An Interview With Tim Ewins - Author Of We Are Animals
Tim Ewins is a debut novelist who defies classification. His first book, We Are Animals
is a diverting, assiduously modulated musing upon fate, human relationships and the bonds that bind us. Told through the quixotic prism of his central protagonist, ManJan, his novel leaps across a tumultuous sixty-year time period, taking in ten different countries and a multifarious gaggle of mammals, insects and fish. A travelogue with a quasi-philosophical substructure seamlessly blended with elements of romanticism, the comedic feel good genre and a soupçon of psychological thriller components. Add a satire-laced pinch of the absurd and stir in an inconspicuous measure of autobiography and you begin to appreciate the complexity of literary flavours Ewins has seasoned his marvellous novel with.
Despite the apparent incongruity of the ingredients, the story romps along, thematic materials flow elegantly and most importantly, the reader is never less than delighted to be submerged into the adventuresome world Ewins creates for our entertainment. The author of such a multifaceted, dreamily surreal and yet relatable tale must surely be a rather interesting, colourful free spirit in possession of a fecund imagination and a generous, warm heart. Having interviewed Ewins recently for our readers, I can report that he most certainly is!
Ewins, married and the father of a lovable, but demanding toddler manages to juggle the seemingly discordant worlds of stand up comedy, accountancy and family life with his new found success as a debut novelist. He has written for DNA Mumbai, had two short stories published in the Terence Short Story Anthology and been an extra in the film Bronson
. Oh, I forgot to mention he also has a dog! Part of the DebutUk 2020 group, We are Animals
was published in February of this year by Lightning Books.
‘Writing a novel has been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember. I embarked on a stand-up comedy career (alongside a more normal career) when I was 20, and then left it all behind and went travelling with my wife in my late twenties. When I came back, I started working on We Are Animals
, which is largely set in the countries we visited. The only real purpose to my writing is enjoyment. I love writing, and, fingers crossed, some people enjoy reading it!’
With the writing bug firmly established in his psyche, understanding the creative influences acting upon this desire became my next line of enquiry. ‘I was big into Roald Dahl when I was a kid, always dreaming of all the magical crazy worlds he concocted. The beauty of his writing is that it can appeal to every age; I remember starting young with The Enormous Crocodile
and then moving onto George’s Marvellous Medicine
. As a teenager I carried on, reading The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar
and Danny the Champion of the World
. In a similar vein, I remember my grandad reading Spike Milligan poems to me and both of us loving the nonsensical whimsy in them’.
With the transition to adulthood came a taste for literature clearly echoing that of his childhood. ‘My tastes probably haven’t changed much as an adult. I love Jonas Jonasson (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
) and Andrew Kaufman (All My Friends are Superheroes
) so it’s all slightly surreal humour. Quite a few reviews have made links between We Are Animals
and Jonas Jonasson’s books, which is such a massive compliment’. I touched upon this similarity in my own review and agree that Ewins’s novel is indeed reminiscent of Jonasson’s literary canon.
With a multiplicity of calls on his time rather like hatchlings in a nest, I wondered if his writing process might reflect the need to take an opportunistic approach to the actual penning of his novel. Ewins describes his writing process as , ‘Ad-hoc to the extreme I’d say. I never planned to have an animal in every chapter of We Are Animals
. I found myself about seven chapters in and realised that that is what I’d been doing, possibly because animal research is a great way to spend your time. I found myself with a basic structure for plot, and the theme of age, but then gave myself the freedom to see what happened’.
‘In a very literal sense, the process I followed whilst writing We Are Animals
consisted of booking out a meeting room at work, and then writing solidly for an hour each day during my lunch breaks, for four years. I wrote a bit on the bus too, but it was a bit wobbly. I’ve worked in a very different way with the second book, so it’ll be interesting to see how that one comes out!’.
It would seem that getting his novel written and published presented Ewins with one or two obstacles to overcome! ‘I’d say there have been two big challenges. The first being simply finding the time to write. Like I say, I was finding time in the smallest of unused moments in my day to day life. Halfway through writing, I had a child, which was easily the best thing to ever happen to me, but it did slow down the writing process. Finding time is still a challenge with my second book, but I do think that it helps me to stop procrastinating. I’ve got half an hour for writing… it’s now or never!’
‘The other challenge I faced, like so many other writers, was that of finding a publisher. I went through the usual stream of rejections before I found We Are Animals
a home at Lightning Books. I’m glad though, because now, having worked with them, I wouldn’t want the book anywhere else’.
