Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Chantelle Atkins talks about her book The Boy With The Thorn In His Side

Welcome Chantelle, or should I say welcome back! It's great to have you here again to talk about perhaps one of your most defining books: 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side'.

I believe you started writing this book at the age of 12.  Did you have plans  for the book in your head before that age?   Did you do a whole draft of the book at that age?  Can you tell us a little about the process?

Yes I was 12 and I actually remember when I first got the idea. I was watching The Lost Boys movie, and during the part where Corey Haim finds out his mother is dating the head vampire, I started thinking about how I would feel if my mother was dating a monster, but a real life kind. I know this is where the idea for a monstrous step-father came from, and I know it was in my head a lot at that age as my parents had just divorced. I started writing the book right away and I still have the early copies now. There was no planning, but I did jot ideas and scenes down on scraps of paper and clipped them into my file. I drew pictures too to go with the story. Yes, the whole book was written, but it was very different to how it is now. For one thing, I originally set in in America, and some of the characters, including Danny, had different names! As for the process, it was just a case of me rushing home from school each day and up to my room. I couldn't wait to get back to it. I thought about it night and day. Once I had written it in hand, I took it to school to show my English teacher and won a merit certificate for it. I then started typing it up on an old word processor.

Did you keep refining it and adding to it over the years?  Or were there years where you didn’t do anything to it and just let it mature?

Once it was written, I went on to write other things, but I always kept this book in my head. It kept changing and growing in my mind. When I was 16 I went back to it again and rewrote it from start to finish. I did the same again when I was 19. There was other writing in between, but nothing that occupied my thoughts quite as much as this one. I then left it alone for many years, as I went on to have my children and work as a childminder. I just didn't have the time or energy for writing, and I had also lost my confidence. I didn't think I would ever write again. However, just before my then youngest started school, I suddenly wanted to write it again. It had been with me all that time, in my head every night, still changing and developing, and I thought I can't let this go on any longer. I have to write it. I have to finally write it. It took a few more drafts, well a few million it felt like, to get it right. It was in third person for a while, and then I changed it to first, which also gave me the idea of having both Danny and Lee as narrators.

Is there any of the original draft left today?  If so, how much is left of the original draft you wrote when you were 12/early teens?

Yes I've still got everything I ever wrote at that age. I have an old suitcase under my bed with all my writing in it from age 10 upwards, including anything I wrote at school. Like I said, it was quite different back then, but the gist of the story was the same; rebellious teen meets his match with mother's dangerous new partner! The friendships were also the same, and the love story with Lucy was also there.

You said in a previous interview that this was your favourite book of yours.  When did you feel you’d ‘finished’ writing the book or do you still feel, as many authors do, it’s never really finished?

Hmm, I do feel it is finished, as in I would not change the book now. It is very long, and I would probably not write something that long again, for many reasons! However I wrote it for me, I wrote it to get it out of my head and do it justice after so many years. But then came the sequel...again, I wrote it mostly for me. I wanted to know what happened after Danny got out of jail. I didn't imagine life would ever be easy for him and wanted to explore what happened next...I do also have alternative endings in mind, one of which I have written into a short story which will be published in my short story collection Bird People and Other Stories. I also plan to write a screenplay for a TV series. It would have a different ending to the book, and a whole other dimension added to make it even longer! I can easily fill three seasons, I reckon! I have made some plans and jotted some ideas down for this, but I have no idea when I will get the time to do it. So no, I suppose the story is still not finished!

So the sequel ‘This Is The Day’  naturally evolved rather than being what readers demanded?

I did it for me, to satisfy my own curiosity as to what happened next. I wanted to explore their lives and relationships as adults, especially Danny and Lucy's, and his relationship with his mother, and I wanted the past to return to haunt him in a thrilling way.

How much was the book inspired by real events and characters in your own life?

Not much. When I was 12, my parents divorced after years of threatening to do so. It was almost a relief, until us kids suddenly realised that they both might meet other people. I think we all had this fear about it, who they would be, and how our lives might change, and watching that scene in The Lost Boys just amplified that fear for me, and created this story. Over the years both my parents had partners I did not like, but fortunately for me, there was never anyone as demonic as Lee Howard! I would say that the other characters were totally fictional too. I wanted to know people like them. I wanted a best friend like Michael and an older brother like Anthony! I think I really just created a bunch of kids I would have liked to know at that age.

In there a lot of you in the main character Danny, would you say?   Are there parts of him that you couldn’t relate to or had to get into a different mindset?

