1. Can you give us a quick summary of Broken to start us off.
Daniel: Yes, though I’m cheating slightly here as I’ve lifted this from a description I did for Amazon in the UK, where Broken was chosen as one of their top eight debut novels for 2008:
Part narrated by Skunk Cunningham, an eleven-year-old girl in a coma, Broken tells the intertwining stories of three families who live in a suburban square in the south of England. The Oswalds – Bob and his five daughters – are the neighbours from hell. They lie, steal, cheat, bully and intimidate anyone unlucky enough to be anywhere near them, including Rick Buckley, a geeky but harmless nineteen-year-old boy who lives with his mum and dad on the other side of the square. Humiliated publicly by the Oswalds in the early stages of the novel, Rick descends into madness and becomes the Broken of the title. Skunk, her brother Jed and their new friend Dillon become fascinated with what’s happened to Broken which, in turn, leads to Skunk ending up in the coma from which she narrates the story.
2. What brought you to write Broken-what inspired it?
Daniel: I’ve been very serious about writing since a very young age but had just about given up hope of getting published after years of rejection when I sat down to write Broken, so it was simply a story I wanted to write in a style I wanted to write it – I purely wrote it for myself and thought it would only ever get read by about three or four people, as had happened with all the other novels I’d written up until then. I’d spent the previous three or four years working on a very long, dark novel so wanted to write something much shorter and punchier, with a little more humour in it as well.
In terms of what inspired it, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird provided the spark that first got me thinking about the characters and the plot. I read Mockingbird for the first time in the summer of 2004 and the characters just seemed so real and fleshed out that I started to wonder how they would adapt to life in today’s society. The first thoughts were mostly concerned with how much more aggressive suburban children can be these days. For instance, when, in To Kill A Mockingbird, the children dare each other to run up and touch the side of the Radley house I was thinking, these days, they’d be daring each other to break in. This isn’t a stain on modern children exactly as I had friends who were just as bad in the seventies and eighties, but we did seem more scared of the consequences back then. Also, when Jem dead-heads Mrs Dubose’s flowers, it did cross my mind that a modern-day Jem might be more prone to dead-head Mrs Dubose … little things like this kept occurring to me all the way through reading Mockingbird, and I started to think they would be fun things to play around with and see where they went. Most of these thoughts never actually made it into the novel, but they were the earliest sparks.
3. I thought it an interesting perspective to have the novel narrated by Skunk, an eleven year old girl in a coma. How did you come about deciding to tell it from her point of view?
Daniel: It’s told from Skunk’s point of view because she’s the equivalent of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Scout narrates that novel: When I originally wrote Broken it was all in Skunk’s first person voice, though by the time the novel first started attracting deals it was in its present format of first person/third person. I didn’t actually know Skunk was in a coma until I was almost at the end of the first draft – it started with her seeing the fight between Bob and Rick, rather than in the hospital as it does now – but I always knew she was telling the story from some sort of position of danger. Just the same as a reader, I didn’t get to find out what had happened to her until I actually got to those scenes towards the end, so didn’t know if the novel would end with her dead, alive, safe, or still in some sort of danger, and the start was the last thing I wrote before I felt I had a completed first draft.
In first wanting her voice to be the dominant one, I was more influenced here by TV and film rather than other novels – American Beauty and Desperate Housewives, both narrated by first person characters who are able to dip in and out of the lives of those around them, even in scenes they play no part in, had really impressed me around the time I started to work on Broken, so I was really keen to see if I could make something similar work for myself.
Dar: Well, it most definitely worked in this novel-it added so much to it.
4. Rick Buckley’s accident seems to be the catalyst for the novel-it is amazing how one incident in a person’s life can be so damaging to them and those around them. What was the purpose of using this incident as the beginning of all that happens-so show the damage of lies?, to show how abuse and violence in one family can bubble over and ruin so many other lives too?, or even to show just how fragile the human mind can be?
