Q: Is there a particular book, author, or film that had a particular impact on you in your childhood?
A: As a child (a phrase which, incidentally, makes a completely false distinction between how I acted when I was under 14 and how I act now) I devoured - not literally - just about any fantasy book going. It started with The Faraway Tree books and quickly progressed up the credibility spectrum to The Dark is Rising. I'm still unsure whether the Enid Blyton was entirely healthy, but it was all part of the amazing and constant literary diet supplied by my mother. Later on it was Ursula le Guin and David Eddings...and then I discovered Terry Pratchett, beginning a one-sided love affair that Sir Terry is thankfully still unaware of.
Oh, and I loved the film The Dark Crystal. I recently found a copy and re-watched it. Great stuff.
Q: What did you enjoy most at school?
A: Easy: English, Art and Biology. I still do two out of three.
Q: What is your earliest memory?
A: Hang on....I'm sure I used to know this one.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your pets, past or present?
A: We had a dog called Sadie. Sadie buried disreputable objects in flowerbeds. She chased our neighbour's cat down the garden, receiving such a bad clawing that we had to put her in a bath of diluted disinfectant. She could look more comfortable in an armchair than anyone, person or animal, I have met since. In winter she would hog the fire and nearly pass out with the heat; and even then she had to be told to go and lie somewhere else. She regularly moulted enough hair to mitigate several oil slicks. She once climbed onto the dining table and ate the contents of the margarine tub and sugar bowl. She would roll in anything as long as it smelt bad enough. One summer we took her to the beach where she spent a happy hour drinking seawater. Then she spent an extremely unhappy night having rampant diarrhoea on my grandparents' rug. She once dived into the river and only discovered it was frozen when she hit the ice. She chased anything that went away from her fast enough. This included several cars, many rabbits and, sometimes, joggers. She caught one of each. (We apologised to the jogger, who got slobbered on.) When any of us came home she would hit us at a flat trajectory out of the door: a huge, grinning bundle of energetic, squeaking enthusiasm. She used to sleep in my bedroom and once managed to get into bed with me during the night. I woke up in the morning to find her head on the pillow next to mine. She did not have good morning breath. One Christmas, as we all sat down to dinner, she ate Auntie Mary's present, which was a large box of chocolates, and threw it up under the table.
In short, Sadie was a proper dog. It was an honour to have known her.
Q: What is the most unusual job you have done?
A: I'm an ecologist and now, excitingly, I seem to be writing novels. These are both the most unusual jobs I have done, and prove this on a daily basis.
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
A: My ability to rise above material concerns. Yeah, right.
Q: Can you list three things we don’t know about you?
A: I imagine so! I can barely think of three things you do know about me. Oh, all right...Erm...
So there, that's three, and I'm not even past the feet!
Q: Do you have any hobbies.
A: Oh, lots! I always loved walking and still do. Most of the others seem to involve getting injured. I used to fence (with swords, not with bits of wood, wire and little 'U' shaped pins) but broke myself. I used to rock climb but...erm...broke myself again. I tried snowboarding once and broke my wrist. I now do archery, which is great - I nearly broke myself, but didn't.
Q: When did you first start to write stories?
A: I'm one of those irritating, smug people who always thought they would get around to writing. I remember when I was 10 and at Primary School I wrote a piece that the teacher (Mr. Dixon) read out in class, saying it could have been taken from a novel. I thought "Wow. Really?" and then became an ecologist and forgot about writing - except for an aborted attempt at a fantasy book when I was 22 and some very silly Christmas plays that I sometimes wrote with my friends*.
(*Or "mentors" as they now insist I call them.)
In 2003 a friend persuaded me to write a science journalism piece for a New Scientist science writing competition (naturally about water voles). I was utterly stunned when someone phoned up four months later and told me I'd won it. The article was published, I felt good, and then I forgot about writing again (I had voles to study).
But I started writing properly - meaning just for me, with a view to being good at it – about seven years ago. I borrowed my house-mate's laptop and wrote a short story about a possessed snowman (no, really). I was ridiculously happy with it and entered it for a major competition...and it utterly failed to get anywhere. I suspect that it wasn't very good. Anyway, I settled down and wrote a lot more stories and then, a year or so later, I wrote a piece about a teddy bear in a graveyard. That story won the 2008 JBWB spring short story competition and gave me a real boost. By then I was already hooked, but that story seemed to change something in my head: a kind of "Ooh, I might be good at this" feeling.
Q: Did you enjoy writing The River Singers?
