These really are frequently asked questions, sent to me by proper, *real life* brilliant readers.
Can you link any of the characters to people you know?
-Safaa (I think/hope your name is Safaa! You came to speak to me after a talk at your school in Hackney and gave me the questions you had but I forgot to ask your name. I asked your librarian and she thought you were Safaa. What I do know is that you were sitting on the front row, to my left and were a really great audience for my talk – thanks for that!)
I definitely make links to people I know, yes! There are little bits and pieces in my characters of people I know or people I have met but they are never fully one person.
How do you pronounce the characters’ names?
– (hopefully) Safaa
If I give you a rhyming word with each name, I hope that will help with the pronunciations that I have in my head although you, as the reader, can pronounce them in any way you want!
Ade : Baddy (although, as you know, Ade is definitely not a baddy)
Gaia : Liar (again, don’t read into this one, Gaia’s not a liar!)
Dory : Story (this one works better, Dory likes stories)
Obi : Bobby
Have you ever gone pigeon hunting?
– (hopefully) Safaa
No, but I would like to if it was done the same way in the book and especially if Dory was my teacher.
Have you made any other books?
– (hopefully) Safaa
My second book is coming out in July 2016. It is called ‘Where Monsters Lie.’ Hopefully there will be more after that one too.
How is it like knowing that you have written a book with no help?
– (hopefully) Safaa
Well, I did have help! At the very beginning I had a lot of help from my husband who helped me think about the story and asked me all the right questions to make me develop the story. My dad also read as I wrote and said encouraging things like ‘keep going.’ After that, myy agent and my editor also helped with the book. All these people made it into a much better story than it would have been if I had written it completely alone. I’m very grateful I had their help!
How long did it take to write it?
There is a short and a long answer to this question! Take your pick, depending on how long you have.
Short answer: Eight weeks, sort of.
Long answer: I wrote ‘Boy in the Tower’ during a summer term when I was first teaching a Year 1 class. I would get up very early in the morning and write for around an hour or as long as I could before I would be late for school. I did this every day for the first half term until I felt I had finished a first draft. Then I spent the second half term first having a little break from it and then rereading what I’d written and editing. At one point, I decided to make it into a little book by printing it out on paper and binding it together myself and so I could pretend it was ‘a real book.’ I read it and felt sure it wasn’t good enough to publish and thought to myself I had better start again. Fortunately my husband, Beardy Beardison, convinced me otherwise. After this wobble, I sent it off to a literary agency and when I heard back from them, they said they would like to work with me. After doing a little jig, I got back to work and editing again with the help of some brilliant notes that my literary agency sent me. In this bit of editing, I wrote a lot more about Ade and Gaia’s relationship because my agent suggested that I should make Gaia a much bigger character. I’m so glad they thought of this because I really love Gaia how she is now and I can’t believe how little I included her before. I worked hard every day for about a week and then my agent said we could send out to publishers. I was having dinner with two very dear friends of mine when I heard from my agent that we had an offer from a publisher. After we accepted the offer we met up with my editors. With the help of more notes from my editors, I rewrote parts and changed things again. My publishers asked me to make things as suspenseful as I could and so I spent another few weeks trying to do that. During this edit, I changed the opening line on the suggestion of my editor. She wanted me to try and make it seem more everyday and we read the opening line of ‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham to inspire us because I had been thinking about that book when I started writing ‘Boy in the Tower.’ After this, the book went to what is called copyediting when someone else looked very carefully at ‘Boy in the Tower’ and looked out for any little mistakes that needed correcting. Here are a few that came up for me:
p.5 delete ‘always’ from ‘She always wore this bright pink coat’ to avoid repetition with the previous line.
p.12 add in ‘also’ – ‘not only did you hear the fall of the rain outside but also the loud, steady drips’.
p.16 delete ’that’ to avoid repetition – ‘I didn’t reply that it wasn’t that I didn’t understand’.
p.20 Delete ‘have to’ – ‘has made us change the way we do things’.
On 19th March 2014, almost two years after I first started writing, I agreed the very last changes with my editor and so that is perhaps when it was finished!
What is your favourite part?
I have so many favourite parts, Kai, it’s difficult to choose just one so I’ll go for top three, if that’s okay with you:
I like the part when Ade sneaks back into the classroom and puts the seed back into Gaia’s flowerpot and so it grows to be the biggest. My friends are so important to me and this moment spells out that wonderful feeling of having someone who is watching your back, who supports you and accepts you for who you are.
I also really enjoyed all the parts involving food! Especially when Ade is going through all the cupboards looking for things to eat and when he finally meets Dory and Obi and they begin to eat slightly odd makeshift but tasty meals together.
THIS IS A SPOILER: Lastly, I loved the part when Obi dives into the helicopter. It might sound odd but I really wasn’t sure when I started how it would work out for everyone in the end. My dad who I sent the book to read as I was writing, kept telling me not to make it too tragic and that I shouldn’t let anyone die and I kept telling him that I didn’t know what was going to happen and that I couldn’t promise anything. When Obi runs back in to rescue Pigeon the cat, even I was thinking, Obi! Don’t do it! And so I felt very glad that he managed to make the leap at the end. (My dad reads very fast and when he first read the ending he misunderstood and thought that Obi had fallen and died and was a bit cross with me.)