We're quite different. I was a very shy, introverted teenager, whereas at the beginning he is stubborn, rebellious and cocky. I think as the years went by, I just got to know him better and better, and even though we are very different, I knew how he would feel about things and react to things, and I always felt sorry for him! His love of music was not in the original draft, although at that age I was very much getting into all sorts of music. When I rewrote it the final time I knew it had to be about music as well. It needed a hopeful theme to it as well as all the darkness and horror!

Have you come across people like Lee Howard before?  

No, luckily I have not personally. Some members of my family have been in abusive relationships, which I suppose I may have reacted to and thought about as a child and teenager, but I have never met anyone in real life who could be so vile to a child as Lee Howard is. I read a lot of horror stories around the time I was first writing it; Stephen King was my favourite, and a lot of the short stories and things I wrote around that age were very dark and violent, so I suppose I may have been influenced by other books and movies in creating his character.

How difficult was it to get inside the mindset of Lee Howard? 

It was surprisingly easy once I changed it to first person and allowed him a voice. I am the kind of person who is interested in why people do things. I don't tend to just say someone is evil or was born evil, I am more interested to find out how they got that way, how they were raised, what experiences and thought processes let them to this behaviour. So he kind of fascinated me. Even in the very first draft, I did not paint him as entirely evil. In that first version, he had desires to be a dad to Danny, and he felt guilt and even apologised for his behaviour. In fact, if anything, I made him more menacing in the later versions! But I had to understand where this was coming from...I had to know what he wanted from Danny and why. I had to almost feel sorry for him too. He is this monster of a man who is quite simply addicted to violence. He feels better, mentally and physically when he is hurting someone, and afterwards he feels calm, and refreshed, and then guilty. He's a classic narcissist I think, and a complete control freak. But in a very weird and warped way, he does actually love Danny and wants him to return that love. He simply doesn't know any other way to behave.

As I was reading it I strongly felt it would lend itself to the screen and you mentioned earlier that you’re working on a screenplay at the moment.  Would you like to tell us a bit more about that?  Have you adapted for screen before?  What are the difficulties and challenges?

No I've never done it before, but I have always written my books in my head first, in scenes and dialogue and movement. That's why they keep me up at night, because they are like movies in my head. When I am typing, I tend to mouth the words and reenact the movements as the characters perform. I have always wanted to see it on the screen, in fact any of my books. The soundtrack would be amazing! I have started it, and I have completed a few online courses on screenplay writing and I have read some books and learnt a lot already. I can't wait to do it, but there are a few novels waiting to be written first!

You mentioned earlier about the collection of short stories you're working on at the moment, one of these which will include an alternative ending for The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, which you’d strongly considered originally.  How do you think your readers will respond to this? 

I hope they like it. I hope it intrigues them. It's actually a very believable ending. Probably more realistic, and leaves things open...hence it will be used in the screenplay to keep the story going. I did write this ending and then changed my mind and went back to to the original ending I had when I was 12. It's nice to play about with things. There are so many ways the story could go!

Apart from the short story collection and the screenplay of the The Boy, are you working on anything else?

Yes, my YA novel The Tree Of Rebels is nearly ready. I thought it was done but then decided to send it to my top beta reader one more time, as I had made so many changes since she first read it. I have started writing the sequel to it as well; pretty much all the chapters are plotted out and the first six are written. So after the short story collection, the next release will definitely be The Tree Of Rebels. I have also written the first draft of a novel called Elliot Pie's Guide To Human Nature, which was a story I'd had in my head for ages, and hadn't had time to get to. In between waiting for edits and feedback on The Tree of Rebels, I managed to get the first draft done, and I have to say, I love it. I really am excited about this one. It's about a young boy who starts 'collecting' strangers as friends in a misguided bid to prove to his agoraphobic mother that not all humans are bad. I also have another novel in the pipeline, and like The Boy, it is from an old story I found in the suitcase! I wrote it when I was 16 but never finished it. I now know the ending, and have written two short stories for it, which are in the collection. It's about a teenage alcoholic who dreams of being a singer, and also follows the story of the local community centre being under threat. It's called A Song For Bill Robinson. So plenty to keep me busy! There will also be a sequel to The Mess Of me at some point. It is also plotted and about a quarter written!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would just like to say thank you for this interview! I think most authors love talking about their books. It's a bit like talking about your children, and could go on for hours!

Thank you Chantelle. It's a pleasure. 

You can purchase The Boy With The Thorn In His Side from Amazon:

Kindle Version


For more information about Chantelle Atkins' books please visit: