Whatever you do, if you find yourself sitting next to the Barrowman clan in a restaurant; put up with it. (Well, who wouldn’t?) Don’t get up and leave.
We’ve come to Waterstones in Glasgow’s Argyle Street to meet John and Carole Barrowman before the book signing of Hollow Earth in their old home town. They’ve already seen several people after flying in earlier that morning, and as we walk in John is doing his best to relax with a mug of coffee. But he’s a polite man, so stands up to greet us immediately, sacrificing what must have been a well earned drink.
My photographer wants to snap them together, so John and Carole sit down side by side on two office chairs in the store’s staff room, but because the chairs are of different height, John – who is sitting on the higher one – tries to adjust his sister’s chair. Much wrestling follows as he makes her jump.
I laugh and point out that they are just like children.
Carole – ‘Thank you very much!’
Bookwitch – ‘It’s the way you are behaving…’
C – ‘That’s what we were hoping for.’ To John, ‘Stop doing that, you put that down!’
John – ‘That’s it, there you go.’
C – ‘Why are you doing that?’ She giggles.
B – ‘You’ve got that down to perfection. You must have been doing this a long time.’
J – ‘Are you kidding? We’ve only been here for half an hour.’ He laughs.
B – ‘No, I meant in general, throughout your lives. You have practised doing this and know precisely how to…’
C – ‘How to annoy each other?’
B – ‘Yes.’
C – ‘Oh, we’ve got that down.’
J – ‘Oh yeah, absolutely.’
C – ‘All right, now you have to put that back again!’
J – ‘Why?’
C – ‘Because this jumper, my boobs are sticking out.’ Carole’s accent has gone all Scottish now. ‘OK, that’s not bad.’
J – ‘Oh, that’s not bad…’
B – ‘I suppose I’d better not mention your boobs.’
Carole laughs, ‘you can mention my boobs if you want. Say they’re lovely. That would be nice.’ She laughs again.
We move on to more seat problems, discussing who should sit where. I mention that I should probably sit where I can have them under close observation.
C – ‘Why don’t you sit on the couch and we’ll move closer.’
B – ‘Why don’t you two sit on the couch?’
J – ‘Because the light would be bad.’
C – ‘That’s right. That wouldn’t be good.’
B – ‘There speaks the professional.’
C – ‘There you go. We’ll come closer and closer and closer…’ They are edging their chairs closer to me as she speaks.
B – ‘Oh no!’
C – ‘…and closer and closer. There we go!’
B – ‘I had a look through Anything Goes, and was reminded of the time when Carole stopped your parents from throwing John away in the dustbin, when he was a baby. Are you regretting that now?’
C – ‘Yes, right this very moment, when he was moving my seat up and down, I was regretting it, yeah.’ Deadpan.
B – ‘And when you were on ITV the other day, and John was allowed to be on camera and you, Carole, had to stay in the wings.’
C – ‘Oh yes, I had to shout from the side.’
B – ‘You write a book for him, and then you are not allowed to be on television with him.’
J – ‘Yeah, that I have to say that was not my choice. I wanted her on camera, but ITV didn’t, so…’
C – ‘Every other show we’ve been on together. And it’s been great! Tomorrow or one of the days this week we’re doing something with Gabby. I don’t know the show, but…’
J – ‘You don’t know a lot of people.’
C – ‘OK.’
J – ‘Anyway.’
C – ‘Anyway we’re going to be on the couch the whole time.’
B – ‘When you were on BBC you were allowed in for the “real” part of the discussion, whereas you John sat there looking pretty throughout the whole thing. I’m glad you actually admit to not having written this book.’
J – ‘I wouldn’t lie about that.’
B – ‘I think that’s nice and honest. Carole, you don’t mind?’
C – ‘Oh, no, no! We collaborate on everything, John does other stuff, and I put it all down on paper; the idea, the plot outline, the characters, the story.’
J – ‘We record everything…’
C – ‘… we do all that together.’
B – ‘So are most of the crazy ideas yours, John?’
J – ‘They’re kind of both of ours, we’re both pretty mad. It’s little things, for instance we were talking about something and Carole had an idea and I said “no, no wouldn’t it be better if?” and she said “that would be way better” and as we talked about it, we started brainstorming and going off on tangents and then we came to something that nobody would expect.’
C – ‘What’s interesting is that our collaboration is different from what people are used to. I think that’s why they are asking the question, they don’t think we are being honest. I really do think we could have a lot of great books, that have the potential to be out there. John has got a great imagination, and so do I.’
