Webchat with Tim Dowling

Guardian columnist Tim Dowling joined Mumsnet Bookclub to discuss his novel The Giles Wareing Haters' Club on Thursday 31 January 2008. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.

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Tim Dowling: Hi everybody. Thanks for having me.

Squonk: Were you worried about coming on here tonight? Did it cross your mind that we could cyber-bully you if we hadn't enjoyed the book?

Tim: I've never posted on a talkboard before, so I was a little overexcited. My son has got out of bed and is saying "Dad, why don't you do one of the grins?"

Research for The Giles Wareing Haters' Club

morningpaper: Do you think that actively seeking out criticism by bloggers on the internet is healthy, or do you think it is "a peculiar form of self-harm"?

Tim: It's a good question. Nowadays when you write for websites the criticism that gathers underneath is part of the deal - you're meant to take it in, and even respond to it. But there's a lot of abuse out there, often directed at people who really haven't asked for the attention. I'm not sure it's actually avoidable, but I think silence is the best weapon. That way know no one even knows if you've read it or not.

JustineMumsnet: Interesting that you think ignoring abuse is the way to go, have always thought that if you actually engage then people usually find it hard to carry on being mean, but of course it does take up a lot of time. Am not talking about MN by the way, which despite all the Vipers' Nest accusations is a bed of Roses compared to the vitriol on the Guardian boards and in particular on Comment is Free. Why is that? Is it that its choc full of dissatisfied young males, do you think?
Tim: They do tend to gang up on the Guardian talkboards, but all the exaggeration and perverse humour and vitriol is part of internet culture, and probably not to be taken too seriously. but I still think it's best to ignore it. When people are trying to provoke a response, and they don't get it, they feel like they've wasted their time.

morningpaper: Have you experienced cyber-bullying, and in what context?

Tim: No. I don't even get much abuse on the Guardian's website. I think it's because every time someone mentions my name, everyone else thinks "who?"

willow: If you have self-googled - which you must have - were you a) pleased with the results b) somewhat taken aback c) driven to assume a fake identity to clear your name? ('Fess up - did you take it all terribly personally and get all punchy? Or send your missus in to fight your corner? It happens...)

Tim: I think the first time I googled myself there were 11 hits, and all of them were to do with a Father Tim Dowling in New Jersey.

morningpaper: Can you tell me a bit about your own history with the internet? When did you first come to chat-rooms or talkboards, and do you still frequent them? Have you ever been to a talkboard meet-up?

Tim: I went on a lot of talkboards for the book, and I still look at a few now and then, but I never post and I've never been to a meet-up, though I've been tempted to do the latter.

OliviaMumsnet: I'd love to know which sites you looked at to get such a good grasp of posting styles. That was what I enjoyed the most about it.

Tim: I trolled a lot of boards, mostly newspapers and copied out any good abuse I found into a notebook. Then most places weren't quite as vitriolic as the GWHC, but I've seen worse since. I also copied out a lot of posting formats: the Mail online, the Guardian talkboard, and random ones like Das Paintball Forum Archiv. I wanted a mix of the most common elements so that people who used talkboards would find it all familiar - without thinking it a direct parody of one site - but I also pared it down so it would be easier to read in book form. For a while I wanted to use underposts - those appended little inanities like "Insanity takes its toll - please have exact change" - and I collected dozens, but they made reading it really hard going.

morningpaper: Do you think that the forum of the internet and the nature of the criticism it liberally dishes out is putting potential writers off column-type journalism?

Tim: It doesn't seem to be. I think the more navel-gazing and personal a column is, the more pointless it is to critique it. Either you like that sort of thing or you don't.

midnightexpress: I'd like to know your advice to freelancers as to how best to avoid excessive navel-gazing and over-inflated ego.

Tim: I'm not sure I'm in a position to give advice on avoiding navel-gazing, but you can get away with it as long as you remember that no one cares what you think.

