Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Joel Toombs

Today's guest is Joel Toombs, who talks about Whitby and his writing. Lead on.


What is about Whitby that made you want to write about it?

I first visited Whitby for a conference at Sneaton Castle. It dates back to the 19th century and is also the site of the Priory of the order of St Hilda. St Hilda apparently drove the swarming snakes that plagued the area over the cliffs creating the many coiled fossils that can still be found there (as legend has it) before founding the amazing Abbey that now lies in magnificent ruin atop the cliffs overlooking Whitby. So as you can tell I got switched on to the myth and history of the place straight away! Dracula, whaling ships, Caedmon …the place is full of legend and story but what makes Whitby so unique is that its’ legendary tradition all comes wrapped up in truly breath taking scenery. As a salmon fisherman once told me in Oregon, ‘estuaries hold a special energy!’ It’s a strange phenomenon (superstition?) but I find it absolutely true of this quirky little town nestled around that special place between river, cliffs and sea. I just love it!

Where is your favourite spot in Whitby?

The characters in The Running Boy love to hang around on the cliff tops – especially around the ruins of St Hilda’s Abbey. There’s famously 199 steps from the town up to this point and it’s worth every breath to get up there! I love the view over the North Sea and being able to look down into the town too. Mesmerising!

How did you get into writing?

I sold my first book to a friend of the family aged 5! It was called ‘The Giraffe With The Twisted Neck’ – and reflected my love of words and my upbringing in Kenya, from an early age. However, because writing came naturally to me I assumed everyone could do it, and so spent many years discounting myself from ever pursuing it in a serious way. It was quite a journey to finally be able to refer to myself as ‘a writer.’ I got involved in writing for Youthwork Magazine through my dayjob but also kept a stream of poetry, short stories, and various diaries and blogs over the years. My desire to write was nearly decimated forever when my pride and joy – a journal and book of poetry I had kept through my childhood and faithfully everyday of my year-out teaching in Africa was stolen with a rucksack at Sheffield University during my time studying Architecture. I was so gutted I hardly wrote anything for years.

Can you tell us a bit about your books?

The Running Boy is my first serious novel. It charts the coming of age of an awkward lad called Howie. He and his two close friends enjoy an idyllic childhood (albeit with tumultuous home relationships) exploring the moors and cliffs until on 16th December 1914 the town is bombed by German warships and each of them has a different reason for running away to join the army. The book deals with the terrible conditions and loss of life in the trenches of the First World War, which also act a backdrop for Howie’s struggle with masculinity and the pains of growing up. However, as Howie is given an inviting but strange new order concerning the redundant Cavalry stables his story takes an unexpected turn which present him with love and redemption in the French countryside.

I found researching the war absolutely fascinating – but I was also desperate to get to know these characters I had created, and find out where their stories would lead me. It was an absolute joy to write and I’d go through periods of getting home from work and banging out 3,000 words or more in an evening for weeks at a time. With a young family I have no idea how I found the time! My family were very supportive; apart from being dragged around the museums and Memorials while ‘on holiday’ in France!

What stage is the book at?

It’s not been long since publishing The Running Boy so it’s still all go with promotion and talking to publishers and so on. I self-published as a way of sating my own desires, but also as a way of presenting the manuscript to various people in the industry and building a fan base. This was a successful strategy, but it did mean that I missed a few key elements of the process, such as going to the trouble of getting a professional editor. The book has attracted a few publishers’ interest, so now I am going back to the drawing board in order to get the book as good as it possibly can be before hopefully re-releasing it to a wider audience. This costs money however, so I may need to revitalise my fan-funding page at www.rocketfuelhq.com/joeltoombs if I am to achieve it.

What else are you working on?

Last year I released a booklet with Grove Books Ltd. called ‘Mentoring and Young People’ as I have an MA in Christian Mentoring and Emerging church… They have now asked me to contribute a chapter to their 10th anniversary book coming out in October. I also have a column on mentoring in Youthwork Magazine to keep me busy. People keep asking if I have started the second book yet – so I’m allowing the ideas to wash around in the background at the moment ready for a chance to ferment and brew them properly! I do love having ideas so it’s tempting to just let loose with that but I recognise that as creative as writing is it is also a discipline; and doing the hard editing and rewriting is important!

What are you most proud of?

I feel very proud to hold the book in my hands at all. I ran a fan-funding/pre-order campaign to raise the funds to get the project off the ground and had very little expectations, so the fantastic response I’ve had to The Running Boy has really blown me away. Reading reviews on Amazon about how people have laughed and cried at the twists of the story has really humbled me – it’s such an exhilarating feeling to think I have managed to achieve an emotional response as strong as that. I guess that is why I write and it feels like a real validation. Just being able to call myself an author feels really special.

How much research do you need to do for your writing?

Doing the research was half the fun for me. I find history in general - and the First World War in particular - incredibly emotive, dramatic and inspiring so it was easy to throw myself into it and I probably spent 18 months learning and researching before I did any serious writing. It really gets my imagination racing to visualise contexts, places and accounts of historical events – it really staves off the old ‘writers’ block,’ so I keep the books (and Google) handy when writing so whenever the story takes an unexpected twist I can ensure it all adds up and explore it further. A friend of mine happened to do her dissertation on masculinity in WW1 while I was editing the book so happily I could check out all my facts with her!

Where can we buy your books?

www.therunningboy.com will take you through to the crowdfunding site where not only the book is on sale but other experiences and new content is also up for grabs; but it is also available on Kindle. It is also available at several local bookshops and cafes around Sheffield where I live, and hopefully soon around Whitby too!

My facebook page is longing you to LIKE it!

Do you have a message for your readers?

Many people discount history as being irrelevant but not only do I think we still have so much to learn from the wisdom and lessons of history, there are also so many parallels with what we are still going through now. The people of Whitby must have felt as much, or more, ‘terrorised’ by that German bombing than we do by the various terrorists who plague the world now. But these four years 2014-2018 that mark 100 years since the First World War 1914-1918 are a great opportunity to reflect on the personal and corporate victories achieved – and the desperate losses on both sides and learn the details of brave men and women from our heritage – even through fiction such as The Running Boy.


Go and have a look at it on Kindle and you can read the first part of the book as a taster.  See you on Friday.


Fran Hill said...

Good to read a little more about Joel and his motivations for writing. I've read his book and I'll be interested to see how his writing career develops as I enjoyed the coming-of-age story particularly set against WW1 as it was.

Janet Gogerty said...

My interest was immediately sparked because I also find Whitby fascinating. No Spanish sun for our children - we had several holidays in Whitby and Scarborough dragging them up the 199 steps! Impressed by the effort you have made in research and getting the book to publication.