English Novelist Dan Whitehead Shares the Inspiration Behind his Graphic Novel of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’

Dan, can you tell me a little about yourself? Where you are from etc.
 I live just south of Manchester in England with my wife and two children and a budgie called Minty. I’m 38 and have somehow made a living from writing for twenty of those years!
Dan Whitehead
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

I was a huge fan of computer games as a kid, and used to love reading the various games magazines in the UK. There was one in particular – ‘Your Sinclair’ – that I was obsessed with, because it was so funny. I decided I’d really like to write about games for a living, and when I told the careers advisor in school about this ambition they looked at me as if I was insane. A few years later, just as I was finishing my A Levels, there was an advertisement in the local newspaper for someone to work as a Games Editor for a publishing company. I didn’t get the job, as I’d never edited anything in my life, but they took me on as a staff writer and that was it. My career has diversified a lot since then, but it was games that got me started and they still pay the bills today!

How many books have you written until now?

Jason and the Argonauts is my seventh published book. I’ve also written unofficial biographies of George Clooney and Hugh Grant, plus two official Star Wars books. In 2007, I edited ‘Nevermore’, a graphic novel compilation of Edgar Allen Poe stories, and wrote the script for ‘Fall of the House of Usher’. I’ve also been a specialist consultant to the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition, compiling sections on adventure games, shooting games and superhero games. Last year, I self-published a book for the first time, a 500-page movie trivia book called ‘What’s A Nice Actor Like You Doing In A Movie Like This?’ That was very satisfying and I definitely plan to self publish more in the future.

Do you have a day job as well? What’s  your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I have had day jobs from time to time. From 2009 to 2010, I worked in a local high school, for example. But for the most part I write full-time. I’m an early bird so I tend to get most of my writing done while everyone else is still in bed. I’ll go to sleep with a piece swirling around in my head, then I’ll get up at 5am, get on the PC and it all comes out! Then mid-afternoon, I’ll wind down, catch up on emails and play any games or watch any movies that I need to review.

Can you tell me about your challenges in getting your first book published?

I’ve been very lucky in the sense that almost all of my work regarding books has been done via commission, so the publishers came to me and asked me to write a book, so I didn’t have to worry about whether it would be published or not. For my movie trivia book, that was a passion project for about five years but it’s very hard to get something new on the shelves right now. Publishers and agents are only taking on a few new clients or titles per year, and there’s so much competition. In the end, I just wanted to get it out there so the work didn’t go to waste, so I used CreateSpace, the Amazon print-on-demand service, to make it available. It’s sold steadily and picked up good reviews, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in doing it yourself. Publishing for Kindle is fun as well – I bundled some of my short stories into a compilation called ‘Sticky Ends’ and put those out on Smashwords. Only a fool writes to get rich, so I don’t mind that the money doesn’t come pouring in. It’s just satisfying to know that my work is out there for people to find.

Now, let me ask you about your latest graphic novel version of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ which describes the adventures of  an ancient Greek mythological hero from the late 10th century BC. What got you interested in re-writing a  famous story that has been published over and over again? Tell me  about your research and how long it took you to write.

I hooked up with the publisher, Campfire, online. They knew I had experience of adaptations with Nevermore, and wanted to know if      I’d be interested in tackling mythology. I grew up watching Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful movies, especially ‘Jason and the      Argonauts’. What was interesting to me was that the movie, and most adaptations since, only tell a small part of the Jason myth. It’s a real epic, from his exile through to his eventual death, so the  chance to explore the full tale was very exciting.

Classical mythology is a tricky beast to adapt, though. The  stories don’t follow any of the narrative conventions we’re used to in 2011. There’s no three-act structure, just a series of  episodes and encounters. Sometimes the characters will stop and live on an island for several years before continuing their quest! The story is very much “And then this thing happened, and then this thing, and then another thing, and then the Gods saved  everyone, and then…” There’s very little structure, and Jason      himself isn’t a particularly heroic character. He’s motivated by fairly selfish needs, and his rather cruel treatment of Medea, his  wife, is problematic to say the least! Finding a way to tell that story, while making it relatable and palatable to a modern audience was a real challenge.

Research was basically reading as many versions of the story as I could and picking out the most vital elements, making sure they      were in the right order and imposing some kind of character arc on the top.

What was your favorite chapter or part of the book?

As shallow as it sounds, I do love the monsters and the battles. There are so many cool action scenes in this story, from the snake-like hydra to Talos, the bronze giant, the harpies, the undead soldiers…it’s so much fun to play with those toys!

