Ever heard of the eye-in-the-sky technique? Lesley Howarth employs it at the end of Weather Eye and tends to get very excited by it, because it demonstrates perfectly how ‘film and television techniques can be used to stimulate the pace of a story’. It sounds like the film world’s version of a fractal – an analogy that might please her Internet-wise characters more than herself, since she delegates computer expertise to her husband Phil – until she brings in Dickens.
‘Right back in Bleak House you come in from the sky, down zero in to part of London, then to a street in Chancery Lane, then to a man standing outside a particular shop, then into the shop – and you get to the scene. And that’s what I did for the last scene in Weather Eye , coming in over the top of what’s going on, and looking at different parts of it as if it were a painting.’
Journeying from London to meet her I had the feeling that I was an eye-in-the-sky, or had been sucked into a fractal. Three or so hours on the train to Plymouth in Devon, then 16 miles by taxi through rolling scenery adjoining the bleakness of Dartmoor, over the border to Cornwall, and into a car park in a small village called Callington, where Lesley (because she hates driving into the Plymouth traffic) was to pick me up and take me on through her local lanes, past engine houses of the long-gone silver lead mines now done up for prosperous new incomers, to a row of houses that ends with number 11, the house Lesley and husband Phil built 10 years ago. Literally. With their own hands.
The house and her writing career have led parallel lives. She can remember the precise moment she decided to write. The house was newly finished after an insane period that ‘makes me tired to look back at and picture what we did’, when, with three small children, they lived in a caravan on the site and she did the labouring jobs (like mixing concrete) for Phil and one other workman. It was an April night in 1987, and she was lying in the bath. ‘The dust was settling after this terrific physical effort, when I had a burning urge to write all these rather quirky short stories.’
Four full-length novels and one conservatory extension later, it is the writing that takes precedence. ‘I’m very protective about it, careful to organise an uninterrupted block of time in a daily routine. I click on my computer at nine, when the kids are gone, and work till two; I’ll go for a walk and think of all the things that need changing and rush back to do them.’
There had been no hint of such an urge, far less commitment, in all the time since her earliest days. As an only child, she had indeed led a very interior life, fascinated by stories and reading eclectically. ‘I’d live in a story, in its atmosphere, for days, and spent long hours plonking out stories on my Dad’s typewriter.’
Lesley Howarth was born in Bournemouth (where her father, a precision engineer primarily in aviation, still lives), and the accent of those parts slyly pops up its head, turning I-sounds into soft Oys. She was moved from grammar school, where she didn’t work at all, to spend her last year at Bournemouth School for Girls – where she didn’t work at all. ‘I can only put it down to a fierce strain of individualism: the more people told me to buckle down the less likely I was to do it. I’ve thought a lot about it, and come to the conclusion that It Wasn’t All My Fault! But it was silly, I’d have liked to have gone to university.’ And she is glowingly proud of Sadie, her eldest who, after a year as a language assistant in Germany, will be off to Cambridge University to read German and Italian.
Friends suggested art school, and Lesley did a foundation course at Bournemouth College of Art. By now she’d met Phil, who’d just graduated from Bristol as a civil engineer and got a job in London. ‘In those days no parents were going to be happy if we’d just gone off to live in London together’ so they married, and she began her three years at Croydon College of Art. She was 18. ‘It worked out OK, but it’s not a course of action I’d particularly recommend,’ she says cheerfully, one day after their silver wedding anniversary.
Almost by accident she was funnelled into a vocational course to emerge as a fashion designer (‘ludicrous, because I hated sewing with a passion’), but, typically bolshie, she’d done her final show thesis on horror films, and it was her description of a day at the Hammer Studios with Joanna Lumley rather than her fashions which won plaudits from a visiting journalist. Neither equipped her for likely work when they returned to Phil’s native village of Milton Abbot for his new job on the Launceston by-pass.
