With a stack of hugely popular books to his credit and the first Hollywood adaptation of his Wardstone Chronicles due out in the new year, Joseph Delaney is an author whose writing conjours up spectral Halloween imagery and a sense of ancient Lancashire. Sean interviewed him for our October/November print issue (free and available at venues across the Fylde Coast now) and here is what he discovered.
Sean: So, these must be exciting times for you, with global recognition as a writer and now a stellar cast film version of the first Spook book arriving early next year. Did you think back when you were writing short stories under a non de plume that ten years later you would be on such a crazy ride? Was the success that came from writing the books an unexpected side product?
Joseph: I spent over ten years trying to get published and it was only because I enjoy the process of writing that I persevered. In my dreams I thought I would become successful but I never imagined a thirteen book series with those books translated into thirty different languages. So yes, a lot of it has been a big surprise. The film has been almost eight years in the making with three different directors and several screenwriters. So my initial excitement wore off long ago. But now that the launch of the film (after many postponements) is finally near my enthusiasm is newly awakened. I met Jeff Bridges on the film set in Vancouver and although he would not have been my first choice to play the Spook I was very impressed by what I saw. He brought a lot of energy to the role and was very convincing. I think it will be a good film and I look forward to watching it in February. So, yes, they are exciting times!
When I read your books I get a really strong feel for the places, this is obviously as I’m from the same locality that they are set in. I think it goes beyond simple recognition though. You have a genuine flair for grounding the tales in their environments. Your local knowledge is also formidable. I noticed that you cite Tolkien as an influence. I personally find that Tolkien laboriously structures his landscapes almost to validate them within his great literary experiments. He then has his characters perform in them like actors on a stage set. Your landscapes are as integral as the plots I feel, almost as the characters are part of them and vice versa. So the question is (there is one honest) how much consideration do you put on the emphasis place and environment play in your storytelling process? Also, were you lead by the local settings to create the tales or is it a happy marriage of storytelling and the wealth of local history?
When I cite Tolkien as an influence it is not his landscapes which inspire me; it is his plot and characters. Tolkien was a genius who created a genre. The varied landscape of Lancashire was the real inspiration for the settings of my books. I discover each story as I write it but do set out with some ideas on the direction that each will take. For example in ‘The Spook’s Secret’ I decided to set it up on Anglezarke Moor. I have visited that moor and once, years ago, walked up onto the ‘Round Loaf’ in time for the rising of the midsummer sun. I didn’t see the sun because it rained! However, I did absorb the atmosphere and wondered what was buried within the mound. In time my imagination told me that it was the Old God, Golgoth, the Lord of Winter. So that’s how it works; it is indeed a happy marriage of storytelling and the Lancashire environment.
I think it’s fair to say that I am a connoisseur of horror and the ghost story. After reading your books I am pleasantly flabbergasted by the sheer number of scary sequences and ideas that you have. The first book alone has enough ideas for a first rate horror anthology. From the thumping good haunting house story of the miner and his wife to the truly disturbing Mother Malkin pit scenes. What I enjoyed most I think is that you don’t sugar the pill, yet the horror is balanced within the story-writing as not to overpower it. After talking to many horror writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, this balance is one of the things they find the hardest. Is this balance of not over egging the pudding something you consider in your writing? Also, your reading audience’s age is generally slightly younger than adult (but the books also appeal to those a little older like myself and my mum). All children love a good safe scare, it’s why Doctor Who is still as popular after fifty years but it has a level it doesn’t cross in its frightening scenes. So is this unspoken level a consideration for you when writing?
In truth I write for myself – I am the target audience and what pleases me goes into the book. However, I am aware that I am writing for children (although many adults do read the books). I suppose I have an in-built sense of what is appropriate. For example in the second book in the series, ‘The Spook’s Curse’, a priest’s leg is trapped in a crack in a chapel floor and a boggart is leeched onto it draining his blood. In an attempt to save his life, the doctor must amputate the leg. He lays the teeth of the saw against the flesh and then he turns to Tom Ward and sends him away. It is a first person narrative so the reader does not witness the amputation. In an adult book Tom would have stayed and the reader would have shared his experience. But I do try to make the books as scary as possible. Some readers react more strongly than others. But yes it is good to be scared whilst still being safe.
A question from my mum now, she says hello and keep up the good work. There is a lot of local folklore and supernatural/occult/magic references and creatures in your books. Are all of the Boggarts and beasties and the ways to combat them based on real local folklore? Was this something you had a knowledge of before you started writing the books or did you have to do a large amount of research?
I had some knowledge of Lancashire folklore before I started to write the series. For example three things feature prominently: the existence of boggarts that play tricks; a number of tales about witches; visits to the county by the devil himself. So this was an influence upon what I did but I transformed it for the purposes of my narratives. For example, in Lancashire folk tales the devil is often defeated by a clever Lancastrian either using words or setting him impossible tasks (See ‘The Schoolmaster of Cockerham’). John Gregory and his apprentice, Thomas Ward, do it differently; they use practical skills such as piercing the body of the Fiend with stakes and slicing off his head! Also, I invented (as far as I can be sure) the use of the silver chain to bind a witch and the use of salt and iron (a pocketful of each) to defeat a boggart. But silver, salt and iron are traditional substances (as is Rowan wood) to combat supernatural entities. A writer takes what is available and tweaks it to his or her needs. One type of boggart that does not feature in local tales is the ‘Ripper’. I borrowed that from UFO mythology where cattle are found mutilated in fields. So the alien became a boggart!
Typing your name into Google returns a load of illegal downloading sites with your books on, YouTube has all of your available audiobooks to listen to/download in two clicks of a mouse. How does this, what essentially amount to theft, affect you as a professional writer?
With e-readers like Kindle and Kobo on the rise how do you feel about the whole electronic versus print debate? Is it something you feel strongly about, or is reading itself the joy and not the medium?
Some free downloads may not actually be theft. Sometimes my publisher supports free copies of both print and e-books as part of the promotion of a title. Nevertheless, undoubtedly there are unauthorised sales which are theft. To steal an e-book is just the same as walking into a bookshop and taking a book from a shelf without paying. This affects all published writers who are trying to make a living from their work. It is wrong.
As for e-books themselves, I believe they have a place alongside print. I have a kindle and I use it frequently. I also buy books (both hardback and paperback) from bookshops. As writer it is too early to say whether or not the substitution of e-book for print will reduce my earnings. In October my publisher (Penguin/Random) are bringing out a Spook’s story in e-book form only. It is called ‘The Seventh Apprentice’ (my working title was ‘The Pig Witch’) and we visit John Gregory at an early stage in his career when he is trying to train a lazy apprentice. I am interested to see how well it sells. I will be able to visit schools as usual and read from the book but I will not be able to sign copies. However, I will be engaging in web chats and other forms of electronic media. But yes I think that the story is what counts whatever the medium.
Featured image by C J Griffiths Photography.
Show Comments (1)