Ben grew up in London, Manchester and Buckinghamshire, where he lived in a Windmill that meant he was called Windy Miller at school for years, though he’s not been scarred by this experience at all. He now lives in Brighton with his tiny wife Dinah, and two children, in a normal house. He likes cheese and is balding although he disguises this fact by spiking his hair to a great height to distract people he wishes to impress.
His latest book is called Road to Rouen: A 10,000 Mile Journey in a cheese-filled Passat. Before this he wrote Are We Nearly There Yet? 8,000 Miles Round Britain in Vauxhall Astra, that was a Radio 2 Book of the Year, became a Number One bestseller and is currently being made into a movie by Island Pictures.
Ben was on the long-list of Granta’s 2003 list of most promising 20 young authors in the UK. In association with his wife Dinah, he has also written three guidebooks for Frommer’s. The guidebooks are a mixture of helpful and humorous tips on holidaying with children, reviews of attractions, and incendiary arguments about things like what is the best type of owl?
Which book most influenced you when growing up?
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield so I bought a deerstalker hat.
Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?
It is a study at the back of the house overlooking the garden. The things in it are only accidentally here because I brought them in and have forgotten, or haven’t been bothered, to take them back out. A tennis racquet, some Mega blocks, a salad bowl, two bike pumps and a roof rack. It also has a lot of shredded orange peel in it. I like to shred orange peel. It helps me think.
Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?
My dad. He was a comedy writer and performer in the Cambridge Footlights in the 1960s. He taught me the rhythm of writing a joke. He would throw (literally) books at me he felt I was ready to read. (Bang on the back of my head). “Try Amis. I think you’re ready for Amis.”
How do the family feel about featuring in your work?
The kids always take the books into their primary school to show their teachers. Owing to the swearing and nature of some of the adventures, I have never been asked to address a school assembly or help out in a classroom even after I have hinted I would like to do this. I have heard the word toothbrush whispered at me when I pass parents in the playground. My wife occasionally rules material out. A long process then begins where I try and convince her it “isn’t that bad. Everyone’s had things like this happen to them,” before it is struck out. I then put it all back in and she goes mad when she proofs the first draft.
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
When writing about your travels, how do you go about recording the experiences of the day?
I write up the main events of the previous day the morning after while everyone else in my family is asleep. My wife becomes worried if she wakes to hear me chuckling. She knows this is always bad news for her.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?
I hated reading all Shakespeare as a child and as a young adult. I wanted to shout: just say what you mean and stop poncing about with forsooths. A little bit of me still feels this way. Because he was equally lauded I expected to hate Dickens, but I love Dickens. The start of Great Expectations is some of the finest comic writing.
What makes you laugh?
Lots. I saw Richard Herring at the Brighton comedy festival a couple of weeks ago. I thought his show on death was so funny I left the venue sore from laughing. Anything by Caitlin Moran. My brother, my wife, my kids make me laugh. Pictures of cats that look like Hitler. And Dave Sedaris.
Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?
I like to read the Innovations catalogue.
You said you were reluctant to become a writer – why?
I wanted to be a professional snooker player really. I just didn’t have the cueball control required. Or the potting ability.
Which book has impressed you most this year?
Single White Male by John Niven and The Humans by Matt Haig.
Will you tell us about the latest project? Where are you driving to this time?
I’m working on a sitcom based on my first novel, The Lawnmower Celebrity and on a book about a 6,000 mile drive round Italy with my family that involves the Mafia, a lion and a sweet maker to the pope.
You’ve sampled a fine range on your travels, so which would be your Desert Island cheese?
Comte. It would maintain its shape and taste in the heat.