AW What is your current release?
ASL A novel called BLINSBY, published not long ago by Crooked Cat. It was a 20-year-long labour of love for me and my co-writer, Peter, starting in the mid-1990s as a whimsical and very silly exercise in nostalgia, and being refined over the years into a darker and much more complex surrealist thriller.
It’s set in a small primary school in a fictionalised version of rural Lincolnshire sometime during an alternate history 1980s. England is reeling in the aftermath of a civil war between Mercia and Northumbria, but the children of Blinsby Primary School are much more concerned about the disappearance of their new classmate, Jack, who seems to have uncovered a dark secret buried deep within the school.
It’s a comedy, but not a spoof – the thriller aspects are taken absolutely seriously, but we try to wring as much fun as we can from the eccentric cast of characters and dreamlike situations. It’s loosely based on my and Peter’s shared childhood – a few of the things in the book actuallyhappened to us, but they’re the sort of thing we thought might happen, so in effect it’s a memoir of our imagination.
Aside from the opening chapter, the whole thing takes place in exaggerated real time across the course of one school day, from their arrival in the morning to hometime that afternoon. We’ve tried to create a fully-populated, immersive school environment – it’s surreal, but also I think sufficiently archetypal that readers will hopefully feel like they’re spending a day back at primary school. Certainly, those who’ve read it have told us that they recognise characters and situations from their own childhood, which is really gratifying.
AW What first got you into writing and why?
ASL Aged around 11 or 12, it felt like time to stop playing with toys, but I didn’t want to give up having fun with narratives, so it seemed to be a natural extension of play to start writing. My favourite toys were my Star Wars figures. I loved Star Wars itself, but whenever I played with the toys, it was always as part of some other fiction – it was exciting not to be confined by the rules of the movies’ universe, but to spin my own stories and situations.
|Peter Tunstall & Adam S Leslie|
At around the same sort of time, Peter had already started writing a sort of sub-Tolkien saga called The Adventures of Drinil. That was a similar sort of thing: taking a lot of the iconic aspects of Middle Earth, but shaping them to his own experiences and not being confined by the books’ mythology. He lent me the first two and a half volumes (written in school exercise pads), and they instantly grabbed my imagination, and so – without even asking permission! – I took over from where he’d left off. Unfortunately, I was far too lazy to learn the myriad of characters he’d populated his books with, so I promptly wrote in a huge battle and killed most of them off!
AW Famous authors, such as Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, had a special space for writing. Do you have a writing shed of your own?
ASL I love the romantic idea of writing in coffee shops or the local library, but in reality I’m far too easily distracted by background chat or music, and I do my best thinking lying down, which doesn’t go down to well in public places. So mostly I just write at my desk in my bedroom like the 41-year-old teenager I am. If I wasn’t a starving artist, though, I’d probably have a fully equipped office somewhere by the seaside. And while I’m daydreaming, I’d like a pony.
AW Would you indeed! You write science fiction/fantasy. Is it all imagination or do you also undertake research?
ASL I’m pretty lazy, so most of my research is on-the-spot fact-checking on the internet, and also lying around thinking. For my research into Blinsby, though, I spent six years living as a child in rural Lincolnshire, which I reckon is a pretty big investment into the project.
It’s really fun letting the imagination off the leash. Sometimes, when writers do a lot of research, it can all end up in the book, which is rarely ideal. I read a techno-thriller recently in which all of the processes were explained in authentically meticulous and tedious detail, page after page of the stuff, when I really just wanted to get on with the story. You could tell this was the author not wanting all his hard preparatory work to go to waste.
That’s not to say that I think writers should just make facts up, but I do enjoy the freedom minimal research allows. For example, one of the characteristics of Blinsby is that it has its own, hermetically-sealed popular culture. These children aren’t into Star Wars or Doctor Who or My Little Pony like our generation were, they’re obsessed by their own films and TV shows – in particular a creepy long-running German cartoon called Happy Tom and the Summer Man. Not only does this mean that there’s no chance of embarrassing anachronisms, it also makes it a much more universal experience: every reader is coming to this experience fresh, there are no alienating references to Duran Duran or Magpie or Watch With Mother, or any other things which didn’t necessarily survive across different generations.
AW Is writing for the screen so very different from writing a novel?
ASL Very much so. They’re completely different disciplines really, each with their own unique pros and cons. With films, structure and economy are key. Because a screenplay isn’t a finished product, but the blueprint for a finished product, it’s important to get the ideas across as cleanly and efficiently as possible. The way you word your script and the language you use isn’t so important (except in writing the dialogue) so long as everything is easy to understand and doesn’t take up too much space on the page. Of course, you want to make action scenes as exciting as you can, or comedy scenes funny, but you can only ever include things which will either be seen on the screen or heard on the soundtrack.
So, on one hand, it can be a real challenge for someone who’s a natural novelist to rein in their instinct for poetic description, metaphor, inner dialogue and all their other authorial skills, on the other it can also be a lot of fun to write a rattling good yarn using just the bare bones of language.
But then, when I switch back to novels, the writing (for me at least) is a lot slower and more meticulous, but it can feel like upgrading to Business Class and being able to stretch my legs again – having the whole palette of the English language at my disposal is such a freeing experience.
The same with structure. With a novel, you can more or less do what you want; but in films, you have 90-100 pages – with a lot of white space – to get the story across, and there’s a definite right way and a wrong way to structure them. The only commercially-successful film ever to have eschewed the accepted screenwriting template is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And again, once you know the structure, it can be really useful for efficiently and effectively telling your story; but it is lovely, from time to time, to let your hair down and take a holiday in the more free-form, liberating world of a novel.
|Philip K Dick|
AW Finally, if you had a whole afternoon to yourself and could choose to spend it with another writer. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
ASL If I can pick someone who’s no longer around, I’d go for Californian science fiction author Philip K. Dick. He wrote strange, mind-bending books and lived an even stranger and more mind-bending life. I’m not sure I’d want to discuss anything in particular, I’d probably be happy just to listen. If you get the chance to read Lawrence Sutin’s biography of this weird genius, please do so!