Q&A Between Readers, Me And My Local Squirrel
Tuesday, 6 June 2017
Louise King (Facebook): Has the process of writing this new book altered how you experience walking through the countryside?
Tom: It has, especially if I define “writing this new book” as beginning in 2008, when I started to walk a lot in Norfolk, where I was living at the time. I am quite leggy and have always been a fast walker but in recent years have learned to be better at listening and noticing as I walk. I must have marched blithely past all sort of interesting stuff in my first couple of years as a regular walker of long distances. I moved to Devon in early spring 2014 and it rained constantly for three weeks, then the weather dramatically turned and there was this huge orgasm of multicoloured growth in the fields and hedgerows, and I think that tuned me more into wildflowers and foliage, whereas I think previously I’d been more tuned into arcane rural objects (Norfolk and Suffolk specialise in these) than flora. Devon made me a different kind of walker: the hills made me fitter, and because it’s all a more strenuous process I think it amplifies the intellectual magic of walking - that way a long walk will enable to you to think more clearly. It’s all been a very natural process without too much effort: more of an awareness of trees, for example, led organically to more of an awareness of birds. I still know I could be much better at all of it, though. There’s so much I still miss, especially as a naturally dozy person.
Squirrel: I walk through the countryside as I always have: ever vigilant for nuts, and with a Lalo Schifrin soundtrack permanently playing in my head.
@Zozie_zo (Twitter): What does Ralph (the larger of Tom’s two cats) smell like?
Tom: Ralph smells of gerbils, but in the cleanest, nicest way possible. The constantly pleasant nature of Ralph’s fragrance is a mystery, since he is a cat of unhygenic habits, constantly beset by the attentions of ticks and slugs. I suspect he visits a small salon on the sly.
Squirrel: I try not to get too close as a rule, but he did once fart quite near me when I was off guard. His gas was curiously unnoxious and somewhat reminiscent of tulips.
Helen Thompson (Instagram): You've posted some really lovely pictures of yourself as a nipper, often with pen in hand. Can you remember anything about what you would have been writing in these pictures - and what was the first "proper" book that you read?
Tom: Apparently I was always nagging my parents to read stories to me, from a very young age. The first “proper” book I was totally entranced by was probably The Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. I remember memorising ghost stories from a couple of 1970s children’s collections passed down from my cousin Fay then retelling them in a slightly folklore, interpretative way to kids at school: boisterous young lads who fell oddly silent upon hearing about a mysterious bony hand or a jacket on a gravestone. I did write a few ghost stories of my own, and some Adrian Mole-ish diaries, but I think it’s more likely that in the photos I’m writing lists of my favourite songs as recorded from that week’s top forty: rearranging the order, trying to be as accurate as possible. My childhood was music-loving and bookish up to the age of 10, then near exclusively sport-based until I was 17, when I woke up and started to listen and read again. I still feel a bit like I’m catching up from those lost seven years. At least, I’m going to use that as today’s excuse for why I buy so many records and books.
Squirrel: I did not write as a child and do not understand why anyone would want to.
@patchoulipanda (Instagram): Has your process of writing changed since publishing your first book? Any interesting writing quirks?
Tom: It’s changed massively. If I’m being hard on myself - which I always should be, because that’s an important part of being a writer - I treated my first few books too much like journalism, tried a little too hard to write what I thought would please an editor rather than what would please only me, didn’t have enough appreciation of the weird in the everyday, didn’t use my notebook enough, didn’t take as much pleasure in chiselling sentences, didn’t walk enough, shied away from darkness. I also consume far more caffeine now, which I sometimes mistake for inspiration.
Squirrel: What he doesn’t mention here is the time he told everyone he was “very busy writing” when I was secretly watching him from the ledge outside his office window and all he was really doing was eating Space Raiders and watching 1970s footage of the band Heart on youtube.
Toni Swiffen (Facebook): You once mentioned that Norwich is the city of your heart. I would love you to describe why that is.
Tom: I miss pretty much everything about Norwich, every day: my friends there, the record shops, the cosiness of its pubs in winter, the Playhouse beer garden in summer. Cambridge is the spoilt girl who knows she’s hot. Norwich is her modest, actually better looking mate who gets sexier each time you see her.
Squirrel: I have never been to Norwich but do have a cousin who moved to a park on its outskirts. We don’t speak any more. Squirrel culture is not like human culture. We banish outsiders from our social circle and make no attempt to be global.
@Geekess92 (Twitter): If you could be a cat for one day, what would you do first? And what would a cat think of your new book?
Tom: I would use my cat vision to find out exactly what the ghostly vision in the cupboard under my stairs is that freaks my cats out so much. I think a cat would think my new book didn’t have enough cats in it. But I think a cat would think that even if all my new book had in it were cats.
