The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Ken Howard

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Ken Howard


Date: September 2010
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Ken Howard's The Young Chieftain is a really unusual story about an American boy who finds himself on a remote Scottish island in the middle of a clan conflict. It's easy to read, but with several layers to peel back. We loved the mix of modernity and tradition and jumped at the chance to ask Ken some questions about writing it.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Ken Howard: I think if we are honest we write first for ourselves and in spite of ourselves. And by that I mean that when it’s working well, the mind runs ahead of you and presents you with twists and turns and dialogue that can surprise or amuse you. Enid Blyton wrote that for her it was like a movie projected on a screen where she was the only audience. I wish it were that easy, but certainly when creativity is humming you can enter a sort of suspended state where good things happen. Certainly in writing music and songs, you are often presented with melodies and lyrics - and when they are right, you know it. So I sort of picture readers as a cloned ‘me’ – hopefully pleased and excited but most of all – grabbed.

  • BB: You're a bit of a Renaissance man, writing screenplays for film and TV, composing music - what made you want to write a novel for teenagers? And it was it fun?

KH: You could say that I have a low boredom threshold! – but I certainly do like to try many things. I think we all have it inside ourselves to be different people when circumstances demand (just look at Jamie in the book) but I have always fiercely resisted labels. If you are a plumber you can’t be a poet. Why not? If you are into blues you can’t like Beethoven? Really? If you support Arsenal you can’t appreciate Man U. And so on.

People love to say if you do this and this and this you can’t be serious. Or, with a sneer of disdain, ‘He is a jack-of-all-trades.’

I always wanted to write a book – you know, have your name on the spine and all that. Like I always wanted to write a number 1 hit, and have a West End musical. I’ve been incredibly lucky in having many of my dreams come true. And yes, it is always great fun.

  • BB: We couldn't agree more! We thoroughly enjoyed The Young Chieftain, not least because it's unusual. There's nothing else like it on the shelves. From where did the idea come?

KH: You know, that is the nicest thing you could possibly say. I would be totally shattered if you said, “Oh , The Young Chieftain is a bit like.” As always the idea came from real life. Ages ago I read a news story about an English kid who, on the death of his father, had to go to Scotland and be invested as the Chieftain of is clan. ‘Wee Chieftee’ they called him, and I seem to remember pictures of him self-consciously being measured for a kilt and old ladies fussing over him.

  • BB: We'll always shout it loud if something stands out from the crowd - I wonder what Wee Chieftee's doing now! Jamie is a great guy, navigating a clash of cultures really well, and showing tremendous courage when needed. Was the plot of the book designed around having a mixed race, dual heritage central character?

KH: Oh yes. I didn’t want an English milksop like the ‘Wee Chieftee’. I wanted someone as totally different from that as you could imagine, a black mixed-race Angelino, who would descend upon his Scottish heritage like an alien. I don’t know who is more surprised when Jamie arrives in Doran – his estranged and unsuspecting family or Jamie himself, suddenly cast off from his whole American youth culture. But most importantly I wanted a mixed-race hero, because we live in a multicultural society, many of whose members often cannot recognise themselves in most current fiction. Tamarind, the publishers, have forged a pioneering trail for many years trying to redress the balance in their great books for children. I am very honoured to have written their first fiction title.

  • BB: We think that's an important point, too. We're all children of the world these days, and becoming ever more so. Will we ever meet Jamie again in another story by you?

KH: If it is successful, just try to stop me!

  • BB: Fingers crossed! How important is tradition?

KH: I think very important, because it helps define who we are and where we come from. It also forms a framework for the way we behave, and a check to stop us misbehaving. At its best it contains a fund of wisdom, history and culture handed down from generation to generation. At its worst it engenders a feeling of superiority and supremacy, looking down on others and encouraging what I call the ‘this land is mine’ philosophy that has led to countless territorial conflicts. As Tevye the poor village milkman says in the wonderful musical Fiddler on the Roof ‘Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.’ But, as in that show, traditions must change slowly and painfully to adjust to an evolving world.

  • BB: Given the choice, would you live in a city like LA or on an island like Doran?

KH: Actually I live in London, which is a wonderful city crammed with so much to see, theatre, concerts, exhibitions. But I also have a place near LA in California on the coast, with the pounding Pacific, the desert and the mountains and Mexico just an hour or so away, so I have a great combination. If you mean if I had to make a forever choice between living in a busy metropolis or a very simple and beautiful island? – I guess I would choose the island, as long as my computer worked!

  • BB: Computers are a given for us too! Where do you write? And what do you do when you're not writing (or composing)?

KH: I’d like to be a romantic sort of writer, jotting down ideas on the back of envelopes or in handy moleskine notebooks wherever my travels take me. But I’m not. I need to sit in front of my computer in my office and have a nice empty page of Microsoft Word smiling at me. I like to choose my font - usually Georgia 12pt - and get my tabs and margins working, and a nice heading… you’ll gather than I am postponing the moment that I actually have to write' anything! Some days I type really well (I am self-taught) and others I fling gobbledygook onto the page and my SpellCheck cries out in pain.

When I am not writing or composing I am usually directing or editing films. I had a movie camera when I was 13 and clamped a CinemaScope lens onto the front of it to film my first dramas. The result was a very dim but very wide picture on my bedroom wall, but I was hooked. When I am not doing any of the above, I love playing tennis (not very well), swimming and taking long hikes where I usually end up getting totally lost.

  • BB: What three books should every child read?

KH. Three books that will grab them by the scruff of the neck and get them hopelessly hooked on reading for life. Doesn’t matter what they are – in my case it was Captain WE Johns and the Biggles books, Enid Blyton, Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, The Little Prince. But it could as well be Harry Potter or Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight vampires.

  • BB: Nice choices - particularly Gormenghast! What's next for Ken Howard?

KH. I have some more stories I’d like to tell, and some more songs and music I’d like to write, oh and a few movies upcoming and I’m going to go into space. I made the last bit up..but you never know.

  • BB: Speak to Richard Branson - he might be able to help you out with some space tourism sooner than you think! Thanks so much for talking to us, Ken. We hope to see you in the world of children's books again very soon.

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