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.
"Something was approaching the burrow. Something deadly. Something that made Sylvan’s fur bristle with fear..."
Knowing their lives are under threat, Sylvan and his brother and sisters have no choice but to abandon their burrow for ever. Together they set out on an epic journey along the Great River; but with dangers lurking at every turn, will they ever find a safe place to call home?
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.
I'm beginning to learn that there are two very clear and completely different phases of being a “writer”. The first is being a writer who's writing something, and the second is being a writer who, erm, isn't writing something (which, if you think about it, is an odd concept – after all, what is a writer if not somebody who writes?). In this blog post I'll try to describe what it feels like to me to be the former and will go on to talk about the latter in a forthcoming post. Specifically I want to tell you what it's like working on a novel. The short version is that it's fun, it's a lot of hard work, it turns you (well me, anyway) into an obsessive, feels very brave and is essentially a protracted emotional tightrope walk.
I'll deal with the obsessive bit first - mainly because to me that's the bit I'm the most conscious of when at low points in the throes of wrangling a novel into being. I once read a vivid description by an author who likened working on an unfinished novel to being followed around by an unlovely and half-formed baby. While the image is kind of gross, I understand completely where he was coming from. An unfinished novel is a terrible, terrible thing to happen to someone. For months on end it's simply THERE in your consciousness, reminding you that it isn't ready, that you can't show it to anyone in the state it's in, that people won't understand what you're trying to say until it's in good shape, and WHY AREN'T YOU WORKING ON IT? EH? So if you go for a walk, you're not looking at the scenery or breathing the scents. Oh no, you're thinking about your book. You're constantly preoccupied with tricky logistical wrangling like “if such-and-such a character goes to this place, then she has to be doing this at this time for it to make sense, when she finally meets this other character, for them to go off and do this other thing....”. (And several times I've embarrassed myself by shouting, “Of course! She hasn't told him yet!” or something like that when a plot twist suddenly unravels in my mind.) Or let's say it's Saturday and you're visiting friends, but you haven't done your words for the day. Now you're not really relaxed because there's quite a large part of you feeling guilty and antsy and like it wants to drag you to the computer and start typing. And heaven forbid an entire weekend passes without progress on the book (here Tom shudders at the very thought). Let's just say that my wife is a very, very understanding person.
So I'm a firm believer that most novels (at least those by people like me) ultimately get written out of a sense of overbearing guilt. Thankfully, though, the writing itself is a massive source of happiness. Even now, typing this post (and listening to Imagine, by John Lennon, about to be followed by the Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot, because my playlist is on shuffle) I can feel the quiet thrill of words tapping out onto the screen through my fingers. It's the same pleasure as singing or dancing, but better, somehow. It's self expression at its finest. What a wonderful thing to be able to do: to tell people about what's in your head, how it feels to be you in the world, and about your ideas of what life's about and how that makes you feel.
But that, at the same time, is exactly where the risk lies. That's why it feels brave. What if you spend all those hours and days and months trying your very hardest to do something that people will like and relate to - that will make them feel happy, excited or sad, or just get them to nod and understand what you mean - and nobody likes it? The danger is that you put all of your opinions and emotions, and the best and worst bits of your own personality into a book, and people think it's uninteresting, or weird, or simply ignore it. The mere fact of writing anything and holding it up for scrutiny says, “I think that I'm good enough at this for people to take me seriously”, and the very last thing you want is to be shown that you're wrong. But that is GOING TO HAPPEN. You are 100% guaranteed to have your work rejected at some point, or to receive bad reviews and stinging criticism. And you just have to take it and knuckle down and do better (and resist the urge to jump up and down in your living room shouting about the person who rejected it...unless it helps).
