Sunday 16 July 2017

A Conversation with Jason Hewitt

Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His first novel The Dynamite Room was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing and the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award. Devastation Road, now also published in the US and Canada, was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. His debut play Claustrophobia premiered at Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to the Hope Theatre in London.

He teaches on the Publishing degree at both Oxford Brookes University and Bath Spa University, and also regularly provides creative writing workshops at the British Library. Jason is also Treasurer for the Historical Writers' Association.

Devastation Road is 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?

We wish Jason lots of success with Devastation Road and many thanks for joining us in conversation.

Tell us your journey as a writer.

I’ve been writing stories since I was a child and have always been obsessed with books. My first part time job was at Dillons the Bookstore in Oxford (before it become Waterstones), and when I finished my degree I ended up working there full time. It was supposed to be a temporary position before I got something “more lucrative” but I ended up staying for almost five years. When I eventually moved on it was to begin a career in publishing, something I ended up doing for over 15 years. In amongst all of this I wrote and wrote but wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then not long after my thirtieth birthday I lost my best friend to cancer. It made me realise that life can be short and you need to take it by the horns so I took redundancy and went to Bath Spa University to study an MA in Creative Writing. It took me four years to complete the novel I started to write there and I eventually got an agent, but the book didn’t sell. By this point I’d gone back to my publishing career with my tail between my legs. However, my agent told me to write another book and, refusing to give up, I did. It took another four years to write The Dynamite Room but, miraculously, it sold overnight in a pre-emptive bid. For apparently “overnight success” it had been a very long haul!

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you most like about it?

I’d like to say my role as a writer is to entertain but if that were the case my books would be a lot funnier. Both my published novels have been set during the Second World War and I hope that they help readers to understand the war and empathise with different viewpoints. Regardless of the time and setting though, like most authors, I hope that I’m writing stories that have universal appeal and tackle subjects that we can all relate to. The best moment for any writer is when a stranger contacts you to tell you that something you have written has touched them in some way. I keep these in a ‘feel-good’ folder for those gloomy days when I feel incapable of stringing a sentence together, let along a novel!

Have you ever created a character you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

All my characters have traits that I dislike, and that’s why I empathise with them. Characters, in my opinion, should all be flawed in some way because if readers are to relate to them they need to be human. Heiden in The Dynamite Room walks a thin line between being a monster and a hero. It is the war in many ways that has turned him bad. However, I was really pleased with how much readers felt sympathy for him. The jury is still out for Owen in Devastation Road. He has done something that some readers find hard to forgive, but this, I hope, is what makes his story all the more tragic.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

For me a diversity of characters creates interesting dynamics. When I came up with the story for The Dynamite Room, the first character that appeared in my head was my Nazi soldier, Heiden. I then tried to think of the most unlikely person for him to be pitted against. From that, eleven-year old Lydia was born. Similarly in Devastation Road, Owen is joined by three distinctively different characters on his journey across Europe – a fifteen-year old boy that speaks no English, and a young Polish girl with an infant. The drama largely comes from the dynamics formed by their uneasy alliance – none of them trusts the others and yet they find themselves becoming increasingly dependent on each other.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Now Winnie-the-Pooh because he speaks so much sense. Although as a child it was James from James and the Giant Peach and Bilbo Baggins.

If you could be transported instantly anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I write on location as much as I can. It helps with the details and is a short cut for the imagination. That said, my next novel is set in the Lake District, which is not very exotic. If I was smart about this I’d choose locations I want to go on holiday and then cram a story into them but it never seems to work like that. In the research for Devastation Road I walked much of the route Owen takes across Europe. It was great fun but ridiculously expensive. These days I’m staying in B&Bs in Cumbria and living on a diet of Kendal Mint Cake.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

Shakespeare’s First Folio. Just to have come up with a Hamlet or King Lear would have made me pretty happy. Even a dud like Pericles. But to have created so many rich, timeless tales that have become the bedrock of so much of our storytelling! It’s impossible to underestimate Shakespeare’s influence on modern culture. If a selection of plays, however, is a cheat it would have to be Winnie-the-Pooh.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Every writer takes a different journey to publication. Every writer works differently. And every writer will offer you different pieces of advice. All I would say is find a way that works for you. You need to put the hours in (a lot of hours) and learn from your own successes and mistakes; and that takes persistence. Be prepared for the knock backs, because they will come. And, most importantly, take on criticism when it is valid. And learn. Learn. Learn.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The next novel is set in 1947 in the Lake District and involves a lot of sheep and possibly some supernatural phenomena (or possibly not).

You can follow Jason on Twitter here: @jasonhewitt123

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