Since NorfolkPlace started way back in 2011, we’ve done the occasional interview with local authors. It has been a while since our last interview, but following the recent release of his most recent book, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to interview the children’s author/illustrator, Mark Towers.
To date Mark has written and illustrated 3 books for children; The Christmas Starfish, Strawberry Scoreberries, and I Wish It Were Raining. Mark lives in Norfolk with his wife, two sons and their two pet hamsters, Cookie and Biscuit.
What made you realise you wanted to be a writer?
It was kind of by accident really. Like most of my mates when were growing up, I wanted to be a footballer, but the back up plan was to do something in films, maybe write or direct. I say “plan”, but it was more of a thought. I like to blame the non-existent sporting career on moving every 3 years and a dodgy knee that started when I was 14. But as for the back up plan, I never did anything about it, and after not working hard enough in my A-levels to get to university I had to get a job. To be honest, that was a good thing because I was going to do study Economics, something I had a good understanding of but wasn’t passionate about, and may have flunked out anyway. A couple of years later I managed to persuade my parents to let me try for university again, and this time for something I wanted to do. Because I didn’t have the A-level grades I went on a year-long University Access course – I absolutely aced the course, had a successful university interview, but due to an administrative error the local university messed up my application, so I didn’t send me the expected offer. I could’ve waited another year, and perhaps I should’ve done, but I went and got another humdrum job. However, during my time on the Access course I started writing; mainly poetry, but I had an idea for a sci-fi movie I wanted to script. I didn’t know how to write a script, so I figured I would write the book instead and then it would get made in to a movie. It was rather naïve of me really, but that it how I started seriously writing. It was a long time before I moved on to writing children’s books. It wasn’t until I had young kids that I decided to switch genre.
As this is a website about Norfolk, we’d like to ask you what is your favourite place to visit in Norfolk?
I don’t think I can narrow it down to one because there is so many great places. I really enjoy visiting the stately homes like Holkham and Blickling, and I have fond memories of taking the kids to places like Pettitts, Roar! Dinosaur Adventure, Norwich Castle Museum and Banham Zoo. But I think the best thing about Norfolk is the scenery and wildlife, so you can’t beat walking along the beaches, seeing the seals at Horsey or Blakeney, or enjoying an ice cream on Cromer Pier. I guess, my favourite place in Norfolk is Norfolk itself!
Do you use places in Norfolk or East Anglia for your writing, even just as inspiration for scenery in your books?
I haven’t yet. However, I do have a book on the back-burner that will feature Norfolk, and I hope to get around to working on it in the next couple of years. Although I’m not very organised, I do have a loose plan of the order of books in development. That said, occasionally one will jump ahead of the queue and go straight in to development.
What was your first serious attempt at writing?
As I mentioned, I started writing during my Access course, so I would’ve been 20-21, but it was over the next few years when I started my first writing project. It took about a year to write the first draft of my sci-fi novel (size-wise it was more of a novella). I then typed it up on my Dad’s IBM, which took another couple of years. during this time I got married, became a home-owner, and work was occupying more and more time. I continued working on it, and although it was rough I think it had some promise. I speculatively sent it off, and experienced my first rejections as a writer. I knew the book needed more work and I didn’t have the time; I got a bit despondent with it and shelved the book. It’s still there waiting to be finished one day (if I can convert Amipro files to Word!)
Actually, scrap that. A few years earlier, I had a comic book idea I’ve mused over since I was a high school, and the summer after A-levels I got together with one of my mates to, y’know, make a comic book, as you do. We didn’t get very far. A couple of sketches at most. Anyway, at some point the following year I wrote a shortish, about 30-50 pages, story that would be something to turn in to a graphic novel. Sadly I can’t find that on floppy disk, so I’d have to type it up again sometime. I really want to revisit both of these projects one day.
What was your first published story?
Back in 2002, a short story I wrote called, Value for Money, was published in Raven Electrick, an online E-Zine. This was my first paid writing job too – I received $5 payment, which the publisher sent by mail, so it was nice to have the physical payment rather than a bank transfer. I had planned to frame the $5 note, but in the end I ended up spending it a few years later while on holiday in Florida.[The story can still be found on-line here.]
What do you enjoy the most – writing or illustrating?
I definitely prefer the process of writing, though I’m not the biggest fan or editing and rewriting my work! I don’t really consider myself an illustrator. In fact I only did the illustrations in The Christmas Starfish to demonstrate what I wanted the illustrations to look like when sending the book to prospective agents. However, I decided they were perfect for the book – they conveyed and complimented the story and were simple enough for kids to be able to draw.
I’m very proud of some of my illustrations and I’ve surprised myself with how good they are, but the process of creating them has taken me too long, so I would hope to work with illustrators on future books, though I am doing them again for my next book!
You have published your books yourself. Why?
