Phil Earle (@philearle), ‘A must-read author for today’s young adults.‘ (The Telegraph), was born in Hull, and his first job was as a care worker in a children’s home. His experiences there inspired him to train as a drama therapist but after a couple of years in the care sector, Phil moved into bookselling, working for Ottakars. The children’s literature bug bit him and next he moved to work for various publishers, and eventually to try writing himself.
Phil’s debut novel Being Billy drew on his experience of working with children in care. It won the 2012 WeRead Book Award, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and was shortlisted for both the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and Branford Boase Award. Saving Daisy and Heroic followed, and yesterday Phil’s fourth novel, The Bubble Wrap Boy, was published.
To celebrate the publication of The Bubble Wrap Boy Phil has written us a piece about how it came into being and about how Phil became a writer. So now, over to Phil:
“The Bubble Wrap Boy is the fourth book I’ve written, but in some ways, it’s my first. How pretentious, I hear you cry, but it’s sort of true, I promise.
I started writing when I was twenty-six, fourteen years ago. I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer before that, far from it.
I wasn’t a reader as a kid. I didn’t feel there were any books out there that spoke to me or said anything about my life. So I didn’t bother. Besides, there was plenty of football to play and I didn’t know what I was missing.
All that changed when I got a job as a bookseller and was forced into the kids section. No-one wanted to work in there, it was the Bronx of the bookshop, a scene of devastation thanks to the hands of eager toddlers. But my boss made me read a children’s book, as she wanted me to recommend books I’d read and genuinely loved.
That book was ‘Holes’ and I didn’t look back.
It was like someone turned the light on, and suddenly there were books everywhere that I actually wanted to read.
Two years later I’d read every kids or YA book I could get my hands on, even the ones I had no business reading (there’s no more embarrassing sight than a twenty-six year old man on the tube, snorting with laughter at ‘Angus, Thongs & Full Frontal Snogging’ – but that was me, I was that soldier).
Two years later, I only had one thing on my mind, and that was trying to write the kind of book that I loved reading.
And that book was ‘The Bubble Wrap Boy’, well kind of. Except it was different.
It wasn’t a book for teens, about a kid mollycoddled so badly by his mum that friends humiliate him by encasing him in bubble wrap.
This book was for younger readers: I was obsessed at the time by Lemony Snicket and Tim Burton, so I wrote about an eight year old kid called Bud Cotton, who folks were so deranged and over-protective, that they’d encased their boy in cotton wool. From head to toe: with only holes for him to see and breathe. (I never even thought about how the poor kid used the loo…)
I spent the best part of four years writing ‘Cotton Bud’, lord knows how many drafts I finished, but I loved every second of it. An old mate, Boz, filled a dozen notebooks with the most incredible illustrations, it all seemed to be falling into place.
But then, I made a mistake, a rookie schoolboy error.
I asked my mum to read it, and my dad, plus my girlfriend and closest mates.
They all said the same thing, that it was great, that it reinvented the wheel, that I’d hit the nail on the whotsit.
So in a bullish haze I sent it to agents and editors, who all came back (eventually) and said the same thing: that it was drivel and derivative (and these were the kinder comments).
You could say it was one heck of a slap, but in hindsight it taught me a valuable lesson, one I talk about in my school events: that you should never ask your mum to give you honest feedback. I mean, she’s your mum! What else is she going to say except, ‘I love it.’
What I needed, but didn’t really have, was that objective voice, someone who would tell me when the writing worked, but equally when it stank.
The one good thing that happened in the whole process, was I received a piece of feedback from an editor who has become a good friend. She told me two things;
1. That I could write, that I was, already a writer.
2. That I should re-write the book. That there was maybe something more intriguing about a naturalistic novel, where a parent only figuratively wraps their child in cotton wool.
I struggled to take point 2 onboard for a long time. I couldn’t see how it could possibly work, but…many years on, the idea started to nag at me, so I picked up those old pages, and after laughing at how shocking they were, I started again, taking my friends advice onboard.
What followed was a cracking six months.
After writing HEROIC, I knew I wanted to write something a little lighter.
One reviewer had described my books as an ‘ordeal’, and to be honest, I wanted to prove that person wrong. I wanted to show I could take big themes like betrayal and secrecy and still make them accessible, that I could do humour as well as ‘grit’.
I hope you see this within the pages of ‘The Bubble Wrap Boy’. I hope you enjoy the book and feel able to recommend it to your students or peers.
And whether you enjoy it, or whether you don’t, please do let me know. I’m wrapped in just enough cotton wool to take the credit as well as the blows…”