Conversations

Ben Dixon

Author of the Neil Peel Trilogy

Hi Ben! Before we start, let me just say I absolutely loved Neil Peel’s Holiday. I am very happy you found us on Twitter and put your book forward for review. How and when did you come up with the idea for your Neil Peel novels? 

Hello! Thank you for such a kind review. That’s the kind of feedback that makes it all worthwhile.

There are probably many brilliant writers out there who just need the right story to tell. Coming up with an original idea is most of the battle. Neil Peel was born from several ideas coming together. My son, Max, was always brutally honest when he was a little boy. I remember an occasion when his sister was playing a video game and not doing very well. She was upset, and he said, “you’re not very good at this, are you?” which upset her even more. I felt for Isabelle, but his bluntness was also quite funny. A main character who always tells the truth gave me plenty of fuel once I’d come up with a good reason for him to do so.

Neil’s name came from a time when I was reading a Stephen King book in which there was a girl wearing a yellow dress. Just at that moment, I had a message from a friend called Melanie. Wordplay is something that I use a lot to come up with silly ideas; I switched the consonants in Melanie’s name to come up with Lemony, a girl who wears yellow. The surname followed to become Lemony Peel, and then Neil, father, John Peel and mother, Emma Peel came to mind after that. There are always little references to pop culture throughout the books that many won’t get. More blatant puns such as the primary school being called Prince Albert School in the village of Lower Piercing give an idea of the tone that I followed.

I had a lot of good episodic ideas for the first story, but a good ending is crucial for the whole thing not to fall flat. I’d written a silly comedy horror story for narration nearly thirty years ago before podcasts were a thing. It was about two bullies forcing an overweight victim-type into robbing an old lady’s house; she may or may not have been a witch. That tale got twisted to form the ending of my first story, ‘The Heroic Truths of Neil Peel’.

You are a father of four. Did this influence your writing and choice of genre in any way? 

I tried to write a thriller about five years ago because that was the genre that I generally read. I did have an idea and started to write it, but it wasn’t pulling me to the computer to write when I had the time; others have a knack for that sort of thing, but it seems I didn’t. I think, however, that I am a good observer of behaviour as many introverts are. My children often did and said funny things, sometimes without realising it when they were younger, or with confidence as they got older. I have quite a schoolboy sense of humour, so this genre came much more naturally. There are so many parts of a young person’s life which are rich pickings for humorous situations, and I really look forward to each writing session.

Talking about genres, I found it challenging to narrow your book series down to a specific one. I think it would be unfair to simply describe it as “funny books for teens”. Could you tell us a bit more about the genre? Are there many contemporary authors that write what you write? 

I usually say that my books are YA Humour, although you are right that it covers more than that. The stories touch on family dynamics, and there are some parts of ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’, the third book, that have made readers cry (with sadness as well as laughter!). 

Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books were so popular when I was a teenager and remain popular to this day. For that reason, I cannot understand for the life of me why more people aren’t writing in that genre now. There were a few derivative diary books immediately after the first Mole book, but they were all inferior. My Neil Peel books have been likened to a modern Adrian Mole and have proven popular, even with reluctant readers. However, I wrote to entertain myself as well as the teen bracket, so there are many hidden gems for older readers as well as the young; in fact, many of the series biggest fans are nostalgic adults.

Irony and humour are a big part of your writing and I think they are also a great personal quality. Do you consider yourself a humorous person? Do these scenes just come to you or are they the product of a specific creative process? 

I’ve always loved comedy and have taken influences from a great variety of sources: The Marx Brothers, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, Les Dawson, Round the Horne, The Molesworth books, Vic and Bob, Frasier, Ronnie Barker and many more; I even did my university dissertation on the language-based humour of the Marx Brothers. I wrote a series of humorous horror shorts thirty years ago and some irreverent comedy school plays in my first teaching job which went down very well among the non-PC parents. Humour plays a big part in my life, and I always try to look on the bright side, something that’s so essential with all the constant bad news around us.

Whether I’m funny in person would be open to debate, but with time to plan humorous situations, I seem to find my niche. I was a guest speaker at the 2021 Surrey New Writers Festival, and the delegates were genuinely curious about how to write humour. They were very hard questions to answer. I think much of successful humour writing has to come from within and your influences.

What are your future writing plans? Are you going to continue writing Neil’s adventures or move on to something else? Can you give us a taste of what’s to come?

The third novel in the series, ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’, came out last month, and I’m delighted with it. The end of ‘Neil Peel’s Holiday’ teased a new character called Damian Devlin who has just joined Neil’s school, Titfield. All the familiar characters are back, but the main thrust of this third one is the rivalry between Neil and Damian, particularly centred around a mutual affection for Fleur, a girl in their class, and also the production of Much Ado About Nothing, their school play.

Book Three wraps up in a tidy fashion as if that is the end of the story. I’m not intending to go any further with it unless it really takes off on a larger scale. Otherwise, I might go back to that thriller, who knows?

Tell us a bit more about your writing routine. Do you follow a schedule or wait for inspiration? What type of writer are you: someone who can put a thousand words on paper in one go or someone who takes a whole morning to put in a comma only to remove it again in the afternoon?

Having a day job gets in the way of writing, but it also helps to consolidate ideas. Most advice seems to suggest forcing yourself to sit down and write, even if you are struggling; you can edit 40,000 words out of your manuscript at a later stage. What a waste of time that is! I gather ideas, noting down little jokes or chapter ideas while I’m too busy to write. I can also move the ideas around so that a sensible timeline is reached. When I do actually get time to write properly, it is more a question of putting ready-formed plans down onto paper, so I can often write 3,000 words in a (long) sitting. Having said that, I can also spend a really long time coming up with a chapter title. My favourite in ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’ is Return of the Red-Eye. My children are usually my test readers, and they spot typos or suggest that I’ve gone too far with the cheekiest ideas. 

If there’s anything else you’d like to add, please feel free to do so! 

Thank you again for the review. Exposure for new and independent writers is so hard to come by, so organisations like notforvanity.com are really helpful for getting the word out. ‘Neil Peel’s Holiday’ and ‘Neil Peel’s Rival’ are free on Kindle Unlimited for anyone who has a subscription and might like to try something different. They also make great Christmas presents for those wishing to get their teens away from a screen for a while!

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