When did you first know you could be a writer? When I was a teenager I found a book in my school library: ‘Writing A Novel’ by John Braine. Although I’d often liked the thought of ‘being an author’ when I ‘grew up’, it had never really struck me as an achievable aim – any more than my previous ambitions of being a knight, an astronaut, or a time-travelling scientist. Suddenly, here was a book that would tell me exactly how to do it! Of course these days you can’t move for ‘how to write’ books, but that was the first one I ever found. I don’t know what I was expecting – lots of arcane wisdom probably, like the secrets of the Masonic Lodge – but it turned out that Braine’s advice was surprisingly simply: it was basically, begin at the beginning, go on until the end, and then do it again until the book is good. That was the kind of advice I could understand. But it was another ten years at least before I actually had any success with it.
What inspires you to write and why? When I was a kid, I used to play with a small group of like-minded friends, and what we played wasn’t football [soccer!] but make-believe. Some days we’d be vampires and werewolves (this was long before the modern-day craze for them, so we want royalties, by the way), some days we would be superheroes, or aliens, or characters from the latest TV show. Eventually, one by one, my friends grew out of this, but I never quite did. And there’s a real problem with being an almost-grown man with a penchant for living inside his imagination. Most people call that ‘crazy’. So what you have to do, is start writing all that stuff down, and suddenly you’re not longer called crazy, you’re called a writer instead. So writing is just a way to stay loopy and be respected for it.
How did you come up with the title? Initially, I couldn’t, so all my working file for The Storm Bottle are in a file simply called ‘Dolphin’. But as soon as the title came to me I knew it was the right one. However, I’m not sure exactly what it refers to. There is an object called a storm bottle in the story, but its largely incidental. Bottles in general do feature very prominently – the narrator, Bibi, collects antique bottles that she finds washed up on the shores of Bermuda (if you visit Bermuda, you can find them yourself, or buy some of the best ones in gift shops – the islands were an accident black spot for shipwrecks). But equally, ‘bottle’ could refer to the bottlenose dolphins that are major characters – and one in particular has a strong connection to storms. So is he the ‘storm bottle’? Or it may be that the term storm bottle is more figurative, and refers to an ancient secret that is discovered late in the story. Possibly it refers to all of these things. That’s why I like it: it’s a multi-tasking title.
Can you tell us about your main character? There are really two main characters: Bibi, the narrator, and Michael, who has the greatest adventures after being effectively changed into a dolphin. What actually happens is that his mind swaps over into a dolphin’s body, and the dolphin’s mind switches to his (for reasons you’ll discover if you read it). So Michaels gets to experience life as a dolphin, while the dolphin – who appears to be called Rodrigo – is forced to live as a human. It’s up to Bibi to figure out a way to find dolphin-Michael and switch them back.
Even before his extraordinary experience, Michael’s already going through a sort of identity crisis. His single mother has just moved to Bermuda to marry Carl, who is Bibi’s dad. So along with a change of surname, Michael has to cope with suddenly having a new home in a new country, stepfather, and also a stepsister who seems to have nothing in common with him. Michael’s very orderly and logical – even a bit stuck-up – while Bibi is a total free spirit. So initially they clash in a bad way. Events, however, will eventually cause them to see each other in a new light.
How did you develop your plot and characters? The basic element of the plot was my initial idea: I knew that a boy would saved from drowning by a dolphin, but that in that near-death experience he and the dolphin would swap bodies. The rest of the story flowed from the demands of that set-up: how would you switch them back? How would you find the dolphin, out there in the ocean? How could you identify it? Who would be conducting this search? Bibi arose as a natural candidate, being obsessed with boats and the ocean, something of a loner and obsessive, but also indomitable and – shall we say – extremely open-minded. Her voice ended up shaping the story – she became the first-person narrator, the first and so far only time that I’ve written from that point of view.
Michael was also fun to write – this boy who reacts so violently against simply living in a new home, now has to cope with living in a new body. You really couldn’t pick a worse candidate for metamorphosis. But he ended up surprising me with how he gradually learned to adapt.
