After more than a decade of tinkering with his first novel, film journalist Josh Winning talks to Ella Walker about the release of his debut fantasy, Sentinel, set in Cambridge
“I feel slightly like ‘oh god, what have I started?’” laughs writer Josh Winning, a mixture of fear, relief and surprise in his voice. “Once you’ve finished a book you almost forget that it was actually quite a difficult thing to do. Maybe it’s a bit like pregnancy where you forget how awfully painful it can be.”
The film journalist and Anglia Ruskin University graduate has just released his debut novel, Sentinel, part one in a fantasy trilogy set in Cambridge, and he’s currently six or seven chapters into book two, hence the slight panic: “It’s a huge challenge,” he admits. “But I’m up for a challenge. I like to have a go at things I’ve never done before.”
Born in Cambridge, the 29-year-old grew up in Bury St Edmund’s before returning to the city to study film and communications. He’s been tinkering with Sentinel on and off since he was 16, but never really knew where to start when it came to making his writing a career.
“I had a period [after university] where I was like, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’” Josh says wryly. “I went to see one of my lecturers back at ARU and she said: why don’t you become a journalist?”
“For me, journalism was writing for newspapers and I don’t really know enough about the world I don’t think to write for a paper,” he admits. “But then she was like, you could write for magazines. And I was like, can you do that? Is that a real thing?”
Bagging a place on a magazine journalism course in Brighton and pestering Total Film for a work placement, Josh “just kept bugging them to let me come in and do more stuff for them.”
“It’s awesome,” he says, now living in London as a Total Film and Little White Lies magazine regular. “I love it. Some of the people I’ve got to speak to has been amazing.”
Has he interviewed anyone particularly memorable? “It sounds really bad but there’s been so many and they’ve all been amazing that you start to forget because, after a while, they do start to pile up,” he says, having a think. “One of the first ones, which was just amazing, was Jodie Foster.
“I spoke to her on the phone for a retrospective on Silence of the Lambs, and it was a good 20 years since the film had come out. She was actually promoting another film, Nim’s Island, and when I said thanks for having a chat about Silence of the Lambs, she was like ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes!’ She’d forgotten we were talking about that film but she was so enthusiastic about it, even though it’d been years. She was pretty much exactly what you wanted her to be, this amazingly intelligent woman.”
Unfortunately he’s less forthcoming about any disastrous celebrity encounters (which is probably for the best): “There was one phone interview I did a couple of years ago with a musician turned actor, who I won’t name because that’s a bit mean, but he was obviously extremely hung over and it was just like trying to pull teeth…”
When we speak Josh has just finished reading The Great Gatsby (“It’s a beautifully written book, I wish I could write like that,”), in preparation for Baz Luhrmann’s dazzlingly frantic big screen adaptation (“He likes his glitz and glamour, if anything he’ll definitely capture the craziness of the twenties,”), and I can’t help but ask the bona fide film critic what he thinks of the casting: “I felt a little bit like Leo’s already played Gatsby in Django [Unchained] – that kind of debonair young man who’s obviously got this wealth and power and is slightly unhinged – I think he’s pretty much going to nail it.”
Despite his glamorous forays into film journalism, fiction has always niggled away at the fantasy fanatic. Writing Sentinel started out as “just a hobby” but “this world and these characters just seemed to sit in the back of my mind the whole time over all these years and I just chipped away at it, slowly but surely,” Josh explains. A year ago he decided to finish it once and for all and just “get the bloody thing done,”: “I just couldn’t escape this world. It just kept drawing me back in.”
Charming and addictive, Sentinel is a coming of age story about 15-year-old Nicholas and a hang-dog, seventy-something guy called Sam Wilkins. It’s a tale of perspectives: Nicholas is on the cusp of independence, trying to unravel how the world works, while Sam is older and wiser but still fighting his way through it. And then Nicholas discovers another world altogether, one that exists behind the mundane and the everyday.
