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Stephen King once said that one of the questions he is most frequently asked is "Where do you get your ideas?" As an occasional short story writer, I now realise that ideas can come from pretty much anywhere, although much of what I write does have a personal element to it. However, even having a rough answer from my own experience doesn't stop me wanting to find out how others would answer the same question, as it can be different for us all. Particularly when one of my favourite and criminally under-read authors writes an autobiography that may provide some of the answers.
It appears that Christopher Fowler has always been blessed with a vivid imagination. His story opens with him avoiding a sunshine death ray on the pavement before he injures himself on a rollercoaster of his own design and construction in the back yard. Fowler tends to lose himself in a world of daydreams, comic books, novels and films. Although, growing up in 1960s England, a country struggling to recover from the effects of World War II, this is hardly surprising, as his imagined world was a far better one than the reality he would have faced otherwise.
Like many children with more than a passing interest in books, he is largely shunned by his peers and seems to have few friends. His home situation doesn't help, as his father doesn't understand his imagination and tries to get him interested in more "real" pursuits, like helping with DIY or repairing the motorbikes in the back room. His mother does secretly share some of his love of reading, but is a generally quite figure and doesn't get much opportunity to encourage him. Added to this is a hostility between the two sets of grandparents and it's a tough upbringing.
At first glance, you may think this has the potential to be a depressing read, thanks to the times and situations it's written in. But Fowler's writing style prevents this ever happening. That's not to say it's not full of the kind of emotion and regret that a solitary lifestyle in which he feels distanced from both his peers and his parents can lead to. Fowler has always excelled in creating realistic characters in his fiction writing and so he is able to present a very vivid depiction of those he comes across in real life. The desperation of his mother's situation and the awkwardness as the families meet are clearly presented. The rough edges that his father contains and the emotional and physical difficulties he has living with them, breaking away from them and dealing with them as they smooth off later on can be felt through his words.
An added bonus here is that Fowler has always written with an eye for the humorous and even in difficult situations like his life, this remains present. He writes with a twinkle in his eye which is apparent, either in the recollections themselves, or in the footnotes. His early description of Weetabix as wet roofing felt and rotting chipboard is hilarious to someone who spent many years eating it at breakfast. Even the tales from the front room, which aren't always funny in themselves, are often rendered so with frequent sprinklings of childish naïveté.
However, as amusing as things are, it's the moments where you get to glimpse Fowler's fictional writing coming through that I enjoyed the most. As an avid reader of many of these stories, I was able to pick up on many of the events that would later inspire short stories. There were many such moments and I could pick up on most of them and it's incredible to see how many of his life's events Fowler has managed to use later on. It was interesting to see how differently they turned out, with some events being added to give them a darker outlook and some expanding into a case of wishful thinking to provide a happier ending than the reality allowed them to have first time around.
If there is one slight downfall, it's that I felt the memoir ended way too soon. It takes him only to the point at which he is beginning to write, but is as yet unpublished. As a fan, I know he has since gone on to run a film company and has written many novels and short stories and I would have liked to have heard more about how he juggled the roles and how he first came to be published. What is here is excellent and it was wonderful to hear more about a favourite author, but there was little about the writing process, even if I can see now where many of the ideas came from. I hope there is to be a second part to this life story, even if I do slightly resent having to pay for another book to find out parts of the life that wasn't present here.
This minor disappointment aside, this is a beautifully written autobiography. There is none of the backbiting and self promotion that frequently occurs in celebrity biographies. There is simply a searing honesty, where Fowler proves, also unlike many celebrity biographies, that honesty and good writing don't need to be separated. For one of the best written biographies I've read, as well as a wryly humorous look at life in 1960s London, this is well worth a look, especially when it can be found from as little as a penny plus postage in the Amazon Marketplace, or from a pound plus postage on eBay. For anyone who has discovered Fowler and enjoys his fictional writing as much as I do, this is virtually indispensible at any price.