James Brogden’s newest book, The Hollow Tree, was released this week through Titan Books. Ahead of his launch event on 17th March at Foyles Bookshop Birmingham (tickets here) and joining the Sci-Fi Sessions at Waterstones, Gower Street, London on the 19th March (more info here). Ryan Parish was lucky enough to grab an interview with James. You can find the audio version of this interview on our Brum Radio show and on the Geeky Brummie Podcast.
The Hollow Tree
RP (Ryan Parish – Geeky Brummie): Here with me now is James Brogden, who is a local Birmingham or West Midlands author, shall we say?
JB (James Brogden): Yes
RP: Living in the lovely town of Bromsgrove, not too far from us here in sunny Digbeth in Birmingham, and you’ve been writing for about 6-7 years now, I believe?
JB: Well, I’ve been getting published for 6 or 7 years. I’ve been embarrassingly writing for much longer than that without any kind of success. So yes and no!
RP: And you’ve just released your new novel, The Hollow Tree, which will be available to the general public on 13 March at all good book stores and online. It has taken a little bit of inspiration from a tale which is close to Geeky Brummie’s heart, and especially Phil Ellis’s heart, which is around Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?
JB: Yes, a notoriously unsolved true life murder mystery from The Black Country.
RP: It’s not a million miles away from my wife’s parents, who live just down the road from the Wychbury Monument which is where Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm was infamously written. This decamps it slightly further eastwards into the Lickey Hills in Birmingham.
JB: Yes. So what I’ve done is I’ve played a little bit fast and loose with the actual historical details of the murder case itself and have obviously changed the characters’ names and locations. I’ve tried to keep it within the same geographical area because it’s where I live and it’s what I know, and that makes me happy.
RP: And the Lickey Hills are a beautiful part of our city. Most people will probably won’t realise it unless you live in south Birmingham.
JB: They’ve got a surprising amount of unusual history to them as well.
RP: It’s the kind of thing that the book touches on, with its themes as layers within layers within layers. To paraphrase Shrek very badly, it’s like an onion. I’ve just finished pretty much reading the book myself over the last couple of days. It’s been an absolutely fascinating read and it’s been lovely because, as you mentioned, it’s Birmingham based and you pretty much know exactly where you’re talking about, where things are.
JB: They say write what you know and I’m basically a lazy person, so I write about the places I know because it’s less research! The people I know, friends and family and whatnot will also recognise the places in there. The story itself is, I hope, universal enough that you don’t actually need to know anything about Birmingham at all to be able to get the story and understand the mystery to it. Which is kind of why I wanted to distance the story from an actual historical event, to try and make it a little bit more universal and have a little more appeal to a much wider audience rather than have you go oh it’s about Birmingham.
RP: What inspired you to write something around Bella in the Wych Elm?
JB: Because I live around here and do a lot of walking and a mate of mine was telling me about a story about this woman’s remains that were found inside a hollow tree, and a little light bulb goes off in my head “tell me more”. So I did a little bit of digging about the story. The more I found out, the more I realised it was less known. The more you research something, you realise there’s more questions than answers and the spaces between the different versions of the truth are where good stories can grow in the cracks.
JB: I found out different theories that she’s variously believed to have been; a spy or a witch or a gypsy or a prostitute and I thought well, what if she was somewhere between all of those things, what if she was all of those things or none? So I tried to make it something supernatural out of a figure who comes back from the dead but doesn’t know who she is or who’s she supposed to be.
RP: It’s a brilliant theme that runs throughout the book is this tangling of thread where you don’t know which thread is the real thread, what the main character Rachel goes through, her journey.
JB: It very deliberately borrows from tropes from detective fiction in the sense that you’ve got different computing versions of the same story. A different person will reveal clues which shed a whole new light on one particular key event and then gradually the pieces come together and the person investigating it will discover the actual truth. The little bits, of all of the various different stories melded together. So, it kind of fitted nicely with the idea that I was looking at a story about something which had happened during World War 2. I had images of police figures in long coats and trilby hats and searchlights, and all that kind of black and white noir stuff. So a little bit of detective mystery fiction seemed to suit the atmos a bit.
