Phil Earle interviewed by Graham Marks



 Your first book took place in the very gritty, realistic setting of a children’s home - as far a cry as possible from the streets of Seacross…what led you there?

A few things…the kids growing up – I wrote Being Billy when Albie was two and Elsie had just been born and I started writing it because my brain was turning to flab. We’d been watching fifteen episodes of 24 a night and going to bed.

It wasn’t even in my thoughts about the kids reading what I’d written, but now Albie is nine and we do read every night and get through a lot of books together; we read Danny the Champion of the World about a year ago…I read that book when I was a kid – oh, actually, that’s not true, someone read it to me, I didn’t read - and I remember liking it. But it’s never the book that people talk about when they talk about Dahl, they talk about Charlie or The Twits or The BFG.

Both of us were just really taken with it, and I was colossally moved by it; I think because I’m a dad now, and it’s the way he paints that relationship between father and son. Often, when you read to the kids at night - this is awful - but all you want to do is get them in bed and go downstairs and set the drip of Sauvignon Blanc in your arm, but [reading that book] was the happiest I’ve been, putting Albie to bed, for months.

At that point I was four YA books in, struggling to get any commercial momentum going – even struggling, really, to get any critical acclaim, although I’d got a lot of shortlistings – and I wanted to do something different. Ff you have big success straight out of the trap – Skellig, Martyn Pig then that's different but it’s so difficult if your first book doesn’t go interstellar, it’s really hard if your second doesn’t; if your third doesn’t you’re lost and if your fourth doesn’t things are getting serious.

I was starting to worry, because I want to write, I love it, and the prospect of not getting published bothered me, and so I thought well, maybe people think that all they’d get from me ever is gritty stuff – not a lot of laughs, quite intense. I actually wanted to shake it up, so there was a sense of me saying “I can do more than I’ve already shown you”. And that was coupled with the idea that I would love to write something like Danny, I would love to capture that father/son relationship in some way. Those were the two things.

 The other thing was what turned me on to telling stories of any kind, which was John Godber’s plays for the Hull Truck Theatre…he was writing plays about bouncers and about teachers and about hairdressers and about rugby players…Hull was cut off, culturally, and, growing up as a 13 year-old, the only culture I ever saw was when I went to one of John Godber’s plays. I completely fell in love with the rhythm, the speed, the fact that he had four people on stage for an hour and a half playing 25 different characters. The dialogue was bang-bang-bang-bang [snaps fingers] and it  influenced me, in terms of this lovely idea that there’s drama in the everyday.

When I do school events, I talk to the kids about being surrounded by stories, that when they walk down their street they should look at every front door, because I can guarantee  that behind every single front door there’s at least one story waiting for them to re-tell. And I suddenly thought “That’s it!”, and that’s where Storey Street came from.

There’s a little bit of Jimmy McGovern in there as well – he made The Street, that series of one-hour dramas about people who lived on the same street. So here, the first book is Jake’s story, Jake and his dad, and the second is Mouse’s, Jake’s best mate, and the book after that Masher Milner gets his own story. Nick Hornby does it a lot, and George Pelecanos, they reference characters and you don’t think about them until you read the next book, and you think, oh, there were in that other book.

 I wanted to prove to myself that I could write humour, because I’m not a dour person in real life. The Bubble Wrap Boy had been a nice segue into Demolition Dad, because it was lighter in tone than my previous novels. Looking back, it’s interesting because I can’t believe I wrote four such miserable books...

Which were Being Billy

  …Saving Daisy, Heroic and then The Bubble Wrap Boy. I’m really proud of all of them, and I’m proud that they’re intense books, but it felt really nice to say that I’m going to prove I can do something a bit different.

Did you approach writing Demolition Dad in any way differently to your previous books?

No, not at all. There was no planning involved, which is the same as always because I don’t plan, but I had to do a synopsis in order to get a deal…once I have the deal, then never look at it again. The only things that was different with this book was that I don’t have my commute any more as I’m working at home. the first four books were written on the X68 bus - no word of a lie, they genuinely were – and after I got the deal with Orion, I realized I had about eight weeks to delivery deadline and I’d only written about 8,000 words, and that had been really slow, because I didn’t have that 45-minute bus journey every day.

I had to find a way of working differently. For both of the first two books of this project I’ve written 500 words a day, without fail, seven days a week. What’s interesting is that when you set this target you end up doing more than 500 words a day, you end up doing at least 750 words…which means that in two months you have written a draft. It’s been quite revelatory to me, it works. What it does is, it allows you to stay in the zone, it allows you to stay in the story. When I'm writing, I sit in a chair, with the telly on in the background; perhaps watching footy or Blackadder.  It’s quite nice having laughter in the background, it’s as if you’re the one making the audience laugh.

