Thursday, 26 April 2012


Coming late to books (mid-twenties), I didn’t imagine I’d ever read something more than once. What was the point? There was so much else to get around to it would have (I assumed) that desultory feeling you get of staying in a relationship you know is long dead. Books, I rationalized, weren’t the same as films or music, which warrant (particularly the latter) unceasing revisits, the experience often enhanced each subsequent time. But, I discovered, the familiarity can breed, not contempt, but a mollifying joy, where each beautifully wrought sentence is savoured, delighted in, the knowledge of what’s to come paradoxically suspenseful. Fresh interpretations are made. Allegorical echoes, previously missed, resound like an encounter with a long-lost friend or lover that you wonder how you’d managed without. New meaning is discovered.

Of course, very few books deserve a second read. Many don’t deserve a first. But how wonderful to know they are there, forever willing to share a precious couple of weeks in our company whenever we choose.

I think I’ll always come back to this, and certainly this. And Tartt’s The Secret History, Irving’s Garp, Coetzee’s Disgrace. And a handful of others. I might even gorge myself again on a bit of Shriver’s Kevin.

So, which, if any, books do you read more than once? And why? Does a book change if the readings are, say, thirty years apart?

Sunday, 15 April 2012


Drum roll. I put the names of all who left comments on the interview with Jen Campbell (scroll down) in a hat, and out came...Frances. Well done. You win Jen's funny and brilliant book. Email me your details to tomvowler at hotmail dot com and I'll pop it in the post for you.

Saturday, 14 April 2012


Here's a video of last year's Edge Hill award ceremony in London, where I was lucky enough to win the Readers' Prize. If I look and sound a little squiffy it's down to the horrendous train journey, the absence of any food, a sprint from station to Blackwell's and then several glasses of the complimentary wine. There are lots of wonderful writers to spot and one very famous musician.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


A real treat today. Welcome good friend and fellow author Vanessa Gebbie, whose brilliant debut novel The Coward's Tale is now out in paperback. The book is getting great reviews and many folk-what-know are tipping it to win a prize or two.

I was keen to know just how Vanessa created the book's wonderful characters...


“Where do your characters come from” must be one of the questions most frequently asked of this writer. I’m sure there are dead clever explanations of our creative mechanisms, and equally sure that one such explanation cannot possiby encompass the legion ways in which creative beings function.

In Short Circuit - Guide to the Art of the Short Story - for the second edition of which, lucky writers all, mine host is penning a chapter - there is a lengthy questionnaire appended to Claire Wigfall’s chapter. She sometimes uses this questionnaire, and gives it to students to help them create a character. And it is great - I have used it in workshops, helping students enrich their characters and it works a dream. But one of the strengths of Short Circuit is that it feeds all types of writer - that’s the intention - and speaking for myself, questionnaires don’t help this writer create breathing characters as I write. I have tried, honest!

Years ago, I was just starting work in London, so must have been just out of university, early twenties. I was on a bus. It was pouring with rain. The bus stopped at a traffic lights, and an elderly gentleman struggled from the pavement to the doors and knocked politely with his walking stick - he was soaking wet. Hunched over, thin, shivering. He wore a tweed jacket, with a handkerchief drooping in the pocket. His shirt was done up wrong, and he’d tied a tie over the incorrectly done collar - one side stuck up - and the edges of the collar were worn through.  His wet hair was plastered over his skull - ratty, slightly too long, different lengths left and right. He was carrying a plastic bag from some supermarket or other, with so few things in it...and he knocked, asking to be let on the bus, just politely.

The driver ignored him, sat there, until the lights changed then drove off.

I’ve never forgotten that old man, seen for a minute in 1974. Never forgotten how seeing him made me feel - desperately sad for him, angry that he was left in the rain - but more - obviously I couldn’t know - but probably he was on his way back to where he lived, alone. There was no wife waiting for him with a nice cuppa, telling him to get out of that wet jacket, and put it over a radiator.  No one to remind him for the hundredth time not to go out without an umbrella. If he had a wife she’d have told him he’d done his shirt up wrong. He’d been trying to save money - cutting his own hair. Lost his wife a while back? Who knows?

But there was something about that gentleman that said he’d done things, in his life. He’d been someone. That handkerchief in the pocket. He was as lost in his elderly, poor skin as I would have been had I been sent fifty years into the future. I cared. HE made me care.

I think it’s that noticing and caring for years and years that makes us into the creator of characters. And it doesnt take much. It’s the little things that make character. Clothes are only relevant if they tell us something about the character - oh I used to have such debates about this one:

“But we have to know that she is wearing a blue dress and matching shoes, and that her hair is long, blonde with ringlets and she has blue eyes too!”


“And we have to know that he is in jeans and a white shirt, and his hair is tousled and brown, and he wears sun glasses...”


“Because I want the reader to know that’s what they look like!”

“But why? Show me something that tells me something about the character - not just them as coat-hanger... If the blue dress is important, let the dress show me why it is. Is it unironed? Dirty - a patch of food down the front? Ancient and old fashioned? Torn in six places? Much too big for her? All those say something about HER, not the bleedin dress...”

“Oh. I see. Now bugger off.”

Before I bugger off, in the spirit of paracticing what one preaches, here’s the opening of one section of The Coward’s Tale, called “The Halfwit’s Tale and the Deputy Bank Manager’s Tale.”  It’s what people do or don’t do that gives them away, not what they are wearing, necessarily - although clothes can be a giveaway too.

