Every day, Tim Bowler closes the door of his country cottage, pads through the cobbled streets to the far end of his village and shuts himself off from the world in an old stone outhouse, a dusty little building with only green fields and rolling Devonshire hills to see for miles around.
With no telephone and just a rickety electric heater for company, this is where Bowler pens the pages that have won him 15 awards – including the prestigious Carnegie Medal – and prompted the likes of the Sunday Telegraph to dub him “master of the psychological thriller”. With 21 books to his name, including the hugely successful Blade series for teenagers, this hermitic ritual clearly works for Bowler.
He’s in Dubai this weekend to teach budding authors secrets and techniques for writing a successful page-turner in his Creative Writing Masterclass, which will be held at the headquarters of the Emirate Airlines Festival of Literature. “I want to help aspiring writers develop confidence in their own ability and in their own unique magic,” he says.
An affinity for languages
Born in Leigh-on-Sea in 1953, Bowler first started writing stories at the age of five, and went on to study Swedish at the University of East Anglia. He then worked in a number of fields, including forestry and the timber trade, before spending seven years as a language teacher. By the time he left teaching, he had become Head of Modern Languages at a school in Newton Abbot, Devon.
In a way, working with young people served as research for his current career as an author of young adult fiction. He points out, though, that he doesn’t write specifically for teenagers, but about them: “I write for anyone of any age. I just try to write a cracking story and hope it will appeal to as many people, of whatever age, as possible.”
While Bowler’s stand-alone books tend to be psychological thrillers with hints of the supernatural, it’s the Blade series – a gripping set of cliff-hanger stories that take the reader into the dangerous world of youth gang culture – that have really made his name. While the books avoid graphic detail, Bowler doesn’t sugar coat the themes of knife crime, poverty and teen violence that run through his fictional world, their roots firmly grounded in reality.
Typing away in his bolt-hole in the sleepy British countryside, is it hard for Bowler to conjure up the roller-coaster lives of his gritty central characters? “Like every adult, I was once a teenager, so I have memories to draw upon, both memories of incidents and, more importantly, memories of feelings,” he says. “Writing fiction is about empathising with characters you have never been.
You have to get inside the skin of the person you’re describing, whatever age they are and whatever their past.” The series’ narrator, Blade, a complex but likeable 14-year-old boy with a difficult past, is desperately trying to make sense of his life in a society where the harsh realities of street life are ever-present. Despite the bleak setting, the series is enthralling rather than depressing, and Blade’s conscience means the books retain a reassuring moral compass throughout.
But weaving morality into fiction is something that requires great care and subtlety, says Bowler. “I never set out with a message in my work,” he says. “Fiction is about moral dilemmas and there are messages on every page, but I don’t consciously put them there. The moment you do that as an author, you’ve stopped writing a story and started writing a sermon.
Like any story, Blade is full of lessons for all of us, including me, but I keep back from having any conscious design upon the reader.” Bowler’s charismatic protagonist has captured the imaginations and the sympathies of readers everywhere, not least due to the idiosyncratic slang he uses – ‘gobbo’ for guy, ‘neb’ for ‘person’ and ‘grink’ for enemy, while a ‘muffin’ is not only a cake but also ‘a harmless person’.
Considering Bowler’s background in languages, it’s not surprising that his central character should have such a creative lexicon, but Bowler says Blade’s personality and wordplay sprang out of nowhere. “Blade just turned up on the first page of the story. His slang appeared within a few pages, unplanned, and I just went with it, intending to edit it out later.
But I soon realised that it was vital to the way the boy expresses himself. I think (and hope) what makes Blade appealing is he’s dangerous yet vulnerable. He’s not a thug. He’s deeply damaged. He has a past but he’s not sure whether he has a future. He’s also witty and he talks constantly to the reader, and that probably makes him likeable too.”
The ability to materialise powerful characters out of thin air is part of the magic of a good author, but Bowler is adamant that everyone has the same creativity within them. “I don’t believe for a minute that I have more ideas than anyone else,” he says. “Ideas are everywhere and they’re available to everybody. It’s a question of being alive to the world around you and (more importantly) to the world within you.”
It’s this inner world that Bowler is eager to get his students in touch with in this weekend’s mentoring classes. “The aim of mentoring is not to help writers turn into second-rate versions of Shakespeare but into first-rate versions of themselves,” he says. Bowler believes writing a gripping book is a skill that can be taught. “You have to make the reader care about the characters and there has to be something happening on every page, together with unanswered questions.
To find out how these issues are going to be resolved, the reader is forced to turn the page. “Be honest, tell the story as you see it, don’t waffle, preach, overwrite or show off. And try not to be boring,” he continues. But, most importantly, budding authors have to keep on going. “Keep writing, keep learning your craft. You learn about writing by writing. Good writing, bad writing – both have something to teach us if we are receptive. Writing nothing teaches us nothing.”
In addition to workshops being held today, Tim Bowler will be giving one for adults tomorrow at 2pm. To find out about this and the First Fiction competition, where adults may submit the first five pages of their novel to be judged by a top literary agent, visit www.emirateslitfest.com/FirstFiction.