I’m extremely delighted to welcome Jason Hewitt to Bloomin’ Brilliant Books today to talk about his favourite books and authors. I adored his novel Devastation Road and was eager to know about the books that have influenced him.
Which authors/books did you like to read as a child?
The first author I was aware of was probably Beatrix Potter but once I could read for myself I got rather fixated with Roald Dahl and Swedish children’s author Tove Janssen. The book I’ve read the most times is The Hobbit. However, the book that really filled me with wonder and suddenly made me aware of the skill required to be a writer was Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. Whatever you do, don’t watch the film. It’s a travesty. But as a children’s book, the structure, and, in particular, the way the narrative folds in on itself, is storytelling genius.
Were you good at English at school? Did you like it?
Like most authors, I was a bit of a book geek at school so English was inevitably my favourite subject. I was always good at it, too, but not really enough for anyone to notice. I was not one of these precocious young writers with an incredible breadth of language and nor did I ever win any writing competitions. I remember having to read out a poem I had written about a spider in my first year at secondary school and I didn’t know whether to be thrilled or mortified. My A level English teacher, Mrs Baldock, introduced me to two of my favourite authors: Iris Murdoch, via The Bell, and Susan Hill, via her short story collection, A Bit of Singing and Dancing, although it’s her debut novel I’m The King of the Castle which, in my opinion, is her masterpiece. I’ve always been fascinated in why good people do bad things and the relationship between the main characters Kingshaw and Hooper is one of the most destructive you’ll come across in modern literature.
What genres do you like to read? Have they had an impact on the genre you write?
These days I read almost entirely historical fiction. There is so much good quality historical writing out there at the moment that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. I can’t actually remember the last contemporary novel I read. I read (and write) to escape and whilst I know there are some outstanding works of fiction out there that tackle the contemporary problems of today, but we’re living in amongst the thick of many of them so I don’t particularly want to be reading about them, too, when I go to bed.
If you were to write a different genre what would it be and why?
I can see myself turning to crime one day (in a purely literary sense, you understand), although it would need to have a historical setting. I take my hat off to any contemporary crime writers who can sustain any sense of jeopardy in a world where we all have mobile phones and help is usually only the press of a button away. I like to think that my novels are structured rather like mysteries, with clues, red herrings and reveals, so I don’t think it would be too big a leap to one day perhaps create a good old fashioned whodunnit.
Did any author’s work encourage you to pick up your pen and write and if so who, what and why?
I honestly don’t remember. For those who are avid readers I think it only natural that eventually we go from reading stories to wanting to create stories of our own. I see it with my oldest nephew who is not yet eight but has been writing his own ‘novels’ for the last two years. I like to think that he has been inspired by me but, if I’m honest, I think it’s probably more likely to have been David Walliams.
Are there any authors who, as soon as they publish a new book, you have to get it?
It used to be Lesley Glaister. In my final year of university, when I realized that actually what I wanted to do with my life most of all was to write, I picked up a copy of Writing Magazine. The cover story was an article with Lesley Glaister. She was at the start of her career then and the piece was so inspiring to me as a fledgling writer that I became rather fanatical about her, not least because at the time I loved anything with an atmosphere of what I would call ‘domestic gothic’ and that is something she does so brilliantly – everyday settings but with a sense of the macabre. These days though a new Sarah Waters or Anthony Doerr always excites me, or seeing a friend’s new book that I have seen developing over the months (and years) finally hitting the bookshops.
Which books have you read that have made you think ’Wow, I wish I had written that’ and what was it about the book?
I regularly get blown away by the skills of other writers. In fact, whatever book I’m reading, there is always something that gives me a pang of jealousy, even if it’s just a beautifully nuanced turn of phrase. My favourite read of the last few years though is Ian McGuire’s The North Water. It’s set on a whaling ship bound for the Arctic in 1895, and the world the author has created is so rich and real, so raw and visceral, that you can literally smell the reek of sea salt, whale blubber and blood lifting from the pages. It’s so hard to create an authentic but exciting historical period and in my opinion Ian McGuire absolutely nails it.
Have any of your plots/characters been influenced by real life events/people? (Be careful, I don’t want you getting sued!)
Both of my novels have been influenced by real events. My first novel The Dynamite Room was originally inspired by the true story of German bodies being washed up on the Suffolk coast in 1940. It made me wonder what might have happened if one of them had not been dead. For The Dynamite Room I also investigated parts of the war that previously I had known very little about, such as the Allies’ campaign in Norway and the initiation of Hitler’s secret Brandenburg Division. In Devastation Road I looked at the events that occurred in Europe in May 1945 during the days before and after peace was declared. The immediate aftermath of the war is something that novelists, as far as I can tell, have largely ignored. Devastation Road investigates what happened in mainland Europe as the concentration camps were liberated and the Allies tried to deal with the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Come the end of 1944 there were 11.5 million displaced people in Europe, 7.7 million in Germany alone. Devastation Road is the story of just three of them.
A huge thank you Jason for taking part and the considered answers. I’m pleased to come across another Tove Janssen fan and, as usual, this feature has added more titles to my ‘must read’ pile!
Devastation Road is out now and has just been released in North America.
A deeply compelling and poignant story that, like the novels of Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, dramatises the tragic lessons of war, the significance of belonging and of memory – without which we become lost, even to ourselves.
Spring, 1945: A man wakes in a field in a country he does not know. Injured and confused, he pulls himself to his feet and starts to walk, and so sets out on an extraordinary journey in search of his home, his past and himself.
His name is Owen. A war he has only a vague memory of joining is in its dying days, and as he tries to get back to England he becomes caught up in the flood of refugees pouring through Europe. Among them is a teenage boy, Janek, and together they form an unlikely alliance as they cross battle-worn Germany. When they meet a troubled young woman, tempers flare and scars are revealed as Owen gathers up the shattered pieces of his life. No one is as he remembers, not even himself – how can he truly return home when he hardly recalls what home is?
You can read my review of Devastation Road HERE.
About Jason Hewitt
Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His debut novel The Dynamite Room was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel. His second novel Devastation Road was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and has just been released in North America. His last play Claustrophobia premiered at Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to London. When not writing he teaches at Oxford Brookes University, Bath Spa University and runs writing workshops at the British Library.