Tim Bowler interviewed by Geoff Fox
‘Death will be at its slowest,’ rasped one of the incredibly evil enemies of Karl the Viking in Leopard , a comic written, illustrated, published and distributed up and down the street by 7-year-old Tim Bowler, himself an avid reader of the better-known Lion and Tiger in the early 1960s. Mother reluctantly brought circulation to an abrupt halt (‘Darling, we’ve had a few complaints’). He was already an experienced author. His first-ever story, Tim admits, enjoyed the influence of Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain and a jingoistic account of the life of Sir Francis Drake. It went like this, he says:
The Story of Sir Francis Drake and King Philip of Spain
By Tim Bowler, Age 5
Francis Drake decided to attack King Philip of Spain.
(Here, the author licks a finger and turns a page in thin air.)
So he did.
‘But wasn’t there a picture?’ I ask.
‘There was. A Spanish galleon. I was rubbish at pictures too.’ A Western soon followed, Jim Harriday and the Cattle Rustlers , in which our hero chases the rustlers, has a cup of tea, has supper and goes to bed.
We’re in Tim and Rachel’s sunny back garden, overlooked by the tower of a Devon village church. I’ve spent three weeks reading his nine novels and extracts from a couple more in manuscript. Now, the shift to exploratory conversation comes easily; he could not be more welcoming, open and self-aware.
As we talk, he often revisits his childhood in Leigh-on-Sea where he grew up overlooking the estuary, itself a powerful presence in his first published novel, Midget . He is closely in touch with the Tim Bowler of those years. When readers, many of them adults, ask in emails where an idea for a book originated, he might well reply that gestation took around 40 years. One of the seeds of Starseeker , with its gifted pianist Luke, was a moment when his older brother Graham, then 9 or 10, listened to individual notes of music and said, ‘That one’s blue; and that one is pillar-box red.’ River Boy , his 1997 Carnegie Medal winner, enabled Tim to say farewell at last to his own grandfather, who died when Tim was 14; he was too upset to go to the funeral. Though, he is quick to emphasise, Luke is not Graham, and the irascible old man in River Boy is not Tim’s grandfather.
He found his own directions as reader and writer, for he was the self-driven learner then that he clearly is now. ‘Arthur Ransome dominated my fictional landscape from 10 to 14,’ a time when, like the Walkers and the Blacketts, Tim spent much of his time messing about in boats. Even now, he keeps a set of the Swallows and Amazons novels in their evocative Jonathan Cape dust-wrappers by his study desk. Sometimes, he’ll read a chapter or two to ease a problematic pause in his writing, or maybe just handle a copy for a while, reaching back to his younger self. Though rich in music, his home was not particularly literary, so it was on his own that he found the poems of William Blake, at a time when he was also into music of a mystical nature. The discoveries were influential, for most of Tim’s novels are fired by a strong sense of the mystical.
He found little excitement in literature lessons at his boys’ grammar school, and took three A-levels in languages. He’d met some Swedish girls on a pre-sixth form course in Strasbourg – ‘No, no,’ he insists, ‘it was the beauty of their language which did it’ – and went to the University of East Anglia to read Swedish and Scandinavian Studies. His course gave him access to Swedish poets he has continued to read and he still takes on occasional translation work. Of all-encompassing importance to him as man and writer, UEA also introduced him to Rachel, who was taking her degree in English.
He never stopped writing. When he and Rachel moved to London, he’d get up at 3.00 am to write (‘Give my love to the other woman,’ Rachel would murmur as he crept from their bed). The only place out of earshot was their unheated box-room where Tim could clatter away on his elderly typewriter. On cold nights, he’d work through to dawn huddled in a blanket, cut-off mittens, thick jacket and bobble hat. Then, at 7.00 am, he’d stop and go off to earn a living. He wrote because he couldn’t not write; the possibility of publication seemed remote. Yet it was during those times that the first draft of Midget was written, from which only one short scene survives in the printed version. Eight drafts and fifteen years later, it was published by Oxford. Tim was 40, had moved to Devon and, after jobs including forestry and teaching, he had been writing full-time for a couple of years.
He still rewrites and rewrites extensively. He doesn’t plot a narrative outline. The excitement – and there has to be excitement – lies in the surprise of the journey. He needs risk, devil and danger in his writing; otherwise there is no point. He may have a notion at the outset of how things could turn out, but he has learned that a richer ending will emerge as the journey winds on, with all its countless false trails and impasses. As he writes, he says, ‘It’s exactly like a film unrolling in my head, but a film with all senses engaged, not just vision and sound. I smell things, hear things, touch things, taste things (metaphorically, not literally) as I write. I can’t write a scene without such physical qualities in my head. I also feel the characters’ emotions very strongly as if they’re my own.’ Those characters assume independent lives, they take over the story, and that has become a touchstone of when the writing is going well. The excitement of Tim’s unpredictable journey drives the dangerous narrative of his latest novel, Frozen Fire . At its core is a creature not so much of flesh but fire and ice, able to penetrate the minds and feelings of others with excruciating insight – an empathy not unlike the writer’s. Such a mystical figure might seem pretentious or simply unbelievable, but the novel is anchored by the headlong excitement of the plot and characters whose complexities are rooted in our fractured and brutal society.
