On the road with travel writer Ben Hatch | Interview

April 8, 2014, Article by Ben Willis in Books

Editor Richard interviews Ben Hatch, author of ROAD TO ROUEN:

1. Road to Rouen is set in France, a country you obviously have a bit of a love/hate relationship with. How do you feel about France, and the French, now the dust of the trip has settled?

I hate them a lot more. No, that’s not true. I love France and the French. If they didn’t exist and you invented them, you’d be accused of exaggeration. You’d have to change bits. Sorry, that’s too many cheeses, they’d say. What? Their best game is boule? Come on, that’s gotta go too. They’re like teenagers, the French. They make it hard to love them. They sulk and huff around because you don’t understand them and they’re also very lazy. Probably the most frustrating thing in fact about France, famed for its food, is actually finding the opportunity to eat some, especially if you have kids. Restaurants don’t open until 7pm, bedtime for our children, and half the boulangeries shut at lunchtime, exactly when you want to buy bread. I mean, imagine Greggs closing for lunch. Also they take ages to say anything. Do you what it says on a French ambulance? In French it says this: “vehicle for the transportation of people who’ve had an accident to hospital.” It says that on the side of the ambulance. This, remember, is an emergency vehicle where speed and brevity is of the essence. In French zoos keepers talk to their animals in English because French is too unfathomable. When your own Rhinos aren’t growing up talking native French, you’re in big trouble. Though what I love about the French is that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them. They do their own thing. And they’re also incredibly uncool. They don’t slavishly follow fashion. They walk about in clothes a 10-year-old would baulk at in England. And they appreciate the finer, slower things of life – sleeping, food, family, wine and more sleeping. As a lazy person myself, you have to love them.

2. You are extremely honest in your writing, touching on some very personal themes – the death of your father in Are We Nearly There Yet? And some marital problems in Road to Rouen. Is that honesty important to you when writing?

I think if you’re trying to sustain comic writing over 300 or so pages you can’t just make it a series of set-piece gags and funny situations. That would become like watching a boxset of Frank Spencer. Somewhere there has to be some real life happening. On the first trip that was my dad being sick. It’s not that I particularly wanted to write about this, it was more that I couldn’t not write about it. It was as much a part of the trip as the kids sat in the backseat demanding chocolate buttons was. The same is true of the marriage wobble in Road to Rouen. That said I do have occasional sleepless nights that I’ve given away too much. The trouble is I don’t actually imagine anyone reading anything I’ve written. In fact it’s only the day or so before publication that I wake up sweating and think shit, did I really just write about a sexual pulley system?

3. You had a series of unsuccessful jobs when you were younger – do you think you could have stuck at anything else other than writing?

No. Impossible. I was too much of an idiot. I’m still too much of an idiot. In the space of a couple of years in my 20s I was sacked as a lawnmower salesman and as a McChicken sandwich station monitor at McDonalds. I worked in the unemployment benefits office and in a bank. I sold insurance, adverting space. I was a recruitment consultant, a postman, a painter and decorator and, for a while, a private detective. Inspired by Jim Rockford, I set up the private detective agency using my parents’ home telephone number and put an ad in our local paper, the Bucks Examiner. I found having your mother shouting up the stairs, “Benjy, get out of the bath. There’s a man on the phone who wants you to follow his wife,” tended to put off perspective clients. After this I was thrown out of home by my dad who called me an oaf and told me to grow up. I was then a local news reporter for a while. I left journalism in 1997 and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since. Though during this time I’ve done other things to keep the wolf from the door. I was a property developer for a while, for instance, and disastrously bought a flat above a pickling factory. If I hadn’t been writer I’d be dead now.

4. Both you and your wife write for a living. If your children said they wanted to be writers too, what would you say?

I’d immediately put crosses on their charts ands cancel that night’s Frube yoghurt. No, if that’s what they wanted to do I’d say go ahead, but warn them they’d never be rich and might become dependent on toast-based lunches. Plus I’d tell them that the novelty of gnawing blocks of cheese whilst wearing just pants in the middle of the day soon wears off and can be troubling when Tesco Direct arrive with the shopping.

5. There are some slightly sketchy moments in Road to Rouen – I’m thinking of running with the bulls in Pamplona and getting into some real trouble with some American tourists. Do you find yourself thinking ‘this will make a great chapter in the book’ or is it only after the event that you realise the potential?

I actually hate getting into scrapes. My wife is a magnet for them though. I don’t know why but when I’m with her things just go wrong. On my own I’m fine. If she’s beside me somebody is going to fall down a manhole.

6. Travel-writing has some stand-out figures like Tony Hawks and Dave Gorman who seem to define the genre. Do you think it’s difficult for writers who are writing on similar themes to find their own ‘voice’?

I think every genre has stand out figures. But you’re right those writers are the writers everyone knows. I’d add to that list Danny Wallace and Bill Bryson, of course. They’re stand out figures because they’re very good. But everyone has a voice it’s just whether a) anyone wants to hear it or b) you get the lucky break to test out whether anyone wants to hear by getting published. With travel writing I think voice is very important. On a journey you want to be with someone you’d like to spend time with. That’s why Michael Palin is so good on the telly, I think. I’m now regretting the sexual pulley system.

7. You’re first book Are We Nearly There Yet? has been option by Island Pictures. Tell me how that came about? And also I gather you’re in contact with the BBC about developing a sitcom.

The first came about after film director Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) got in touch after reading my book on a plane to LA. I was thrilled that he loved it. He helped me get the book to Dominic Minghella at Island pictures, who optioned the book. Now they’re collaborating on a film. What’s great is that I love Dom’s work and I am big fan of Kirk’s films. The sitcom came about because a BBC TV comedy producer had read The Lawnmower Celebrity, my first novel, and thought it could be transferred to the telly. I’m working on that right now.

8. Music plays an important part in Road to Rouen – there are certain songs that seem to galvanise you as a family.

When I’m driving, especially if it’s quite late at night and the whole family is in the car together, I become highly susceptible to songs involving a lilting piano that have lyrics suggestive of a) the road and how long/windy/ and or wide it is, b) oceans and rivers and how deep and wide they are and also C) lyrics that focus on being a long way from home. I like to sing along to these tracks and I try and persuade the family to join in. I think it comes from childhood and the long drives to Devon to see my Gran and Aunty Romey who we always spent the summer with. I loved those drives. It was the start of the summer. All my family together in the car and my dad wasn’t working.

9. Where is your next adventure taking you?

We are off to Italy this summer. So far we’re going whale watching (someone I know will be swallowed by a whale), and also truffle hunting in Umbria with dogs in the middle of the night, another potential disaster. The craziest thing of all we’re doing is bear watching. Watching actual bears. I’m trying not to think of that one.

10. Finally, and most importantly, if you had to pick a favourite cheese, what would it be?