Sunday Sojourn – with Adam S. Leslie
Today I’m joined by Adam S Leslie, to talk about Blinsby, co-authored with Peter Tunstall, set in a fictional retelling of the 1980s.
So, what first attracted you to the era you’ve written about?
Blinsby is set in a fictionalised version of the early 1980s, and is inspired by me and my co-author Peter’s shared childhood. We’ve always been enthusiastic nostalgists: even at primary school we used to reminisce about the early days of primary school!
So it felt natural to return to that era in our lives and build a surreal thriller around it. Few of the things which happen in the book actually happened to us, but they’re the sort of things we imagined at the time – an awful conspiracy between the school authorities and the school bullies, the idea of revolution and escape and breaking away from this unpleasant thing we had to go through day after day. We certainly wrote a few versions of this idea as children.
So in a way, it’s memoir of our imagination, but filtered through our adult sensibilities… it’s more than childish wish fulfilment now: it’s about what it’s like to be a sensitive outsider during a vulnerable period of your life; it’s about what it’s like to feel that you’re not really being listened to, or that no one is taking you seriously.
But it is also, I hope, a rattling good adventure yarn… a bit of a silly and surreal romp, a children’s book for grownups. We really wanted to transport adults back to their own personal childhoods, which is why it’s an alternative version of the 1980s. Not everyone grew up with the same things. There’s no Duran Duran or Rubiuk’s cube or A-Team or Star Wars or ZX Spectrum computers. Instead they watch TV shows with inscrutable names like Galaxy Robber Nightingale or Back Wardrobe Spaceman, or the ubiquitously creepy German cartoon Happy Tom and the Summer Man. So it has its own internal pop culture, but one so archetypal that anyone growing up since the 1960s can identify with it.
It sounds fantastic! What sparked your first foray into fiction?
Peter and I have been writing together since we were still at primary school. We started off with a series called The Adventures of Drinil, a daft Tolkein-inspired thing starring (of course) ourselves! I think aged around 11 or 12, we started to feel a bit too old to play with toys any more, but our imaginations hadn’t slowed down, and this was a great way to do something more complex and long-lasting than simply having our Star Wars figures shoot at each other.
It sounds a great partnership. Tell me a bit about your process – are you able to stay focused, or do you find yourself distracted by new, interesting snippets or stories? And does the co-writing add any difficulties?
Co-writing is certainly an interesting experience, especially when you’re used to writing alone. Early on, we tended to thrash the plot out over the phone or in person, map the story out chapter by chapter, and then go away and write whichever bit we felt like tackling. During the rewriting period, though, we mostly worked on the book in order, one of us writing till we got stuck and then passing it on to the other to continue. That’s a great way of writing, because you’re always guaranteed a fresh pair of eyes. Redrafting each other’s work can get a bit fraught, though!
Which are your favourite characters who have appeared in your writing?
Blinsby is an ensemble book… one of the things we really wanted to do was create an immersive experience for the reader. So the school environment is fully fleshed out and fully populated, and the story runs in exaggerated real time from the start of the day to the end of the day.
In amongst this large cast of characters, though, there are always some who are a joy to write for. Mr Lupus-Warrow, the chief antagonist and senior teacher, is maybe the most fun. We didn’t want to write a boring ‘stern Latin master’ type (though he certainly is strict) – Mr Lupus-Warrow is dangerous and unpredictable and sort of psychedelic, like sharing a classroom with a wild animal. He never acts how you’ll expect – a great example of a character who writes himself and even takes the authors by surprise.
In fact, the best characters to write for are the ones we can just let loose and not even have to think about. Perhaps the most joyous is Luke, who does everything spontaneously and at random, including punching people and – at one point – stealing a car. He’s a great catalyst for chaos.
Chaos is always good!
If you could visit any historical event or period (as a witness only, no changing things!), which would it be, and why?
I would love to spend time in London in the mid-late 1960s, just to see my favourite bands live – getting to watch The Kinks, The Small Faces, Traffic, Jethro Tull or The Bonzo Dog Band play would blow my tiny mind. And the movements of The Beatles are so well documented these days, they’d be pretty easy to stalk! Imagine the Beatles tourism trade if they ever invent time travel…
Any how about ‘rewriting’ the history books? If you could change any single event, which would it be, and what would be your preferred outcome?
I think you could go mad trying to save people’s lives. Not just historical people like John Lennon, but ordinary people too, anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure there’s a novel in that!
Finally… You’re allowed a whole afternoon to yourself with anyone from history. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
Despite the above answers, I’d probably pick my film-making hero, Stanley Kubrick. I grew up obsessed with his films, but not knowing anything about him. I wrote him a fan letter once, to his New York office, but it was returned unopened. I always imagined him as this towering, distant character, holed up in an office in New York or Hollywood. Little did I know that he actually lived a thirty miles from my house!
Thanks for joining me today, Adam.