Hi lovely bookish people!
Here’s a little secret: the life of a Book Box Club creator isn’t always straightforward. Firstly, our houses are never tidy (the other day my relaxing bubble bath was interrupted by the invasion of a soggy ball of blue shred floating around!), secondly our TBR list is OUT OF CONTROL and thirdly, sometimes there are so many absolutely awesome books coming out that we don’t know which to choose!
As problems go, I realise that none of these are exactly third world issues, but to ease our troubles I thought I’d tell you about an incredible book that I read recently and that I’d highly recommend to all of you who love a dark, psychological read with complex characters and a narrative that will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the final unnerving page.
Encounters by Jason Wallace is a novel inspired by extraordinary true events which took place at a school in Zimbabwe in 1994, when sixty-odd school children aged between five and twelve-years-old reported seeing a UFO spaceship in their playground. After I heard about the premise of this book I spent ages online watching and reading news reports about the incident. What’s striking is how consistent the stories of the children are – it’s an absolutely fascinating case, which I’d never heard about before, do go and check it out if, like me, you’re interested in amazing unexplained cases!
Encounters takes this premise of the UFO sighting in a Zimbabwe school and retells it through the eyes of six young, lonely protagonists, each with their own personal angst that interplays into the extraterrestrial drama of the school. Here’s the blurb:
“Gary hides the anguish he feels now his mum’s left, acting out in fury and hatred. Chloe has no words for the thing she fears most every day. Karl is the headmaster’s son, now fallen from grace. Tendai knows he can never live up to his grieving father’s ideals. And Sixpence watches all, knowing he’ll never be like these other children. All of them have seen something they can’t explain.”
The sixth voice is that of Holly, the American daughter of a paranormal investigator who has come to the school to quiz the children.
Each voice is unique and complex and ultimately surprising and as we hear each new account secrets and lies are gradually debunked and revealed. I was really struck by this book. Something that never fails to grip me is the concept of multiple narrators and even better if we’re not sure which of those voices we can trust.
Because I loved Encounters so much… AND because at Book Box Club we think it’s important to get to know the brains behind the books we decided to quiz author Jason Wallace about this emotional, dark tale. Here’s what we found out:
Book Box Club Author Q&A
with Jason Wallace
Encounters is inspired by true events at a Zimbabwe school. How much research did you do into the original case and what fascinated you to write about it?
I spent a bit of time looking at the various documentary video files surrounding this case that are on YouTube, and reading one or two reports on it where I found them. However, the thing that really got me thinking was not just what those kids saw, but why they saw it. My writer’s brain really kicked in, and I started to question what was going on in the background… not necessarily for the actual children in the videos, but in the fictional children I was already creating in my mind. So, in that respect, not too much research was needed.
Plus, having, grown up in Zimbabwe, I know schools like Ariel School, and so didn’t need to do too much research there, either. I could transport myself back to my own childhood, and remember the smells, and noises, and sensations of that part of Africa.
What I did do, however, and what I enjoyed immensely, was a huge amount of research on the universe. I immersed myself in cosmology … documentaries, books, and anything else I could get my hands on! Encounters doesn’t (at least, not obviously so) dwell on the science of the universe, but by understanding it better I could really – through my characters – touch on the big questions that probably all of us think about, or want to know the answers to, but probably never will!
To be honest with you, I still carry that research on today, even though Encounters is finished, because the truth is there’s so much to learn about it we could all do it forever and still never know the universe. And anyway, the more we know about it, the more we realise how little we understand!
Do you believe in alien life and in the case of the children at Ariel school what do you think they saw on that day?
Without question, there is intelligent life beyond our own solar system. When you look at the size of the universe, it’s impossible to consider the notion that we are totally alone – our Milky Way galaxy alone is vast, and could hold millions of civilisations that we don’t know about it.
Try imagining this: there are ten times more stars visible in the night sky (with a telescope) than grains of sand on Earth’s beaches and deserts. Or, to put that into a number, it’s 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s quite a lot. And that’s just those we can see! Now, when you consider each of those stars is a sun, then you have to believe there are other planets out there than hold intelligent life.
Do I believe the children at Ariel School saw something? Yes. I’m not sure what exactly, but they saw something that might well have been what they claimed it was – their accounts are so plausible. I definitely believe that civilisations way more intelligent than ours have the ability to travel more efficiently and speedily around the universe than us. What I don’t know is, if those civilisations are that much more intelligent than us, why on earth would they want to spend time communicating with us?? They might dismiss us and treat us in the same as we treat… I don’t know… hamsters!!!!
Encounters is written from multiple viewpoints – how did you develop these different voices and which were the most enjoyable and most difficult to write?
To be honest with you, it all came very easily. I didn’t have to think about the characters – or their voices – very hard, they just came. It sounds a bit naff, but it was as though they were waiting to be written! I didn’t even have to think about which order to put them in – the order they are was just so natural. I was very lucky in that respect. The first draft of the book only took five months to write, and that was mostly during the train ride to and from work, so pretty quick.
I enjoyed all of the characters. However, Holly’s character was a late-comer. She wasn’t going to be in the book initially, I had a different character altogether, but by editor suggested we bring someone in “from the outside”… and thank goodness, because Holly really works.
Holly is sensitive, but has a bit of attitude – I liked writing all of the characters, but maybe I enjoyed writing hers slightly more!
Encounters has such a multicultural cast, how do you think your character’s nationalities affected their personalities and are they based on any particular people from your own life?
Our nationalities affect all of us: our cultures, our societies, how we think, how others think about us… It’s what makes us human. So, without question, each character was influenced by who they are (black or white, rich or poor, male or female).
But nationalities are a man-made phenomenon, we – as humans – are very good at putting people into buckets and saying, “Everyone in this bucket is X, and everyone in that bucket is Y.” I don’t completely agree with it. In fact, it’s what causes so many of the problems that affect our world. So throughout the book I also wanted to remember that we all share a common thing, regardless of skin colour, or which country we were born in, or even what kind of living creature we are.
What is that common thing? It’s life.
Are you working on any new writing projects at the moment and can you tell us about them?
I’ve always got ideas in my head, and one or two are currently going around the mill that is my brain, to see if they’re ideas I can take through to a full-length novel. But as it stands, I haven’t started anything yet.
It’ll come, though.
Please can you tell us about some of your favourite books and recent reads?
I like books with character. Action books are nothing without people you can really relate to – even if they’re characters you don’t like, like poor Ivan in my novel Out of Shadows.
With this in mind, my recent reads have included Catherine Barter’s Troublemakers (Catherine has a great voice!), and Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days is very touching…and really makes you think about the possible implications of the little things you do!
As for reads that’ll always be at the top of my list: William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is a cliché, I know, but it really is very, very good. It is a little dated at times, I agree, but there is so much beneath the surface. And Cormack McCarthy’s The Road is a masterclass of rich, emotive writing through stark, unfussy prose. But it’s also very bleak, so not for the faint-hearted!
Encounters is published by Andersen Press on May 4th, 2017. To enjoy a preview of the first chapter, make sure you’re signed up to our newsletter. We’ll be sharing an extract by email this weekend!
Has anyone else been lucky enough to read Encounters already? If so do leave me a comment below. I’d love to chat about it.
And if you’d like to receive our bookish recommendations by post each month, plus a ton of bookish goodies AND an invite to our members-only online book group then head on over to our website and subscribe to our May Wizards at War box, we still have a few left, but they’re selling fast!
Have a lovely rest of week one and all. Happy reading!