Is there going to be Part 2? What is Ade’s mum’s real name?
I didn’t think there was going to be a Part 2 but so many people have asked me to write one I am thinking about it!
Ade’s mum’s real name is Titilope.
Will you be making a movie of Boy in the Tower?
-Akeira, Alexander, Rachel and Keira
I would love ‘Boy in the Tower’ to be made into a movie but I need other people’s help to make that happen.
Dan tells me that he is sure that one day we will go into our favourite cinema (it is called the Peckham Plex) to watch ‘Boy in the Tower.’ I really hope this will happen.
Why did you start making books?
Great question, Conor, and one that has really got me thinking. I love books and have done since I was little but I’m not sure that I believed that I could write one. I was very lucky to meet Dan who encouraged me to do it. I started properly making books around then.
Can you put in pictures please?
Pictures would be really great! I would love to do this. I have been trying to get better at drawing and so I could make pictures for my books but I still have a lot of practising to do!
What inspired you to get up so early and write your book?
I really wanted to write a book but there didn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do it. When I got home from teaching, I was always so tired that I never seemed to get much done. Then one day, I happened to wake up very early and decided that I would get up rather than go back to sleep. It was so quiet and peaceful at that time and I quickly realised it was an ideal time for me to write. It was a bit like having a lovely secret and it was a wonderful way to start the day.
How has your life changed since writing Boy in the Tower? Do you think if you hadn’t you would be in the same position now?
The funny thing is about your question, Abbie, is that when everything happened with ‘Boy in the Tower’ I didn’t think that things would change much at all. I thought that I would carry on being a teacher and that I would write books as well. But then I found it harder and harder to write as well as teach and I realised that I would have to choose one over the other. Dan and I decided to leave our jobs and to live on a boat and so we had more time to write and make art. I would never have done all these things if I hadn’t written ‘Boy in the Tower.’
Why didn’t Pigeon die because of the spores?
Animals were not affected by the spores, only humans, luckily for Pigeon!
Why wouldn’t Mum leave the flat?
Ade’s mum suffered from something called ‘agoraphobia’ that made her feel very anxious and scared to leave the flat.
What made you think of the names like Gaia, Ade, Dory, Obi and Ben and what made you call the cat pigeon?
-Sheree and Abbie
I like thinking up names. Some of them – like Gaia, Ben and Dory – just popped into my head straightaway as I thought about the character. With Obi, I spent a little time looking up names on the internet and then I liked the sound and simplicity of ‘Obi’. Ade was inspired by the names of the children I used to teach; Adesoye, Adefemi and Adeyemi. Pigeon came from thinking about the colour of the cat and also because my sister used to call me Pigeon or Pidge as a nickname when we were little.
Did Ade ever see Michael after Michael left with his mum?
Good question, Kirsty, and not one that I have thought about before. I think that they might have met up again when they were both much older but not directly after everything that happened with the bluchers.
What was your favourite part of writing the book?
Ooh, I enjoyed every bit of it. I was really excited when I had the initial idea and wrote the first chapter but I also enjoyed seeing the story unfold.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I love asking people what their favourite something is but I find it very hard to answer so maybe I should stop doing that. Certainly very dear to my heart was ‘Didakoi’ by Rumer Goden and ‘A Dog So Small’ by Philippa Pearce. I’ve recently remembered how I loved reading ‘A Hundred and One Dalmations’ by Dodie Smith and read it over and over.
I also really loved Beatrix Potter when I was a child and so I decided that I would write to her and invite her ghost to come and visit me. When I was a bit older, I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ although I misheard my friend say its name when she said she liked it and thought it was called ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ for far too long.
Do you like Harry Potter?
Yes! I really enjoyed reading those. ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ was the first one I read and so I was a little late to the party but I was in the queuing at Foyles in London at midnight to get my copy of ‘The Deathly Hallows.’
Who’s your favourite character from Boy in the Tower?
I think Dory is my favourite character. She’s an outsider but she’s very strong and also has a great sense of fun. I love the relationship she has with the pigeons.
What’s the hardest thing about being an author?
I suppose I think the hardest thing is having the confidence to be yourself and to create work that is yours because you believe in it.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Drawing, eating good food with my family and friends, walking around London, playing the ukulele, watching films, making things, boating, swimming and playing table tennis.
How many other books do you think you want to write?
As many as I can.
Did you get your ideas from things you’d seen or just make them up?
It’s a mixture of the two. Ideas spark from things I have seen.
When did you come up with the idea of writing BITT?
Around Easter time in 2012, I was sitting on the sofa next to Dan and I was determined to try to come up with a good idea for a story for children. I started doodling on a blank piece of paper and wrote and drew down anything that came into my head. One of the things that I drew was a picture of a tower block that instead of being surrounded by buildings was surrounded by trees. Dan asked me what it was about and that was when I first had the idea about the bluchers taking over the city and what would happen to the people that were left behind.
