Welcome to the first in an occasional series of interviews with some of my favourite authors! I’ve called this series ‘The Essential Six’ for two reasons: first, writers need to write! I love the work of these authors so much I don’t want to take up too much of their precious scribing time. Secondly, I wanted to narrow down my questions to a core half dozen so that we could get down to the real nuts and bolts of their life and work.
What follows is an interview with debut author Dave Cousins. Last year, I was lucky enough to get hold of a proof copy of his moving and laugh-out-loud funny novel ’15 Days Without A Head’ – the finest Young Adult book I read in 2011…
Dave (with head)
Firstly, Dave, I want to congratulate you on a compelling and very moving read. I was hooked from the first page and finished the book in one sitting. It really is an incredible achievement – a work of great heart and humour. Please give us a brief introduction to your remarkable novel, 15 Days Without A Head.
Thanks, Bill – that’s very kind of you. 15 Days Without a Head is the story of two brothers – fifteen year old narrator Laurence, and his six year old, dog-obsessed brother, Jay. The action takes place over the fifteen days the boys are left to fend for themselves when their alcoholic mother goes missing. Scared they’ll be taken into care if anyone finds out, Laurence resorts to increasingly desperate measures to survive and keep their secret safe. There are some dark moments in the book, but plenty of laughs too – some dressing up, a dead man on the radio – even a hint of romance.
I was particularly impressed by your refusal, as an author, to judge your characters. There are certain characters who behave appallingly in your book – was it a conscious decision not to judge them, and how important do you think it is for an author to steer away from judging his/her characters?
I always try to make my characters as real as possible, which means they are flawed and sometimes do the wrong thing. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision not to judge, but rather to make sure that the reasons for their behaviour was explored. I do think it’s important to examine motivation and consequences, but then leave room for the reader to make their own mind up as to how they feel about the characters. I’m always delighted when readers tell me that by the end of the book their opinions of certain characters changed because they understood them better.
The setting of the book, particularly the Roaches’ flat and the surrounding area, is very vividly drawn. Is this a real environment? I ask because it rings so true.
I’m afraid the flat was constructed entirely from a grubby, cockroach infested corner of my imagination! The surrounding area is partly inspired by a parade of shops and flats near to where I live. I see environments quite vividly when I write, but often try to find a real location similar to the one in my head, in order to get a feel for what it’s like to actually be there – how a place smells, the sounds you can hear, little details your imagination wouldn’t necessarily provide.
Laurence’s relationship with his little brother Jay is very touching. How did you go about building that bond between these characters?
A lot of readers have mentioned that, and I’m delighted when people respond to the brothers in this way. They were the spark for the story and their relationship developed with each revision. Action and plot are obviously important, but I’m most interested in characters – how they feel, think and interact – that’s where the heart of a story is for me. I had a lot of fun writing the scenes where the brothers were together, and enjoyed playing with the friction that often exists between siblings. I knew there was a strong bond of love between them, even if it was buried deep out of sight. Jay’s probably my favourite character in the book, but I wouldn’t want him as a little brother!
Dave’s Study (Stephen King’s brilliant ‘On Writing’ within reach)
If you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice what would it be?
Read a lot and write a lot! Reading is often overlooked, especially if you’re struggling to find time to write, but reading immerses you in the craft. Or as Stephen King puts it: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write … Constant reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.” Can’t really argue with that.
Finally, like Jay, are you a big fan of Scooby Doo? I was a huge Mystery Inc fan when I was a kid – even named my first dog ‘Scoobs’!
Brilliant! Was he a Great Dane?
No, he was a scruffy little welsh sheepdog. We were living in a caravan at the time so a Great Dane might have been a bit of a squeeze!
Well, I used to run home from school to watch Scooby-Doo and Hong Kong Phooey – another favourite of mine. I loved Shaggy and Scoob, and wanted a van like the Mystery Machine to drive round in – I still do. I have to admit though, that I stopped watching when they introduced Scrappy-Doo.
In fact, Scooby-Doo even played a part in 15 Days being published. When I was meeting publishers who were interested in the book, one of my appointments was with OUP. After the meeting they handed my agent and I each a box of home-baked Scooby Snacks to take home. The biscuits were delicious and there was never anybody else in the running after that!
Many thanks to the hugely talented Dave Cousins. And finally, here’s a pic of those trademark OUP Scooby Snacks!