Children’s Literature Interview with Ben Dixon

Ben Dixon

Children’s Literature Panel

Interview conducted by Drushti Sawant

Ben Dixon, the author of The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel will be a part of the Children’s Literature panel at Surrey New Writer’s festival. In his interview, he mentioned how his role of a teacher as well as a father helped him bring the novel to life. Apart from the inspirations he found in his daily life, Ben also mentions how the idea for his book was inspired by another children’s literature author.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge faced by writers today?

A flooded market means that actually getting your book published may not be as big a challenge as making people aware of it.

Once you have a completed manuscript or a clear idea that you are developing, a new writer’s first thought might be to search for an agent. However, this can be a very lengthy process while you are left to wonder why those you have approached can’t see the genius in your work straight away! If you don’t have the patience to wait for an enthusiastic ‘yes’ (which could take months or not happen at all), you might start to consider a hybrid publisher or self-publishing, both of which are likely to get your story into print and in your hands more quickly. Nevertheless, even if you’ve written the next Book Thief or Harry Potter, it’s no good if it stays in your hands, and nobody discovers your book. Surprisingly, the main daily newspapers will not be emailing you, desperate to review your book and tell the world how wonderful you are. Promoting yourself, even if you have a very healthy social media presence, can be a lonely and soul-destroying experience. Your friends and family might read your work, but getting your book in front of a wider target audience is the main battle.

Q: Can you walk me through your process of bringing an idea for a story to life?

In my case, it was a combination of ideas. I’d written a comedy-horror story nearly thirty years ago about two bullies who were forcing an overweight schoolboy victim into robbing an old lady’s house, despite rumours that she was a witch. This stayed on the shelf and was almost forgotten for a long time.

When my son was younger, he was always brutally honest, even if it upset other people. This could be quite funny, if his words weren’t directed at you. Combining those two elements gave me a unique point about the main character and also a direction towards an exciting conclusion.

I’d also decided that this story had a lot of humorous potential, so I was heading into the barren land of the Young Adult Humour genre. The final element required was the real desire to write and finish the story. I’d written 5,000 words of a thriller story, as well as the synopsis, for a competition a few years previously, but I didn’t win, and wasn’t being drawn back to the story so much after the competition entry deadline had elapsed. With The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel, I loved the characters and couldn’t wait to see what would happen to them. I really wanted to write more every day.

Q: What made you choose Children’s literature (especially writing for young adult) as your area of writing?

It’s often cited that you should write what you know. Having been a teacher for 25 years, I am with the target audience every working day. I see their ups and downs, what makes them worry and laugh and also the important life events they go through. I also have four children ranging in age from nine to almost twenty, so I’ve seen similar events from a non-teaching point of view too. Furthermore, memories of my own childhood have not faded quite yet; a time when pastoral care was less important can yield more fertile ideas for bullies!

I like J K Rowling’s idea of following a group of friends through their school life, and The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel is about Neil’s first year in his new school. Having said that, there are no broomsticks, spells or wands in my story, although there is perhaps the suggestion of a witch…

While there are plenty of humorous stories for younger and Middle Grade children, I didn’t understand why there were so few funny books for young adults. Why does everything have to become so serious? This seemed like a gap in the market; if you want something funny for teens to read, you generally have to go back as far as Adrian Mole, something that even I read at that age! In my opinion, the range of options for readers should be as wide as possible. A parent of one of my readers thanked me because he never picked up a book through choice, but he couldn’t put Neil Peel down. I suppose he hadn’t found his preferred genre yet.

Q: What according to you is the most important aspect of writing a young adult story?

I wanted my young adult readers to be able to relate to the incidents and characters in the story rather than disappearing off into an imaginary world. Bullies, laughing with friends, spending time with family, embarrassment, Christmas, getting a terrible haircut, developing a crush on someone at school are things that will be familiar to everyone whether they’ve happened to you or someone you know. My version of these events may go slightly further than most people’s experience, but that was necessary to create the humour. I wanted there to be a believable thread but for no page to go by where you aren’t at least smiling. That wasn’t easy when there are emotional aspects to the story too.

It was also important for the story to appeal to a broad range of people. Neil and his friends are boys, but there are plenty of important women and girls in his life, especially his evil genius older sister, Lemony Peel. The story is written in the first person, which is less common when the book is not a diary, so Neil’s view of the girls around him can be enlightening for female readers.

There are plenty of moments to appeal to the younger readers of around ten years old, but also much to charm nostalgic adults. Anyone who is or has ever been a young person should find something with which to identify here, even if you didn’t think that telling the truth was the best idea in every situation!

Q: What advice would you give to young writers who are trying to find their genre of writing?

Don’t necessarily write what you enjoy reading. I read a lot of thrillers and crime, but when you’ve read so much in one genre, it’s hard to be original. Many of the events in The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel have a base in my real-life experience (although that would be hard to believe if you read it), and writing what is/was around you can help to keep ideas flowing.

Anything in your life can be the spark of a great idea if you stand back and observe. I think all creative people have to be good observers, particularly writers. How can you write for multiple characters if you don’t watch how different real people react to different situations?

Whichever genre you choose, can you bring something new? Try to imagine your story idea in the past, present or future. Would it work in the real world or a fantasy world? This country or further afield? Would it appeal to children or adults? Is it going to thrill, entertain, titillate, shock, or tug at the heart strings of a reader effectively?    

Finally, will your reader have a strong feeling for the main character(s)? They don’t have to like them; an odious character can often keep people reading more than a good-natured one that they quite like. In my story, two of the most memorable characters, and in some ways my favourite to write are Neil’s sister, Lemony (because she’s so clever and manipulative), and his demonic little toddler cousin who’s determined to ruin his Christmas. 

To find out more about Ben Dixon go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.

Drushti Sawant is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing the Children’s Literature Panel on the Saturday of this year’s virtual festival.

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