Shadow Town is Richard Lambert's first novel for children and follows his debut YA novel, The Wolf Road. Both books are published by Everything With Words.
Richard Lambert was born in London. He has had many different jobs including teaching medieval history and working for the NHS. He currently lives in Norfolk where, when he isn't working, he writes stories and poems. His poetry has featured in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and The Forward Prize Anthology.
Shadow Town (Everything With Words)
When Toby follows his cat through a tunnel, he arrives in a world he doesn't recognise, Balthasar, which is ruled by a cruel tyrant. Finding a way back home leads Toby into new friendships and adventures, and unexpected dangers. We asked author Richard Lambert to tell us more about his new book, Shadow Town.
Read a chapter from Shadow Town
Q&A with Richard Lambert
1. Can you tell us a little about your new book, Shadow Town?
Shadow Town is about Toby, who is 13 and doesn't have any friends at school. He follows his best friend, the cat Alfred, through a tunnel that leads into another world, Balthasar. Unable to return home the way he came, he learns that to get back he must go to see the ruler of the land, the Regent, who will help him. Balthasar is a magical land where some teenagers have the power to dream things into reality, but the Regent, Toby discovers as he travels, is a dangerous tyrant...
2. What was your starting point for writing this novel?
Many ingredients went into the novel but it started with the character of Toby. I knew he was socially awkward, that he misunderstood things and got things wrong.
I'd been doing lots of writing workshops in schools and noticing that classes, especially in primary school, are like little communities, and that the children can become annoyed as a group by a disruptive member of their community. Also that some children unintentionally can wind up other kids in their class by trying to be funny or impress them. And I suddenly remembered being like that myself when I was a child - completely not getting how things worked, and trying to say the right thing and getting it completely wrong. So it started with Toby.
3. Was the writing experience very different from writing your debut, The Wolf Road?
Yes and no. I plot my novels carefully and write quickly. But with Shadow Town, I had a first draft from a few years ago, which I showed back then to a few people who said it wasn't ready. So I went away and for several years I have been making notes about the characters and place - world-building - waiting for the time when I was ready to redraft it. So then I was nearly ready, and I replotted the first draft, then I followed my usual pattern of writing energetically, and getting the story down fast. Which I hope gives it energy. But the difference was the gap of time between the first draft and the final draft.
4. So you plan your stories rather than waiting to see where the characters will take you?
I plan all my stories, and have plot points that I have to hit in each chapter. But I leave it loose as to how I will hit those plot points, so that there is some imaginative play in the actual writing. In editing I adjust again. I would love to write a story that I don't know the end of when I start writing. I want to experiment and try that, to create characters and follow them wherever they want to take me. But I haven't yet found the opportunity for that experiment!
5. Why did you decide to create an alternate world, Balthasar, for Toby's adventure?
I think that came from the kinds of novel I loved as a child - my favourite novels when I started reading were adventure stories set in fantasy worlds. Narnia. The Hobbit. And full-on fantasy books.
6. And why did you decide that his companion would be a cat?
Actually, Toby's companion, the cat Alfred, wasn't there in the first draft. When I showed the draft to my agent, he said one of the things it needed was a companion for Toby. I wasn't sure who or what the companion would be, but there is a neighbourhood cat who comes to my garden and occasionally sits on my windowsill while I'm writing - and I turn round and nearly jump out of my skin at the sight of a yellow-eyed, grumpy face frowning at me. Sometimes when I go out he plonks himself at my feet and refuses to get out of the way. So one day I just decided to put him in my novel, and the idea pleased me, so I went with it.
7. How did you develop the alternate world, Balthasar, and decide on its 'rules', and its name?
I drew a map of Balthasar, both the land and the city. I have it pictured in my head. I made notes about the place over several years - the place, and the different characters. These came from real places that I've visited, photos, paintings, films, things people told me. Also a lot of daydreaming.
I don't remember where the name Balthasar came from, but a lot of the names of the ruling family come from medieval chronicles that I read at university - they give a strangeness to the place and its history.
8. Balthasar, has 'dreamers' that help create the world, but their actions also have unforeseen and damaging consequences. Can you tell us a little about the dreamers?
I wanted them to be a metaphor for our ruination of the planet through endless production of goods for us to consume. Sometimes I worried I was laying it on too thick and sometimes that I was not being obvious enough.
The point I wanted to make with the Dreamers, is that they're children and teenagers - and we are bequeathing our children and teenagers a world that is on the edge of catastrophe. And yet we want them to live and work in this world according to our rules - not theirs. Also, it's young people who have unfettered imagination and sometimes I feel our pressurised system of education and tests and exams stifles imagination and possibility. In my novel it's not dreaming that's the problem so much as what it's used for.
10. If you could be a Dreamer on Earth, what would you want to dream into life for the planet?
Now you're asking difficult questions! A piece of technology that could clean the planet - and some decent leaders to ensure we lived in harmony with our environment.
11. Other than a great adventure, what would you like your readers to take from Shadow Town?
The adventure part of the novel is the most important element for me. It is one of the things I have always loved about reading - excitement, peril, adventure, overcoming danger. I want readers to take pleasure in it. Also I hope they like the characters and their relationships. And the oddness of the place. I hope they like my bad jokes. If they think about some of the wider themes I touch on, that's a bonus.
12. Where and when do you prefer to write?
Well, I prefer to go out to write, at libraries, occasionally a quiet cafe (without music). But I wrote Shadow Town during lockdown, so at home, occasionally disturbed by a grumpy white cat on my windowsill.
13. What are you writing currently?
I've spent the summer reading poetry and writing a few poems, and also planning the sequel to Shadow Town, which I am about to start.
14. What are your favourite escapes from your desk / keyboard?
Exploring Norfolk, amateur birdwatching, and swimming.