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Q&A

TT: Hi William, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

WH: All that follows is true, I swear…

I was born the son of a fairground showman. For the first year of my life, my family and I travelled the byroads of England, pitching up on town greens with helter-skelters, ghost trains, waltzers, sideshows and the infamous ‘Wall of Death’ (an almost vertical circular track around which a motorcyclist would hurtle at phenomenal speeds). When I was still in nappies we settled in the seaside town of Skegness. ‘Skeggy’, as it is known to the locals, is famed for its ‘bracing’ offshore winds – which basically means it’s bloomin’ windy up here! Anyway, the Husseys may have stopped travelling, but we were still fairground people at heart and so, during the school holidays, I helped out on my uncle’s infamous ghost train ride – the scariest spookhouse on the East Coast!

At school, I was always a fairly average student – rubbish at maths and science but pretty good at English and History. It was only when I went to secondary school that my grades started to improve. It was all down to an amazing English teacher – Mrs Breeds – who inspired me to read and write my own stories.

I went on to study Law at university. Why, oh why, did I study Law?! Not got the foggiest. Just seemed a good idea at the time. What I really wanted to do was write. But I always felt that writers were these mythical, god-like beings that lived in a kind of literary Olympus: powerful, unknowable, untouchable. How could a mere mortal such as I aspire to such divinity? Of course, now I know better. We writers are the least god-like and the most human of, well, humans. Prick us and we bleed. Wrong us (like with a bad review!) and we’ll revenge! Or, more likely, mope about the house for a bit filled with loathing and self-doubt! Hmm, seem to be going off on a tangent there…

Eventually, after pursuing a half-hearted legal career, I started a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, bagged myself an agent pretty soon afterwards, and embarked on the life of a writer of horror stories. In 2009, after being challenged by my bookseller friend Deborah Chaffey to write a horror series for kids, I sat down and penned the first Witchfinder book. It was a revelation. Witchfinder is the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer!

BZ: How did you get the idea for the Witchfinder Trilogy?

WH: Witchfinder came together from various sources. I’d always been fascinated by the English Civil War, and by that brief but terrifying period in the 1640s when people like Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, went around the Eastern Counties hunting down and hanging suspected witches. For a long time I’d been intrigued by the 17th Century idea that, in order to work her spells, a witch would need the aid of a demon summoned from hell. I’d done a lot of research into this area over the years and hoped that, one day, I could mould a story around these ideas: witchfinders, witches, demons, magic and monsters. I wanted it to be a big, epic tale – lots of action and drama – but I had to wait for the right story to come along.

Meanwhile, I’d been writing horror books for adults. It was while attending a book group discussion for one of my adult books that I met Deborah Chaffey, a Waterstones bookseller who specialised in children’s fiction. Deborah told me how much the kids in her reading group loved horror, and challenged me to write a really exciting, scary book for children. And so I went away and read lots and lots of Young Adult thrillers in order to get an idea of what was popular. Although I loved most of what I read, I realised that the idea of a 17th Century witch – one with demons at her command – had not yet been fully explored in this area. So that was the genesis for Witchfinder – a modern take on an ancient horror idea!

DC: I made the mistake of reading the first Witchfinder book, Dawn of the Demontide, at bedtime. There are some fairly gruesome moments – what made you want to write horror?

WH: There are three reasons why I think I was always destined to write horror. First, my granddad used to make up bedtime stories for me when I was a kid, and virtually every tale had a supernatural element. Vampires, ghosts, gremlins, Frankenstein monsters and zombies – it was a wonder I ever got to sleep! And so horror was ingrained in me from an early age.

Another factor might have been my summer job. Every school holiday, I worked on my uncle’s rickety old ghost train. It was my job to wheel the cars through the swing doors and, when the ride broke down, to venture into the dark, cobwebbed innards of the ghost train and guide the screaming customers back to the light. My uncle used to roar with laughter as the riders were brought out, and I guess some of that desire to give people a case of heebie-jeebies must have rubbed off on me.

Finally, I used to live in a haunted house! I was five years old when my dad bought a plot of land and started building our first proper family home… right next to a crumbling graveyard! Dad had gone down to survey the work one night when he entered the lounge area and came face to face with a little old lady dressed entirely in black. Dad blinked, and the apparition vanished. Putting the experience down to imagination, he decided to keep the story to himself.

We had been in the house for just over a year when I encountered the ghost. She was waiting at the end of the long corridor that led to my bedroom, her wrinkled face frozen and her black eyes fixed on me. I didn’t feel frightened; her presence was strangely comforting, and I walked straight past her and into my room. Granny Ghost, as she came to be known, was sighted by half a dozen family members before we sold the house and moved away.

