In conversation with Victoria Williamson, author of War of the Wind
Posted in Neem Tree Blog on September 15, 2022
From Victoria Williamson (award-winning Scottish author of the Fox and the White Gazelle and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind) comes a thrilling new adventure story with delightfully diverse disability representation.
Set on a remote Scottish island, War of the Wind introduces us to a cast of characters with additional support needs. It is simultaneously a page-turning eco-thriller about government testing gone wrong and a heart-warming celebration of our differences. I spoke with Victoria about War of the Wind, read on to find out more!
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was five years old! My parents took my brothers and me to the library every week when we were young, and stories were a huge part of my childhood. My mother used to read to us every night, putting on voices for all of the characters, from Bilbo Baggins and Winnie the Pooh, to Mr Toad from Wind in the Willows and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. It was like going to the theatre every night, and it made sure there were never any arguments about bedtime, as we were always keen to get to bed to hear the next chapter! Although my father wasn’t keen on reading aloud, he played another important role in my love of books, which was reading a huge amount himself, and talking to me about books all the time. I learned from him that books weren’t just for children, and that reading could be an adult hobby and a lifelong passion.
Please tell us a little bit your journey as an author?
I started writing almost as soon as I learned to hold a pencil, although my first attempts at stories were barely-legible scrawls in small booklets made of folded paper stapled together. I’ve kept a few of these early ‘books’, which are mostly fan fiction retellings of my favourite cartoons, novels and TV shows. I wrote for fun all the way through school, and started writing my first proper novel when I was eighteen. It took me five whole years to finish, and although it (along with some other early novels) will never see the light of day, it was an important milestone in my journey to becoming a published author years later. I think many people see a finished novel on a bookshop shelf and think ‘I could do that, I just need to find time to sit down and get the words out’, which is a bit funny, as they’d never think of playing in the Albert Hall after fiddling about with a violin for a few months! I made the mistake of thinking that a writing career would be easy and inevitable when I was younger because I wrote so much and had been told by teachers that I had a good imagination, but I didn’t anticipate the amount of hard work involved in developing narrative arcs, story pacing and plotting skills. I think if I could go back now and give my younger self some publishing advice, it would be to stop daydreaming and start writing, as ideas are the easy bit, it’s the putting words down on a page after day that requires a lot of effort!
What inspired you to write War of the Wind?
War of the Wind was actually my mother’s idea. I was having dinner with her one night, when she said out of the blue, “Oh, I came up with an idea for a book for you today – it’s about wind turbines sending out secret signals, and it’s called War of the Wind.” She hadn’t developed the idea any further than that, but I loved the concept, and it planted the seed grew into the final novel. Wind turbines had always seemed a little spooky to me, and reminded me of the TV show and film adaptations I’d seen of The Tripods and War of the Worlds when I was a child. Every time I saw wind turbines on the horizon after that, I thought about what they might be ‘whispering’ to us, and what those secrets signals might be used for.
Please tell us a little bit about the story and the main protagonist Max?
The story focuses first and foremost on the journey of acceptance that Max goes on after losing his hearing in a boating accident at the age of twelve. When we join him at the start of the story on Scragness Island, aged fourteen, he’s adjusting to his new life by learning sign language and getting help in school from the additional support needs class, but he’s still angry at his life changing, and the impact this has had on his relationships with his friends and family. He’s so preoccupied that at first he doesn’t notice that people on the island are starting to act strangely after a wind farm is build off the island’s coast. But when he meets a sinister scientist called Doctor Ashwood at the substation, he notices that it’s not ordinary workers who are moving about behind the high fence, but soldiers. As the behaviour of the people and animals on the island becomes more aggressive and dangerous, Max realises Doctor Ashwood is conducting an experiment on the islanders using the wind turbines, and that he’s immune to it due to his hearing loss. It’s only by working together with three of the teenagers in his additional support needs class that he’s able to piece together the puzzle, and come up with a way to stop the experiment before it has tragic consequences. In the process, he finds ways to rebuild his relationship with his parents and accept his new baby sister, as well as finding new friends and reconnecting with old ones.
In what ways did your teaching experience impact on your writing and in particular your development of your main character Max and his friends, Erin, Beanie and David?
The characters in my stories are often a mixture of some of the many children I’ve taught over the years, who face many difficult situations at home and in school. Because these real-life issues crop up time and again, it’s important to give children the opportunity to discuss these themes in a safe environment, and helping pupils engage with them through books is often one way to bring up difficult themes in the classroom. As a teacher, I’ve been fortunate to hear many children’s stories and discussions, and this has helped me to portray Max and the other characters’ voices in a way that hopefully comes across to readers as authentic. Friendships play a huge role in teenagers lives, and so it was important that Max’s relationship with his family and his friends (both old and new) took centre-stage in this story.
