Hollow Earth Conversation with John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman

On Friday night, at Boswell Books‘ Hollow Earth event at Alverno College in Milwaukee, we were privileged to get an interview with John Barrowman and Carole Barrowman about their new book.  John is a highly successful actor and entertainer both here in the United States as well as the UK.  You know him from his roles as “Captain Jack Harkness” in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”, plus he’s just started a recurring role as the “Well Dressed Man” in The CW’s “Arrow”.  Carole is an author of several books, written with John, as well as a professor of English at Alverno College.  Join us for a conversation about Hollow EarthTorchwood, and future books and acting roles.

Phil of ASM: Thank you very much for agreeing to meet with us.  We are big fans of you from Torchwood and Doctor Who

John Barrowman: Great.

Phil: And we have several of your books.  We saw you at Boswell several years ago when you signed I Am What I Am.

Carole Barrowman:  That’s right.  Okay.  Good!

Phil: We love Hollow Earth.  Absolutely love it.  As you can see, we got the —

John: The British version.

Carole: Well done.  Good.

Phil: So, Hollow Earth is the story of two siblings, and much of the story takes place in Scotland.  Obviously, the two of you have traveled around the UK and grew up in Scotland.  How much of that got translated into the book?

John: Well, a lot of it is — a lot of the people and characters in the book are people that were related to us, or people who we wanted to honor in some sort of way.  For instance, Auchinmurn island — Murn is my grandmother’s name, who basically lived with us for ten years before she died — eleven years.  My dad’s mother’s name is Emily. and Carole — her middle name is Emily, so Emily is in there.  Jeannie, the housekeeper, is kind of based on Murn and my grandsister who was also called Jeanie, who also looked after us.

Carole: And we wanted to do siblings because we are siblings, and also when we were kids we read a ton of books —

John: Enid Blyton.

Carole: — Enid Blyton books and a lot of children’s series books that had brothers and sisters or twins, and so we thought that would be kind of cool.

John: And there’s a history of twins in the family.  And there’s an island that we actually go to that’s called Cumbrae Island, which actually exists of the coast of Scotland.  We used to go there as kids and visit Largs, which was just right in the coastal area.  So all of the stuff in Scotland is very relevant to us.  Even the stuff in England, I mean all the artwork in it.  Everything in that book has some personal connection.  Bathers at Asnières —

Carole: The picture… is the picture that John and I used to meet at when he came out of Phantom of the Opera  and I was over visiting years and years ago, and we would meet at the National Gallery.  And we would kind of cruise a little bit and look at the paintings, and so on.  And that painting, we always just really liked.  Before I left that year, he bought me a print of it that’s still in our house.  So when we were thinking we needed a painting to open the story, to have something that sort of suggests what the twins’ powers are, we thought, “Let’s use that painting” because it has some special meaning to us.  The other characters, like Matt —

John: Matt’s the favorite name of Scott and I if we were ever to have a son.

Carole: And Em, of course, is my middle name, my grandma’s middle name.  And if you turn Em around it spells “Me”.

John: So it’s a bit of both of us.

Carole: And little bit of both of us.

Sara of ASM: Okay.

John: There’s tons Easter eggs for readers, and we put these Easter eggs in there because we know sci-fi fans and fantasy fans love that kind of stuff.  So, you know, the Calder — the last name of the twins —  famous artists.  There’s all sorts of stuff.

Carole: The twins, when they live in London, live on Raphael Terrace.  Raphael and Titian were the famous, sort of early Renaissance artists.  So there’s ton of allusions to art and literature and family in our book.

Sara: One question we had was — we have the British edition, that’s what we’ve read.  How much was adapted for the American version?

Carole: There is virtually no change in the text at all.  The only changes are —

John: Some spellings.

Carole: Some spellings, but even those we decided not to touch, because Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling established a very nice precedent, that I always thought was a silly idea anyway, that kids in Britain and kids in America and other countries who are reading in English — it really doesn’t bug them if “colour” has a “u” in it, or “favourite” has a “u” in it.  It really doesn’t make any difference, and it’s kind of interesting for them.  So we didn’t change anything like that, but there are a few words that American kids might not know. For example, kids here talk about going up on an “elevator”; in the UK it’s a “lift”.  So we thought “Let’s change words like that” — we changes words where we thought it confused the sentence, but other than that, there’s nothing different.

John: The cover’s different.

Carole: The cover’s different.

John: The cover’s different for the American market.  We like this cover [points to the UK version] but we love — we love both covers.  I love the fact that Matt and Em are on the front [of the American version].

Carole: And we also love the fact that if you hold [the American version] in the light… it’s illuminated.  [Editor’s note: Carole picked up a copy of the American hardcover to show the printing effect.  It looks like light is streaming from a sketchpad.]

Phil: Oooh, very nice.

Sara: I do like that.

John: Like an illuminated manuscript.