A: Yes, I absolutely loved it. Initially I some sort of weird, internal prejudice against writing "a book about animals". But I quickly realised that there’s no such thing: a story is a story and it doesn't matter whether characters are animals, humans or anything. The fact that they happen to be animals, of course, dictates the details of the world that they find themselves in. But stories unfold a certain way and characters think and feel and react to them; readers relate to the characters and as long as there's a level of connection and understanding then hopefully everything works and it's fun to read. And writing about water voles is great because the problems they face tend to be life-threatening. Their world is an odd mixture of beautiful, extremely dangerous, very familiar and quite alien. It lets me place my characters in strange and difficult situations and then look to see what sort of people they are. Once I'd grasped the above points I felt like a complete twit for ever having been reluctant to start.
Q: Why do you write?
A: I think that it's some sort of disease. Every day that I don't write I feel guilty, like I'm wasting my life. There's a part of me that's only happy when I'm sitting at a laptop with words in my head, music on and fingers tapping. Or when I'm reading over a manuscript, trimming out words and getting the sentences flowing properly. It's amazingly satisfying. Sure, there are sessions where the words won't come. But just occasionally you can write 2,000 words in one, amazing sitting. (And delete most of them next time you edit, but that doesn't matter.)
In short, ever since I started writing I haven't been able to stop. Despite numerous requests.
Adventurous, exciting, and bursting with charming illustrations - this is a book you'll want to treasure for ever. The River Singers is Tom's first published novel. More books will follow.
Just the sort of book I would have loved as a child. — Gill Lewis, author of Sky Hawk
A hymn to nature, written with compassion and flair. — Lauren St John, author of The White Giraffe
The River Singers is a compassionate celebration of nature and a gripping story. It's uplifting and sad and Moorhouse takes you right into a world of creatures "as sweet as apples and as brief as day”. — Martin Chilton, The Telegraph.
When their uncle Sylvan pays an unexpected visit, young water voles Kale and Strife know something exciting must be about to happen. Little do they know that soon they'll be running for their lives, as a new danger threatens to destroy everything and everyone they care about.
This thrilling follow-up to the highly-acclaimed novel, The River Singers, will transport readers into a vivid world of riverbank creatures, where excitement and danger are never far away. Contains beautiful black and white illustrations by Simon Mendez.
This is a lovely story, beautifully written... I'm already looking forward to a third story. Can the river singers avert catastrophe? Read the book and see. You won't regret it, I promise. There's a world to remember here — Jill Murphy, The Bookbag
I've just realised how monumentally overdue this Part III is (see earlier posts). Sorry, folks, I got distracted. I've been engaged with some rewrites and other things and time just flew by. So I now find myself having recently handed in book three (improved, I trust) and on the eve (literally) of the publication of my second novel The Rising. So now is probably the most appropriate time to tell you about what (in my limited experience) an author does when not writing...
There's a LOT of this. I suspect that every author, published or not, knows about waiting. They might have just finished a short story and sent it to their family to see if they like it; or they might have entered a story into a competition, and be waiting to hear whether it's shortlisted or not (most often not, by the way); or they might have asked a professional for a critique of a piece of work; or perhaps they have completed their first novel, and sent it off with a covering letter and the first three chapters to every agent and publisher who seems to like their sort of writing (most won't reply for a long time, and then not in the positive, by the way)....Basically, whatever the project just completed, there's always a strange limbo period, an empty time in which, inevitably, the writer finds himself or herself simply waiting. Very, very patiently, of course.
This empty time is odd. You'd think that it could be used for something: starting the next project, for instance, or simply relaxing. But it doesn't work that way. The empty time (in the absence of other things like public engagement - see below) is suffused with a kind of resigned impatience, unable to be filled with anything worthwhile. This is because what we're waiting for (at least in my experience) is some indication that all that time and energy have been worth it (what a friend of mine terms the “praise me” factor). I have a long list of other projects to be getting on with, sure, but I want to know if the last one was all right before I embark on the next. And somehow I can't bring myself to start until I know that my last baby is making its way in the world. And so all there is left is to wait, and to try to be patient.
I imagine that even very well-established authors have to go through this stage, and for me it's oddly nervy. Don't get me wrong, I think my third book is great (especially now I've reworked a few bits), but there's always that niggling doubt...
I generally don't read other books when I'm writing. There's a good reason for this, which is that I have a nasty habit of adopting bits of another author's style when I'm reading their work. Nobody wants to read The River Singers with special guest appearances from The Count of Monte Cristo, The Moomins, and Portnoy's Complaint. And so these down times are very handy for catching up on reading. After all, other people's books are a great source of inspiration, ideas and fresh thinking about new ways of expressing yourself - and I think if you don't go back and drink from the fountain occasionally you run the risk of running dry. And so, if you can keep a lid on the impatience (see above) it's handy to get some book reading time in.
But you'll never know what I'm plotting. Not until it's MUCH too late. (Cue sinister laughter.)
