Q&A with Tim Bowler: Reading, writing and author events (YLLP Toolkit series)

Today’s YA Shot Blog & Vlog Tour post is the second in our Year-Long Legacy Programme series. While all of the Tour posts will act as a YLLP resource library, we’re also doing five specific posts that will act as a toolkit for libraries, schools and authors working to plan and organise their individual YLLP events.

Many thanks to the wonderful Tim Bowler for being part of this wide-ranging Q&A on everything from his love of reading, to practical tips about all sorts of aspects of writing, and for organising author events.

Do you have problems starting or finishing a new book?

Finishing can be hard sometimes but you have to trust yourself and be firm. It’s one of those things that’s instinctive. You just know. Sometimes I can plan ahead but very often I don’t know how the story is going to turn out. It’s a sense of being able to feel how and why and when the story wants to end. Something goes click and you have to recognise that moment. You have to be able to say goodbye to your stories.

If you weren’t an author, how would you make a living?

As a translator or a teacher.

Do you think books are being replaced by TV and computer games?

I travel all over the country and everywhere I go I find young people reading. I also get lots of emails and messages from young readers. There’s a huge enthusiasm for books out there. The great thing about books is that they’re so flexible. You can carry them around easily, pull them out at a moment’s notice and read for a few minutes, and it’s a lovely intimate experience, just you and the story with the rest of the world shut out. And they fit really well round other things. Books can co-exist with computer games. It’s not a question of one ousting the other. I think books are booming.

Where did your love of books come from?

My parents were hugely encouraging. They were both keen readers and recognised the value of books. They also realised that you can’t force a child to read. So they just shared their own love of books with me and it rubbed off. My mother used to read aloud to me when I was little. That’s a lovely thing to experience. It was after she read Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone to me that I wrote my first story at the age of five: a sea story inspired by the book she’d read to me. I moved quickly to Enid Blyton and read scores of her books. Then I discovered Arthur Ransome. I still read them and recently gave a talk to The Arthur Ransome Society at their annual literary weekend. My original Swallows and Amazons hardback is over fifty years old. It’s literally falling apart now, the pages wrinkled and tatty, but it’s so precious that I will never get rid of it. The book has been a loving companion and a source of solace to me for half a century. That’s what a physical book can become.

Do you have any advice for writers doing book events?

Make sure you clarify with the organiser beforehand exactly what you will be doing and what you won’t be doing. Have it all clearly agreed in writing. This doesn’t have to be done in a formal, legalistic way. Just make sure that in your correspondence with the organiser you have both confirmed the details of the event: number of sessions, nature of the sessions, timings, session length, number of participants, breaks, lunch, fee, expenses etc. Make sure you’re happy with the arrangements before you set off. If you’re not, ask in writing for further clarification of whatever is worrying you. When you get there, just be you. Don’t try to act like someone else you’ve seen, no matter how good that person was. You’re there to be you. So be you. You is enough. The more events you do, the more you’ll learn about what works for you and what doesn’t. If an event is a success, that’s wonderful. Enjoy the moment and learn from the things you feel you did right. If it goes badly, learn what you can from that too and move on. Tomorrow is another day. Even the best performers have tough gigs. Mostly you will find that if you’ve got the details of the event clearly agreed beforehand with the organiser, and if you focus on being you and giving your very best to the audience, the majority of your events will go well.

What is most important in a book?

Something that grips the reader and won’t let go. Something that shows and doesn’t preach. If the story is good, then the message – whatever it may be – will always make its presence known without the author flagging it up. Fiction is ultimately about moral dilemmas so there are always messages in stories. But if we’re too conscious of the author’s intention, then the story turns into a sermon or a tract. If we watch the story unfold and make judgements according to how that issue is resolved, we decide who the hero is and who the villain. Stories force us to consider our own moral responses to the drama and make up our own minds as to what the messages are.

Do you ever base characters on real people?

I borrow bits of people. For example, Sam’s catchphrase in Storm Catchers (‘I’ll do it myself’) is something my nephew used to say when he was about three. River Boy was mostly inspired by my grandfather, who died when I was fourteen. He was a beautiful old man and he left a powerful impression on me that has remained to this day. He was a very calm man, nothing like the grandfather character in the novel, but he had tremendous mental and moral strength, though this is only something I really discovered after he died and I started to learn more about him from those who’d known him longer. I also borrow things from my own life. Shadows was inspired by my love of squash. I’ve played it seriously for over forty years and I have always felt that one-to-one sports are good things to write about. There is so much energy and passion and complex emotion in sport, so much elation, so much despair. Fast sports often reveal aspects of a person that would otherwise remain hidden as you can find yourself reacting emotionally to something before you have time to think. I borrow things like this from real life to put in my stories.

How about the places in your books?

Some are real, some are invented, i.e. I take a real place, then indulge in some topographical licence and change things a bit. The inspiration for Midget was Leigh-on–Sea, where I was born. I was walking along the cinder path by the estuary one day and I looked out over the mudbanks and found myself picturing the final scene of a novel I hadn’t even started writing. It was such a compelling picture that I just had to go away and write the novel to find out how the story got there. With Starseeker, I initially thought of the Forest of Dean but, as the story developed, I realised that my forest is not an actual forest that you’ll find on a map but a symbolic one that could be anywhere. Many of the locations in my books work that way, e.g. the river in River Boy, the island in Apocalypse, Havensmouth in Bloodchild. A location is like another character in the story. It has its own personality and that personality impacts on the story just as the characters do. Isolated locations are particularly evocative because they place the characters in isolation, too, where they are often at their most vulnerable. Some people thrive in lonely spots; others fall to pieces. Isolation can bring out fear and it can also bring out courage. The surroundings are a vital element to the story and if well drawn can both reflect and deepen the conflict that the characters are acting out.

When you’re writing, what do you see?

I see what the main character sees. It’s like a film rolling in my head but with all the senses engaged. I also try to get a sense of what the character is thinking and feeling. I like to tell a story from inside that person and try to understand his or her motivations. It’s not about what I myself would do in any given situation. It’s about identifying with the character, getting inside his or her skin.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

If you want to be a better writer, write as much as you can. Do your best with every piece and don’t be discouraged if some days the writing goes badly. Writing is like playing a musical instrument. Some days you play well, some days you don’t. Either way, you have to practise regularly if you want to be any good. You also need to learn to be self-critical. You have to be able to hold up what you’ve written in the heat of passion and look at it in a detached way. You’ll almost certainly find there are things in what you’ve written that need to be improved. Some bits you have to rewrite, some bits you have to throw away, some bits are just fine the way you wrote them. Learning what bits to change and what bits to leave takes lots of practice but it will come if you’re patient. Try reading your work aloud to yourself. Often your ear will pick up things your eye missed while reading silently. But the most important thing about writing is to enjoy it.

Check out Tim’s wonderful website, including the brilliant videos in his Bolthole Bulletins collection here. And written answers to common questions about writing here.

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