J – ‘A lot of people collaborate that way.’
C – ‘I think they probably do but they don’t admit it.’
B – ‘You mean who exactly did what?’
J – ‘I don’t have a problem with that, and [writing] is something I’m not gifted with. People who know me as a person would know that I’m not going to lie about something just to sell it. I’m going to tell you the truth, and that will do more good than lying. Carole does all the hard work.’
Carole laughs. – ‘There are times where – and you probably know this – occasions when characters will take over.’
J – ‘I get a phone call at two o’clock in the morning…’ Carole laughs. ‘She says “Zach has decided he’s going to take a boat, he’s going over to the other island, and he’s going to stay there, but what happens to the twins and what kind of boat is he in? And what kind of motor does he have?”’ John makes lalalala sounds to show how unstoppable Carole was. She laughs again. ‘IT’S TWO IN THE MORNING! Email me!’
C – ‘There are things I can depend on John to know. Zach needed a boat, and it’d take me a lot of research to find, and he knows a lot about boats. So there’s that kind of stuff, too. I can’t think of anything that’s more fun than if you work with someone you like working with. And that you can annoy every now and then, and you can vent with each other and have a good laugh.’
B – ‘And you’ve got the Atlantic between you a lot of the time, so you can’t kill each other.’
C – ‘That’s right!’ she says happily.
J – ‘Well, there is Skype.’
B – ‘Yeah, but you can’t throttle each other on Skype. I’ve tried, but you can’t.’ We laugh. ‘You mentioned Zach. Why did you make him deaf?’
J – ‘Zach was the first character that we created, and we wanted,…’
C – ‘…a kind of a challenge.’
J – ‘How would we get someone to communicate, who was deaf? How could we get the reader to understand, to be surprised that he was deaf when they find out? You’re not judging him before you get to the point where you find he’s deaf, you’re treating him like everybody else.’
C – ‘And then we posed it as a more of a question. How do you write a deaf character, so that that deaf character is communicating and not be in first person? Because if you’re in the first person…’
B – ‘…then you can’t tell.’
C – ‘We started trying to name books and…’
J – ‘…we couldn’t think of a book that had done that, so hopefully we’ll be first for children’s books.’
C – ‘We thought “that’s cool, let’s hang on to that.” The world around us has deaf people in it, handicapped people, gay people, straight people, so we figured let’s try to make real people listen. We also thought it’d be really cool if the deaf or hearing impaired kid…’
J – ‘…was the better communicator, of all of them. A lot of people won’t get that, because it’s not blatantly obvious, because when you’re reading it you’ll be so engrossed with the story. When I do pantomimes we obviously have signing shows, and I love those shows! Because I’ve been interacting with the signer, it’s one of the most expressive ways to communicate. And if everybody knew a bit of signing it would be great. So to have Zach be the better communicator, was a really big deal. Then we thought, well “how are they going to communicate with each other?” So the telepathy came into it, so that he could talk and we wouldn’t have to always say “he signed.”’
C – ‘We were thinking, you know some adults think this is a myth, that when one of your senses is down the other ones get stronger. And so we were thinking that because Zach can’t hear, he is going to end up being the stronger guardian. I don’t know if you’ve read the book or not?’
B – ‘Yes, I have.’
J – ‘He’s going to be our guardian.’
C – ‘I think you kind of assume that maybe, and if you don’t…’
J – ‘His father is…’
C – ‘Simon’s a guardian, Zach’s going to become a guardian, and he’s gonna be as strong a guardian eventually as Renard. And we just thought that would be cool to have a deaf kid be.’
B – ‘How are you planning to deal with this business of whether there’s going to be two or three books?’
J – ‘We plotted three.’
B – ‘And if there’s only two?’
J – ‘I’ve already said that the second one will have a cliffhanger so [the publisher] are going to have to do another one.’ We laugh. ‘Force them to do a third…’
C – ‘We’d never done a novel before, you know. So when we plotted it we plotted three. When we were kids we loved serial books, and I think kids now like to have a series because they’re going to get engaged in a character, and you want to know they’re going to be around for a while.’
J – ‘Yeah, yeah, you wanna live with them.’
B – ‘Mm, give them time to develop. And of course, there wasn’t really much about the father, so we need to have quite a lot more about him.’
J – ‘You have to wait for that.’ He sounds satisfied.
B – ‘I was also struck by the fact that this is very much a Scottish children’s book. Is that important?’
