Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with James Leck

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James Leck

For 16-year old Charlie Harker, the news that his summer vacation will be spent helping his mom renovate an old inn in the middle of nowhere is about as bad as it gets. But that was before Charlie had to deal with Miles Van Helsing, his irritating new neighbour, who just might be completely insane. After all, there isn't really otherworldly happenings going on in the tiny town of Rolling Hills... is there?

So begins James Leck's After Dark (Kids Can Press), a young adult novel that is as funny as it is suspenseful. Prankster Charlie is a great character to carry the action of this clever tale of things that go bump in the night.

Today we're talking to James as part of our In Character interview series, where we hear all about Charlie and about James' favourite characters in fiction. He tells us about some of Charlie's best pranks, the experience of living inside Charlie's head and how he uses character names to pay his respects to literary icons.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

James Leck:

Charlie Harker is the main character in After Dark. He’s sixteen and spends most of the year living at an illustrious boarding school called Choke Academy. Charlie doesn’t exactly take life seriously, and his main focus at school is participating in oddball pranks, like bungee jumping off the roof or glueing himself to the ceiling. When we meet him in After Dark, he’s just about to start summer vacation, which usually involves sleeping in every day and lazing around by the side of a pool at a luxury resort. Instead, he’s going to be renovating an old inn with his family in a sleepy, tourist town called Rolling Hills. I always like my characters to have some overriding motivation, and for Charlie it’s being leisurely lazy. He relishes life as a wealthy, privileged kid, but all of that disappears when he moves to Rolling Hills and has to face two realities: one, that his family is no longer wealthy, and two, that there’s some kind of mysterious outbreak happening and he’s going to have to get serious about life.


Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?


After Dark is told from Charlie’s perspective, so when I’m writing I feel a little like I’m living inside Charlie’s head. It’s like I’m playing the part of Charlie, but I’m also writing down what he’s doing inside the story. When I’m really in the groove, it’s Charlie Harker sitting at my computer, not James Leck.


How do you choose names for your characters?


With After Dark I wanted to pay my respect to many of the scary books and movies I watched as a teenager, so I paired first names and last names from different sources. The name Charlie comes from a character in a vampire movie called, Fright Night. Harker is the last name of the main character in the novel, Dracula. However, I couldn’t just randomly pull names from different places and slap them onto a character, they have to match the personality of that character in some way. I have fun with names, but I think about them too. There are times when I’ll assign a name to a character and it won’t feel right, and then two months into writing the book I’ll realize, No! That’s not the right name, this is the right name. Once I change the name I feel so much better.


What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?


Dialogue comes from knowing the character. I take my time getting to know a character by doing little writing activities, like taking ten minutes to write about what their bedroom looks like, or what they did when the school bully confronted them on the playground in grade three. Charlie is very sarcastic and that came out as I met him. For the other characters in After Dark, I wanted to make sure each one had a distinct voice. I think that’s the most important thing an emerging writer can recognize. Charlie’s sister, Lilith, speaks very little because I knew she admired her father and he wrote books about being a modern day warrior. So, when she does speak, she ends up quoting Yoda-like sayings from her dad’s self-help books. I knew Johnny was this totally carefree golden boy who has had nothing but good luck rain down on him all his life. As a result, he has this laid back way of speaking and looking at life, he sounds a lot like a California surfer.


Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?


Charlie and I both love to sleep. I’m always trying to figure out a way to have a nap, but that happens very rarely in my life, so I had a lot of sympathy for Charlie in his quest for sleep while he tried to deal with his new and strange life in Rolling Hills. Charlie is more sarcastic than me, and he’s not afraid to aim his sarcasm at adults, which is something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing when I was sixteen. He’s also more relaxed about life than I was at that age. He’s not worried about what other people think and he’s got a great deal of inner confidence.


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


Sherlock Holmes is probably my favourite fictional character. He’s so unlike me, so much smarter, so calculated. Plus he can hang out with the toughest cats in London, but at the same time, he’s a perfect gentleman. I don’t think I’d like to meet Sherlock Holmes, but he’s a fascinating character to read about.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on the sequel to After Dark. (SPOILER ALART) Some of the same characters are back, but I get to see how they’ve changed after surviving a pretty weird experience. Plus, I get to meet a few new characters, which is always fun.

James Leck has worked as a high school teacher in Canada, Japan and Kuwait. He is the author of the Jack Lime mysteries. His latest book, After Dark, is a small salute to the great horror stories and movies he read and watched growing up. Charlie Harker, the hero in After Dark, has a passion for sleeping in, napping and avoiding work at all costs, and James has to admit that these qualities might be based on his own quest for absolute laziness during his summer vacations growing up. Currently, James lives in Dartmouth with his wife and two children.

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