Daniel: Thoughtlessness and unnecessary cruelty always catch my mind for some reason – when I’m reading a newspaper or watching the news or little things in real life – but I actually wrote backwards from Skunk and Jed first meeting Dillon to find these early scenes between the Oswalds and Rick. I really liked the name Broken Buckley and the idea of this character – an update of Mockingbird’s Boo Radley – hiding away in his bedroom, but desperately wanted the children to have a reason for calling him Broken, and also wanted his breakdown to be central to the other events in the novel, whereas in Mockingbird Boo is just the way he is; as far as I can remember, his condition isn’t caused by the other characters in the novel. From there on in, it was always a case of asking myself why things were the way they were over and over again; the kids refer to Rick as Broken; why? Because he’s had a breakdown. Why has he had a breakdown and why would Archie refer to him as having a breakdown? Because Bob Oswald’s beaten him up. Why has Bob beaten him up? Because Susan Oswald used him to cover her tracks for something she’s trying to hide from Bob. Why did she do that? Because she heard her sisters talking about him and needed to dig herself out of a hole. I was very lucky in that all these questions always seemed to lead to an answer that fitted into another aspect of the novel. If I’d simply thought of the first scene and started writing from there, I don’t think it would have worked out as well as I now feel it did.
I’m not sure all that has answered your question, but I do think the fact everything springs from one small lie adds an extra element of power and sadness to the novel, and it is often frightening how real life tragedies and feuds can be traced back to such pointlessly small beginnings.
Dar: I too loved the name Broken Buckley-I remember the point in the book where I became aware of how significant the title of the book was-that Rick was broken. It was such a fascinating way to portray that.
5. Are any of the experiences you write about in Broken the result of any occurences in your own life?
Daniel: Some of them, yes, although I’ve not really got any crazy neighbour stories to add to the ones on your site! I did see a fight outside a pub once, about fifteen years ago, which I thought about a lot when writing that first fight scene where Bob attacks Rick; it’s a horrible thing to see someone being hit when they’re past defending themselves, and I could totally believe someone like Rick taking a beating from someone like Bob completely changing his life forever.
I also went to a party I probably shouldn’t have been at when I was about ten years old and there were some older kids – fifteen or sixteen years old – playing strip-poker in the dining room, and an exaggerated version of that seems to have found itself in there somehow.
Around about the time I wrote Broken, there really were gypsies living in the car-park of our local Halfords store, which had just shut down and re-opened at another site half a mile away.
Where Mike Jeffries draws his ‘life’ graph and tries to explain to a classroom full of eleven year old children why their lives will be ruined if they don’t buck their ideas up, I’d just switched careers at work, from finance to print-buying, and been given a terrible pay-rise even though the company had made its usual gazillion pounds worth of profit, and I felt really trapped and angry the way Mike does in that scene. Also, some idiot creative writing tutor I’d shown the first few pages of Broken to had given me a long list of reasons why I shouldn’t bother writing the rest of the novel and, in doing so, drew a graph to show the way plots of ‘all great novels’ have a sort of ‘arc of action/character development’, which is where I got the idea of Mike venting his frustrations in graph format from: That’s where his whole character came from, really; I made him up just so I could put that scene in, which, looking back, was a real catalyst for the rest of the novel, because his appearance suddenly tied so many loose ends together for me and galvanised the plot as a whole.
Also, when I was very young, my older brother and sister used to lock me in a wardrobe whenever there were no adults around to stop them because they knew I was scared of the dark.
But I don’t like to talk about that…
Dar: Those crazy neighbour stories that were submitted were hilarious-I have to admit I really enjoyed them. Secondly, thank goodness you didn’t listen to that creative writing tutor who obviously didn’t recognize a good idea when he saw it or we wouldn’t have had this wonderful book at all.
6. I was very drawn in by the way Broken mirrored To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee in some ways. Was this intentional? If so, why?