J – ‘Well it’s important to us. We recognise our heritage, and it’s where we had our childhood. Carole more so than me. I was nine when we left.’
B – ‘Whereas Carole was virtually an adult.’
J – ‘She was 17. As you know, when you write, you call upon things that you know and people we knew, who we loved and that are here or have gone. We wanted to honour them in a way, so we named the island, Auchinmurn, after my gran Murn. Jeannie the housekeeper was my gran’s sister and there’s a bit of Murn and Jeannie in Jeannie if that makes sense? Sandie the mother, is my partner’s sister who died of brain cancer. I said to Carole, I want the mother named Sandie because I want her to have the life that she could never have. It’s all those little things. Em is Emily, Carole’s middle name, plus my other gran’s name and Em backwards is me. So it’s got a bit of Em and Carole, and Em and me, and a bit of Matt and Carole. Without sounding corny, it’s a very personal book.’
B – ‘Yeah.’
J – ‘It’s a book that we wanted to write, that we wanted to read, if that makes sense?’
B – ‘Yes.’
C – ‘I think there’s an element of nostalgia involved. You know, we’re both middle aged.’
J – ‘Shut up.’
B – ‘I know the feeling. Did you holiday on this island?’
C – ‘Never on the island.’
J – ‘In Largs.’
B – ‘It had the feel of childhood memories.’
C – ‘And actually, lots of little things like when Matt buys the ice cream, running across…’
J – ‘My gosh!’
C – ‘…the truck, you know. 99s,’ Carole sounds very Scottish again, ‘and flakes and…’
J – ‘I always had a double.’
C – ‘One of my most vivid memories when going to Largs.’
J – ‘Freezing your ass off and saying “this is fun!” Especially with the rain.’ We laugh. ‘We had the island of Cumbrae, the people from the council here.’
C – ‘They came!’
B – ‘Yes, Ana was telling me.’
J – ‘And they’re loving it.’
C – ‘Very excited.’
B – ‘Well, I’m halfway there for a holiday myself, you know.’
J – ‘It’s a beautiful island, and it’s an eight-minute ferry journey. We make it longer. They’re very excited about the book, and their corner shop which never usually stocks books, are now stocking books. So people will read it and it’s really neat. We’re gonna go back.’
C – ‘We are definitely going to go back. One of the wonderful un-intended things that have come out of doing this, is how excited this island of a couple of thousand people are. It’s wonderful! The other thing is we’ve been doing a lot of school presentations, and we’ve had kids come up to us and say that they want to get a sketch book. That they want to start to draw, and that is so cool, to have a kid say that to you.’
J – ‘OH MY GOD WE ARE SO HAPPY!’ Without any warning, John shouts out with mock happiness, and then does a tearful mock cry.
C – ‘Sorry…,’ laughing like a maniac.
B – ‘You are so not like my normal authors…’
C – ‘I am so sorry.’
J – ‘Are they way too serious?’
B – ‘Just quieter.’
C – ‘Quieter??’
B – ‘Yes, they’re not generally performers like you.’
J – ‘You want to see the Barrowman family when we all go out. We’re loud. You don’t want to be next to us in a restaurant.’
C – ‘No, we are that family…’
J – ‘…where you go “oh my god…” and want to move.’
B – ‘Right.’
J – ‘And then when you do move, we make fun of you.’ They both laugh hysterically.
B – ‘I bet you do.’
J – ‘You’d better just join in with us.’
B – ‘Well as long as you like me… fine.’
J – ‘We like you, don’t worry.’
B – ‘What did you read when you were children? The Famous Five?’
C – ‘Yeah, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven. The only thing we don’t have is Timmy the dog.’
J – ‘I wanted a dog.’
C – ‘You wanted a dog and I didn’t. I love dogs, and John has three dogs. I didn’t feel…’
J – ‘There was no need for a dog.’,
C – ‘We had too much else we were trying to do.’
They are both talking at the same time.
J – ‘That would have been too cutesy and we weren’t going for cutesy. I read The Hardy Boys when I was a kid. I loved Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It’s the first book I bought. Now if I’m travelling I go into old bookstores and I buy up the first editions if I find them, of the Famous Five.’
C – ‘I’m going to have take an extra suitcase back with me. All these secondhand bookstores, they are wonderful.’
J – ‘A lot of the covers of the old ones are of them going on to an island…’
B – ‘I know. It makes you feel all nostalgic.’
Carole laughs, ‘that’s what we were getting at. We knew right away that we had to set this on an island.’
