I was born in the south-west of England, in 1969, and spent the first two or three years of my life living (with my mum and brother) in a caravan. My main memory from this time was wandering off by myself and being terrified by – well, the story goes that I came home crying ‘monster! monster!’. The monster turned out to be a very large tortoise that had escaped and was also wandering off by itself.
I’m not entirely sure if that little me knew it was a tortoise, and not really a monster – because I’ve always had this knack of Making Things Up.
Later I had another shock when, at the age of ten, I moved with my mum, brother and sister to a housing estate in the far, far North of England, in a place called Warrington. Living on Hood Manor estate, with it’s endless maze of redbrick houses, walls to kick balls against, alleyways to chase or be chased down, and high bushes to hide in, was exhilarating. There was freedom, and a chance to roam.
While living on the estate, I played for two soccer teams, Appleton FC and Sankey Rangers. They weren’t the worst teams in the league, but then again, they never won anything.
As well as a footballer, I wanted to be a snooker player too, and I won a pool championship and some snooker competitions with cash prizes that added to my pocket money. At this time I watched TV a lot, read some books (though we didn’t have many of those) and because my mum worked late at night in pubs, the whole family always stayed up late, and got up late! One Saturday I woke up at 4 o’clock in the afternoon – that was (and still is) my record. Nobody even knew I was in bed.
I was a late bloomer at school, and things changed for me at a particular time, and by a completely unexpected route. A charity called ‘Gingerbread’ used to arrange cheap, affordable holidays for single-parent families, and we decided to go on one of those. The problem was, the holidays were only cheap because they were after the summer break – when everyone else had gone back to school!
So when I was 13 years old, I missed two weeks at the start of the school year. It was a good holiday, but I was at High School by then, and there was a lot of work to catch up with when I got back. In some classes they didn’t even have books or a seat for me – some teachers thought I’d moved away. I had to sit at the end of a table or squeeze on to a bench somehow, and borrow other people’s books to take home and copy out all the work I missed each evening.
This was when the change happened.
I had never done more than the minimal homework at home, but now I was doing extra work too. And the thing I discovered was, the extra work was great! I was learning how to draw the heart, and label each bit. Next came the insides of the ear, the cochlea, and the names of each tiny bone. I particularly liked biology, but catching up on other subjects was fun too. And now, all of a sudden, I was used to doing work at home, by myself. Once I’d caught up with the topics I’d missed, I started spending longer on my homework instead – and that was fun too!
At this time a lot of my friends were riding motorbikes and hanging out at the local youth club, and I did that too, but I was probably the only one who enjoyed my school work – and that was all because I’d missed some important weeks of school, and the catching up had given me a taste for studying.
Suddenly I was doing well in exams. Someone said, ‘Why don’t you study biology at university?’ (I think it was me who said it… ) and I found out about the BIOLOGY/USA course at the University of East Anglia. If I got on to that course, I could study biology, and choose to spend part of my time in sunny California. So I worked harder, passed more exams, got on the course, and chose to go to Santa Barbara University (motto: sand, surf, sea!) on the coast of California in the USA.
After studying, I worked in laboratories in the USA and England. I was a fully qualified scientist, and my specialist skill was using gene cloning to design new antibiotics, and other medicines like anti-cancer drugs. It was a great time, and I’ve written about some of it on this site (see my Science page). But everything was about to change again.
The problem was, I’d begun reading a lot. That all began at the time I gave up the motorbikes and youth club, at the end of my time at school. I began reading all kinds of books, working my way through the local library. In the end, it seemed natural that I would have a go myself, and try writing the kinds of stories I liked reading. At one time I was writing stories in the morning, going to work in the lab in the day, and then writing more stories in the evening! Some of the stories I wrote were for children, and the more of these I wrote, the more I enjoyed them. Then one day I discovered picture books – and everything clicked into place. These were the stories I liked the most – and the ones I wanted to write.
As a scientist I used my imagination, solved problems, and discovered new things. As a writer, and particularly as a children’s writer, I now let my imagination wander far more widely, solve far more problems, and there is still plenty to discover (like what my characters are going to say next…!). And, most important of all for me, as a writer I’m allowed to spend a lot of my time Making Things Up. Which is a joy, I can tell you.
After a while of trying to be a scientist and a writer at the same time, I decided to stop being a scientist.
I wrote stories for two years before finally selling 12 in a row, all in the same year. It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but I now have 89 books published, and these have been translated into 33 languages and are read in many countries across the world.
I live with my family by the sea in North Norfolk, England. My wife is a novelist, so there’s lots of writing going on in our house!
And when we’re not writing? We’re walking together in the hills, or I’m doing tai chi, swimming, enjoying nature, and looking forward to my next adventure in schools both close to home, and across the world.
Our planet is a wonderful place, and so are the people who live on it. Let’s all choose to be happy, take care of each other, and enjoy it.