I made tea for Benedict Cumberbatch!
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk writer Lisa Thompson’s debut novel, The Goldfish Boy, is Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month
Lisa Thompson must pinch herself when she wakes each morning. She’d vowed to jack in writing if she hadn’t got a break by the time her 40th birthday came along in 2013, and then things happened in the nick of time. Now her first tale is out – and chosen as Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month, too, with The Goldfish Boy staring out from branch windows.
And that’s only half the story.
The TV options have been snapped up, too – though she knows that’s far from a guarantee it will one day pop up on our screens – and it’s been given some powerful promotional muscle.
Moving posters appeared around the country: at railways stations from St Pancras and Victoria in London to Brighton, Edinburgh and York. Friends spotted them and sent pictures. There was one in Ipswich, too – “I wonder if they did that just for me,” laughs the Suffolk writer, who went with daughter Isobel to see what young Matthew Corbin (aka The Goldfish Boy) looked like by the tracks. The Book Fairies brightened a January Wednesday for dozens of travellers by leaving free copies on the Tube system as part of the Books on the Underground initiative that wants more Londoners to enjoy reading.
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And Lisa’s even had a request from a school in Texas, who want to chat to her on Skype in the spring.
So, does she have to pinch herself?
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“Yes,” she smiles. “It has been a bit weird. It was almost too overwhelming. Social media as well. I know it sounds awful, but you can’t escape from it. I felt really overwhelmed, and then Stuart (her husband) said ‘Well, don’t keep looking at it then.’
“It was only in the second week I thought ‘I’m going to start enjoying this, because it’s going to be gone so quickly. It will be old news.
“It made me realise I would never want to be anything more.” As in a 100%-proof showbiz celebrity. “I’ve only had a tiny sliver of it and I’ve thought ‘That’s enough!’”
Lisa’s long been aware of the power of words on a page – how these little usually-black lines and their sounds and rhythms can conjure every emotion from sheer pleasure to utter fear when mixed with imagination – and it’s gratifying to see her own work strikes a chord with many readers.
The Goldfish Boy is about a boy confronting his fears in order to solve a mystery. Matthew Corbin is 12 and beset with chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder that effectively leaves him a prisoner of his bedroom. It’s his window on the world – or, at least, Chestnut Close.
He watches the locals live their lives, noting down who does what, and when. It’s invariably routine and humdrum… until the moment a toddler staying next door goes missing.
All the neighbours are potential suspects. There’s nothing for it but for Matthew to look his fears in the eye, push himself out of his comfort zone, and turn himself into a detective on the trail of the lad.
“I think there’s something about it we can all understand,” Lisa says of the story. “And I can understand how your mind can get stuck in a loop – particularly for young people. I remember being miserable at my first high school (it was a bit rough) and thinking, as I walked to school, ‘If I see a blackbird, everything will be OK today’. It would kind of spiral.
“It definitely wasn’t OCD” – a recognised and debilitating anxiety disorder – “but I think when you are in a stressful situation you can get these routines.”
She hopes it helps young people understand more about the condition. Certainly many have already got in touch through social media and told Lisa about their experiences, so her fiction has definitely made a real-life connection.
So, how did she go from a girl who left school at 16 to work in insurance, like her dad, to a debutante author at 43?
Lisa was born (in 1973) and raised in Londony Essex – Hornchurch, Upminster – and stories were always in the air. “I wrote my first book when I was nine. But I found it again when I was a teenager and ripped it up! I really, really wanted horse-riding lessons and they’re so expensive, and mum said no. My friend used to go. So I wrote a book about it – about a girl who found these horses by accident, started her own stable, then stumbled across another horse that needed help. I remember, that was the first time I got ‘lost’ in a book, thinking ‘love this’.”
The escapism of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five was irresistible – if Lisa could become any fictional character it would be the capable George – and Roald Dahl another favourite. “I can’t remember many ‘young adult’ books then. It seems like I jumped from Roald Dahl to Stephen King!”
Her mum was very encouraging about writing – certainly after her young daughter wrote a poem that was pinned on the classroom wall. “My mum’s my biggest fan. She’d be here now if she could!”
Dad was a committed reader who introduced her to books, and authors such as Michael Crichton and Ken Follett, “but he wouldn’t have ever thought one would get published – you didn’t push yourself, in those days”.
Sadly, Lisa’s father died at 65, so didn’t witness his daughter’s name rolling off the presses.
She did an A-level in English literature at nightclasses – “I still had this love of writing and reading” – and after a couple of years in insurance switched to the BBC in 1991. “A friend of mine was working at Radio 2 and said ‘This job’s come up’. In those days you didn’t need a degree and it was easier.” It was admin work initially, and then she became a radio production assistant. Her workplace was Weston House. Late last year it was renamed BBC Wogan House, in honour of the late Sir Terry.