J – ‘Oh totally. Like with that tower, because that image of the Famous Five, and the island with the lighthouse, that’s amazing.’
John laughs and together they do that jazz hands thing, and we all laugh, and because the photographer missed it, they offer to do it again. We laugh some more.
C – ‘I’m sorry, this is our twelfth day on tour, and we’re getting all giddy.’
J – ‘We want people to see the real us, we don’t wanna BEHAVE!’
C – ‘It would be impossible.’
B – ‘“Real” authors hate posing for photos.’ I realise that I have just insulted them, but luckily they don’t seem to notice. Or they are too polite. (I obviously meant non-celebrity writers.)
J – ‘It’s like when celebrities don’t like signing autographs or having their picture taken, and I’m just like “get out of the business,” because it’s part of it. It’s part of your job.’
C – ‘Sorry we got off on another tangent.’
B – ‘Speaking of celebrities; do you get recognised when you’re out and about, Carole?’
C – ‘Oh yes, and because John and I toured with the other two books, there’s a lot on YouTube. Yeah, I have quite the fan following. And it’s awesome. I’ve taught a lot of students in my 28 years of teaching, and many of them will come on facebook and they’ll say “oh I’m so excited to see this!” And that’s kind of cool too.’
B – ‘It is. And I suppose people recognise you when you’re out, John?’ Carole laughs.
J – ‘No, not much,’ he sighs, looking downcast. ‘It’s more her now… I was laughing because one of the articles the other day; I just sat back at one point when the guy was asking us questions, but in the article it said “he was very quiet and he sat back and let Carole do most of the talking,” which she did.’ Loud laugh from Carole.
B – ‘A question for you, John. Most children’s authors who are gay, keep quiet about it. But you don’t see that as a problem, do you?’
J – ‘Oh no. A lot of children have gay parents, a lot of children have gay brothers, gay sisters, a lot of young adults – I’m not saying children, because they haven’t reached puberty – but a lot of young adults are also gay themselves. No, I have no issue with that. It didn’t even come into our minds, when we were writing. No one has taken any kind of aspect of it…’
B – ‘They shouldn’t. I was just interested because so many do keep it quiet. Do you reckon that “gay children’s books” would be a good idea?
C – ‘What would a gay book be?’
B – ‘Probably a main character who is gay or other important character.’
J – ‘That for me would be a story, where the main character happens to be gay. I wouldn’t say it was a gay book. That’s like saying Twilight is a heterosexual book, you know. In fact, there’s all that ambiguity within the Twilight range, if you know what I’m saying?’
C – ‘Huge gay following.’
J – ‘That wouldn’t stop us from putting…’
C – ‘If we needed a gay character, we’d put one in.’ They are talking simultaneously, again.
B – ‘I’m assuming that it would be good for children who are wondering whether they might be gay, or know that they are, to find gay characters in books?’
J – ‘That is good and it’s also important for young people to see people on television who are gay, who are completely open. It’s as important as it is to see good role models who are heterosexual. I just think it’s more important for people to be themselves and to be honest, rather than hiding who they are, and then some tragedy, or something drastically goes wrong in their life, because they’ve been outed or they’re living a lie. We’re trying to teach our young people about honesty and truth and being good members of the community.’
B – ‘Yeah.’
J – ‘Kids don’t care. The adults care, but not the kids. Some kids recognise it when they’ve got to puberty, because all the hormones are going. For me, since I was eight or nine years old, I didn’t know what it was, but I always knew that there was something that was slightly – and I use this word but I don’t mean it in a bad way – different for me than the kid that I hung about with. Because I was looking at the same thing he was looking at and I was not interested, so I knew there was something, but didn’t know what it was. And I think that’s the way to approach it with kids, rather than telling them, they discover it for themselves, because you’re not putting a label on them.’
B – ‘Mm.’
C – ‘Well, we didn’t write a book to teach children.’
J – ‘God no.’
C – ‘That’s not the way literature works, but it’s not to say that you can’t have some layers of that. We’ve got the guardians instead, so there’s some ways in which you can have parallels, rather than have some of those conversations that might be metaphors for other things. That could apply to a lot of things, especially in American culture right now.’
J – ‘Yeah, American culture needs a book of just gay people. The Big Book of Gays.’
C – ‘Gays for Dummies!’
J – ‘Sure someone’s already done it. They’ve got the Hetero Dummies, written by George Bush.’
C – ‘Really?’
J – ‘I’m kidding.’
