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Peter Haynes Interview – The Willow by Your Side

Peter HaynesPeter Haynes’ debut novel The Willow by Your Side has just been published by Unsung Stories. It is a haunting exploration of British folklore, mythology and landscape set after World War I, and follows the journey of a boy into the magical woods to find his missing sister. Peter Haynes was kind enough to speak to Fantasy-Faction the week of The Willow by Your Side’s launch party.

Your first novel The Willow by Your Side is out now with Unsung Stories. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?

Yeah certainly. The Willow by Your Side is as you say my debut novel. It’s an historical fantasy novel set between the two World Wars. I set out to write an adventure story for a young boy character, and it ended up being something of an exploration of the effects of World War I, on a very small, slightly insulated family who live in the countryside. They don’t interact much with the local people, but when a tragedy happens, when the older sister of the main character goes missing, it falls to the young boy to explore the woods and hopefully find her and bring her home.

The central family of characters are unnamed. Whilst we get the names of the more peripheral characters, the family are referred to as Mother or Father, and the book is written as if the boy is talking to the missing sister. What made you decide you to write the book that way?

The Willow by Your Side (cover)Originally, I started with the opening chapter of the book which is the letter to the sister. It’s the boy putting his most heartfelt wish into a letter, and even though he can’t post it anywhere, the act of writing this desire for the sister to come home, picking up a pen, writing it on the page, is like a spell in a way. It’s part pledge, part magic spell. So, in a way he’s putting his efforts into a desire and a wish upfront, and then later on he realises he has to follow it up with action, he has to go do the search. He’s also the only one who can do it because of the secret ways of the woods between him and his sister. But that template, that pattern laid down by this initial desire, this wish, almost of him writing the letter to his missing sister, became the pattern of the whole book.

When it comes to names, I avoid names for main characters where I can, just because I think a name gives a reader an image of a character, and I would rather they generate their own. So, it just stuck like that. And if you’re addressing a story to another, off-screen main character, I think that helps draw the reader in. It certainly would me if I was reading the book, I don’t know if people might find it alienating, but it’s a very close point of view, and it helps if you have a slightly unreliable first-person narrator as this one is.

The presence of the missing character throughout the whole book is something you feel really strongly whilst reading it.

Yes, and it also led me to the structure of telling a story from quite near the end, and unfurling it with extensive use of flashback. It keeps the missing character in the story, it also, I hope, makes the older sister someone that you want to have back. The reader has the same desire as the main character, the younger brother. So that really helped to bring it closer to the reader.

The whole novel is so steeped in landscape and setting of the English countryside and the woods. Is setting something that’s really important to you as a writer?

It’s essential, I can’t write without it. I have to have a very clear visualisation of the scene, the setting. Not necessarily how the characters look, although I do describe them a little bit, but I absolutely have to have that proscenium arch. I need to be the audience member looking on the setting, and then I place the characters within it. Setting’s very important. Setting defines mood, setting gives you a sense of space, and movement inside a space, and setting gives something for your characters to react within and about. So, for me it always starts with a clear visual image and a very definite setting.

It’s one of those novels where the setting is almost a character in its own right.

Yeah, I hope so. The wood is meant to feel alive, as it is alive for the children. I have characters, they’re very engaged with the wood, they’re engaged with the stories of the wood. So, it’s a living place, not just a backdrop, it’s something that they move within and become a part of.

A large theme throughout the novel is the power of myth and storytelling – the stories the sister tells the younger brother with their layers of hidden relevance and meaning.

Stories operate in two different ways for the main characters really. A story for the boy at the beginning of the book I always saw as an entertainment. For the sister, her stories are a method of healing. She uses storytelling to explain the situation, the family, the woods, everything that affects her life, it unlocks the code, and it helps her heal from the various traumas. And as the book progresses, when the boy enters the wood, he becomes subject to the same sort of spells and the same stories. He sees the wood through his sister’s eyes a bit more and becomes subject to it.

Given that it’s a fantastical novel about the power of myth and storytelling and about how that’s embedded within the British landscape, it’s difficult to read it without bringing to mind Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. Is that a key text for you?

Mythago Wood (cover)Yes absolutely, and I kind of resist too close a comparison. It is a key text, it’s a big inspiration, but so are things like the kids’ TV I grew up with like The Box of Delights and Moondial, where people can slip out of time. And Vonnegut did it, the main character of Slaughterhouse 5 becomes unstuck in time, that’s all he says, and that gives him licence to move his characters in different times and places and different people.

