Interview – John Newstead

Just in time for Halloween, today’s interview is with John Newstead, author and Halloween enthusiast!

I first met John on his FB site “The Spirit of Halloween,” and discovered that one of his favorite things to do during the Halloween season is to go to the local schools and read spooky stories to children. He also has a website, “Pumpkin Jack Carving” with his stories listed (two shown below, but he has more on his site):

Brianna’s Ghost Story: http://www.pumpkinjack.ca/brianna.php

Origins of Halloween: http://www.pumpkinjack.ca/halloween.php

John, you spend your Halloweens telling stories to children at the local school. Can you tell us about this and how you got started?

My daughter has been attending a special programme at school called SAGE (Scholastics, Arts and Global Education). pumpkins2One of the features of the programme is a higher than average parental involvement. In our first year with SAGE in 2008, I needed to find a way to volunteer and for a number of years I had been carving pumpkins so I offered to carve a pumpkin for the kids, an excited bunch of 7 year olds. I gave them a choice of a couple of patterns and they chose a cat. So I came in with a pumpkin and my equipment on Halloween day, answered some questions about what I do and told the kids about the origins of Halloween in the British Isles. It was all so well received that I was invited back the next year to talk about pumpkin carving and tell a Halloween story to all the classes in the school.

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable time telling stories to the kids?

Yes. In 2010 I came in with the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a personal favourite. I was able to change the intensity of the story to a level appropriate to each grade, but I especially loved regaling the 4s and 5s. I pulled out all the stops for them. As we reached the race through the forest, I suddenly noticed that my wife at the back of the classroom was wedding2slapping her legs to create the sound of hooves. Classic! Even more fun was during another telling when my phone rang right at the most intense part and shocked everyone. The carving for the kids that year was, naturally, the Headless Horseman.

You have a Halloween themed website and Facebook site. Can you tell us more about why you started these? What has been the response? Where are you going with it?

I’ve been carving extreme patterns into pumpkins for many years. At first it was published patterns from companies like Pumpkin Masters. It was so fun and rewarding to carve holes into the face of a pumpkin, light it, plunge it into darkness and see an amazing picture appear. Things changed when I started creating my own patterns, converting photographs into pumpkin carvings.  This was a new step and the results were so amazing even to me that I had to share them. I’m a programmer by trade, so I took great joy in crafting a website to showcase my other talent. I had also discovered others out there as talented or more than I was.  I love it. They challenge me to improve. I joined their number. Then I added stories from my work at SAGE and instructions for carving your own pumpkin. I’ve added a great many patterns of many different skill levels and themes with a focus on movies and television. To move into Facebook from there seemed a natural progression. And part of the fun of Facebook was to share my latest hobby: gardening.  Growing pumpkins, of course.

The response thus far has been largely quiet until this year. There generally isn’t a huge interest in pumpkin carving beyond the curiosity factor. What response I have received has been generally positive though. There are a few carvers who have used my patterns and given me feedback. I visit local comicons and get the celebrities there to sign printed photographs of carvings of them. Now this response has been more shocked amazement.

Where to next? That’s an excellent question. Thus far this has been in the nature of a hobby. It’s something I love doing that I’m sharing with others. Ideally, I would love to get paid for doing it. My wife and I are trying new things to turn my craft into a hot and saleable product. Carving patterns into craft pumpkins gives me a permanent product I can sell and incorporating it into table centerpieces and wall and door decorations might be desirable to people. Educating people as to the value of my art seems to be both my biggest challenge and biggest obstacle.

I read your short stories on your website. The short story “Brianna’s Ghost Story” was such a fun story. What prompted you to write it? Is there a story behind the story?

Thank you. I really enjoyed writing it too.  After three years of telling the kids at SAGE other people’s stories, I wondered if I could write my own original piece of work.  The concept was driven by a couple of things. The first was a desire to revisit the Halloween origin story as a fiction story rather than a mildly entertaining lecture. The other point was to be able to come up with a ghost story for kids that would be equally as entertaining for those in Kindergarten as for kids in grade 5. I picked the historic elements I wanted to include rather quickly, then tried to come up with a framing story.  My first try was less scary and more tragic. I enjoyed elements in it and they became the core of the new story. Also, to help I made the central character of Brianna from the same city as the SAGE kids and I were. Brianna could be a friend or an acquaintance. She could have been one of them.

Then, it had to be mildly scary. There’s a chase scene in it that builds tension. Suspense and tension are the best elements in successful scary stories. I drew on my experience reciting Sleepy Hollow for this.

So why do you love Halloween so much? What was your favorite Halloween as a child? What was your favorite Halloween as an adult?

Halloween is exciting. It’s scary and fun and I get to carve pumpkins.  My family and I love decorating (a graveyard and a gazebo containing jack o’lanterns dominate the yard) and making Halloween-themed foods.  It’s really a big celebration for us on the same scale as Christmas.

Most Halloweens as a child fell into a typical pattern: I got a costume, we carved a pumpkin in a standard configuration (three triangles and a mouth) and I went trick or treating. There was nothing special, but it was fun. However, I remember a Halloween as a child, grade 4 or 5, in which we carved pumpkins and fried pumpkin seeds. This remained with me as evidence that Halloween could be more.

So many Halloweens as an adult and they’ve all been fun. However, I will always have a fondness for my first Halloween as a married man. We were married in October on Thanksgiving weekend, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada, so Halloween was right after that. I had not done much for Halloween in years but hand out candy, but here I was married and a new home owner.  I carved a standard pumpkin and handed out candy. My wife dressed in a witch costume. There was nothing exceptional in any of this, perhaps, but all of our Halloween traditions grew from this small event and it will always remain as something special for me.

What are you doing next? Any plans on publishing a book or other short stories?

I’m writing a follow up short story now about Brianna’s first day in high school. She survived the first story with a sensitivity to the supernatural and this story explores an evolution of her abilities as well as the transition from a child-focused story to a teen-focused story.  If this goes well, I will write more stories about Brianna as a little girl, a teen and perhaps even as an adult.  Readers can grow up with her.