LOB has gone through several drafts on its way to publication. All my other titles for David Fickling Books have been young adult novels, so LOB - for readers of roughly seven or eight and up - is a bit of a departure. Although I'd written for younger readers before, LOB felt very different from anything I'd done so far. I wanted to give it a timeless, traditional feel, and to blend reality and fancy, partly through the viewpoint of Lob himself.
Looking back at my first drafts, I can see now that they were far too wordy; the first draft was about twice the length of the finished book. Along with a lot of words, I reluctantly had to cut some of my favourite scenes - one, involving the ravens at the Tower of London, may well resurface in some other form. As I always do, I'd started off without much of a plan, and had gone skitting off in all sorts of tempting directions. It seemed to suit the tale of Lob and his wanderings, but it didn"t add up to a coherent story. It may seem odd now to anyone who reads the published book, but there was no Lucy in this first draft - Lob was the central character. Lucy didn't appear until draft two or three.
When I handed in that first draft, I knew, without wanting to admit it, that the telling wasn't quite right. This is where David Fickling is so skilled as an editor: he can see what a story is trying to be, or what it could be. Without interfering, he nudges and suggests, leaving the author to find the answer. And, throughout the difficulties, I never lost the sense that the germ of the story was worth hanging on to, and that it would emerge somehow in the right form.
When I returned to the story for what eventually became the final draft, I read the first page and knew that David was right. What the story needed was simplicity and directness. Once I'd seen that, it was the key. It was at this final stage, too, that I had the idea of giving Lob's viewpoint in small sections: concise, sensual and immediate. These are in large print in the book, punctuating the narrative and taking the reader (I hope) into Lob's rootedness in the natural world and his bafflement when he strays into urban surroundings.
When I'm immersed in a story for young readers, it seems impossible that I could ever write anything else; and when I'm writing for adults, as I am now, I can't imagine myself writing a younger story. In another way, though, all writing feels the same. You have to live in the story, and inside the mind of the viewpoint character or characters. A friend of mine, the author Adele Geras, says "It's like acting." I can't act and fortunately have rarely tried, but I know what she means.
Posted on Tuesday?9th?February
LOB was published yesterday, and I'm delighted with the finished book. While working on it, I had no idea who the illustrator would be; fortunately Ness, the designer, found and approached Pam Smy. As soon as I saw Pam"s first sketches I knew she was the perfect match for my story of Lucy and Lob. You can see some of her drawings here in the Gallery; among them is the one I specially requested, for the dedication page: FOR THE MAN WHO WALKS THE ROADS.
This book has been taking shape over a number of years, during which time I've worked on several others. But LOB was there, waiting, ever since the Walking Man (as I think of him) first appeared in my life more than a decade ago. At that time I was teaching at a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire, and driving down the A43 every morning.
Occasionally I would see a man plodding along the roadside: a man in a shabby raincoat and boots, with his belongings in a carrier bag. I took him to be a tramp, or a gentleman of the road, to use the courteous euphemism. He was usually on the same stretch of road, heading south: I never saw him walking back the way he had come. He wasn't hitching a lift, and seemed to take no notice of the traffic speeding past.
At that time I was teaching the poetry of Edward Thomas for English A-Level, and his poem "Lob" came into my mind whenever I saw this man. In the poem, the narrator meets an old countryman whose face lodges in his mind; years later, when he tries to discover who this man might have been, he is given a range of names and identities. This man might be Jack Button, long dead; he might be Tom who brought the logs in, or Herne the Hunter, or Robin Hood, or Jack-in-the-Hedge, or Lob-lie-by-the-Fire: he is the very spirit of the land, ageless, youthless but also deathless, his names marked on maps and remembered in folk tales and sayings and the names of wild plants. My Walking Man must, I thought, be one of his many incarnations; there was something poignant about this stoical figure trudging along next to the noise and hurry of modern-daya traffic and busy-ness.
A while later I had one of those dreams from which I wake up thinking that I've got a brillant spark for a story, only to find it nonsensical when examined. This one didn"t make much sense, but it had something to do with the Walking Man, the elderly men who worked the allotments next to the house I lived in at that time, the rhythms of the season and the constant renewal of life. A story began to take shape.
I resigned from my teaching job ten years ago, and don"t travel the A43 every day. But the Walking Man has a habit of appearing at significant times. I put the idea of LOB to my editor, David Fickling, to see if he liked it; he did, and I passed the Walking Man in my car next day. I saw him again on the day I handed in the typescript. The last time I saw him, just over a year ago, he was waiting at a bus stop in London.
I hope I'll see him again. I"m going to carry a signed copy of LOB in the glove compartment of my car, in case I do. He might not be pleased with an extra piece of luggage to carry, but I think it"s only right that he should have one.
Posted on Sunday?7th?June
The first of my novels to be published by David Fickling Books was THE SHELL HOUSE, and now I have four titles on the list, with a fifth on the way.
One of the many things I love about working with DFB is that David's authors aren't pigeon-holed into writing only one kind of book. My four published titles are for teenagers, but my next, LOB, will I hope appeal to readers of any age from about seven up to and including adults. The DFB team have found me the most wonderful illustrator whose early sketches suit the story more ideally than I could have dreamed, so I think the finished book will be a thing of beauty.
Authors are always being asked where they get their ideas from. I don't always know the answer, but sometimes I do, so here are the starting points for my five books.