But yeah, Mythago Wood, tried not to channel it too closely I suppose! And I stopped at Mythago Wood by the way, I didn’t want to get into the sequels because I thought, this might be dangerous territory for me. When the boy enters the wood and he meets the other characters from a past England, that’s a very definite nod to Mythago Wood. Mythago Wood does something else, in that Holdstock introduces a whole series of characters throughout many different periods of time, going all the way back to pre-British almost, going all the way up to Anglo-Saxon and so on, and that was something I had an idea about, maybe having the woodland characters change over time periods. In the end I decided, what I was really writing about was war and the effects of war, and I wanted an invasion and I settled on the Romans. So, tried not to channel Mythago Wood too much. Obviously, it was a sort of visual inspiration, the idea of creatures in the wood, and characters who can exist in another place and time, and how main characters can get drawn into that place and time.

You also draw on this sense of English history but also English mythology.

I haven’t consciously thought about mythology. I had thought about the woodland events as almost a sideways history. So not to spoil it, but the boy ends up in the woods with some people who are pretty obviously Romans who are invading Britain back in the first century. And that is not a myth, it actually happened, it’s on record that actually happened. There was that invasion. They did come as legion, they did try to at first make peace with the local peoples but then ended up being part conqueror part warden. So, it wasn’t so much the mythology I leaned upon for that part.

There’s the other character of the Red Cap who’s the boy’s hunter through the woods, who is very definitely a sort of fairy figure, but that’s contrast, again. I wanted that to be another contrast, it had to be different from both the contemporary story in the mid 1930s, sort of post-World War I, but it’s also got to be very different from the on historical record Roman invasion of Britain. So, it’s a third thing, and it’s the unknowable, it’s the malevolent, and it’s the dark side of the woods. And in a way I guess it just came to represent the native inhabitants of Britain. Not that I see them as bloodthirsty savages or anything. But it’s a third way of looking at the woods.

Another contrast within the book is between the supernatural and fantastical elements contrasted with the mundane real-life horrors of the kids living with a violent father suffering from PTSD.

It became obvious to me that that is yet another struggle for the boy. The boy character is struggling to understand his family situation. He has a violent angry forgetful father who has PTSD. He has a slightly distant mother who can sometimes be guilty of hearing only what she wants to hear. And he has a sister, who’s a great influence on him and the way he thinks and behaves, and yet he’s also part of the real world, so it became something that was another point of conflict within him. He wants to see the world as his sister does, but he also wants to understand the war, what happened after the war, what’s happening to his father really and his family. It’s another point of internal conflict. How to reconcile the desire to live in a fantasy and the desire to want to fit the real world. Perhaps you can’t do the latter so you end up living in the fantasy. It’s part of his journey.

The interwar period is interesting, because there’s been some really great fiction in the past five or so years dealing with it. Books like If Then by Matthew De Abaitua, The Harlequin by Nina Allan, and The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley. What is it about that period that feels so relevant to us now?

The Arrival of Missives (cover)Well, all of those writers you mentioned I’m huge admirers of and have probably answered the question much better than I could, I could only say what it means to me, and that is, the First World War did two things that I really latch onto. One, it almost feels like the end of history. The gates slam shut on whole empires, whole modes of societal structure, they just came to an end. And people might not realise it at the time, but they certainly ended not long afterwards.

The other thing is the mechanism of war changed greatly in World War I, it became a sort of industrialised, impersonal slaughter. And that I find very interesting. I know cannons had existed and firearms had existed for a long time, but it became a very impersonal war, and the numbers became so massive that they almost became meaningless. It’s a brutal, very fast-moving development into a modern world. It happened in four years. And we’ve lived with the consequences for a hundred years since.

And it was probably one of the best recorded wars. There’re writings on it and documents explaining casualty rates and names, we’ve got the cemeteries. It’s a war that feels fresh in our memory, even a hundred years later, and I’ve always been fascinated with it. In four years, you went from cavalry charges to tanks. That’s the step change in industrialised murder that the First World War created, so it’s always been a darkly fascinating period.

I notice throughout the book as well there’s a number of nice shoutouts to old school classic horror – the big manor is called Hill House, and the willows in the title.

