Monday, 10 July 2017

Interview with David Barnett, author of 'Calling Major Tom'

Author David Barnett of 'Calling Major Tom'

Calling Major Tom is one of the most highly rated and beloved books of 2017, following its paperback publication from Orion Publishing on Thursday 29th June, NextToTheAisle was granted an interview with the book's author, David Barnett.

- What was the genesis of the book?
Well, I’ve mentioned this several times before, but the main inspiration came from a true-life event when the British astronaut Tim Peake made a wrong-number call to a grandmother in the UK at Christmas 2015, which amused me and made me wonder what would have happened if that conversation had continued, which is the basis for Calling Major Tom. But I suppose the real-life story behind that is the fact I was made redundant from my job in summer 2015 and embarked on a freelance journalism career. When the idea for the book came to me and I started discussions with Orion, who were setting up their new imprint Trapeze, it meant I was in a good position to devote the time to writing the book.

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- Where did the idea for a fish out of water come about, by plot, by character?
I knew Thomas was going to be incredibly grumpy, and I knew that he needed to be away from everyone else, so that was the starting point. But I also knew that readers tend not to take to a character who’s curmudgeonly for no reason, so Thomas had to have had a life that had led him to being like that, and unfolding the reasons for his grumpiness formed a big part of writing the novel.

- I first heard of your book, a few months after David Bowie's passing, was this an unlikely accident or did you re-edit due to his passing?
No, it all came about at the same time, really. The Tim Peake incident happened just a couple of weeks before Bowie’s death, and when the latter happened - like Thomas in the book, I awoke on my 46th birthday to hear the news - it all seems to fit seamlessly together and helped to formulate Thomas’s character. He’s grumpy but he’s not a monster - he has excellent taste in music, and Bowie’s death, along with some more personal bad news, is one of the motivating factors that propels him into the position where he becomes the first human to make a solo mission to Mars.

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David Bowie, the original Major Tom

- How long did the whole process take?
It was very quick, really. Because the idea consolidated itself very quickly I was off and writing at the beginning of 2016 and I think I’d delivered the finished manuscript by the end of July, with obviously some copy edits after that. But the ebook was released in January 2017, just shy of a year that I’d first begun conversations with Sam Eades at Trapeze about the idea.
- You have a good sense of character and dialogue of differing ages of characters, how did you capture that?
I think as a writer you have to be interested in all kinds of people, and observe them, and take notice of them. We usually all have family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours etc of varying ages, social classes, ethnicities etc etc and it’s just a case of being interested in people. All the best fiction is about people, and a good writer really needs to be able to get under the skin of all kinds of people to know what makes them tick.

- David Bowie hangs over the book and provides a soundtrack as you read, what other influences did you have?
Music was important - in fact, I recently put together a playlist of most of the music referenced in the novel (including Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red… that was from another character, Thomas would be appalled). You can find it here: But I think I wanted the novel to feel as contemporary as possible, so there are references to Brexit etc. But one of the biggest influences was my hometown of Wigan. That’s where the Ormerod family who Thomas makes contact with live, and I wanted to try to portray a working class family as ordinary, normal people… so much of contemporary fiction seems to focus on middle class characters, I wanted to show the lives of people like those I grew up around.

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Tim Peake's accidental phone-call supplied inspiration
- How pleased have you been by the response to the book?
Well, it’s early days yet, as the paperback only came out at the end of June, but the response to the ebook was phenomenal. I was amazed at how much of a chord the story and characters seemed to strike within a wide range of people, and there were some utterly fantastic reviews (such as yours!) from book bloggers, who I see as an absolutely vital part of the book culture for getting the word out about books to readers.
- You come from a journalism background, do you find the key to avoid block is to keep writing in any format?
Yes, the day job is still freelance journalism, so any given day will find me writing features for the national newspapers and magazines, working on fiction, doing a bit of lecturing at a local university, so I’m always writing, and while the writing isn’t always fiction, it’s like exercise. If you go to the gym you might do cardio or work different muscle groups, but it all contributes to overall physical fitness. It’s the same with writing. Journalism and fiction use different writing muscles, but ultimately it’s all writing, and that’s what’s important - to keep writing.

- What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel for Trapeze, which is called The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, and which will be published by Trapeze in summer 2018. It’s set in a quirky rest home on the Lancashire coast, which takes in students to fill empty rooms and make a bit of money, and is a bit of a mystery, a bit of an inter-generational clash, a bit of a story about loneliness and growing up… or not.

Calling Major Tom is out now on Paperback from Orion Books
Follow David Barnett on his website or on Twitter @davidmbarnett

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