***UPDATED FROM THE ORIGINAL POST TO INCLUDE INTERVIEW
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Fear haunts the streets of Preston’s city: a girl has disappeared. Preston is drawn to investigate, exploring the city in the hunt for his missing friend. And deep in the bowels of a secret scientific institute, he discovers a sinister machine used to banish teenage criminals for their offenses.
Captured and condemned to a cavernous dimension, Preston is determined to escape. But this is no ordinary jail. Friendships will be forged and lives will be lost in a reckless battle for freedom, revenge–and revolution.
Set in a world all too similar to our own, Lifers is thrilling, pulse-pounding storytelling of the highest degree.
Hi Jordan! It’s a pleasure to be part of your blog. Many thanks for inviting me along!
- Tell the plot of Lifers in a single sentence
A single sentence? That’s tough! OK, here goes: an insomniac kid on a mission to find his missing friend stumbles upon a sinister machine that seems to be the doorway to a disturbing and dark prison for young offenders.
Phew. (Takes deep breath.)
- What inspired you to write Lifers?
I teach A level students over here in the UK; that’s 16-19 year olds (senior high in your language!) One hot summer’s afternoon, following the collapse of spectacularly badly-planned lesson (totally my fault), we ditched the poem we were meant to be studying and got to talking instead. I remember one student telling us where she’d camp out if she ever ran away from home with her tent. She’d scoped out a place in the school grounds that was walled on three sides, sheltered, grassy. I remember saying, “Just imagine you discovered that the school opened again at midnight. And different students arrived in a different uniform and different teachers too!” We had a blast discussing this notion. What stayed with me afterwards was the idea that places can transform themselves at night; the familiar becomes weird and disconcerting. I wanted a story where that happened to a city. Preston, my protagonist, grew from this idea. I gave him a missing friend and a bunch of worries that made it impossible to sleep. Then I sent him out into the centre of Manchester to find something horrible that would change his life.
- How did you create the prison system in the book?
It took me ages! So many mis-fires and failed attempts. I wanted a prison system that favoured punishment over rehabilitation or reform, so I always knew I’d need somewhere designed purely to incarcerate. From there, I knew inmates would respond differently – like Golding’s Lord of the Flies or an episode of Lost – some would team up and try and stay sane, decent and human. Others would become feral and desperate. There’d be power-struggles, subcultures and clashing ideologies. So far so good, right? But it kept getting out of control and the characters wouldn’t behave themselves. I ended up writing the prison section of the novel three or four times trying to get the balance between hope and despair right. I hope I’ve got somewhere close!
- How does the world in Lifers compare to our own?
What a good question! I think in many ways you can measure the quality of a society by the way it treats its prisoners – the challenge, support, guidance and ultimately hope it gives them. In my opinion, we’re some way off a good system in the UK, so I wanted to explore ideas about choices, mistakes and punishment. There’s this English historian called Henry Buckle – writing in the mid-nineteenth century – who famously said “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it.” (I’d like to pretend I picked up that quote reading highbrow history and philosophy but I first came across it on a Fun Lovin’ Criminals album sleeve. You take it where you find it, right?) In Lifers, I’ve created a nasty political party intent on a brutal prison regime. It’s a pretty significant exaggeration of where we are now. That said, 2016 has been a very worrying year…
- Do you have a favorite line from the book?
I used to be fairly consistent on this. But readers will often point out theirs and I’ll change my mind. (For example, recently I was speaking to a student following a presentation at a school and she said, “I wanted more Chowdhury! I love him!” He’s one of the guys in prison, a kind of mystic. We ended up trading Chowdhury lines for a bit.) Anyway, this time I’m going to turn to Preston’s pal Mace for inspiration. Mace is part conspiracy theorist, part coward and part bad poet. He’s always dictating his thoughts and impressions of a situation into his phone. “Manchester,” he says soulfully at one point. “City of cranes and rain.” It is, too. I live in a city that is constantly demolishing and rebuilding itself.
- What makes Preston a hero you can root for?
Well, he’s a hugely flawed kid and that’s part of the reason I love him. He’s a whole bundle of insecurities and he makes jaw-droppingly bad decisions. I remember that feeling very well – of being fourteen or fifteen, an age when every single decision seems massive, and making a mighty mess of a lot of mine. Preston’s the same. I wanted him to be driven by a sense of guilt, the only certain thing in a confusion of feelings, so he makes a terrible error early in the book that he somehow has to correct. That’s why I like the guy; despite everything, he’s got the courage and decency to try and fix this mistake even if the skills necessary to do so are frankly waaay beyond him. Poor lad!
7. Tell me a little about your writing process.
I tell students something it took me way too long to learn: good ideas arrive in pieces, never all at once. I can’t afford hang about waiting for a complete idea to blossom, or a logical and elegant plot to arrrive. I have to gather together all my seemingly-terrible bits of ideas and somehow force them together into a coherent, crazy, ugly whole. Once I’ve got something that looks like it might have an outside chance of working, I start building a set of characters who might operate realistically in the situation, location or crazy circumstances that I’ve dreamed up. If I can get an inciting incident I’ve got the seeds of something. After that, I try and figure out how to escalate the drama whilst making it impossible for the protag to pull out or turn back. Then I try and prettify the whole thing so it looks as if it arrived in one complete piece. It’s so hard to do! I’m working on something now, for example, and all the same troubles are presenting themselves… it doesn’t seem to get any easier, unfortunately!
I’m a writer of children’s fiction, represented by Ben Illis at the B.I.A., available for workshops and school visits when I’m not chained to a laptop cursing my lack of progress and/or poverty of imagination.
My debut novel, The Poison Boy, was written as Fletcher Moss. My second novel, Lifers, is my first for teen readers. It arrives April 2016.
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