Daniel: You’ve probably gathered by now that it was! My very first thought was to mirror To Kill A Mockingbird almost chapter by chapter and play with how much we’ve changed in terms of community and family. Although I quickly moved on from that idea I still wanted to explore the three main families in Mockingbird – the Finch family, the Ewells and the Radleys – and see how they would bounce off each other in contemporary society today given the different ways society would treat them: The Oswalds, for instance, don’t need to live in a shack on the edge of town as the Ewells did, because the council is there to provide a decent home for them, and Rick isn’t left for his family to care for; he’s sectioned, drugged, and then returned to them as a different person to the one who was sectioned in the first place. In my mind, neither society has the right answer to these problems, just very different ways of trying to deal with them.
As it turned out, I think Broken is a very different novel to Mockingbird, full of very different characters with its own plot and writing style, but those three family structures are there, and I was very keen that anyone who knew and loved Mockingbird would be able to spot the part it had played in my thinking. This is why so many of the names are similar – Broken for Boo, Buckley for Radley, Skunk for Scout, Jed for Jem, Dillon for Dill, Cerys for Calpurnia, etc., so no one would think I was trying to hide the influence Harper Lee’s novel had played on me.
Dar: I agree that Broken is a very different novel from Mockingbird. It definitely stands on its own as a different story with just hints of Mockingbird. I had spotted this right off when I read the book. I didn’t include this observation in my review because I didn’t want to take away from what good book Broken was but I admit to loving the hints of Mockingbird throughout.
7. My favorite character in the novel was without question Skunk. Did you have a favorite character in the novel and if so, why?
Daniel: I love Skunk, and I loved writing from her point of view. She’s completely the opposite to me – really outgoing and confident and not scared to ask questions – but her voice seemed an easy one for me to write in. I could have written her story forever and it was a real wrench to have to stop working on Broken and move on to write something new.
Susan Oswald holds a special place in my heart because I think she’s such a sad character, although she’s hateful as well. She’s absolutely central to everything bad that happens in the novel but probably doesn’t have a clue what devastation she’s caused. I think the paragraph on p104/105 totally sums her up, and it’s probably my favourite piece of writing in the whole novel.
For a favourite character, though (sorry, I’m going on a bit) I’d have to go for Mike Jeffries, as I stumbled on him accidentally, and he says stuff I identify with. Also, his answer to a problem is to take a can of super-strength lager into the shower. How can you not love a character like that?
8. How long did it take you to write Broken? What has been your experience in getting it written and published? Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Daniel: I wrote it in 2005 and the first draft took nine months – the first few months of which were trying to work out what the plot was and who the characters were. It then went in a drawer for six months before I started to submit it for publication. Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown Literary Agency in the UK spotted it on his slush-pile (where unsolicited manuscripts sit until someone can find the time to sift through them) in March 2007, after thirty or so other agents had turned it down, which is quite a common experience for unknown writers, so a lesson to never give up. We met and had a chat about it and I then did a three week re-write. Following that, over the next four to six weeks, it sold in the UK, Canada, the US, Holland and Italy. I then worked on it with my UK, Canadian and US editors for a further four months to get it as perfect as it could possibly be.
If you’re out there trying to get published and it hasn’t happened for you yet, I’d say, so long as writing fulfils something within you, keep going, but do it for yourself and for the pleasure writing gives you, not in the hope of money or fame, as that sort of thing only ever happens to a very small number of writers. Everyone’s different, though, so don’t let me put you off if you do think writing’s going to make you rich and famous!
9. I’m really taken with book covers-many times that alone draws me into picking up a book and finding out what it’s about. I love the cover of Broken-just the simplicity of it is intriguing. Is there any meaning behind choosing this cover for your book?