Squirrel: I would climb lots of high trees. Oh, no need! I just remembered! I can do that already! My life is amazing. I bet you wish you had it.
@clairebbbear (Twitter): If you could domesticate one animal that you've seen on your walks, what would it be, and why? (Note: Ralph and - Tom’s friend, who regularly appears in his books - 70s Pat don't count.)
Tom: Well, it wouldn’t be 70s Pat, since he doesn’t really do country walks. Last time the two of us arranged to do one, in muddy weather, I told him to bring appropriate footwear. When he arrived at my house, I asked if he’d brought his walking boots. “I’ve brought my walking cowboy boots,” he replied. I suspect the huge sheep who lives a few miles down the river from me here in Devon’s South Hams region would be easier to domesticate than 70s Pat anyway. This is a wonderful and cuddly white sheep, who lives peaceably with sheep of a very different race (zwartbles), who I thought was looking for trouble the first time it confronted me on the path above the Dart, but wanted anything but. It is mellow, loaded with wool and possessed of a somewhat barrel-like torso, kind of like a sheep version of David Crosby. But I know from experience not to get too attached to sheep. I fell in love with a wonderful young ram called Grayling in Norfolk in 2011, and we did a reading together in a barn. I know he is no longer of this world, have not asked the details of why, and try not to think about it.
Squirrel: Crows, which I would then deploy as my minions.
Gisele Baxter (Facebook): Your writing always has a very personal sort of observation about it: indeed, it often starts with an anecdote that builds and evolves. However, there's also a very strong awareness in it that comes from lots of reading, and listening to lots of music. How do you manage the balance, so that at its most breathtakingly powerful, your writing has that keen connectedness and awareness, without becoming either purely sentimental or “research-y"?
Tom: You are being far too kind here. But I don’t really think I consciously “manage” a balance. If there is a management of that, it has just come naturally out of years of going down little paths that didn’t work out, years of reading, finding out what kind of books I got the most out of it and naturally moving towards an attempt to do something not dissimilar. I remember a feeling with earlier books that I often had the voice of a favourite writer whispering in my head as I wrote but with the last three that voice has gone. I think all of those books are significantly better than my earlier ones and those two facts might not be unrelated. Something I perhaps do more consciously is try to wear my research lightly, especially as I can think of quite a few books I’ve almost loved where it’s obvious the author has wanted to make the most of all the research they’ve done and overloaded the story with it. I read or dipped into a lot of old nature books with 21st Century Yokel. The way they flavoured the finished manuscript is minimal but I hope it has made a small difference. Same with the music I listened to during its creation.
Squirrel: Nobody knows this but when nobody is around I use my tail as a makeshift sail which helps to propel me across rivers like a small furry boat.
@WelshFelix (Twitter): What song, if you could pick only one for all time, would you have loved to have written… and why?
Tom: So hard to choose but I’m going to say Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity’s version of ‘Indian Rope Man’, partly because it’s summer right now and it’s a perfect summer song, but also because it’s wild and chaotic but somehow coherent and sums up something I’d like to achieve with my writing but surely never will. It’s a kind of funky accidental earth magic that obviously comes out of a wild and free creativity, a lack of worries about anyone taking the piss out of you for being mystically inclined or out there. But now I’ve thought of Larry Jon Wilson’s ‘Sheldon Churchyard’ which has almost all of the same qualities and it spooky and dark as well. To be honest, I could answer this question differently, but still totally accurately, every day for a whole month.
Squirrel: Can’t think at the moment but I’ll tell you this much: it wouldn’t be by Ted fucking Nugent.
@jgraythree (Instagram): When during the process of your growth as a writer did you realize you'd become an advocate for nature? Was it an outgrowth of your writing process or did you make a conscious decision at some point?
Tom: Three people asked this question in different ways and I think it’s a very good one. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. You can see the growth of it over the course of my four sort-of-cat-books: the way I’m opening my eyes wider and wider, over a seven year period. The first two, Under The Paw and Talk To Tail, feature plenty of stories about other animals and my dad and other parts of life, but they’re a bit inhibited, writing to a little prescription. The second two, The Good, The Bad & The Furry and Close Encounters Of The First Kind, are much more like love letters to the landscapes in which they’re set. It’s been a symbiotic process: being in the outdoors, around nature, is making my writing more enjoyable, and writing in a looser, truer way is making me more aware of my surroundings, making me want to get out and explore more. I have to admit that I’m really pleased that my new book will be in the Nature or Natural History section of bookshops, as it’s a place full of great - and very diverse - writing right now, but I never thought “This is a nature book” as I was writing 21st Century Yokel. It’s more an everything book. We need to stop perceiving nature as an outsider's hobby. It's not some quirky extra to the main business. It IS the main business.
Squirrel: Why are you asking me this question? I take my sexual frustration out on tree bark.
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