And so began her years of casual labour. ‘That suited me, for I was sick of the pretensions of the fashion world,’ a world certainly a long way from the local market garden. ‘It was heaven – I was totally happy there. It was so beautiful, and the simplicity appealed to me: for two years I was learning all about shrubs, humping wheelbarrows full of plants around. I’ve never minded simple physical work, which seems to have been a thread all through my life: right to the moment of starting writing I was working in the local market garden, picking tomatoes and daffodils.’
Aha! Not hard to spot the clues now … and yes, it was in a Spring of picking daffodils just down the road that the glorious sight of their massed yellows, white and golds set her off on her first published novel, The Flower King . As for the tomato house, ‘I often spent all day alone there, and it was like a world of its own. It was a huge great long greenhouse with tomatoes right up to there,’ pointing to the ceiling, ‘and so nice and warm, with things to eat and drink, that I thought, “Well, you could just about live in here if you wanted to!’ – which is exactly what Maphead and his father would discover in her next novel a year later. And, like her, they would also discover at the end of the season that ‘clearing up was a horrible job’.
After two years the Howarths had saved enough to visit friends in America, buying a motorbike for a four-month ride across the country to arrive home exhilarated and penniless. A depressing phase followed, living in a caravan in the garden of a friend’s mother, before managing to rent a cottage. Lesley took a job in a pottery, then in another market garden, hoping but failing to recapture her earlier idyll. Then Sadie arrived; they moved to a terraced house; she had Georgia and Bonnie (now 13 and 12), and worked in the evenings in an old people’s home. She worked for the money, not the cause – ‘I’ve never had such a demanding job, I take my hat off to such people’ – but some of the old characters she met eventually resurfaced in The Flower King .
The Howarths’ success in extending their terraced house led them to wonder about building a whole house, so they bought their present site. Phil, meanwhile, had ranged through a post-graduate teaching course, been a Further Education Officer and lectured in soil mechanics before arriving at his present post with a Bristol civil engineering firm. Today everything seems neatly comfortable and thriving – the big family kitchen, the guinea-pig in his garden run, stolidly letting a blase robin pinch his food, and Lesley’s own study. Its walls are bright with postcards by a local artist, whose originals of a dazzling sheet of daffodils and narcissi, rich tomatoes and her own straw hat, have become too successfully expensive to afford – though we meet someone like her in The Flower King .
There’s a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson on the wall, too, from which she quoted with rapt homage when we talked – ‘I can’t get through a conversation without mentioning Stevenson’ – which expresses for her the job of creation, ‘the mysterious deep process whereby all those early threads in a novel seem to know how to come together, and makes working with these figures in a landscape such fun. Something like: “Remark the author in his study, when matter crowds upon him and words are not wanting, and what a continual series of successes as time flows by, with what pleasure of the ear and eye he sees his airy structure grow upon the page.”
‘Stevenson absorbs and fascinates me – the way he gets not almost the right word but just the right word every time. Where I lived with my parents in Westbourne (a district of Bournemouth) was a stone’s throw from where he lived: I used to sit in the garden of the house where he wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped , and where Henry James visited him, thinking “This is where he wrote these things …”’
More unexpectedly, she also cites Australian children’s writer, Paul Jennings, admiring his macabre/funny edge and originality – ‘Nobody would ever think of doing the things Jennings does’ – and Raymond Carver’s short stories. ‘What is it about such peerlessly gritty writing that defines it as adult rather than for children? This unhelpful laying down of boundaries today makes it very difficult for writers who want to play around.’ She maintains she didn’t read anything at all for years and years, and still avoids novels, preferring now to go away and soak herself in facts, ‘then letting it all stew to see what happens’.
Lesley is drawn to scriptwriting for children’s television, including dramatising her own stories which, she says, already ‘rush from one bit of dialogue to the next’. Indeed, she toys with the notion of a whole novel told in dialogue, one full of action that is only guessed at through its dialogue. After all, it’s how she began.
