About Sleeping with the Blackbirds:
Eleven-year-old schoolboy, Roy Nuttersley has been dealt a pretty raw deal. While hideous parents show him precious little in the way of love and affection, school bullies make his life a misery. So Roy takes comfort in looking after the birds in his suburban garden, and in return the birds hatch a series of ambitious schemes to protect their new friend.
As with the best-laid plans, however, these get blown completely off course – and as a result the lives of both Roy and his arch tormentor, Harry Hodges are turned upside down. While Harry has a close encounter with God, Roy embarks on a voyage of discovery that draws in and impacts on everyone around him, including the local police, his headmaster and the national media. Where will it all end, and will life ever be quite the same for Roy Nuttersley?
Guest Post: Sleeping with the Blackbirds
HOW IT ALL CAME ABOUT
Imagine if you will an extremely short-sighted, slightly shambolic advertising copywriter sitting in a brand new high-tech glass egg box of a building somewhere in central London. On the other side of the desk is his partner in crime, or more accurately, his art director of some 25 years standing. They are survivors in an industry that gobbles up and spits out more creative teams than the average Jo has had hot dinners. But the writing is now on the wall. The art director has had enough. He is an artist and hates digital technology. He came into this business with a pad and pen and a head full of big ideas. He’s not interested in producing slick digital layouts so much as inventive concepts roughly sketched with a felt-tipped pen. So he’s just announced to his other half that he’s handing in his notice to take early retirement and pursue his dreams of becoming an artist in Germany. To add to the copywriter’s woes, the company has got in on the act and made an announcement of its own. They have just made the monumental decision that morning to merge with New York’s second oldest advertising agency. The merger would be one of the largest global mergers for some years, and would, according the board of management, be an ‘exciting time’ for everyone. These were the words that resonated ominously in the copywriter’s ears. The words ‘exciting times’ were, as far as he was concerned, a euphemism for wholesale redundancies. Everyone could see that the merger of these two dying breeds was tantamount to the Hindenburg coming to the rescue of the Titanic. It was doomed to failure.
The copywriter in this scenario is none other than my good self and the year is 2009. As it turned out, I survived for a little longer than I had anticipated – around three months if my memory serves me correctly. Yet it was one of the most satisfying three months of my entire career. Why? Because for once in all those years of writing for clients, I found myself writing for a truly wonderful client; one that seemed happy to run with every word I penned. The client, of course, was myself. I was writing for my own amusement. While my art director worked out his month’s notice by furiously arranging the sale of his house and making plans for his exodus, I began writing my own piece of fiction aimed at young readers the same age as my son who was 12 at the time.
The story was inspired initially by my young son’s interest in peering through binoculars from his bedroom window at an old oak tree growing behind our house. The tree is several hundred years old, towers above the tree line and attracts all manner of birds including woodpeckers and owls whose haunting hoots can be heard of an evening. And like all works of fiction, once I began writing, the story started to evolve and take on a life of its own. And before I knew it I had written several chapters.
By the time I was eventually asked to vacate the premises and place all my worldly possessions, such as they were, into a cardboard box, the only item in that office of any worth to me was a fairly tatty manuscript entitled ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’. Strangely enough, the title for the story came to me before I’d even fully formulated the plot and written the first few pages. But it instinctively felt right and had a certain ring to it that I just liked.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF ROY NUTTERSLEY
My tale revolves around Roy Nuttersley, an ungainly 11-year-old schoolboy whose miserable life is made all the more miserable by his despicable parents who are so wrapped up in their own highly toxic and confrontational relationship that they barely notice their own son. On top of this Roy has to contend with Harry Hodges, the school bully and his cronies.
To console himself, Roy looks after the birds in his suburban garden, and unbeknown to him, the birds hatch a series of ambitious plans to help their new friend.
One such plan sees Canadian Geese going into training as a squadron of fearsome bird pooing bombers. But as with the best-laid plans, these elaborate schemes miserably fail to achieve their desired objectives.
Instead, their impact sets in motion far reaching consequences for both Roy and his arch-tormentor, Harry Hodges. Both of whom are forced to re-assess their own lives. While Harry has a close encounter with God, Roy sets out on a voyage of discovery that will change his life for good.
The story had taken shape in my head and I could see the twist in its tail from the outset.
ARE THERE THEMES FROM THE STORY THAT CHILDREN CAN LEARN FROM?
There are certainly themes that I wanted to weave into the storyline. First and foremost though I wanted to write a story that would entertain and amuse kids. And I wanted to use good old-fashioned and colourful language. I believe passionately in respecting the intelligence of my audience, so I will never set out to dumb down and use limited vocabulary just because the kids who read my story may have limited vocabulary. All children are smart. They’ll have the intelligence to work out the meanings for themselves in the context of the sentences; and they’ll increase their vocabulary as a result.
