An interview with David Whitley

David Whitley

David Whitley was born in 1984 and graduated from the University of Oxford with a double first in English Literature and a passion for writing children’s fiction. At age 17 his first children’s novel was shortlisted for the Kathleen Fidler Award and at 20 he won the Cheshire Prize for Literature for a children’s short story; the youngest writer ever to win this prestigious award which was presented by Michael Morpurgo. In 2005 David appeared on BBC2’s University Challenge where he was a member of the winning Corpus Christi team who beat all competitors to become Series Champions. He is also a keen actor, director and chorister. David currently lives in Cheshire and is working on his second novel.

The Midnight Charter is set in the wonderfully atmospheric Agora, a city without money where everything and anyone is for sale. Where did the idea for Agora first spring from and did you draw inspiration from the history of any famous European cities?

Agora first came to me when I was on holiday in Prague. I was in the main Old Town Square, browsing around the “olde-worlde” market stalls, looking for souvenirs. I’d wandered quite far in, and I looked up and noticed that, from where I was, the stalls had pressed in so closely that all of the historical sights – all of the things the souvenirs were about – were completely hidden from view. In fact, all you could see were the rooftops of the beautiful old buildings over the tops of the stalls. And it occurred to me that if the stalls kept on encroaching over the city like that, they’d cover everything that was worth seeing, and they’d have to start selling souvenirs of each other!

It sounds like a silly little idea, but it wouldn’t go away, and the image of a beautiful and ancient city where anything could be bought and sold began to grow in my mind.

Agora is not based on one city in particular. Rather, it has pieces of every city I have ever been lucky enough to visit: Venice, Prague, London, Amsterdam... Cities are such wonderfully organic things, their populations and architecture and mood grow and change over the centuries, but at the same time their history remains imprinted into every stone, giving a vivid mixture of old and new. Agora is built out of the fragments of many places.

The Midnight Charter deals with issues of morality, corruption and power and asks important questions about today’s society. Is it important to you that your readers see and understand these messages, or will you be just as happy for them to completely miss the messages but enjoy the book?

I’m entirely happy for people to read my book any way they want!

I strongly believe that writing a book is not a one-way process. The writer is not the only creative part of the team. Every reader brings their own likes, and style, and areas of interest to a book. I’ve always enjoyed reading about ideas and questions, so naturally I engage with them and use them in the book, and I love it when people notice and enjoy them, because that is how I would read it!

But I hope, at the same time, that the ideas are interwoven with plot, character, atmosphere, pacing... that there is something for everyone. As long as a reader is enjoying my book, then they are reading it in the “right” way, and I couldn’t be happier.

How is work progressing on the sequel, The Children of the Lost?

I’m very pleased to say that The Children of the Lost is nearly finished. I’ve completed the first edit and it’s currently with my editor at Puffin, for any further suggestions. I have excellent editors, and although waiting for their opinion is never an entirely comfortable thing, (it’s very easy to get possessive), every time I have listened to the comments of my editors, the result has been a better book. I suspect that it is because they never tell me what I should write. Instead, they suggest what elements of the book need more attention, or are unclear from a reader’s point of view, and then let me decide how to fix it. So it always remains my work, but with the added bonus of a fresh perspective.

As The Midnight Charter finishes Mark and Lily leave the city of Agora. Will The Children of the Lost see us return to this memorable city?

Most definitely! Without giving too much away, Mark and Lily have a whole new story, a whole new land to explore, but that doesn’t mean that they forget about Agora. Far from it, their new quest will have a lasting impact on their home, one that even they may not be aware of...

Meanwhile, I couldn’t abandon the rest of my characters, and The Children of the Lost will periodically look back at what is going in Agora without Mark and Lily. I really enjoy writing these subplots, partly because I enjoy the change of pace of returning to Agora, but mostly because this allows some of the other characters from The Midnight Charter to have their moments in the spotlight, without Mark and Lily stealing all the attention!

How did the official launch of The Midnight Charter at Waterstone’s Chester go? Is this a nerve-wracking time for an author?

The launch was absolutely fantastic! The lovely thing about having a launch locally was that all of my friends were able to come, so it felt less like part of my job and more like a party!

I suppose I was nervous, in a way, who wouldn’t be, sending their first book out into the world, at the mercy of everyone else’s opinion. But getting great responses on sites like this certainly helps with that!

Which authors have inspired you most?

