Steve Cole has always been special. He meets so many new people all the time, but still takes the trouble to remember us. Maybe that’s why I ended up going to Jacqueline Wilson’s event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of years ago. It clashed with Steve’s event, and since we had one ticket for each show, I took it for granted that Daughter would choose Jacqueline. She didn’t. Maybe it’s the Doctor Who connection? Or maybe it’s just that Steve is a lot of fun.
This year in Edinburgh he has made sure he has time to meet us in the lounge at his hotel and give us a private one-man show. Officially we called it an interview, but we had too much fun, really.
‘How reassuring,’ I say, as Steve tells us about his horrendous flight to Edinburgh the day before, touching down in Rome to repair the wheel on the plane.
‘I was squashed in the middle seat, and the plane lurched when they jacked it up…’
‘You mean you didn’t have to get off?’
‘No, they did it while we were on board, which is something, I suppose. Then I had the worst taxi driver in the land.’
‘Hey!!’ We are a mere 46 seconds into the interview when Liz Kessler and her friend Laura walk past and see us.
‘Hi, how are you?’ Liz asks.
It turns out Liz and Steve do not know each other, so I make the introductions.
‘I just got here, nice to meet you.’
Laura realises we are in the middle of an interview and that they might be interrupting, but I say we are fine, and the more the merrier.
‘I was just telling them about my taxi driver,’ says Steve.
‘We got a nice one,’ says Liz.
‘Oh, you got the nice one?’ Steve tells us the long and fraught tale of him and his taxi driver, ending with him getting out of his cab before the driver drove him down a pedestrianised street. It’s like stand up comedy, with Steve doing voices and all, and the four of us laugh at his antics and the ‘sad’ tale of his travelling arrangements. It also seems Steve’s hotel toilet growls, ‘it must be something under the room.’ Liz suggests it would make a ‘nice little boys’ story.’ Before they leave us, Liz admires the photographer’s camera, ‘nice lens…’
‘Yeah, recognise it?’ asks the photographer.
Steve offers us drinks, so I say I’ll have tea if he insists.
‘I’m insisting. Tea, let’s get some tea.’ He goes off, searching. When he returns he has even more taxi tales for us. ‘The story ended happily.’
Time for some questions from me before Steve embarks on even more hair raising tales from his chaotic life. ‘Are you trying to dominate the world of publishing?’
He laughs, ‘no, not at all. I don’t know what I’m doing…’
‘I’ve lost count of the number of books you’ve got, and then there are more books, still.’
‘I am quite keen.’
I say it’s not possible to keep up with everything Steve writes.
‘It’s an odd thing, because it does seem to have escalated rather. The book next month (September 2011), which I think is the seventh Slime Squad, is the 50th book I’ve done for Random House, since 2005, which doesn’t include The Doctor Who books.’
‘Or other books written under pseudonyms, and I think it’s no wonder I suffer from RSI.’ He laughs helplessly.
‘I’m not surprised, either. I went on Wikipedia and I sort of gave up when I’d counted 60 to 70 titles.
‘Yes, it’s an odd thing. I’m trying to think why I have this compulsion to write. It’s partly because I’m asked to, and I keep getting ideas. The ideas stage is the one I enjoy the most, and indeed I will put off writing to start thinking of ideas, because it’s more fun. Then you have to sit down and write it. It’s annoying really, the writing part of writing. They give you money, and then they expect you to write a book on time… At school and university I was always writing essays that were quite long, and I used to enjoy the challenge. I enjoyed working against the clock.
And I went off to work in magazines after that, and it was a massive turnaround , when I was in my glorious position of junior assistant of Noddy magazine, which was pretty exciting stuff. That was a fortnightly title, and then I was assistant editor of another fortnightly title, and so we were doing one magazine a week, commissioning the artwork and the stories, all the educational stuff, and then it was on to Doctor Who books, which was a lunatic amount of work, so in a way writing is what I’ve been conditioned to do.’
‘When I hear that you have a new book series, I tend to assume you will give up an old one. But you don’t seem to.’
‘I am, slowly.’
‘Are you really?’
‘Yes, Astrosaurs Academy has come to an end after eight books.’
‘But what about Astrosaurs?’
‘Well, Astrosaurs is going on, yes.’