So, a grandfather who told me spooky stories before bedtime, a summer job on a ghost train, and a childhood spent in a haunted house. I was never going to end up writing romance novels, was I?!

BZ: What do you see as the main influences on your writing?

One of the main influences is my love of history. Real historical events pop up in all my books, but especially in Witchfinder. Ever since school I’ve loved reading history books, especially that period after the reign of Elizabeth II and up to the end of the Civil War. The intrigue, the personalities, the battles, the bloodshed, the fear and the religious passion that literally tore families apart and set brother against brother is just fascinating.

In fiction terms my biggest influences have been all those brilliant books I read when I was a kid. I think most writers will tell you that it’s those books they read in childhood that continue to have an impact on them later in life. For me it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories; Stephen King; JRR Tolkien; CS Lewis; HG Wells; Richard Matheson; Shirley Jackson; MR James; Robert Louis Stevenson and dozens of others. I lapped up anything with a strong plot and with lots of action and adventure. A few scares were always good, too!

TT: Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

A fair bit. Rejection, self-doubt, people telling you you can’t do it, that it’s all an impossible dream: these are problems that beset the best of writers. But here’s the thing: if you truly want to write then these things won’t deter you. They won’t matter because writing is what you do, it’s who you are, it burns within you. If you’re a writer worthy of that name, you will always write, whether you get published or not. I know that, even if I had never got that deal, I’d still be tapping away at my keyboard. Why? Because I have to. I have stories to tell and they just won’t leave me alone until I spill them out on the page. Writing is not really a vocation for me – it’s an urge, a need, an impulse almost as irresistible as breathing.

BZ: Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?

I guess the obvious names like Darren Shan and Anthony Horowitz will already be familiar to many. I would also recommend rising talents like Michelle Harrison (The Thirteen Treasures), Sam Enthoven (Crawlers), Steve Feasey (Changeling), Andy Briggs (Tarzan), Tommy Donbavand (Scream Street), and Barry Hutchison (Invisible Fiends). These guys are huge talents and their books never fail to draw you in.

BZ: Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?

WH: An old one – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Brilliant writing, superb plots, scares, thrills and spills galore. These stories might be over a hundred years old, but they are as fresh today as when they were written.

DC: Could you see yourself writing in any other genre in the future? If so, which?

WH: Never say never! The Witchfinder books aren’t just horror stories, they also contain threads of adventure, fantasy, even romance! If you stick exclusively to one genre then you tend to pigeonhole yourself as a writer – the trick is to establish yourself in a certain area but pack your writing with enough variation so that you can branch out if you want to. Stephen King is a fine example of this – in the general consciousness he is viewed as a horror writer, but in fact there isn’t a genre he hasn’t tried. I have this idea for a sci-fi book in the mould of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos crossed with E.T. which I hope one day to write.

DC: Do you outline or make it up as you go along?

WH: I do tend to plot things out, but never the entire story. I use an outline like one of those wooden supports or moulds that medieval builders used to employ when constructing cathedral arches – it’s there so that, in the early stages of story construction, the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down on top of me. As my confidence in the first draft grows,  I gradually take that support away and continue building on my own. Many new writers who start out often have a great idea, and get 20 pages into their book only to come to a grinding halt. If you sit down and sketch out a rough plan first then that will never happen. But here’s the important thing – the outline should never be treated as a bible – a sacrosanct text that can’t be challenged or changed. It’s just there to get you started. Character is the god of story, and if you find that your characters don’t want to follow the outline then you should always stop and listen to them. That might sound a bit crazy, but good characters really do direct writers rather than the other way around.

DC: What’s your daily writing routine?

WH: I’m not a morning person. I read how other writers work – going out for a brisk walk at 5am and then writing 2,000 words before 10 o’clock. Bleurgh! Couldn’t do it. I get to my desk by 9 and spend an hour answering emails and doing admin work. Doing that kind of stuff gets my brain in gear. Then I grab a cup of strong tea and start writing. My rule is to write 2,000 words a day. I can do more, but never less. Writers are generally great procrastinators, so I think we need that discipline of a daily word target. Sometimes that means I’m done by 4pm, other times I’m still working at the midnight hour. If I’m editing then it’s a completely different kettle of fish. I tend of edit very quickly, just so I can keep the entire story in my head, so when I get notes back from my editor I’m often pulling 15 hour days to get those corrections done. It’s an exhausting but quite exhilarating process.

DC: Where do you write?

WH:    I have a very messy little study downstairs. Piles and piles of paper toppling every which way, books crowding every surface, research material cluttering the floor. The most important thing is it has a lock on the door and, if the door’s bolted that means do not disturb! The office means work: my writing computer isn’t connected to the internet so there’s never the temptation to spend hours surfing the web, the view through my window is painfully dull, and my phone is switched to silent. I’m just getting used to working in different environments – on public transport, in hotel rooms etc, but the office is where I work best.

