Look who stopped by to talk to me this month! UK novelist Ben Hatch is taking the country by storm with his latest book, Are We Nearly There Yet? 8000 Misguided Miles RoundBritainin a Vauxhall Astra. Receiving praise from such names as actor John Cleese and BBC radio and TV personality Terry Wogan. Ben’s first comic novel, The Lawnmower Celebrity, based loosely on his time as a chicken sandwich station monitor at Darlington McDonalds, was named one of the Radio 4’s eight books of the year in 2000. The International Gooseberry about a hapless backpacker with a huge ungovernable toenail was published in 2001 and described as “hysterical and surprisingly sad” by the Daily Express newspaper. Ben Hatch was also on the long-list of Granta’s 2003 list of the most promising 20 young authors in theUK. Fortunately for me, Ben was able to take time out to tell me more…
Q. Your book has obvious appeal to parents, particularly those with young children, but I noticed amongst the Amazon reviews that it has also proved popular with young adults and those who are not in the family way. Has that surprised you? What elements of the story do you think hold the most appeal to a broader audience?
I thought the title might put non-parents off. Are We Nearly There Yet? 800 Misguided Miles RoundBritainin a Vauxhall Astra. But the book’s had a great response from that those without kids that have read it. I think that’s because it’s basically not really a book about travelling about with young kids though it has that element to it. It’s mainly a book about what it’s like to be in a family and most of us have some experience of that.
Q. The book is based on your journey with your family, can you tell us more about your own personal journey whilst writing this novel, i.e the highs and lows, emotions attached etc?
Obviously there’s the storyline of how my dad was very sick during the course of our travels. I had to return to see him a few times. That was very painful as you can imagine. Then there was that element of surrendering our daughter to school at the end of the trip. It was hard to go from five months of solidly being with my family to suddenly one morning dropping them off at school and nursery. There are benefits obviously – not least having a bit of time to yourself – but at the same time it’s also the first occasion you’re role as a parent shrinks slightly in importance because something else (the institution of school) is now having almost as a big an input into their life. I’d also been Phoebe’s main carer since she was born as my wife had gone back to work. That made it quite emotional for me. I was a bit of a mess that day. And separately from this, being with your other half in this intense environment inside a Vauxhall Astra for so long, creates stresses. We had a few arguments and some home truths emerged along the way too. I seem to remember snapping off the rear-view mirror and throwing it in a field at one point. That said the book is also a comedy. It’s listed as a humorous essay on Amazon.
Q. What are the key things that have changed for you since you made the transition from journalist to ‘author’, and are there any cons or is it all pros?!
The differences are quite huge. For one thing, as a novelist you have work colleagues. As a newspaper reporter you can go for a coffee with mates and have a bitch about your boss or talk about what you did the night before. As a novelist you’re very much on your own, apart from when your book is published when you’re suddenly required to be tremendously social. Twitter helps. I think it’s partly why so many authors are on it. It’s like having a work canteen. Also, on a newspaper the turn-around time for a story is a couple of hours. After that you move on to the next one. A book is like writing the longest ever front page lead and not only that it all has to come from you – you can’t ring up a press office to pad it out with quotes. I found that adjustment very hard in the early days. The ides of going to bed with the story still in your notebook, not written up.
Q. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’d like to write a sitcom. Have you tried your hand at a variety of styles of writing over the years or would that be totally new way for you to use your words?
I used to love writing a TV review. I did it for two years at a paper inLeicester. I’ve written sketches that have appeared on the radio too. But I would love to write a sitcom, or be one of a team of writers on a sitcom. When sitcom works it’s just brilliant. The appeal of the instant reward of hearing laughter too. That must be hard to beat. It’s also more collaborative than a novel which is often hours locked away in your study munching Pont L’Avec cheese on tiny crackers alone with your empty screen trying to breath life into characters with nothing going on around you apart from the hum of the combination boiler and the prospect of the postman dropping something interesting through the letterbox
Q. How did your wife and children feel about being the subjects of your novel? Did it have any knock on effects for you as a family once published?
My kids think it’s great. My daughter lent the book to her teacher and my son shows people the book slightly embarrassingly when they come around to the house as he likes to point out his name in it, which he’s just learnt to recognise. He always ensures he clarifies that he’s actually Charlie Hatch not Charlie Adam, “the other Charlie that plays forLiverpool.” My wife Dinah has occasionally said: “Please don’t say that.” But she’s very generous about the way I represent her. Occasionally she has said: that did not happen like that. And once she was cross I claimed she didn’t know whereItalywas.