He giggles, ‘don’t say it like that, accusingly! The Cows, I’ve just knocked out the twelfth Cows book, and that feels like a nice number to end it at.’
‘There might be a 13th book, but I’m taking steps to limit my output.’
‘So you’re not going to do a James Patterson?’
‘What, and rent it out to other people?’
‘No, certainly not. I feel very strongly about that, because when I was young, I used to like The Hardy Boys, by F W Dixon. I was quite disappointed to discover he wasn’t real. I’ve been Lucy Daniels in my time, and I’ve been various other people, “when I was learning my craft.” I didn’t see myself as a literary author, fortunately. I see myself as someone who enjoys writing. I’ve always been inspired by the work of Charles Schultz; a Peanuts strip every day. He never missed a day in fifty years. He could easily have handed over to someone else.’
The tea arrives; ‘do you take milk?’ Steve plays with the contraption on the teapot. ‘I was trying to work out what that was, what do you think it is?’
‘What did you just do?’
‘I frightened it. It will detonate at any moment…’ He pours the tea. ‘It looks fine… it worked! I shall be mother.’
‘Yes, I was just thinking that.’ We laugh. I tell Steve that I have long since given up on even pretending to read all his books.
Steve says with mock seriousness, ‘I work so hard! Evenings and weekends, actually my entire life. It’s got to the stage now where I’m renting a cottage just so I can…’
‘Go to the office.’
‘Exactly. Introduce a work-life divide, but it’s been a blur.’
‘And you can avoid working at home.’
‘I hope so. It’s going to be tough for a while because I do have some pressing deadlines. Before I could do 3000 words a day but now I’ve reduced it to about a thousand. But I have to get into a pattern of behaviour …’
‘I’m assuming that your books do well, because they are so popular and boys seem to be crazy about them. Do you do well, or is that too private a question?’
‘I do very well, actually.’
‘In a way having lots of books to write, is a personal success. I’ve been writing an awful lot of them, but you know, I’m quite a workaholic.’
‘Although your books are short, so you can’t entirely compare yourself to those who write 600 page books.’
‘I find the older books like Tripwire and Z Rex are 60,000 to 70,000 words.’
‘Normal sort of length.’
‘Yes, in amongst the 12,000 to 15,000 word books. I do a lot of school visits as well, going to festivals and things.’
‘How often are you out?’
‘Ooh, a few times every month. Again, I don’t manage it very effectively, I’m a rubbish manager. I think “oh that sounds fun” and “that’ll be a laugh,” and then you think of course I will have finished this and this, and of course you haven’t finished any such thing, and you need to squash it all in and make the time. Now I take on more appearances and they take me away from the computer, which is good for the arms.’
‘You write for the pleasure of writing, but do you also do it because young boys need books like yours?’
‘That certainly feeds into it. I get letters from and meet lots of people who say their children didn’t like books or reading but my books have given them an in to that, which of course is the most wonderful thing. I’m aware because as a child it was assumed I’d been introduced to serious fiction, when all I read was Spiderman and Doctor Who comics and Charlie Brown cartoons, and you know, I got a pretty good vocabulary out of that.’
‘Well you would.’
‘Because I still think of Terrance Dicks who used to write all those Doctor Who books. His name was on the cover every month, he used to script edit Doctor Who in the 1970s. I saw him at the library when I was young and was inspired by him and thinking what a great job that would be. Anyhow, I ended up editing one of his books for the BBC, which was amazing for me. I had this wonderful journey, coming full circle, from reading his books to actually working with him, and then going on to write my own.
With a series I am aware there is a contract between the reader and the author, that you are giving them enough that’s familiar to make them feel comfortable and happy, but you’re also stretching them with a different story and a different set of characters or different threads, whilst trying to promote values of heroism and teamwork.’
‘I was struck by the character in the first Slime Squad book, who gets to join his heroes.’
‘Yes, it took three goes to get the first Slime Squad right. Originally, I’d written it in a much more knowing anti-hero style, more Shrekkish. I think it was trying to be too clever for its own good. I think children that age enjoy their heroes being straightforwardly heroic – as subtle as their playground games. So Plog became this plucky hero from out of nowhere, and when the others are in trouble, he comes to the rescue. And you plot it out and visualise it in your head and you get on with writing it, and for me part of the process is creating the maps at the beginning of the books, because that maps out the world and the future adventures you can have within it. You can set up these things quite quickly and you can embellish them, depending on how many books you feel like writing.’
