Thunderpaws has been four different books, the one you see before you, and three other different story arcs.
It’s my first novel. I didn’t grow up with reading or writing as my great passion. Adulthood was no different. But I started to be told that I should write – generally in response to emails, text messages, heck even dating messaging.
If there’s a story in that – it might be that you don’t have to be an avid reader and writer to be an author (it helps, it definitely helps, do it!). What matters, to me, is that you are interested and you care about trying to do it well. I certainly had that about communicating, and now it’s just expanded from communicating with friends and loved-ones, to friends, loved-ones and readers. And that’s lovely.
Here's a surprise.
Thunderpaws first came to me in 2007. I can’t believe it was that long ago. And it had been with the Chaplain long before that.
How can a book take that long?
Well, as above, it’s been several different books, and I would only write for part of the year. I’d head off – usually somewhere lovely and warm – get my head down and get on with wherever the draft was up to.
Each trip I’d learn new things about writing (I’m a learn by doing person). Freelance manuscript reviewers would read the results. It would be better. There would be new things to fix. The next trip I would fix those things. It would be better. There would be new things to fix. All the time getting better. That, if anything, is the writing journey. Graft.
People, including loved-ones, would quietly intimate – isn’t it time this was just published? But I knew it wasn’t quite there yet. Little things to fix. And I knew I needed the outline of the trilogy before publishing book 1. So off I went to Tbilisi, in Georgia (a country between Europe and Asia) to work on that.
I spent the first three months planning out the series, then had three months to get into book 2. I found two people to help. Kathryn Clark, my now reader, to give feedback on the draft as it came together, and Matt East, a productivity specialist in the US, to act as what I call my silent policeman, checking in once a day by text to see how the work’s gone.
Landing back in London, I arrived with a plan for two books, two possible spin offs and half of book 2 first-drafted, plus a huge love for Tbilisi, Georgia and the Georgian people. I planned to go back after my next Coca-Cola contract, and was packing to fly when lockdown landed.
Stuck in London, there was nothing to do but get Thunderpaws published. MonoKubo and I worked on our respective bits and Robyn was found via the Royal College of Art’s website. Robyn was among a talented group at the RCA. No surprise, it’s regularly voted the world’s best art school. What specifically appealed was the emotion in her work and its inky fluidity as I describe it. And her words. Of all the graduates, I chose to approach Robyn first. She said yes and we were off.
I tasked Robyn with creating 46 chapter ornamentations and helping with the internal layout in the publishing design software, InDesign. When Robyn showed me her ideas for the first chapter, I was surprised to see she’d also done the text in the style of her degree show work. I hadn’t discussed this, partly because of budget, because formatting a whole book is a huge amount of work, and partly because I wasn’t sure if her degree work (small form pieces) would work across a novel.
With a print out at book-page size, I set about reading the sample. On that opening page, my eyes flicked from Teufel’s world on the left to Mushika’s on the right. I was disjointed. I pushed to keep reading. I turned the page. 30 seconds later I realised what was happening.
Robyn’s work was keeping my eyes and mind focused to a level I never normally experience. I was more engaged. More in the story. I kept reading. I asked an English language literary specialist and trusted family friend (Jane Leggett, thanked at the beginning of the book) and she agreed. So, it was time for a chat with Robyn over email because everything was that or WhatsApp.
To paraphrase it went something like this, ‘Robyn, it’s amazing, and if you’re up for doing it, I’m up for doing it, but it’s a shed load of work. A serious shed load. We’ll have to turn it loads of times [do a full set of edits and then start again] but I’m up for it, if you are.
She said of course, we agreed a financial way to handle all the extra work and we were off.
Next was the audiobook. You need a narrator, a producer and a studio. Sometimes a narrator self-produces in a home studio, but generally you need all three. A friend in New York, an American actor, who’d studied in London offered, but I doubted whether I could afford him (he acted with George Clooney in Michael Clayton) and I pointed out there are over 40 voices.
I was certain I wanted an active read, with accents, not just a flat narration. I approached a UK stage actor about any up and coming talents he knew, but the two that responded weren’t quite right. So I looked at voice artist agency websites.
What you get to look at is a sea of headshots. You click in, read about the actor, listen to samples. In this sea of faces there are ones you recognise and ones you don’t. You click and listen. Click and listen. Click and listen. And for me, it was no, no, no, no. Internally, I was, ‘how will I go through all these faces?’
Then there was this dude. About half way down. His headshot didn’t look like the rest. There was a sparkle. An energy. His eyes.
I was like, ‘now he could be Teufel.’
I got on Google. Tracked down a chat show clip (Graham Norton). He was telling a story about an audition for a Scottish role. The story, the whole reasoning behind his actions was perfect Teufel. I was smiling as much as the studio audience I couldn’t see (but could hear laughing).
The actor was Daniel Kaluuya. A young British actor you may know for Black Panther (in 2 ways) and Get Out. I loved the idea of a young, black British, north Londoner playing King Richard III and all the rest of the characters. And it turns out that a genuine Hollywood star is not that much more expensive than an actor you’ve never heard of! I was off.
I asked his agent. His agent asked Daniel. Daniel was up for it. We began to work on a deal. He was in LA. We would need two studios. One there, one here. Two producers, cars. I did the maths. Eek! Worked on how could I make it work.
Then he won a Bafta. An Oscar. (Daniel you’re a doggin’ cattin’ star, sir!) He was gone into the whirlwind of big star and I was back to square one.
I returned to the headshots. Worked my way diligently through two whole agency websites. I enquired about six actors, narrowed down to three, and Adam Gillen stood out.
There was this one clip (it turns out from the start of a play) where Adam just blew me away. Olivier-nominated, RADA trained, star of ITV’s Benidorm (a major UK show – but travelling half the year, I don’t see a lot of TV so didn’t know of him). Star of theatre companies I know and love: the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, and he was from Manchester, a city I know and love – a northerner like me. He’ll do!
And do he did.
Thunderpaws worked him hard in the studio, but the producer and I could hear Adam falling for Teufel as the read progressed. He’d do take after take, getting variations on voice and delivery. We grabbed what extra studio time we could to help with the time the voices take and by the end of two weeks work, the book was done and it was on to the edit. The editor said she’d never worked so hard on an audiobook in her life, but as the producer said, we’d come out with gold in places. Adam’s gold.