Third Time Lucky

Reading & Writing

When I began my first memoir, ‘Paperboy’, about craving books and growing up in a home without them, I faced a problem. I had kept notebooks filled with fiction but never wrote down what actually happened within our family.

The reason is clear to me now; I felt more comfortable inside a fantastical world than writing about my parents’ disastrous, violent marriage. Having a terrible memory, I tried to marshal the main events in some kind of order and what emerged was as much about my relatives as it was about my love of books.

It shouldn’t have worked, but blurring the two subjects made perfect sense to me because life doesn’t break down into separate categories.

I tried to reshape the narrative in the second volume, ‘Film Freak’, about my travails in the British film industry, and the timelines became even more scrambled than before.

The resulting book was as much about friendship as it was about movies. Again, I’d kept no notes and had to rely on friends’ recollections and my subconscious memories to find a timeline, which I set down almost entirely in the wrong order. Did it capture anything of that mad scramble through the decades?

My third and final attempt has been proving even more problematic as bouts of chemotherapy robbed me of memories. The faces of friends had faded from view as whole years were erased. I realised I had never tackled the subject of writing – reading and stories, yes, but not the actual nuts and bolts of what I’ve been doing for the past 40+ years.

But once again, other subjects intruded. Battles with illness and peculiar friendships began to appear in the narrative almost as soon as I started it. The result is ‘Word Monkey’, and the finished book will be delivered in early spring. The jacket blurbs expected to go something like this.

‘I have some bad news for you, Mr Fowler.’

Christopher Fowler survived an eccentric childhood and his film-obsessed working years to reach maturity stirred and shaken, when fate dealt him an unexpected hand. Just as he set out to write a new novel, the pandemic arrived and he was diagnosed not with Covid but with cancer.

He embarked on a new journey that combined horror, laughter, a lot of hanging about in corridors and some surprising lessons about the art of writing.

Then a bad situation suddenly got worse; his treatment failed, his husband lost his job and his ability to write vanished. Setting down his experiences to encourage people not to be afraid of a stupid noun, he was thrown into a world of miscommunicating doctors, Kafkaesque rules, topsy-turvy beliefs and talking squirrels, until he rediscovered the secret power of storytelling.

‘Word Monkey’ is about how defying the threat of imminent death can make life richer, more irreverent and a lot funnier.

30 comments on “Third Time Lucky”

  1. Paul+C says:

    Really can’t wait for this one to be published – it looks marvellous. The first two volumes are my favourites of your books.

    I hope it’s a great success.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    Well, as the Danes say, ‘It’s not over till the last flødebolle has been eaten.’

  3. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I really enjoyed parts one and two. Looking forward to part three, and hoping that this will be a trilogy with many more than 3 parts.

  4. Jo W says:

    Yes, another Fowler Tome ! Yessssssssssss
    Fortunately Chris, January has once again decided me to “ ‘ave a bit ov a clear aht”. I must have known more words were on their way from my favourite author and so there is room on the bookshelves. No, I haven’t actually thrown any books out, they’ve been moved upstairs to the small spare room.
    Stay at it. X

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    Okay — enough about you Time to bring the lads back from ‘Reichenbach Falls.’

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    Looking forward to this – I think.

  7. Roger says:

    “Always scribble! scribble! scribble!”

    Surely memory loss is an advantage to an autobiographer. You can happily and innocently make all the improvements you want. Certainly my own response to memory loss after a fractured skull was to decide that I was exempt from all obligations to accuracy about what is supposed to reality – true, I never actually wrote about it, but when he was commissioned to write an autobiography didn’t Jeffrey Barnard have to make a general request for people to tell him what he’d been doing as he couldn’t remember any of it? It seemed a sadly missed opportunity to me.

  8. Ian Mason says:

    Knowing of some of the people who knew Jeffery Barnard, what makes you think that they didn’t *ahem* embroider what they told him.