There was lots of organising to do, and the making of lots of hot drinks for guests. “I made a career out of making tea!” (See panel above.)
Lisa worked on all sorts of radio programmes, apart from newsy ones, including Proms in the Park.
But what was happening with her writing? Well, Lisa says she’d “dabbled in it”. While at the Beeb she wrote some short stories aimed at children, and a tale about a cockerel that wouldn’t wake up in the morning. A publisher showed some general interest, “so I bombarded her with all these terrible short stories”. That went on for about a year, but didn’t lead anywhere. Doubt crept in, and the fear of failure. She left the BBC in 2002 and started a family (Ben is now 14 and Isobel 11) and remembers going on a writing workshop in about 2003. “At the end of the day they had a panel of agents, publishers and writers, and they basically said ‘It’s so hard to get published.’ Really quite negative. I came out and thought ‘There’s no point. I’m not going to get anywhere’, and put it on the back-burner. I literally did not write another word. It must have had the opposite effect to what they were hoping!”
Workwise, she became a freelance radio broadcast assistant with an independent production company making plays and comedy programmes. Much could be done from home, so it fitted well with children. With the big 4-0 looming, the turning point came with a “now or never” move to Suffolk from Brentwood. Stuart, who hailed from the Cotswolds, was commuting to London, working in finance. But it didn’t float his boat.
They thought about the big drop in income, took a deep breath, and moved to the countryside near Hadleigh. Suffolk wasn’t unfamiliar territory. “We used to come up here quite a lot, to Southwold. My husband loves fishing. I love the fact it’s not on the way to anywhere. With the A12, it’s easy to reach family, and it has links to London, where I go now and again. It seemed the perfect county for us.”
Having to drive everywhere – virtually – was a shock when you’re used to walking to shops, and there’s not even a bus-stop. “But you can’t have everything, can you? Peace and quiet – and we’ve got owls and deer – that outweighs the inconvenience now and again. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Well, maybe nearer to a town!”
Stuart, long interested in plants, landed a job with a nursery (and is now head gardener at a private house. “He went from commuting to welly-boots and driving tractors around!”). The children went from a school with 700 pupils to one with 70.
Lisa got a job as assistant manager with a company offering holidays in luxurious log cabins… and gave herself a year to get an agent.
“It was the thought of being 40. Something clicks. I set myself a deadline: if it didn’t happen by then, I’d give up.” She came up with some short stories with a twist and did hook up with an agent, though that would come to an end. One short story – which would become The Goldfish Boy – had looked strong, with potential to become a book. Lisa sent it to literary agents Peters Fraser and Dunlop, linked with Adam Gauntlett in the autumn of 2015, and The Goldfish Boy was sold a couple of months later.
How did she feel? “Stunned. Well, I say stunned. The first to take it up was France – a French deal first. I didn’t know how this worked. ‘Did you need a UK publisher?!’”
Here (and in America and Canada) Lisa’s got a two-book deal with Scholastic. The second is due out in a year: about a boy who runs away from a troubled home with his mum. It features imaginary friends. Did she have one? “No… I do remember a friend and I both changed our names. I think I was Kim; a really cool name. And my friend changed hers from Sylvia to Julia!”
All in all, then, looking pretty bright after the move to Suffolk. “Life begins at 40, they say. It did for me. Definitely!”
The Goldfish Boy is published by Scholastic at £6.99
So: spill the beans about making tea for the stars!
Lisa admits being excited and starstruck when she started as a BBC radio broadcast assistant and had to look after visiting celebrities as part of her duties.
“I made tea for Billy Joel. Well, coffee. Had to find a posh coffee, because all we had was a horrible machine.
“After I left Radio 2, I freelanced for an independent company – still do. It makes various things for Radio 4 – plays and comedy. My most famous tea-making experience was with Benedict Cumberbatch.
“We were all a bit in awe of him, but he wasn’t as famous as he is now (as Sherlock Holmes). He was about to go into the West End, I think, to do Frankenstein. He was lovely.
“And there was Catherine Tate, Alison Steadman, (the late) Ronnie Corbett – I’ve done quite a few comedy series with him.”
Is it hard not to become paralysed in the presence of the stars?
“You do get used to it. I used to get so nervous, meeting these people, but it doesn’t worry me so much.” Those she’s met have invariably been very nice. “You get the odd one.” But people attracted to radio work tend to be pleasant.
“No make-up; no lighting to worry about. You can just walk in and read the script – don’t have to learn it. It’s a lovely atmosphere. It’s a small team and really enjoyable.
“I’ve never been in a TV studio, but I imagine it’s a bit more fraught!”