We are only five minutes late when we find Tim Bowler’s PR lady Jennie waiting for us in the hotel foyer. I have asked for quiet surroundings and she leads us through a maze of lounges to the conservatory, where they’ve had the muzak killed, just for me.
Tim begins by greeting me in Swedish. No, first of all there is a hug, which is nice, but it does bring home the difference in height. He’s very tall. And I’d had no intention of speaking Swedish after our earliest encounter when Tim diagnosed a Skåne accent. I mean, honestly!
My photographer looks around and orders us to sit where she wants us. Tim has warned me that he’ll want to interview me, and he starts off by asking all sorts of questions, ranging from the Resident IT Consultant (like, is he real?) to one of my blogging friends whose comments Tim has always noticed and enjoyed. So, is he polite, or really that aware of everyone and keen to learn more? Probably both.
We chat away until he asks ‘you’re not recording any of this, are you?’, which I am, and I have to promise it will be used with discretion. He aims a mock blow at my iPod recorder, before recollecting another interview where the dictaphone failed but where the interviewer still produced an excellent write-up of their meeting. To the photographer Tim says ‘You’re looking very impressive with that thing, but you can only put up pictures that don’t make me look like a total wimp…’
‘If you can find any, that is.’
I point out that ‘we were going to go for handsome…’
‘I’m not sure I do handsome.’ Tim laughs ‘ But I’ll do my best.’
‘You’re wearing a red shirt and that’s nice.’
‘I haven’t ironed it, sorry.’
‘I feel we need to start with Sweden, really. You said you were in Uppsala, but I think you’ve said you worked there too?’
‘No, I didn’t work there, but I’ve worked with companies from Sweden. I have done translations. In fact translations were a great option for me, because I wanted to be a writer since I was five, as I think you probably know.’
‘And I was seriously committed to writing by the time I was twenty, but obviously you have to make a living. You’ve got to pay your bills. So you have to be pragmatic about it. After university I had a succession of jobs. I wrote my first novel Midget between the hours of three and seven in the morning, and then I went out to work. For about twelve years all my writing was done in the twilight zone, but I realised as I got to the age of 35 that this schedule was killing me. My wife Rachel actually said to me, “Darling, I did marry you on the understanding that you might live longer than 35.”
What actually did it for me though, was a serious reality check. After years of early morning writing followed by a full day’s work I’d racked up a huge sleep debt and I was driving home one afternoon on my motorbike and I fell asleep. I found myself wobbling on the other carriageway with this bloody great truck coming towards me.
Obviously I didn’t die because I’m still here, but it shook me up. I think if I’d been a single man I’d have lived off grass and chamomile tea and just gone for it with the writing. Rachel and I had a chat about it and she said “is there anything you could do professionally that would enable you to work from home and give you more writing time?” and I thought I could try freelance translation from Swedish. It turned out to be a good break, because there weren’t that many translators of Swedish in those days.’
‘But it wasn’t just a professional interest in Swedish. I loved Swedish and still do. I fell in love with it when – and I’m not saying it just because it’s you, I genuinely did – I went to university. I remember standing in the library at UEA, trying to find a book on Strindberg, and picking up a book at random. It was called Six Swedish Poets, and I read: “Jag har skrivit en inledning till vad jag skulle sagt, men jag har strukit den. Dock önskar jag att innan mörkret slår samman över mig det sista som syns av mig skall vara en knuten näve bland näckrosor och det sista som hörs ett ord av bubblor från botten”, by Gunnar Ekelöf. I didn’t know anything about Gunnar Ekelöf, but 37 years later, I still remember those lines. That got me going on Swedish. For me it was important in lots of ways, and very formative.
That was a long answer to a short question, wasn’t it?’ He laughs.
‘Oh, I’ve had longer answers than that.’
‘It is a passion of mine, honestly. I don’t speak Swedish very often, but those years of translation were very happy because I shut down my teaching job in 1989, to really go for it with writing. That was the year the recession kicked in so that was really great timing on my part. I only did commercial work. Literary work doesn’t pay well, as you know. I built up a bit of business, and I was tutoring as well in the evenings, French and German mostly, and that brought in an income, plus Rachel was a full-time teacher. I got my first book finished, probably by 1992, got it sold in 1993, it came out in 1994. Those first three years when I wasn’t making much money from writing, I was doing some translation, so professionally as well as emotionally and spiritually Swedish has been a good choice for me.’