At sundown, after rain, the streetlights spread gold over the tarmac in the High Street until the puddles fizz like a kid’s spilt drink. And Jimmy ‘Half’ Harris, on his way back from the river, will stop outside the cinema in his jumblesale trousers held up with string, and park his old pram filled with pieces of rope, cloth and sticks. He will grin with what teeth he has left in his head, and look up at Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins in khaki, begging on the steps of the cinema, sucking on a toffee. Half Harris will grin and he’ll grunt, for he cannot speak, and he may wave one hand in the air as if he’s calling down the stars from heaven. Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins will catch the grin like it’s been thrown through the air. ‘Hiya, Half. been fishing again?’
       Half Harris will catch hold of the pram and rock it like it holds a sleeping child. Then Ianto Jenkins will look up at the windows of the Savings Bank where the Deputy Manager, Matthew ‘Matty’ Harris, no relation of Half’s, may not yet have left for home - instead he will be standing at the window as his Clerk Tommo Price puts on his coat and says, ‘That’s it for today then.’
       Matty Harris, no relation, will have straightened and straightened his papers that need no straightening at all. He’ll have opened and closed the drawers of his desk to hear the small sounds of their importance. Then another sound may join them. The telephone on Matty Harris’s desk may ring and he’ll blush and blink and he’ll cough and say, ‘Best leave it,’ as his hand hovers over the phone like it’s a quivering breast all ready and waiting. Tommo Price the Bank Clerk will check his watch and smile, ‘New customer, could be,’ and his smile will go out of the door and into the street.
        Matty Harris will wait, and breathe in deep to lift the phone, then click his tongue when it is only a wrong number. He’ll sigh and go to the window and rest his forehead against the glass.
Thank you for letting me perch on your lovely blog, Tom.

You're very welcome, Ms Gebbie. More about Vanessa and her work here. Meanwhile here she is talking a little about The Coward's Tale.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


A warm welcome, if you please, for the lovely and talented Jen Campbell, whose brilliantly funny book is out now.

Welcome Jen. So, tell us a little bit about this bookshop where folk say weird things.

Hello! Well, the middle section of the book is set at Ripping Yarns, where I currently work. Ripping Yarns is an antiquarian bookshop in north London, opposite Highgate tube station. It's been a bookshop since the 1930s, and is now owned by Celia Mitchell. Celia bought the bookshop in the 80s, and it was reopened by Michael Palin and Terry Jones (hence the name 'Ripping Yarns'). We sell all manner of old books, and that seems to attract some very odd requests. Some days I think we have a Monty Python curse.

It sounds like a rather cool place to work. Do you ever worry you'll turn into Bernard Black? Or Manny?

Well, I haven't started drinking during the daytime, or making jackets out of Post-Its...yet. Our lovely customers tend to correct the balance and restore my faith in humanity. If we had a freezer in the shop, however, I might keep a wine lolly on reserve...just in case.

A little about the book, if you please.

The book is split into three sections: the first is set in The Edinburgh Bookshop, a lovely  independent bookshop in Bruntsfield where I worked whilst doing my English degree. The second is set at Ripping Yarns, and the final section of the book is a collection of Weird Things... quotes from all over the place: USA, Australia, Germany, South seems customers are saying strange things in bookshops the world over!

And perhaps a snippet or two of what we can expect.

Most certainly:
(Phone rings)
Bookseller: Hello, Ripping Yarns bookshop.
Customer: Hello, I've got some books I'd like to sell.
Bookseller: Sure. What kinds of books do you have?
Customer: Oh, boxes and boxes of stuff. I've got some children's books, some comics, some old magazines and newspapers, an exercise bike, a couple of art books and some cookery books, too.
Bookseller: What was the one in the middle?
Customer: Erm. Old magazines.
Bookseller: No, the one after that.
Customer: An exercise bike.
Bookseller: Yes... we won't be wanting the exercise bike.
Customer: Do you have security cameras in here?
Bookseller: Yes.
Customer: Oh. (customer slides a book out from inside his jacket and places it back on the shelf)
Customer: Who wrote the Bible? I can't remember.
Customer's friend: Jesus.
Customer: Hi, do you sell Christmas trees?
Bookseller: No...
Customer: Oh. I thought it was worth asking because you've got lots of Christmas books in the window.

The illustrations are great. How did this aspect come about?

Twitter played a big role in the creation of Weird Things... They started out as blog posts, the links to which were thrown around Twitter by other booksellers, publishers and book lovers. Neil Gaiman then mentioned them on his blog, which is how Hugh [my editor] came to hear about them. He contacted me and my agent asking if I'd like to make them into a book.

Later, Hugh asked if I had any illustrators in mind, so I openly asked for recommendations on Twitter. Someone suggested Greg and Myles (The Brothers Mcleod, wonderful BAFTA-winning chaps), tagging them in the same Tweet. Greg and Myles thus heard about Weird Things..., went to read the blog posts and messaged me saying they thought they were very funny and they would definitely be interested in illustrating the book. It went on from there! I really do love the  illustrations, especially the crucified bunny rabbit. (And, no, I'm not going to explain why there's a picture of a crucified rabbit... you're going to have to read the book yourself to find out!)

Jen has kindly given me a copy of her book for one lucky reader to win. Just leave a comment below and I'll pull a name out of a hat-like object in a week or so.

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is published by Constable and Robinson.

Jen Campbell, 25, grew up in the north east of England, graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in English Literature and now lives in London. She's a published poet and short story writer. Her first poetry collection, The Hungry Ghost Festival, will be published by The Rialto later this year. She blogs at