The hard work is in many ways the easy bit. Writing, rather obviously, requires work, often when you don't want to, when tired from a day in the office or at the weekend when, frankly, you'd rather be sleeping or at any rate not staring at a laptop. You have to knuckle down and do it. End of story. (Or there will be no end of story. See what I did, there?) But there are different types of work - there's splurging (my word for getting words from the ether and into the laptop) and crafting (honing and editing, and making the story flow). And then there's work that still awaits even when the novel is finished (when you must rewrite entire sections or reimagine a character..both of which hurt, but will make it better.)
Walking that tightrope (don't lose balance).
But some of the work is emotional. It's about getting yourself into the right frame of mind to produce the book you want to write. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read about writing was that an author has two negative voices in their head. The first says “You can't do it, you're a terrible writer and people will hate you. Why bother?”. The second says “This sentence could be better. This section needs work. That chapter is not quite as good as it could be.” The trick is to ignore the first voice and to listen intently to the second. I think that's true. That second voice is the one that makes you scrutinise every sentence you've written and ask, Does this do its job? It it needed? Can it be better? Can it be shorter? (Oh, and Is this adverb really needed? Hint: the answer is “No”). And that, surely, is most of the craft of writing.
(I also happen to think that nearly all authors have another voice that says “I'm ace at this” that they don't like to admit to. But I wouldn't admit to having one. )
Phew. So that's the brief version of how I spent the vast majority of the last year when writing my third novel (which, I might have mentioned, is about rats). Writing is a wonderfully, ecstatically horrible and delightful process of juggling all of that lot and somehow coming out with a legible book and your sanity intact. And now, after an age of obsessive rat crafting, the book is done (but see my definition of the word “finished” in my last post). So I find myself becoming that weird entity known as the writer who is not writing. And I'll tell you what that's like in my next post....
So here's the thing: about a month ago, my third novel fluttered its papery way off to the wonderful publishing folks at Oxford University Press, and since then I've been doing the metaphorical equivalent of sitting in a darkened room with a damp towel on my head. Once I'd finished steaming, I opened the metaphorical curtains, put the metaphorical towel into the metaphorical washing basket and settled down at my non-metaphorical laptop to write a (much overdue and only quasi-metaphorical) blog post.
My initial thought was that I'd like to describe what a writer does when not actually writing (this being the state in which I currently find myself), but after a couple of attempts I quickly realised that the subject is a lot bigger than I initially assumed it would be...and also that it cuts to the heart of what I think being an author is all about (apart from the whole writing books thing...that bit's obvious). So I did me some of my bestest thinking (as they say), and realised that what I actually have on my hands, here, isn't so much a single blog post, but a series of posts in which I could have a go at describing what it's like being an author.
Okay, so this has been done before. I know that. In fact there are many amazing guides for writers out there, telling you everything you need to know from how to craft a novel, through to dealing with rejection etc. etc. But I always feel as though the authors of those posts are, if not exactly hiding something, not providing quite the whole story. As far as I can get with working out what's missing, it's that I haven't yet read is something that has described accurately what it feels like to me to be a writer.
So, now that the book I've been working on for the last year or so is finally finished*, I thought it'd be fun to have a crack at detailing what goes on in a writer's head (a.k.a. my head), at the various stages of the writing process. Over the next few weeks, then, and perhaps ill-advisedly, I'm going to have a go at opening my brain and seeing what sorts of writing-related thoughts spill out**. That's the plan. You have been warned. Post # 2 will follow...
*I use the word “finished”, as applied to my novel, to mean “sufficiently coherent, pacey and well characterised, with all the bits in the right balance and refined and pruned to the author's temporary satisfaction, while simultaneously being entirely ready to be further edited in line with the recommendations of the aforementioned wonderful publishing people, whose opinions really matter, who will quickly uncover things they feel don't work too well and will, as a result, request revisions, mouldings and adjustments - if they like the book enough to think they want to publish it in the first place, which is by no means guaranteed". Yes, it's that sort of finished.
**May contain self-indulgence, self-flagellation, over analytical statements, feeble attempts at humour, aching honesty and weirdness. Do not consume if allergic to any of these ingredients.