Why did you choose to write this particular book? The idea for the story came from one single incident that happened to me. I was walking along a beach in Lyme Regis, Dorset (on the south coast of England) when I saw a dolphin in the water, playing with a group of swimmers. Instantly I knew that I might never have this chance again, so despite not having any towel or swimming things, I took off my shirt and shoes and socks and ran into the sea. It was pretty amazing – you hardly ever see dolphins so close to shore in England, and this one was as playful as a Labrador.
Later I wondered: why did I do that? I’m not given to impulsive behaviour. What is it about dolphins that makes us so eager to go and swim with them? Why is it that some people even claim it’s ‘the number one thing to do before you die?’ That’s why I wrote The Storm Bottle – to try and find out why.
What was the hardest part about writing this book? All the dolphin scenes especially were a real challenge. Dolphins see the world quite differently from us; they live in the ocean, they see with sound as well as light, and they can carry on conversations at great distance – they don’t have to be near each other to have a chat. Also, they don’t inhabit a world of objects or landscape, so what do they talk about? They have different priorities, different world views. Having to remember all this every time I wrote a dolphin scene was exhausting at times. But also great fun. I didn’t want them to seem like humans in disguise – they are entirely different beings, but still people.
How much of the book is realistic? I hope all of it is. Yes, there are elements drawn largely or entirely from imagination, and some fantastical aspects such as the body-swap… but if by ‘realistic’ you mean real-seeming, then I’ve tried to make it all believable in that way. I spent a very long time researching dolphin behaviour, so that virtually everything the dolphin characters do in the story, they can be observed to do in real life. This has even been a source of frustration: some of the publishers who rejected the book complained that I’d ‘anthropomorphised’ the dolphins, and expressed doubts that dolphins would really behave like that. But they do! They behave in ways that most people wouldn’t believe. Personally I have no doubt that they are thinking, conscious individuals with inner lives as rich as our own.
How important do you think villains are in a story? Roald Dahl once stated that a great story needs a great villain, and there’s a lot to be said for that. However, in this story I was going more for antagonists than out-and-out bad guys. True, there are some nasty characters along the way, but most of the conflict comes from the sheer impossibility of the task that Bibi and Michael face. So there isn’t a single evil villain to defeat, more a series of antagonistic forces that are sometimes people, sometimes circumstances.
Can we expect any more books from you in the future? I’m currently at work on a trilogy called Firebird. The world as we know it is coming to an end, and a band of teenagers have been specially chosen to keep the flame of humanity burning. I know – who in their right minds would trust the future of civilisation to a bunch of kids? Well, there is a very good reason, but you’ll have to wait to find that out. Suffice to say that the younger generation is always underestimated…
Meanwhile I’ve got another trilogy out there at the moment. The Cat Kin trilogy is published by Strident, and is worth checking out if you like action, adventure, cats, or all three.
The Storm Bottle Swimming with dolphins is said to be the number one thing to do before you die. For 12-year-old Michael, it very nearly is. A secret boat trip has gone tragically wrong, and now he lies unconscious in hospital. But when Michael finally wakes up, he seems different. His step sister Bibi is soon convinced that he is not who he appears to be. Meanwhile, in the ocean beyond Bermuda’s reefs, a group of bottlenose dolphins are astonished to discover a stranger in their midst – a boy lost and desperate to return home. Bermuda is a place of mysteries. Some believe its seas are enchanted, and the sun-drenched islands conceal a darker past, haunted with tales of lost ships. Now Bibi and Michael are finding themselves in the most extraordinary tale of all.
Praise 'I loved it... An absolute winner.' - LA Weatherly, author of the Angel Burn trilogy 'A writer who knows how to grip the imagination, make you sit on the edge of your chair, and make you laugh out loud.' - Michelle Lovric, author of The Undrowned Child, The Mourning Emporium and The Book of Human Skin 'If you only ever buy one Kindle book in your life (although that sounds a bit unlikely, now that I stop and think) this has to be it.' - The Bookwitch blog.
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