I devoured Savita Kalhan’s debut novel, The Long Weekend, in a couple of hours. Aimed at over 12 year olds, The Long Weekend is a gripping and terrifying read which is not only a first rate reality horror story, but also a singularly cautionary tale about the terrible things that can happen when you accept a lift from a stranger… Without being overly explicit, The Long Weekend is a warning to children about bad men.
This is an interview which is long overdue - unfortunately the original copy of The Long Weekend sent to me by Savita was gobbled up by post office goblins. So I’m really delighted to finally welcome Savita Kalhan to Absolute Vanilla.
Hi Nicky! It’s great to be here. I’m a real Absolute Vanilla fan, so I feel honoured to be here. (And I am so glad the post office goblins didn’t nab this copy too!)
Savita, what inspired you to write The Long Weekend and how did the story develop?
A flyer went round the local schools warning that a large flashy BMW or Merc had been seen cruising outside the schools and the driver had tried to snatch children. Parents and children were urged to be extra careful. It set me wondering about what it would be like for a kid to get snatched. Most schools give talks about stranger-danger, the police come in and talk to kids about being safe and aware when they’re out, and so on. But, as we all know, child abductions still happen.
I started to visualize a scenario in which an abduction could happen. I had a long conversation with my nephew, who was then aged 11 and he confirmed that sometimes at pick-up time, kids don’t know who’s coming to collect them or whether a friend’s parent will be dropping them home.
A moment’s distraction, a moment of not thinking, is all that a predator needs. That’s what happens in The Long Weekend.
In reading The Long Weekend it struck me that you had really got into your protagonist’s (Sam) head – the voice is pitched so realistically and credibly. How did Sam develop for you as a character and how is it that you capture the voice of an 11 year old boy so well?
As soon as the scenario came into my head, Sam arrived – complete with voice and character. I know it might sound corny, but his voice was so clear right from the beginning, his character so formed, His thoughts and actions, and fear, almost wrote themselves as the book whizzed along at break-neck pace. I felt I knew Sam, knew what he was capable of and what he wasn’t. Why his voice was so clear, I don’t entirely know.
I used to teach English to kids aged between 8 and 16 a long time ago, and my son was a very sociable eight years old when I wrote the book, and I’ve got lots of nephews and nieces, but I guess I’ve always known kids, I’m the eldest of seven kids myself, so maybe it all helped.
In many senses one might say that The Long Weekend is both a horror story and a psychological thriller. In writing the story what struck you most forcefully – the inner fear and demons that each boy had to face or the outer horror of their abduction? Can these even be separated? And wherein, do you think, lies the greatest lesson for the characters?
Initially it was the outer horror of the abduction that hit me. What can be more terrifying than realizing that you’re trapped somewhere with a stranger? You don’t yet know his motives, and you don’t want to guess at them because that would paralyze you. But you’re not alone. You’re best friend is with you – only he either doesn’t want to see the danger, or is still in denial.
Then came the full brunt of the demons that I was about to visit upon the boys. For Sam it was about feelings of self-preservation in the face of his friend’s denial, to feeling betrayed by him, and then having to bear witness to his trauma. There were scenes in the book that were hard to write, upsetting even, particularly Lloyd’s.
The greatest lesson, I think, is never to give up no matter how terrifying the situation or predicament. There is always hope and by the end of the book the characters, and the reader, reach that realisation.
At the beginning of the story we meet a Sam who has little self-confidence. He struggles to overcome his fears as the story unfolds and by the end of the book he is essentially still Sam, but a stronger, confident teenager who knows he possesses the resources within himself to face almost anything. Lloyd’s fear and paralysis is overcome too late, but although he feels all is lost, it is not. Years later the boys ultimately transcend the horror of their long weekend, but they do transcend it and this is the greatest lesson for them both.
Apart from the very obvious point of the story, is there anything you’d particularly like your readers to take away after reading The Long Weekend?
