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Adam Interviews...Francis O'Dowd!

Good morning!

Ready to hit the ground running?

Well, hold on there. Let's take a minute and talk to an author before we dive into the work day.

Today, I have Francis O'Dowd. Francis O’Dowd is a Scottish writer and illustrator whose pen and ink drawings perfectly complement his Pythonesque storytelling: the whimsical & surreal against the grittiness of everyday life. For many years he was the chairperson of a youth music charity. He has recorded several albums of music including full length soundtracks for his novels Wishhobbler and Hopesgrave Easily. His YouTube channel features book trailers, music videos and readings. Francis lives in Scotland with his wife, their daughter and two sons, several dogs and Guinea pigs, and has a time machine parked in the back garden. He was once asked for his autograph by Tom Baker, who used to be terribly famous.

Social Media link

Wishhobbler Trailer

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Doctor Who. Sorry, that’s not one of the options but it’s a programme I’ve been passionate about my entire life. As a kid it grabbed and fed my imagination like nothing else. It also introduced me to writers, artists and musicians whose work I’ve now followed for years. In our back garden we have a full-sized, screen-used TARDIS my wife got me for my 50th.



Firefly – gone too soon or overrated?

I don’t think it’s possible to overrate Firefly. It’s so perfect that it’s almost a good thing it ended when it did, while it was still perfect.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

So long ago I can’t remember. When I was a kid it felt like there were stories everywhere. Not just the stories I was told or read or watched. There were glimpses of stories all around. I was born in the early seventies and houses, schools, libraries, even waiting rooms were stuffed with books. A lot of them were leftovers from the 60s with very individual and evocative covers and illustrations. There were only three television channels in Scotland, no streaming or recording. I was the youngest in the family and had very little say in what was watched. So I saw bits and pieces of things I probably wouldn’t have chosen but which were full of atmosphere and character. And with three older brothers there was lots of music being played and album covers lying around. And every one of these things was like a window into another story and my imagination was filling in the blanks. I loved every kind of story but especially adventure, sci-fi and fantasy. I just wanted to join in and find mine; a story of my very own. And that never left me.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

All the way through school I was dreaming up stories and compiling a list of future books. And working hard to get my drawing to a level where I could illustrate them. Once I’d left school I became more serious about getting on with it. But I must have been about 24 before I hit upon the idea that became Wishhobbler. Within about two years I had a manuscript that was being sent around British publishers. Then I met another writer who became my editor. We gave the book a major overhaul then started sending it out again. I got some really good feedback and a couple of near misses, but ultimately it “wasn’t quite right for the market.” So I decided to publish it myself. It finally came out in 2001 when I was 30, six years after starting. A new edition, with a slightly revised text and double the number of illustrations, came out in 2023. The Kindle edition has briefly been #1 in its Amazon categories in both the UK and US.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

One reviewer said my work was like Monty Python colliding with Alan Moore. I really liked that. I used to love watching Python with my big brothers. There seemed to be a common thread with other things we liked, such as Bugs Bunny, Worzel Gummidge and Laurel & Hardy. There would be outrageous, even surreal characters and concepts colliding with everyday life. These were just wee sketches but they were delivered with such a straight-faced integrity and a commitment to the internal logic that it felt real. Which is what made them so funny. But they would live in my head for weeks. I was desperate for them to be full blown movies or novels, full of big drama and danger. I’ve only recently come to realise that the experience of watching these things as a kid with my brothers shaped my whole approach to writing. I want to take wild, offbeat characters and premises, make them and their world feel real and natural, make it funny but fill them with real drama and even darkness. Monty Python meets Alan Moore.

Do you like to create books for adults?

I think what I’m trying to do is create kids’ books for adults. Urban fairy tales that have the charm of classic books like the Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan, but which really go for the drama and danger that satisfy the adult palate. Plenty of laughs but plenty of darkness too. I also illustrate them with very detailed pen and ink drawings. There aren’t enough illustrated books for adults.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I felt much more confident. I knew I could do it and I knew it was definitely going to be published. I loved writing the first one but really loved writing the second, Hopesgrave Easily. It’s much stronger and even playful. One chapter was presented as a comic strip for example. But this was before digital printing, print-on-demand or eBooks. I had hundreds of traditionally printed books in my cupboard and had to market and distribute them myself. They sold out across Britain and a few reached the USA and Hong Kong, but it was exhausting and there was very little feedback. I started planning a third but got distracted when I became involved in a youth music charity. I composed and recorded albums for about ten years. Then I became married and we started a family. It’s only recently I returned to writing and found the landscape had completely changed. I decided to revise and add extra illustrations to my first two books and to finally write the third.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

It usually starts with an image, either something I physically see, or imagine from reading or from listening to music. There will be a feeling or atmosphere which grabs me and I absent-mindedly let a scene play out. And it grows from there. It doesn’t really take off until it collides with some other idea, often something that doesn’t initially feel like an obvious fit. But there will be sparks and it starts to gel.