‘I thought when I read the first Cows in Action that this would be your new series and that Astrosaurs would be done with and…’
He laughs, ‘but no, they continued.’
‘I suppose Astrosaurs is my defining series, in many ways.’
‘Until what age do your readers stay with you, do you reckon?’
‘Well you see, my cunning plan is to get them from like zero and keep them forever. So there’s the picture book, and another one coming next year for the pre-schoolers, and then introducing Astrosaurs Academy and Astrosaurs from six to eleven, Cows in Action from seven to eleven, and then they go on to Z Rex, and from there onto Tripwire, from there to Thieves Like Us to the Wereling books and the Doctor Whos. So it can carry them into young adulthood. My argument is that there is no excuse for them stopping reading me. I turn into Stephen Cole as they get older.’
‘Yes, but in private you are Steve, aren’t you?’
‘Yes I’m generally Steve. Only my mother calls me Stephen. If I’ve done something wrong, I feel like a Stephen,’ (here he shouts “Stephen!” in a pretend angry voice) ‘I was Stephen at school and it was always my professional name, because I wrote the Doctor Who books as Stephen Cole, and changed to Steve when I did Astrosaurs, because I didn’t want someone picking up the wrong book.’
‘Now, about Doctor Who, could you please spill lots and lots of beans?’
Steve laughs, ‘I used to be able to spill lots of beans, but now there’s not huge amounts I know. I only know certain things, that I hear’ (theatrical whisper) ‘from my sources.’
‘Don’t ruin tonight!’ pleads the photographer.
‘I certainly won’t. I know nothing about tonight actually, so I couldn’t even if I tried. I know stuff at the end, but I won’t tell you that! It was a funny thing being one of the people that looked after Doctor Who in the 1990s when no one loved it. It was shunted around between the BBC departments. No one did fiction like that. In the end it was up to me in the sports, motoring and entertainment group, which was rather un-charmingly known as SMEG. For a while the Doctor Who books were in the factual group, because no one wanted it on their bottom line. Nowadays people are falling over themselves to get credit for Doctor Who.
It was because I did that job at the end of the 1990s that I was one of the book authors they contacted when it was brought back. It was very exciting to be with Russell T Davies when the rushes of the new show came in. Everyone expected the comeback to fail, so the only merchandise associated with it at the start were these three novels… which became bestsellers straightaway, so it was quite exciting.’
‘So, who do you know? In the Doctor Who world, I mean.’
‘In the Doctor Who world?’ He laughs. ‘WHO do I know? I know quite a few of the writers of the books, who have gone on to be writers on the new show. Like Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts who I worked with on some Doctor Who paperbacks, and Russell of course, and I know Steven Moffat vaguely. I’ve had to limit my Doctor Who output. On principle I stopped when they took away the royalty.’
‘You are good at writing Doctor Who books,’ says the photographer.
‘Ahh, that’s very kind of you. I still write some of the audio CDs, so I’ve got to do Matt Smith on audio. Rory read that one, so that was nice. I set it in Orkney. I was up doing a Scottish Book Trust visit to Orkney and Shetland, and I was thinking it’d be a great place to set a Doctor Who story, and got my wish a few years later. It’s nice when you can channel research done on school visits into an actual story later. Most of my books are set in fantastical times and places, but with Doctor Who you want fantastical things to happen in real places.
If you’re writing for older teens and if you’re writing for very young children it’s nice to use different paths and you can do different things, and get away with it. It’s fun to explore emotions in that context, because young children have little emotional capacity, whereas in the teen books you have pages and pages of angst and anguish.’
‘How do you know where the boundaries go; how do you know how you need to write for seven-year-olds and how much for 13-year-olds?’
‘After a while you develop an instinct, you get a feel for what is right. I relate it back to Star Wars. I think all things probably relate back to Star Wars. There’s a scene where Luke Skywalker comes back and sees his aunt and uncle burned, their charred corpses in the compound, and he looks moodily out into the sunset, and that’s it! It’s the entire range of his emotional response! But it’s right in the film, we don’t need to be weighed down by the hero’s response at that point, we know he’s sad, because he’s looked moodily into the sunset, we know he’s going to redress the wrong that happened, you don’t need to see him challenge it, because it’s not that kind of a story. You want to get on to the next exciting bit, and that’s what you do. You hope the readers will extrapolate, you can’t interrupt the story to bring five pages of misery, because it’s not required. You find different ways of putting it in.’