‘I can remember standing in the mobile library picking up River Boy, and reading about this man I’d never heard of, and the Swedish…’
‘Maybe he’s all right after all?’ We laugh. ‘He might be a jerk or he might be all right. When I did my degree, I also had to choose my dissertation subject, and I did it on Swedish composers, because I’m massively into classical music. I heard a piece by Kurt Atterberg on the radio, the symphony no 5. It got me interested so I went looking round Uppsala and Stockholm. It was all record shops in those days and I made notes from vinyl sleeves and whatever I could find, and in the end I had material on 63 Swedish composers, and I wrote a spectacularly unscholarly dissertation on Swedish music.’
‘Was that part of the Swedish course, doing something on music?’
‘We had to choose our subject for the dissertation and I had a choice of doing anything I wanted. I originally wanted to do something on Pär Lagerkvist because he’s another of my favourites.’ Tim quotes some opening lines. ‘Don’t get me going on that one. I liked his poems, and I read all his novels. It’s interesting about influences, and this is totally unconscious, but one of his novels is Dvärgen (the Dwarf).’
‘Have you read it?’
‘I can’t remember. I think so.’
‘Well I read it when I was about twenty, I think.’
‘So that’s Midget, is it?’
‘No, it’s not.’ We laugh. ‘I wasn’t conscious of that book at all when I wrote Midget. I think a lot of influences feed into you as a writer and they may unconsciously feed out of you again but they’re transmuted. Take the first three scenes of Blade, for example. I remember a time when I was driving through Newton Abbot and an angry boy was standing on a pedestrian crossing, deliberately stopping the traffic. That’s what happens in scene 1 of Blade. But I wasn’t telling that boy’s story. I was telling Blade’s story. I once got robbed in Oxford. You could say that’s scene 2 of Blade, but again it’s not. Blade robbing the guy in the café isn’t me being robbed. A friend of mine was once beaten up by a girl gang in Rio. Same again, I’m not telling his story in scene 3 of Blade. It’s always Blade’s story. And that works for all my stories.’
Tim tells of the Samaritan volunteer who told him about the young man who phoned up and said he’s dying. He had just taken an overdose, and wanted to talk to someone on the phone. ‘Dusty’s similar experience in the first chapter of Frozen Fire came nearly thirty years later, but it’s her experience and nobody else’s. Buried Thunder you could say was influenced by The Turn of the Screw; female character, witnessing manifestations, fearing she’s mad etc. Am I talking too much?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘You are being interviewed of course,’ says the photographer.
I laugh and point out ‘you’re meant to talk. I just “press a few buttons” and you can go off for ten minutes at a time, and that’s fine.’
‘It’s just that I really liked your interview with Terry Pratchett. I loved I Shall Wear Midnight, by the way.’
‘Actually, it was my first Terry Pratchett book.’
‘Yeah, I know you’re a fan and I haven’t really tried Terry before. What I didn’t expect – I read the book quite recently – was I didn’t expect to be moved by it. He’s right when people say he’s a funny writer, of course he is, he’s a wonderfully funny writer. I just thought it was incredibly moving.’
‘It has a lot of depth.’
‘I didn’t expect to be moved by it. And Jonathan Stroud is another one, he’s got a wonderful, light touch. When I read Bartimaeus I was actually very moved by the relationship between him and Asmira. Anyway, I’ve gone on too long, and you’ve got a list down there.’
‘Yes, you’ll have to read it upside down.’
‘I can’t. And there’s your other trick of putting it in Swedish.’
‘That doesn’t work with you’, says the photographer.
‘You know what I do? I’m terribly secretive about my fictional ideas, even with my wife, so when I’m at home and something story-related strikes me, I tend to jot it down in Swedish. How pathetically sad is that? It’s ridiculous.’
‘I hate the idea of someone standing there wondering “what’s she writing?”’
‘So really, you are proof that foreign languages at school is a good thing.’
