We reviewed Sea Otters Gambolling in the Wild, Wild Surf last week and as promised we tracked down its author John Bennett for a quick chinwag. Sitting in the NFT cafe we had lots of filmy types as a backdrop while we spoke loudly of literature and anatomically correct aquatic mammals. John is one of the good guys, genuinely funny in conversation and with a disarming Scottish accent it was a pleasure to catch up with him and we're even now talking to his publisher about setting up a competition later in the week.
The first thing we wanted to get out of the way was the novel's central object d'art - a small statuette depicting a man romping with a mustelidae. So why an otter? And more importantly why an otter engaged in sex act? John is happy to reveal the innermost workings of his creative process.
I just woke up one day with that image in my head and thought that there was something in that. The central idea...
And was that just the otter or the full on...
Oh that was the 'full on' one - quite an amusing image.
Publishers are usually keen to send out promotional knick knacks that tie in with their titles. In fact we still have the miniature bottle of Death & the Penguin branded vodka that Harvill sent us. Was there any attempt to manufacture your otter?
It was discussed. There was an idea to create it and then take photos of it for the cover, but it would have been too difficult to get the angles right I think. And then when that kind of thing's been done in the past it can look crap. To do that kind of thing well it would have cost a lot of money, so ultimately we came up with the pink otter, which I think works well.
Pink otters plastered on the tube is intriguing, but sexually explicit otters may have been a problem. Booksellers would have loved it though
Definitely. But the booksellers have really got behind the book - within the trade it's been selling really well already.
And on top of that it's a Vintage Original too. How did you land it at Random House?
I was made redundant, went travelling, wrote the book and then I got an agent. Sent the book out to five agents, two got back to me and said they were interested and I picked one of the two and then it went out to sell and Random House picked it up.
Surprisingly smoothly then.
Yes. I'd never tried getting published before, not even a short story so in some respects I had no idea how rare that was. I mean no one sits down and writes a novel thinking that this isn't going to get published, but it's only now that I appreciate how much competition there is, how many manuscripts are sent out. And how few of those even get to the editor's desks...
So you went travelling and then filled in the blanks with online research?
I went everywhere in the book apart from Tokyo. As Felix never really dwells on his surroundings too much, there's not a lot of travel detail. He's meant to spin along very quickly on a kind of roller coaster...
None of it rang false. We've been to all those places too and couldn't tell which, if any, were based purely on research. Plus being 16 and with the McGuffin constantly spinning him across the globe it's not like he has time to be a tourist.
There's an increasing trend at the moment for first time novelists to put their work online. Being quite active on Metafilter already was that something you ever considered?
I think that if I hadn't been so lucky with an agent and a publisher then I would have done that. I've been online for quite a while, working with the web for years, but I never had the time to do a blog and you need to put the effort in to do one well. I've been on Metafilter for a while, but I read it more than I participate. It's my access point to the net. I've been involved with and working on the net since 1998 and Metafilter reflects my interests so, using an old term, it's a portal to everything else.
Felix has a delightful turn of phrase. Not being 16 any more was it daunting to put words in his mouth?
The thing is that it isn't a real voice. The book is not about teenagers. One review I got stated that I was trying to 'document today's youth', but that's not it at all. It's not a real kind of language that anybody ever really uses. Some of the words will be recognisable to some readers while some I just made up. Others come from my own teenage years... It's more about the delight that teenagers have with language - they love to make stuff up and change it around. Plus it's actually set back in 2003. If it takes you one or two years to write a book by the time it's finished and you're published, then everything is out of date anyway. So in a way this book is two or three steps removed from reality and the names of the characters give that away; Mrs Pretzel, Vespasian... But I'm glad you liked it. Some people hate the voice.
You're kidding? We read most of Otters... on a long tube journey and were soon passing it around and pointing out funny lines. By the time we finished that evening we turned back to the beginning and then read the first chapter aloud to anyone who cared to listen.
Great. That's been the response so far, first in-house at Random and then the booksellers got hold of it and really responded to it. On the strength of their pre-orders it was reprinted twice before it even went on sale. That's great for me and for a first novel it's amazing. But so far the more literary press haven't been as keen as they tend to prefer the more serious stuff.
What did it feel like the first time you walked into a store and saw your novel for sale?
