Bradford author David Barnett looks set to have his novel Calling Major Tom turned into a film. He tells Aasma Day how redundancy gave him the push to follow his dreams.
“I didn’t think working class kids like me grew up to become writers. I thought it was something you had to be posh or clever to do.”
Succinctly summing up his views as a youngster, David Barnett smiles wryly as today he writes almost constantly - juggling working as a freelance journalist with writing fiction and penning comic strips, he can’t imagine a world without written words.
David who had a long career in regional newspapers in Lancashire and Yorkshire, now works as a freelance journalist and is the author of several novels.
His book Calling Major Tom, a heartwarming comedy about an astronaut who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a Wigan family, has sold more than 60,000 copies and has now been optioned for a film.
However David, 48, married to Claire with children Charlie, 14 and Alice, 13, confesses at times his current achievements seem as out-of-this world as being in space as he never harboured childhood ambitions of writing books.
David, who now lives near Bingley, close to Bradford, grew up in Wigan as an only child to builder dad Malcolm, who died two years ago and mum Muriel who still lives there. “I loved reading as a child and read voraciously and haunted the libraries reading anthing I could get my hands on,” he explains.
“But although I read widely and can remember being good at writing stories in English, it never occurred to me writing could be a job. As I grew older and realised writing could be a career, I thought it wasn’t something for the likes of me. I didn’t think working class kids grew up to become writers.”
Instead, while at school, David chose to go into science, something he now describes as “an odd decision” as he admits he “didn’t have much aptitude for it.”
“I think the reason behind it was because I was massively into comic books and thought I could perhaps do experiments on myself and give myself superpowers!
“At that age, I either wanted to have superpowers or go into space.”
Abandoning a Physics A-level after realising it wasn’t for him, David realised he wanted to become a journalist after watching the film All The President’s Men about the Watergate scandal.
David went on to do journalism training after college and got his first job at the Chorley Guardian in 1989. “I walked into that little office in Chorley and thought: ‘Yes! I have finally arrived in journalism.’ Chorley was a fantastic training ground and I embedded myself into the community.”
A year later, David moved to the Lancashire Evening Post - a move he describes as akin to “moving to the Washington Post” for him.
He credits working as a journalist for giving him the skills he uses to write his successful novels today.
“I don’t think I would be able to write the sort of fiction I’m writing now without the experience of life I had as a journalist. The best thing about journalism is meeting people from all walks of life.
“You can be doing anything from covering a royal visit to sitting in the front room of someone who has just lost a loved one. You learn to deal with such different situations which is a valuable tool as a writer. It gives you skills in dealing with and understanding people.”
A wide grin spreads across David’s face as he outlines a memorable court case in Preston. “This man was up in court for a driving offence. He had washed an Oriental rug and draped it across his car and couldn’t see out of his windscreen. He was driving really fast around Preston to get it dry.
“He drove past two traffic cops who told the court they couldn’t believe their eyes and thought it was a flying carpet!”
David got together with wife Claire in late 2000. Claire came to work at the Lancashire Evening Post as a reporter and David was news editor at the time.
In 2001, David left the Lancashire Evening Post, with both Claire and himself joining the Telegraph and Argus in Bradford.
While working in regional papers, David first decided to have a go at writing a novel and persevered despite initial rejections. “I understood rejections were part of the process and kept writing new books. Each time, I did it a little bit better.”
He eventually had his first book published at the age of 35 in 2005 through a small independent press. This led to him being signed up by literary agent John Jarrold who is still his agent today.
His first mainstream success as a novelist came in 2012 when American publisher Tor published his Gideon Smith series of novels.
David says: “They are Victorian fantasy novels and were huge fun to write and were well reviewed.
“By this time, we had our two children and as well as working my newspaper job, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my family.
“So writing was very often done late at night when everyone else had gone to bed or stealing a few hours here and there.
“However, writing books, unless you are JK Rowling or Ian Rankin, doesn’t pay as much money as people think.”
In April 2015, David was dealt a huge blow when he discovered he was being made redundant as part of wider business changes. David admits: “Being made redundant felt like a massive disaster at the time. We had two young children and were living as most people do from month-to-month.
“It felt like a massive smack in the face and I had no idea what I was going to do. I’d been a journalist for more than 25 years and thought I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
David praises wife Claire for encouraging him to use the opportunity to do what he’d always dreamed of - to be a freelance journalist.
David explains: “I’d always talked about it as I wanted to get back to my first love of writing. But the time never seemed right to abandon a regular salary and full-time job. However, redundancy forced my hand and Claire made me realise I could do it.”
David contacted a variety of national newspapers, magazines and online media and began working as a freelance journalist straight away.
His writing caught the attention of an editor at Orion Books who approached David about writing a novel for them. Calling Major Tom was born and published in June 2017.
David says: “It was a complete change for me. It is a funny, bittersweet novel set in Wigan and space. It is quirky and different and I don’t think even the publishers were ready for how popular it would be.
“Sales have been phenomenal - around 60,000 in the UK and rights to publish have been sold to 10 different countries. It’s amazing to know a little story set in Wigan is published all over the world.”
The biggest news for David came when he was told Calling Major Tom had been optioned for film by award winning content production company Vision3.
“Hearing that was mind-blowing. Vision3 are primarily involved with special effects in films such as Gravity. Now they want to make their own feature films and Calling Major Tom will be their first one.
“They wanted the opportunity for space special effects. It’s amazing and humbling enough when you read reviews on Amazon where people you’ve never met say they love your book.
“When someone then sees the potential in your book to become a film, it is astonishing.”
David’s second book for Orion, The Lonely Hearts Cinema Club, is out as an e-book this Thursday and a paperback in July.
It tells the story about what happens when the managers of a nursing home open up rooms to students from the local university.
David says: “All these old people and young people initially clash but then bond over old movies. There is a mystery element as well.
“I wanted my books to be set in the North featuring working class people.
“Ordinary working class people don’t get represented in contemporary literature enough.”
David is now on the crest of a wave and loving the huge variety of writing he gets to do.
David says: “Redundancy was the push I needed to follow my dreams.
“A lot of people say: ‘All things happen for a reason.’ But I don’t believe in destiny. I believe you have to work hard to make your own destiny.”
Comic book dream fulfilled
A chance meeting at a comic convention in 2016 led to another of David’s childhood dreams coming to fruition.
David was at a comic convention in Leeds with his son Charlie when he met Shelley Bond, a comic editor in the States. Their conversations resulted in David writing new monthly comic Punks Not Dead published by IDW’s new imprint Black Crown.
It is about a 15-year-old lad called Fergie from Preston who meets the ghost of a dead punk rocker called Sid who only he can see and hear.
David says: “Punks Not Dead has been really well received and is a childhood ambition fulfilled - to see my name on the front of a comic book. My 10-year-old self would be amazed.”