RP: Not to try and spoil the book but flitting between those kind of time periods, in the way the book is written, is a great way to explain the story and how this myth has developed into something which is so much more.
JB: The 40s setting of the backstory of what happened to Mary (as her name is not Bella), I had to do a lot of research and digging about the history of Birmingham around about that time. I found out all kinds of little nuggets of information: the Longbridge area, the Austin works as it was then, and the things that they were building. Odd things like gun emplacements and barrage balloon emplacements on the Lickey Hills, the tram system that used to run through town and now they’re re-introducing a tram system so everything seems to come full circle. I ended up learning a lot more than I expected during the process about where I live, which was nice.
RP: Going from your previous work which was The Heckla’s Children, also on Titan, was it a different kind of way you structured this book, borrowing so much from local knowledge?
JB: I think it’s a different historical period Heckla’s Children counts very much in Bronze Age archaeology, history and culture. It’s a lot older, a lot more savage, it’s a lot rawer. The Hollow Tree is obviously set much closer to the modern day. But in both of them, I’ve got this fascination with different voices, different stories by people all circling around the same basic truth of what happened. The Hollow Tree came a weird kind of ventriloquist act. I had to work a lot with the editor on how do we make this particular character sound like a woman who would have worked in factories, how does this character sound like a Belgian double agent spy. So again that was a lot of fun to adopt those different voices and learn the mannerisms and what that person’s life would have been like.
RP: One of my favourite parts of the story is the interaction between the green man, the dark man and the little man, and how these three facets play off against each other.
JB: That was an excuse to get some bickering between bad guys, which I kind of like. I’m probably not giving too much of the story away to say that for each different version of who Mary was, there’s a different version of her death. When those deaths become summoned into the physical world as actual beings, they’re not only trying to reclaim her soul but they’re also fighting with each other to be the true death. So it becomes a three way bickering argument working together sometimes, they are trying to betray each other sometimes,
RP: It’s always great to have when you have antagonists who aren’t working towards a common goal.
JB: They’ve got agendas they’ll co-operate sometimes when it’s in their own interests, and other times, they’ll backstab each other. I think it gives them a bit of light and shade.
RP: You’ve done some previous works before this book, the Tourmaline series of books, the first two are out. Is that something you will be revisiting as well?
JB: I hope so. I’ve left it dangling a bit. I wrote Tourmaline just on spec because I had this idea about steam punk parallel world which just kept popping up in my dreams. I started scribbling ideas down and that turned into a novel, and that novel turned into a sequel. Snowbooks, who published that, encouraged me to put a teaser of a couple of chapters of a third book at the end of the second. Shortly after that, I got an agent and the deal with Titan. It’s a bit tricky trying to sell the third book as a trilogy when the first two are published by somebody else. It’s all a bit up in the air at the moment. I definitely have to finish that third book of the Tourmaline series because I’ve got some awesome ideas, overlapping realities, weird monsters, steamships, brain parasites.
RP: You’ve moved around quite a bit in your personal life, two visits to the land Down Under. Do you think that helps with taking a slightly different view of the world having a different experience?
JB: I think anything which broadens your horizons is good, regardless of whether you’re a writer or a reader. People should see as much of the world if they’re able to. It gives you more empathy for other human beings, and their tolerance for different ways that people live their lives. It can’t be a bad thing.
RP: The Hollow Tree isn’t your first book set in Birmingham. Your previous work of the Narrows has a rather large Birmingham feel to it.
JB: You’re observing a trend! I like to set stories where I live, I have an affection for it. I think there’s a lot of modern urban fantasy that tends to be set in very large metropolitan centres like London, the publishing industry is set in London so a lot of fiction is based in that. We’ve got a big city in Birmingham, let’s set the story in the back alleys, waste areas and canal towpaths. It’s more of a challenge because in London, you’ve got the Underground, you’ve got the perfect setting for an urban fantasy
RP: Neverwhere, the Neil Gaiman book, is probably one which is closest to our listeners’ hearts
JB: We don’t have a subway system in Birmingham so if you want to create a fantasy reality living alongside mundane reality, where do you put it? That becomes a challenge in itself in terms of the writing. In The Narrows, the narrows are the wasteland areas, the overgrown patches between bypasses, the canal towpaths, the overgrown vacant lots where time and space gets fuzzy, strange things creep in and people get lost.