Carole: So it’s illuminated, and it looks like it — isn’t that cool?  Isn’t it amazing?

Phil: That’s a very cool effect.  It kind of draws your attention to it, and it’s like — there’s something going on with what they’re doing on the piece of paper.  And that kind of gives you the basis for what their powers are.

John: That’s exactly right.

Phil: Very nicely done.

Carole: I thought the illustrator did just a fine job with the cover. And they’re very different.  And obviously this is hardcover and [the UK version] is paperback.  The UK publisher —

John: It’s a different market.

Carole: They tend to not put out children’s books in hardback because of the cost, and they want kids to buy them.  But it’s still a really good price for a hardback.

Sara: I guess my main question — I’ve read a couple of your books now.  When the two of you work together, how does that process work?  Do you [Carole] have certain tasks, and do you [John] have certain tasks?  How does it all work together?

John: It starts off, if you go back, it starts off with having conversations and putting iPhones on, and this book came from a car journey from London to Cardiff, while I was filming something.  I can’t remember what I was filming at the time, but we were working on something, and we started having a conversation.  We normally tape our conversations because we thought they were fun and stupid.  The kids always laugh at them.

Carole: My kids, Clare and Turner, we would tell them that, “Oh, we taped this and it was hilarious.”

John: “No, you guys are weird.”

Carole: We wrote in the back of the Torchwood book [Exodus Code], in the acknowledgements, we need them because they always remind us we’re not as funny as we think we are.

John: No.

Carole: [laughs]

John: So, the question came up, we were both saying to each other, “If you could have a super power, what would it be?”  And so, that’s how it started. So, by the time we finished that journey, we pretty much had this whole book pretty much mapped out.  And we had the —

Carole: Plot outline.

John: The plot outline. And the character we talked about the most on that journey was Zach. We decided we wanted to have him as a deaf character.  The challenge for Carole was to write that not in first-person. Because we were trying to think of how many books —

Carole: There haven’t been that many books written with a deaf character that weren’t written in first-person, so you’re in the deaf person’s head.  So the deafness is not really an issue, because you’re in their head.

John: No.

Carole: So we thought “How about putting a real child in a real world situation who’s deaf and has to deal with it?”  So that would be third-person.  And to be in third-person is a much bigger challenge for us.

John: But with all that information, Carole then stays — she was staying with me for about three months over the summer — and we then discuss other things and talk about other things, get more kinds of characters, build them.  After that initial three months, she then goes away with all of that information, and she then sits down and I don’t bother her, and she writes it all out.  She puts it into word form.  When she’s done with the draft, she then  — the only other thing I would talk to her about, I told her before she went away.  My end of the line is television.  My industry’s television.  I want this to be read like it’s a TV show or movie, so that we can literally lift it from the page.  Any of the books we now do together, from now on, we want to lift from the page to put on screen.  So that was the other challenge.  So when she’s done with it, she then hands it all off to me.  I read it, and we, you know —

Carole: Go back and forth.

John: Go back and forth, and it’s just little things like — for me as a reader, this doesn’t move fast enough.  Or there’s too much talking about the curtains and the description — you know, she’s a very descriptive writer.  But it’s all minor.  So that’s really what it is.  She does all the hard work.  She does all the writing. I am in no way going to take the credit and say that I’m gifted in that way at all.

Carole: But it’s a good collaboration.  We each have our parts. We don’t get in each other’s way, either, when we’re working on it.

John: But we argue.

Carole: Oh, yeah.

John: And I’ll get phone calls sometimes at two in the morning saying, “Matt needs to — what kind of car are they going to drive down the lane?”  And I’m like, “… What do you mean ‘What kind of car?’  It’s two o’clock in the morning!  I’m sleeping!”

Carole: And then there was the one about the boat.  You’ve read it, right?

Phil: Oh, yes.

Sara: Yes.

Carole: So when they are going across to the island, and —

John: “And Matt’s got to take a boat!”

Carole: — they got to take a motor boat out, a boat — I forget what it is right now.

John: We hadn’t talked about that.  She said, “He’s gonna have to take a boat.”  I’m like, “… well, put him in a boat!  Get him across!” [laughs]

Carole: Because sometimes the characters will do stuff you don’t expect.

Sara: Do you envision this to be a series?  I know that Bone Quill is due out in the UK in February.

Carole: It’s a trilogy.

John: It is a trilogy, and all three books have been outlined and worked out. The third one just has to be written. She just finished the second one.

Carole:just finished.

John: And she’s literally about to E-mail me the draft so I can read it and find out what’s going on.  But, yeah, it’s a series.

Phil: Any tentative US release date for Bone Quill?

Carole: I bet it’ll be a year from now.   Generally it’ll be six months after a [UK] release.  I bet Simon and Schuster will do The Bone Quill about this time [next year].

John: Unless they think it has done really well with this [US market], which it has, and they want to push it and go forward with it.

