Writers in the Brewery invited me to speak at its February meeting at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester, and I was lucky that fellow local author Richard Hensley (a writer of epic science fiction) volunteered to record the event. After a little editing to remove some background hum and hiss the audio is now available below and on my website. The talk included a QnA at the end (starting at about 33 mins). The following is a summary of much of what I mentioned.
Names are an important part of a book and I base the ones I use on something that means something to me or helps to inspire me:
I used the name Hobbes since it has connotations of hobgoblins, Hobbs End in Quatermass and the Pit, where all the weird goings on happen, and also gives a nod towards Thomas Hobbes the philosopher (who was not a handsome man). In addition it suggests ‘hub’ since the stories revolve around Hobbes, and the name has a similar root.
Andy Caplet was inspired by seeing a photo of André Caplet and fellow composer Claude Debussy, in which Claude came across as large and confident and André appeared small and insignificant.
Mrs Goodfellow comes from the name of a sprite or spirit in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Mrs Goodfellow is a good cook and coincidentally there is an old American cookbook by a Mrs Goodfellow. Although it is possible I heard about it when I briefly worked in the US, I don’t remember it.
I describe Hobbes as unhuman, since he isn’t quite human as we understand it. I chose that word since inhuman suggests cruel or nasty which he isn’t (normally).
Inspector Hobbes and the Bones like my other titles, has more than one meaning. The story does contain real bones, but also reveals a little of what goes on under the skin of the town of Sorencester.
The names of the Elwess (Matilda, Hilda, Aubrey and Alvin) come from English and Scandinavian Folklore and suggest mythical beings – sprites and elves and suchlike.
Solomon Slugg was actually a real name that I came across at the Rifles Museum in Salisbury. I thought it too good to waste, and invented a whole family of Sluggs.
Mrs Nutter is as the name suggests! She doesn’t think much of Andy.
The place names in Sorencester are often corruptions of place names in Cirencester, and Sorenchester is of course a terribly twisted version of Cirencester.
My initial idea for the monstrous Hobbes came from seeing an Alan Titchmarsh programmes in which he had himself made up as a Neanderthal and walked around London, barely getting a second glance. Although I don’t see Hobbes as Neaderthal, I do have him as someone from a distant offshoot of the human tree. A police uniform would be a great thing to hide behind until an unhuman could be accepted as a fixture in a community.
I was also inspired by Sherlock Holmes where Conan Doyle used a narrator to describe Sherlock since it was difficult to get inside Holmes’s head as he is so different. Sherlock Holmes is why I use a narrator and a housekeeper.
Andy is partially inspired by Nigel Bruce’s version of Dr Watson from the older Basil Rathbone films.
Andy is taken in like a stray, in the same way as Dregs the dog.
Andy is forced to help rescue people.
Write about what you know is good advice (although you do not have to have known it for long), which is why I base the Hobbes stories in Sorenchester, a strangely distorted version of Cirencester. I don’t plot beforehand, but have a start point and an end point in mind and let the characters map out the direction the story takes to get there. When I have the first draft, I read it through immediately, changing any obvious mistakes and adding changes including some of those suggested by my writing group and by my partner. If time is not too pressing, I then like to leave it a while before editing and rewriting in earnest, making sure everything is consistent, that the story hangs together and that the writing flows. It takes many rewrites before I am more or less satisfied. I use a real calendar for checking dates, days of the week, lighting up times, stages of the moon etc. In editing, some parts are expanded, some are removed and some shortened. The first book lost its first 2 chapters, which were when I was writing my way into the book, and one in the middle which slowed things down too much. I wish I could write faster: I can’t match Alexander McCall Smith’s output of 4-5000 words a day. If I can do half of that I’m very pleased. I do however have the same cover designer.
Inspector Hobbes and the Bones
As well as being about the weather, this book was inspired by themes of immigration. All of us are either immigrants ourselves or have ancestors that were (sometimes many generations ago). In this book Hobbes has to police some new dangerous and mysterious arrivals.It also features the events that occur to the hapless Andy, who early on gets punched, is nearly run down and is shot in the buttock with an air-rifle.
The book deals with floods, identity theft, corrupt politicians, the seedy underbelly of the restaurant trade, dangerous animals, blackmail and is a humorous story with a hint of fantasy.
Some of my recurring characters also comes into it – including little Billy Shawcroft, and ‘Skeleton’ Bob Nibblet (who is not an actual skeleton, as some of my reviewers have thought).