Were you happy when your husband offered to do the cover instead of anyone else? I definitely would have been!
I am incredibly happy that Dan designed the book cover for ‘Boy in the Tower.’ The way it usually works is that the publishers design the cover or they find an illustrator and so I was so pleased when my publishers said that they liked what Dan had done as much as I did and would like to use it for the front cover.
Why did you stop teaching at school?
Unfortunately I found that as I continued to teach I had less and less time for writing and so that is why I stopped. One of the good things about being an author is that I still get to visit schools and talk about writing and reading and so I really enjoy that.
When you were little, what did you want to be?
So many things! I desperately wanted to be a vet because I loved animals so much. I wrote to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons when I was about eight and asked them if they thought it would be a problem that I was allergic to cat fur and horsehair. Then I thought I wanted to be a lawyer because I enjoyed watching legal television shows and loved reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Then I thought that I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people but in the end I realised that what I really loved was books.
What gave you the idea of the Bluchers?
The idea of the bluchers came partly from another book called ‘The Day of the Triffids’ where plants take over and humans struggle to survive amidst them. I like the idea of nature fighting back against our man made world. I always like seeing buddleias growing in tiny cracks in the wall and am amazed by plants like Japanese Knotweed which push their way through concrete and tarmac much to us human’s annoyance. However I wanted the bluchers not to be too plant-like and so I started thinking about the kingdom of funghi, and specifically slime moulds to help create what they looked like and how they behaved.
What book are you thinking about writing next?
I have just finished a book that is about a very small Scottish village where only a handful of people live. In this place, there is a very old legend that is told about monsters rising from the loch and this story is about what happens when someone believes the legend is true.
Does anyone else in your family write books?
Two of my uncles have written books (one has written medical textbooks and the other has self-published some fiction.) When my sister was very young, she wrote a really great story about a mermaid called ‘Johannes Beach’ and always wrote the funniest holiday diaries. In the family of my friends, my best friend is a brilliant writer and I love reading her stories and poems.
Do you enjoy writing?
I love it! I love the way it allows you to create something from nothing, a whole world or even something otherworldly. It also lets you step into another person’s being for a while and see things through their eyes. I find that quite magical.
How and where do you write your stories?
I like to write in the mornings but it doesn’t have to be and I write just about anywhere in every bit of time that I can. In bed, in lots of libraries, on the train, in the backseat of a car, on the bus, in a café; any little spot of space and quiet that I can find when I have spare moments to write. But I suppose I like it best when I am at my tiny desk on my boat with geese honking outside or when I am in the cold, draughty studio that I share with Dan.
If you could re-write Boy in the Tower where would it go?
It’s ridiculously hard to think about how I would rewrite ‘Boy in the Tower’! I’m not sure I can answer this because I feel like ‘Boy in the Tower’ is the story it wants to be. Does that sound strange? It is a bit! I feel that it is right shape and the colour and I couldn’t change that because that’s the shape and colour that it is.
How old were you when you decided you wanted to be an author?
When I was about six or seven, I read these little books called ‘The Garden Gang’ which were written by a very young girl who wrote and illustrated these books when she was nine! She was the youngest ever Ladybird author. I was amazed and I really wanted to be the youngest ever Ladybird author! However as my ninth birthday crept past, I had to admit to myself that this was not going to happen. For a long while after that I didn’t think I could write books. Even though ‘Boy in the Tower’ was published when I was thirty, I think it was when I was thirty-one when I properly decided that I wanted to be, and would be an author, because I would never stop trying.
How did you get into a writing career?
I have always loved books and I first worked in publishing, marketing books. I met lots of different authors which was very inspiring for me but I also wondered (and doubted) if I would be able to do what they did. After that, I spent time working in a school as a teacher which was brilliant because I loved working with all the children in my class and also because we did lots of fun things with books and I read to them everyday. During that time I started thinking that I wanted to write something of my own and I found that as soon as I started I couldn’t stop, it was quite addictive!
Then I realised that I wanted to write more than in just the times when I wasn’t teaching and so I decided to leave teaching to write full time.
What inspired you to write Boy in the Tower?
I really wanted to write something for children that was really enjoyable and had a good story and that was a little bit scary. I also wanted to create a story that could have been about any one of the children from my school. It was that thought that inspired me to get writing ‘Boy in the Tower’.
What is your favourite book?
So many! ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee which I read at school but I still love to reread now. ‘Prodigal Summer’ by Barbara Kingsolver which my sister gave me last year. I adored ‘How I Live Now’ by Meg Rosoff and ‘Warm Bodies’ by Isaac Marion. I also really love ‘His Dark Materials’ by Phillip Pullman and ‘The Chaos Walking Trilogy’ by Patrick Ness.
Who is your hero?
I’m lucky because I have lots of heroes. One of my heroes is my closest friend. She is as strong as a lion even when she doesn’t feel like she is. Even in the hardest of moments, she always sees the funny side. She is a very shiny person. Another is my Dad, and another is Dan. I have too many to list, I suppose … heroes are all around us, we just have to look.
Who is your favourite author?
If I had to choose one … Harper Lee.