Jason Hewitt is a playwright, actor and author. He was born in Oxford and lives in London. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and English from the University of Winchester and an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University.
The Dynamite Room is his first published novel and has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2014 for new fiction. Visit him here.
NAW- Tell us about your latest book, The Dynamite Room. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
The Dynamite Room is set in July 1940. The story is about an eleven-year old runaway evacuee called Lydia who makes her way home to her Suffolk village only to find it deserted and everyone, including her family, gone. Then, during the night, as she hides in the family house, a soldier breaks in. He tells her that he is part of an advance party heralding a full-blown German invasion and that he won’t hurt her but he can’t let her go. The story then follows these two characters over the next four days.It’s told from both their points of view and is a novel about the relationships that are formed in extreme situations and the strength and fragility of humanity in times of crisis.
It’s a novel with many strands but the main idea came from stories I discovered about dead German bodies that were sometimes found washed up on the beaches of south-east England in the summer of 1940. The fear amongst the locals was that one day a German might appear on the shore who was still alive rather than dead. What might happen next became the starting point for the novel.
NAW- How difficult was it using two different narratives in the book. It’s always tricky, isn’t it? And do you like writing in a child’s voice?
I think my job was made easier by the fact that my two main characters are so very different to each other. With Lydia I wanted to create a character that was the least likely person for a German soldier to find himself holed up in a house with. I love writing about children but Lydia was particularly good fun because she has so much spirit. She’s on the cusp of adolescence and tries to behave the way she thinks her mother might do in such a situation. This enables her to act more grown up than she is sometimes, but occassionally she slips back into her childish ways, as children her age tend to do. I’m a trained actor so I spent a lot of time acting out scenes and pretending I was her – trying to decide how she might behave or sit or what sort of things she might do. She’s a bit of a tomboy which, being a male author, made her slightly easier to write.
NAW- There’s been a wealth of material on World War but very little in which Norway figures prominently. How did you get the idea for using the country as a setting in your book?
I came across the events that took place in Narvik, northern Norway in April 1940, when I was researching a previous novel. Although it was little more than a brief aside in that particular project it intrigued me enough to want to write about it more. It seemed to me that it was an element of the Second World War that I knew very little about and that if it was new and interesting to me then it might be new and interesting to myreaders too. Norway was a neutral country, and yet was strategically important to both sides because it offered easy access to the Atlantic. Narvik lies fifty kilometers above the Arctic Circle. It was a key location as it’s the only harbour in the Arctic Circle that remains open all year round (due to the fact that it is on the gulf stream and doesn’t freeze over). The Germans took it in April 1940. However, the following night the British Navy sailed up the fjord and after a fierce harbour battle, they beat the Germans off. When I knew I needed a secondary plotline for my German character, Heiden, and a location that was distinctly different and yet could also mirror what later happens in Suffolk I knew instantly that it would be Narvik.
NAW- Tell us about the research you carried out for the book?
Most research I do at home – reading books, watching documentaries and films etc – or at the British Library which feels a bit to me like going into an office to work sometimes and encourages me to be more productive with my day. I also visited museums such as the Imperial War Museum that has a great archive of documents and personal letters. Music is an important theme in the book so I spent a lot of time listening to the music of the period too. I also visited most of the locations. This is the type of research I enjoy the most. I don’t think you can evoke the atmosphere and detail of a place without actually visiting it yourself. I spent a week walking around the Suffolk coastline, as well as Berlin. The most important trip though was the one I made to Narvik. It was getting lost in the mountains above the fjords there that I found what later became the eponymous‘dynamite room’. For me, this is the joy of getting out and about and doing the research yourself on foot. I would never have found the location I was looking for within the pages of a book. But there it was – tucked away beneath the trees.
NAW- Who do you like to be identified as first? Actor or writer?
Writer first, primarily because it’s what I’ve always done from a very young age and have always dreamed of doing. I love acting but it has been a much more recent endeavour. I’ve also recently written a full length play called Claustrophobia that will premiere at Edinburgh Fringe in August. Playwriting provides a happy bridge between novel writing and acting, and although I’m not acting in Claustrophobia I’ll hopefully turn my hand to another acting role myself later this year if a role I’m right for happens to come up.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How did you get published? How difficult (or easy) was it finding an agent?
My journey to publication has been rather long and bumpy. I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, after which I volunteered to be the editor for my year’s anthology of writing. As happens every year we sent this out to agents and quite a few of my graduate friends gained representation off the back of it, but I didn’t. Then a year later and out of the blue I was contacted by someone at a literary agent. She had seen from inside the cover that I was the editor of the anthology and wanted me to send her the latest edition. I replied and told her that I had actually been a student and wasn’t involved in it anymore, however I had finished the novel I had been working on and, rather cheekily, asked if I could send it to her. Amazingly, she said yes and she took me on. Not long after that however she left the agency and was replaced by the agent I now currently have (In another stroke of luck he’s actually an agent I’d had my eye on for a while but up until then we’d never quite managed to connect so it all worked out rather well in the end). That said, we ultimately failed to sell that particular novel. He told me to write another. Four years later we finally got a publishing deal for The Dynamite Room. If I’ve learnt anything at all from all of this it’s not to give up.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
My taste in authors changes with the wind but I’ve always enjoyed the classic nineteenth-century writers such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Emily Brontë. I also love some of our more contemporary literary greats such as Sebastian Faulks, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje and William Trevor; and of authors that write what I call ‘domestic gothic’ fiction – the likes of Susan Hill and Lesley Glaister, who can take ordinary lives and characters and give them a macabre twist. Obviously recently I’ve been reading a lot of WW2-based fiction. The humanity of Adam Thorpe’s The Rules of Perspective recently blew me away; and at the moment I’m reading Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer. The poetry of some of his descriptions is truly exquisite.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
I’m currently redrafting my next novel, which is called Devastation Road and will be published next year. It’s set during the closing days of 1945 in mainland Europe. I’m not telling you any more than that though – it will be a surprise.