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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author Graham Whitlock about his passion for Crystal Palace in London, what inspires him to write The Crystal Palace Chronicles, and his career so far.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I live around the corner from Crystal Palace and I’m passionate about my area of London, a city I’m hopelessly in love with.  My writing for the stage includes adapting the Shane Meadows film 24/7 and the Ealing Studios comedy Passport to Pimlico, the UKs first immersive musical, and I edited the Dev and Ollie children’s books by Shweta Aggarwal.

I’m proud to have helped found and run DreamArts, an award-winning charity fusing arts and therapy in some of the most deprived parts of London, helping young people share their stories, express themselves and achieve their potential.

Graham Whitlock, author of The Crystal Palace Chronicles, interview on The Table Read
Graham Whitlock

When did you first WANT to write a book?

Forever!  I loved writing stories and plays at primary school, usually large-scale epics presented at Friday assembly such as the ongoing saga of ‘The Land of the Little People’ starring me, my best mate Mark and a cast of fifty painted toilet rolls. 

I was lucky, my schools indulged/supported (delete as appropriate) being creative and I’ve tried to pass on empowering experiences through DreamArts, the charity I run.  Losing yourself in an imaginary world is the most powerful thing kids can do, and as someone whose grammar and spelling skills were zilch I’d have hated much of today’s fun-sucking approach to teaching English. 

When did you take a step to start writing?

I went on a book writing course run by the late Malaika Rose Stanley whose generosity and influence lives on.  The course introduced me to the craft of writing for children and young adults.  Just as important I met a couple of other aspiring writers and we’ve continued meeting 2-3 times each year to share our work, giving me the kick up the butt to get on and do it.   

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

I wrote my first book off the back of my writing course, a magical fantasy adventure series set in Hastings.  I enjoyed writing it but I knew it wouldn’t see the light of day as a book, it was more a means of experimenting and learning the ropes.  After that I set myself the task of writing a stand-alone thriller for young adults – my primary school teacher’s words came back challenging me to write a story with a beginning, middle and end.  It’s called Family Firm, it helped hone my skills and I’m really happy with it, but it’s future is on pause while I focus on developing The Crystal Palace Chronicles which has taken up the past 2 years.   

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Crystal Palace Chronicles?

It’s easy to take where you live for granted, even when it’s as magical as Crystal Palace.  My granddad sold programmes at the Crystal Palace and I love the mystical feel of Crystal Palace Park, the crumbling terraces of the ‘People’s Palace,’ the dinosaurs and sphinxes like phantoms from the past.  

I knew I wanted to capture this in a tale for the young and the young at heart.  What I didn’t know until I began my own adventure making this tale a reality, is the areas incredible history and the extraordinary people drawn to live in the palace’s shadow. Everyone hears about the palace when it stood for six months in Hyde Park housing the Great Exhibition displaying artefacts looted from around the world which then ended up in London’s new museums. But the palace itself relocated and dominated the Norwood Heights for eight decades until the mysterious fire destroyed it in 1936. 

Three times bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral it became the world’s first theme park, offering education alongside sell-out entertainment drawing in millions.  Imagine Disneyland but instead of Pirates of the Caribbean and Mickey Mouse’s castle, they built from scratch the inside of a Roman villa from Pompeii, built a replica of an ancient Egyptian tomb complete with statues of Rameses made out of plaster cast, and the Nineveh Court bringing back to life palaces of the kings of Assyria. 

The ideas began percolating when I volunteered for Open House at Crystal Palace Subway in autumn 2019, one of the few remnants of the Palace where well-heeled visitors once arrived.  I was staring at a map of Victorian Crystal Palace with my kids and my mum who grew up locally too.  We asked her questions about ‘Norwood New Town’, which her mum told her was a no-go area full of ne’er-do-wells, pulled down in the 1950s.  I was fascinated and realised how little I really knew about my area’s history and heritage, and the Crystal Palace Chronicles were born. 

What were your biggest challenges with writing The Crystal Palace Chronicles?

To bring the past to life in a way that’s immediate and accessible for younger readers I decided to write in the present tense narrative.  This wasn’t a bother whilst I wrote the first draft which I did by hand, just letting the right-hand side of my brain and imagination go.  But when I came to type it up on my laptop (which is when my analytical/editorial left-hand side of my brain kicks in) I found myself having to constantly fix the tense, getting bogged down in grammar – my least favourite part of writing!

However, as the story progressed and now I’m working on Book II I find myself automatically writing in present tense narrative.  And it’s paid off – lots of my early readers of all ages have praised the sense of ‘now’ linking the past and present. 

The other big challenge I had hit me in May of the first lockdown.  I’d finished the first draft and disliked huge chunks of it.  Like most people I was feeling low and overwhelmed by things beyond my control – a category my book had fallen into. 

Then I signed up to Masterclasses with Neil Gaiman and one of his many pearls of wisdom touched on the power of re-writes.  Sometimes when you write it flows magically from your imagination onto the page, but other times you’ll have to slog away forcing the words out.  But then you rewrite, edit and polish.  And when you read back your finished book and you can’t tell which sections flowed and which sections you had to slog at. 

This gave me the perspective to look back at my book with fresh eyes and gave me the confidence to crack on.  And now, reading back Star of Nimrod, Neil Gaiman was right (naturally!)          