Only that they found it such a good and memorable read that they’d want to recommend it to everyone they know! I think that in the end if the book is not a good, absorbing and satisfying read, whether it’s a kids’ book or adult book, then the writer has somehow failed to engage his/her audience. It makes me very happy that the vast majority of the people who have read The Long Weekend have absolutely loved it.
One reviewer even said that the book should be required reading for every secondary school kid as it brought home the message of stranger-danger more acutely than any school talk could hope to do, and in a way that was immediately accessible.
Do you feel you were trying to make a particular point in terms of the story and the character’s development in juxtaposing the cool and popular kid, Lloyd, who has everything, and the new boy, Sam, who is kept on a tight rein by his parents?
I don’t think so. I’m not really sure how much I thought about that. I do think kids need boundaries, but every kid comes from a different background, as do their parents, so there will always be differences in what kids are allowed to have and what they’re allowed to do. In terms of that affecting their development as characters in the book, for each boy, although from very different backgrounds, the response to the situation was initially the same – denial. Then came the desperate grasping of straws to explain away their fear. Then came the full assault of fear. Lloyd’s denial went deeper whereas Sam, who had lived a pretty cocooned compound life abroad, saw the danger more clearly.
What happens to Sam and his friend, Lloyd, must be every parent’s worst nightmare – did you do any particular research into families who had experienced child abduction and molestation?
Speaking as a parent, it really is every parent’s worst nightmare, and, yes, I have talked to many survivors of child abuse. When I was about eleven and walking with my younger sister, a car with a couple of blokes inside pulled up. They tried to force us into the car. Luckily my dad was further up the road, so they drove off in the end. But that experience, amongst other far worse experiences, has stayed with me. I can still feel the fear I felt then.
The story is a very modern one with many present day references. Does it concern you that this may date the story?
Not really. Yes, all the techno-gadgetry is well out of date now! I think I foresaw the advent of the iPhone when I wrote the book, although sadly I’ve never been credited with it! I think the basic premise of the book is pretty universal, and it’s a thriller and hopefully a very good read. Those things should be enough for kids to want to come back to it in the future.
We’ve met in person and you’re lovely, yet in The Long Weekend you’ve written something intrinsically dark. What influenced you to write a story of such a grim and cautionary nature?
Thank you, Nicky! I don’t entirely know what influences me to write about the darker side of life! I think I must have a very dark side to me that only emerges when I’m writing! But I’m well aware that I write for kids and teens, and so although naturally drawn to the terrible stuff that can happen in childhood, I try to deal with the more grim elements in a sensitive, non-graphic way, (which some people have found more frightening in itself!). The imagination is a very powerful thing and never to be underestimated. There doesn’t have to be blood and gore and vampires for readers to be chilled to the bone.
Flowing from the previous question, many say that all writing is in some way autobiographical, are there any particular instances from your own life on which you drew in the creation of The Long Weekend, even if they were fundamentally unconscious influences?
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and a comment a friend made to me a while back was that it would be unfair to kids who have suffered in the way that Lloyd had, for me not to be honest. I was subsequently put on the spot and asked the question by a 13 year old boy in a large group discussion at a book award, and, with my friend’s comment in mind, I said yes – there were experiences in my childhood that I drew upon in writing this book. I had no one like Sam there for me, which is may be why Sam’s character came so clearly to me.
Writers often talk about the imperative of some element of hope in children’s literature, no matter how grim the subject matter. What is your view on this – do you think it’s important and if so, why?
For me it is very important that some element of hope remains at the end of a book. Yes the subject matter of The Long Weekend is very grim, and if at the end I killed of both the boys too, well who would want to pick the book up and invest all that emotional energy in the plight of the boys? They would feel utterly let down at the end. (They’d probably fling the book across the room and hate me forever more!) But that’s not really why I believe that there has to be an element of hope at the end of a children’s book. When my son was much younger and he came across a sad ending in a book, he would find it upsetting and get very cross with the author for destroying a good character. Kids want a light at the end of the tunnel; adults often do too, but they have far wider reading experiences than kids do and could handle a devastating ending. Even though the subject matter in The Long Weekend may be difficult, I would not want to put kids off from reading my books. I think reading is so vital, so important, and if children’s writers didn’t take heed of what’s important to kids, then why write for them?