Talking with and entertaining your audience / readers.
This is vitally important and something that came as a complete shock to me. What authors are good at, after all (and almost by definition), is sitting for hours on end alone in front of a computer in their most self-indulgent, inward-looking and cerebral way, tapping out reams of their thoughts (whilst, where possible, listening to some good music). Imagine this particular author's surprise (/fear / horror), then, when he discovered, on being published, that he actually had to get out there and talk to people. And not just one-on-one, but to lots of people, all at the same time. Argh.
It was with this feeling (i.e. “argh”) this time last year that I found myself in front of a full class of 7-8 year olds with one simple mission: “Go on, then, entertain them for the next hour”. Think about it: forty children, and all that's between the start of the lesson and outright rebellion is a) the presence of their teacher, and; b) your ability to not be boring. I was petrified. Nothing in my career as an ecologist or author had given me any reason to think I was qualified to hold the attention of a crack squad of the most notoriously butterfly-minded human beings on the planet. But somehow I (just) managed. And this morning I returned from Bath, having spoken to 180 children about water voles and about being an author...and yes, I absolutely loved it. Nobody is more surprised than I am, but it's actually very, very worth it indeed. It's the same buzz as writing, in a way – you get to tell people about your life and sometimes they seem to find it interesting. And if someone hears you speak and is interested enough to go and buy your book, then that's just wonderful.
With The Rising now on the shelves, I'll be doing a LOT more of visiting schools and festivals and talking to parents and children in the next 4-6 weeks. It's part of the job, and takes a load of time, but it's honestly really rewarding (once the terror abates).
Any conclusions, then?
Well, in answer to my self-imposed question, I don't think an author ever stops being an author. So, as contradictory as it sounds, even when not writing a writer is a writer. *Being a writer obviously means sitting down and putting in the time creating pieces of work. But it also means having those down periods, when nothing is in your head and you can't bring yourself near to the computer – and those times when you're simply schooling yourself to wait and see how your last project went. It's the dark side of writing, if you like, without which all of the blaring trumpets of a good day's scribbling are meaningless. And then there's the getting out and telling folks all about your books. It takes time, and effort, but it's a lot of fun.
And finally, of course, there's the plotting. Always the plotting. Mwahahahaa**.
*Potted philosophy alert.
Hello there! I know I said that in my next post (destined to be Part III) I'd write something about what it's like being a writer who's not writing (if that makes sense - if it doesn't, please see my last post), and I'm getting there. I really am. But in the meantime here's a post I recently wrote for the lovely Wondrous Reads on what inspires me to write. (So it's sort of on topic. See, it all ties up nicely...)
The below text was originally posted here.
One question you seem to get asked a lot as a writer (almost as much as questions like, “Do you know where the post office is?”, “Have you got the time on you?” or “Why don't you stop writing and give me a hand with the hoovering for a change?”) is where your inspiration comes from. There are a number of possible answers to this, from the very simple to the quite personal and complicated. As an example of the simple answer, I spent eight years of my life as an ecologist studying water voles in the field. And so when I sat down to write some animal adventure stories, my books The River Singers and the soon-to-be-published The Rising (both, you won't be surprised to hear, about water voles) were the natural result. You see? Simple.
The problem is, though, that the simple answer just addresses the facts. It doesn't really explain why an author would want to write anything in the first place. I suspect that the real answer about inspiration is a bit different. In fact, I think that the real answer is that writing is romantic, and it's the romance that inspires authors to do it. Here, by the way, I use the word “romantic” not in the sense of the author sitting, like some sort of Victorian poet, waiting in a beautiful garden to the sound of a string quartet, for her Muse. No, for me romantic is what happens when you sit with a friend looking at an amazing view, knowing you both think its amazing. Or when somebody says something and you and your partner are the only two people in the room who find it funny (and have to apologise, but still). Romantic is when you connect with a fellow human being, for however brief a time, and share something that you find funny, or sad, or uplifting or magnificent. When that happens you feel just a bit like you've been understood by someone who is otherwise a very different and separate person. At heart, I think, writing is an attempt to recreate that experience.
So authors (okay, I can only speak for myself, here, so...I) tell stories full of characters and adventures, hoping that people will enjoy reading them, and in the process learn something about the world those characters live in. And, of course, some folks read a book and don't engage with it. We're all different and so it'd be weird if that didn't happen. But hopefully somebody, somewhere will read The River Singers, or The Rising and find themselves caught up in the story – a strange story that came out of my head about some small animals that I spent eight years of my life studying. If that happens it means that particular person has understood a bit about me and my life. And even if I never meet them, and in the most platonic sense imaginable, I think that's a little bit romantic. And you can believe me when I tell you that's all the inspiration I need.