International best-selling author AJ Hartley has loved working with University of Central Lancashire’s publishing unit so much, he is planning to work with its students again for a series of books.
Video by UCLan Publishing Unit
Speaking exclusively to the Post for the first time since his horror Cold Bath Street was launched by the unit, AJ – full name Andrew James Hartley – has revealed his agent is in talks with the university to publish another set of books.
He says: “I can’t say anything definite yet but I am in talks with my agent. I have three middle grade stories which are based in the US but the protagonist, Darwen Arkwright, who is from Lancashire. If everything works out, there will be three books illustrated and published by UCLan.
“There is another book I am thinking about but it will be a while before I can write it, due to other work
Andrew, who now lives in North Carolina, has had many books published but Cold Bath Street was his first in his home town of Preston.
The former Blessed Sacrament Catholic Primary School pupil says: “UCLan was the right publishers for the book, because the story is set in Preston. It never really happens that the content is geographically linked to where it is published.
“Also, American publishers didn’t think it would sell because it was too English.
“So the book sat for a while and around two years ago I attended UCLan for an honorary fellowship and I got into conversation with Debbie Williams, who is the associate professor of publishing and head of the publishing house at UCLan. She read the manuscript and she was happy to take the book on.
“It has been great working with the staff and students at the unit. There is a greater sense of personal investment and ownership as they are only working on one book.
“Their level of attention is exemplary and better than what I would have got from a professional publisher.”
Cold Bath Street, a young adult fiction book, is set in 1978 and follows Preston Oldcorn who find himself in a void, trapped between life and death. Soon realising he is not alone, he must discover the mysteries of this new world to save his own soul and enter the most feared part of town – Cold Bath Street, which is a well-know place in Preston.
Andrew, who attended Ribbleton St John Southworth RC Secondary School, says: “The inspiration for the book was a combination of the ghost stories I grew up on such as The Bannister Doll and places like the Miley Tunnel, with my own experience of going back to the town and feeling like a ghost myself, out of time and place in a world that has moved on in my absence. In exploring the disjunction between past and present there is a feeling of being irrelevant, just like a ghost.
“The house in the book is where I used to live. An interesting pice of history is that we had a piece of Preston North End’s original playing field which was dug up when the astro turf was laid, though the Deepdale turf doesn’t get a mention because the book is set in 1978.
“Location was important because the reality of a story depends on specificity. Even if the reader doesn’t know the area, the character should. It defines the world of the book and makes it feel real. In this case, I was writing a personal story (altered for narrative purposes) that was inextricably interwoven into the geography of my own past. My memory of who I was at that age was bound to the place, because I believe we are shaped by our social and physical environments. Outside that place I would have been someone different.”
Andrew’s unique take on his character has earned himself a nomination for the Dead Good Reader Awards. He says: “I don’t know where the idea came from but I decided to have the protagonist die in the first chapter. Most thrillers are about whether the main character survives in the end but this was turning it round and questioning what happens if death is not the end?”
Publishing the book has been a collaborative process between Andrew, Debbie Williams, who is head of the publishing house at UCLan, and students.
Their work has been so successful, they are now in talks with Netflix to turn the book into a film. Debbie says: “In my line of work, I have read thousands of books. I read about 30 a week.
“But I started reading Cold Bath Street at midnight and it gripped me so much, I was still reading it at 5am. It is my favourite book and has great scope for a film.”
Sam Johnson, 24, was one of the publishing students who worked on the book, looking at graphic design and type setting.
He says: “We had a collection of projects to work on over my one-year course and Cold Bath Street really stood out for me. I like horror and working with a big author like AJ has been a massive career opportunity for me. Getting regular feedback from a professional author was amazing. His comments helped pinpoint my areas for improvement and I learnt a lot.”
Janet Pickering, who is near to completing her two-year MA fine art course, was picked out of hundreds of students to illustrate the book.
The 60-year-old, who won the 2018 Undiscovered Voices Awards, adds: “It is really exciting to be published and it is wonderful to see the book appearing in the shops. When I took early retirement from teaching and took on this course, I never expected to be a published illustrator.
“I am enjoying attending book signings with AJ.”
Andrew has been living in America for more than 28 years, but will return to the UK next month for a three-week book signing and promotional tour.
Local events include a book signing at Waterstones, in Lancaster on July 14; a ghost tour at Hoghton Tower on July 15; a talk at Penwortham Girls’ High School and Penwortham Priory Academy; an event at the Harris Library, Preston, on July 18 with former Harry Potter editor Barry Cunningham; Northern Young Adult Literary Festival at Venue 53, Preston, on July 21.
He adds: “When I was working at Waterstones as a book seller, I never thought I would come back as an author and do signings.
“We haven’t just stuck to the usual signings though. We have been doing things a bit differently to promote the book. Rather than just doing book signings, we are doing events like ghost tours and ghost cruises.
“It is all good fun and has been great to interact with the students. When I did my first promotional event for this book, I was terrified no one would show up. There was a fear no-one outside Preston would be interested, but they certainly are.
“The publishing unit is a different model to others I have known. Typically, unless you are a big name like Stephen King or JK Rowling, there is no marketing budget. But here, I have been able to promote the book a lot.”
Andrew admits he finds it hard to balance his time between writing, promoting and his other role as professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He adds: “It is tricky because I have other obligations over here in America. I am not able to go out onto the road for months on end.
“There was a plan for some events at Halloween, but I am directing 12th Night in the fall (autumn). I have also been working with Blink 182 singer Tom DeLonge on a sci-fi novel series – Sekret Machines. He keeps asking me to attend events but I have commitments on campus.”