After surviving a devastating terrorist attack on his compound, sole survivor, Jamal, sets out on a journey to find his reclusive grandfather in the Nigerian mountains. A man who he believes will have the answers to the ‘ghosts’ that took his family from him. With only a blanket, a book he can’t read and the metal canister from where the ghosts came, Jamal, blinded by his life of isolation, leaves his home for the first time, unaware that his hardships are far from behind him.

One of our content creators, James Sinclair, spoke to author Bridget Blankley to discuss the inspiration behind the novel, her experience as an autistic author and much more... 

Jamal’s story very easily could have been one of revenge. However, the story chooses to tackle much more complex themes. What message do you want people to take away from The Ghosts and Jamal?

Personally, I’m not a great one for revenge so I would have found it difficult to write a story focused on that. However, I wanted to write a story that felt real. I wanted my readers to think of Jamal as a real person, someone they might know, so he had to be faced with complex situations, because real life problems aren’t usually straight forward.

I don’t think I am really trying to send messages to anyone, but maybe I’m asking a few questions. Questions about how we treat people who are different and maybe about if anyone is all good or all bad.

What was it about this story that made you want to write it?

I often think of a phrase or sentence that I think would make the good start to a story and I write them down. The first line in The Ghosts and Jamal: ‘It was light when Jamal woke up, but no one was up…’ I had no idea where it would go from there, to be honest I didn’t even know if Jamal was a boy’s or a girl’s name, but I knew it would make a good story.

I didn’t think about it again for ages, six months, maybe a year. Then there was an upsurge in violence in northern Nigeria, a gas attack in Syria and I found a box of old family photographs, mostly from when my family lived in West Africa. It was this mix that somehow came together into Jamal’s story. I didn’t deliberately set out to address violence or terrorism or even social isolation, the story came first the issues just followed from the story. 

Jamal has epilepsy and you have Asperger’s, was it always important for your lead character to represent a condition?

Not at all, I did not set out to write a character with a disability. The disability arrived because it was necessary for the plot, for example: Jamal needed to live outside the main compound, or he would have died with the rest of his family. He needed to be useful when he lived on the dump, something that set him aside from the other kids picking rubbish, and there had to be a reason for him to spend time in the hospital. It was because Jamal had epilepsy I could put him in these situations. Understanding his epilepsy is just one more puzzle for Jamal. It isn’t the most important thing about him.

When creating the story were you more focused on Jamal’s physical journey or was it more about the progression of his character? 

I have to have both the first sentence and the last paragraph in my head before I start to write. Rather like bookends for the story. To me, this way of writing is like having an old-fashioned paper map laid out in front of me. I didn’t know the exact route that the story would take, but I did know the events that wanted to include. Once I know that then it became inevitable that Jamal’s character would change over the course of the story, we all change as we go along, don’t we?

Is there anywhere you had in mind when you were writing the various locations?

The locations are a mixture of real places and places that I’ve invented. For example: The Mountain Without God is based on a Zuma Rock near Abuja, which is believed to be the home of spirits. I knew of the rock before I wrote The Ghosts and Jamal, but when I was researching for the book I found out about the abandoned village, the one that Jamal spends the night in. The floating village and the dump are also real places. You couldn’t follow Jamal’s journey on a map, but you could find some of the places that he visited.

Do you see yourself within Jamal or is his character based on someone else entirely?

I think there is something of the author in every character. But that doesn’t mean that many authors, me included, deliberately write ourselves into our novels. Every character is a mix of people. Their speech patterns will be stolen from one person, their character from one or two others, the way they look might be taken from someone you met on the bus. It’s a bit like cooking, a bit of this and a pinch of that all mixed up together. So, there is a chance that some of his character traits might be my own, however it wasn’t deliberate. Jamal, like the other characters I create is a sort of mosaic, a picture made up of things I’ve picked up from everyone I’ve met; I guess my art teacher would describe him as a ‘mixed media’ creation.

Food plays such a large role in The Ghosts and Jamal, in fact some of the descriptions make your mouth water just reading them. Can you explain why you decided to have the descriptions become such prominent inclusions in the story?

The use of food was very deliberate. I wanted to make people who hadn’t visited Nigeria to relate to the country and I think food helps you to do that. Pasta makes you think of Italy, brie makes you think of France and Basbousa cake takes you to the Middle East. There is something about food that links to something deep inside. When I think about living in West Africa it’s often the food that sets off a train of memories.

Maybe some of my readers will be tempted to try some of the meals…perhaps I should have included recipes at the end of the book.

Do you believe having Asperger’s has in a way contributed to your writing process?

It certainly means that I have to set strict time limits on how much research I do when I’m writing. If I didn’t I would probably spend six months researching a single location instead of writing about it.

Other than that, I think that it probably helps me when I am writing dialogue. Like many people with ASD, I hear the words that people actually say rather than what they mean. So, when I am trying to recreate dialogue then I have an internal recording of the way that my characters speak. I know if they would pause before they start to say something or if the words would tumble out, tripping over each other. I think that is quite useful. 

Finally, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?

I’m playing around with a couple of ideas at the moment. One is another Young Adult story, this time set in North Africa, maybe with a female protagonist. 

My other idea is to try something a little different, take a character similar to Jamal and develop a fantasy novel set in the same location. However, that genre is new to me, so I’m not sure how my publisher will react. Still, I think I’ve got a strong storyline so maybe I should pitch it to her.

If you have enjoyed this interview then make sure to check out more of James’ work here

Find out more about Bridget Blankley and her writing here, and order your copy of The Ghosts and Jamal

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