The book that most influenced me

The Scarecrows

It was the night before the Fund-raising Effort that the devils came. So it seemed to Simon Wood ever after …

Do you have a favourite novel of all time, or one that’s influenced you more than any other? You might think that’s an impossible questions to answer; if you’re anything like me then your response might be something like, ‘heck, where do I start, there’s so many?’

Yet in my case, there is one that stands out above all others. It’s called The Scarecrows by Robert Westall. I’ve posted a full review on Goodreads, which you can read if you’re interested. But here I’ll try to briefly explain why it was such a significant influence for me.

I first read The Scarecrows at the age of thirteen, which happened to be the same age as the main protagonist, Simon Wood. Its original attraction – the reason why I picked it off a bookshelf in the first place – was that it’s a ghost story, and I’ve always liked those. But there turned out to be much more to it than that. In fact it’s roughly one part ghost story, one part psychological thriller, and one part emotional drama.

Central to its power is the main character. Simon is utterly believable as the lonely, angry and confused boy who idolises his late father and sees his relationship with his mother begin to disintegrate after her remarriage to a man he hates. Simon is not always a nice person – in fact he’s sometimes pretty horrible – and so Westall did a brilliant job in making the reader root for such a dark and complex character.

What makes the story so gut-wrenchingly real is that it’s mainly Simon’s own inner demons that are tearing his family apart – and as his misery and isolation grows, so the unquiet ghosts in the ruined water-mill across the fields begin to stir, grow in power and move closer and closer … and yet, cleverly, you’re never completely sure to what extent the ghosts are ‘real’ versus how much Simon is imagining the whole thing. Nor is it at all obvious which is the most terrifying of the two prospects – you end up hoping the ghosts are really there, because the alternative – that Simon’s mind is sliding into madness – seems even worse.

Re-reading the book recently, I was able to appreciate afresh how well it’s written. The quality of Westall’s writing is superb throughout, clearly superior to most other writers (childrens’ and adults’) that I’ve seen since. It hooks you from the intriguing first sentence (at the start of this article) to the rather abrupt, slightly ambiguous ending. There’s the odd flash of humour too, despite the dark themes.

So, in conclusion, how exactly has this book influenced me? Well, aside from becoming a confirmed Westall fan, it’s no coincidence that when I finally got round to writing myself, my first two novels have been YA ghost stories, both with a background of domestic pain and upheaval, the characters contending with family strife as well as troublesome phantoms. Although I read a lot more than paranormal stuff now, and I don’t expect all my future writing to be necessarily quite so haunted (and in fact most of my short stories aren’t), my love of all things-going-bump-in-the-night was confirmed by The Scarecrows.

The art of walking nowhere: What helps you get creative?

Walking

People have different ways of relaxing and of getting their creative juices flowing. For me, nothing beats a walk. It doesn’t have to be a ten-mile hike – it can be a ten-minute stroll to the shops. The point is, if I spend too long hunched over a keyboard, my shoulders start to throb and my brain turns to soup; and that’s when I know I need to head outdoors.

Walking is the most beautifully simple form of exercise, good for mind and body, but too often it’s under-appreciated. It may not burn off the calories as quickly as sprinting or pumping weights, but it’s such a great way to relax and unwind. What’s more, you don’t need to be going anywhere in particular. Walks don’t have to serve such a mundane purpose.

I was delighted therefore to come across this article yesterday celebrating the art of walking nowhere, of a good aimless wander. It’s no surprise that writers are among its greatest proponents. Take this quote: ‘Charles Dickens was a walker. He could easily rack up 20 miles, often at night. You can almost smell London’s atmosphere in his prose.’ I can’t think of a greater recommendation that that.

Freeing your mind to wander over the sights and sounds, whether of serene countryside or busy city streets, combined with all that oxygen washing through your brain … no wonder creativity can get such a boost.

I’ve also always found walking a fantastic stress relief. I can remember as a moody, hormone-addled teenager, trying to get myself lost in the streets of Southend. (OK, Paris or London would sound better there, but when you’re from Essex you take what you can get.) When my novel BASIC Boy starts with the protagonist Cal walking aimlessly, trying to escape the pressures of his life just for a moment, there’s more than a little bit of me in there. The difference was in Cal’s case it led to adventure. It never really did for me – but when you leave your home and head off wherever, there’s always that possibility isn’t there?

Do you like to take a walk? Or do you have other ways to lower your stress levels and unleash your creativity?