Cambridge born, Joshua Winning has created a world of danger and demons set in our incongruous city. It follows accidental hero Nicholas who, after his parents’ deaths, discovers a secret. The second book of the trilogy, Ruins, was published this year. Jenny Shelton finds out why Cambridge lends itself so well to fantasy.
Congratulations on the publication of Ruins! Tell us about the book.
Thanks – I wasn’t sure it would ever be finished, to be honest, let alone published! Like most sequels it’s bigger, weirder and (hopefully) more ambitious. We pick up with Nicholas Hallow, who goes on a quest to find a girl who could hold the key to going up against the Dark Prophets: but he has nothing to go on. He heads to Bury St Edmunds only to discover something evil has already landed.
How would you describe Nicholas?
He’s a typical 15-year-old – bolshie, sarcastic, vulnerable – but he’s also been told he’s destined to be a great hero. After discovering the world of the Sentinels, with all its demons, talking cats and gung-ho pensioners, he’s not even sure how to be a teenager anymore, let alone a hero. With Ruins, we see his courage put to the test.
How much has Cambridge influenced your books?
Cambridge really gave Sentinel an identity and a distinct personality. In early drafts, the story was set in a nondescript part of London, but it just wasn’t working. I had an ‘aha!’ moment when I was walking around Cambridge one day and realised the obvious had been staring me in the face the whole time – I had to set the story here. As soon as I realised that, the book came together and I couldn’t imagine the story taking place anywhere else.
Have you always lived in Cambridge?
I’ve lived in London for the past nine years, but I have family in Cambridge so I visit often. I went to university there and also stayed in Cambridge for a number of years after graduating, living with my grandad. When I was a kid, the city felt huge, especially compared to Bury St Edmunds, where I grew up. Now it feels smaller, more intimate. Cambridge is beautiful but it has a stormy, gothic edge I love. You can easily imagine scaly monsters clattering over the cobbles when the sun goes down.
'Cambridge is beautiful but it has a stormy, gothic edge I love'
Fantasy novels are often set in a fictional place. Why did you choose to use somewhere real as your setting?
The best fantasy makes you believe the story could really happen, and I think one way of doing that is grounding the fantastical elements in reality. Though I love high fantasy like The Lord Of The Rings, I feel much more at home in a recognisably grubby world. That’s the world of Sentinel, where the monstrous and the magnificent hide just behind the mundane. Cambridge already feels like it’s telling its own fantasy story most of the time. The city really sets my imagination on fire: it has extravagant old buildings, weird little alleys and side roads, cobbled streets, unexpected statues (like the one on Market Square, just look up!). Midsummer Common can be brooding, while the Fitzwilliam Museum is like something out of ancient Greece... I think the more important question is: why wouldn’t you set a fantastical story in Cambridge?!
How long did each book take to write?
I started writing Sentinel when I was about 15 and it wasn’t published until I was 30, so a little while! I saw it as a hobby, something to do when I wasn’t working shifts, studying or trying to get a job in London. I fell so in love with this world, though, that I had to finish it. Luckily I managed to crank book two out in two years, so I’m getting quicker!
Have you always wanted to write?
Was there ever another career plan? Aside from a brief determination to become an Olympic gymnast? That dream died before I reached double figures, but as a kid, I always dreamed big. At one point I was really into drama, so I fantasised about becoming an actor (it felt a lot more realistic than that gymnastics ambition), but quickly I decided I wanted to tell stories for a living. I still can’t quite believe I now get to do that – whether through writing books or working as a film journalist.
How easy was it to get published?
It certainly wasn’t easy, but the rise of self- publishing helped. After receiving the usual knock-backs from agents and publishers, I decided to self-publish Sentinel via Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). Happily, a handful of bloggers grabbed hold of it and were massively supportive, then I landed a publishing deal with Peridot Press. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to self-publishing, but it really is a fantastic way to get your book under readers’ noses. I know indie authors who are writing amazing stuff (check out David Estes).
Which other authors do you admire?
Roald Dahl, CS Lewis and Robin Jarvis all had a huge impact on me as a child. As an adult I’ve learnt a lot by reading Patrick Ness, and Stephen King does wonders with character. In the space of a page he can make you feel like you’ve known people their entire lives.
What do you want to get out of a book? And what do you hope others will get out of yours?
For me, books are always about escapism, but the best books tell me something about the world or myself that I hadn’t considered before. Of course, I’m also a sucker for a big twist and a heart-dropping action scene, but who isn’t? With my books, I only ever set out to entertain. I want to crank the dial to ‘thrilled’ at all times, though I’ll settle for ‘creeped out’ as well. Nicholas’s grief is my grief, and even though the book’s about monsters and fight scenes and talking cats, I wanted to lend a human edge to all the craziness.
What can we expect from the third book in the trilogy?
That would be telling! We’ll be back in Cambridge for the big finale, and as it’s the last book in the trilogy I want to create a really satisfying ending that’s big on emotion, action and surprises. I’m also currently working on a spin-off that will hopefully be available this time next year. It puts Jessica and Isabel (my favourite character) under the spotlight, filling in some of their backstory. I’m having a ball writing it.
Ruins is out now, published by Peridot Press, priced £6.99.