So, having explored the bumpy road Ewins has travelled to produce his debut, I wanted to hear his thoughts on the diverting idiosyncrasy of his authorial style. ‘I’ve always written in a similar style. My stand-up comedy was ‘quirky’, and many of the songs I used to play as a part of my set revolved around animals. I’ve not done it on purpose, but it appears I have a ‘thing’. I suspect that Ewins is not an author who has consciously formulated a stylistic credo, but one who has opened himself up to the influence of those he admires and let fate infuse his pen. Understanding his style is best done by understanding the author who has influenced him the most.
‘My favourite author is Andrew Kaufman, who writes quirky and surreal books. His books resonate with me because they are full of emotion and realistic characters who are instantly recognisable, yet the settings and the plot are always so completely out-there. For example, his latest novel The Ticking Heart
is set in a city called Metaphoria, which should give you an idea!’. Perhaps Ewins can be understood as a man hearing a favourite piece of music and his writing is analogous to the spontaneous desire to dance. For me, he dances rather well !
Turning to his debut, I disinterred the creative thinking underpinning his exotic debut. ‘I knew before I started writing that I wanted We Are Animals
(then unnamed) to cover the life span of a 60-something man who had grown tired of travelling, and I knew that I wanted him to relay his life story to a teenager who would be the polar opposite of him. I wanted to look at age, and how people change throughout their lives, and how their surroundings and the people around them affect these changes. I wanted to show the effects of the main characters lives on the lives of those around them, however large or small those effects may be. Like I say though, the abundance of animals came as a surprise!’
Fate is the central thematic force propelling Ewins’s characters through his engaging book. ‘I wrote about fate because, whether I believe in it or not, I did meet my wife on the first day of university and did instantly fall for her. We chatted for about five minutes and then wondered off into our own separate nights. We didn’t get together for another five years after that, but both of us remember our first meeting and nothing else about that night. It felt a little fate-y, and that’s probably why the theme is so prominent in the book!’
Although only faintly referenced in my review, I suspected that We Are Animals
mined at least some of its substance from Ewins’s personal life and was in a sense a fictionalised autobiography, or a story heavily spiced from lived experiences. Ewins candidly shared his thoughts: ‘There was a man I met in Malaysia who never left a beach, but complained about how it had changed. I suggested that he could find a different beach and he said that he wouldn’t. Manjan is very loosely based on that man’.
‘Likewise, I met a guy who was very vest-like in Thailand, and Shakey is very loosely based on him, but I like to think that in a way we’re all a vest at some point, and we’re all a moustache at some point, and that is no bad thing. I’ve certainly been both! There are certain parts of the book that are straight from my travels too, for example, the section about Vaulter and Manjan asking for a pump, but it being mistaken for a gun was based on something that happened in Cambodia, (though in real life it was much less dramatic)’.
I found Ewins’ novel to have an inconspicuous measure of philosophical ruminations permeating his admittedly capricious plot. ‘I’ve actually found a lot of people have found the book to be philosophical, which is so nice to hear, because I wanted it to be light-hearted, but also something a little more than that. Hopefully I’ve achieved it, but it’s not for me to say’. His characteristic humility revealed itself again when he said, ‘my main objective was to delve into the themes stated above, but to do it in such a way that it seems flippant and humorous. I wanted every reader to just enjoy the ride, and to laugh a few times…I wish I had a more detailed or noble objective!’
Finally, I wanted to understand the creative reasoning behind the inclusion of animal portraits in his novel. Reflecting the childhood influence of Roald Dahl, he said, ‘I wanted to bring some of the same whimsical magic that animals can bring into literature into my book. The title came long after I’d finished writing, and I’ve since been asked if it’s a book about veganism (it isn’t). The title came from the various different animals that pop up, and how they reflect the plot of the main characters. Most of the chapters are named after a different animal, and each animal experiences something that most, if not all, humans experience at some point in their lives. I’ve had a message from a stranger to tell me that they’ve never felt so connected to a quail !’
Ewins is a deeply grounded family man and one suspects that authorial success will not alter him. ‘I am incredibly proud of finding a publisher for my debut novel, and I now live my life in continuous shock that people I don’t know have chosen to read it, and have actually enjoyed my writing. My day-to-day life remains very similar to before though. I still go to the office, and I still write in my lunch breaks. My home time is dedicated to my family, with an occasional evening of writing once the babs is in bed, and I don’t think I’d change it for the world’.
Though published in e-book format, We Are Animals
, like his second novel scheduled to be published next year, is likely to come to us in paperback format. A third novel is gently simmering on the back burner. A novella may well also drip from his pen at some point. Regardless of format, Ewins is a marvellously talented debut novelist and one who, however grounded, is likely to see his authorial career fly !