DC: Do you write with music on? If so what? What are you listening to now?

WH: No, I must have silence. I even write with ear plugs in! I know many authors who can’t work without music playing in the background, but I love music so much, and I’m so emotionally affected by it, that it tends to impact on the tone of what I’m writing. It isn’t good if I’m writing a quiet scene and I’ve got Iron Maiden thrashing in my ear! Some writers get themselves into the mood of a scene by, say, playing the Indiana Jones soundtrack when writing an action sequence, but I would then find myself taken out of the universe of my book and into the realm of Indy – it just doesn’t work for me.

Currently on my iPod – Kings of Leon.

DC: Do you use a notebook? Can you share with us the last thing you wrote? (even if it’s a shopping list!)

WH: I have lots of notebooks – it is the most important tool for a writer. I have one by my bed, one in the loo, two or three in my study, a whiteboard in the kitchen, one by the phone (I often get ideas when waiting for a call centre to pick up) and in my car I use the dictaphone function on my mobile – when I’m parked up and the engine’s turned off, of course! The last thing I wrote is a note for my next book – The Ghost Machine. It’s a nice little teaser actually – ‘The Skeleton Crew knew that Hiram Grudge was dead…’

DC: How much research do you do? What kind and do you enjoy it?

WH: I love research. I think it’s important, when writing fantastical fiction, that the real stuff is as genuine and as credible as it can be. You are asking your reader to accept some pretty incredible things – the existence of witches and demons, for example – so it’s important that you support their willing suspension of disbelief by getting the real-world stuff right. For example, say you’ve got a nuclear engineer who just so happens to be a werewolf in his spare time. Fine, you can be as out there as you want with the werewolf stuff, you can even reinvent the lycanthrope mythos, but you should also take the time to get the details of the nuclear engineer part right. What does his job entail? What’s his day-to-day routine? What stresses and strains does such a position put on him? What specific knowledge does he need? Does he have a uniform? You get that stuff sounding right and the reader will allow you to be as creative as you like with the werewolf element.

The only problem with research is when it becomes an excuse not to get the writing done. Research feels like bona fide work, you can pat yourself on the back for a whole day spent in the library, but it isn’t writing. No one will pay you for your research notes! So you must be strict with yourself. You know in your heart when you’ve done enough planning and research – the weight of material reaches a kind of critical mass – so be brave and start typing.

The other thing is how to use your research properly. Just because you’ve spent an entire week labouring over nuclear engineering textbooks doesn’t mean that all your notes merit a place in the book. For Gallows at Twilight, I had 4 notebooks full of Civil War history, including the clothing of the period, the food, speech patterns, politics, the intricacies of the religious disputes of the time etc. I’d say that less than 10% of it made it into the finished book. My job was to give the reader a credible flavour of the period – not to bombard them with facts and figures and to show off how hard I’d worked. The reader just isn’t interested in all that. He or she wants to be put in the scene in as realistic a way as possible, and then to get on with the story. It’s hard, discarding all that research, but none of it is really wasted: it has given you, as the writer, the confidence to stride purposefully through the world you’ve created and to carry the reader with you.

DC: What are you working on now?

WH: I’ve been commissioned by OUP to write a series of stand-a-lone books about ‘genuine’ supernatural objects. Unlike Witchfinder, there will be a fresh batch of main characters and a new story in each book, but there will also be several connecting threads. I’m hoping that, when we come to the end of the series, I’ll be able to write a final book that draws all these characters together. I can’t say too much more about it at the moment, other than that I’m really, really excited! These books are a little less horror-based than Witchfinder – they’re more supernatural adventure stories, but I guarantee that they’ll be really spooky. The first is called Ghost Machine and the second has the working title of Jekyll’s Mirror.

TT: Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Finish something. You really aren’t a writer until you type ‘The End’ (that’s a figurative ‘The End’ for me, as I don’t think stories ever really have an ending; the characters go on, it’s just that the writer eventually has to let them go). Finishing is hard. It demands commitment, dedication, and long, long hours, but it is honestly the most rewarding experience in the process. I allow myself 10 whole seconds of euphoria when a book is done. Then I start thinking about redrafting…

Interview questions have been reproduced with the kind permission of the following bloggers: http://bookzone4boys.blogspot.com; http://davecousins.blogspot.com and http://talltalesandshortstories.blogspot.com

(Tall Tales questions are marked ‘TT’; Book Zone (For Boys) are ‘BZ’; Dave Cousins’ questions are ‘DC’)