On sale today is Christopher Wakling's acclaimed novel What I Did, written from the point-of-view of six-year-old Billy as he sets in motion a series of unexpected, family-altering events. Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, raved about the book, "This is family life today at its most believable: warm and messy, bored and raging...I LOVED it." And Publishers Weekly says What I Did is "much in the vein of Atonement." Read on for more information about the book and for a Q&A with Christopher.
"This is a story about a terrible thing which happens to me. I have to warn you that nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and the good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce terrible chemical reactions. Did you know cheetahs cannot retract their claws?"
Six-year-old Billy loves animals, David Attenborough documentaries, and sneakers that flash when he runs. He does not love sitting still, the blood-soaked sky in Watership Down, or his father's cell phone.
When Billy runs into a busy street, ignoring his father's commands, he sets in motion a series of unexpected, family-altering events. What I Did is a heart-wrenching reminder of how best intentions can lead to disastrous consequences, and how one rash decision can take on a life of its own.
Q: How difficult was it writing in the voice of a six-year-old boy for the duration of the novel? Were you ever tempted to break from that structure as you progressed through the story?
The difficult – but fun – part was coming up with a convincing voice for Billy in the first place. It emerged in my notebooks over a couple of years. Once I had the voice I was determined to stick with it for the duration, with the aim of making the story, like childhood itself, a focused, hectic rollercoaster ride.
Q: What research did you do while writing the novel?
Aside from speaking to child protection workers, pediatricians, lawyers, schoolteachers and parents, to work out the practical and legal ramifications of Billy’s story, I spent a great deal of time listening to my own kids. I wrote down what they said, imagined what they might be thinking, and made notes about that, too. In the park I looked like a hack journalist trailing miniature dictators.
Q: Did anything surprise you when you interviewed different people (especially professionals) about corporal punishment?
I suspected I’d encounter a wide range of opinions about corporal punishment, and I did. The only real surprise was how vociferously people held their opinions.
Q: Throughout the novel the reader only has access to information gained from Billy's perspective. Were you concerned about readers literally having doors closed on them during some of the more intense family scenes where Billy isn't present?
No. If I’ve done my job properly the reader should know what’s going on amongst the adults, even if Billy doesn’t. Sometimes he’s present. And when he’s not there, there are clues. If readers feel some of Billy’s disorientated confusion, so much the better. It’s his story after all.
Q: Billy's fascination with nature and animals is a predominant theme throughout WHAT I DID. Do you see parallels between the animal kingdom and humanity when a crisis hits?
I do, yes. In particular, the instinctive drive many animals have to defend their young. At one point I have Billy think the thought: you should never get between a leopard and its cubs.
Q: Rather early on, Billy remarks that "nobody is bad or good here, [but] rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good." Do you think Billy would agree with his assessment ten or fifteen years into the future, looking back on the events of the novel?
I hope so, because that’s how I see it. Jim - Billy’s father - is a flawed character, but he’s not evil. The passer-by who intervenes at the scene is only trying to help. Likewise, the child protection workers wreak havoc, but they’re doing their duty in good faith. Billy’s Mum could be more forceful, his Grandma more helpful, his schoolteacher more insightful, the doctor less quick to jump to conclusions, but ultimately they’re all trying their hardest to do what’s best for Billy. He’s not blameless himself. What Billy does to begin with helps create the problem, and he subsequently plays a part in making everything worse. That said, he’s six.
Q: You’ve said, "Fatherhood is fantastic. It has also exposed some interesting character flaws. Hence WHAT I DID." How was the experience of WHAT I DID – writing it, seeing it published, seeing critical reception – different from those experiences with your earlier books?
There’s a personal element to all of my books, and I’ve published each of them with similar feelings of pride, hope, and apprehension. But WHAT I DID is particularly close to home, yes. It owes a debt to my own children. The nice things that critics have said about the novel resonate for me because of that.
Q: If readers could take only one thing away from this novel, what would you like it to be?
A renewed appreciation of the intensity of childhood.
Q: Corporal punishment is obviously a hot-button issue, as can be the good intentions of social services. You must have some thoughts about both.
I do, lots. But I have no axe to grind. Social workers in child protection are as routinely damned for intervening too hastily as they are for failing to act quickly enough. Corporal punishment of children was normal throughout the world until very recently, and is now illegal in many countries. The book explores these moral minefields. Readers will draw their own conclusions.
Q: Will you allow your children to read WHAT I DID when they are of age? Do you think they will see themselves in it?
I hope they want to read it, and see I wrote it in part as an act of love, and know they transcend the novel either which way.
What I Did is on sale now wherever books are sold. For more with Christopher Wakling, follow him on Twitter, visit his website, and read his blog written from the point-of-view of six-year-old Billy. Book club members can check out the reading group guide.