Yeah that wasn’t even conscious, I wouldn’t like to claim that’s a deliberate thing! In truth a lot of that is based on where I grew up, so it’s kind of a happy accident. There was a Hill House near where I grew up. I’m glad that you see it as a nod, and I never saw my book as being discussed in the same terms as those great works.

Are writers like Shirley Jackson and Algernon Blackwood influences?

It’s really weird, the writers who I consider the big influences are the ones who maybe aren’t writing works similar to this book, and I can’t really explain it. My influences are pretty varied, and I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, so, Iain Banks of course features largely. I was really into the Hyperion novels by Dan Simmons, for a while, and then a lot of fantasy, a lot of big sweeping multi-volume fantasy, that I can’t seem to drum up the enthusiasm for anymore.

I also really liked Tim Powers’ book Declare, that was actually quite a big deal for me. I thought Declare was a stunning book, and the denouement, the reveal at the end, the way he moves so fluidly through time I found quite captivating. Books that do that, the back and forwards, and books that the reader just accepts you are now in a different time, they pick up on it, they expect it, they move to the next chapter, it’s in a different time again, and it feels quite fluid and quite natural. So that’s what I was going for. And it, to be honest it wasn’t a conscious choice to begin with, but it’s definitely a structure I landed on, and was enjoying writing. It keeps it fresh to write as well, for a start. And it’s fun, fun to write in multiple times, multiple tenses. I enjoyed it.

There seems to be a real resurgence of folk horror at the moment. How do you see your work fitting in to this, and why do you think we’re seeing a resurgence of it now?

This is a matter of timing only for me, I did not set out to write a fashionable book. In fact, the book in one form or another has existed for a good while now. Part of this book was written before I was even on Twitter. I found out a lot about this folk horror movement through social media. This is my childhood, a lot of this book. I grew up with the mysterious woods and the early folk tales. Aliya Whitely tells a very good story on the recent Breaking the Glass Slipper about the various myths of Dartmoor and things like that. For me it wasn’t really a conscious thing. And for me I never saw a separation, I never saw folk horror so much as a continuation of the kind of rural myth that I grew up with and am pretty familiar with.

Why it’s so popular now, I don’t know, I can’t explain it. And obviously there is something going on, because there are books and books and books, and there’s This Dreaming Isle, it really is, it’s quite fortunate for me, it’s a matter of timing that this book is now pertinent. And I’m very happy about it, because like I said I started it a good while ago. It’s nice to know that it now has a place.

What has your experience been of working with Unsung Stories?

Unsung Stories (logo)They’re fabulous. They’re very hard working. Their hearts are in the right place. There isn’t a trace of cynicism about what they do. They want to put out the best book they can, they want to make the books look fabulous, they put in a lot of time and effort. It’s an important year for Unsung, because they are now striking out on their own, as their own independent publishing company, not tethered to another chequebook. But in a short time, I mean it’s only 2014 since they’ve been going, they’ve carved out a really important niche in publishing.

A high point for me recently was at FantasyCon when Nina Allan, who I’m a great admirer of, came up to me, and she said, “You’ve done well with this lot, they’ll really take care of you.” She was talking about Unsung. And that’s really the feeling you sort of get. There isn’t a cynical bone in their body, they just want to put out the best work they can, and they want to do it justice. And it puts quite a lot of pressure on me I suppose, I want the book to succeed for them as much as for me! They’ve been really nice to me, they’ve been very generous, and I’m very happy to be working with them.

What’s next for Peter Haynes?

Currently I’m writing a far future science fiction story concerning the minimum viable population of Earth being hunted to extinction by an unstoppable force. It’s sort of a chase movie style. It’s also striking pretty hard into Gene Wolfe territory, in that it’s about memory and whether memory is reliable.

And after that, I’m thinking possibly a return to some of the characters from Willow, although I don’t like conversations about trilogies or sequences. I tend to get a bit turned off by that. I don’t have the work rate to make a trilogy, I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t deliver a book a year! I’m in awe of people who can but that’s not my style, that’s not my way of working. But yeah, science fiction, and then hopefully more sort of war-themed fantasy. We’ll see how it goes.

Thank you for talking with us, Peter Haynes! To learn more about The Willow by Your Side you can visit Peter’s website or follow him on Twitter!

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