Q. What was your favourite destination on your trip around theUK and why?
There were lots of favourites. Liverpool for its friendliness, like Glasgow, it’s one of the warmest cities I’ve ever been to. So many people went out of their way to help us simply out of neighbourly decency. That gives you a warm glow. The Trossachs, Snowdonia and Northumberland I’d recommend for their beauty. I loved Norfolk because it still seems to have retained a lot of its character despite being a popular tourist destination. I love cities and places that have a strong sense of their identity. We also had great fun on the Isle of Wight looking at dinosaur fossils, dolphin-spotting at Chanonry point in Scotland was another highpoint. But I’d still I have to say my home city of Brightontakes some topping. Though York and Bristol came close.
Q. I hear that you like to write whilst wearing a kaftan and eating cheese… is that especially conducive to your creativity or do you just like the aroma of a day old brie?!
I am typing this now in a kaftan! I don’t really work in it though. The kaftan is my nightwear of choice. It’s because we have a student in the house. I like to get out of day clothes in the evening. It doesn’t feel like the evening if I am in jeans. A dressing gown and pyjamas is all a bit too Rising-Damp-Rigbsy-ish. The kafan fills this void. It’s the acceptable face of the dressing gown. It’s my dad’s old kaftan. I inherited it when he died. He wore it for 20 years after buying it in Moroccoon a family holiday. It’s falling apart, a little ripped and gives people a shock when they first see it, but for me it signifies: that’s it, it’s time to relax, watch telly and eat a bowl of monkey nuts. Also, I do eat a lot of cheese. It doesn’t help with anything at all in truth. I just love it.
Q. And in direct correlation to the previous question… would you say you are an eccentric? Would you say all writers are a little eccentric perhaps?!
My wife thinks I’m an idiot if that’s what you mean. I don’t think eccentricity is a prerequisite for a writer but perhaps when you spend all day by yourself locked in another parallel world that you’re creating you’re bound to disengage slightly from the norms of every day existence. For about 10 years I lived off the same meal – cheese, peanuts and Kit Kats. I had it twice a day every day. I ate them in strict rotation,. Cheese, Kit Kat then peanuts and back to cheese and so on. That’s pretty weird I suppose. I ate the odd apple to stay alive and used to have a bite of raw cabbage from time to time, but I had to give it up when I developed a digestive disease. Other than that I’m pretty normal really.
Q. Back to the novel, is there any possibility that we might see Are We Nearly There Yet? adapted for stage or screen?
Yes, there is. I can’t really say anything just yet as it’s not definite but there are meetings and conversations about this going on at the moment and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to say something more quite soon.
Q. You are currently working on a follow up to Are We Nearly There Yet? called The Road to Rouen, can you give us a bit of a trailer perhaps in the form of a short book blurb?
I can’t as I’ve not written it yet and I am hopeless at writing blurbs anyway. The book will be based inFranceas you’d imagine from the title but here are a couple of sample paragraphs.
I am using a squidgy bag packing system. No hard suitcases are allowed in the squidgy bag system. Every bag is soft, roughly the same size and, above all, squidgy. I am using the squidgy bag system for two reasons.
1) We’ll be staying at a different place every night in France so it’ll be easier packing and unpacking the boot.
And 2) So that Dinah will not be able to say this: “Ben, those suitcases are all too heavy for me so I’ll just carry this tiny virtually weightless sponge bag, OK?” leaving me stumbling towards the hotel lobby under the weight of a carousel of luggage, some of it between my teeth, looking like Magnus ver Magnusson taking part in the World’s Strongest Man Lorry Pull.
Q. Everywhere we look at the moment celebrities seem to have become the new novelists, do you think there will ever come a time when we can expect to turn on the TV and see a glut of novelists who become celebrities? Or a double page spread of the most shocking ‘novelists’ appearing in Heat Magazine perhaps?!
It’s weird, my first novel The Lawnmower Celebrity, was about, among other things, how the world of celebrity, because of the increased media outlets and need for content, had become democratized so that it suddenly wasn’t just actors, TV presenters and musicians who were famous. The book was published in 2000 when we were suddenly seeing celebrity chefs, and celebrity gardeners emerging as TV personalities. I wondered whether it would ever become so diluted that someone who was the best lawnmower salesmen in the world might become a celebrity and appear on chat-shows discussing the correct length of blade on a Mountfield 16HP to cut a grassy paddock. It was a spoof but as things have moved on it seems more and more like what’s actually happened. As for novelists getting the star treatment this is still a way off, I think. I think I’m safe for a while in my smelly kaftan.
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Are We Nearly There Yet? A Family’s 8,000 Miles Around Britain in a Vauxhall Astra