Julia Jarman, whose novel Hangman has been republished, reflects on the real life inspiration for the story, about bullying, and why she decided to make the book available once again.
Why did I write Hangman? Danny, not his real name, was a boy dear to my heart. When his mum told me he was being bullied at the secondary school he'd just started at, I longed to help.
Danny was off school, too afraid to go, so I offered to take him out for the day and Danny accepted eagerly. It was his idea that I write a novel about him - 'so people know what it's like to be bullied and stop'. We brainstormed over lunch. He fancied being the hero of a time-travel story - he liked my time-travelling cat series - and I tried to make this work but couldn't.
'The true story was much more compelling - and more painful'
The true story was much more compelling - and more painful - and included a school trip to the D-day landing beaches in Normandy where things came to a head, a natural or unnatural climax. The D-day landing school trip was part of Danny's real story. His school did that trip every year as WWII was on the Y7 curriculum. Danny lent me the diary he kept and I then took myself to Normandy, following in his footsteps, visiting all the places he visited, imagining how he felt. I also borrowed diaries from Y7 pupils at my local school who did a similar trip, so I got other points of view.
Hangman is an adventure story - I feel slightly bad saying - but it's grounded in real life, real lives, not just Danny's, and I did, yes, want to entertain, not give a lecture. I show three points of view, the victim's, the bully's and the by-stander's, to give it wide appeal and try to show what bullying is. When I visit schools readers tell me they do recognise themselves as one character or another, sometimes with a shock.
Hangman is still one of my most popular books, especially with Year 7, perhaps because it is about a group of Year 7s. I think, even after all this time, Hangman still appeals because pupils identify with the characters and sadly, the theme of bullying is still very relevant. It's also an exciting story - with a lot of what-happens-next? - and it ties in with the WWII theme on the curriculum.
Part of the setting for Hangman, Arromanches in France, which Julia Jarman visited for the novel
When I visit schools pupils want to know how much of it is real and I tell them honestly, most of it. I show them the diaries I used and lots of other background material, including letters from Danny and Toby's parents. Danny and Toby both talked to me, but they didn't want Nick to know they were helping me write a book, so I didn't talk to him. I did see the letter Nick wrote to Danny's mum, telling her that Danny shouldn't come on the trip. Astonishingly - truth is stranger than fiction here - Nick signed the letter. He was not ashamed of his action! I changed this fact and the timing to increase dramatic tension, but also to make it more credible. Pupils also want to know what the characters are doing now, and request a sequel.
It was a request for new copies of Hangman, 'to top up sets' when it went out of print, that persuaded me to self-publish. This has been a different sort of adventure for a technophobe like me. Luckily, I had the help of my son who mainly asked questions. Did I have the original script in Word? Yes! Did I want to up-date it? Not sure.
The story is set in the late 1990s, when mobiles were just coming in - for adults. I eventually decided that giving Danny and co mobiles would change the story too much. Maybe I was lazy, but also aware that today's readers find the story, as it is, convincing and powerful. The next question was - what did I want on the front cover? It was exciting choosing an image from the vast range available on the internet. Then I found a brilliant commercial artist who customised it, after reading the book. It is, I think, its best cover yet and I love the production by Lightning Source, based in Milton Keynes, only up the road from me, another plus. I hope to publish more.
Find out more about Julia Jarman