The Commercial Director of Shaftesbury’s BV Dairy is celebrating the launch of his first novel. ‘Zeelandia and The Gateway Stone’ impressed a publisher so much, they signed-up part-time author Harry Cowan.
Alfred’s Keri Jones chatted with Harry, who revealed that his literary success is full of surprises.
“I don’t actually read books myself and I think in a whole lifetime, I’ve probably read a couple of books – Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,’ said Harry. That’s surprise number one.
I sat and chatted with Harry on a park bench outside the dairy. We were both wearing our compulsory, factory-issue hi-viz jackets. It’s not everyday attire for an author undertaking press interviews but Harry has had to get used to juggling dairy work with media calls. Yesterday, BBC Radio 5 Live was on the phone, trying to arrange an interview.
Harry says he ‘dabbled’ with the book for years but he wasn’t really happy with it. Then he started working on it again to relieve the boredom as he recuperated from a medical procedure. “I had a minor operation, which took me away from work for about four or five weeks. And in that five-week period, I just immersed myself in it. At the end of it, the book just appeared.”
Harry produced a manuscript and offered it to dozens of companies to see whether they wanted to release the book. “I sent it off to about sixty publishers and two showed an interest. One was prepared to take it forward. It was quite a long battle, getting rejection after rejection. I finally found one and I think they’ve been a good partner, so far,” he said.
If you believe what you see in the movies, writers regularly get offered huge sums of cash for book deals. Harry said real life isn’t like that. “There was absolutely no advance, whatsoever. I haven’t seen a penny of this.”
Harry’s book is a fantasy title written for young adults and it would probably be on the bookstore shelves near to writers such as Tolkien. It’s another surprise that a man who deals with facts and figures all day has immersed himself in a make-believe world, but Harry says he has always enjoyed an active imagination.
“If you spoke to my wife, she would say I have the wackiest dreams in the world. If I wake up from one, I can get up, make a cup of tea, go back to bed and pick up with the dream exactly where I’ve left off. I think that is probably quite strange in itself. I’ve got no idea where it comes from,” said Harry.
The central character in his book is a force-for-good, a queen called Zeelandia, who uses sorcery to take on an evil character. Harry has mapped out future plots and he knows that he has further books in him. “There’s probably another two or three stories in the Zealandia trilogy to do. I have probably got another ten or fifteen stories that I could write tomorrow – if I had the time to do it,” he said.
Harry moved from the Darlington area to take up a BV Dairy management position around five years ago. He relocated because his wife loves Dorset and, in particular, Monkey World. Ironically, they’ve hardly visited since they moved here, says Harry.
Successful authors say that you should write about what you know. That’s not going to be possible with fantasy, but Harry has led an interesting and varied life and he has had many experiences from which he can draw in his writing. He served as a police officer, handling dogs. Harry has been a golf professional, an electrician and he worked as a geologist in Angola, Zaire, Gabon, Nigeria and the USA.
“I think I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to travel quite a lot and I have worked in a lot of different countries and seen a lot of different landscapes. I think this is where the inspiration is coming from, whether it is Thailand, Morocco or India,” Harry said.
As the book is an otherworldly fantasy, Harry says that writing it offered a release from everyday activity. “It can be quite stressful at work. There’s a lot of things going on and to escape into this kind of fantasy world can take you away from everything in the dairy and in life in general.”
Harry says his co-workers have encouraged him in his writing. “I had already allowed a couple of them to see a pre-manuscript – little snippets of it. They gave me the inspiration to keep going. I tried then I stopped, and I started again. I wasn’t quite sure about it. After a couple of them read it, they said, ‘you really need to crack on and finish this’. That gave me the impetus to actually to get it done,” said Harry.
He says that the BV Dairy workplace is a friendly and supportive environment and most people working there were aware of Harry’s project. “We talk about what we do on a day-to-day basis. This was not a surprise to them. They probably just think I’m a bit wackier than they thought I was before, after they read it.”
Harry has had workplace support and some fans, but he never expected to be asked to personalise a copy of his book. That happened at the weekend. “We were actually at a barbecue where somebody who had bought the book came up and asked me to sign it, which was a little bit embarrassing and very humbling,” he said, before bursting out laughing when he revealed that his ‘fan’ was the Managing Director’s wife. “She had been out and bought it for a book club.”
I asked Harry for an overview of the book, without any plot spoilers. “It tells a story of a dark lord, Vandermortel. He’s wreaking havoc throughout the universe. In a moment of weakness, the Great White Queen, Zeelandia, captures him and she imprisons him in the gateway stone. It is a prison made up of all the souls of the universe. For many years, the stone is kept safe, deep in the vaults of Arcadia. Then Vandermortel’s allies steal it. In order for him to escape from the stone, it has to transcend four kingdoms, to the Mountains of Dean. If he can conjure up the four storms of destiny, the heat will be so intense from lightning strikes that the souls will be destroyed, and he will get his freedom,” explained Harry.
“Zeelandia isn’t good enough to take him on,” continued Harry. “She is summoned back to the spirits of Arcadia. She spends time with white queens of the past, that have all gone before and she learns new sorcery to take on Vandermortel. It culminates in a battle with Vandermortel and his allies at Mount Dean,” said Harry.
Zeelandia and The Gateway Stone is available from the major book retailers. “I wouldn’t guarantee that they have it on the shelf,” said Harry. “But you can order it through Waterstones or any of your local book shops. Some of the guys at the factory have ordered it through Amazon already. It’s even available in electronic format, so it can be downloaded for Kindle.”
Harry says the book will help raise funds for one of Britain’s favourite appeals. “We’re going to support BBC Children in Need, so half of any royalties are going to that,” he said.
And the publishers have said that they want to work with Harry again. “They have asked for the first refusal on the second book,” he said. But Harry says he isn’t seeking fame or fortune. This is all for his family. “I set out to write a book and probably leave something for posterity for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They can say, ‘that was actually a part of granddad or great granddad and he’s left something behind’. To get it published is the biggest thrill of my life, to be honest. Whether it makes any money or whether they commission the second one is irrelevant.”