Happy Book Birthday to Ian Beck with ‘THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TOM PILE’. Rachel Hamilton finds out more.
Happy book birthday, Ian! My son, Dylan, and I loved ‘THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TOM PILE’ (the first book in THE CASEBOOKS OF CAPTAIN HOLLOWAY) and are thrilled to be able to ask you a few questions about it. It’s a brilliant book, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who’s intrigued by the strange and unexplained. Can you start by giving us a quick summary of the story?
Without giving too much away; a boy in a rural village in West Dorset in 1900 goes missing. Forty years later in WW2 a young soldier finds a shivering disoriented boy in the churchyard of that same village. The locals think him a German spy or paratrooper. The soldier knows better. The young soldier is part of a government department which investigates the unusual and the unexplained. A larger story is gradually revealed that reaches back into the past as well as into the future.
It’s a great concept, and the book has a depth and a thoughtfulness that really appealed to me. In your afterword, you explain you started writing it in the 1980s. Do you think the long gestation period made the story stronger?
In truth it was started even earlier than the 1980s. It was in fact in the late 70s that the seed for the story was planted. It was just after a New Year blizzard.The night before I had been marvelling at the clear skies from the same churchyard in Litton Cheney. Snowed in the next day I wrote down some notes and then stored them away It was one of several ideas that I stored in the same drawer intending to write up one day as full stories. It just happened that I found a way of writing the other ones before I got round to this one. I think this was a good thing as I learned a lot by writing the previous novels and I hope this one has benefitted from that experience and the delayed gratification.
You mention Litton Cheney. That’s the village in West Dorset that you’ve previously described as the source of your initial story idea. What was it about the place that inspired you?
I first went there with my wife Emma. Her parents lived in the Old Rectory a fine 18th century house next to the church and the churchyard. We were in fact married in that same church where the White Hart leaps out at Jack Carmody and Tom Pile is found behind a grave stone. The setting of the village and the house were inspiring with the very steep hill that rises up to the A35 road to Bridport. I could clearly imagine the rural life there with the one small school and the vivid wide night skies.
How romantic! Dylan’s favourite bit of the book was the appearance of the strange lights. Have you ever seen anything that defied explanation in those vivid wide night skies?
Nothing that defied explanation but I have always been drawn to Astronomy and the night sky. I remember as a thirteen year old boy running home at night from a friend’s house. We had been listening to Gustave Holsts’ Planets Suite. The final movement is called Neptune The Mystic, the music fades into eerie silence suggesting the infinite distance of space. As I ran home the night sky (this would have been in Hove on the south coast) that particular night was astonishingly clear and I remember looking up as I ran and almost longing to be abducted up into that bright infinity. I think that is possibly the closest I have got to such an experience, although I do remember the wonderful sight of the Halle Bopp comet a few years ago, equally beautiful and numinous.
Do you have any superstitions? If so, what are they?
No real superstitions although if I am travelling on the train between London and Brighton there is a particular company sign that I must avoid seeing or noticing in any way because I find the combination of words ugly and upsetting. I mean no disrespect to the company involved I just don’t like rehearsing the sound of the words in my head even writing them down here is mildly upsetting…’Foxboro Yoxall’.. there I’ve done it.
Our favourite character in the book was Jack Carmody. You have said that he shares your taste for old horror films. Is he based on you in any other ways?
Not really although I have farmed out and loaned him little bits and pieces of my own experience. For instance I could read before I went to school and was jumped forward a school year, and I did have my haircut by a barber named Lew who asked me to explain various odd things to his waiting customers, such as how an atom bomb works which apparently I knew when I was nine. I did also experience being tucked up in my bedroom in summertime while other children were playing noisily outside in the street, which happened a lot more in my 1950s childhood, no one seems to play outside in the streets now.
What made you decide to write about a character with sixth sense?
I suppose it was a way of bringing the theme of mystery and the unexplained into the story early, rather like a particular theme is introduced into a long piece of music and paves the way for its development later on. It also opens up possiblilties for Jack as the story progresses.
Your use of fictional newspaper articles, German intelligence reports, secret War Department communiques and photographic illustrations add to the ‘reality’ of the story. As an illustrator as well as a writer, do you think you are more aware than most authors of the visual elements of story-telling? Do you find the two skills feed into each other?
I like to think that the two skills do feed into one another. I see everything very clearly and in great detail as I write. I often include too much visual detail and am forced to cut it back like hacking through a wall of ivy. I just very much enjoyed the making of the images in Tom Pile, the forged documents and clippings were great fun to get right many of the photographs are actually of Litton Cheney and surroundings taken by my late Mother in Law in the early 1950s which my son Laurence cleverly altered and enhanced. The photograph of Aunt Dolly in her pinny is actually my paternal Grandmother who seemed to fit the bill.
I love that! We didn’t realise how personal the photos were when we were reading. That’s just brilliant. Dylan liked the war setting as he’s been learning about the First and Second World Wars at school. Is it a time in British history that particularly interests you? Did you have to do much research?
I am pretty steeped in WW2. I was born just after it finished so it loomed large all through my childhood as this huge adventure which I just missed. My father was a soldier in the Coldstream Guards and saw active service all over North Africa and Italy and was full of stories about it. There were still signs of the war all over the place. As children we played WW2 games on what were called ‘bomb sites’ that is places where buildings had been hit by air raids there were a surprising number of them. I did do some research into regiments that had been deployed in Dorset and so on, so there are some real facts among the many inventions.
