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Q&A: BENEATH THE NEEDLE WITH JANINA ARNDT

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

For our fifteenth Beneath the Needle Q&A, we are joined by author and playwright Janina Arndt, who's been kind enough to tackle our many questions as we delve into the details of Janina's truly impressive Short Fiction feature What Remained of Stanley, folklore, Sherlock Holmes and crochet.


Wyrmland, a fantasy novel set in 7th century County Durham, is one of Janina's current projects

Janina Arndt is an author and playwright based in the North East. Her debut novel Spiral Mind, a Sherlock Holmes mystery thriller, was published earlier this year by Orange Pip Books, with several of her short stories and poems published in Brittle Star Magazine, Palatinate Durham Student Newspaper and The Bubble. Together with fellow writer Lucy Atkinson, she runs Fey Fellows Podcast about forgotten folklore, with a particular soft spot for the North East’s heritage, which has also inspired What Remained of Stanley. If you would like to learn more about the true story behind this title, she recommends visiting Beamish Museum, where she first discovered it.


Janina recently worked as a senior story writer for an online education platform and graduated with Distinction from a Creative Writing MA at Durham University, after being awarded a first-class degree in English Studies & Psychology from Heidelberg University. Besides writing, she enjoys storytelling in every medium, which inspires her experiments with form. She has won three youth awards from Girls Go Movie and Club Arte for her short films, and staged several of her own plays with Durham Student Theatre and Aidan’s Creative Writing Society.


Her current creative projects include the sequel to Spiral Mind, which is going to be Volume 2 of a trilogy; Wyrmland, a fantasy novel set in 7th century County Durham; and crocheting as many dragons as she can.


So, Janina - What Remained of Stanley incorporates regional folklore with your own original fiction; an enrapturing post-apocalyptic tale that cleverly demonstrates the long-term implications and power of the stories and history we share, highlight and embed into our cultures. Can you tell us a little about why this particular forgotten facet of history inspired you to craft this piece of short fiction?


Wow, a big question to start with! I’ve always felt a particular connection with the history and community of miners, and since I studied in Durham, I feel especially connected to the miners of the North East. Like many, even though I didn’t grow up here, I have extended family who worked in mines, and where I grew up the spirit of companionship is still very present, not least in the football club I support.


During my time in Durham, I lived in several houses that would originally have been built for and inhabited by the miners of the area. At Beamish Museum, I then learnt more about the miners’ lifestyle, and got to experience first-hand what a colliery would have looked and felt like. Just being in such a place was a huge inspiration, and somehow, the stories of the miners which I came across there spoke to me.


The disasters and injustices this community has suffered were immense, and yet miners as a particular group of society have been abandoned and forgotten by the authorities as the mines were closed. I think my story deals with this as much as with an actual pit disaster.

 

The disaster you build upon has been somewhat tragically lost to time amongst thousands of events that now only mean something to specific folk -- particularly relatable to all. Has there been any other North Eastern or regional folklore that has captured your interest similarly?


For my current WIP, I take a professional interest in the dragon or ‘Worm’ legends in the North East. Fascinatingly, most people I have spoken to will know the Lambton Worm – who also features in my book – perfectly well, but then many other Worms, like the Laidly Worm, the Worm of Longwitton or the Sockburn Worm are not quite as famous anymore. Of course, these tales are captivating, because they have dragons in them and dragons are powerful magical creatures which have inspired humans forever. It is sometimes more interesting, though, what a dragon legend says about the people who told it, and it can tell you how people changed throughout history when you trace the way they spoke about the same dragons as their ancestors did before them.


There are so many folktales that I love, though, which is why I run a podcast with fellow writer and folklore buff Lucy Atkinson, where we aim to revive some obscure and forgotten folklore together, so if you’re interested in that, we are Fey Fellows Podcast and you can find our episodes on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, and us on social media as @feyfellowspodcast.

 

Could you share some insight into your time creating short films and theatre production? Do you think this complements your formation of fiction, perhaps helping uncover unexpected inspirations for your work?


Whatever story I tell starts with the characters, and the first thing I know about them is the way they speak. Writing dialogue is the most natural way for me to discover my characters, and once I grow to like them, I want to follow them on an adventure. Film and theatre both very much start in that way, but when you write for stage or screen you already have to take into account what the audience will be seeing, so it keeps you on your toes and makes you visualise scenes much more.


