Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Magic and Mighty Pen of Tim Bowler

When I first moved to Ireland and attended a Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) event, the conference “goody” bag included a couple of books by writer Tim Bowler. I'd never heard of him, but I decided to give his books a go. I read Midget and River Boy, then I picked up Bloodchild and Starseeker, and an early copy of Blade. After that, I was hooked!

I love Tim’s characters, and the way he moves them from their ordinary lives into something strange, wonderful, and frightening. No matter how action-packed a story gets, you never lose the emotional turmoil of the characters. Things happen to them, and they are changed by the events they experience.

I was lucky enough to do an email interview with Tim just in time for the launch of his latest book, Game Changer. 

CJ: Let’s start with an easy one. Midget was your first published book, but was it the first one you wrote? If not, how many others did you write before you wrote Midget? How many are still in a drawer? How many of those went on to be published after Midget?

Tim: Midget was my first novel. I started writing it in 1980 and finished it about ten years later. I wrote the whole book in the early hours of the morning between 3-7 a.m. That was in the days when I wasn't a full-time writer and had a day job.
CJ: There’s been a lot of discussion the last while about representing kids of different ethnic origins, but also kids of different abilities. Midget is a very compelling character in an extremely difficult situation. I found his story heart breaking and really wanted things to be different for him. Who or what was the inspiration for this particular book? How did you come to write a story with a differently-abled character as the protagonist? What kind of reaction did or do you get from people? Is there an expectation of the character “representing” differently-abled people?

Tim: The reaction to Midget was overwhelmingly positive but the story did shock people, especially the ending. When I first started writing the book, the main character wasn't small. He was a normal-sized teenager with abnormal-sized problems. But one day, when I was a teacher, a new boy arrived at the school and he was three foot tall. He didn't have Midget's issues (indeed, he seemed a very balanced and happy kid) but his size became the defining aspect of my main character. I went straight home and changed everything in the book to reflect that. It was an instinctive thing. I didn't (and never do) have any agenda. It just felt right that the character should be that size and have those various other problems. 
CJ: Recently, we talked on Facebook about River Boy. It was a deeply affecting story for me because my grandpa died when I was thirteen. You said your grandfather died when you were fourteen. What prompted you to write River Boy?

Tim: I wasn't thinking about my own grandfather when I started to write River Boy. I was thinking about the grandfather in the story and if anything making his personality more akin to that of a stubborn friend of mine than to that of my actual grandfather. But I think I realized (again, instinctively) as I went on writing that I was creating a sort of elegy for the grandfather I loved as a child and who died when I was fourteen. A calm, quiet man who exuded something warm and kind. I often think of him even now.
CJ: Some of your earlier books have a little touch of the supernatural. Many of your more recent books start with someone living a relatively ordinary life that is turned upside down by a pivotal event. Even in your “quietest” books, such as River Boy, there is still a sense of adventure or peril. How do you find that inciting incident? Do you start with that or with a character when you come up with a new idea?

Tim: I always start with a problem and then keep on adding more. Stories are about conflicts and resolutions with the final resolution being the one at the end when you close the book. Until that point, there is always stuff to sort out. That's why we read. To find out how this or that difficulty is going to be resolved. My springboard into any story is some situation that's not right. Usually, I don't know any more than the reader does how that situation is going to be sorted. That's why I write. To find out what's going to happen. So I'm very much like the reader. Only with more ammunition.

CJ: Have you ever had to give up on a book that you were writing? How far along were you before you made that decision?

Tim: I've never given up on a book but I've ditched I don't know how many versions of this or that – paragraphs, pages, chapters, sometimes whole drafts. The first draft of Midget was 85,000 words long. I threw the whole lot away apart from one small scene (the one with the dog, in case you're wondering). Lots of people think that means the draft was a wasted effort. They're wrong. Everything you write, whether you keep it or not, is part of the organic process of understanding the story better. Sometimes the words come with a smile, sometimes with a scowl, and sometimes they don't come at all. It's all part of the process.
CJ: Your most recent books are definitely heavy on action, danger, and adventure, but still with a major dose of character growth and emotions for the protagonist. Have you ever had to get rid of a character who just wasn’t working in a story? If yes, how did that impact the book you were writing?

Tim: Stories revolve round characters. If the characters don't work, the story won't work, so if someone isn't making a contribution, you have a choice as an author. Either make the character pay his or her way, or get rid of the character altogether. I've dumped lots of characters in early drafts and some even in later drafts. I don't mind doing this. I want the story to work. That's the bottom line. So if the loveable old buffer who seemed so attractive in Chapter One hasn't done much by the time we get to Chapter Twenty, he might find himself in trouble when I unpack my editing tools.

CJ: When I started reading the first Blade book, I really disliked him, but by the second or third chapter, I changed my mind, and, of course, after that I was rooting for Blade for the rest of the book and series. How did you feel about the character and what made you choose to write about him?

Tim: I had exactly the same response as you. I hated this kid when he first turned up in Chapter One. A cocky little scumbag. By the end of Chapter Two I was convinced I wouldn't be carrying on with the story because I couldn't imagine myself spending much more time with him. By the end of Chapter Three I was starting to feel a wee bit sorry for him. I spent the remaining 250,000 words of the series worried sick about him and desperately hoping he was going to be all right. I don't know where this boy came from or how he took over my life. He's nothing like anyone I've ever written about. But by the end of the series, I loved him to bits and I still do.

CJ: I like the premise of your most recent book, Game Changer. Having a protagonist with agoraphobia is really intriguing. What gave you the idea for this one?

Tim: Many years ago I read about a guy who was terrified of going out of his house. He wasn't light-sensitive the way Mikey is. I'm not sure he was even wide-open-space-sensitive. It was just fear: huge, sickening fear. He simply couldn't go out. I think that's where Game Changer started, in embryo: as a study of fear. As I've already mentioned, stories are about conflicts and they're also about people. People in conflict – with others, with themselves. 

The characters at the heart of all great stories tend to be in some way flawed. That's where part of the conflict comes from. We don't want all our main characters to be Sir Galahad, the perfect knight. They need their human frailties to make them believable. That doesn't mean they can't also be heroic. Indeed, that's the challenge both for the writer and for the character – to find a way in which the character can overcome his or her weaknesses. 

All the main characters in my stories are struggling in some way and Mikey is no exception. His problems are huge and he doesn't help himself much of the time by the way he tries to avoid or deny what he ultimately must face, but one of the things he learns, and one of the things I came to learn about him, is that he's brave. He doesn't seem brave for much of the story. But he becomes brave, and that's part of his journey, and mine, in Game Changer.

CJ: Thank you, Tim! I don't think I've managed to ask you any stumpers, but thanks so much for answering my questions so honestly and fully!

Tim’s brief bio

Tim Bowler has written over twenty books for teenagers and won fifteen awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for River Boy. He has been described by the Sunday Telegraph as "the master of the psychological thriller" and by the Independent as "one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction". His works include Midget, Shadows, Storm Catchers, Starseeker, Apocalypse, Frozen Fire, Bloodchild, Buried Thunder, Sea of Whispers and the Blade series. 

His most recent novels are Night Runner and Game Changer; the latter just came out March 5, 2015. His books have sold over a million copies worldwide.

You can stay in touch with Tim through various social media sites. You can also watch his Bolthole Bulletin vlogs on his own website: http://www.timbowler.co.uk/

Upcoming events

Tim has a busy schedule over the next few months including school visits, running a writing workshop for the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), speaking at the Arvon Foundation, and performing at the Hay Festival in May and the Edinburgh Festival in August.