Here Steve wants some more tea, so we fiddle with the teapot. ‘How do we get to the tea bit? What a strange, strange teapot. I could do a story about an evil teapot…’
‘You’re followed by mayhem, aren’t you?’ asks the photographer.
‘I am, yes. I bring it with me wherever I go.’
‘You attract it. When we see you at events, you are extremely funny and amusing, jumping all over the place. I hope you are a really boring husband and father at home?’
‘I’m actually quite down most of the time.’ He laughs apologetically. ‘I’m quite happy to make an idiot of myself at the drop of a hat, which is why I’m sought out by children in the playground. I think children recognise their own. In effect I’m kind of childish and depressed most of the time. No real character. No, I’m not hyperactive at home. Though I can’t stand still on the telephone; I walk up and down. Nervous energy the whole time.’
‘At lunchtime my leg is tapping, because I need to get back to it (writing). I spend my entire time being vaguely anxious. In a way writing is an escape into a world where you have more control over things. When I go to an event it’s an opportunity to release some of that energy. I’m happiest when I’m talking to people, trying to avoid sitting down to write, I do anything to put it off, emails, texts or anything. That’s why I resisted Facebook for so long, so that’s a downfall now.’
‘But you’re not on it so often.’
‘I kind of limit it to when I feel I have something to say.’
‘I agonise over every Facebook posting. I have never in my life dashed off a Facebook post, but it’s a marvellous procrastination tool.’
‘But when you are sitting all alone in your garret, you can meet your fellow writers on Facebook.’
‘Yes, but then you get people saying “I wrote 5000 words today,” and I think “I used to be able to do that… but I can’t,” and I feel like saying “oh, that’s going to come back and haunt you. I hope you’ll suffer like I’ve suffered,” (Steve jokes in pretend agony). I did write that much day in, day out and came to grief as a result.’
‘You know, I scoffed at those who said you need to take breaks and you need to exercise, and paid the price. You can’t be sanctimonious, you have to hope for the best, really. It’s like when people say “having children will change your life.” Some things you have to find out for yourself!’ He laughs.
‘So with all this energy, do you actually need to exercise, as well?’
‘I have to do these awful Pilates stretches, as part of my regime to combat the RSI. I’ve got a month long tour in October, visiting competition winners, 20 winners and 20 runners up, so am going to be all over the place, travelling and talking. I’ve never done a month; I might capsize and die.’
‘My attitude has always been – it’s that freelance mentality – if there’s an offer, say yes if you can. You want to make hay while the sun shines. I’ve reached the point where the sun will hopefully shine a while longer. I can make less hay and more sitting about, recharging my batteries, but I still have that sense it could all stop tomorrow. They’ll find me out. So you want to do as much as you can, before someone takes away your toy, and also you feel you want to jump before you’re pushed.
So yes, this year has been lots of books. I think it will end up being something ridiculous like 12 or 14 new books, four of which are republished by OUP, but the rest of them are all new, and there comes a time when that is probably enough.’ Steve sounds a little embarrassed. ‘Hopefully next year I will be able to take things slightly more easy, and I feel a bit guilty turning up every month with another one (new book). That’s a lot of dead trees.’
‘It’s hard to talk about Steve Cole’s latest book, because we can’t agree on which it is.’
He laughs, ‘only I know which is the latest one. I have the scattergun approach, boom, there’s another one, boom, and another one! Buy this one, have these two! Boom, oh, and another one as well. I’ve been firing my book cannon, so it’s like a different approach. But, yeah,’ he whispers, ‘I quite like doing as much as I can and I like putting as much as I can into my events as well. You’ve got to give it everything. I always try to make each new book better than the one before it, or else why bother?’
‘Just more of the same thing,’ says the photographer.
‘Exactly, the moment you think like that you’re dead. The children will pick up on that, and you have to keep doing different things. I want longer books. I just wrote the 20th Astrosaurs, and instead of 10,000 or 11,000 it ended up being 19,000 words.’
