Interview with Christian Frank
Author of Leavers Assembly
Christian Frank is an experienced radio presenter/writer/ producer with many broadcast hours of freelance work for local BBC Radio. Since March 1995 he has written and presented voluntary weekly shows ‘The Lemon Circus ‘for the patients at Captain James Cook University Hospital, including ‘Write-Off!’ a radio sitcom that ran for four series. From August 2007 until June 2016 his weekly shows continued at North Tees Hospital (Radio Stitch) where he has been nominated for several HBA Awards. Recent shows for ‘Veterans Families Radio’ and ‘CVFM ‘are uploaded onto the internet via Mixcloud where they attract a global listener-ship consistently topping the comedy, news, and community radio charts. Worked with VikingFM and MetroFM in the Creative Services department. Taken part in the BBC Radio 1 and Radio 4 stand-up open mic award. Written a stage play for GCSE examinations for year 11 Drama students. Completed with honours a University degree in Media Technology and workshop driven course ‘Advanced Screenwriting'. Member of The Writers Bureau and has had work short-listed for publication in the 'Deadpan' comedy magazine. He made his TV debut by appearing as an extra in the New Zealand soap opera ‘Shortland Street’. Christian lives in Teesside, married to Joanne with 5 children.
Buy this book
What’s the book 'Leavers Assembly' about?
- Each time I’m asked this I instinctively freeze as if taken off guard which is silly really but I’m conscious not to start spouting some well-rehearsed response. I want the reply to spring from a deep held passion for what I created. I suppose it’s that discipline of wanting dialogue, whether in stories or real life to be entirely organic. So, yes there’s a pause as I search inside for that magic to paint my face with sincere enthusiasm, but I’m also eager to try and sell them a ticket for this magic journey ride I’ve prepared. I guess I come across as a modest used car salesman, if that's possible.
I think the main point I always mention are regrets. A dead man now facing judgement for a crime he committed when he was fourteen will either spend eternity in heaven or hell depending on the verdict. My thought behind this traditional image was at what age do we become criminally responsible, because the age itself is murky with all manner of excuses regarding diminished responsibility. But there’s a definite knowing of right from wrong, certainly by our teenage years. I wanted there to be a mistrial and the same man having to relive the crime with full knowledge every action would be judged. Without giving too much away the man had an accomplice who he’s not seen in many years and he also returns to their past, and he’s the protagonist. So, there’s plenty of questions and moral dilemmas as well as twists, mystery and fantasy. I’ve likened it to Back to the Future and Butterfly Effect but the more I think about it, I’d say it was more like a school reunion bringing about closure to lost loves, unresolved friendships and in this case, sin.
What does the title 'Leavers Assembly' mean?
- Interestingly it was called ‘Leavers Assembly’ right up until the week it was published. It stayed linked with the project for no other reason than it inspired me, and sometimes that’s all that's needed to keep focus. However, once I gave it more than a cursory glance, I realised it lacked any indication as to what the story was about. The characters themselves were too young to have actually left school.
Strangely, and this is a real example of inspiration from the weirdest of places, a book on my shelf about Ivan Milat, the Australian backpacker murderer, was titled 'Sins of the Brother' and just randomly entered my thinking space. It was no more creative than that. A different take on the biblical ‘Sins of the Father’ phrase but with a pun, which is exactly what my story is about, meaning Former selves. Former could also be used interchangeably with the school years students are in, but it would have sounded incredibly convoluted to have titled it ‘Sins of the ninth Former’ as no one would ever call someone a ninth former, and certainly not in England.
After a month titled 'Sins of the Former' I went back and changed it back to 'Leavers Assembly'. I’m hoping naming a book works out like it has for my children, they’ll somehow just grow into them.
What inspired you to write 'Leavers Assembly'?
- I’m what some would describe as 'a creative type'. I was the child who made up his own comics, wrote articles for the school newspaper, presented radio shows in my bedroom before taking them to a wider audience both locally and worldwide on the internet. Then one day last year it changed, I no longer found myself doing radio yet I still had an urge to create something. So, I thought, 'why not write a novel and see where it takes me'. Over the last few years I’d been writing replies to listeners thanking them for their international support and eventually self-published this collection of thank-you notes into one single volume; 'Give Pause For Thanks'. And the more I thought about these short creative writings the more I though about how I could handle a much larger project.
That was the challenge, keeping my focus for a prolonged period of time, unlike radio which is hugely disposable. I didn’t struggle too long wondering about what the story would be about I simply jumped straight in, deciding to write what I already knew about; my own childhood. The setting and places all very real, activities, attitudes and popular culture already well researched because I’d already lived them. The fictional part was woven into that backdrop. A story I felt was positive and reflected where I was spiritually to where I'd been thirty or so years ago as a teenager. I think we take for granted all our good decisions because we’re comfortable with their outcome and so don’t value them or not as much. Then we make a bad one and suffer the ill consequences, possibly over many years. I think it’s important we appreciate how important our actions are. Good deeds also can be felt generations later. I guess that’s the 'truth' to this story.
Which character in 'Leavers Assembly' was inspired by a real person?
- There weren't any character I consciously thought, ‘Oh I’d like to include them’. So, it'd be a lie to suggest any one person in this book was based on a real life person, but I can without a doubt say the Granddad character was conjured up using my own Granddad as a template. And yet when I wrote the story I thought he appeared the most stereotypical character; you know... old, caring, nurturing...perfect. And yet I truly was blessed to have had a Gramps like that and I know others who've had or are still having that exact same amazing experience. I’ll probably have a Grandmother character in a future story based on my own Nanna, and she’ll be beyond believable, but it’ll be 100% true.
Can you tell us a little about the locations in 'Leavers Assembly' ?