The Long Weekend is your debut novel – how have you found the process of getting published and marketing yourself? Are there any particular lessons you could share with budding authors?
When Andersen Press said they wanted The Long Weekend, I literally choked on my sushi, which I was eating while I was working! I would say that you have probably never met any debut author as naïve as me. To say I wasn’t internet savvy would be a gross understatement. I didn’t know any writers, was not a member of any writing group, had never heard of SCWBI or the SAS, or SoA, and as for Facebook and Twitter, or any other type of social networking, well, they were utterly alien to me!
As for marketing myself? I did not know that the onus would be on me to do any of that. I thought the publicity people at the publishers took care of sales and marketing. Duh!
So that’s several lessons shared there already! Get internet savvy, know everything there is to now about publishing and marketing yourself, about how to sell yourself and your books. Meet people, go to events, and basically do as much as you can because no one else is out there doing it for you. It is a continuous learning curve, and a continuous balancing act!
I know you are agented, so what role do you feel the agent plays in a debut writer’s life?
If you have a good agent, it takes the pressure off you. They fight your corner, they have contacts at most of the publishing houses, they sort out contractual details. Some writers manage very well without an agent, but for me it has been good.
There has been much discussion of late among writers about being a plotter or a “pantster” (i.e. not plotting but writing by the seat of one’s pants) – what sort of writer are you? And what do you think is the benefit of the way you write?
I definitely fall into the ‘panster’ group. The Long Weekend was not planned or plotted at all. I simply sat down at my laptop every morning and wrote until school pick up time, and then repeated it the following day. I was lucky because the story flowed so beautifully. That’s the way I like to write, but there have been times when planning has its merits, particularly if you’re stuck or not sure how to develop an idea into a book. I’ve done a very brief outline for the first part of a book, but usually stop there so the story can develop any which way it wants.
Are there any particular books or authors who you feel have had a particular influence on your writing journey?
When I was young, we couldn’t afford to buy books, so our local town library was our source and we were lucky because it was so well stocked. I read everything in the children’s library, from Enid Blyton to Noel Streatfeild, from J R R Tolkein to John Wyndham. I loved reading. To choose a particular book is so hard, but Lord of the Rings did have a dramatic influence. The first thing I ever wrote was an epic fantasy trilogy which ran to several hundred thousand words!
Wycombe Library, where Savita says she practically lived when she was growing up and where she developed her love for books
If you weren’t a writer what else do you think you’d like to be?
I would love to own a bookshop! Maybe one day I still will…
And finally, are you working on something new and can you tell us about it?
I’m working on a novel about a boy who wakes up with no memory, but I can’t tell you anymore about it just yet! You’ll be the first to know though!
If any of your readers are interested in finding out more about me I have a website they can visit. I try to keep it as up to date as I can. Or they can visit The Long Weekend Facebook page, or follow my random ramblings on Twitter!
Many thanks to Savita Kalhan for this interview!
It has been a real pleasure, Nicky! I’ve really enjoyed answering your insightful questions, even the really tough ones! Thank you so much for inviting me here!
Savita Kalhan with fans and fellow authors, Rachel Ward and Alexander Gordon Smith at the shortlisting for the FAB Book Award 2010
You can find out more about Savita Kalhan at her website
Or you can become a fan on The Long Weekend Facebook page
You can also follow her on Twitter @savitakalhan
You can buy copies of The Long Weekend on Amazon.co.uk and as an ebook at Amazon.com
Images courtesy of Savita Kalhan (and some nicked from the internet...)