  9. Joan says:

    Wonderful, wonderful Chris! Have only read your first volume but was responsible for our Library ordering it. Paperboy was a funny wonderful memoir.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    As for ‘scrambled timelines’ and ‘blurred-memory’ — I would presume to point out that these are YOUR memoirs not a purported definitive biography or some academic treatise with the required supporting references. And forgive me — but while what you write in vol. 3 will doubtless again enlighten and entertain, it is unlikely to alter the course of human events. Sorry.

    As I’ve said before, memories are notoriously unreliable under the the best of circumstances. There’s many a slip twixt the encoding, storage and retrieval of them. We’ve been studying memory for decades and what can be stated unequivocally about it is that our recall is rubbish. Overlay this with an enervating attempt to dodge life’s ‘slings and arrows’ as you have recently and it’s no wonder the outlines are hazy or nonexistent But, do the memories-as-prose evoke an honest sense of who you were in a time and place ? That’s all I personally would ask or expect. And of course with an autobiographical trilogy you are in distinguished company: Tolstoy. Laurie Lee, of course. Mark Twain. J. M. Coetzee. Bertrand Russell and Janet Frame to name a few.

  11. Alan R says:

    I think having an accurate memory of events is not as much fun as inaccurate stories made up about them. Thankfully you have rediscovered the power to tell stories.

    I have just re-read and enjoyed Film Freak and remembered that at the first time of reading, how much I would have liked to have met and had lunch and a chat with Jim, I look forward to Word Monkey.

    A book I would like to read would be a collection of the stories and facts included in your books, about the many interesting curiosities within and about London. That book would make a great companion for a few good walks.

    That would also help me with my memories of London. Many lost in a blur of Purple Hearts and all-nighters at The Flamingo during the 60s. Those were the days – I think.

  12. Peter T says:

    Factual memory is close to useless and, erhm, best forgotten. Memories of the spirit of a time and the emotions someone felt are reliable and what make a great story. Just fix the facts to fit. Successful politicians do it all the time.

  13. Vic says:

    Mmmmm! ‘Word Monkey’. Typewriter, primate and time giving the works of Shakespeare or a world of misrepresented memories.
    Who cares. It’s the story the author presents that tells you about himself.

  14. Lorraine says:

    Looking forward already to snapping it up this Spring!

  15. Paul+C says:

    Anthony Burgess wrote two excellent volumes of autobiography about the writing life : Big Wilson and Little God & You’ve Had Your Time. Highly recommended.

    I read a life of Jeffrey Barnard (mentioned above) which exposed him as a nasty selfish drunk – this ruined his Low Life columns which I used to enjoy reading. Horrible character.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    Unless you choose to believe it was an example of evolutionary experimental literature (or a complete waste of an Arts Council grant), a finite number (6) of monkeys at the Paignton Zoo (Devon) were given a computer to allow students and faculty at Plymouth University to monitor their literary output. Apart from showing their distain for technology by using it as a lav — the sextet managed to produce five pages of text — mostly consisting of the letter ‘S.’ Unfortunately, the zoo doesn’t have room for the remainder of the infinite number of primates needed to reproduce the great works of literature or — the next B&M novel. So — there’s nothing for it but…

  17. Stephen Groves says:

    Always room for a new Fowler book in our house plus the signed edition ,proof copy, signed lined dated drawn , special edition etc .Can’t wait.
    All
    Best
    STALKY

  18. Hark Waters says:

    Disappointingly, reading the above comments did not lead to enlightenment regarding talking squirrels. Perhaps we will have to buy the book but there may be a problem with that.

    When Word Monkey is published should we rush to buy the hardback or wait for the paperback? Some here may remember that when Film Freak was published the paperback edition was later released with additional content that hadn’t made it into the hardback. I don’t want to buy the Word Monkey hardback to find that the talking squirrels have been held over for the paperback. I would probably fling myself to the floor mouthing sailor talk.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Hark Waters, that is especially annoying considering that in the past there would have been a second hard back edition with corrections and additional material, so buyers wise to the possibility waited for the second edition. Since the second edition here was a paperback, not the edition that we would prefer, it is a difficult choice. We can only hope that all desirable material survives the final edit and turns up in the hardback.