Daniel: Ecco, who are publishing Broken in the US, came up with this cover and everyone fell in love with it instantly, not just in the US but in the UK and Canada as well. I think covers are a strange thing and I’ve no idea why some work and some don’t, but I think this cover works perfectly for Broken – something about it fits the mood and theme of the book and I think it’s eye-catching as well. In terms of meaning, I’ve never talked to Alison Former, who adapated the original B is for Betsy image, so I don’t know what was in her mind when she put it forward, but I’m delighted she did and that everyone decided to go with it.
10. So Daniel, can you tell us a bit about yourself. Has it always been your dream to be a writer?
What do you like to do in your down time? What do you like to read and what are you reading now or recently?
Daniel: Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I really understood that writers existed – my first happy memory at school outside of break-times and being off sick was being allowed to spend a whole lesson writing a short-story. I must have been five years old. It took me another thirty-two years to produce a publishable novel, though. In-between, I didn’t really achieve much at school, and I left when I was sixteen. Since then, I’ve worked in accounts and print-buying, and at the moment I’m having a go at writing full-time.
When I’m not writing I like to go to the gym or go on bike-rides. I also like watching films, camping, drinking and watching football. My wife and I have both got into surfing and skiing over the past five years – a collective mid-life crisis? – and we’re going to be working in France as chalet-hosts this coming ski-season, which we’re both really looking forward to as it’ll be totally different to anything we’ve ever done before. It’ll involve cooking and cleaning (and entertaining) for twenty or so people a week, and hopefully a lot of skiing as well, plus I’ll be trying to find whatever time I can to keep writing.
Reading-wise, I’m not that prolific but I’ve always loved reading. My favourite novels tend to be dark ones – I love Kem Nunn’s Tapping The Source and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I also loved Orwell’s 1984 and all of Stephen King’s early novels, with It being my favourite. Also, what he did with Salem’s Lot, putting Dracula into a modern context, gave me the confidence to pursue my idea of updating some elements of To Kill A Mockingbird, so he has been a huge influence on me in that respect as well.
I’ve read quite a few novels in the past couple of months as I appeared at The Edinburgh Festival in August alongside Ross Raisin (God’s Own Country/Out Backward) and Mark Wernham (Martin Martin’s On The Other Side) both of whom have produced great debut novels, which I read in preparation for that. What struck me about each was the strength and originality of the first person narrators they’ve created, both of whom seem to have their own vocabulary. I would recommend both. I was also in hospital for an ear-op earlier this month which stopped me writing for a couple of days so I read Willy Vlautin’s Northline and Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal, both of which I really enjoyed.
I’m always looking forward to reading novels as well, but I try not to read too much when I’m working on a novel myself – ones I want to read as soon as my current novel is finished are Little Children by Tom Perrotta – I really liked the film and the first chapter looks brilliant on Amazon’s Look Inside – Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. And about a hundred others!
Daniel: I am. The provisional title is Swap and the core story is about a wife-swap that goes wrong and the fall-out from it.
I must admit, writing a novel after being published is a completely different experience to any writing I’ve done before, and I found it extremely hard to get going. I’m past that now, thankfully, and really enjoying myself. At the moment, I’m at that difficult stage where I might be nearly finished and I might not be. I know what happens and who all the characters are so it’s just a case of plugging away till I get to the end and then really hammering it into shape. I tend to do a fair bit of backward revising as I go along to avoid getting to the end of a first draft and then discovering it’s not very good and having to re-write the whole thing from scratch. That can mean progress sometimes feels as if it’s ground to a halt, and then it’ll suddenly leap forwards again, which is why I often find it hard to know how far through the process I am. Fingers crossed this one won’t take more than a couple of months to wrap up now, as I already know what I want to write next and I’m really keen to start working on it.
12. Finally, are there any parting thoughts you’d like to share with the readers regarding Broken?
Daniel: Just if you’ve read it already, thank you so much for taking the time and I really hope you enjoyed it. If you haven’t got round to it yet, then fingers crossed that you do, and it doesn’t disappoint! If you loved it – please, please tell all your friends…