Anywhere is fine for writing. Sometimes in his study at home, but more often away from the telephone and email in a cobwebby outhouse he’s found in the village. He’ll write in small black notebooks on trains or park benches; or simply in his head while checking a shopping-list in the supermarket (‘Are you writing, Tim?’ Rachel might gently ask). Once, having led a workshop in Keats’ house in London, Tim persuaded the curator to lock him in to write for a couple of hours with the poet’s death mask for company. ‘One of the greatest moments of my life.’
He’s an admirer of the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian, but poetry provides most of his reading. Keats above all, but at the moment it’s Masefield’s seventy sonnets with their search for spiritual understanding. He has memorised several of them, and he quietly murmurs one to me as we sit. A good, still moment. Wherever he is, he finds ‘poems rise to the surface of the mind like a kind of affirmation when you want it most’. He pursues topics or authors, reading them not to death but to a continuing life in his mind.
There is such a coiled energy about him that you worry for his daily equanimity. That energy is at the core of his central characters, usually highly aware teenagers. Their experiences embrace love but also darkness, a sometimes confused sense of the spiritual, intense passion and violence. Often those experiences are heightened through being found in empty land- or sea-scapes. He writes to confront what he doesn’t yet understand himself, and he writes about people of around 14 and 15 because he remembers so keenly what he thought, felt and did when he was 14 or 15 – that transitional time when you’re neither child nor adult. Just a couple of shorter novels have less able younger readers in mind. Published by Hodder, they slip back through time to the dangerous past of nearby Totnes.
Given that so much of his waking – and sleeping – life is spent with his stories journeying around his mind, the next nudging to be told before another is completed, where are the checks and balances to his writing and his living? Well, first he has always known that his readers need the rattling good yarn to carry such intensity; it won’t work for them or for him without that. When the manuscript reaches a final draft, and not before, he will share it for the first time with Rachel. And then with ‘a little committee of about ten people whose critical judgement I trust’, including his mother and father, eighty-somethings who still sail their boat on the estuary every summer. He will use perhaps 10% to 15% of his committee’s comments, making real differences to a manuscript which has already been honed many times. Lastly, there’s further revision at Oxford with the help of his editor Liz Cross, for whom he has huge respect. Most of his reviews have been very positive, but he is untroubled by hostile comment. He knows his books are not for every reader and his concern is with the integrity of what he has written in his own eyes and, he is quick to add, in Rachel’s eyes too.
As for balance in his living, there is the long marriage and the close family at the centre; and there are strong personal friendships. For a contemplative man who knows vulnerability and self-doubt as strengths, Tim seems easily sociable with a quick sense of humour. He enjoys the contact with teachers, librarians and during the forty or fifty visits he makes in the UK and abroad each year – he is a charismatic speaker, regularly invited to return. There’s his piano, the music he listens to, and theatre. And there’s sport. He captained rugby and basketball teams at school. He’s lean, tall and supple and for more than twenty years he has played league squash for Totnes. He relishes the way character is laid open through the one-on-one competitiveness, so fiercely present in the squash matches of Shadows . He reads sports literature widely; and to provide yet more balance he and Rachel, an English teacher of 27 years, are long-time readers and hoarders of Books for Keeps .
The morning has almost gone, and there’s more to be said. ‘What about the violence?’ I ask. He recalls a book signing in Belgium where a lady wondered, ‘I’ve read all of your books, but you seem a very nice man’. He is daunted by violence and confesses to an almost physical fear of writing about it. But if the story demands verbal fury, an uneasy edge of sexuality or physical cruelty, then it must have them – he never holds back. There’s balance here too, for although Tim subscribes to no single faith, Apocalypse , Shadows and Starseeker ultimately affirm healing and redemption.
A man obsessed? Not at all. Possessed then? Maybe – for writers don’t have ideas, ideas have writers.
Geoff Fox edits the journal, Children’s Literature in Education , and is an honorary Research Fellow at Exeter University School of Education.
Photo by Kate Mount.
Tim Bowler – The Books
Published by Oxford University Press:
Midget , 0 19 275218 9, £5.99 pbk
Dragon’s Rock , 0 19 275219 7, £4.99 pbk
River Boy , 0 19 275440 0, £5.99 pbk
Shadows , 0 19 275159 X, £4.99 pbk
Storm Catchers , 0 19 275445 9, £5.99 pbk
Starseeker , 0 19 275305 3, £5.99 pbk
Apocalypse , 0 19 275437 8, £5.99 pbk
Frozen Fire , 0 19 271979 9, £12.99 hbk (due in September 2006 and featured on this issue’s cover)
Published by Hodder:
Blood on Snow , ill. Jason Cockroft, 0 340 88173 9, £5.99 pbk
Walking with the Dead , ill. Jason Cockroft, 0 340 88174 7, £10.99 hbk