Department 19 is the new action-packed horror book from Will Hill which we loved – you can read our review here. In the meantime, Will kindly agreed to answer a few questions about vampires, monsters and pneumatic stake launchers.
So, Will, you’ve written an action-packed horror book complete with secret government agencies, vampires and Frankenstein’s creature. Where does an idea like that come from?
This is the question most commonly asked by my mum, who is continually trying to juggle being proud of her author son and being worried about some of the things I think up!
To be honest with you, it came from a number of places. Undoubtedly the biggest influence on the story that eventually became Department 19 is Dracula; from the first time I read it, when I was maybe 12 or 13, I wondered what might have happened next – the four men who survive the novel have to go back to their normal lives, and can’t ever tell anyone about what they’ve done, about the things they’ve seen, and I always wondered whether that would really be possible. Once I decided to use those characters, once I realised that if the vampire threat ever returned then they would be the men whom the authorities would ask for help, the idea of them evolving over the years into a secret government agency dealing with the supernatural came together pretty easily.
The second main idea was what became the prologue of the novel – the thought of a teenage boy whose life is shattered without warning, for reasons he doesn’t, and can’t understand, who realises that everything he thought he knew about his life, and his family, was built on lies. It’s a horrible thought, but it was an exciting one as well. When I realised that the two ideas were actually aspects of the same story, I started writing Department 19.
There’s so much detail in Department 19, from the long history of the department to the brilliant weapons like the T-Bone Pneumatic Stake Launcher. How long did the planning and writing process of Department 19 take?
I started writing it almost exactly three years ago, in April 2008. The prologue and the first three chapters came out in a rush, in about three days, but then I stopped, and didn’t write another word of prose for about three months. I realised, even with just four chapters in the bag, that because I was going to be dealing with more than a century of the Department’s fictional history, a history full of people whose descendants were characters in the story, a history that was going to inform everything that happened in the novel, I needed to have everything worked out before I continued. Otherwise I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I found myself tied up in a knot that I couldn’t unpick.
So I wrote family trees for all the men who survive Dracula, I wrote timelines of their descendants and mini-biographies of all of them, even though a lot of them (most of them, to be honest!) will never actually appear in the story, lists of Commanding Officers, lists of the leading figures of each generation, lists of authorisation numbers, and set a strict set of rules for the vampires in my story. Only when all that was in place, and had been checked and re-checked a hundred times for flaws and inconsistencies, did I actually return to the story. From that point, it took about a year to write the rest of the book; it was finished in August 2009.
Department 19 has many references to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are these books favourites of yours? Did any other books influence your writing of Department 19?
Both Dracula and Frankenstein are definitely favourites of mine!
I got into horror when I was about 12 or 13, after I moved on from children’s books; like a lot of boys my age I went straight from Roald Dahl to Stephen King and Clive Barker, and I just devoured everything I could get my hands on. After a while I started to look backwards, at where the horror genre had come from, and I read the two great classics you mentioned. To be honest, I found them hard going when I was so young, but I was struck instantly by how influential and defining to the genre they had been. When I read them again, a few years later, I fell completely in love with both of them, and have been ever since – as will be obvious to anyone who reads Department 19, which would absolutely not exist without them.
As far as other influential books are concerned, Stephen King’s work is a constant source of inspiration to me, both in terms of his characters (particularly his portrayals of older children and teenagers – see It and The Body for maybe the two greatest examples) but also in terms of world-building and history, two things that were hugely important when I was planning Department 19. And the prologue, where Jamie’s dad dies and his life is shattered without warning, was definitely influenced by Michael Marshall’s novels – he does the invasion of normal life by the extreme so well, and so terrifyingly.
A lot of reviewers have mentioned that Department 19 would make a fantastic movie, and I don’t disagree! There are so many adrenaline-pumping scenes to choose from, but if you had to pick just one scene to make into a movie, which one would it be?
This is hard without giving too much away! For example, I think the climax of the novel, in the chapel on the small island of Lindisfarne, is very cinematic. I do tend to think in quite visual terms when I’m writing – it tends to be a case of creating a picture, or a series of moving pictures, in my head, and then just writing down what I see; for that reason, I think the prologue would make a great start to a movie.
But I think the bit that I would most like to see filmed would have to be the ballroom scene in New York in 1928. I could see the huge room full of black and white tuxedos and beautiful ballgowns so clearly as I wrote it, with the glowing red eyes beneath the ornate masks, and the palpable sense of fear, of being out of your depth, would, I think, translate very well to the screen. Fingers crossed it will happen one day!
Department 19 concludes with a few loose ends… does that mean we can expect a sequel at some point in the near future? (Please, please, please!)
You certainly can!
I finished writing the sequel to Department 19 about a month ago – I’m revising it now, before I send it to my editor. I should warn you now, it’s a big, long, dark book – if you thought the ending of Department 19 was harsh, you’re going to hate me for what happens next!
Book two, which doesn’t have a title yet, will be out this time next year, with book three to follow in 2013. The original plan was for it to be a trilogy, but I’m at the end of book two now, and the ending of the whole story (which I’ve known since I started writing the prologue to Department 19) still seems a long way away – so I think that, as long as people like the first one and its sequels, it might be as many as four of five books before it’s done. So don’t worry – you’re not going to have to wait for more from Jamie and his friends (and enemies) for very long!
Will Hill, thanks for your time!
Readings has some very cool Department 19 iron-on patches to give away. If you want to be an honorary member of this secret vampire-hunting organisation, simply mention this interview when you buy a copy of Department 19 in one of our stores, but be quick, it’s only while stocks last!