That was great - and a surprise. The book was only due out on the second and I walked into a store on the Sunday before and it was there. Great.
Is that it now for Felix? Will we see him again?
I think that's it. I want to move on to something different. He's such a strong voice and I think it would be difficult to go back again and use it. I'm not saying that I would never go back and do that, but I don't know where I'd take the character next. It's such a broad adventure that I'd have to constantly refer backwards and I'm not sure that that would work. It would be tricky.
Well the Ferris Beuller spin off was certainly a mess... sometimes it's better to resist the temptation to revisit things.
Ha, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was definitely an inspiration.
Especially towards the end of the novel...
It was such a brilliant film. John Hughes and his work is printed almost onto the DNA of anyone our age. This is sort of 'Ferris writ large' although I do think that Felix is more about self discovery than Ferris, who doesn't really find out too much about himself in that film.
Cameron does. But Ferris is more about being a smart-arse.
Which you love.
A certain board game pops up a lot in the novel. How good at scrabble are you?
I'm ok, but I'm no demon. My granny was great though. And she had one of those books where you have all the three letter words... I used to play her a lot.
So there's a little bit of Mrs P in her?
You take little piece of lots of people, but she's someone else actually.
You dedicate the book to your fiancé, Charlotte. How many brownie points does a book dedication get you?
Lots. There's also a dedication in the back to my future mother-in-law so that helps too.
International sales then.. has it been picked up in the States yet?
Not sure about the States at the moment, but it did get picked up in Holland. The foreign rights should go after the London Book Fair depending on sales and everything. There is a worry that it's too British - it's quite colloquial and perhaps hard to translate, but the Dutch enjoyed it.
There are some parts that are more serious than others. Guns are pulled, people break down and that one scene where the Chinese girl is being held by the throat is particularly haunting. Are those things harder to write or do they come easier than the funny stuff?
I felt like the book needed those moments otherwise it really would have just been a series of gags. I hope there is some emotional depth there that it's not just a two dimensional book, but is it easier to do? It is. The gags are where it gets harder because you have to get the beat right to hit that funny line. The work has to build up to those punchlines. The regular descriptive stuff comes a lot easier.
Was there anything removed in the final editing process that you miss?
No, not really. There was very little removed, just the odd part here and there to help cut to the chase. I wanted people to read it in one sitting, that was my intention, that it would engage people quickly. That the narrative would spin along at a pace so I'm glad that it works well for something like a tube journey.
There's a fair few ick moments in the book. Was there anything there that even you surprised yourself with?
Several things. There's one in particular that I wished I'd taken out actually. The naked wife.
The one with the big bush?
Exactly. I read that again and I thought that wasn't necessary.
We thought it was perfect. The kid's sixteen years old so what else is he going to focus on? It worked well.
Well, that's the one thing...
How much did real life influence you? Kids have gone a wandering with mom's credit card before, but the novel must have been finished before that American kid decided to go to Iraq...
Not that many real life influences. There were a couple of times in the 90's when people did similar things, one guy who hired a car and bought a pile of coke - not very adventurous though I think he only made it as far as France. And there was one guy who got as far as Thailand. Last year though there was this guy, and this is an appalling story, a really bright kid from Manchester killed his parents, grabbed their credit cards and took the girlfriend to Bermuda. But he wasn't all about self awareness like Felix. He was just a psychopath.
So you're Scottish, but you live in London. Was it work that initially brought you here?
Yeah, it was the money, the work. Someone told me that the streets were paved with gold and I believed them, so like a fool I came down. That was ten years ago. It was the usual story in that I didn't know anybody and it was tough for the first few months, but I love London now.
Ken Livingstone then, yay or nay?
Ken? Yes. No, in some respects, but broadly speaking a yes.
This is Felix: "Three days, two vomiting incidents in two different Asian countries. A new record?" How many continents have you vomited in?
Just the one.
Just the one...
No hang on, two... three... er... no, I've vomited in all the continents I've ever been on.
And on the tube?
I think that I have... yes.
You may be the first person to admit to that.
In that case then, no. No I haven't.
Favourite part of London?
Difficult one. I lived in Brixton for a while and that was great.
And if you had to recommend one book that everyone SHOULD read.
Tricky. Hunger by Knut Hamsun. It's nothing like Otters, but it is quite funny...