Set in Cambridge, Josh felt the city was an untapped resource when it came to fiction. “Nobody had really seized upon the idea of it in a fantasy setting,” he says, incredulous. “I just felt that was a massive missed opportunity because Cambridge has this atmosphere to it and this amazing history and all these fantastic locations.”
As a result, look out for cameos from the Fitzwilliam Museum, the train station and Midsummer Common, where Nicholas lives. But don’t expect cringe-inducing clichés. “It wasn’t meant to be a guidebook!” Josh jokes. “I didn’t want to make it into, ‘and then Nicholas goes to King’s College…’”
“[The fantasy element] is a heightened way of looking at teenagers being tipped into the world and having to figure it out,” he explains, citing Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon, Roald Dahl and Robin Jarvis as massive inspirations. “I picked up the Deptford Mice when I was about 9 or 10 and it just blew my mind,” he enthuses. “It’s just so beautifully written and you can see it play out in your head like a movie. I think that’s kind of the feeling I was going for in Sentinel. It’s a movie on the page, hopefully the way it’s written – not too descriptive, but just enough – that it plays out in your head like you’re watching it on a movie screen.”
Not that he’s expecting it to immediately be picked up by a film studio like Wool or 50 Shades of Grey, which both similarly started out as online e-books before attracting lucrative Hollywood deals. “I think I’m still a bit far off from that but that would be amazing,” Josh buzzes. “As I was writing it I was imagining actors who might play those roles, just to get my head around how they would move, how they would talk and how they would interact with people. That would be fantastic, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Right now he’s focussed on piecing together the final two books in the trilogy: “I’d love to say that I am like a JK Rowling, where I know every single cranny of this world, but I don’t. It’s very much a world that I’m still exploring as I go along, but that said, I do like to plan so book two is pretty much planned up to the final chapters.” Whereas book three is slightly more “embryonic” at this stage. “There’s something to be said for just writing it out,” says Josh. “Sometimes, if you get stuck, you can just sit down and write it and feel where the narrative is nudging you to go and where the characters want to go.
“If you knew all the answers, why would you write it?”
So far the reaction to Sentinel has been hugely positive, but that hasn’t stopped Josh being slightly tentative about his new found author-dom: “Even though I do have faith in the book, and I’d like to think it is a decent read, you’re never really sure because you’re so close to it, and whenever I read it back I just see all the things that make me cringe, things that I’d like to change.
“I feel like I’ve just chucked this thing out into the world, I’ve just given birth and chucked it out there, and feel like, please be nice to it, don’t treat it too harshly. But of course I’m going to get bad reviews. I’m waiting for that to happen, so hopefully they won’t be too harsh when they arrive.”
Once he’s finished the third Sentinel book though, he’d quite like to get stuck into more than just writing. “There are just so many things I’d love, film making, script writing, I just don’t know,” Josh muses. “There is so much opportunity if you can just get yourself in there somehow, and I think that media making – if you’re making a film, if you’re writing a book, if you want to become a photographer – the technology nowadays is so accessible and so much cheaper than it’s ever been that you can literally pick up a camera, buy a laptop, buy a photography camera, you can do whatever you want and I think that’s quite inspiring.
“It means there’s probably a lot of rubbish out there as well, but I think no matter what you want to do, you can actually do it nowadays. Which is fantastic.”
Josh’s advice for fellow budding writers:
• Don’t give up, that’s pretty much number one: never give up.
• Forget about everybody else and do what you want to do, what you love.
• You’ve got to be hard on yourself because everyone else is going to be hard on you as well, so be your own worst critic to begin with, but don’t let that stop you. Try and use that to push yourself to be the best you can be.
• Read as much as you can, write as much as you can, read as many different things as you can. If you’re writing fantasy or writing crime, don’t just stick to those genres because you’ll find so many unexpected things elsewhere that can inspire you too.
Sentinel (The Sentinel Trilogy) is available for Kindle on Amazon, and for iPhone, iPad and Sony Readers at Smashwords. Find out more about Josh and The Sentinel Trilogy at http://joshuawinning.com or follow him on Twitter @JoshWinning.