How sports presenter Joe Wilson wrote his children’s book on the train
When a brilliant idea for a children’s novel hit him one day at the beach, BBC sports journalist Joe Wilson couldn’t let it go – even though the resulting book took 15 years to write.
The story about a boy who inherits an island started out as Joe caught sight of a signpost while he was strolling along the shore.
“It’s an idea I had so long ago I can’t even remember exactly where it was, but I was on the coast somewhere and there was a sign pointing to one of these little tiny islands,” says Joe. “The sign said that people weren’t allowed on the island but that it was uninhabited. I wondered, how does anybody know it is uninhabited if nobody goes there? I thought it would be amazing if there was something going on hidden on an island just beyond our coast, in our realm.”
The idea demanded to be written, but Joe, from Haslingfield, had two children and a very busy TV career to juggle, so he could only write the story in snatched moments – often on his commute to London.
“I think virtually every paragraph was written on the train between Royston and London and even a few pages were written huddled on the back of a replacement bus because that’s really all the time I had.
“Over the last few months I haven’t been travelling to the office in London but on an average week before the pandemic I would go at least a couple of days and that commuting time was the downtime when I could write. It is a real discipline to force yourself to do it, especially when you are not sure it’s going to go anywhere and you don’t know if anyone will be interested in it.”
The story follows 12-year-old Rixon, whose great-uncle leaves him an island in his will. On top of this amazing turn of events, it appears the mysterious island can only be located on a very ancient map, using a big magnifying glass. Does the island really exist? And, if so, does it really belong to him? There’s only one thing for it. Rixon has to go and find it for himself.
Joe says: “After that day at the beach, I started thinking, what if the island itself could be hidden? I had the idea and then put it to one side and got on with life but it kept popping up into my head every now and then. So, I thought I’ve got to try to write it. I think I always wanted to write a book so the process began there and it went through lots of different versions and ideas in my own mind but I thought it would be brilliant to see it through the eyes of a child of about 11 or 12.
“So the boy in my book finds he had inherited this island but everybody tells him the island doesn’t exist so he sets out to find it. And when he does finally get there the question of whether it was truly uninhabited or not is a very pressing issue.
“The big spoiler alert is the island does exist. It would be quite a short book if it didn’t!”
Joe has worked at the BBC for 25 years and says he honed his skills writing radio and TV bulletins, which had to be short, snappy and attention-grabbing. And he believes it was this training that helped him make the book pacy enough to hold children’s interest.
“There are two things that affect your writing when working for the BBC, firstly you have to be very concise and secondly the time you get to write them is also very short, particularly in sport. If there’s a football match and it finishes at 10 to 10 and the broadcast is on at quarter past 10, you have to be very quick and it trains your brain to work very quickly.
“But what I have really enjoyed is having that freedom to write something that was longer but also was just a direct work of imagination.
“In many ways it was quite refreshing to be able to open your laptop in your free time and just write. The training we get as journalists to process ideas quickly really helped.
“As a journalist you are trying to grab attention and hold it for the length of the article or the TV broadcast.”
He also set himself a challenge to help keep the pages turning: “I developed a theory called the 12-page plummet where in, my mind, by the end of a dozen pages something dramatic had to happen to the plot or the characters. At one point I literally left someone hanging at the edge of a cliff, so in that way I made every chapter like a news piece and it had to work within its own parameters every 12 pages.”
His aim with the book was to make his readers feel like they could have this kind of adventure. “I was kind of inspired by classic adventures I read as a child,” says Joe. “I wanted to make the impossible become just implausible, but it is still physically in the realm in which we live. There aren’t magic spells or time portals. It’s just ordinary children using their skills to have an adventure through their own bravery and their own wits to solve the problem and get through it. I think that’s the ingredients of classic adventure.
“I loved the Tintin books as a child and if I had been any good at drawing I would have liked to do that. I love the adventures he had and the way he was always in control of his own destiny while dealing with situations, whether they were funny or dangerous.
“There is such an array of books for children out there at the moment compared to when I was growing up. You are almost overwhelmed by it. I don’t think there was a similar range when I was a kid.”
Joe adds: “I think it is crucial for the children to have control of their own destiny in a story. I remember reading the Famous Five books and they seemed to have so much freedom. Maybe that is why they are still successful now – children yearn for that level of excitement. That is perhaps the most important thing – all those children in those books have a lot more freedom than they might have had in ordinary life but it is still our world, they don’t go into a fantasy realm.
“It really was important to keep it in this world. There really are islands we dont know about. And having something on your doorstep that’s kind of undiscovered would be a powerful thing.
“There are also issues in the book that relate to our world. There is a strong environmental theme to it and the area of power both in terms of electricity and authority.”
The Island That Didn’t Exist is published by Oxford University Press, priced £6.99.