Phil Earle | 'I genuinely thought I was done. I had nothing left to say'

Phil Earle | 'I genuinely thought I was done. I had nothing left to say'

"I had a physical reaction. It literally made the hairs on my arm stand up.” Phil Earle is talking about the moment he heard the true story which inspired his new children’s book When the Sky Falls. The story was “gifted” to him by a family member, whose father was part of the Manchester home guard in the Second World War and had a very specific job. Every time the air-raid siren sounded, he had to pick up his rifle and run to Manchester Zoo, ready to shoot the lion and stop it from going on the rampage if bombing freed it from its cage.

The story stayed with Earle through a difficult period when, due to personal circumstances, he no longer felt able to write. “I genuinely thought I was done. I had nothing left to say,” he tells me, speaking over the phone from his home in Hebden Bridge. But he kept coming back to this story and how it made him feel. “There was no doubt in my mind that this would be the story that would get me writing again.”

The writing process began with the question: what if? “The first question that popped into my head was: what if that rifle ended up not in the hands of a responsible adult, but in the hands of an angry 12 year-old boy?” He felt it would challenge logic to have a boy forging a relationship with a lion, but his research revealed several documented cases where alpha male silverbacks had come to the rescue of children.

The book opens in London in 1941, where Joseph has been sent to stay with Mrs F, a gruff woman who owns a run-down zoo. There Joseph meets Adonis, a huge silverback gorilla. All the lead characters have suffered terrible loss and abandonment, but as time passes connections are forged, bonds deepen and secrets are revealed. As the war rages on, a terrible thought hangs over them: if the bombs set Adonis free, will Mrs F or Joseph be able to end the life of the one thing they truly love?

The Second World War remains a popular topic for children’s writers, but the vast majority are about evacuees fleeing the cities. When the Sky Falls is quite the reverse. “Children are leaving the city in droves, and here is one kid travelling in the opposite direction,” explains Earle. “Writing about the underdog has always been a bit of an obsession for me. Some of my best writing comes about when I’m tackling really angry boys.” Joseph’s inner turmoil is mirrored in Earle’s strikingly cinematic depiction of a city shattered by the Blitz. His research focused on the visual—“I went to film, I looked at graphic novels, and I went to Google Images”—resulting in stark imagery like the small boy sitting in a bombed-out bookshop, calmly reading books and returning them to the shelves. Historical fiction may be a change of direction but When the Sky Falls still feels very much a Phil Earle book. “Miserable as sin!” he interjects, laughing, when I suggest this. Earle’s YA books do have a certain reputation for tackling tough topics, but just as notable is the heart; a rich seam of compassion and humanity runs through his work. “I know I often cover gritty stuff, but there is always hope and there is always humour,” he agrees.

A reluctant start
Earle was not the voracious childhood reader we might assume an author to be, although he did love comics and graphic novels. “I still class myself as a reluctant reader,” he admits, “I really struggle to force my way through a book that doesn’t engage me.” He studied English and Drama, but fudged his way through the English bit. “Classics said very little to me, I just didn’t read them.” Drama, however, was a huge influence. “Any modicum of quality I’ve learned as a writer has been much more to do with theatre.” Earle grew up in Hull, where John Godber was writing plays about bouncers, school teachers, hairdressers and rugby league players for the Hull Truck Theatre Company. “I was obsessed with it. It was going to see those plays again and again; that taught me about storytelling and especially about dialogue. He was talking about my people, people I could relate to.” Other key influences include Ken Loach and Shane Meadows; like them, Earle’s protagonists are often complex characters from working-class backgrounds.

Following his degree Earle worked in children’s care and as a drama therapist, before taking a job as a children’s bookseller at Ottakar’s bookshop in Putney, south-west London. His department manager Lesley Preston told him: “If this is going to work, you need to be able to hand- sell.” Preston made Earle read Louis Sachar’s Holes, and he was hooked. “There’s not a wasted word. It’s priceless.”

I also worked for Ottakar’s at that time, and Earle’s enthusiasm and championing of children’s books was legendary. He describes his bookshop years as “completely formative”, going on to work for a variety of children’s publishers, including Random House and Simon & Schuster. He was first published by Puffin in 2011, writing several contemporary YA novels inspired by his work with children in the care system. In 2015 he moved to Orion, for heartfelt middle-grade series Storey Street, each book focusing on a different family. More recently he has written a number of books for Barrington Stoke, and school-trip comedies Get Me Out of Here and I Broke the Internet, with Andy McNab for Scholastic. He now combines writing with a part-time role as sales and marketing director for David Fickling Books.

When the Sky Falls is Earle’s 20th book, marking his 10th anniversary as a published writer. It’s also his first with Andersen Press, where, in a nice moment of serendipity, his editor is Charlie Sheppard, the first editor to ever read what he had written, all those years ago. “Although Charlie said she couldn’t publish it, she did say, ‘You can write’, which was definitely a big motivating factor,” he recalls.

Earle describes Sheppard as “remarkably astute” and credits her with sparking the idea for his next book. Early in the editorial process for When the Sky Falls, Sheppard pointed out that few people had pets during the war, due to a government mandate which resulted in the euthanisation of more than 750,000 animals in preparation for food shortages. “That got me going! I’m writing a book about one boy called Noah who decides he is going to try and save as many animals as possible.”

He jokes that he was recently horrified to be called a veteran but, in an industry often preoccupied with shiny new débuts, a decade in print is no small achievement. “Are publishers still going to think I’m relevant, and more importantly, commercial enough to take a chance on me?” he muses. When the Sky Falls is attracting rave reviews and is, I believe, his best book to date. Earle says he is “galvanised” by the feedback. “The response has been wonderful. I’m having the best time.”