- I wanted to anchor these characters in a world I was familiar with and could also reflect the necessary dark and light locations to deliver the artistic narrative. We go to tunnels, stadium flood lights, school backstage, the beach, abandoned buildings at night, the park during the day… they all help establish the mood similar to weather and dialogue. Thankfully Billingham, my hometown had plenty of these to offer which gave the story a logistical realism. In fact, anyone living in Billingham or who grew up there in the 1980’s will be able to play out these unfolding scenes without suspending too much disbelief.
I wanted to incorporate a lighthouse for aesthetic merit to a romantic conversation, but I found the sand, icy sea and bracing wind was far more invigorating than mere symbolism.
How long did it take you to write 'Leavers Assembly' ?
- It was exactly 10 months from beginning to end. The first 3 months I wrote the first draft, followed by another 2 months of rewriting the second. I left it to stew for about 3 months while I was still coming up with ideas and suggestions for its improvement. Then the last 2 months I completed the line edit making sure each paragraph read clearly and polished up the prose.
During this time, I remained in full time employment as an application analyst in the financial sector. I could have had the book completed sooner but I had a good work life balance and wouldn’t have changed this particular time management approach on this project as it allowed the story to breathe and be tightened from its original concept. The most important factor was having a good strong outline to begin with otherwise it would have taken much longer.
Does 'Leavers Assembly' have a soundtrack?
- It didn’t when I began the book but certainly during and after writing it a playlist seemed to suggest itself. In the story Yazoo are frequently mentioned both albums and single tracks, but the 80’s as a decade is hugely defined by the synthesizer noise which lends itself to a delightful moody playlist. I especially like Memory of the future by Pet Shop Boys. I’d like to orchestrate the light and dark as with locations, the pop separated with perhaps Morrissey’s melancholy. Could you imagine a track list containing Bros – ‘Drop the boy’ back to back with Smiths – ‘There is a light that never goes out’? The original recording on the soundtrack would be Erasure covering Prince – Nothing compares 2 U. Or maybe even a reformed Yazoo!
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
- I was 19 when I wrote my first novel ‘Even Eskimos Have Sweaty Bollocks’ 63,000 words about an alternative world that existed on the other side of the sun an exact 6 months ahead of our own with all the same people inhabiting an identical planet. The title suggested it’s surreal genre and where I was in life at that time; immature, dark humoured and desperately wanting to emerge myself in fantasy than face the reality of an uncertain future. I’ve recently revisited the document and almost chewed my own fist at the absurdity of the plot but found it also humbling that I was able to take pride in a younger self who had stuck by such a challenging task and captured a snapshot of my soul in a way that nothing else could have ever come close. Incredibly insightful.
Going even further back when I was about 6 years old, I tried imitating the Roger Hargreaves Mr Men series with my own short stories based on animals that bizarrely had family members names. I’m grinning now recalling ‘Little Dawn Liz’ who had a look of the Road Runner cartoon character and was always falling down holes, but that trait probably saved me having to draw the same character on every page.
What is your favourite childhood book?
- The Little Grey Men – B.B. It was read to me by Miss Bond during the spring term of 1983 when I would have been aged 8. The whole adventure of Britain’s last gnomes trying to find their missing brother fascinated me. I had been living in South Africa until then and had about twenty different homes under my belt already before my brothers and I were sent back to England to live with our grandparents. It was no surprise then that this story resonated to a child desperate to know how his own parents were doing so far away. I've read the book to my own children and it must have had a similar affect as my eldest daughter was the one who suggested I should have gnomes appear in ‘Leavers Assembly’.
- It’s that organic development of ideas and inspiration and it’s almost impossible to say, "I’m going to do this and I’m not going to do that", because as much as 'Leavers Assembly' is morally grounded in faith I wouldn’t say I’d avoid another spiritual theme nor would I distance myself from youth oriented subject matter. What I do know is that I have a semi-autobiographical plot set in South Africa reflecting my childhood crossed with a mysterious death within the family. I was interested in a local news article about a pensioner arrested 50 years after murdering a child in 1968 and he was only convicted because the victim’s brother aged 4 at the time was able to recall what he saw through a gap in a door. I’m fascinated by how we can erase painful memories from our mind until we trigger it back by something as simple as a photograph on Facebook. The phenomena of false memory also intrigues me and how the young can be tricked by adults. It gives me a great premise for a psychological and moral thriller not entirely a million miles away from 'Leavers Assembly'.
This 'Back to the Future' meets 'Butterfly Effect' time travel fantasy casts Craig, a 45 year old father and separated husband, back into 1988 alongside his old school friend and partner in crime, Anthony, a much more free spirit. Returned now as teenagers they must relive those harsh formative years of growing up in the industrial North East under the watchful eye of God, the Devil and with far more scrutiny... his future wife.
Inspired by the spiritual thought: 'When Does God Know We're Criminally Responsible?'
"Very well written and thought out. I absolutely love the plot and story." - Heather Spinks
For over thirty years school friends Craig and Anthony have avoided punishment for their part in a tragic crime. Unfortunately, they’re now facing eternal damnation. However, God requires a walk-through of those crucial events to decide whether an adult soul should be convicted on youthful testimony.
"I loved it." - Vicky Gibbins
Both men are thrown back to a long-lost Easter holiday to leave behind a teenage trail of incriminating evidence as they retrace those catastrophic steps to the bitter end.Two virtual strangers must figure out the best form of defence is not to point the finger, but to face one’s own demons; those personally repressed in childhood... and very actual hellish beasts.
"I was entertained all the way through." - Joel Newnham
Christian Frank, writer and presenter of the Mixcloud award nominated and HBA shortlisted weekly radio show 'The Lemon Circus' for twenty-five years finally turns his hand to the novel.