C – ‘Sorry, sorry, going off on a tangent…
B – ‘I quite like people doing that. You never know what will happen. Have your children read the books, Carole? Or are they too old now?’
C – ‘They’ve read ’em, they’re never too old. Clare has read them, I don’t think my son quite has…’
J – ‘Turner was upset because he opened up the book and it says “To Clare and Turner,” and he tweeted immediately and said “I’m just protesting now because…’
C – ‘…there’s a mistake in the book.” And of course we were tweeting “oh my god, he’s found a mistake, what mistake is it?” He said there should be no other name in the dedication except for Turner.’
B – ‘Alphabetical order, Clare comes first.’
C – ‘Actually, we went with age. Our parents have read it, and loved it.’
J – ‘Our partners have read it, Scott’s read it, Kevin’s read it. We’ve just packaged up about twenty books…’
C – ‘to send to family…’
J – ‘and friends, all signed, sitting on my desk.’
B – ‘And how does it feel to be signing in Glasgow?’
J – ‘Same as it feels to be in Plymouth,’ he laughs loudly, ‘or Portsmouth.’
C – ‘Of course not, we were hoping to get some bagpipes or something. It feels great, because the very first part of this morning our Mom’s oldest, dearest friend…’
J – ‘came to visit,’
C – ‘with her grandchildren.’
J – ‘See, I come up quite often. I film up here and I’ve done pantomime up here, so I feel like I’m part of it. But for Carole it’s nice, she hasn’t seen her in a long time. Also the fact that the book is based, is rooted in Scotland.’
B – ‘Yes.’
J – ‘Nice to come back to go to Glasgow to let people see that we’re coming back. I’m doing all the negotiations for the TV rights and the film rights, and we’re almost signed up with that. I would like it to be filmed up here, if we do a TV show or a young drama. And so it’s important for us to let Glasgow know that we want to steep Scotland with this book and vice versa, steep the book with Scotland.’
B – ‘Mm, and people will start queueing up for auditions.’
C – ‘People are already on there. At signings kids say, “I want to be Em, I wanna be Matt.”’
J – ‘I have my idea of, I haven’t told you who it is yet, but I have my idea of the little girl who’s going to be Em.’
The photographer pretends to be upset over this.
C – ‘That’s another part of the collaborative efforts of the whole thing.’
J – ‘Start casting it…’
We’ve run out of time, and while they sign the photographer’s copy of Hollow Earth, they promise to see one young boy separately, before the signing downstairs. Whether this will leave them with enough time to cram down a very quick lunch, is another matter. I suggest they are probably used to eating fast, because ‘thin people don’t eat.’
C – ‘We eat a lot. We love to eat! And you know when we were doing the signing for Anything Goes?’
J – ‘Uhuh.’
C – ‘We were following Eric Idle, was it?’
J – ‘No it was Jordan.’
C – ‘Oh, I don’t know who Jordan is.’ (sic)
J – ‘Who – guess what! – doesn’t write her own books!’ John is shouting. ‘But she says she does!!’
C – ‘Anyway, we were so excited because we beat her on…’
J – ‘It’s curious, because in Cardiff she was at Waterstones and we were at Borders.’
C – ‘She wanted Borders.’
J – ‘And the police had to come in and hold the crowds. We had over a thousand people, down the street. And she had twenty.’
After this little triumphant outburst, we really do take our leave. Mrs Barrowman has brought her children up well. They offer many polite thanks as we all shake hands with everyone else. ‘Thank you for doing the pictures. It’s been a pleasure, thank you very much, appreciate it, thank you, did you get everything you needed?’ (Phew!)
I say I did, and if not, I’ll make something up. John laughs.
B – ‘You won’t remember you didn’t say it…’
C – ‘That’s what we like to hear, thank you very much. Bye!’
We descend to the floor below, waiting with the crowds for John and Carole to come down. And when they do, it’s very much to a superstars rapturous welcome.
That’s Glasgow for you.
(All photos by Helen Giles)
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Hi you ok I love that book.
Loved the book even though I am over 70 I am still a lover of a well told story. John and Carol have done a great job of bringing their characters to life and I am looking forward to more, more, more. Thank you for the great interview.
This sounded like a fun interview! I’ve yet to read the sequel but you might be interested in my take on the book (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-55) even if I hadn’t realised John and Carol hadn’t holidayed on the island.
Thank you. Yes, it was one of the most fun interviews to do, thanks to the Barrowmans’ general zanyness.
Liked your review of book one. I think the second book is better. (Third one out Feb 2014 I believe.)