You seem to have a fondness for characters named Jack and Tom (we’re Tom Trueheart fans). Is there any reason for this?
Tom Pile in the book was actually a real person. He was a gardener who worked for my parents in law in the 1950s. The only time he had ever left the village of Litton Cheney was to fight in WW1. I used his name because I liked the photographs of him in my mother in law’s photo album (see attached). Hence the use of the name Tom in this case. Otherwise no real reason except in the case of Tom Trueheart that fairy tale traditional name in opposition to Jack seemed a clear choice.
You have worked with incredible authors like Philip Pullman, and studied with industry icons like Raymond Briggs. What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
One of the best pieces of advice I had was from my first ever agent when he took me on in the late 1960s. He was a delightful man named John Craddock, he said, ‘keep going, don’t ever give up and eventually you’ll find your level’, which proved to be sound advice as I never did give up and I suspect I have found my level.
How many more mysteries will there be for Holloway and Carmody to solve?
Well there is at least one more which I have just finished writing. It is called ‘The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel’ and is set a year later than the first book. Reports come in of a mysterious girl caught up in a Breton fishing net and Jack and Tom must travel to occupied France to rescue her. Whether there will be another after that I suspect will depend on how well the first book does, there are after all no guarantees.
Do you have any plans for celebrating publication?
It would be a nice to think that once it is released some readers might enjoy the story, that will be celebration enough. I shall just keep a close eye on the night skies.
We’ll also be watching the skies for strange lights and we hope you get the chance to write many more in the series. Thank you for a great read and some fascinating answers, Ian. We wish you all the best.
Ian Beck was Born in Hove, Sussex in 1947. He failed his Eleven Plus exam and so he was went to the local ‘salon des refusees’, the secondary modern school. He was there from 1958- 1963. He showed a strong interest in drawing and painting and he was encouraged by both the art teacher and the headmaster to attend the local Brighton College of Art Saturday morning art classes for children. He eventually went to the same art school as a full time student in 1963. He studied illustration and graphic design and was taught by among others, John Vernon Lord, Raymond Briggs and John Lawrence.
He graduated in 1968, and shortly afterwards moved to London with his portfolio of drawings to try his luck as a freelance illustrator. He worked part time at Harrods in the toy dept for a year, to pay the rent, and in the meantime gradually built up a client list, mainly working for mainstream consumer magazines like Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and Homes and Gardens. He also began making drawings for the recording industry. At first these were just trade advertisements for performers like Ry Cooder and Richie Havens. Later in the early seventies he designed and illustrated album covers as well, for example the triple gatefold album ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, for Sir Elton John. He continued to work in this field until the early 1980’s, also producing work for most of the leading design groups, advertising agencies, newspapers, and magazines.
He was approached by the Oxford University Press, who had seen some drawings he had made for the Radio Times. The designer at the OUP felt that the style of the drawings would suit a project which they wanted to publish. This became his first book for children, Round and Round the Garden, an illustrated collection of finger rhymes and games. It was through working on this first book that he began his (continuing) relationship with the editor and publisher David Fickling. After the success of the first book others followed, until 1989, when he was encouraged to write his own first story to illustrate, this became The Teddy Robber, (Doubleday 1989) from this point on the books took over completely from the editorial work. Most of his time is now spent writing and illustrating his own books for children and young adults of which he has published over seventy five.
He has illustrated private press books including editions of stories notably William Boyd’s, Cork, and Jeanette Winterson’s, The Dreaming House. He contributed graphic illustrated endpapers and additional visual material to the tenth anniversary editions of the His Dark Materials trilogy for Philip Pullman, for whom he has also illustrated Puss In Boots and Aladdin.
He has been president of the Double Crown Club, and was Master of the Art Workers Guild in 1999. He is married to Emma, youngest daughter of the distinguished Wood engraver and letter cutter Reynolds Stone and they have three children and one grandchild.
His Book Home Before Dark won the gold award in the best toy awards, and was also awarded the Ownagata prize in Japan. Alone in the Woods, won the gold award in the best toy awards 2000 as did The Happy Bee. Lost In The Snow was made into an animated film for ITV in 1999.
He published his first novel for children, The Secret history of Tom Trueheart, in 2006. This book has been translated into twenty languages to date. The third in the series, Tom Trueheart & The Land of Myths & Legends, has just been translated into Japanese.
Pastworld his novel for teenagers was published by Bloomsbury in October 2009.
In 2011 he published The Hidden Kingdom (Oxford) and The Haunting of Charity Delafield (Bodley Head RHCB). He has just completed early drafts of two further novels, as well as two collections of poetry, both of which he will illustrate. He has also contributed short stories to anthologies for teen readers. His story The Summer House (Previous Parrot Press 2006) was made into a short film in 2007 featuring Talulah Riley and Robert Pattinson.
He tours schools and libraries all over the country and abroad talking about his own work and often lectures on the work of other authors and illustrators.
Rachel Hamilton is a graduate of both Oxford University and Cambridge University and has put her education to good use by working in an advertising agency, a comprehensive school, a men’s prison and on a building site.
She developed a passion for story-telling as a long-suffering English teacher, when she discovered it was the best way to get her students to stop talking and listen to her. Rachel divides her time between the UK and Dubai, creating funny books for 9 to 13 year-olds and encouraging kids to be proud of the things that make them unique. After winning a prize in the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition at the 2013 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, she received an offer of representation by London agent, Luigi Bonomi, followed by a two book deal with Simon and Schuster. Rachel loves to make people laugh, especially when it’s intentional rather than accidental.