Carole: Yeah, I don’t know . It’s rare for them to put out a UK release the same time as a US release. It really is very rare. But I know that the UK release will be February. I’m pretty sure the end of February.

Sara: As you can see, we have Torchwood: Exodus Code.  We’ve both read it now.  With the status of the TV show being in limbo now, with nothing confirmed, do you see the future of “Torchwood” being in the books?  Do you have plans to do more of this?

Carole: We’d love to do another one.

John: This has really been quite successful in the sense with all the fans. They love this because it keeps Jack alive and in their minds.  And that’s one of the reasons, to be really blunt, why I said to Carole, “We need to do a Torchwood book.”  Because — I love the show so much, I love the character so much, in a way it’s keeping it quietly alive.  But the show is in limbo.  We don’t know what’s happening with it.  That’s not to say it isn’t happening; that’s not to say it is happening at the moment.  But if it is to be kept alive in books —

Carole: We want to do them! [laughs]

John: We want to do them.  Because who knows — no pun intended — Carole has spent time on set with me.  Carole’s a huge “Doctor Who” fan, as I am.  She’s also a “Torchwood” fan, as I am.  And, I know Jack really well.  And this is going back — we love the dark Jack, but I also love the fun —

Carole: Did you find this Jack fun?

Sara: Yes!

John: This is back to the Jack we both really love.

Phil: I must say, after reading, I could easily — you said earlier how you want a book to read so it could come off the page into the screen?  I was envisioning it like I was watching another series.

John: I’m not saying on behalf of BBC or anybody, or BBC Worldwide.  This is my personal opinion, and I think it would be fantastic on the screen. I would love to see it on the screen.

Sara: It would translate really well.

John: Of course it would!  Can you imagine all those places?  It would be incredible!

Carole: Plus, I really want to go to Peru! [laughs]

John: [laughs] You know what?  Peru would come to us in a studio, I can guarantee you that right now. [laughs]

Carole: I told John we wanted to do Peru, and we fleshed that out in our outlines.  So I spent a lot of time reading and doing a lot of research on Peru, and every now and then I would send him a little E-mail, “Look at this! Wouldn’t this be awesome to climb?”  And he’d get back to me and say, “Eh, I wouldn’t want to climb it.”  But Scott, his partner, would get back to me and say, “Yes! Let’s plan a trip!” [laughs]

John: “Let’s plan a trip.”  Yeah, I’ll just pay for it! [laughs]  Thank you! [laughs]  But yeah, it’s a really good book.

Phil: Yeah, loved it.

Sara: In particular, with you writing it, it was Jack coming out of the pages like it was the TV show.

John: That’s also Carole, too. She knows him as well as I do.

Phil: Any plans for a US release?

Carole: We hope so! We’re waiting to find out.

John: In fact, we’re waiting to see if a publisher will pick it up in the State.

Phil: I guarantee that American “Torchwood” fans will see this as part of the story.

Carole: And I have to say to write a book that is part of a franchise like this, and is such a successful franchise, we had to go through a lot of hoops, despite John’s role in the show.

John: Because I didn’t create him.

Carole: And so, —

John: Well, I kind of did. [laughs]

Carole: — You kind of did. But he’s not your copyright.

John: I gave him personality.

Carole: So Russell [T. Davies, creator of “Torchwood”] had to approve of our outline we created.  Um —

John: Julie.

Carole: Julie [Gardner, producer of “Torchwood”] had to do it.  BBC had to do it.  Starz had to look at it, because they still own a little bit of it because of “Miracle Day”.  So this book took a lot longer in the early stages, from outline to actual publication, because it went through so many steps.  Before we got the go ahead that we could write what we were imagining, or before I could start writing, it took at least two years, just for approval.

Sara: And then the time after, to actually write it and get it published?

Carole: The time to write it went really fast. I wrote that draft —

John: You did that quickly.

Carole: I did that draft in about three months.

John: We had already talked about what to put in it.

Carole: So we had all the stuff we wanted, but the actual, physical draft I did in three months.  And this one I gave John in chunks.

John: I took this in chapters.

Carole: We couldn’t wait in case something really big went wrong.  We didn’t have time at the end.

John: We had to fix it.

Phil: We don’t want to take up any more of your time.

Sara: We’ll let you get ready for this evening.  Thank you so much for your time!

John: Thank you very much!

Carole: Thank you!

Sara: We do have to say, we did see “Arrow” the other night.

John: Oh, you did? Well, that was a very small scene, but it grows.

Phil: When the role came to you, did they tell you who you were?

John: I know exactly who I am.  And I’ve known who I am. I know what I become, and I know what happens. And it’s huge.

Phil: We’re looking forward to it!

We want to once again thank John and Carole for their time, as well as Daniel and Stacie at Boswell Books and the people at Alverno College for hosting the event.

Want to win an autographed copy of the US version of Hollow Earth? Watch ASM this week for contest details!