In Keith Gray’s The Last Soldier, it’s Texas, 1922, and hotter than the devil’s own frying pan. The carnival comes to town and with it the Museum of Marvels. Two brothers, Wade and Joe, are drawn to one particular exhibit: the Last Soldier of World War One. The soldier has a message for the boys – and they won’t like it. We caught up with author Keith to quiz him about the challenges of the new book and being a reluctant reader.
Q: The Last Soldier is set in the past and in a different country. This is unusual in your work as you often tell modern, urban stories that feel quite rooted in the UK. Can you tell us why the departure, and whether there were any particular challenges?
The Last Soldier is definitely a bit different to my usual stuff, and setting the book in Texas in 1922 was a challenge. I surprised myself by even coming up with the idea for a story set back there and then. Once the story was inside my head, I couldn’t get rid of it. I honestly tried my best to forget about it because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it work the way I imagined. But the idea kept growing and Wade’s character became noisier and soon enough it was difficult not to write the story.
The most challenging part was getting Wade’s voice right. I wanted the way he spoke to be what set the time and place for the reader instead of long, boring descriptions of scenery. Luckily, I got to like him a lot, and loved the way he talked and the words he used. I hope the reader enjoys spending time in his company as much as I did.
Q: The Last Soldier has the bond between two brothers at its heart. Do you have any brothers or sisters, and if so does that help you write about those bonds?
I have an older brother who is very, very different to me. He’s a university lecturer; I got asked to leave uni after failing my exams. He’s sporty and has coached football and hockey and basketball teams; I play board games. He has two cats; I have a parrot. But I know he’s at the end of the phone if I ever need him. Being brothers trumps most things.
Q: The Last Soldier examines many themes, one of which is the appeal of military service to many teenage boys. Was this something that ever appealed to you?
I’ve never wanted to join any of the armed forces and would probably describe myself as a pacifist. I find it difficult to understand why we as a species and civilisation haven’t outgrown our ridiculous desire for war. I really wish there was such a thing as a last soldier.
Q: A lot of Barrington Stoke’s readers don’t start out as book fans. Do you have any experience of finding reading difficult or unappealing?
I was pigeon-holed as a reluctant reader when I was younger and avoided books because I thought they were work, a chore, something that had to be studied. Nobody really told me that books are, first and foremost, entertainment. At school it felt like books had right and wrong answers, like a Maths or History test. Luckily, when I was about 12, I read my first book outside of the classroom because a friend persuaded me to. And I thought it was the most amazing, fantastic, thought-provoking, exciting, emotional, entertaining thing I’d ever read. So I went looking for more just like it. I soon realised, of course, that assigning ticks and crosses, wrong and right answers to books was utterly pointless. Books can’t be given marks out of 10. And nor can readers! Books are for life, not just for homework.
Q: Was there any particular book that stands out in your memory from when you were a teenager?
There were two huge life-changing books for me when I was a teenager (books can change lives, homework never does):
- The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. This was the book I read when I was 12, the one that made me a reader and ultimately a writer.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I read it when I was 15 (and 21, 27, 32, 35, 40). I have to buy this book again and again because I keep giving it away to other people to read. It’s a horror story that’s deeply moving, totally immersive, brimming with insight, beautifully written and scary as hell!
It’s weird, that after just writing about those two books now, I’ve suddenly realised how much The Last Soldier falls almost halfway between them. It’s very different to either of them, certainly not trying to imitate them, but all of a sudden I can see a couple of parallels.
Thanks for taking time out to be interviewed by us Keith Gray! Read the first chapter of The Last Soldier and buy the book here.