In 1987 (after that momentous bath) a friend who was a local video producer asked her to write some 15-minute two-handers, which he shot with members of a Plymouth acting workshop, to submit to Channel 4 Television’s ‘New directors and writers’ initiative. They weren’t placed, but the experience encouraged her to attend creative writing evening classes, which led her to longer stories. And always the voice that emerged was directed at children.
Three novels had been rejected before The Flower King , which had only made her more bloody-mindedly determined; she could tell she was improving, and getting closer to particular editors. ‘I couldn’t have submitted at a worst time, 1990-91, when publishers were really feeling the pinch.’ (In fact, she could – it’s even worse today.) She read an article about Walker Books and their encouragement of new writers – she only recently acquired an agent when film and TV rights began to turn up – and the eagle eye of Wendy Boase spotted her. A remarkable woman, Lesley says, in a smashing author-led firm, who’s been a dream ever since: ‘It’s so important to have a lynch-pin you can trust.’ A minor but vital lynch-pin has been her eldest daughter, on whose advice about dialogue she always relied, and she’s only half-joking in her apprehension about the time when she will have no more youngsters in the house.
One solution, as with many writers, is the school visit, and she and her daughters have now devised an advance questionnaire: What do you like reading, watching, doing? ‘It makes them feel involved, and it’s essential to know how kids are thinking.’ She tells rollicking tales of a trip with school kids to Hemsby Weather Station, near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, to see them release a weather balloon. There was a fearful wind which immediately blasted the balloon back into the hapless releaser, damaging, it turned out, the signalling device, so that they had to release another.
When I wrote Weather Eye I hadn’t known that there really was a severe-weather watchers’ network on the Internet! In fact, at that time I didn’t know much about the Internet at all, and just extrapolated that there must be something like this in the future. But now I can say – for instance to a 12-year-old who wrote to me this week – you can do it too at your school.
‘I’d seen an article about near-death experiences and used it fairly cold-bloodedly as a plot engine, and it seemed to fit in with the apocalyptic feeling. I hoped to empower the kids but remain within the limits of credibility ( you can’t have children saving the world), while triggering a fast pace by making more and more things happen against a background of this terrifically unsettling environmental event as it reached a crescendo. I feel the way to arrive at an original storyline that can affect children’s lives is to weave in what’s going on around them at the moment but with a resonance from a deeper storyline.’
More structurally ambitious, The Pits knits two concurrent stories, for although Lesley Howarth wanted the ‘old’ one to be dominant, she was anxious to avoid the turn-off that straight history seems to provoke. ‘The angle would be, “Hey, I’m just like you – I hang out on the corner by the cave.” There was some Ice Age research involved – the lake and its topography came from ‘amazingly helpful’ information sent to her from Star Carr, an ancient settlement in Yorkshire, the deformed handprints were her own blend of those found in a Pyrenean cave and an African tribe’s grief rituals, and the birch culture (Stone Age Punks Get High on Gum) is true enough – but her basic attitude is that history is so speculative that one person’s version is as likely as another’s. ‘What is reality? Do you decide for yourself, or take another’s word? But at the same time it was done terribly tongue-in-cheek.’
Easily bored herself, Lesley Howarth sets out to have, and to provide, fun. ‘Adult novelists could learn a tip or two about plotting and pace from children’s fiction. It’s a world of the imagination I particularly enjoy roaming about in, because you’ve got the scope to take young readers wherever you want to. It’s a marvellous feeling, it really is, writing for that 11 to 14 bracket, older children and young adults – it’s the best job ever!’ What, even better than picking tomatoes and daffodils?
Lesley Howarth’s books are all published by Walker:
Weather Eye , 0 7445 2488 1, £8.99; 0 7445 4305 3, £3.99 pbk
The Flower King , 0 7445 3190 X, £3.99 pbk
Maphead , 0 7445 2458 X, £8.99; 0 7445 3647 2, £3.99 pbk
The Pits , 0 7445 4108 5, £8.99; 0 7445 4767 9, £3.99 pbk (paperback available January 1997)