Stephen Henning - Developing Superpowers

Stephen Henning - Developing Superpowers

Stephen Henning is an ex-journalist who writes the Class Heroes book series. He was driven to write by the desperation to develop superpowers when he was a teen, and imagining the consequences of having them in the (so-called) real world. As our Author of the Day, Henning tells us all about his book, London Belongs to the Alchemist.

Please give us a short introduction to what London Belongs to the Alchemist is about.

The book features Samantha and James Blake, teenage twins living in London, who get sucked into the world of underground parties and become a target for organized crime.

The twins have recently developed superpowers, so ‘normal’ life for them has become very different, and they are faced with some hard choices. Will they hide their abilities, which is what their parents want? Or will they embrace them, regardless of the consequences?

On top of that, Sam finds herself the romantic target of The Alchemist, the mysterious crusader behind the underground parties; while James gets some serious attention from a girl who had previously tried to kill him — Lolly Rosewood.

What inspired you to write about illegal raves?

I think we can all relate to that experience from our teenage years when you’re first going out, and you get taken to a party that you know you shouldn’t be at. You get there and think: “Mistake!” You’re out of your depth, it’s all going very bad, very quickly, and you just wish you were back at home.

Sam and James are both from a safe, comfortable, middle-class background. They’re 14, and they’re just getting a glimpse into the wider world. I thought it would be the perfect place to drop them and find out how they deal with it. Illegal raves are something that we tend to associate with the 80s and 90s, but they had a resurgence a few years ago. I got the inspiration from a BBC news item about an illegal rave that destroyed a derelict warehouse in central London.

Tell us more about Samantha Blake. What makes her tick?

Sam is pretty ordinary, really, and I hope that is what makes her relatable. I’d like to hope that if I’d been in Sam’s situation, I’d be like her. She’s kind, caring, and very much a family girl. She’s also very self-reliant and strong-willed, has a lot of close friends, and just enjoys her life. She has problems too, self-doubts and frustrations, but who doesn’t?

I know it's very much the vogue for female protagonists to be ‘kick-ass’, with a neat line in martial-arts skills and not being afraid to use them. And that’s cool. But if you start a character off in that vein, then you’ve kind of got nowhere to go with them. While we might aspire to be like those kick-ass characters, they’re a world away from our reality.

I really like Sam because she just gets on with it, whatever horrendous problems life throws at her. She has the strength of character to rise above them. And as the books progress, Sam gets stronger and more determined. I think it's interesting to see how quickly she grows up.

Why did you decide to write about a twin brother and sister?

I wanted them to be an equal partnership, with no age gap to artificially create a pecking order — plus I love a bit of sibling bickering. I also wanted to write about a whole family, which is why I included the parents in the stories.

In a lot of books where the teenagers are the heroes, the parents are often conveniently killed off. This is either to give the heroes the motivation of vengeance or to sidestep the plot problems of having parents stopping the characters from going off on their own and getting into scrapes.

I thought it would be more interesting if Sam and James, despite their great powers, still had to deal with the family dynamic. While the parents are trying to parent them, the twins are increasingly faced with the problem of having to protect their mum and dad.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I love filmmaking. I made four online trailers to promote the Class Heroes books and got to work with a bunch of great people. If you want to get a flavor of what’s happened in the books, leading up to book 4, then please watch this trailer:

You can find the others on my website. The one featuring Lolly Rosewood was pretty cool as I worked with a parkour artist so we could film a chase sequence around London.

During lockdown, I’ve made a couple of short films with my five-year-old daughter. One is our own version of Doctor Who, and we’re currently making one where she’s the Pink Panther. She’s a big fan of both the Doctor and Pinky.

Left:  A promotional photo of Sam and James. Two actors played the part of the characters in some short films that I created to promote the series
Right:  Alternative cover art for Class Heroes 4: London Belongs to the Alchemist.

This is book 4 in a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How does it tie in with the other books in the series?

Every book in the series is a standalone story. So you can enjoy London Belongs to the Alchemist without having read any of the others. The tie-in between the books is mainly one of character development. With every book, we get to know Sam, James, and Lolly a little better. So it’s no different to meeting someone in real life. You don’t have to have known them since they were born in order to be friends with them. You can just enjoy who they are now :-).

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be more focussed. Spend more time writing and less time messing around!

What's an aspect of being a writer that you didn't know about going in?

How addictive it is.

Where does your fascination with superheroes come from?

From when I was a child. It’s pure wish fulfillment and, probably, arrested development on my part. I should have grown out of them, but they’re so much fun. I also think that in thoughtful, grown-up, and intelligent books (which is what I hope Class Heroes are) you can explore the intellectual questions raised by young people having superpowers. Whereas comics are all about the cool pictures — and clobbering a supervillain whilst wearing an eye-popping costume — in a book it’s more interesting to look at the personal consequences of a teenager suddenly being the strongest person in the world. You could be famous, like rock-star famous. But then you could also punch someone harder than you meant to, and kill them. Everything has consequences, and that was the bit that appealed to me in writing these books.

Readers say your books contain a lot of sarcastic wits - why do you take this approach?

It’s the kind of humor I enjoy the most, and nobody does sarcastic wit better than a teenager.

Which of your characters has been the most challenging to write for?

The main character in the forthcoming book 6 is called Deen Mander, and he’s a young, mixed-race lad from the north of England who’s been through the care system. His personal experiences are far removed from my own background so the challenge is to still make him authentic, and not trivialize anybody’s real-life experiences.

It would be very easy to cop out and only write white, middle-class characters, but it wouldn’t make for very realistic or authentic world-building.

I want the Class Heroes books to be engaging, reflect real life (albeit with fantastical plots), and have great and memorable characters. So it’s important to do the research and (hopefully) convincingly realize a whole range of different characters. Readers will be the final judge, of course.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

Trying to keep my cats off the keyboard.

Photo of me, at my desk, celebrating the release of book 5 in the series, Hearts and Minds. A friend's mum made me a cake to look like book 5. I can confirm it was really, really tasty.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just released book 5 in the series, Hearts, and Minds, which is the first book that I’ve co-written with a friend. Now we’re well into book 6.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

Please visit my website:  You can watch the other Class Heroes videos, find out what I’m working on now, and you can send me a message. If you want to be kept informed of when a Class Heroes book is released, or tell me what you think of the books, then drop me a line and I’ll add you to the mailing list.