RP: I think most of us have had that experience at some point in Birmingham!
JB: A bit like around Selly Oak!
RP: As we mentioned, The Hollow Tree is due to be launched on 13 March and you’re actually having a special launch party at Foyles in Grand Central.
JB: Yes, we’re having a launch party on Saturday 17 March at 6.30pm. There will be wine and song. It’s free so pop along, have a chat.
RP: The tickets are available on Foyles’s website. You’re having a second event at Waterstones on Gower Street in London as part of the Sci-Fi Sessions series of events they’re doing, and it’ll be yourself and the author of Folk, Zoe Gilbert.
JB: Yes, who is completely brilliant and it’s going to be a fun evening. So I hope loads of people will turn up to that.
RP: It’s going to be an absolutely fascinating event by the sound of it, and I wish I could get down to London myself for that one.
JB: Her work is lovely, miracle and folk story orientated whereas mine is more angling towards the supernatural horror side, so it’ll be an interesting conversation. I’m really looking forward to it.
RP: It’s great to see that folk can still inspire people to this day with the old myths and legends, and be taken very different ways. You have the good side of the folk; people don’t understand there is a dark side to the folk quite a lot of the times.
JB: Yeah, folk evolves as well. Folk stories change and evolve, and are born and die, in more dynamic ways than myths do. The big myth cycles tend to be those legends, those eddies, those sagas written down and codified. Folk stories tend to be a bit more mutable, oral storytelling, verbal passing down from one generation to the next. I’m fully prepared to be told I’m wrong by somebody who’s more of an expert in this but that’s just the sense I get from it.
RP: For me, folk stories seem to pull away from the mono-myth classic protagonist cycle you usually get.
JB: I think folk stories offer a more local level, they allow people to have an essence of where they live in their immediate environment, the woodlands, the byways and the highways of where they are. Telling stories about their own ancestors, who lived there before them, and be distant, epic heroes and monsters, that almost domestic level of myth making is very important, as well as the meta-narrative.
RP: And that’s great to see used to such and effect in The Hollow Tree. To try and not spoil the story too much, the generational storytelling, which is where the threads combine and come out in a completely different, random aspect you can trace back.
JB: Yes, in as much so as it’s a supernatural thriller about a murdered woman and how she might have died, it’s about families and the secrets that get kept from one generation to the next. The tensions and the loyalties between married partners, parents and in-laws, it’s a bit of a family saga going on there too. Because people are embedded in the history of their families, that always has to come into play.
RP: This revels in having the family aspect to it. This isn’t just a story about the main character, Rachel, it’s about her husband Tom.
JB: It starts off purely with her story. She loses her hand in a horrible accident and so the first chunk of it is about her learning to cope with that. Which would be enough of a story on its own. It widens out to her husband’s way of coping with the accident. But when she starts to experience paranormal phenomena, and she wonders whether she is actually sane or not, brings in the other members of her family as well, and all those concerns about her mental stability.
RP: It’s a fascinating book and I urge our readers to go out and get a copy, and possibly see you at Foyles, hopefully there’ll be a reading?
JB: You try and stop me! I’ll read a bit, there’ll be a chat about local history, I tend to find at these sorts of things people are more willing to say “I’ve got this story that I had to tell you about something that happened around our way”. “This thing that happened to my Dad” or “this Thing that happened to my Mom”. Their own little personal folk stories come out, and that’ll get sucked into the storytelling at some point. But yeah there’ll be a reading, I’ll be signing books with a special spooky tree stamp that’ll be inside copes that people will buy to make them unique. But yeah it should be good.
RP: Thank you for joining us on Geeky Brummie today, to recap we can find you on twitter at @skippybe, and your personal blog can be found at jamesbrogden.blogspot.com and also on Facebook at James Brogden Author. Thanks for joining us, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
JB: Thank you very much for having me.
RP: We look forward to seeing you at Foyles on 17th March and any London followers can find you at Waterstones Gower Street in London on the 19th.
Find James at http://jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk/ and Twitter @skippybe.
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