‘Cows Can’t Jump’ – another publishing success for a UoG Creative Writing alumni: an interview with Phil Bowne

CW: Phil, hi and a huge welcome to the Creative Writing blog at University of Gloucestershire, your old haunt! We know that congratulations are in order as you’ve just published your first novel! How does it feel to be a published writer?

Phil: I’ve experienced lots of different emotions over the last few weeks and months. I’d get flagged up for the cliché in a prose workshop, but it’s a dream come true. I’m delighted. I spent a long time thinking that all of my work would be for nothing as I was convinced the book wasn’t going to get picked up by a publisher. When I signed the contract, I just felt relieved. That probably sounds weird, but I had so many ups and downs throughout my submissions process. Now I guess the fear is starting to creep in – what if people hate it? But that’s normal, I suppose.

CW: We often hear how brutally harsh the publishing industry can be. What’s your experience been like? Have you found the whole process easy or challenging?

Phil: I had the novel on submission for just over 2 years. It was exhausting and I found it really tough. I had a few false starts – several agents were really interested in representing the novel but eventually pulled out. The same thing happened with a couple of publishers – I thought I had a deal, but it fell through before I could get it signed off. That happened on multiple of occasions, and in one case I wasn’t really given a reason why. So, one of the hardest things I had to deal with was false hope. I had my hopes up a few times only to have them completely crushed again when the opportunity fell through. But I also learnt that I was probably too hasty. I started submitting the novel when it wasn’t polished enough. I had to go back and work on the manuscript for a while longer, then take it back on submission.

It’s also really difficult submitting your work and often not hearing anything back at all. It takes some getting used to, but it’s very common.

It’s sad really, because when I got the email from Neem Tree Press saying they wanted to publish the book, I didn’t really believe it would happen. I’d trained myself to distrust people in publishing. I’m very lucky that Neem Tree are lovely to work with and haven’t messed me around at all. So it’s been easy since I signed with them, at least!

CW: So, tell us everything about your book: what is it about, how long did it take you to write it, how did you get discovered by the publishing industry and – most importantly – where can grab a copy?

Phil: OK – so, the novel started as a short story in my final year at UoG. The story was about the novel’s protagonist, Billy, meeting a Swiss farmer who had an unusual problem: he was convinced his cows were committing suicide. They were mysteriously ‘jumping’ off a cliff, and he believed that it was all his fault because he’d upset them. That’s where the stupid title of my novel comes from. That story became my dissertation, and after I graduated, I started writing around it. I just needed everything that came before and after it… easy, right?

No. A total nightmare. One of the biggest problems I had was with the timeline of events. I’m not a very organised person, and I really struggle with chronology. Starting with the centre point of a novel made the writing process very challenging. If I ever write a second book, I’ll try and start it at the beginning!

My first draft didn’t take too long. I was so enthusiastic about it and I just poured in as much time and energy as I could. I ended up with a completed first draft in early 2017, I’d say. So it probably took me around 9 months. That draft was 120,000 words long, and a total mess. I spent the next year or so editing and rewriting it. By 2018 I’d cut it down to 80,000 words and I felt much better about it. I started the submissions process… Nothing happened. A few false starts, as I said before, but I couldn’t get it published. I couldn’t get an agent, either.

But I kept going. One of the most valuable things I took from my time at UoG is the memory of Mike channelling the spirit of Gordon Lish. Not in a séance kind of way. I have such fond memories of Mike quoting Lish, time and time again: “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.”

So I just kept plugging away. I spent hours and hours submitting the novel to agents and publishers. Rejections came pouring back. When I had started to think it wasn’t going to happen, I managed to get an agent. That was in January 2019. Great! I thought. This is it! It’s happening. So I put my feet up through 2019 – I didn’t have to bother submitting anymore – that was someone else’s job!

A year passed, and nothing happened. Not a thing. It felt like a year wasted, being signed with an agency that barely communicated with me. In January 2020, I decided to terminate my contract with the agency. It wasn’t working out… I decided to strike out on my own and submit the novel to independent publishers myself. A decision that was not easy to make, having spent so long trying to hook an agent in the first place! But then I got lucky.

A week or two later I received a message on Twitter: is your novel still available? We would love to publish it! It was from Neem Tree, the publisher of the book. They had been trying to email me but hadn’t received a response. I hadn’t had an email. This is odd, I thought. I checked my spam. There it was: an acceptance email. I never would have seen it if they hadn’t messaged me on Twitter. And to think, I had thought about deleting my account…

Sorry – that was a long explanation. But we got there in the end. Here’s the short synopsis for the novel.