I’m working on new book, provisionally entitled Razor. It is about a suicidal man’s struggles to achieve an heroic death. Although it is not an Hobbes book, it is set in the same world and some parts are in Sorencester. It has a cast of new characters. I do intend to write further Hobbes books at some point.
How much of yourself do you see in your characters, and which characters?
Quite a lot of me is in Andy, mostly the worst bits. He has too many negative aspects, but will come through in the end if pushed. I’m not easily pushed but am easily led. Andy is an amazingly clumsy chap to whom odd things happen, and surprisingly many of the incidents I write about have been inspired by reality – either things that have happened to me or to someone I know. There are many more true stories I could use but they may not be believable.
Hobbes has aspects of my grandfather – gruff and kindly. A father figure for Andy.
Mrs Goodfellow is a good cook because I like to think I am one.
There is a bit of myself in all the characters, even though overall none of them is like me.
I do distinguish myself from Andy though as Andy drinks lager which is something I would never do. Hobbes is a tea drinker something I share with him.
When you said he is unhuman. What do you mean by that?
He’s not quite a human being. He’s gone down a different path of the evolutionary tree, though there is probably a common ancestor somewhere.
How is this revealed in his character then?
There are various weird parts of him. Where most detectives follow visual clues, Hobbes follows nasal ones. He sniffs his way. He has an acute sense of smell. He is enormously powerful and bulky and being all muscle, he doesn’t float. Instead he just walks along the bottom and hopes for the best when he is in deep water.
Did you think about all these characteristics before, or did they just kind of develop?
A lot of them were there before, but some of them developed. Sniffing, powerfulness, strength were all there from the start, but some others did develop as it went on including his method of de-stressing by crunching up raw bones.
Does this impact on people around him then?
To an extent yes, though some of them aren’t human either. Most are quite well behaved. There are even a couple of ghouls in one of the other books. They live on bones and keep opening up graves. Hobbes lets them get on with it as long as they clear up afterwards.
You don’t describe it as fantasy do you? But is has that tinge in it.
It has a tinge to it yes. On the surface everything is normal but there is a thread of fantasy that runs through it.
Isn’t that quite difficult though?
It is difficult to get the balance right. I do think having a completely normal surface and setting it in a twisted version of Cirencester helps, because I can feel what is going on there and know what is real. I can then twist these little bits through the story.
It’s a bit similar to John Wyndham – he used to always do that, to keep the normal situation in a normal society and then add something extraordinary to it. I think that is what I was trying to do.
Does he get more unhuman as things progress or does he stay the same?
He stays much the same. Although now and again little bits, new little oddities will turn up. Like when Andy is ill in bed and he sees Hobbes’s face in the window upside down.
Does it relate to the moon?
No, Hobbes is always the same.
I’m thinking werewolf.
No, although werewolves do come into Hobbes and the Curse. They are actually quite friendly, although both Dregs and Andy catch fleas off them.
Do you understand him, because you said Andy doesn’t understand him?
I understand what he is doing. If you watch an animal you can describe what it is doing but you can’t say what is going on in its head. It is the same with Hobbes. I can describe him but not what he is thinking. Andy will put his own interpretation on how he thinks Hobbes is thinking.
So do people interpret him in different ways then?
Mostly it seems to be very similar. People have their own image of him and it tends to gel and to be quite consistent. Occasionally people have different ideas such as ‘Skeleton’ Bob being a real skeleton.
Have you got any actors in mind for the film or television version?
That would be great. No, I haven’t really. There was a guy called André the Giant, he would have made a reasonable Hobbes. As for the others I don’t really know. Maybe Martin Freeman as Andy. It is a hard question as I have my own impressions and it is difficult to put that onto actors
Do you like him? Or are you going to be like Conan Doyle and kill him off?
At the moment I like him. It is a point, because he has been around for a long time and probably should have retired about 60 years ago. At some stage, if I keep on writing him, and I do intend to at some at point, he may have to retire. Although he is powerful he is also quite vulnerable. He’s not immune to getting shot, and in this book shows he can’t cope with deep water – he just holds his breath and hopes for the best. In his way he is quite selfless. He is there to protect the public and his values were drummed into him by his adoptive parents, who were human. Hobbes and the Gold Diggers has more about his background, where he is from. There was a tribe of his people living in the Blacker mountains, which are like the Black mountains but a bit further away.
Listen to the recording here:
An extract of Inspector Hobbes and the Bones is available on Nielsen Book’s book2look.com http://b2l.bz/VbXBpd
The original of this was first posted to blogger.com, the original home of my blog, in 2017. The ‘new book’ Razor is now published under that title.