You have TV shows on while you’re writing?

Oh yes! Always. I’ve got the shortest attention span in the world. I’ll write fifty words and then I’ll have a look at what’s going on on Twitter, and then I’ll mess about on Facebook. It’s deadly, and it drives my wife mad, she hates me for it. I’ve always been like that, though, I’ve always needed background noise; if it’s quiet I end up being a bit introspective.

I like that buzz around me, it keeps me focused. But I can’t listen to the radio when I write, I can’t have a DJ in my ear – I don’t know what the difference is between a DJ and someone in a comedy show, it’s ridiculous. It’s just my stupid head.

Did you ‘road test’ the story at all – with your own kids, or in schools?

I did…Albie was a big part of the road-testing – do you remember Michael Hoeye, who wrote Time Stops for No Mouse?

Yes, of course…

When that book was published, I heard him talk about how he  wrote a chapter a night for one of his kids. I would have loved to have done that but I can’t work that quick, so I would bank up five or six chapters and then read them to Albie at bedtime, so he was very much my guinea pig. I wanted to see if I could hold him in the same way Danny had.

I also thought about all those influential middle-grade writers who I’ve read and loved over the years…I desperately wanted to capture a bit of what Morris Gleitzman does so well, that heart that he injects into his fiction.  I also wanted a distinctive narrator’s voice, I  love the way Snicket is just a ‘pssst!’ in your ear.

Was your dad your childhood hero?

Yes he was a really big part of this for me. My dad’s amazing, awesome, and I have always put him on a pedestal, probably a dangerously high one. The book is dedicated to him. I wanted to write something humorous, but I purposely wanted to write a book about depression, as well, and it is about depression, in a way.

Some people, in the wrong quarters have problems with writers who tackle issues. I have a real problem with this – all books are issue books. The most commercial book in the world at the moment, Fault in our Stars, is an issue book. It’s about death, for goodness sake. It’s wonderfully done, but it’s still an issue book.

 I’d had my problems with depression and anxiety throughout my twenties, and my dad was amazing. He’s a very emotional man, in some ways but not in others. He’s not the sort of bloke who’d say “I love you”, but when I was ill he really did step up. My mum did as well, and the second book centres on Mouse and his mum. These two books are  love letters to my parents. It may sounds soppy, but I feel that the the greatest gift I can give them is to say “I totally and utterly wrote this book because of you, and what you are”. I wrote them for Albie, and I wrote them for my mum and dad. They are like a love letter in two directions. Does that sound soppy?

Well, yes, it does, Phil…but in all the right ways. And you have to say these things, or people will never know how you feel.

I wanted to approach any ‘issue’ in a soft way, but foremost what I wanted to do was tell a funny story. What I love about Morris Gleitzman and Louis Sachar is that they will make you laugh, but they will break your heart on the same page. So far, about the feedback I’ve had from the early reviews is that they have picked up on the mix of heart and humour. Some publishers turned the books down because they said boys didn’t want anything emotional…they thought boys just wanted hi-octane, balls-out, big adrenaline rush. And I disagree, I think boys have got huge amounts of emotional intelligence, you just have to find a way in and make them laugh, and at the same time get them to empathize.

Is your childhood here in these stories?

Storey Street is totally based on the road where grew up, which is called Bellfield Drive. Sara Ogilvie has drawn a beautiful map at the front of the book. It’s an L-shaped road, and at one end were the posh houses, the late 1960s, boxy semi-detached ones, there were probably twelve of them, and the rest of the street were two-up-two-downs terraces. My school was at the end of the road.

I love the idea that when you’re nine, ten, eleven, you think the street you live on IS the world. It’s a finite space and everything revolves around it and the people who live there. For instance, like the 70 year old farmer farmer, typical Yorkshireman, bent over, flat cap, who always used to carry a sack wherever he went. We were convinced he had a head in that sack. What better thing is there than to have a street with all these people to tell stories about?

And was there a house that was stolen?

[Laughs] No! When I was in my third year at University I lived on Grafton Street – the street in Hull made famous by the band The Housemartins. One very late night, I’d been out all night with two friends. We were walking home down Grafton Street, which was terraced all the way along, apart from where there was a gap between two houses. All that was in that gap was a very old mattress. My two friends just stood there and one of them said, “That house has been stolen!”, and it’s never left me. The third book is called The House that was Stolen.

Did you have a Masher-type bully at your school, and if there was one, did he ever target you?

Yes, we did, I was quite lucky, though; my older brother came a cropper of the school bully in his last year of Junior School and it had quite a profound effect on him. I remember at the time it really troubling him. There’s always a Masher somewhere. Hewas also part-based on ‘Gripper’ Stebson from Grange Hill.  I want to give Masher a backstory, at some point, to give the reader the reasons that Masher is the way he is.