I think I have taken this into my prose where I then enjoy being able to describe scenes cinematically, while in film or theatre this doesn’t so much go in the script. I always have a very clear vision in my head of what the characters look like – and sometimes, if the place plays a particular role, like in What Remained of Stanley, it becomes a character with a clear personality, colour scheme, and different facets to it, too. In prose, I get to pretend I can shoot in the ideal location, design my own props and costumes – and I think seeing these as separate tasks makes you pay more attention to detail, making your story a much more visual experience.


"Writing dialogue is the most natural way for me to discover my characters, and once I grow to like them, I want to follow them on an adventure."

Spiral Mind is your debut novel, available here. Based within the Sherlock Holmes mythos, has the iconic private detective been a long-time love of yours? What specific canon work do you hold above the others as an inspiration?


Well, Sherlock Holmes has always been around – he has been unavoidable really, you might know the feeling. I read some of the stories in school and saw him pop up in loads of homages in completely unrelated TV shows – someone breathes the word ‘detective’ and out jump the deerstalker hat and magnifying glass. Then I watched Basil Rathbone and got really interested, but it took a good few more years and adaptations until I dived more into questions of fate and identity that I finally felt like I had a case for him to solve – or not. Just because I know the solution, doesn’t mean I’m going to tell him, but he is awfully clever, you know. Much like dragons, there is a Sherlock Holmes for every age, and it fascinates me how different adaptations reflect society and their heroes in different ways. (I wrote my undergrad diss about this, could you tell?)


If I had to pick canon pieces, though, I think what most inspired me were the early novels, in particular The Sign of the Four, because much of it is a character study as well as a mystery. Here we have glimpses into the flaws, the weirdness and the joys of the two men in Baker Street intertwined intimately with the case at hand. It is stories like these which inspired me the most.

 

Encapsulating such a varied selection of works, the horror genre is an obvious focus for us here with The Needle Drops… Volume One. What has been your experience with the genre, across formats? Do any immediate recommendations jump to mind?


As a great admirer of Tim Burton’s, I would say Sleepy Hollow was one of the first experiences of the genre that I took a genuine interest in. There is a mesmerising eeriness and cheery insanity to his style which I felt gave the genre some fresh audacity. I then proceeded to read the original story and remember being a little frustrated at having to deal with vocabulary like ‘cognomen’ making the experience a little trickier to enjoy, but it’s a window into a different time and age with different horrors and fears that we can still relate to today.

 

We couldn’t not ask -- do you have a photo of a recent dragon crochet you could share, and tell us a little behind how you got started?


Please meet Saoirse, named after the heroine of my novel Wyrmland. She has a very forceful personality, so she inspires a lot of things in my life.

I actually only started crocheting, because my flatmate was so jealous of a pair of socks my aunt had crocheted for me. I didn’t know what else to get my flatmate for Christmas, so I decided making her a pair couldn’t be that hard. I crocheted them with atrociously fluffy yarn that was definitely not for beginners and a lot of swearing ensued, but I still enjoyed it so much that I just had to try it out with normal yarn afterwards, and I haven’t stopped crocheting since.


It really helped me through lockdown, as it’s very meditative and good for your mental health, so I was lucky to discover that hobby before the pandemic hit. If you want to see more of my crochet projects and my own designs, please check out my crochet blog on Instagram: @arctic_hare_crochet.

 

Returning to your craft and adoration of folklore, one of your current projects is a fantasy novel titled Wyrmland. Based in 7th Century County Durham, could you give us a brief run-down of what readers can expect on its debut?


A load of draconic cynicism, species confusion and a very annoying human sidekick, I think would be the main points. Maybe I should add that there is a curse, but it’s still a bit of a secret so far, so I won’t say any more. I thought I’d take the point of view of the dragon for this one, as they are a rather underrepresented voice in society. There are lots of creatures from local folklore and history as well – most of whom make Saoirse’s life harder. She is a (relatively) young dragon who tries to take her career into her own hands by going on a quest that will make her famous. Unfortunately, her grandmother Margaret has told her that humans do the best advertising, so she cannot shake off Quinn, a happy-go-lucky druid child who mistakes Saoirse for a horse. But let’s not mention sore spots.


If you like Terry Pratchett, this is your cup of tea.

 

In three words or less - what can our readers expect from What Remained of Stanley?


Truth and rebellion.

 

Thank you, Janina! It’s been fantastic to learn more about you and your fiction, and we’re thrilled to include What Remained of Stanley in The Needle Drops… Volume One this October. Be sure to check out Beamish Museum for more detail on the true story that inspired this Short Fiction feature.


You can find her work and a glimpse of the adventures behind it on her website, or add to her adventures by getting in touch on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr.


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