As for the underlying themes, I wanted to get across the idea that people, like books, can never be judged by their outward appearances. We are all shaped by our own circumstances. Roy and Harry are no exception and have their own back stories. People may do bad things, but in life those actions don’t always mean that they are bad people. In 1941 a 13-year-old girl wrote in her diary “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Her name, of course, was Anne Frank.
I also wanted to touch on the theme of homelessness. One of the characters that Harry encounters is a homeless girl called Debbie and I wanted to make the point that many homeless people are victims of their own circumstances. We get to hear Debbie’s story and learn that her mother had died in childbirth and that her father had become an alcoholic and had turned on his daughter. We feel sympathy for Debbie because we get to hear her story. But in real life we never get to hear the stories; we only see the consequences of young people living in cardboard boxes and sniffing glue. So I really wanted children to understand the complexities of life and not to pre-judge people. It’s a fundamental life lesson.
WHAT OTHER BOOKS INFLUENCED THIS ONE?
There are several popular books that mine pays homage to. In terms of dark, English humour, the obvious examples are those by Roald Dhal and, more recently, David Walliums. Though these have been written for a slightly younger audience, some may detect a whiff of these fantastical tales in mine.
As a kid, one of the first books I remember really enjoying was ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King – and perhaps there’s a little bit of Mr King’s magical realism creeping into my own story.
Some will also notice touches of the lovely Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole diaries, particularly in Roy’s letter to Amnesty International.
George Layton who very kindly read my manuscript and liked it enough to write a byline for its cover, is also an author I greatly admire. His gentle and beautifully observed prose about childhood (‘The Trick’, ‘The Swap’ and ‘the Fib’) are incredibly touching and his tales always unravel unexpected revelations that are both entertaining and genuinely thought-provoking. His books have in the past been selected for the national curriculum for schools in the UK. So I feel incredibly flattered to have received words of praise from the great man himself.
DO YOU FIND WRITING EASY?
For me, writing isn’t the hard bit so much as the plotting and story creation. I’m new to this, and I don’t really feel so qualified to comment. But from my limited experience, I’d say that getting the idea and developing it in your head is by far the most challenging aspect of writing fiction.
As an advertising copywriter, I suppose I have a disciplined approach to storytelling, which is no bad thing. Indeed, many who have hailed from the world of advertising claim that the discipline of telling a story in 30 seconds or trimming a headline to convey an idea in as few words as possible is an invaluable skill for the budding author. Alan Parker, the film director argues that if it wasn’t for the discipline that he picked up as an advertising copywriter and commercials director, he couldn’t have made the transition into feature films.
But look, this said, there are no rules. And for some, discipline plays little if no part in the creative process. After all, plenty of writers claim that their storytelling evolves through the writing and that the characters dictate the direction of the narrative.
For others, character development and dialogue are more important than the story itself. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to sit next to the very brilliant Beryl Bainbridge at an advertising awards dinner; she had been commissioned to write a long piece of copy for an advertisement for real fires, and she had been nominated for an award, which she duly picked up. For the entire duration of the evening she would pull out a notebook and copiously take notes and ask questions. For her, details were terribly important, and her approach wasn’t dissimilar to the artist who carries a sketchpad around with him for future reference.
All this said, whatever one’s approach to writing fiction, I suspect that very few will ever tell you that the process comes easily.
IF AN ALIEN ASKED YOU FOR THREE BOOKS THAT SUMMED UP THE HUMAN CONDITION, WHICH THREE WOULD YOU PICK?
Gosh, that’s a difficult one. I think I’d want him or her to have an understanding of our compulsion to laugh (often at ourselves). So I’d heartily recommend ‘Carry on Jeeves’ by P G Woodhouse and Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ – both of which also say a great deal about the English character. But I’d also want this alien to understand the human desire for justice and fair play as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, so my third choice would be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
Who is Alex Pearl?
It’s a question I often ask myself. Well, basically I’m a short-sighted bloke aged 50, which I suppose is pretty old really. And for 27 years I have worked at various advertising agencies and marketing companies as something called a copywriter. This means I have to sit in an office and write the words that appear in adverts, leaflets and letters. It’s a funny old job. Sometimes it can be fun when, for instance, you have to make a TV or radio commercial. But this doesn’t happen very often. At other times it can be rather dull and frustrating when a client rejects your work that you created and insists that you do something far less interesting.
Outside work I’m a husband and a dad, and I live in North West London with my wife and two children. We don’t have any animals in our house but we do see lots of birds in our garden. And yes, we do have a bird table, but only the one, and this is usually attacked by the squirrels before any bird can get to it.