Phil Earle on the Inspiration Behind When the Sky Falls
Set during the Second World War, When The Sky Falls is the hugely moving story of a friendship that develops between a boy called Joseph and a gorilla in a rundown zoo. In this exclusive piece, the author Phil Earle talks about the true story that inspired him to explore the special relationship that can form between humans and animals.
The idea for When The Sky Falls didn’t present itself exactly though... it fell into my lap like the most glorious gift.
A conversation: a casual, lazy chat with a dear friend on a campsite, which turned to the subject of the second world war and his father’s unusual role in keeping the nation safe.
Every time the air raid siren howled, my friend’s dad would grab a rifle, and sprint to Bellevue Zoo in Manchester. Once there, he would position himself outside the lion’s enclosure, with the rifle trained on the beast.
Because if the Luftwaffe dropped a bomb that blew out the wall to the cage, someone had to shoot the lion before it went on the rampage. And he was that soldier.
It’s hard to articulate the physical reaction I had to hearing that story without sounding pretentious, but it was visceral. I promise you, I have never felt so excited or intrigued by a story in my life. Immediately, I had questions.
Did he ever have to pull the trigger?
Would he, could he have gone through with it, if necessity arose?
I also knew without doubt that there was a story in it, one that I wanted to tell. So, for a long time, I carried that story around with me, feeling the excitement still, every time it came to mind.
But the story as it stood wasn’t ready to be told, as I knew I wanted it to be for young readers. I’d read and marvelled at Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom, and had been brought up on the peerless TV adaptation of Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners. Could I take these influences and do something different with them? Tell a story that hadn’t already been told?
What if, I asked myself, what if the rifle ended up in the arms of an angry twelve-year-old boy, instead of a responsible adult? Would he pull the trigger on the animal, even if he’d built a friendship with it?
This first breakthrough felt really significant, but there was still an obstacle in my way: after all it was a lion in the cage. Not exactly known for their tenderness towards children.
But that’s the beauty of writing. There are no rules. It didn’t have to be a lion in the cage. I could take my pick from the whole animal kingdom.
Which is how I landed on a grumpy silverback gorilla called Adonis.
I’ve long loved apes. Hard not to when you’ve grown up with David Attenborough and Gorillas In The Mist.
What truly inspired me though was footage of a gorilla at Jersey zoo, who stood guard over a stricken boy who had fallen into their enclosure. Instead of attacking the boy, the ape protected him from other monkeys in the cage, stroking him tenderly until the medics arrived. It’s an unexpected act of care, and one that I felt could slide beautifully into my story.
What became clear, as I continued to write the book, was that Adonis and the boy Joseph carry the same scars. I didn’t set out with this intention. I’m not a planner when I write. To me the excitement in a first draft is seeing where it takes me.
Within seven or eight chapters though it became clear that both the child and the gorilla had suffered abandonment, and that their best and possibly only chance of ever reconciling their losses was each other.
It was a challenge to document this. How do you build a friendship on the page that is non-verbal? Luckily, I felt like I’d had the best help possible in the shape of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel For A Knave.
Billy Caspar’s life is enriched immeasurably by Kes. The bird breaks the clouds that have sat over the lad’s head all of his short life. This encouraged me massively, as did Anthony McGowan’s quartet of books for Barrington Stoke, which ends with the Carnegie Medal-winning Lark. These books made me feel braver, as well as setting unenviably high standards.
It didn’t come easily, and it certainly didn’t come in the first draft (or the second or third!), but I hope now that the reader will discover and love the bond between the boy and ape the same way I do. Will see the hope that they offer each other in the most challenging of times.
I don’t think I’ll ever be gifted a better idea for a story, so I hope When The Sky Falls has done it justice. Maybe you could give it a read, and let me know...
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