Billy has just left school and is desperate to escape middle England. It’s 2016, and as a grave digger, he’s working the ultimate dead-end job. To make matters worse, he’s a virgin, and there’s no hope of him meeting a girl any time soon. The only women at work are in coffins.   

Billy’s home life isn’t any better. In the evenings, he observes his dysfunctional family: his grandad’s engaged to a woman half his age, his dad’s become obsessed with boxing, and he suspects his mum is having an affair. All the while, celebrities are dropping like flies and Britain is waiting for the EU referendum. Everything is changing, and Billy hates it.  

Billy’s life gets a jump start when he falls in love with Eva. To Billy’s despair, shortly after falling in love with her, Eva travels back to her home in Switzerland. But Billy won’t give up on Eva that easily. He gambles everything for a chance to be with her again.  

When things start to go wrong, Billy’s journey across Europe involves hitch-hiking with truckers, walking with refugees, and an encounter with suicidal cows. But the further he goes, the harder it is to be sure what he’s chasing – and what he’s running from. 

It’s available online wherever you would normally buy your books: Waterstones, Amazon, Hive, Foyles, Book Depository etc. I’m hoping to see it appear in some independent bookshops in London soon, too.

CW: Have you always wanted to be a novelist or is this something that became important to you during your degree?

Phil: I always liked writing stories. When I was maybe 16 or 17 I really got into writing every night. Nothing serious, just short, silly pieces. That’s when I thought to myself, “I’d like to write a book one day.” But then at 18 I started the Creative Writing course at UoG and I really struggled. I found the process of writing things that other people would read really difficult. I wasn’t used to people reading my writing. At the end of my first year, I had a review meeting with Mike to talk about how the course was going. I told him that I was finding it really tough and that I wanted to drop Creative Writing and continue with just English Literature (I was a joint hons student). I’m grateful that Mike talked me out of it. I started to grow in confidence in second year, managing to publish two short stories! I was shocked and delighted with that. And by third year I really thought I would like to try and write a novel. Whether I ever write another one remains to be seen. I’m still recovering from this one.

CW: Do you feel that your degree has been helpful in you fulfilling your ambition to become a professional writer? Were your lecturers supportive?

Phil: Yes! Absolutely. A million times over. I feel very lucky to have had such brilliant lecturers. I was taught by Mike, Tyler and Martin, mainly. They were all so kind and encouraging. Mike in particular helped me carve out a narrative that made sense from my 120,000 word 1st draft. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without him. He helped me at every step along the way.  

CW:  Who are your own fiction heroes? What are you reading at the moment?

Phil: My mind always goes blank when I’m asked this! Let’s see. I love and have loved all kinds of stuff. I’m not sure who my heroes would be. While I was studying at UoG I fell in love with lots of Americana. John Fante, John Steinbeck. Kerouac. Willy Vlautin. Bukowski. Vonnegut. Denis Johnson. Annie Proulx.

More recently: Laurent Binet. Fred Beigbeder. John Williams. I loved Stoner… that’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I’m really into George Saunders just now. He writes some really weird short fiction. Also recently enjoyed Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood.

CW:  What are your plans for the future? Is book number 2 already formulating in your imagination?

Phil: I have some ideas, but I haven’t started a second novel yet. I wrote a short story during lockdown that I managed to place with a small UK magazine. The publisher I’m with enjoyed the story and are interested in seeing a novel length version of it. Which is very exciting, but I’m not sure how a novel-length version would work. I was writing quite a few short stories through lockdown, so I might look to add to those and see if I could publish them as a collection. I think that would be extremely difficult, though. I’m told short story collections are even harder to publish than novels. I think I need a bit of time after the launch of Cows to decompress! But I’d like to get writing again soon.

CW: Last but not least, what advice do you have for our budding prose writers?

Phil: Finish the draft, and don’t worry about it being bad. Once it’s finished you have something to work with. It’s worth noting that I should probably heed my own advice here and finish a draft for a new book.

CW: Fantastic stuff Phil!!! Best of luck with everything in your new whirlwind literary celebrity lifestyle 😊 and definitely keep us updated on your future work!

Phil: Thank you for having me! I think I owe you all a drink or two…

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