‘Ah, a “thick” book!’
‘It was partly motivated by the publishers saying they wanted to bind up another book with it, but you don’t want children to feel they end up buying a book they already have, so my cunning plan was to write a book that’s two thirds longer than that. But I should be writing less, with hands like these! What am I doing?’
‘You’re going wrong somewhere.’
‘Yes I am. It’s this ridiculous drive to be nice and make people like me.’ He does his evil laugh. ‘It’s pathetic, but there you go.’
‘And do you have a private life at all?’
‘Extremely private, yes.’
‘Never mind what, I just wondered.’
‘I used to have what I call three-tier days, when I would have a day at work, doing events or writing, going home in the evening and then going back to writing again. Three-tier days were my way of getting it done. At the BBC on a Doctor Who day I’d work in the office all day and then I’d edit a book on the tube, going to meet a friend or an author, and I developed an aptitude for editing whilst a bit drunk (on the way home).’
At this critical point in Steve’s confession, an American tourist comes up to ask how we managed to find our tea… Steve clearly has a way with elderly ladies.
‘I like to cram as much as I can into my life because I don’t want to compromise, so I end up writing on a notepad on the train into London, and then I write when I get back, and then I’m in a band and I try to rehearse as well. It’s a good way of procrastinating to write a song. It’s my normal behaviour to write all day and have tea, maybe watch something, and then go upstairs and write again, until one in the morning, and get up early and take my son to school and come back and start all over again. But as I stand at the precipice of turning 40,’ he coughs importantly…
‘Yes, you’re getting very close now.’
‘Indeed, I have to do something to change the way it’s going, enjoy life a bit more and have more time to do things.’
‘Those children aren’t going to be small for much longer, you know.’
‘Yes, I feel slightly bad going off to work in my cottage and being away from them. They are used to me being around and playing at lunchtime, and hearing a cry or a laugh and coming down, getting distracted. I’m so easily distracted, butterfly attention span that I have. The most ill organised doofus really. I shouldn’t be allowed out. It’s gonna be a good interview isn’t it? That can be your quote…’
‘I’ll think of something.’
Steve laughs. He does it a lot.
‘I was talking to Jon Mayhew last year, and he told me how you dedicated one of your books to his son.’
‘Bless Jon for saying that. It’s very nice of him; people will think I’m nice.’
‘Easier for you because you have so many books you could dedicate…’
He laughs, ‘I’m going to dedicate one to you Ann.’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Is the queue very long?’
‘Well, it’s tough. I’ll try and make an exception for you.’
I think Steve is hinting at the marketing aspects of this clever move. Or perhaps not.
‘It’s getting to be a fairly crowded area, books for boys. I started off as a kind of pioneer, with the collector cards at the front.’
‘They make even me go “Yes!” I don’t know what I would do with them, but…’
‘Nice to get extra value isn’t it? Because I write for boys, sometimes when I do an event a press photographer will come along and say “put a face on and do something gross and disgusting.” But I don’t think you need to pander to those basic instincts.’
‘Just wearing moustaches for eyebrows will do it,’ says the photographer, meaningfully.
‘Exactly.’ He laughs. ‘I always claim my Auntie Win likes me to smile in photographs. ‘It’s nice to get them with a bit of toilet humour, but I think it’s nice to encourage more positive manners through what you’re doing, rather than just having something horrid and vile to make people smile. I’m quite boringly old-fashioned when it comes to that.’
Because we have already mentioned Steve’s (then) impending 40th birthday, I ask if it isn’t strange sharing a birthday with Philip Ardagh, who is another author of humourous books for boys.
‘Yes, I hadn’t realised that before.’
‘Ten years apart.’
‘Exactly ten years apart? That’s an interesting one. Maybe I will attempt to cultivate a beard of similar proportions and in ten years’ time I might have got halfway to achieving that magnificent growth.’
‘You can be the clean shaven and slightly shorter one, if you wish.’
Steve finishes by musing on the good things about book festivals. ‘Because you’re quite insulated from other authors and then you meet others at a festival; male writers can be quite competitive.’ He mentions people who read their reviews at events. ‘It’s better to share experiences than to try and score points off each other.’
We could have stayed all day, but dutifully did what we could to get Steve to go on and do something important instead. But maybe we can play with teapots together some other year.