Characters in The Giles Wareing Haters' Club

Willow/morningpaper: Is Giles based on Jon Ronson? Are you well versed in our JonRonsongate scandal, which followed our discussion about Mil Millington's hair?

Tim: Giles is not based on Jon Ronson. I remember JonRonsongate - I read about it on some other forum and dashed over to Mumsnet to catch up. I remember thinking the whole thing was completely nonsensical, and then I realised I was reading the posts back to front. It certainly has some of the elements of GW's situation, but I'd finished the book long before that whole thing blew up. My wife might have come on and slagged you off for picking on Jon Ronson, had she known. She loves him and wishes he hadn't given up his Saturday column.

bananaboat: How close is Caroline in character to your own wife and did/ does she mind the comparison. Also you've got kids, right? Are they old enough to read it and if so, have they and what did they think?

Tim: Close enough that people recognised her; not so close that the fears for our marriage expressed by many friends were justified. It's not that bad here. I don't think she minded the similarities as much as people thought she might, but maybe that because she thinks being like Caroline is perfectly acceptable. My kids aren't quite old enough to read it, or care (they're boys, 13, 10, and 8 now), but I did have to go into school during Book Week and read a bit of it to years 3 and 4 last year. It took a long time to find an appropriate passage.

Squonk: I thought that Salome66 was going to turn out to be Caroline, and I saw further down the thread that someone else thought the same. Were you trying to lead us down that route?

Tim: When I started the book, I thought Caroline was going to turn out to be Salome66. Then I realised that would be too pat, but for a long time I didn't really know who would be whom. The publisher wanted to know how it ended, and I couldn't tell her.

CarrieMumsnet: On the man/ woman theme, have you had markedly different reactions to the book from men and women?

Tim: Good question. It's an oddly, erm, positioned book, from a marketing point of view - aimed at a male demographic that doesn't read this sort of thing. I mean, I didn't aim it at anyone, but I know the publishers are frustrated. Women have been mostly very positive (yes, I've been upthread), rather more sympathetic to Giles than I would have imagined.

TillyBookclub: do you find that men and women post differently? Do you find it easy to tell if someone's masquerading as a man/woman? Obviously Giles was taken in, but I wondered if that was because he was having marriage problems and quite fancied the idea of Salome being a woman.

Tim: I've seen a lot of confusion on talkboards when people have unisex usernames. But I'll tell you what. There's a tremendous amount of sexism behind a lot of the abuse, a lot of it, if you'll excuse the phrase, girl-on-girl. I never get the sort of nastiness female columnists get.

TheDevilWearsPrimark: Are your books indeed semi-autobiographical, and if so how do you feel about revealing those, often dark, feelings to all and sundry. Not to mention your close family and friends?
Tim: I think semi-autobiographical is about right. There are a lots of bits of Giles I wouldn't own up to.

Nerdbomber: If Giles were American, and the story set in the US, what would you change about him?

Tim: That's a very good question. If Giles were American he would have to be, in the words of one rejecting US publisher, less of a 'loser'. I don't think America has any sympathy with the Giles type. As far as I'm concerned he would be the same, perhaps more outwardly brash and capable, but inside the same seething mess. I'd like to tackle a more American character in future.

Hassled: Do you feel more British than American at this stage? Can you see yourself staying here forever?

Tim: I'm still American, but I don't find it very difficult to write British characters. I'm surrounded by them. Actually my agent can't sell this damn book in America because publishers keep saying the humour is 'too British'. I ask you...

midnightexpress: Someone earlier on talked about how sad they found the book. Do you see yourself as a comic novelist, or someone with serious things to say about The Way We Live Now? Or both? Or neither?

Tim: I don't like the term 'comic novel' much, but only because it makes me think of something I wouldn't want to read. Lots of serious books are funny as well, and vice versa. I overheard someone having his photograph critiqued by an art teacher once, and he said that a good pic should have some saturated black, some bits as white as the paper, and every gradient of grey in between. So should books. That's so pompous. More italics, I think.

