Phil Earle's new book, When the Sky Falls, set in London during WWII, and starring an angry teenager and an awe-inspiring silverback gorilla, was inspired by a true story.
Phil grew up in Hull and as a child, enjoyed acting, sports and later singing in a band. As an adult he's had a number of jobs including working in pubs and travel agencies, and as a care worker in a residential kids home. It was this experience that led to him writing Being Billy and Saving Daisy. Getting a job in the children's section of a bookshop was his first proper introduction to children's books and he started to try to write for children, before he started working in publishing. He now lives in West Yorkshire with his partner and three children and tries to write 500 words every day.
When the Sky Falls (Andersen Press)
Phil Earle's new book, When the Sky Falls, set in London during WWII and starring an angry teenager and an awe-inspiring silverback gorilla, was inspired by a true story and it has taken several years to complete the novel. Here, Phil Earle tells us how the story developed, and gives a reading from When the Sky Falls:
Q&A with Phil Earle
1. Can you tell us a little about your latest novel, When the Sky Falls, and what inspired it?
It all started with a story my friend told me, about his dad during World War 2. As part of the home guard, every time the air raid siren rang, he had to grab a rifle and sprint to the zoo. Once there, he had to train the rifle through the bars of the lion's enclosure; if the Nazi bombers blew out the walls to the cage, his dad had to shoot the lion before it went on the rampage. I instantly knew I had to tell that story, and asked myself what would happen if the rifle ended up in the arms of an angry 12 year-old, instead of a responsible adult. From there, it snowballed....
2. Once you had the idea, where did you go to research to find out more about the zoo and its story?
I have to be honest and say I'm not a big one for research. I'm impatient to get writing, and I'm a pretty reluctant reader, or at least a very choosy one. If I'm researching I tend to go to documentaries or films. I did do a lot of googling of London in the Blitz, which was really useful. I really like working from visual things like photos.
3. Is this the first time you've based a story on a true story? What difference does it make to what you're writing?
Being Billy and Saving Daisy were both inspired by life experiences I had whilst working in children's homes. With those books and this one, the true story element was a launchpad. What follows is 100% fiction.
4. When the Sky Falls, set during 1941, gives us a very real feel for life at the time and what it must have been like to endure air raids - how did you find so much detail about this?
It was a mixture of watching films like Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory, plus footage I found on YouTube. Also, to be honest, I tried to use my imagination, to really try and empathise what it would smell and sound like to be living through the blitz.
5. How did your main character, Joseph, develop? How well do you know your main characters before you start to write?
I knew some things about him, his age, sex, name and that he was angry, but I'm really not a planner when I write. I love the experience of finding out about the character as I write. I find that incredibly exciting. Others plan meticulously, but that takes the joy out of it for me.
6. Through the story, Joseph struggles with problems at home and at school and is driven by his anger. What draws you to writing about young people who have troubled backgrounds?
It's a great question and I'm not entirely sure. I think it's to do with them being underdogs. I'm definitely intrigued by characters who seem to have very little going for them. I like the idea that they could rise up and astound everyone with what they achieve.
7. Do you ever base your characters on people you know?
Yes, absolutely. Or at least their names. There are several characters in this book named after friends, or authors that I really admire. I'm not telling you who they are though. You'll have to guess...
8. The silverback gorilla, Adonis, also comes to be a significant player in the story. Did that surprise you?
Again, I went to footage and film. There is a magnificent movie called Gorillas in the Mist, based on a true story, about a woman called Diane Fossey, who campaigned to save gorillas for practically the whole of her adult life. In terms of Adonis, I just wanted him to feel as real as any of the humans. For the reader to see and feel his pain, his bravery in the same way.
9. Is there one part of When the Sky Falls, or a phrase or sentence from it, that stood out for you as you wrote it?
Writing the final scene was special. I'd dreamt about it for a long time. And the anticipation felt palpable to me, really emotional. I think I'm as proud of that chapter as anything I've ever written. I can't say any more without spoilers!!
10. One of the harshest aspects of the book for a modern reader is reading how children of the time were treated; how well do you think today's child would cope in 1940s Britain?
I have the hugest respect for young people having seen how they coped with the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic this past year. I think it would be really easy to say our kids wouldn't have coped with the blitz, but they are stronger and more resourceful than we give them credit for. Which is why I love writing about them.
11. Where and when are your favourite writing times and places?
I have a shed at the bottom of the garden which I share with my partner who is a therapist. So I write there or in my study. I have a very old reclining chair which I like to sit in as I write. As I still work in publishing part-time, I tend to write on Thursdays and Fridays, but when the deadline looms I write whenever I have a minute!
12. What do you do when the going gets tough with what you're writing?
If things get tough I tend to just dig in. Write my way through it. If what I write is rubbish, then I can always discard it. Or go for a wander and a ponder.
At the moment, I'm editing my next novel, called Noah's Ark. It's another WW2 story inspired by real events. In September 1939, the government told all families to have their pets put down as it wouldn't be safe for them to live during the war. As a result, 750,000 animals were killed. My story is about one boy, who goes on a quest to save as many animals as he can...
13. What are your favourite escapes from your desk?
I'm very lucky that I live in a beautiful place, surrounded by hills. So if I'm not writing, or running the kids to football or cricket, I'm either on my bike or walking the dogs. We have two of them, Nancy and little Lennie, who are both Bedlington Whippets.