For Educators, For Readers, Q&A 2 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Mike Lucas for WHAT WE ALL SAW

Mike Lucas has authored several picture books as well as collections of humorous poetry for children, and also runs a bookshop in South Australia. WHAT WE ALL SAW is his first YA novel.

Social Media Champion Kelsey Mahoney recently chatted to Mike about his eerie YA debut.

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For those who haven’t yet read WHAT WE ALL SAW, can you tell us what it’s about?

Set in the south-west of England, in 1976, the story follows four eleven-year-old friends as they try to make sense of an horrific event they witness at the local quarry. It is a coming-of-age tale of friendship, trust and belief and explores how folklore and fact can be brought together to create more than one truth.

From the very first chapter, this story felt reminiscent of classic Stephen King with a refreshing new style of horror. What were some of the inspirations for your take on supernatural horror?

I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was the same age as the children in this book, and obviously his writing has been a major influence on my own style. I’m a fan of horror movies and books, and I’ve drawn inspiration from fairy tales and folklore and, at times, added a gothic element. I’ll talk more about my inspiration for the witch later, but the legends and the sad reality of witchcraft in England over the centuries is explored in the book. Much of the horror is psychological, a gradual escalation of tension, but I also wanted to include some shock scenes, whilst taking into consideration the target audience of twelve plus. And to keep that mindset of is it real or isn’t it? in order to maintain a level of mystery until the very end of the book – when all is revealed.

Class is a running theme throughout the book, and plays a big role in the choices the characters make. How early in the writing process did you know just how big a role it would play?

Like much of the story, there wasn’t a conscious effort to discuss this. None of the story was planned – the characters and their actions evolved as I wrote. I grew up on a council estate in England. I probably didn’t realise it at the time, but when I look back, there were children who had difficult upbringings, who suffered neglect. The characters in this book, though obviously not real, have origins in some of the people I knew back then.

You’ve shared before that your own fear of the witch and losing sight in one of your eyes acted as some inspiration for WHAT WE ALL SAW. How did you develop your own experiences into what we get to see in your novel?

Since childhood, I have had this disturbing image of a witch, just like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, creeping up the stairs of where I used to live, to take me away. As children, we also used to spend all day playing in the wood and, once or twice, stayed too late and had to walk back in the near dark. Meeting that witch was always in the back of my mind, though I have no idea where that fear sprouted from. I wanted to incorporate these fears into the book, in the real world, with real children trying to make sense of what they have seen. The difficulty for me was trying to find a way to incorporate that stereotypical image of a witch into a book that could be read, and believed, by teenagers.

There’s another fear I’ve lived with for much of my life, which is far scarier than the thought of that witch. When I was sixteen, I almost lost the sight in one of my eyes due to a detached retina. The condition is serious, but relatively common in older people – not in teenagers. Luckily, my sight was saved by a top surgeon and cutting-edge technology for the time, but since then I have had further treatment on both eyes to maintain my sight. In 2017, my retina detached again. I had four months off work and underwent several surgeries which, in the end, were unsuccessful. During this period, I picked up a manuscript I had started three years earlier and set about carrying on from the ten thousand words I had written. It got me through this dark time, while my mind kept returning to what it would be like to lose my eyesight in one or both of my eyes. Out of this came Shell, an eleven-year-old girl who has been blind since birth. The creation of Shell was my catharsis, a way to express my concerns and frustrations. But I did get some things wrong. Being born without sight can have different implications than losing it during your lifetime. Luckily, I had the opportunity to work with a sensitivity reader on this book, who helped to make Shell a more accurate representation of somebody who has been blind since birth, and the strong character she eventually became.

 Who was your favourite character to write and why?

This was a difficult one to answer. It was between Shell and Gray, but in the end I think Gray wins out. He was a multi-faceted character; somebody who could switch from being your friend to your enemy at the drop of the wrong word. He’s a troubled child with a volatile homelife, but he’s still the one that everybody depends on when there’s a dirty job to do. I enjoyed writing the dialogue between Gray and Charlie which, from the very first chapter, is nearly always confrontational but also, at times, funny. And you can’t help but have some sympathy for him, even when he’s the Gray that isn’t very likeable.

 Was any part of WHAT WE ALL SAW more difficult to write than the rest?

Without giving away any spoilers, I found the chapter near the beginning of the book where the four friends witness the incident at Hags Drop the most difficult. I had to find a way to describe what they were seeing without explaining too much about what was actually happening. And I’m not giving anything away when I mention witches, but I also wanted to create that iconic Wizard of Oz witch and still give the scene a feel of realism. After I wrote the final chapter, once I knew how the book ended, I went back to this chapter and made some critical changes. I remember the rest of the book as flowing effortlessly, but that could just be my memory smoothing over the roadblocks and wrong turns.

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