan in Silenced - it's so rare to see it used in teen fiction. Did you always know that you wanted to write it like that?

I always imagined it that way. It allowed me to make Declan a major character even though he was dead, as well as getting over the fact that for 90 percent of the book, Chris can't speak.

Agree that Declan is a really strong character despite his being dead.

3. One of my favourite characters was Ariel, described in the blurb on your website as an 'eco-freak'. Could you cope with living self-sufficiently in the way that she does?

I'd like to think so. I was never much of a method actor, but I'm a bit more like that as a writer. I like to have a go at most of the things my characters get up to – if only the lite version. For Silenced I tried double-digging, playing Call of Duty (yes I'm rubbish) and – most difficult of all – meditation. I did once manage to go a full year without buying any new consumer items - apart from underwear, which my wife insisted on. The book I'm writing at the moment, Firewallers, involves the lead character joining a conservationist group/cult on a remote Scottish island. Consequently I've been trying to avoid reading the papers or watching the news – with only partial success!

The new book sounds intriguing! 

4. Prior to your writing career, you were an actor. What was your favourite ever role?

I once played Dvornicheck the ship's steward in Rough Crossing at the Dukes Lancaster. The gag is that when the ship is becalmed he staggers round precariously, but, unlike everyone else, his balance becomes impeccable when they hit the storm. Snout in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was fun too.

Sounds like a fun role to play! Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. 

5.  Keeping on the subject of acting, would you like to see any of your books adapted for screen? Any ideas on who could play the characters if they were?

Silenced might be a bit problematical with a lead character who doesn't speak, but I could really see it working as a one man show at the Edinburgh Festival (doubling with Waiting for Godot perhaps so they could use the same set - a tree.). I'd love to see comin 2 gt u or The Bex Factor on screen though – perhaps with Martin Clunes as Mr Catchpole. I've always thought my adult novel, The Opposite Bastard (a black comedy about a failed actor who is forced to take a job caring for a quadriplegic undergraduate at Oxford who then gets cast as Hamlet) would make a good film too.

I could definitely see Silenced working very well as a one man show, and Comin 2 gt u could be a great screen adaptation! Looking forward to reading The Bex Factor, which I've just got out of the library, and The Opposite Bastard sounds very cool - will be keeping an eye out for that!

6. Silenced is hugely powerful, partly because you seem to capture the mindset of a school plunged into grief by the death of a pupil so well - especially in the way some students can appear callous in getting over it so quickly. Did you do a lot of research about grief in schools?

When a boy died at my school in the 1970s it only merited a short announcement in assembly. The phenomena of internet grieving (Facebook tribute pages and the like) fascinated me, and I spent a couple of days reading some of the many pages devoted to the victims of teenage car crashes by their peers. What struck me most was how eerily similar they were. It seemed unlikely that that level of emotion could ever be sustained for very long – particularly by those who weren't close to the victim. I hope I got it right.

7. In a previous interview with your publishers Piccadilly Press, you mentioned you once had a job playing the violin for a ballet dancing duck in a supermarket in Leicester. My mind is boggling here - can you share some of the details?

My friend James Aidan had just finished a run in No Sex Please We're British. He was dressed as a duck. I was the violin playing gypsy. We were paid a hundred quid to entertain the Christmas queues. I seem to remember improvising a ballet called Duke Lake. The duck should really have got more than the gypsy in that boiling costume.

That's the kind of thing I REALLY wish was on Youtube!

8. What are you reading at the moment?

The Shining by Steven King. Not particularly typical, but I had an idea for something a bit frightening and thought I should learn from the master.

9. What book would you recommend to people who've read Silenced, Comin 2 gt u and The Bex Factor while they're eagerly awaiting your next novel?

I really enjoyed Bright Girls by Clare Chambers, especially the Brighton setting. (So did my 13 year old daughter) New Boy by William Sutcliffe isn't really YA, but it's set in a school and really funny. But the novel that gripped me most in the last few years is Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which coincidentally is also set in (posh private) school.

I keep meaning to try Harris but have never got round to her - that sounds like a good one for me to start with. I've heard lots of good things about New Boy, as well.

10.  What's next for Simon Packham?

I've nearly finished the first draft of 'Firewallers', which, like the other three books, is set in part at St Thomas's Community College and should be out in May 2013. I'd really like to write some more novels with the same setting, especially while my children are still at school and I have a reasonable idea of what modern comprehensives are like. I'd also like to do something funny for slightly younger readers, as well as revisiting my 1970s Grammar school at some point (that horror story I was talking about!) and I've promised myself that I'll have a go at a play too.

Wow, lots to look forward to! Thanks for taking the time to speak to me, Simon.

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