  20. Hark Waters says:

    Helen, to be fair I should point out that admin did several posts about it at the time. I’ve just checked back to find the main post which is dated 13 November 2013, “Film Feak Just Got Bigger”

    And yes, I did buy it but no longer have it. Since retirement I have moved to another city about 700 kilometres away so had to reduce my library considerably so much ephemera was sold or given away. The perils of “downsizing” after all the children have left home.

  21. Roger says:

    The trouble with downsizing is that the book you haven’t looked at for forty years and you certainly won’t need again and gave away yesterday is just the book you need NOW!
    I started getting rid of my really old books – the ones you can find on Gutenberg and Google – but it isn’t the same as having it in your hot sweaty paws, so now I’m wondering about upsizing. You can do that when you move out of London. I like the idea of myself as a landed gentleman with the sort of library they used to find bodies in.

  22. Helen+Martin says:

    There are companies that will design you fitted closets; perhaps we could develop companies to fit libraries into “spare” rooms

  23. Roger says:

    William Gladstone designed a way to fit a library into one room with one movable corridor. Some library stacks use the same method updated. If you search for “library stacks rolling” on images you’ll find examples. Just check there’s no-one looking for a book before you start them moving!

  24. Paul+C says:

    I’ve far too many books I keep purely for their dazzling or lurid covers : Hank Janson rubbish and old pulp thrillers. A favourite cover I can’t let go is Revenge of the Toffee Monster by Susan Gates which is a delightfully strange children’s book for budding horror readers. I wish someone would film it.

    Will physical books die out one day ?

  25. Helen+Martin says:

    Paul, if only for the covers, books won’t die and see the comment back there a bit regarding books you haven’t needed in 40 years and never will again but do need right this minute.
    Roger, the Vancouver main branch has its reference section set up that way. There is a warning that you are to ask a librarian to open a section but most people (me, for instance) just do it themselves, carefully of course. That’s more than most people would need and heavier than your average bedroom floor would take, but would certainly answer the need.

  26. Stu-I-Am says:

    For those contemplating a home library (rather than a shelf of books or two) or interested in its history, may I suggest ‘The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom’ by Reid Byers and published by Oak Knoll Press. It turns out that those who follow these things say that despite the convenience of ebooks, the tactile connection to books and the need for places of refuge in the home, both for work and for personal well-being, have made libraries a renewed focus in residential design.

    As Byers puts it, ‘Entering our library should feel like easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, emerging into the orchestra pit, or entering a chamber of curiosities, the club, the circus, our cabin on an outbound yacht, the house of an old friend. It is a setting forth, and it is a coming back to center.’ And he has coined an apt  term — ‘book-wrapt’ — to describe the comfort of a well-stocked library.

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    I am 100% with Mr. Byers. I am surrounded by my library as I write this and it is indeed a comforting feeling although I am unsuccessfully looking for my Desmond Bagley books at the moment. Of course my son relies on this library.

  28. Wayne Mook says:

    Well I enjoyed Paperboy, in a way it reminded me of Toast by Nigel Slater which I enjoyed as well. Film Freak was fun and I too would have loved to meet Jim as Alan said. As to a faulty memory Ken Russell in A British Picture states the thing that scared him the most was in an old British horror film, The Secret of the Loch and his view of the monster, a live plucked chicken, it’s not but why let that ruin a good story, although the underwater scenes do create tension it is a film that pays not to re-watch.

    So I look forward to the 3rd instalment, Stephen King’s On Writing is miles better than any how to manual (Lester Dent’s essay on successful pulp is an exception for me.) and the memoir bits are the best, his recovery from being hit by a van are included as are the things in his past that made him a writer. The only rules being Write and read.

    Wayne.

  29. Helen+Martin says:

    Too much reading will scare you off writing unless you are bound and determined. That, of course, is the other requirement for successful writing.

  30. Paul+C says:

    Stephen King apparently bought the wreckage of the van that hit him and spent a lot of time walloping it with a sledgehammer for catharsis.

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