‘It was a good thing for me, because I’m good at languages. I was doing French, German and Latin at A-level, and Swedish, Danish and Norwegian at university. I do pick things up very quickly. When I was 16 I went on a six week course in Strasbourg, before starting my A-levels. I went to a party and met some gorgeous Swedish girls. Yes, it was nice that they were gorgeous, but what set me off at first was the sound of the language. That’s the way it was, and I went home to my parents and said, “I’d like to do Swedish at university”. So yes, I think languages are a wonderful thing.’
‘Not to force children, but it should be available for those who are like you.’
‘It’s got to be available. Let’s move this back to books for a second, because obviously I’m as passionate as you are about books, and the reason your blog is so amazing is because you just project that love of books. However, I’m not stupid about it. I appreciate that a lot of people can’t stand books. We all have things we just don’t like. I’m not mad about Sudoku puzzles…’
‘We won’t force you.’
‘Just show your passion, let fruit drop from the tree, and if people want to pick it up they will do. Some people can’t ever be bothered with it, but that doesn’t matter, there will be something else in life for them.’
‘I don’t see that as impoverished, because everyone’s not reading. There are so many people who are passionate about books and the best gift we can give whether we are writers, bloggers or publishers, we should just share our passion. That’s true of languages, and it’s true of books, I think.’
‘I remember you talking about some short stories for Rachel.’
‘Ha, trust you to remember…’
‘But I want to read those stories. Can you publish them?’
‘Ah, no, they’re a bit personal. Having met Rachel you’ve probably worked out that I’m quite fond of her? On her 21st birthday I realised I didn’t have much money, and I couldn’t afford to buy her a present, so I thought I’ll write her a short story. Next year I thought that I’d do that again because it’d save on money, so I wrote her another one.’ Tim whispers; ‘I can’t believe you remember this story, from years ago when you were working in that school.’
‘Nobody else remembers it, but Ann bloody does remember it. Then a year later we’d got married and she said jokingly “do I get another story this year?” so I wrote another one and this went on for about 25 years; every year she got a story. She’s got a suitcase full of these stories. I ran out of steam when I was moving on to bigger things. Rachel said “you don’t have to write me these stories,” so I stopped.’
‘You just made Rachel’s stories sound so nice.’
‘It was a nice thing to do.’
‘I’m still romantic but I do other romantic things, like… (here we have to censor a few words) You’re doing a jolly good job here,’ Tim tells the photographer.
‘Hmm, what can we do with 200 snaps of Tim Bowler?’
‘Well, you can get rid of 199 of them,’ Tim replies.
‘That book you wrote when you were six, can you quote it for me again?’
‘You remember all the embarrassing stuff, don’t you? Are you going to put it in your blog if I quote it?’
‘I was five years old.’
‘OK, five then.’
‘You mean the story of Francis Drake? Or do you want the longer one which I wrote at the age of six about Jim Harriday and the Cattle Rustlers? Or the rude limerick I wrote for my teacher when I was seven? Perhaps I’d better not give you that.’
‘Whatever I can have.’
‘The first story I ever read was Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone. It was read to me by my Mum when I was five years old and I thought “sea story; I’ll write a sea story,” so I wrote a story, my first story, which is obviously the one you want to hear. It went like this,’ Tim clears his voice, “Francis Drake decided to attack King Philip of Spain. So he did. The end.”’
‘I have heard this one,’ whispers the photographer.
‘It’s such a beautiful story,’ I say, as we laugh.
‘That was the start of a brilliant literary career, Ann, which you’re now about to ruin.’
‘Yes, I know.’
Tim laughs. ‘It’s a bit like in Blackadder, when Baldrick says he’s written a novel and pulls out this scrap of paper saying “this is my magnificent octopus,” and it’s got one line on it. The Francis Drake story is my magnificent octopus.’
‘I know you said you put yourself in Storm Catchers. Have you put yourself in any other books?’
‘I’m in all of them really, but as you know Storm Catchers was written when I had terrible back pain. I fell down an escalator – don’t try this yourself – and hurt my back really badly. I had a difficult 18 months or so, and I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t sit down for more than 20 minutes. So I wrote the whole of Storm Catchers pretty much standing up, in an improvised work area, and on painkillers. So I’m quite proud of Storm Catchers because you really wouldn’t know it was written by a man in physical pain and also some despair.