The central pivot to Demolition Dad is wrestling - were you a big fan…are you still a big wrestling fan?

I loved, it, Graham, I don’t watch it now – I would if I had a chance.  I spent my formative years watching British wrestling.  When I have visited schools I  have put up pictures of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior and the children love it. Then I tell them that when I was their age, before I discovered American wrestling, wrestlers didn’t look like that, and I put up pictures of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy – who was 30 stone and old. I tell them that his real name was Shirley Crabtree – and it brings the house down.

I  loved the theatricality of wrestling, that sheer over-the-topness. Of course I knew it was fixed, I didn’t care, because it was a world bigger than mine, the perfect escape. My dad used to come in and tell me to turn the TV off because I was wasting my life. But I’m a big believer that you write about the things that informed you and made you smile…Karate Kid, Rocky and wrestling, they were my reference points. 

So the town of Seacross is Hull?

Yes. It’s that idea of the town at the end of the road. Because Hull has always been seen an isolated part of the UK; it’s one of our biggest cities, but there’s no reason to go there. As I say about Seacross, you drive through Hull and you drive into the sea. But I love that, because it adds to that sense of the underdog, and I love writing about underdog. What of any interest could possibly happen in a little tin-pot town like Seacross? Now that's interesting!

I’ve always thought that every kid having a mobile phone puts the brakes on storytelling freedoms, and I know a lot of writers view it as a negative thing: new tech does not help storytelling. But I felt  you had managed to use it to your advantage and weren’t worried by it; it was an integral part of the story.

It wasn’t as conscious thing.  I think Anthony Horowitz is a very astute and clever writer and knows that his readers want that tech detail. There was nothing as clever from me, I used it simply as a plot device. I do worry about including too much tech, because these things do date incredibly quickly. Books that are meant to be totally up-to-date will be really antiquated just three years down the line.

Peter Ustinov said that comedy is simply a funny way of being serious – how do you see it, and was it harder to write than what you’d done before?

Hand on heart, I’ve never had so much fun writing as I have with these books. I came to writing quite late and I struggled with the idea of calling myself as a writer, because I look at David Almond and Patrick Ness and Anthonyony McGowan and I think “No, you’re writers, I’m just trying to tell a story”. They’re craftsmen, all of them, I think.  

The stories flowed incredibly well, and I knew that if I was tickling myself while I was writing it, then, hopefully, it would make at least one other person laugh.I’m quite an instinctive writer, I don’t plan, I don’t plot, I don’t do anything except sit here and write, and I surprised myself that I was making myself chuckle as I did it.

But I think it comes back to formative years. I wore out VHS tapes of Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses, and Happy Days and Cheers – I can watch Cheers now and it still makes me laugh. All those things I’ve surrounded myself with over the years are in the background.  And that Peter Ustinov quote is a great one, because I was writing about something quite serious, but it doesn’t feel serious.

'Demolition Dad' has illustrations – what was it like to see how someone else saw your world and the characters that were in it?

My editor and I had a conversation about Sara Olgivie, who illustrated 'Dogs Don’t do Ballet,' and had done a lot of picture books. We made a conscious decision that we weren’t going to send her briefs – with instructions to about what to illustrate., we wanted her to be more of a collaborator. The only exception was that I said was that Mouse is black, because when he appeared in my head, that’s what he was. Apart from that there were no stage directions. So Sara worked from the text  Sara’s an incredible talent and I feel desperately lucky that she worked on this project.

How have the school events been received?

The joy I’ve had! Instead of 150 Year 9s that you can’t slow down, for because if you slow down you’ll lose them and they’ll start killing each other - all of a sudden you’ve got 150 eight year-olds who you have to go quickly for, but for very different reasons. There’s a lot more interaction. Actually,I love school events more than I like writing.I like writing, I really do, but I love doing school events, and the more I can do the better.

Have you stopped writing YA books?

One of the reasons for not continuing with them is that I haven’t had an idea that I felt strongly enough about writing. I’m a big believer – and I say this to kids in schools, so I think I’ve got to live by it – that you’ve got to write the book you’re burning to write, and I haven’t had as many ideas that I was desperate to tell on the YA front 

Interestingly, I’ve got an idea which was a gift from my father-in-law, who told me a story about his dad in the Second World War. It will be completely different from anything else I’ve written; there won’t be a lot of laughs in that one, I don’t think [laughs].

Thank you Phil Earle for talking to Just Imagine

Copyright Just Imagine Story centre Ltd 2015. This interview may be printed for use in education. It may not be reproduced in any other format without permission.

 

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