Thunder and Lightnings

Jan Mark always intended to write a novel – I have manuscript pages of a teenage effort – but she focused on plays in adolescence and when a teacher (she described them as ‘comedies with lots of fights’). She was 30, and newly uprooted from southern England to the Norfolk village of Ingham with her young family, when a competition focused her attention on novel-writing, and she produced Thunder and Lightnings.

After winning the Guardian/Kestrel Award for unpublished manuscripts, Thunder and Lightnings was published by Kestrel Books in 1976, and in Puffin paperback in 1978. It won the Carnegie Medal in 1977 and was runner-up for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize that year. It has been reissued in many editions since then, and is currently available in the ‘A Puffin Book’ series.

A new, Simplified Chinese version of the novel has recently been published (2019) by Jieli Publishing House. Here’s the cover:

The following is based on a transcript of an interview I conducted with Jan in 1992 about the book’s origins.

‘There was this quite small paragraph in the Guardian, advertising a competition run by Penguin Books under their new Kestrel imprint. They were looking for a children’s novel with a twentieth-century setting, between 35-40,000 words, by someone who hadn’t published a children’s novel before. The entrants had from April 1974 until the following December to write their novels. And anybody could enter. I thought, if I didn’t enter for this, I didn’t deserve ever to get started.

‘I thought about it and lost heart, and started writing something – and it went nowhere. Then I realized I actually had the subject matter there: the aircraft. I remember the moment it struck me. I was walking home from the town with Alex, my son, in the pram. I looked up, and there were two tiny specks passing over. They were aircraft catching the light. We’d become very au fait with aircraft by this time, living eight miles from the end of the runway – which we didn’t realize when we bought the house. I couldn’t even hear those two specks at that moment because they were so high but I thought, They’re Lightnings. I knew that Lightnings were never painted – all you could see was the metal cladding, but you could spot them because they shone so. I mean, all aircraft catch the light when it hits their windows but the whole aircraft was shining. Then I heard the jets as they’d got so far ahead, flying well ahead of the speed of sound and I knew they were Lightnings.’

By the time Jan had confirmed the aircraft a character had begun to form in her mind: someone who could identify an aircraft at 40,000 feet by the sound of its engine. ‘That was the beginning of Victor. Then I realized that this was the basis for a book.’From there, Jan had to deal with the practical side of creating a 40,000-word novel. She got hold of William Mayne’s Follow the Footsteps, a novel she greatly admired, and measured the length of her chapters and progress of her story against Mayne’s book. But there were no precise influences on the development of Thunder and Lightnings – ‘The story was either going to come or it wasn’t’ – other than the ongoing observations of its author. ‘You can’t invent better than what you’ve actually seen. You just need to know where to put it.’

Jan also drew on her experiences as an art teacher in Gravesend from 1965-71. Victor was an amalgam of three former students. It was the school villains who were invariably directed to the Art Room. ‘One of them was just bad news but the other two were extremely intelligent and funny. They weren’t just kids to teach, they were people to talk to. They weren’t popular among the rest of the staff but I really liked them. They had a tremendous cultural life that had nothing to do with school and they wouldn’t allow school to spoil it. That all got rolled into Victor.’

Andrew, from whose perspective the story is told, was ‘more or less created from stock – he’s just a nice guy.’

‘An awful lot of what was happening at the time went into the book,’ Jan said. ‘That’s something I don’t do now. Most of what I write now is in the past and has had the chance to cool off.’ So the two drafts that resulted in Thunder and Lightnings were a mixture of handwritten and typed pages. Ultimately, it all went into a clean typescript at the end, ‘but what I hadn’t learned was the need to be able to see the shape of it. I could see the pitfalls of what I was doing as I went but I didn’t have time to change the way I was going. I rewrote a lot of it as I went, whereas now I do three complete drafts. A lot less comes out of the first draft now; that’s just understanding the way you work.’

Jan and her family found themselves at RAF Coltishall airfield on the day the Lightnings were due to be phased out and replaced by Jaguars. The Marks had meant to visit the day before but the car wouldn’t start. At that stage, Jan had no idea where the book was going but quickly she realized this moment would make the perfect end to the novel. ‘I just wrote that episode straight into the book. It was too good to waste.’

The replacement of the old aircraft with the new represents a key childhood experience: the need, often against choice, to move on. ‘Small children are very conservative because everything lasts so long when you’re a child. You don’t realize how transient everything is: what seems to have been a lifelong, abiding passion may have lasted only a year in real terms, and nobody else notices it’s gone. Children say, “When I was young …” and it’s true; they know there was a better time than this. They are absolutely powerless to hang on to what they care about. They can’t control anything and that’s what an awful lot of my books are about.’

Jan wrote the book around her husband’s shift work, while looking after their two children – Isobel, who was at school, and newborn Alex. (It was his birth that kept her from returning to teaching – she stressed she would never have written a novel if she’d still been teaching.) She took herself seriously, keeping firmly in mind that this was her chance.

Did she ever lose heart? ‘Over and over again but then I just kept thinking, Next summer, I shall read the results of this competition and it would be bad enough not winning but it would be worse not having gone in for it. And somehow, I just managed to finish before the closing date, which was 12 December. Initially, I felt the way I do at the end of every novel: relieved. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment and also, It’s over! It was posted off, then I got a letter back to say thank you for sending it. That was it for six months.’

What were those six months like? ‘Fairly desperate. We were extremely hard up – we needed the money, so this wasn’t just a career move.’ The financial situation made Jan too tense to forget about the manuscript.

‘And I wasn’t going to let myself think of doing anything else until I knew the outcome. This sounds fairly conceited but it isn’t. I thought I would either win it for fail completely. I didn’t expect to come third or fourth. I thought, Either I’ve got it absolutely right and this is a very good book, or it’s no good, and I’m completely on the wrong track. But I didn’t really think that.’

And if she hadn’t won, would she have given up?‘No, but I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get going again. Or if I would have had the nerve to send it somewhere else. Within a couple of months of being told I had won’ – by telegram, Please ring Patrick Hardy at Penguin Books, only the Marks’ phone was out of order, Jan had no change for the phone box, so she had to call into the neighbours’, the David and Faith of the book’s dedication’ – ‘I had started preparing Under the Autumn Garden. But it wasn’t until after Divide and Rule, my fourth book, that I realized I was going to be able to keep on doing it. I could get a book out of nothing, essentially, which is what it’s all about. Fiction writing is starting off with nothing and ending up with a book.’

The judges and prize-winners of the Guardian/Kestrel Award, 1975 – Jan is bottom left. (Top row, second from left is runner-up, Anne Fine.)

I recently discovered this fabulously insightful, perceptive post by writer Paul Gorman, describing his childhood reading of Thunder and Lightnings and his impressions now of that childhood and the book. Don’t miss the fact that Andrew and Victor are the stars of a piece of #fanfiction. I think Jan would have loved that.

And here’s a spirited piece Jan wrote for the Puffin Post to celebrate the paperback publication of Thunder and Lightnings in 1978.