There’s a character in that book who has a bad back. I just couldn’t resist putting this in; it’s when the character meets him, hoping he’s not going to talk and the old man says “I won’t stop, I have to keep walking because my back’s hurting.” That was my little black joke. However, none of my books are autobiography, even though there are lots of elements from my own life.
Midget, for example, is set in my old home town. It’s even got my old street in it…but I’m not Midget. I’m in all of my stories and there are probably hundreds of oblique references to personal things in them, but most would not be picked up by the reader. For example in Dragon’s Rock the farmer tells one of the boys “we give our fields names.” I got this from a local farmer. He said his fields have official names from the land registry but his family have given the fields private names too. So I did this in Dragon’s Rock. Norman’s Nook, Dawney’s Dip, Ivan’s Meadow and Lizzie’s Hollow are named after my father, mother, father-in-law and late mother-in-law. There are countless things like these in my books. But in terms of taking me, my life blood, my essence, who and what I am, and putting all that into a character, I’m not there. The characters are who they are, and I’m somebody else.’
‘I have put Dragon’s Rock on my aspie books list, do you think that was a good idea?’
‘I don’t know really. You’re thinking about Benjamin. And you’re maybe thinking about Mo in Buried Thunder? When I wrote that I was thinking is Ann going to say “is Mo an aspie?”’
‘No I don’t think so. He’s got something else.’
‘It’s interesting you say that. I absolutely didn’t sit down and think I’m going to have an Asperger’s character in my story. I don’t know why Benjamin develops that funny little way of doing things. But I like my characters to be seen in different ways. Someone like Will in Bloodchild; he could be hallucinating, he could be psychotic, or he could be a young William Blake seeing angels in the trees, and I don’t really want to tell you what I think he is. I have a feeling of what I think he is, but I’m very happy for him to be interpreted in other ways.’
‘He is what he is. Same with Mo in Buried Thunder. Where he fits into the human spectrum and what label we give him, I don’t really mind very much. And I don’t mind what labels my books get, because I think that like so many books, they are beyond labels too.’
‘But at least you’re not saying I’m all wrong?’
‘No I’m not.’
The photographer asks to swap seats with me, so we shuffle round.
‘That’s to confuse me isn’t it?’
‘It is, yes.’
Tim then worries that the recorder won’t pick up, but I assure him it will, as long as we don’t have background noise.
‘Do you live near the sea?’
‘About half an hour’s drive from the sea.’
‘I was born overlooking it. It’s a big part of my life.’
‘Do you sail?’
‘Not any more. But I do love the sea. I wouldn’t want to live far from the sea, ever. I fell in love with sea stories from the age of five. It wasn’t just Little Tim. Swallows and Amazons were a big part of it, and then I moved to CS Forester’s Hornblower stories, and Patrick O’Brian who’s even better, and I love these stories still. I recently re-read Edgar Allan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom where this guy gets sucked into this massive whirlpool. Only Poe could have written it. The sea is a wonderful thing if you’re the sort of writer who likes symbols, who likes metaphor, as I do. It’s a very potent symbol. I also quite enjoyed working against type when I wrote Blade. I enjoyed having a boy who’s terrified of water, who hates water, thinks it stinks, doesn’t know what to do with it.’
‘Where’s Blade going? Are you finished with him?’
‘The series is finished. Book eight came out last year.’
‘I only read the first two, and then I got lost…’
‘The series is finished, all eight books. Though I have to say I always saw it as one big story.’
‘I’m quite excited because next February OUP are going to issue the whole thing as a four book series with different titles and a different look. Also I didn’t want the book to have any kind of “reluctant reader” label, just because they are small books with large print.’
‘I invented a street slang for it, and I think some of my toughest writing is in there. I hope I don’t sound too pompous saying that, but it is as advanced as anything I’ve written. Without wanting to preach, I do feel it’s got something to say. It’s a massively topical issue, the whole thing about knives.’
‘Yes, there’s so much knife crime.’
‘I talk about this a lot in schools. Young people are on the whole incredibly well informed and mature about knife issues and if Blade can make a contribution in its unglamorous portrayal of the boy’s difficulties, then I’ll be more than pleased.’