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Graham Whitlock, author of The Crystal Palace Chronicles, interview on The Table Read

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

Wandering around Crystal Palace Park on an early autumn day with my two kids the idea hit me of a teenager discovering a shattered compass among the brambles where the Palace once stood and time-travelling through the maze back to its Victorian heyday (credit for the shattered compass goes to my son Dan, royalties to follow…)  Crystal Palace stands on boundaries where five boroughs converge. 

What if it also stood on boundaries between times?  Between worlds?  Whoever went on this adventure had to be connected somehow to the past which is how Joe came about; he has to uncover dark secrets about the ‘People’s Palace’, secrets tied to the fate of his family past and present.  I wanted to write a working class protagonist as they rarely feature in books for younger readers, someone who wasn’t afflicted with the ‘exceptionalism’ of many fantasy book heroes but who, through their actions, choices and experiences, becomes heroic.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

I loved creating a seemingly unassailable antagonist who thinks he holds all the cards in every situation.  Sir Henry Majoure is the essence of wealthy arrogance, his thirst for knowledge and power driving him to dark places dragging down others in his wake.  Yet he’s also very human, with a complicated relationship with his ailing daughter and as the series progresses he faces hard choices between pride, power and family.  And just like the directors of the real Crystal Palace his vision threatens to destroy him (the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ ended in bankruptcy for The Crystal Palace Company). 

What is the inciting incident of The Crystal Palace Chronicles?

Engraved in the centre of the maze are words Joe hears in his dreams; ‘Follow in their footsteps… Pause here a while… Listen to the echoes… Past, present, future,’ (words you can actually read in the centre of the maze).  Joe gets drawn into the twists and turns of the maze by the Alone Child calling, “Joe, help us…”, his shattered compass swirling into a blur as the clouds reverse and he finds himself stepping out of the maze into 1888.

What is the main conflict of The Crystal Palace Chronicles?

Star of Nimrod is aimed at 10–14-year-olds (although it’s brilliant that much older readers have also loved it).  It’s a readership commercial publishing doesn’t cater for and as someone with an 11 and 13-year-old I know the challenge of finding books that bridge David Walliams and The Hunger Games.  I also see the challenge this age group faces as the focus of their world shifts away from family towards friendships. 

This conflict drives my book.  Joe is a loner who has to make friends with the teenage H. G. Wells and Samuel Coleridge Taylor and daredevil Iris Blondin.  Will he be trapped in the past with his new friends, find a way to return to his family or can he somehow have both? 

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Did you plot The Crystal Palace Chronicles in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I get a real thrill from plotting, but I also allow myself to flow away from the plot framework if I find a situation or character going off in a different direction.  With The Crystal Palace Chronicles I poured myself into researching extraordinary facts about the area and its people, pulling on books from The Crystal Palace Foundation, articles from The Norwood Society and visits to The Crystal Palace Museum. The more I read the more encounters I planned for Joe and I was able to tie strands together. 

For example, the pioneering Royal Normal Academy for the Blind was in Crystal Palace and I knew Joe would befriend one of its pupils.  I later discovered that the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society held its lectures at the Academy attended by its honorary president Arthur Conan Doyle.  This created the perfect opportunity for Joe to seek the aid of the aspiring author who wrote most of his Sherlock Holmes stories living in neighbouring South Norwood. 

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Crystal Palace Chronicles need?

Everything I’ve read about making your book as good as it can possibly be leads back to working with an editor.  I felt Star of Nimrod was 80% of the way there, but without a critical professional eye that final fifth would let it down. So, I turned to the online portal Reedsy having enjoyed lots of its free online resources supporting indie authors.  I ended up choosing an editor based in the USA who has worked on lots of books for this age group.  She confirmed what I already sensed (don’t you always know your flaws deep down inside?!) that the plot and characters were strong, but that I needed to build its emotional impact, particularly for Joe. 

I’ve got experience of re-writing having been in workshops developing a musical with a cast and production team where I’ve had to deliver major revisions within 48 hours.  This taught me valuable lessons; not to be precious, that less is usually more and that if you change something and it doesn’t work you can always change it back again, but unless you try it you’ll never know.  

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Everyone has stories inside them.  The difference between writers and everyone else is you put pen to paper/pc and write it down.  And it won’t come out perfectly on the page unless you’re the reincarnation of Charles Dickens in which case good for you!  For the rest of us we’ll revise and refine our words and polish them later so they shine.  But you can’t do that unless you’ve written them down first.  So stop prevaricating.  Carry that pen and notebook.  Set that alarm early to squeeze in an hour writing or don’t watch that box set before bedtime.  And do it.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I’ve completed the first draft of The Crystal Palace Chronicles Book II, Palace of Shadows which I drafted before finalizing Star of Nimrod – this was essential to ensure I’d set things up for the next instalment of Joe’s journey into the past.  Then I intend to revisit my coming-of-age thriller Family Firm about Lorna who dreams of finding her father only to discover he belongs to the Sicilian Mafia family who secretly control her home counties town. 

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I am incredibly proud of the book and the response so far – this is a quote from an early reader I’m particularly touched by; “It’s a story about realising what true friendships are.  It’s about our area, our history and it’s a really entertaining book.”  Abdur-rehman aged 14.

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