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From Cornwall...

Andrew Beasley

Andrew Beasley is a primary school teacher in Cornwall. The Battles of Ben Kingdom is his first book for children. You can find out more about the series at www.benkingdom.com

The Battles of Ben Kingdom is your first book for children. Have you always wanted to write for young readers?

As a teacher, I am working with children every day, and they continue to surprise me with their insight, perception and wisdom. Although I started out with the intention of writing for adults, I am thrilled to be writing children’s fiction. In fact, there is very little difference between my early (unpublished) adult novels and The Battles of Ben Kingdom – The Claws of Evil, which is in the shops now. I did the same amount of research, I wrote with the same passion and developed a plot with the same complexity as I would have for a more mature readership.

Children are amongst the most loyal readers that a writer could ever wish to find. They will totally inhabit the world that you have created and invest a great amount of themselves into the lives of your characters. I’m very happy to have arrived at this point and can see myself writing for this age group for many years to come. 

Your book combines history and fantasy; how do you go about incorporating historical facts into your work? How important is this to your storytelling?

For me, the fantasy and history went hand in hand from the outset.

I knew that I wanted a Victorian setting, but I also had a number of mythic facets that I was keen to include. From my own reading, I have always felt that for fantasy to seem real to the reader, it has to be firmly rooted in the tangible. You need to clearly define all the limits and practicalities of your mythos; younger readers, in particular, will probe your work very deeply and if the fantastic elements don’t have consistency or feel fudged in anyway, then your story will start to unravel. That is why the historical setting is so important to me and also the reason why I was more than a year planning The Battles of Ben Kingdom series, before I began the actual writing process - I really wanted to get the details right and set Ben’s extraordinary adventure against a backdrop which was completely authentic. I knew that if I could be accurate with the small things, the nitty-gritty, then it would act like a lightning rod, keeping the uncanny elements of my story grounded. My readers will let me know if I’ve pulled it off!  

Are there any writers who have particularly inspired you, and the way you write? Are there any new children’s writers you admire?

Where to begin? As a lifelong reader, my list of inspirational writers is a long one, and still growing. Conan Doyle has to be there somewhere; it is his fault that I am so obsessed with the Victorian era. David Gemmell wrote so powerfully and convincingly about the nature of heroism and Steinback always touched me with his achingly beautiful prose. Damon Runyon created memorable characters with a few pen strokes and Dean Koontz made me want my own stories to have breakneck pace. Terrance Dicks also makes my top ten, for writing all the Doctor Who books I read as a child by the faint brown glow of my torch. All of these writers, and more, lit the flame inside of me.

In terms of children’s writing, we really seem to be in golden age. Some of the most exciting, imaginative and challenging books in the shops at the moment can be found on the children’s shelves. Charlie Higson, Marcus Sedgewick and Carlos Ruiz Zafon are all must buys for me. I’ve also just read Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, which I thought handled two delicate issues – a high-school shooting and Asperger’s – with a poignant and delicate touch. 

Can you describe your writing environment and practice – do you have a particular place you write, or time of day, number of words for example?

As a fulltime primary teacher and a very happy hands-on dad, my writing has been something which I have tried to fit in around the edges of a busy life. I often jokingly say that I write when the rest of the world is sleeping, and that is certainly true. However, I also write at weekends and over school holidays, and have done for many years – with the support of my generous and loving family.  

I have a small desk and, yes, like most writers I surround myself with books; they have such a comforting presence. Given a whole day, I can write very quickly – anything up to 5000 words. However, I only think that I can do that because of the extensive planning I make before hand. All of my characters, from major to minor, have their own detailed biographies and story arcs; I know their background, the relationships and events which shaped their lives up to this point, their hopes, fears and aspirations. In that way, although only a fraction of that material ever reaches the finished page, my cast are fully fledged and waiting for me to call their name. That helps enormously because I never have to struggle wondering what they might say or do next.  

Do you intend to continue to write for children? Are there more adventures in store for Ben Kingdom?

I certainly do! Children have imaginations which know no bounds and it is a thrill to create new worlds for them to explore. I’m delighted to say that the second installment of The Battles of Ben Kingdom - The Feast of Ravens - is published in September. The third book is mapped out and I can’t wait to get down to writing it; suffice it to say that Ben has some unsettled debts to score. And looking further ahead? All that I can say at this stage is that I have lived with these characters for over six years and my note books are overflowing! I’d be honoured and thrilled if I get to do more.

Apart from Ben Kingdom, I am currently working on two other projects, both for young readers. The first is a complete change of pace – a light-hearted book, featuring the adventures of two distinguished bears. I can’t tell you their names, because that would give the game away. My other is the radical reinvention of a classic character. Again, only time will tell.  

Do you have any advice for writers who may wish to see their work published?

Since it has taken me nearly twenty years to reach this point in my career, my first word of advice is to persevere! I have tried all sorts of avenues into publishing, writing at various stages, short stories for women’s magazines (under the name Violet St.Clair!), urban fantasy novels (before the genre had a name), a gritty gangster story, and a handful of Doctor Who adventures. I think that if editors and agents told me that I simply couldn’t write, I would have stopped. However, each time I was rejected (and I lose track of how many times, but we are pushing three figures) a variation on the same tune was sung back to me – We like the way you write… but we don’t know what do with what you have written! My second piece of advice then, is not to be precious about your writing.

I decided very early on that when I received professional advice (meaning advice from someone in publishing, rather than my mum who loves every word I ever wrote) I would take it in full.  Now that I have served my extended apprenticeship, I feel that it was the right decision. Stephanie King, my editor at Usborne, and Anne Finnis, my wonderful agent, have both helped me to produce a much better story for Ben Kingdom than I could have ever managed on my own.

My final word would be to write because you love it. As I said, I’m twenty years in now, but, hand on heart, publication or no, I know that I had at least another twenty years of trying in me. Only love makes you crazy like that.