I have great pleasure in welcoming Ben Hatch to Jera’s Jamboree today.
Ben Hatch was born in London and grew up here, in Manchester and Buckinghamshire, where he lived in a Windmill that meant he was called Windy Miller at school for years, though he’s not been scarred by this experience at all. He now lives in Brighton with his tiny wife Dinah, and two children, in a normal house. He likes cheese and is balding although he disguises this fact by spiking his hair to a great height to distract people he wishes to impress.
His latest book is called Road to Rouen: A 10,000 Mile Journey in a cheese-filled Passat. Before this he wrote Are We Nearly There Yet? 8,000 Miles Round Britain in Vauxhall Astra, that was a Radio 2 Book of the Year, became a Number One bestseller and is currently being made into a movie by Island Pictures.
He is the tallest Hatch who ever lived (5ft 9) and is son of Sir David Hatch, the famous radio performer and producer whose shadow Ben doesn’t at all feel under. He also maintains that he knows the cure for the common cold (tweet him at @BenHatch to find this out) and that one of his relatives was John Couch-Adams who discovered the planet Neptune. Apparently his aunty told him.
Many years ago his first comic novel, The Lawnmower Celebrity, based loosely on his time as a chicken sandwich station monitor at Darlington McDonalds, was named one of the Radio 4’s eight books of the year in 2000. The International Gooseberry about a hapless backpacker with a huge ungovernable toenail was published in 2001 and described as “hysterical and surprisingly sad” by the Daily Express. Ben Hatch was on the long-list of Granta’s 2003 list of the most promising 20 young authors in the UK, but missed out on final inclusion possibly because of the toenail stuff. In association with his wife Dinah, he has also written three guidebooks for Frommer’s. Frommer’s: Scotland With Your Family, Frommer’s: England With Your family, and Frommer’s: Britain For Free. The guidebooks are a mixture of helpful and humorous tips on holidaying with children, reviews of attractions, and incendiary arguments with his wife about among other things: what is the best type of owl?
You can visit Ben Hatch at his Facebook Author Page (although his page is a bit rubbish).
You can tweet with him @BenHatch
Please summarise your latest book in 20 words or less.
The book is about a real life 10,000 family road trip round France in a stinking VW Passat that involves aliens, crazed donkeys and British spies.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
We’d just lost our life savings of £25,000 to a dodgy builder and I needed to make some money so I decided it would be a good idea to write a guidebook about France. The only trouble was I had no idea how big France was, I didn’t speak any French and along the way the kids would refuse to eat any beans that weren’t orange, the bread (“It’s too sharp”) and my wife and I would fall out so badly I’d end up taking off alone to Spain, where I almost got myself murdered by a man claiming to be a soup baron.
What inspired you to write?
The inspiration to write came from discovering when I was around 13 a suitcase of comedy sketches on thin blue tissue paper my dad had written in his 20s for the Cambridge Footlights. Before then I saw my dad as a fairly boring BBC manager who wore a suit and liked to watch Juliet Bravo in quite smelly slippers. It was a shock to realise he had clearly once been young too and like me. I remember there was one sketch about a sheep dog partial to a nice bit of mint sauce. It made me laugh out loud. I started to write my own sketches after this that my dad would mark in the margin (“Move that line there” … “It’s boom boom joke. Not boom joke boom” …. “My son. don’t forget it’s light and shade.”) After that all I ever wanted to do was make my dad laugh by getting the booms in the right place.
Do you have a most creative time of day?
I don’t know about creative but in terms of being productive the best time of day for me is round about now. I’m typing this at 6am. It’s before the kids wake up, before my phone starts bleeping with messages and before anyone thinks of sending an email. It’s just me and the very loud hum of my computer (I probably ought to do something about) and the odd slug still making it’s way back outside through the small gap under the back door.
Do you have a favourite book? Why? What is it about that book?
My favourite book is Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. It’s the first book I read that I truly connected with. Before that I only read thrillers by people like Alistair MacLean that to be honest bore very little relevance to my life in Buckinghamshire collecting car brochures and eating mainly Findus type meals connected with fish and batter. Catcher in the Rye is about a few days in the life of a disaffected 16—year-old from New York and it grabbed me by the throat. I had no idea it was a classic work of literature. I found it by chance in my dad’s book shelf. For years I thought I’d discovered it. I’ve read it about 10 times. For a long time I would use it as a way of deciding whether I would get on with people: had they read it? What did they think of it. In fact whenever I see a copy in shops or people’s houses it comforts me and I always flick through a few pages and read bits. It’s like meeting an old and trusted friend.
What are you reading now? Opinion?
I’m reading The Humans by Matt Haig. I’m enjoying it a lot. I love books that carry a strong voice and Matt’s books always seem to manage this difficult trick.
Being a writer can be lonely. Do you have a support network?
My main support network is my wife and kids, who come bowling into my study at 3.45pm every weekday full of stories about what happened when so and so was sick on the floor of the computer suite etc. And, of course, twitter. It can be very distracting, but equally it’s great to know there are friends out there to chat to just a few clicks away
What has been the best part of your writing journey so far?
I think the most enjoyable moment was hearing an agent wanted to take me on. I was travelling round the world in 1998. My mum had died the previous year, which had knocked me sideways. It had also inspired me to jack in my job reporting at the Leicester Mercury newspaper. I wanted to do something that would have made my mum proud of me so I decided I’d write a novel. Basically I blew up my life almost over night. I quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend – or rather she broke up with me – and I moved to London. I slept on friend’s floors and went to local cafes and wrote my book. I sent it off to literary agents the day before I left the country to go backpacking, using up the last of the money my mum had left me on a round the world ticket. I didn’t want to be around for the rejection letters. I’d been gone 6 months and was just preparing to beg for my old job back when the very last agent I’d sent the book to contacted me. I was sitting in an internet café in Thailand with my girlfriend (now my wife). It had a mud floor. The email was from an agent at Curtis Brown. I remember pushing back my wheeled chair and rolling several feet across the ground. He liked the book and wanted to sign me up. That night we got very drunk in a bar in Bangkok.
What has been the worst part of your writing journey so far?
Probably when my third novel was rejected. I’d bought this house we couldn’t afford and we had to rent it out and move to a flat above a pickling factory in Brighton to make ends meet. My wife Dinah was pregnant at the time with our first child. I did the flat up basically with no tools apart from maybe a butter knife and after my daughter Phoebe was born, Dinah went back to work and I became a stay-at-home dad for what turned out to be a few years. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding. This third novel had taken a long time to write because of all this. Then when I finally sent it into my publisher (my daughter was now in school, my son in nursery) it had been so long they forgot they were my publisher. Nobody knew who I was. It felt like the water had closed over my had and I had to start all over again.
Thank you for sharing with us Ben. It really has been a pleasure hosting you today.
Ben Hatch is on the road again. Commissioned to write a guidebook about France (despite not speaking any French) he sets off with visions of relaxing chateaux and refined dining. Ten thousand miles later his family’s been attacked by a donkey, had a run-in with a death-cult and, after a near drowning and a calamitous wedding experience involving a British spy, his own marriage is in jeopardy. A combination of obsessions about mosquitoes, French gravel and vegetable theme parks mean it’s a bumpy ride as Ben takes a stand against tyrannical French pool attendants, finds himself running with the bulls in Pamplona and almost starring in a snuff movie after a near fatal decision to climb into a millionaire’s Chevrolet Blazer.
Funny and poignant, Road to Rouen asks important questions about life, marriage and whether it’s ever acceptable to tape baguette to your children’s legs to smuggle lunch into Disneyland Paris.