John Newsham’s short story version of Killing The Horses was longlisted in the 2018 Manchester Fiction Prize run by Carol-Ann Duffy. Killing The Horses is John’s debut novel. His other writing credits include fiction publication in the Fortnightly Review, winning a Dorothy Rosenberg Prize for ‘young poets of unusual promise’ from the University of Berkeley, and the Grist first-place prize for poetry describing place, from the University of Huddersfield. He has performed at numerous literary festivals around Yorkshire including the Ted Hughes Festival, the York Takeover Festival, the Leeds Lit Festival and the Bradford Literature Festival. John is also a teacher of A Level English Literature and Language.
We caught up with John to find out more about his debut as a novelist, his writing process and the importance of place to his writing.
Give us the elevator pitch for Killing The Horses?
Killing The Horses follows two boys who are skipping school in the woods on the edge of the Bradford. They are trying to get away from all the things that are still there, haunting themselves and haunting the hillside. It’s a simple story about isolation and friendship. It’s about the violence of human beings and the violence of the natural world.
How do you feel about the publication of your debut novel?
I’m really looking forward to seeing it on shelves and hearing readers’ thoughts on it. I’ve been trying to write for years with more failure than success and I’ve had several false starts of trying to write novels in the past so it feels great to have this completed and published.
What prompted you to write Killing The Horses?
I tried to write a novel a few years ago which ended up not really working but out of that I developed a short story focusing on the characters in what would become Killing The Horses. I then forgot about it for a few years whilst I got on with life and was writing other things. When the covid lockdown hit last year I re-read the original story and just started writing about the characters and seeing where it went. The novel is the result of that.
What experience do you want your readers to have?
I’d like them to feel as though they’re walking through these woods with the two boys in the novel and seeing the landscape and the animals and the trees and the sky. It’s supposed to be a ‘close-up’ novel – it’s set over a short period of time in a single place with only two characters so it’s a lot more focused on those close-up, day-to-day details, rather than anything sprawling or expansive.
What is the importance of place to you as a writer and, more specifically, within the pages of Killing The Horses?
The novel is set entirely in the woods on the edge of Bradford, all within a mile or so of where I grew up. It’s all slightly fictionalised in the novel but everything in it is basically a real place. Bradford is a big post-industrial city and this corner of Bradford is not exactly a glamorous one but it’s nestled amongst all these rolling Yorkshire hills and there’s something quite distinctive about the combination of the two. It feels a lot more remote than it is. I like the idea of natural settings that are within reach of urban ones- places that aren’t far removed from most people’s lives. Lots of nature writing focuses on picturesque and remote places and the setting in the novel isn’t one of them. The woodland isn’t supposed to be idyllic. It’s supposed to be a troubled place but somewhere that’s isolated from the rest of the city. Otherwise, it’s set in Bradford because I’ve spent more of my life there than anywhere else and it’s a lot easier to write about what you know! Everyone should write about where they grew up – there’s nowhere that doesn’t make an interesting setting for a novel or a story.
What was your route into writing?
I used to write poetry and I had a few things published and won a few prizes when I was younger. I read with a few different groups of local writers and at a lot of literary festivals and really enjoyed it. I met loads of really talented local writers who were all really unique in what they were doing. But I mainly wrote poems because I didn’t have any kind of organisation to write anything longer. I wanted to write a novel for a long time but I never had the self-discipline to stick with it until more recently.
Has Covid-19 affected the way that you write?
I wrote most of Killing The Horses during the first coronavirus lockdown. I’d been trying to write another novel slowly for years and then the lockdown suddenly freed up a good bit of time as I was working from home for a few months and had long, free evenings. I started writing something new based on a short story I’d written a few years earlier and it was mostly completed by the time I returned to work 10 weeks later. I’d considered expanding it further but felt like it reflected quite a unique mood of being completely isolated and locked-down. I felt like it would be impossible to recreate that mood again. As it turned out, of course, lockdown #1 was not to be that unique so I didn’t need to worry. The story itself has nothing to do with covid but I think lots of the concerns it brought up are in there- isolation, sickness, the destructive power of nature etc.
Could you tell us something about your creative process?
Now that I’m back at work it’s a good bit harder to write as regularly. However, I try to sit down every Saturday and Sunday morning and write 1,000 words before I stop. Any additional time I get to spend on it is a bonus. Writing is the good part, though, so it doesn’t take much discipline once started – it’s everything else that gets in the way!
Who are your favourite writers? And which writers are you influenced by?
My favourite novelist is probably Cormac McCarthy. His writing is so stripped back it seems timeless but it’s also got a very modern sense of the hostile relationship between the individual and nature. There’s something really unsettling about how direct his writing is but it’s also much more moving for it. I’m also a big fan of Ted Hughes’ poetry. I think both writers have quite a stark sense of the violence and destruction within the natural world which is something a lot of writers ignore in favour of a more rose-tinted view. They also both manage to create something that seems mythical out of the natural world as it exists today. Other than that, I try to read as many local writers as possible and those whose literature is rooted in the north of England. I’m currently working on another novel, set in Yorkshire, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading of writers who have written about the area: Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole, Elmet by Fiona Mozley, Ill Will by Michael Stewart and Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe are a few that stand out. They all create quite a striking sense of the region as distinct from the rest of the country through the dialect and character of the place. There are loads of others and loads more I’ve got lined up to read- too many to name.
Similarly, what is your favourite novel?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a really simple story with only two characters but it seems to cover everything- life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, where humanity is headed. It’s unbelievably direct and every sentence seems charged. Everyone should read it. Why this novel now? It was mostly written in the first covid lockdown. I think the lockdowns made everyone think about things we otherwise don’t get much time to think about. Life and death questions and questions about isolation and loneliness and so on. I think the pandemic has also been a reminder of the power of nature and the strange relationship we have with it. On the one hand the natural world is being destroyed and needs to be protected. But nature as a whole is also always a hostile force which we have to battle against in order to survive. This novel explores some of these themes in its own small way.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
My experience with Wrecking Ball Press has been great. I don’t have any comparable experience with non-indie publishers but I’ve really enjoyed the creative freedom and the whole process of seeing it develop from a manuscript to a published novel. I’ve been able to share a novel which is a bit different and which I suspect would not have had any interest from major publishers without any pressure to make massive changes. I’ve found the team at Wrecking Ball really supportive and, like other indie publishers I’ve encountered in the past, they seem to be doing it entirely because they enjoy literature. I’ve also found local independent bookshops to be especially supportive with the sale and promotion of the book. The relationship between independent publishers and indie bookshops seems to be a really strong one and I think they both have a really important role to play. Independent publishers like Wrecking Ball Press seem to do a really good job of finding alternative and overlooked writers. Loads of my favourite English writers at the moment seem to have been published by independent publishers.
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you as a writer?
I finished Killing The Horses a year ago and I’ve spent the time since then working on a longer novel with a much bigger cast of characters. I’m still very much learning as I go though so I’m not rushing anything and I’m more than happy to spend a good few years on it if necessary. I’d love to get more novels published in future but I’ll keep writing either way as I just enjoy doing it for its own sake.
What would you say to someone who was keen to write, and would like to see their words published?
Keep writing for the enjoyment of doing so and don’t worry about getting rejections or writing rubbish as both are inevitable and will make up the largest part of it.
What are your hopes and dreams for the book?
That some people will read it and that some of those who read it will enjoy it!
Killing The Horses can be purchased online at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/killing-the-horses/