Hassled: Have you such happy memories of Cheriton Fitzpaine that you had to incorporate it somehow into a book or did the name just appeal?

Tim: I've never been to Cheriton Fitzpaine. Is it nice? In August of 2005 I was in Cornwall with my family, and getting up at 6am every morning to do a couple of hours on the book. It's my father-in-law's cottage, and I was thumbing through his bookshelf in search of a name for a new character, and I found an old map. Another name survives from that week - a briefly mentioned author called Becket Hitch, which is from a book of knots.


TheDevilWearsPrimark: Do you ever feel guilty for being paid to trot out pretty much the same story (from my DH)?

Tim: I can feel guilty about almost anything, but I get assigned things and I have to do them. G2 actually has a rota, like a hospital, and if I'm on Wednesday then I have to waffle on about some survey that says 44 is the most depressing age. I'm 44, but luckily I wasn't on the rota.

Squonk: Your 'day job' is writing short stuff for papers - did you find it difficult to keep a story going for an entire books-worth?

Tim: I was worried that I wouldn't be able to sustain a book's worth of story (I'd written longer things, but never this long), but it was a relief to be able to stick with something, and not have to discount an idea because you already expended 600 words on it two months ago. And whenever the narrative seems to be running out of steam, you just have the phone ring.

mablemurple: Was it you who wrote a short piece for the Guardian, maybe a couple of years ago, about receiving an unsolicited package, and the best way to go about opening it?

Tim: That was me. Extendable Arms, that's the best way. It so happens you can purchase it in a collection of pieces, coincidentally titled Suspicious Packages and Extendable Arms, availble from Guardian Books.

Squonk: How far in advance do you write your Saturday Guardian items? Will we feature in this week's?

Tim: I have to write next Saturday's tomorrow. And I have no idea what it will be about yet, and now, thank you very much, I'm having a little panic about it.


controlfreakgobshite: Is your dw a Mumsnetter? Are you a closet Mumsnetter?

Tim: My wife isn't a Mumsnetter, as far as I know. I've been to Mumsnet before, as I said, but I wouldn't call myself a closet Mumsnetter. But I am, generally speaking, a closet internetter: wherever I go, I lurk.

morningpaper: So Tim, why aren't you on Facebook?

Tim: I am on Facebook. I have 26 friends.

morningpaper: Have you ever felted a shed?

Tim: I have felted a shed, and it leaks badly.

sophiewd: And do you mend your own domestic appliances?

Tim: I do sometimes mend appliances. I did once fix the microwave in the exact way described in the book, but it took much longer, about four days.

morningpaper: Do you ever unplug your router in desperation to get work done at home?

Tim: No. I do waste a tremendous amount of time online, but deadline panic is usually enough to focus my attention.

morningpaper: Do you have a dog, as well as children? Isn't that just doubling your workload for no real return?

Tim: You're telling me. And as far as the dog goes I am sole carer, which is why she follows me everywhere and stares at me all day.

JustineMumsnet: What would your pick be out of this lot for our Feb book of the month and do you think there are any similarities between your work and those of the author of the book you'd pick (only kidding - you don't have to answer that)?

Tim: I'd pick Middlemarch, cos I haven't read it, but I'd recommend Vanity Fair, just about the best book in the whole world. Woman in White also v good.

TillyBookclub: I'm super-relieved to find someone else who hasn't read Middlemarch. I think we ought to let Tim get back to his out-of-bed boys so I'd like to say a massive thank you to him for coming on tonight. Tim, you have been a trooper. Good luck with everything (and if Middlemarch wins, will you come and join February's bookclub? I bet I'll be able to spot your false nickname...).

Tim: Does Middlemarch stand a chance? Bye everybody. Thanks for having me. It's been great. I'm going to go get drunk now. Bit late actually. Hmm.


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