To be honest, I would prefer to have gone down the traditional publishing model, but life isn’t straight-forward, is it? When I wrote my first children’s book, The Christmas Starfish, I tried to get an agent in the belief that I needed one to help me find a publisher. I wrote the book back in about 2008-09, and after typing it up and pulling together the illustrations I duly sent it off to a literary agent, then wait for 6 months for no response. I then tried a few more (one at a time, that’s the best way) and either got no response or a generic “no thanks” letter/email. So after a couple of years of this, I decided to publish it myself. Not because I wanted it on bookshelves everywhere or even for vanities sake. I had, okay, have, a habit of starting and not finishing things. So, to me, publishing this book was a way of showing to myself I could complete something. I had no idea how to promote it, or how to sell it. I still don’t. That didn’t matter – Completing it and being happy with it was enough for me.
That was in 2014. The following year I decided to pull it as I wanted to tweak it. It wasn’t until during lockdown 2020 that I returned to it, made some changes and reissued the book. It felt like the right time for The Christmas Starfish to return. That spurred me on, and I on decided to go for the same publishing route for Strawberry Scoreberries. I wanted it out and available for Christmas 2020 and this was the quickest way of doing it, and I did the same the following year, though I Wish It Were Raining came out in early 2022 as it wasn’t quite ready for Christmas.
So, yes, I am a publisher as well as an author, and for some writers that is the right thing to do. But, going forward I certainly hope to work with traditional publishers, and perhaps an agent too, if I can find the right one, or they find me!
Do you get writer’ block?
Oh yes! There can hours go by just staring at a blank screen. There are methods to get over this, and I think the best one is just to write something, anything. Even your shopping list. You can edit something rubbish, but you can’t edit a blank page.
Apart from time and writer’s block, is there anything else stopping you from writing?
RSI (repetitive strain injury). I’ve suffered from this on on off for 20 years. When I first started, I wrote everything by pen and would type it up. Nowadays I try to put it all straight down on the computer because holding a pen for too long can be a strain.
What is your favourite childhood book?
When I was a lad I enjoyed reading books by Michael Hardcastle (such as Away From Home) mainly due to my football obsession, but I also liked science fiction too, so I’d say Nicholas Fisk’s Space Hostages. I’ll be honest, though. I wasn’t really an avid reader until my late teens.
And what is your favourite book as an adult?
It has to be John Burnside’s The Dumb House. It’s a very disturbing book, but very gripping. I also really enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, and, I still enjoy a good Star Wars related novel.
How often do you write?
Not enough. I’d like to write several hours a day, but somehow this doesn’t happen for one reason or another.
Who is the most famous Norfolk celebrity you have met?
Er, can I say me?! Erm, I’ve met a few ex-Norwich City footballers mainly through both of my son’s footballing, so I’ve met people like John Ruddy, Dean Ashton, Darren Eadie, Adam Drury, Grant Holt, Ewan Roberts, Declan Rudd to name a few. Oh, and Beth from the Mustard Show! Beyond them, I’m not sure there’s anyone else really. That’s a bit naff isn’t it? Oh, I have met a few Star Wars actors like David Prowse (Darth Vader), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka) and Peter Mayhew (Chewie!), but none of them are from around these parts. So, yeah, just footballers really!
What book are you reading now?
I’ve just finished reading Jimmy Carr’s Before and Laughter, and now I’m working my way through the Secret Footballer books as well as reading James Barclay’s Dawn Thief. I’m also going to re-read all of Carrie Fisher’s books soon, but I need to stock up on fiction some time. However, I also have a back log of autobiographies and other non-fiction to read. As my kids are now teens I don’t get new kids books to read anymore (it doesn’t feel right going in to the library and getting a handful of picture books for me!). We’ve still got shelves and boxes full of them, which I occasionally will dip in to, but I might have to get a Kindle membership (or similar) so I can comfortably keep up with the latest work of my peers.
What do you plan to write next?
Well, I’ve got a couple of books in development at the moment. I have completed the first draft of one, and will be working on the rewrite soon before starting the arduous task of finding a publisher. All being well, the follow up to The Christmas Starfish will be next.
Do you think you would ever write other genres?
Absolutely. I’ll continue writing children’s picture books but I do want to try new things. For starters, I plan to write some lengthier fiction for young persons and I want to go back and rewrite my sci-fi novel (the one that has been sat untouched for 20+ years!). The one thing I really want to do, and I keep putting off, is to write some film scripts. Before I even attempt that I think I’ll need to find a scriptwriting course.
Do you do school visits or book-signings?
I haven’t done any yet, and at the moment I’m not planning on doing any. To be honest, I’m quite a quiet person and not one for self-promotion. A lot of my fellow authors are quite extrovert and enjoy talking about themselves and their work, but that’s not really me. When it comes to signing my work, whilst there might be a couple of signed copies out there, [we gave one away on NorfolkPlaces a couple of years ago] I prefer not to sign because I get cramp in my hand after a few minutes when writing. I also think my signature would devalue the books!
What is one thing you would say to anyone wanting to become a writer?
It takes time, so be patient and allow yourself time to succeed.
Finally, where can we buy your books?
They’re all available on Amazon in paperback or eBook format. Clicking the respective books below will take you through to the book details page.
Where to Next?
Here’s a few more articles of interest and things for you to do to keep you occupied.
Explore Norfolk’s heritage, where you can find museums (including steam railways), stately homes and gardens.
Why not check out our Norfolk quizzes and games.
Check out the NorfolkPlaces Directory: