15th Nov2012

Interview with Ben Hatch

by Lloyd Paige

Ben Hatch is the man that travelled 8,000 miles around Britain in a Vauxhall Astra and what unravelled was a travel guide family style, with both funny and touching moments. It proved to be a very popular book, serialised in the Telegraph and even John Cleese liked it, so I made Ben an offer he could have refused but didn’t and he kindly agreed to talk to me.

1. You grew up in Manchester then Buckinghamshire, did you have any idea that you wanted to be a novelist in those early years?

I had my own Tony Meo autographed snooker cue when I was 14. I wanted to be the next Alex “Hurricane” Higgins. I moved twitchily around the table chalking my cue tip and thought I was pretty good. In fact I gave up studying social sciences aged 18 in Bristol because it was getting in the way of my practice. I thought I could be a pro and only realised this wasn’t going to happen the day my dad beat me wearing someone else’s glasses. Soon afterwards I read Catcher in the Rye and being a writer was all I ever wanted to be after that.

2. Your dad used to be the Head of Light Entertainment at BBC Radio, what was it like for you being around that environment?

He used to bring radio scripts back. We’d go and hear recordings sometimes in Broadcasting House. I’d get lots of spin off comedy annuals for Christmas. My dad admired comedians and funny writers above everyone else. It made me want to be one myself. Making him laugh was always my biggest thrill. In fact many of my happiest hours have been spent listening and watching comedy with my dad.

3. Did the fact that he had access to a lot of celebrities and was in a prominent position put you under pressure to pick a worthwhile career and be successful at it?

Not at all. My dad actually wanted me to be work in a bank. In fact I did for a few months after I left Bristol. I was a tea-boy at the Royal Bank of Scotland on Baker Street. I was good at family Monopoly. I knew never to develop the green set, that hotels there never repaid the investment. That’s where he got the idea I’d be good with money. He hated it when I trained to be a journalist though. He didn’t think much of the profession. People who are successful rarely wish success on their offspring and my dad was the same. He just wanted me to be happy and have enough money not to have to sponge off him in the pub.

4. You’ve used Social Media and done a phenomenal amount of promotion for your book Are We Nearly There Yet? It has brought you into contact with some interesting people but would you have preferred the might of major publisher behind you on the promotional side of things.

That would have helped for sure. Although I think these days all publishers, whatever their size, are keen for authors to do a lot of their own self promotion. That said my efforts mainly focused on twitter and it’s been very rewarding meeting so many great people on there (including you Lloyd) so actually I wouldn’t change any of it.

5. I recently browsed around a well known bookstore and couldn’t find a physical copy of your book (I have a digital one). How can smaller publishers ensure that the works of their authors reach as many outlets as possible, and how big a problem is this?

There’s very little as an author you can do about that. At one point I took it on myself to ring up virtually every single Waterstones store in the country to try and get them to take more copies of my book. That was when it was being serialised in The Telegraph, reviews were coming up in national newspapers, and I was appearing on Radio 4. They were very responsive – many managers doubled orders, some that didn’t stock it began doing so. But a year later most shops will probably only have one copy on reorder at best. That’s the way of the world. There are a lot of books and not much shelf room. Amazon has elbowed a lot of booksellers aside, true, but the upside is if you want a particular book you can always get it.

6. How has your wife Dinah taken to being a minor celebrity in her own right?

She would laugh at that description. She’s normally very easy-going about what I write about her, though it has led to one or two tense moments down the years. I argue it’s helped people understand her better, her hatred and fear of tortoises for instance. We went someone’s house recently and they’d thoughtfully removed their pet tortoise from the kitchen knowing my wife, from reading Are We Nearly There Yet? would be so terrified she might attack it or them.

7. One of the overriding pleasures of the book is the family unit. Did you ever consider writing it without them featuring so prominently?

Thank you for saying so. No. It was always going to be about the family. It would have been a bit odd to take your family round Britain for five months and actually only refer to them in passing. I don’t think I realised at the time though that the book would appeal to people older and younger than I am. Because I talk about childhood and my parents too it’s gone down well with a much wider age group than I anticipated. I’ve had letters from teenagers and people in their 80s who’ve said they related to it, which is lovely.

8. Do you think you could still maintain the same feel of the book if for instance you did a US road trip instead of a jaunt through England?

I think it would be different as we’ve not grown up in the US so there wouldn’t be that bedrock of past experience to draw on. Though my wife and I have travelled round America a lot. We did several major driving holidays in the States before the kids were born. A lot of our relationship was cultivated there in a way so it would be fun to revisit and do these trips again, this time with kids in tow and see how it compared.

9. Your next book is in a similar vein and is entitled Road to Rouen. Hypothetically you could travel to every country in the world whenever you wanted to do a follow up, realistically though, how many more books like this do you think you’ll do?

I think the natural limit is the kids and their ages and of course readers’ tolerance of the concept. Eventually our children won’t want to do these sort of trips. They’ll want to go on holiday with their mates and before that they’ll probably work out that a French minute is the same as an English minute and might rebel about the number of hours we’ve tricked them into spending in the car.

10. What are the top five things that you love about England?

1.The humour.
2.The marmite.
3.The language.
4.The eccentricity.
5.The sheer doggedness.

11. Apart from Are We Nearly There Yet? you’re also the author of two other books, The Lawnmower Celebrity and The International Gooseberry. Of the three, which was the most difficult to write?

The international Gooseberry, although I also wrote a book called The Cuckoo that was never published. That was the hardest. It took me years to finish.

12. What’s your favourite thing about writing and would you encourage your children to be writers or journalists considering the potential pitfalls?

The best thing about writing is the moment you’re finally into a book and all the previously disjointed pieces start locking together and you realise it’s going to be a good story that will make people laugh. I wouldn’t discourage my kids from becoming writers or journalists although I would point out it’s unlikely to make them much money

13. Would you ever like to write plays for radio or shows for television and if so, would it be comedy or straight drama?

I’d love to write for both. I think if I ever did, it would be a hybrid of the two. Comedy drama. Sitcom is too gag-led for me unless it’s done brilliantly and if I was writing drama I wouldn’t be able to resist trying to make people laugh.

14. Finally is it more beneficial to be published electronically or traditionally, or does a balance have to be achieved between both?

I think a balance probably works best.

My new book is set in France and is the follow up to Are We Nearly There Yet? Road to Rouen will be published in both formats by Headline in May 2013.

To buy online, click on Are We Nearly There Yet? below.


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