I am honored to host Philip Bowne on the blog today. Phil’s debut novel Cows Can’t Jump addresses a handful of issues faced by common man in modern times – teenage love and heartbreak, Brexit, borders and refugees and much more. Without further ado, let’s go on with some Q&As with Phil.
Hello Phil and welcome to my blog, The Book Decoder. Tell me and my readers about yourself.
Thank you for having me! I’m a 27-year-old author/scriptwriter based in London. I’ve been many things in the past: gardener, chef, shop assistant, bar manager – to name a few. I play piano and am a season ticket holder at the mighty West Ham United. I have a gold tooth (thankfully at the back of my mouth). I’m never sure what to say when I’m asked to talk about myself. I’ve probably painted a strange caricature of myself there.
Your debut novel Cows Can’t Jump released recently. Tell us about it.
Cows Can’t Jump started as a short story, by the same title. (It’s the bit in the book where Billy arrives in Switzerland and sleeps in a rowing boat before meeting Christoph and Diana, and their suicidal cows.) I wrote that story when I was 21. At the time, I had no idea that it would end up forming a novel. But it now forms the mid-section of the book. Amazingly, it is more or less unchanged from the very first version of that story I wrote. I wish the same could be said for the rest of the book! I took that short story and decided to grow a novel around it – something I would not recommend doing if you’re disorganized like me. It caused a lot of headaches forming a story around a story. But we got there in the end.
The novel tells the story of Billy, a young gravedigger. He’s stuck with his dysfunctional family. His Dad is Brexit and Boxing obsessed; his Mum is almost certainly having an affair. When his Grandad decides to marry a woman half his age, Billy’s family implodes. He’s desperate for a way out. That comes when he meets Eva, an exciting Swiss girl. Billy goes to extreme lengths to try and forge a relationship with her. His journey across Europe chasing Eva involves hitchhiking with truckers, walking with refugees, and, as I mentioned before – a chance encounter with suicidal cows.
But the further Billy goes, the harder it is to tell what he’s chasing – and what he’s running from.
What is the inspiration behind writing Cows Can’t Jump?
Lots of things. I think the central narrative hook of Billy chasing Eva across Europe came – bizarrely – from reading Heart of Darkness at school. In that book, Conrad uses a narrative pull that I found fascinating. As a reader, you’re journeying up the River Congo to find Kurtz. But you don’t know whether you are going to meet him or not. I guess I was trying to do something similar with Billy’s journey!
There’s a tiny nod to this in Cows Can’t Jump – the character Louis, who Billy meets in Split, talks about his great journey up the River Congo. I wanted to drop in a little nod to Heart of Darkness and Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, in which Celine sends his protagonist up the River Congo.
Of course, it would be stupid to compare Cows Can’t Jump to these great novels of the 20th century. But they definitely influenced me as a young man and had an impact on the way my novel is structured.
The character conflicts were definitely inspired by things closer to home. Money trouble, get-rich-quick-schemes, gambling, debt – these are all things I have been close to in different ways. I have known various versions of Billy, growing up. I have been a Billy. In some ways I still am. I’m talking about young people that feel stuck; stifled by a lack of qualifications and opportunities; crushed by exploitative systems of work and the lack of hope for the future. I’m talking about intelligent, creative, hard-working people. It’s only natural to look for a way out. And that’s what Billy does.
In terms of more contemporary writers that have inspired me, Willy Vlautin is one of my favourite writers. His style is wonderfully lean. He doesn’t mess around with overcomplicated words to try and sound clever – his books are all about simply telling stories. They focus on the emotional depth of characters. I remember listening to Willy speak on a podcast and he said he wanted his books to be something a normal, working person could pick up on a lunch break and get lost in for 20 minutes. I love that.
I’m hugely inspired by work. I’ve worked lots of different jobs – from gardening, bar work, pizza chef, shop assistant. I love reading about work in fiction. I think it’s because I love specific details, and when you’ve worked jobs – particularly mundane or physical jobs with lots of repetition – you can learn a lot about a character and use their work as a set-piece to build themes around. Also, you learn so much about a person from how they behave at work. I think it’s the same for fictional characters.
I often come back to the theme of place or displacement. Dislocating characters from their place in society/family/country/town/anything! Taking a character out of their comfort zone and dropping them in the last place they’d want to be. In Cows Can’t Jump, that comes through in the explorations of borders and barriers between people – the lines we blur and cross. Free movement. I’ve grown up through the anti-EU, anti-immigration discourse and come out on the other side as a young adult who is totally baffled by it all. So that tends to surface in my writing.
Has the lockdown affected your writing schedule? If yes, how?
I see it as a Catch-22. I’ve had more time to write. But, being stuck inside all day, every day, I’m not inspired by anything. I’ve had a lot of work on my plate, which has kept me occupied. I can be at my desk from 7am through until lunch, then go outside for a while. I come home and work through until 7pm. I don’t know whether that’s healthy or not. Probably not. But in some ways, I like the routine. I feel productive most days, and that’s kept me going. Is that sad? Probably.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been writing a lot. Last year I was working on a handful of short stories that I should probably revisit. I had a lot of fun with those and managed to get one published in a magazine. More recently I’ve been writing scripts for a children’s TV show here in the UK, as well as short stories and a longer middle-grade book. A few weeks ago, I was commissioned to ghostwrite a book that I’m really excited about. That will be published at the end of 2021. I can’t say anything more about it just yet!