With Wishhobbler it started with a book of photographs of the industrial tenement slums of 1870s Glasgow. The living conditions were horrific. But there was something about this enclosed, dark miniature world of narrow alleys crammed full of more homes than seemed possible, tenement buildings spawning almost organically from each other … and it was all real. I became obsessed by it. I would pour over the book while listening to the music of Marillion and this story started to grow. I had three characters wandering around: a centuries-old knight, a big bear-like monster and a teenage girl. I couldn’t work out what connected them or how the knight even got there. But as soon as I twigged they were a family, scraping a living in the slums, the whole thing just snowballed.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I mentioned the ambition to write came from a deep desire to join in with all the creativity I saw around me and to find a story of my own. It was about the sheer joy of storytelling. There were tons of books like The Hobbit that I wished I’d written, but I didn’t want mine to be like any of them. The fun of it was in finding something I could call my own. Tropes wasn’t a term you heard back then, but I didn’t want to be constrained by a list of predetermined features or devices. I wanted to discover a fresh story and let it fill out its shape organically and naturally. But it’s a balance. You have to think about what the audience want and need. The goal is to write a smooth running book that is welcoming, enjoyable and satisfying. So I try to create characters, settings and plots which are fresh and surprising. But the structure, development and style are conventional. It’s a mixture that’s proven successful.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

With three small children I don’t have as much free time as I used to. But I love traditional pen and ink drawing as well as digital compositions. I love to write and record music and have released free full length soundtrack albums for my first two books. There’s a ton of free music on my Bandcamp page.

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book?

Wishhobbler is set an alternative 19th-century where the working class Victorians race television sets as sport. It was intended to be standalone, but Hopesgrave Easily just naturally takes place a few miles and a few decades away. It quietly picks up a few threads and the young bully from Wishhobbler becomes the villain. The third book will be the same. You can read and fully enjoy them on their own. But if you read all three you’ll see a much bigger picture.

What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

At the moment the use of AI in publishing is a cloud that has the potential to be hugely detrimental to the livelihoods of both writers and artists. And hugely detrimental to culture and creativity.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Overconfidence can get you very far in life, sadly. But I’m convinced that if you want to be really good at something – and if you want to be a decent person – self-belief isn’t enough. You need a healthy dose of self-doubt. That keeps you looking, keeps you checking, keeps you striving to improve.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Keep going. One day you’ll (briefly) have a #1 hit and both America and the UK; your childhood hero will ask for your autograph; and you’ll have a wife and three children who think your books are pretty cool.

What do you have coming next?

A new edition of (twenty years out-of-print) Hopesgrave Easily with over thirty new illustrations. Then a brand new novel set in the same world. And at some point an art book.

Extract from Wishhobbler

Other families have a mother. We had a pet wishhobbler that liked to stretch out in front of the fire. She would quite happily lie there all day. Providing Da took her a good long run at night, that is. She loved running. And she could be a bit of a crazy berth if she didn’t get out at night: vicious and bad tempered. She terrified the neighbours and curdled the milk; shattered furniture and punched cavernous holes in walls.

Standing on all fours, her solid square forehead was level with mine. Each of the four paws was as wide as my waist. She had to strain to get her huge body through the door.

There wasn’t a leash in the world could hold her.

The wishhobbler was a souvenir from Da’s time fighting for the King. She had been badly injured in some sort of accident; her Collision, Da called it. He rescued her and brought her home. We called her Ma, which Da said was short for Malcontent Headbanger (because she was never happy or content). Da wasn’t any good at thinking up names. He called me Spinworthie Turec after a horse in some book. Spinworthie Turec mal Arthreign. What sort of name was that for a girl? I cut it down to Spin.

Ma. It’s embarrassing to admit to you, but when I was smaller I did actually think she was our mother. See, Da had taught her to string a few sentences together. And he covered most of her rusty fur with a long dress and hat to make her seem less strange. People would ask, ‘How’s your Ma this weather?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, she’s fine: still baying at the moon.’

Living with Ma was never easy, but I won’t forget the weekend of the Wearypenn Race. The Race is very important where I come from. People don’t take kindly to wishhobblers deciding they’re going to win it. For the Race is not what you would expect. And the Racers, as we discovered, are not the kind of people it is wise to upset.

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