Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Tim Bowler

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Tim Bowler has written twenty books for teenagers and won fifteen awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal. He has been described by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘the master of the psychological thriller’ and by the Independent as ‘one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction’.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sometimes you have to go looking for ideas, other times they creep up behind you and tap you on the shoulder and force you to write about them. Somebody once said that writers don't have ideas – ideas have writers. In other words, the idea becomes so powerful it starts to possess the writer. There's something in that. The main thing is to be alive to what's going on around you and – more importantly – what's going on inside you. Sometimes a picture in your head sets you off, or a character from real life, or a person you make up, or a melody, or a smell, or an invented situation. It can be anything that sets your mind racing. Storm Catchers started with a picture in my mind of a young girl at home on a stormy night, and she hears a tapping noise downstairs. I had no idea what the tapping noise was when I started the story and I had to write Chapter One to find out. So the novel started with a small idea but as I worked it, more ideas came and the bigger story unrolled. That's another important thing to remember. It's usually the process of writing that unlocks the story. You can start with what seems a small idea but the more you play about with it, the more you see its potential for development. You have to be patient and willing to go in wrong directions but if you persist and follow up the idea threads that your imagination will present to you, eventually you'll end up with something really good.

How important is setting to your writing?

I love isolated places. I love wild places, places with a powerful atmosphere. 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 before us.

Do you base your characters on real people?

Generally no, but I do sometimes start off with a real person in mind, or an aspect of a real person (e.g. the voice, the hair, the smile, a catchphrase, a particular quality). However, the moment I start writing, the real person melts away and the fictional character takes over. As I continue writing and learn more about the invented character, I start to form a bond with that person and by the end he/she feels very 'real' to me.

 Do you plan your stories?

No, I don't really plan my stories very much but that doesn't mean my way is the way you should do it. It's the right way for me but it might not be the right way for you. There isn't really a hard-and-fast rule about this. Some writers plan everything. Others plan nothing and just dive in. Some have a rough outline in their head and explore their way through the story, changing as they go along. I tend to build up some interesting characters and an interesting setting, and an interesting dilemma, then dive in and see where it all takes me. I usually have pictures in my head and some rough ideas, but I like to feel my way into the story and see what comes along. It probably sounds a bit of a vague way of working but I'm of the opinion that the imagination works best when not regimented too much. If you give it a decent amount of freedom, it will reward you by offering a wealth of ideas for stories. But you have to trust it. And you have to be able to throw away the ideas that are no good. What you'll find, as you try this and then that and then something else, is that eventually the natural storyline will make itself known to you, and you're away. Now, as I say, lots of writers don't work this way and so you mustn't feel you've got to do what I do. If you like to plan everything in advance, that's fine. There are lots of top writers who plan and lots who don't. Find the way that works best for you and then stick to that. Good luck!

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Sometimes the story just won't flow. One thing that may help is to try writing in short bursts. Try working, say, for just 15 minutes at a time. Promise yourself that you'll give the story 15 minutes of your very best effort. When the 15 minutes are over, you are free to stop if you want to. If you want to carry on, of course, do so. But if you stop after 15 minutes, make an agreement with yourself about when you're going to do another 15 minutes, and make sure you jolly well turn up and do those 15 minutes when you said you would. It's a question of getting yourself used to some kind of discipline. Try to do at least 15 minutes a day. It's not a lot of time for the story but it's better than nothing at all and it will at least keep you writing. By breaking the task of writing a story into lots of small time components, you may just be able to keep the thing going. Try it anyway and good luck.

What inspired you to write?

Reading other authors and then writing stories and finding out how much fun it was.

Do you follow the same process each time you write?

I can write practically anywhere and I do lots of writing in hotel rooms when I’m travelling but when I’m at home, I have two places where I like to work. One is a converted upstairs bedroom that overlooks the churchyard and has a beautiful view of the green hills beyond. My wife calls the room Tim’s Dream Factory. Mostly, however, I work in an old outhouse at the top of the village. It’s a little place that I use just for writing and thinking. There’s nothing in there except a desk, a chair, a light and a power socket for my computer and the electric fire. It’s a primitive little den and I love it. My family and friends call it Tim's Bolthole. I'm not sure whether I follow the same writing process each time. Every story feels entirely different. Generally, though, my approach is first to get it written, then to get it right. I write the first draft without any particular thought of beauty or deathless prose and focus simply on getting the ideas down, getting 'black on white' as Maupassant said, so that I can give some visible form to the shapeless thing that was chafing away inside me. The words clothe the ideas and so I get them out there as soon as I can. If that first draft is rubbish (which it usually is), I do another rough draft (or three or ten), again focusing on the matter of the story rather than the manner of the telling, and I keep putting down words until I've got the rough-hewn story in place, i.e. until I've got it 'written'. Then I concentrate on getting it 'right' – cutting, adding, changing, fiddling, and honing, honing, honing until it's as good as I can make it.

How much does your editor change what you write?

The author-editor relationship is vital and it has to be right. Everyone works differently so there has to be empathy on both sides. My editor is wonderful and a dear friend and she completely 'gets' me, but she doesn't change anything. What she does (far more important) is give great advice. She picks up things that don't quite work (this chapter's too slow, that character isn't convincing etc) and we discuss all her thoughts and all my thoughts and agree what needs to be worked on, and I go away and make the changes.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

I'd be either a translator or a teacher.

What were your favourite books when you were a child?

When I was five my favourite book was called Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone. It's still in print and I think it's a beautiful story with lovely illustrations. When I was at school, I was particularly fond of the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. I still adore the Swallows and Amazons series and even now have all the twelve books on a shelf just above my writing desk. I liked reading authors like Enid Blyton, Rosemary Sutcliff and others, and then trying to write my own stories. It was such good fun I decided I wanted to carry on doing it. And I still am.

Who has been your inspiration?

Lots of people have been my inspiration. If you look around you, you'll find that most people have something in them that can inspire you. I certainly have cause to be grateful to many people, especially people from my family. One such person was my Nan. She died at the age of 98 and she was just the most incredible person. I was so lucky to know her and she was certainly a massive inspiration to me all my life.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

The main thing is just to keep writing as much as you can and refuse to give up if a story or a poem doesn't come out right. It happens to everyone (me certainly). You just have to keep on writing and believing in yourself. You also have to develop critical ability. You have to be able to look at your own work and see where the good and bad parts are, and then sort out or get rid of the bad parts. The imagination has lots of weird stuff in it. Stand back from your story, give it some space, think about it. Stay loose with your ideas. Examine alternative story threads. But keep writing. Keep the words coming. Don't let weird ideas worry you. Sometimes you have to turn out lots of crazy stuff in order to find the good stuff. Don't be afraid to throw things away if they're no good. This is healthy. If there's a good story inside you, it will come out if you're patient and if you give it the time and care it requires.

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