Why I wrote Bearkeeper
Three of my favourite things are bears, London and Shakespeare’s plays.
I’ve always liked bears. To write Bearkeeper, I watched movies about bears, read books about bears and watched the bears who live in and around London – the sloth bears in London Zoo and the brown bears in Whipsnade. I also travelled to India and visited a bear sanctuary, the homes of several hundred rescued dancing bears.
I was born in London and have always lived here. I know the city very well. One of my friends often asks why I don’t make some practical use of my knowledge and become a taxi driver. In many ways, London hasn’t changed much in the past four hundred years and I’m pretty sure that I’d be able to find my way round the city in 1601.
Now, as then, London is packed with people and products from all around the world. You can buy just about whatever you want. You can eat all kinds of food. You have the sense that, somewhere in the city, if you only you knew where to look, you could meet some of the most interesting people on the planet.
Four hundred years ago, you would have been much more likely to meet them, because the city was so much smaller. Fewer than two hundred thousand people lived there. If you pushed through the crowds on London Bridge, crossed the Thames and went to one of the theatres that lined the south bank of the river, you probably would have seen a balding man with dark eyes and a little gold hoop in his ear. He was the greatest writer who has ever lived.
I wasn’t always so keen on William Shakespeare. When I was eleven, we did Romeo and Juliet at school. We read it out in class, each of us taking a different character, then discussed what was said. I can’t remember anything about the play; I can just remember being unbelievably bored.
A year or two later, with a different teacher, I read another play at school. We went round the class again, each of us reading a different part, and this time, for some reason, although I don’t know why, the play suddenly sprang into life. The language was still complicated and difficult, and I only understand about half of what I read and heard, but now I desperately wanted to find out what all the strange words meant.
As I read more of Shakespeare’s plays, I lost the sense that he was writing in a foreign language and began to see that he was someone who could do amazing things with English. He could put words into anyone’s mouth. He could twist the language to his own needs. He made wonderful, ridiculous puns. And if he couldn’t find the right word to express what he wanted to say, he just made one up.
I read the rest of Shakespeare’s plays and acted in a few. I was lucky enough to have some brilliant teachers who helped me to understand what he was writing about. I gradually became more and more fascinated not just by Shakespeare himself, but by his friends, his colleagues and the extraordinary city where he spent his working life.
If I had a time machine, I would place it on the south bank of the Thames and turn the dial to 1601. Writing Bearkeeper was the next best thing.
Bearkeeper is now available as an ebook: you can buy it for only £1.99 in the UK or 3 dollars in the USA.