Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams are rather like an old married couple at a tea party. Roderick, thin and graying, begins a sentence and Brian, round and jovial, finishes it with a laugh. The creators of Tunnels - last year’s high-rated fantasy novel - still seem amazed by their rise from self-published writers to bestselling authors in demand from New York to Tokyo.
Words like mind-blowing, amazing, surprising, and unbelievable tumble out as they attempt to describe the success of Tunnels with the book’s just-released follow-up – Deeper – set to win more fans around the globe. Still grinning, Williams, speaking in a soft Liverpudlian accent, describes the process as a “series of accidents.”
Gordon, a former finance worker in London’s Square Mile, and Williams, an artist, have been friends since meeting at University College London. They originally self-published Tunnels in March 2005 as The Highfield Mole and, bizarrely, copies of The Highfield Mole became highly collectible long before the duo became a commercial success.
The birth of The Highfield Mole came from a shared desire to be creative and a series of events related to life underground.
“It was September 2003 on a dark and stormy night,” said Gordon. “We were thinking about a project to work on and my wife suggested writing a children’s book. At first it was a bit of a joke but it took over our lives. We each had half an idea at the beginning.
“My idea came from buying an old house in Northamptonshire – a 16th century crumbly old house with dust everywhere. I was digging outside in the garden and I came across all this compacted stone. There’s a chap who lived down the road and he poked his head over the gate and started telling me that there was supposed to be tunnel from the house to the village church. When he was five years old, he had tried to find the tunnel but couldn’t. I couldn’t find anything either but I started to think about a 14-year-old who loved to dig.”
That figure in Gordon’s mind’s eye became Will Burrows, the teenage archaeologist hero of Tunnels and the crumbly old house was sold to fund the creation of The Highfield Mole. Gordon also had digging in his blood. His great-great-grandfather William Buckland is one of the pioneers of geology, and discovered dinosaur bones in 1824 long before anyone knew what a Tyrannosaurus Rex was.
Williams grew up in a small copper-mining community in Zambia and experienced mine tunnels as a child. When his family moved to Liverpool, he became fascinated by the city’s extensive network of underground tunnels constructed by 18th century businessman and philanthropist Joseph Williamson following the Napoleonic Wars.
“Jules Verne was definitely and inspiration,” said Gordon. “We both read Journey to the Centre of the Earth and parts of it stuck in our minds. I also loved the story behind the King William Street tube station in London. It was the first electrified station but was closed and cut out of the tube network. Years later, they opened it up again and sent down a camera crew, and that influenced the opening scenes of Tunnels.”
Set in the London suburb of Highfield, the Tunnels’ storyline sees Will Burrows seeking his missing father and discovering an underground civilization. Deeper sees a new set of subterranean adventures taking place even further below the surface. A third book is being written.
The Highfield Mole was originally intended to be a screenplay but Gordon and Williams backed away from that idea when they realized they would lose control of the creative process if a movie company took on the story.
“We tended to work at night,” said Williams. “We’d be surrounded by heaps of ideas on paper and then we’d tie them into a bundle and hand them over to Rod to make sense of them all. He bashes the story into shape and then gives it back to me to illustrate. I’d scribble all over it and then hand it back to him. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And suddenly two years of your life has gone.”
It was at this point that the authors, already committed to self publishing, made a crucial decision.”We decided to spend more money and get some PR, so we took on a public relations agency,” said Gordon. “At first nothing happened. Then a guy called Stuart Webb picked it after seeing a line in The Bookseller magazine. Stuart wrote an article in Book and Magazine Collector in May 2005 – it was a wonderful article for which we are eternally grateful.”
The article drove collectors to rapidly buy up copies of The Highfield Mole.... just in case the book became the ‘next Harry Potter’ and those early editions became collectible. The book is clearly not the next Harry Potter but the self-published editions of The Highfield Mole have considerable value on the rare book market. Last summer, AbeBooks.com sold three hardcover copies of The Highfield Mole at $1,190 each and another copy for $1,440. There were only 500 hardcover and 200 paperback copies produced of The Highfield Mole. “The phone was ringing and most of the hardback editions went in the first day,” explained Gordon.
A copy found its way to Barry Cunningham at Chicken House and the former Bloomsbury talent-spotter quickly signed the disbelieving Gordon and Williams. The book was repackaged and republished as Tunnels in July 2007 – The Tunnel and Tunnel! were considered as titles but rejected. “We would have stuck with Highfield Mole but Barry wanted something fresh. The book wasn’t solely about Highfield and we didn’t want anyone thinking it was about a spy,” added Gordon.
Cunningham probably also wanted to take the book one step away from the ‘stigma’ of self publishing. With the media and the bookselling world eager to apply the ‘next Harry Potter’ tag to anyone daring to publish a fantasy novel aimed at younger readers, Tunnels was launched to a fanfare of publicity and the co-authors’ rollercoaster ride began for real. Tunnels has been published in more than 35 countries. It has sold 100,000 copies in the UK and quarter of a million in Japan.
“We loved going to New York to promote the book,” said Williams. “We had a shopping list as long as my arm.” Gordon added: “It was amazing see the book in bookshop windows, and seeing someone reading the book on the train was amazing. Mind-blowing.”