Prior to publication of The Darkest Battlefield, Dean sat down with Richard Farren Barber to talk about his amazing story, All Hell..
DD: Richard, though you make reference to it at the authors note at the end of your story, did you do a lot of research for All Hell – if so, was it just a case of going on ‘google’ or did you have to visit libraries, read primary sources, watch films etc etc?
RFB: I have a love/hate relationship with research. In particular it’s the challenge that when you’re researching you learn so much and because it does feel like hard work (to me at least) I have a sense of wanting people to know I’ve done my homework, and that all of this information hasn’t gone to waste – but then stuffing a story full of facts just to show off doesn’t seem a great idea. That, and the fact for everything I get right, I probably make ten mistakes without realising. For All Hell I did a lot of research. A few years ago I wrote a short story centred around the Sherwood Foresters at the Battle of the Somme so I had a rough understanding of the lay of the land, but I was really keen with All Hell to tackle something different. I wanted to tell the story of what it was like back in England during the war. We’d just come out of the Victorian Age, much of the population was living in slums, and suddenly the country is in the middle of this conflict. I remained friends with Google, but I also ended up contacting local historians at the Nottingham Post and at the local studies library. I wanted a sense of what life was really like. How did people live? What did they cook? What did their houses look like? I found a map from 1910 and actually walked the area where All Hell was set, but it was redeveloped in the 1960s and so most of the streets are no longer there. There are a few elements that remained; it was a very strange experience – as if Nottingham 1910 was a ghost, haunting the modern day streetscape. On my tour, one of the old factory buildings from the time was being demolished, which had a certain poignancy to it, as it felt one of the last links with the past was being lost.
DD: What were your challenges when writing the story?
RFB: Research! Wanting verisimilitude without it turning into a history lesson. In particular, I found that although you can’t move in a library without tripping over a book that tells you what every soldier was doing in Gommecourt on the first of July 1916 for each minute of that day, it was incredibly difficult to find anything about what life was like back home for everyone left behind. I did end up looking at cuttings of newspapers from the time and I found a number of oral history transcriptions, but I never felt I had a full picture of life at the time. As much as I found it difficult to get under the skin of the time, it’s an era I expect I’ll return to in my writing. I’d really like to learn more about Nottingham at the end of the Victorian period and into the early twentieth century – to get beyond the stereotypical "times wos ‘ard but evvryone pulled togevver" image of an urchin with a cheeky grin and a smudge of dirt on his forehead, to the reality of what was certainly a very grim period to be poor.
DD: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
RFB: I’m not sure I have a style; I doubt you’d be able to pick out my prose in an identity parade. I aim to write in an accessible fashion – there’s nothing I find more off-putting than having to read with a dictionary at my side. In my own writing, I find it’s difficult to remain objective. When I’ve worked on the fourth or fifth draft it’s impossible to decide whether it’s good or terrible. I usually go with the latter. And, because I’m colour-blind and so I sense colours have less impact on me than other people, I have to make a specific effort to remember to include colour in my descriptions.
DD: Which authors / what books influenced you do you think? If you had to choose, which writer could you consider a mentor? Who is your favourite author and what strikes you about their work?
RFB: The usual crew: Robert Westall, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell. Of the three, Stephen King has been the most influential to me and my writing. I love the way you’re drawn into the story he weaves. He’s my go-to writer if I ever need to really immerse myself in a story. Bad day at work? Struggling to get your thoughts under control...pick up Sai King and in minutes you’re in Castle Rock or Mid-World. I also love the connections he draws between his stories which makes you feel that your part of a clique. The club of Constant Readers.
DD: What next – what are your current projects? Can you share any of it with us?
RFB: I’m currently working on a novel which is scheduled to be published mid 2019. I’m particularly excited about this because it will be my first novel-length publication.
DD: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
RFB: Yes and no...I sometimes get blocked on a story, but thankfully I’ve never had a situation where I just couldn’t write. I have a daily routine and I think that helps because my mind is expecting to write at a certain time, and I keep to it even if what I put out is total dross. (Stop sniggering at the back there!) As a result, if I ever miss a writing session I feel agitated. I do struggle sometimes with what I’m writing – often the root cause is that something’s wrong with the plot. I’ve got that novella that’s “finished” but doesn’t work so I keep leaving it for a few months / years and then come back and see if I can fix what’s wrong with it. More usually if I struggle to progress a story I often stop where I am and skip a little bit ahead in the story and then come back afterwards to work out why I’d gone off the tracks.
DD: Do you write an outline before every story you write or do you just go for it?
RFB: I’ve taken a number of different approaches. Typically I have an idea of the story’s arc and I write without an outline but with an idea of the ending...although it often doesn’t end as I’d expected. Sometimes I might outline the coming 5 or 6 chapters just to give me a view of the road ahead. I’ve tried outlining an entire novel or novella – and a couple of times when I’ve submitted to publishers I’ve sent an outline as my proposal – but more often I veer so far from the outline that it feels like wasted effort. That said, I would love to crack the whole planning thing as too often my third draft feels like rebuilding a skyscraper by switching out the foundation stones one at a time and hoping the whole thing doesn’t fall on my head.
DD: What is your favourite theme / genre to write about? Did you learn anything from writing this story – if so, what was it?
RFB: My favourite genre is horror. It’s not that I find myself particularly scared by horror stories, but I think it’s the genre that allows the writer to explore the great questions of life: what next? What’s after the veil? What’s the most important thing in life. In particular, I love ghost stories. I think there’s a special texture and depth to spectral tales. What are the strongest human emotions that might fuel someone to make the effort to come back from death? It’s usually love or hate – everything in between is just background noise.
DD: If you had to pitch your story to a film producer – how would it go?
RFB: A mother realizes she can protect her sons who are fighting in the First World War. But is she prepared to pay the price with her soul? (Cue swelling background music)
DD: And if you were writing a synopsis for a newspaper / magazine article...
RFB: After Mary Fothergill watches her sons march off to war she lives in dread of the squeal from the post boy’s cycle and the letter from the War Office. Together with a group of other mothers she realizes that there must be something they can do to help their sons. When a strange woman enters their life, and suggests they are not as powerless as they feel, Mary has to decide whether she can pay the price demanded to protect her sons.
DD: What is something your readers might be surprised to find out about you?
RFB: I failed my English o’ levels. Both of them – Language and Literature. Then again, maybe readers will see this and think, that explains a lot.
DD: Richard added some "Bonus Material" to his interview...
RFB: [The character of] Mary Fothergill is named in honour of Watson Fothergill – a Nottingham-based Victorian architect who was responsible for some fantastic landmarks in the city. He was part of the gothic revival movement of the late 1800s and many of his buildings still stand today. Go to Nottingham and take the tour. Just don’t mention the Black Boy Hotel! Other characters are named after the families of men who were killed at the Somme, that I came across in my research.
DD: Thank you for your time Richard - it was very much appreciated. If you would like to know more about Richard then please visit - Website: www.richardfarrenbarber.co.uk
Dean M. Drinkel