Phillip Pullman has been a huge inspiration – the sheer scale of his imagination is hard to beat. Charles Dickens would also have to be up there, his novels may be long and often rely on bizarre plot twists, but you will never find an author who can write more vivid and emotionally powerful prose.

Jonathan Swift is also really important to me. Any man who could write Gulliver’s Travels, somehow combining a lengthy political and philosophical satire with a fantasy adventure that still enchants people hundreds of years later deserves a lot of respect. And in a similar vein, Terry Pratchett manages to instil some wonderfully interesting thoughts and meditations on humanity and stories into novels that never fail to be really funny as well. That’s quite a gift.

When you were 20, you became the youngest writer ever to win the Cheshire Prize for Literature. Can you tell us a little about the winning children’s short story and whether Michael Morpurgo (an author we love) was able to give a budding young author any brilliant advice?

The story was called The Substitute, and it was about Seth, the younger brother of Cain and Abel. I think I was drawn to writing about him less because of the religious aspects, but because according to the Creation story, he is the most important son – the one from whom everyone is descended – and yet hardly anyone has ever heard of him. In the Bible, Eve says directly that he was born as a substitute for Abel, the “good son”. That made me think of the first line of David Copperfield: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’ I was struck by the idea of not being the hero of your own life, of coming to terms with being eternally overshadowed. There were several story ideas that came out of that. Maybe, one day, I’ll write up the others...

Sadly, although Michael Morpurgo gave an excellent speech before the prize was announced, and said some very kind words, there wasn’t time for much more than a handshake during the presentation. However, he did do me the honour of reading my story aloud, and the care and passion with which he read it was as inspiring as anything he could have said.

Fantasy Book Review is a site dedicated to reading and reviewing the very best fantasy books. If you were put on the spot and asked to name your favourite fantasy book of all time was, what would you say?

The terrible thing is, every time I get asked this question I give a different answer. I love so many books, for very different reasons. But I think if I was asked right now, I’d have to go for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The sheer attention to detail and precise, witty world-building would make it brilliant on its own. But it becomes particularly fine, for me, by taking the concept of the Fair Folk, often used, and mixing it with historical mannerisms and a brilliant, twisted logic, to create one of the most memorable villains of all time.

You will be appearing at the Chester Literature Festival in October. Do you have anything special planned?

I have a couple of surprises planned... though I will be hard pressed to be more special than the venue. The Chester Literature Festival have organised my event in the wonderfully gothic Chapter House of Chester Cathedral. Black-cloaked minions will guide my audience from the front entrance, through the cloisters, and I will perform by candlelight. After an introduction like that, anything I do will probably be an anticlimax!

But it’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about the inspirations and ideas behind The Midnight Charter – the Age of Enlightenment, concepts of value, and of childhood. I also talk about the power of fantasy – how, thanks to the way a whole world shapes itself around the main characters and their stories, a fantasy novel can feel far more emotionally satisfying, far more real, than any other form. And I must admit, my favourite part of doing events is the chance to read extracts from my book aloud in a series of increasingly alarming voices...

Your new website went live recently - can you tell us a little bit about what fans will find there?

My website is set up rather like the bonus features on a DVD! Fans will find lots of background information on Agora and its inhabitants, including a travelogue of the city, narrated by Miss Devine, the glassmaker and emotion-seller, and a free, online story, set in Agora and featuring some new characters, and some familiar ones.

It also has information on the books and where to buy them; a downloads section with some beautiful avatars and wallpaper, drawn by Tomislav Tomic, my illustrator; a forum; an author’s section complete with journal where I leave my own thoughts; and a secret section, only accessible if you have read the book, where I can put some material that contains spoilers.

All fun stuff, and I shall continue to update it as often as I can, so do check back!

What does the remainder of 2009 hold for David Whitley?

I shall be doing as many school events and Literature Festivals as I can! (The next Lit Fest, after Chester, will be the Six Churches Festival in Cornwall in late October). Being very new, my main concern is that so few people have heard of me, and I can’t count on readers chancing across my book in a bookshop – especially since, with a surname beginning with “W”, it’ll usually be on the bottom shelf! That is why, of course, I’m so grateful to sites like this, with active communities of fantasy lovers!

Apart from that, though, the rest of this year will be most spent writing the final book in the trilogy – The Canticle of Whispers. It is fully planned, and I’m going to begin it this week. I’ve been concentrating a lot recently on events, publicity and editing, and while I enjoy all of those things in different ways, it will be brilliant to get back to creating something entirely new. It’s my favourite part of writing, and I can’t wait!

David Whitley books reviewed