Society has a lot of misconceptions about children with additional support needs and this features heavily in your story, and your viewpoint as a former SEN educator is extremely refreshing to read. I wondered if you could tell us about some of these misconceptions and why you chose to write about this?
People often underestimate what children with various disabilities and additional support needs are capable of doing, and assume that because they need help in one or more areas, then they must need help with everything, or are limited in terms of what they can achieve. I wanted to give the four main characters in this story a chance to show exactly what they could do – which turned out to be saving the day! Even though Max gets annoyed by people making assumptions about him because he’s deaf, Max himself is guilty of underestimating the abilities of other pupils in his additional support needs class – in particular Beanie and David. He assumes that David is less intelligent because he can’t talk, uses a wheelchair, and struggles to control his limb movements, but then Max discovers that David is actually the smartest boy in the class. The novel is written in the first person from Max’s point of view, so the reader goes on a journey with him as he learns about his own misconceptions, and realises that he has underestimated Beanie and David in precisely the same way that people underestimate him. Hopefully this will help readers to examine their own misconceptions about children with additional support needs, and to be less quick to make assumptions.
How can writers ensure the representation of characters with additional support needs e.g., cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome are as authentic as possible?
The starting point is talk to as many people as possible with the disability or additional support need you’re portraying in your book, to ensure you represent their lived experience accurately – these experiences will be diverse, even for people with the same disability or additional support need. Make sure you do plenty of research, and use sensitivity readers to check over your work to ensure your portrayals are accurate. Charities can be a very good place to get accurate information, and you can learn a lot from their resource pages, as well as from the staff and service users.
There are lots of Scottish words and phrases used throughout the story, how important is it that the native dialect is used? How do you think readers will relate to this?
Scottish slang can be regional, but I’ve tried to use some current Scottish words and phrases, as well as some I heard and used growing up, to give a more authentic flavour to Max’s narration. If you’re setting a story in a particular place, I think it’s important to use phrases that reflect how people there actually talk, as opposed to writing everything they say in ‘standard English’ – which can come across as a little bit stilted, especially when writing a story in the first person. Hopefully it will show readers a way to use their own regional dialects in stories and encourage them to experiment with their own writing. I know that many readers won’t be familiar with some of these words, but I think most teenagers will be able to work them out from the context. If not, the dictionary at the back of the book will come in handy!
I love that you have used different fonts in War of the Wind to highlight the importance of different communication methods. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
As a teacher, I’ve seen children communicating in many different ways in the classroom – though oral methods, written methods, and by using other methods, such as Makaton, BSL and computer programmes. I wove these different communication methods into the book and highlighted them in different fonts to help make them stand out for the reader. Hopefully this will spark some discussion by readers of the different ways that people can get a message across, and show that characters don’t have to say things out loud in order to play a full part in a story.
What is the key message you’d like readers to take away from War of the Wind?
I’d like readers to come away with a better understanding of various disabilities, to examine and question their own assumptions about what teenagers with disabilities are capable of, and to recognise that everyone has important contributions they can make.
Do you have any other works in progress that you can tell us about?
My next project for Neem Tree Press involves issues that are unfortunately very familiar to families in the current cost-of-living crisis: food banks, homelessness, and financial difficulties. It’s a story of family, and about friendship overcoming the odds. Look out for more details in 2023!
Finally, I wondered if you could suggest three top tips for aspiring middle grade / YA authors?
- Don’t write in a vacuum. Writing can be a lonely business, but it doesn’t need to be. There are lots of other friendly writers out there who can be a great source of support on your writing journey. Join a writing group, and try to get into the habit of giving and receiving reviews and comments. This will help you hone your craft, and polish your work in progress before you submit it anywhere.
- Write regularly. Try to get into the habit of writing a little bit every day, or every week. Writing is a skill that requires regular practice to perfect, so try to make time to add a little bit to your story on a regular basis, rather than saving everything up until ‘the holidays’ – when you’ll find that a novel will take longer than you think, and sustaining the motivation to complete a book is a lot harder than it looks!
- Don’t give up. There’s a huge amount of rejection involved in a writing career, and it’s important not to take each ‘no’ too personally. What might not work for one publisher might just be the very thing that another is looking for. So use any feedback you get to help polish your work, and keep writing new work. The more you hone your craft, and the more stories you produce, the more likely it is you’ll get that ‘yes’ that you’re looking for.