A few years ago, I heard on the grapevine that a friend of mine, Tom Avery, had won a competition with a novel that he had written. That’s funny, I thought, I didn’t know Tom wrote. All I knew was that he was a good bloke and seemed like a very good primary school teacher. But that’s the thing about fiction writers in Christian circles isn’t it? Unless you write about Christian stuff exclusively for Christians, there are very few platforms in most churches to showcase your skill or test out your ability.
Well, it turns out that this wasn’t just a ‘pat on the back’ diversion for Tom, but the start of a new career which has been going from strength to strength ever since.
Just 5 years on, he writes children’s fiction full time to critical acclaim and has won the Diverse Voices Book Award and been nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Medal. He has just published his third novel, Not As We Know It, and so I thought it was long overdue that we caught up with him and got inside his head a little.
So, for all you closet writers out there who think that Tom’s story seems a bit like a dream come true, hopefully this will provide some encouragement and wisdom.
For readers, a novel from a new author comes out of the blue, but this is seldom the case for a writer. What was your experience of writing before your first novel ‘Too Much Trouble’?
That depends what you mean by writing. If you mean putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, my experience was slight. I’d never attempted a novel.
As a reader, you pick up a book by an author you know and there is an expectation of the quality of prose, originality of concept, of character. For a debut, your expectations are lowered. You step into the unknown. I might suggest that your expectations in some regards should be higher.
Most novelists will have been conspiring to write and thinking about that first tome for years, if not decades, directly or indirectly, before they chisel their ideas in stone. This was my experience. I had years of working with young people logged in the back of my head when I started writing.
Sure, an author learns their craft through experience, through the write and repeat cycle of creating and shaping, deleting and re-forming. Sure, a debut, for most, will not showcase their writing, plotting, storytelling at its polished, mature form. But a debut novel says what an author has been waiting to say for years. The ideas should be original. The voices fresh.
Having said all that, if someone asks me which book of mine they should read, I don’t recommend Too Much Trouble. I usually plump for my latest. My latest book is what I want to say now.
What do you hope to achieve through your writing?
My working life aside from writing has been in education, working in schools in London and Birmingham. Everyone is different and this truth becomes evident when you have thirty little lives squashed in a classroom. Everyone is different but children’s books are not.
Tropes of course are necessary. We want to connect story to our previous experience. We want a frame of reference where we can see Frodo Baggins in Harry Potter, James Bond in Alex Ryder. But children also want to see themselves and their lives in the books they read. Some of the great names in children’s fiction like Jacqueline Wilson and Malory Blackman have shown that children want diverse protagonists.
All of my books were borne out of a desire to write about a real child’s circumstances. My aim is never to write an ‘issues’ book but a ‘real’ book. What I want to achieve is hope spoken into the real challenges that children face.
How does your Christian faith affect your writing?
Occasionally, when Christians hear of my profession, they jump to the conclusion or make the suggestion that I write great allusive books like C.S. Lewis. But with all respect to the great don, I don’t feel called to this allegorical way of presenting Christianity.
I alluded to it above. I want to present hope. I want children to see that circumstance can be redeemed. The Christian message is that God is in the business of renewing all things. I want my books to be ones of renewal.
Lots of Christian authors, maybe especially those writing for young adults, have a tendency to become very didactic and moralistic in their writing. Do you feel this temptation and if so how do you deal with it?
I guess I don’t. Not to any great extent. I’m in the business of telling stories. Stories carry message. Stories have impact. Without setting out to preach, stories convey a world view.
I take care to write about what I feel convicted to write about but in the same way that I would not set out to write an ‘issues’ book, I don’t set out as an apologist.
On your website, you give some really helpful writing tips (here). If you could give just one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
A novel is 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 words (unless you’re George R. R. Martin). That takes a mighty long time to write – more than enough time to see the magnificent flaws in your writing, your plot, your characters.
It takes perseverance to write through the time when your own writing makes you laugh it’s so bad.
One day you’ll have those tens of thousands of words with a beginning, middle and end (or something like that). One day you’ll have the novel that only you could write.
It is painful but keep writing.
You’ve got a new book- Not As We Know It. What is it about and do you know what your next project will be?
Not As We Know It is a tale of mermen, Star Trek and fraternal love set in the early 80s.
Jamie and Ned are twins. They do everything together: riding their bikes, beachcombing outside their house, watching their favourite episodes of Star Trek.
But Ned is sick.
When they discover a strange creature on the beach, Jamie begins to hope that the creature might bring some miracle, and stop his brother from going where he can no longer follow.
My next project – I’ve recently moved with my family to Amsterdam and I am working on a book that takes inspiration from this – a girl and her father move to the city where they want to find a fresh start. I’ve also been writing some retellings of folk tales about giants from around the world.
You may or may not see them in bound book form.
Thank you Tom. Please keep an eye out for Tom. Buy his books and support him in any way you can. To find out more or get hold of his books, click here. Traditionally Christians have thought that influential Christians are the ones who speak to other Christians on a Sunday morning or write books to fill other Christians’ book shelves. This guy is bringing hope into the homes of the 90% who would never come to church or buy any Kingsway paperbacks. We need more Tom Averies!