‘I’ll look forward to the new version.’
‘What do you do online? I was interested to see your comment on Meg Rosoff’s blog. Do you read it regularly?’
‘This is going to sound all wrong, but the only blog I read regularly is yours.’
‘It’s true, honestly. You are one of the people who writes every day and I admire that kind of discipline, especially since you also manage to keep your material fresh and lively. You’re bloody busy as well, but you find time to do those blogs and it’s always good. I dip into Meg’s because it’s so brilliant. Whatever Meg writes is going to be amazing, but I’m not a great reader of blogs. There’s so much out there, and I’m just really busy with my own stuff.’
‘Equally I don’t blog myself. I’m not into facebook and I don’t tweet. I have a twitter feed for news items on my website, which is not quite the same. Not like those that say “hey I’m talking to Ann Giles at the moment.” I don’t do that kind of thing.’
‘You should be,’ I laugh, ‘people will want to know…’
‘There’s an awful lot of talking going on out there, and I feel life is short and I want to give the main focus of whatever I have got to something that’s as creative as I can make it. In terms of my own online stuff I don’t do facebook but I’ve got quite an active website. It’s my shop window, really. There is an opportunity to put comments on the guestbook, but I don’t enter into a lot of dialogue. I get a lot of email from readers, and I answer them.’
‘Yes, I’ve been impressed by that.’
‘I don’t always answer them personally. I have a secretary who answers routine things. I often get asked the same questions. I get writers who write to me as well, especially unpublished writers. Once a month I do a little video film called Bolthole Bulletin.’
‘I was watching your most recent one the other day. I was very impressed that instead of just talking about yourself, you answer people’s emails.’
‘I don’t want to sound all precious, but I decided I would do some news items on what I’m up to, but basically I don’t want to be sitting there talking about myself. I want to see if I can give something out. I know what it’s like to want advice, so if they think I can make a contribution I will do. I get some really nice emails back from people.’
‘It’s only when people comment that you realise they have been lurking there.’
‘It’s the same on my site. I have a lot of hits and I don’t know who half of them are. Occasionally I get emails from people saying “I really loved your thing, and I’ve been reading it for years.” It’s lovely that they do. The internet is like that, there’s a lot of people out there. I always try to write my books for the anonymous reader, that I’m never going to meet.’
‘Will there be any more theatre?’
‘No one’s offered anything as yet. The Starseeker play wasn’t bad, was it?’
‘It was really wonderful.’
‘I remember seeing you in Northampton. They did a good job at the Royal and Derngate Theatre.’
‘Yes, especially the music, being able to make it work.’
‘So yes, no plans for further plays, and likewise films. I’ve had some books optioned and some scripts done, but it’s never gone further than that. But I’m not at all bothered. I love the written word. It’s what I do. A book is a book and a film is a film. I remember hearing Eoin Colfer say that when people tell him they’ve seen the film and it has ruined the book, he just says “no, no, here’s the book and it’s fine, see?”.’ We laugh. ‘He’s absolutely right. The book will still be there, with or without the film. I quite enjoyed the film of Goodnight Mister Tom. But we still think of the story as the book, don’t we?’
‘Do you find that your fans stay with you? Has the 12-year-old grown out of you when they reach 25?’
‘I can’t speak for all of them but an awful lot stay because they think I don’t really write kids’ books. I write books about teenagers in adult situations.’
‘And I do get quite a lot of emails still, and I’m always terribly moved that there are people who now have children of their own, and they remember when I gave a talk at their school. I think people do stay, Ann. I think if you write about stuff that’s adult in nature, then adults will read it. Some people think it’s not for them, but you know how many books fit into the category of being fine for everybody.’
‘From when were you able to write full time?’
‘You mean when I earned a living from it? About 1997, and it’s picked up since then as the years have gone by. I’m really lucky. I never forget that. As you know money can be bad for many authors, but I do OK. Kids always ask “are you wealthy?” Of course I’m not wealthy in the way they think of wealth, but I’m wealthy in terms of things I think are worth having. I can live the life I like. I’m very lucky, indeed.’
(All photos by Helen Giles)