Author interview – Owen Booth

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Author interview – Owen Booth

Owen Booth 2

Owen Booth is is a journalist, copywriter, father of two sons and author of ‘What We’re Teaching Our Sons’ – a wonderful compilation of life lessons passed down from father to son. (You can read our book review here)
The following interview is by Sam Eades.

Whilst there are hundreds of books aimed at new mums, books about navigating fatherhood are thin on the ground. Are more books needed? Do you think men find it harder to seek advice?

I think men definitely find it harder to seek advice. I know I do. For starters, we don’t like to talk to each other – not about important stuff, anyway (there’s a story in the book about the lengths men will go to to avoid talking about their feelings with other men). We don’t much like asking for help or appearing vulnerable, either. Even if, or especially when, we have no idea what we’re doing. It’s that whole thing about getting lost and not wanting to ask for directions, isn’t it? But that’s still a terrible excuse. So, yes, more books about navigating fatherhood are definitely needed – but they probably need to be disguised as something else to get us to read them. Crime thrillers, for instance. Or encyclopaedias of Second World War tanks. Or books of very short comic stories like, ahem, mine…

This book had an unusual route to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The book sort of grew entirely by accident. If you’d ever asked me if I was planning to write a book about Fatherhood I would have been, rightly, horrified by the idea. Not least because I wouldn’t have considered myself at all qualified. In fact, most of the early stories were just about desperately trying to make sense of the enormity of being a parent. I eventually published five of the really early ones together as a single short story, but more kept popping into my head. Like: oh, I should do one about volcanoes! And haunted houses! And empathy! And The Fifteen Foolproof Approaches to Making Someone Fall in Love with You! And so on. So I started publishing them on a blog as I wrote them, just to see if anyone would respond to them. I assumed at some point people would get sick of them, or the formula, or I would. But something seemed to work. People seemed to like them. And the more of the stories I wrote, always sticking with that same formula – “We’re teaching our sons about…” – the more I sort of found I was writing about things and emotions around being a parent and a Dad and a man and a son, too, that I hadn’t even been aware, or hadn’t wanted to think about…

And then one day the right person saw one of the stories and all of a sudden I had an agent and, very, very quickly after that, a book deal. And so then I had to finish it. I still miss writing those stories though…

Your narrative voice is unusual and it makes this book special. What made you decide to use the pronoun “we” to tell this story?

The ‘we’ was there right from the start. I’d like to say that it was because I wanted to make my experience a bit more universal, but really it was totally about avoiding responsibility. As long as it’s “we think this” or “we did that” rather than “I” or “me”, then I can pretend that I’m not actually talking about myself, and my possibly inappropriate thoughts, and my potentially uncomfortable feelings. It’s not me, it’s all those other men! Which both gets me off the hook *and* lets me talk about stuff, some of it actually very personal, that I might not otherwise want to air in public. And also it’s sometimes just a funny conceit – like the scene in the swimming pool on a Sunday morning in the story called ‘Drowning’: you imagine this huge army of balding, slightly pot-bellied Dads, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, all in the pool trying to teach their hundreds and thousands of sons to swim, while gazing in wonder at all the swim-suited mums…

One of my favourite lines from the book is “The best we can do, we realise, is to keep their hearts from breaking for as long as possible.” When in that first year of a child’s life do you think we move from pure survival mode to becoming a parent?

That’s a very good question! I wonder if we ever entirely move out of survival mode again – it’s ironic because that line comes from the ‘Plane Crashes’ story, where the Dads spend the whole journey worrying about everything while the kids are totally just in the moment and enjoying the experience. And in a way part of our job as parents, of course, *is* to do all the worrying so our children don’t have to. But we have find a way to just enjoy the experience too, of course, or we miss out on the fun of the whole thing. I’m still working on that one. I have my moments…

Owen Booth

How did you make the time to write with two small children? Do your boys feature in the story?

The chapters/stories in the book are short for a reason! Each one is about as long as my free time/attention span lasted, in between parenting and never getting enough sleep and working for a living. The fact that the format also makes the book easy to read in short bursts, and so ideal for other tired parents, came as a bonus.

Almost all the stories are in some way the result of something my children said or did, although some are more fictionalised than others (for instance we haven’t been to the Amazon jungle in search of mystical enlightenment together– yet). The conversation about the differences between vampires, zombies and werewolves is definitely one that I’ve had with my sons, numerous times. The World’s Most Dangerous Spiders conversation too. The bit in the chapter about The Big Bang where one of the sons asks “how was the world made? How did this all be true? Even before the olden days?” is a direct quote from one of my boys when he was tiny that I loved so much I wanted to preserve it for posterity. And a couple of the stories even spilled back over into real life – writing the chapter about The Abominable Snowman actually led me to see my youngest son’s magnificent rages in a more positive, even celebratory light, and, I think, improved our relationship a lot.

Can you share one bit of advice for new dads?

I was stuck with this one, so I asked my sons about it. Their advice was that Dads should get used to not having much sleep, be very generous and give their children lots of stuff. Hmmm. I do agree with them about the sleep. Beyond that, I don’t want to come across as a self-help guru. I have no more idea of what I’m doing than anyone else. And quite possibly a lot less. And I think that’s probably okay. Do your best. Try to be a good partner. See, I’m already sounding like an idiot. How about, in line with what we were saying about pure survival vs being a parent, sometimes you just need to try to relax and enjoy the plane ride, despite knowing that you could all fall out of the sky at any minute…

What are you writing next?

In what might seem like a complete departure, my next book is actually a historical novel. But it’s a funny historical novel with very short chapters, and it’s about fathers and sons and the miseducation of a young man, so it’s actually very much in my usual territory…