Tell me about Sankha Banerjee, the book’s illustrator. Did you discuss the illustrations together?

I didn’t have any contact with Sankha, as he was assigned to the  book by Campfire after the script was submitted. I do love what he’s done though. I imagined the book in a much more traditional American comic book style, with very crisp clean lines and bright      colours, but Sankha’s artwork is painted and very texture-heavy. It’s almost timeless, and really suits the story. All of the big “wow!” pages turned out exactly how I hoped.

Are you interested in Greek mythology?

Absolutely. As I said, Harryhausen was a huge influence on me growing up. I got to meet him in 2001 and was just in awe. They’re      such great stories, so full of incredible characters and creatures. Most filmmakers or writers would love to create half the stuff that came out of Greek myth. It really is one of the first sources of modern fantasy.

Do you think their are hidden messages in many of the Greek myths?

I don’t know about hidden messages, but I think what has always appealed to me about Greek mythology is that it’s unafraid to be      cruel and arbitrary. Zeus and the other gods weren’t benevolent  deities, like the Christian god, but bickering, selfish,  dysfunctional creatures. They were sort of like a soap opera with  superpowers, and as a child that mixture of densely packed narrative and over-the-top power is intoxicating.

Is Greek mythology taught in British schools and do you believe people are interested in reading about it? Why/Why not?

I don’t believe it’s on the curriculum over here, but maybe it should be. Certainly, tales like ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey’ are  absolutely vital works of literature. Then again, I’m not sure it’s entirely healthy to cling to any single mythology, as these  tales should always be evolving. In two thousand years time, I expect people will look back on the 20th Century and discuss the importance of ‘Superman’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as mythological characters.

 

Which authors do you like and who inspired you growing up?

I always loved comic books, and Stan Lee was one of the first people who made me aware that people actually wrote these stories on purpose. He’d use incredibly verbose language, full of alliteration and linguistic playfulness, and I’m sure that helped me gain a varied vocabulary. I also used to read a lot of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories -‘The Famous Five’, ‘Secret Seven’ and so on – as well as Willard Price’s wildlife adventures. ‘Asterix’ was another favourite. The multi-layered language and puns in those books still amazes me. Beautifully written. My all-time favourite author is HG Wells. I’ve always found his blend of political  satire, bleak predictions and honest idealism very appealing.

Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?

Most of my work is writing reviews at the moment. I do lots of  video games  coverage for ‘Euro-gamer.net’ and also film and TV reviews for various UK magazines. Nothing is as rewarding as creating something of your own, however, so I’d really like to move my  career more in that direction as I get older. I co-wrote a script for a game earlier this year, ‘Air Conflicts: Secret Wars’, and would love to do more like that. Comics are so much fun though – there’s really just you and an artist, so it’s a very pure form of storytelling.

Have you ever visited Greece? What were your impressions?

I haven’t, but I’d love to. I’m a keen photographer and anywhere with that much history, so close to the surface, is very inspirational.

Is the present economical situation in Greece and around the world affecting your life?

I’ve been lucky that the writing work has kept coming in, though there have been hairy moments. People are much more cautious about  investing in anything new right now, but in times of uncertainty people always turn to fiction and escapism, so I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

What advice would you give to young people today, especially those who want to become writers?

Being a writer is probably the easiest thing in the world to do. Just write! All you need is a computer, or even a pen and paper. It’s not like wanting to be a film director where there are all kinds of technical hurdles between you and the end goal. If you’ve got an idea, just write it down. The worst thing to do is to feel self-conscious, or to not write something down because you’re worried it won’t be very good. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you the same thing: the more you write, the better you get. And with digital printing, you don’t even have to keep that first novel stuffed in a drawer. There’s really never been a better time to put your work out into the world.

Finally Dan, Are you working on any books or projects that you would like to tell us about? I have heard something about a script for Julius Caesar?

Yes, I’m currently adapting Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ as another graphic novel for Campfire. That’s another challenge, as almost all the action takes place off-stage and coming up with ways to show the  same few people talking for page after page is a real test. I’m also working on a children’s time travel novel for ‘Sevenarches Publishing’. It’s part of a series about modern day children who travel back into history. Factual fiction, I suppose you could call it. And I’m also developing some ideas of my own for games, films and TV shows. Never let a good idea go to waste!

‘Jason and the Argonauts’, by Dan Whitehead & Sankha Banerjee is published by Campfire and can also be ordered through Dial-a-Book at 9650-457-457.

Dan, himself has profiles on Facebook and Linkedin.

 

 


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