Category Archives: Writing

Sophie Hannah on Poirot

Sunday morning at Bloody Scotland just had to mean Sophie Hannah on writing the new Poirot. As Alex Gray who talked to Sophie said, it’s the kind of thing that will make you very excited. There had been a lot of serendipity involved in her getting the job, which involved Sophie’s crazy maverick of an agent (a man with hints of Sophie’s mother, Adèle Geras), a HarperCollins editor, Agatha Christie Ltd, and the fact that Sophie already had an idea for a plot that she simply couldn’t make fit into her own novels.

A life-long Agatha Christie fan, Sophie knew the books very well (and hearing her talk about them made me want to rush home and start re-reading), and like Poirot she is rather OCD (in her case about the tassels on her Persian rug). She reckons that David Suchet is Poirot, but she didn’t write with him in mind. There is a strong film interest in her book, The Monogram Mysteries, but as she pointed out, David Suchet has said he won’t do more Poirot.

Sophie Hannah

The novel is set in 1929 in the gap between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. Poirot has gone on holiday, to temporary lodgings opposite his own flat (which seems to have been inspired by Sophie’s father, Norman Geras), in order to be free from people seeking his help. The story is told from the point of view of a young detective called Catchpool, to avoid Sophie having to try and imitate Agatha’s style of writing. Catchpool is there to offset Poirot, to be bright, but obtuse.

One of the many coincidences in her being given the task of writing the book was that long before this she had booked a family holiday staying at Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway. Another odd thing was that the week they were there, the filming of Dead Man’s Folly took place on the property. Sophie worked every evening, and by the time the holiday was over, she had the whole novel in her head. She is ‘very serious about crime fiction’ which is the best kind of fiction.

She accidentally invented a new way of writing while jotting down her ten page plan, when it became 100 pages with every detail of the book. Sophie found that this meant she could forget worrying about plotting while also trying to write nicely, as the job had already been done. (She has since written her latest novel in this way as well.)

Before Sophie was allowed to go public with the news about her book, she discovered on Twitter that feelings go very deep when it comes to people taking over writing somebody else’s work, and she was shocked but not worried. She sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion it wasn’t morally wrong, and that real fans would want to read a new book, and others were free to not read it. Most of her Twitter followers have since come round, with the help of tea and scones, except for Troy in Minnesota.

There was no reason to list what had to be in the book; she knew instinctively what it needed. She’d be happy to write another Poirot, but does not feel she should be the one to write about Miss Marple – a shrewd old bat – but this would be better done by someone else, like Lee Child…

Her Christie favourites keep changing, but Murder on the Orient Express remains on top, along with Sleeping Murder, and more recently Lord Edgware Dies (it’s got the best murderer in it) and After the Funeral (best motive) and Appointment With Death (psychological tyrant).

People who say Agatha was not a terribly great writer are wrong. There’s a reason Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. The books can be read by a 12-year-old ill in bed, or a middle aged professor. They are the perfect blend of simple and complex; funny but filled with darkness, suffering and torment. Sophie reckons that people who say the books are no good ‘might just be a bit stupid.’

Sophie Hannah

The last question of the morning came from ‘Troy  in Minnesota,’ or so he claimed. Probably here for his tea and scones. Sophie said she likes rules, whether for poetry, crime or Agatha Christie. And her own next book has a bit of Golden Age Mystery in it, now that her appetite for such things has been awakened.

Alex Gray spoke for all of us when she said that we would happily have stayed another hour. At least. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get out of bed early enough to hear Sophie talk Christie.

Bookwitch bites #126

If you didn’t read Hilary McKay’s Binny for Short when it came out last year (and why didn’t you?), I can tell you it has just been issued in paperback, and it is still as good. The singing ought to bring out the goosepimples on any but the hardest of my readers.

Cathy Cassidy

In the exciting run-up to whether or not Scotland will drift off into the North Sea next week, I have two book festivals on home ground to look forward to. First it’s Stirling Book Festival Off The Page. It has all sorts of events in libraries and schools and theatres. For fans of children’s lit there is the dystopian Teri Terry, the amusing Chae Strathie, sweet Cathy Cassidy, illustrator Kate Leiper, and the magical Linda Chapman.

Off The Page runs seamlessly into Bloody Scotland, where much murderous stuff will happen. They are even putting forensics into Stirling Castle, to find out who killed the Earl of Douglas back in the 1400s. Good luck to them.

And if you too want to be able to write like the authors who are coming here to talk about their books, then you could do worse than to have a go at the Connell Guides essay prize. If you are lucky, Philip Pullman might read what you wrote. You do need to be of an age to attend sixth form, but we are all young at heart here. You can submit from September 15th until January 15th.

Good luck!

And read Binny.

A family affair

I was going to go with Mothers and Daughters, but then I didn’t have mine with me and Wendy Meddour was rather more than mother and daughter with Mina May. The whole clan was there, and where would we have been without the running commentary from youngest son? He was lovely. So was the older one telling his brother to be quiet. And the one in between who liked Steve Cole.

Wendy Meddour

As were all of them. Admittedly, Wendy’s mother didn’t let her have pierced ears (she does now, though, and she wears beautifully dangly ear rings) or pointy shoes when she was young(er). Nor does it seem that the parents were in on Wendy’s invisible dog. She had it for a year and a half when she was a little girl. (I didn’t take proper notes, but I think it was a golden retriever.)

Wendy’s own little girl towers over her mother, as daughters do. Not only has Mina May done the illustrations for all three Wendy Quill books, but she showed us how to draw. I have never drawn such a great rat or spooky ghost as I did yesterday afternoon. In fact, I’d say we were all pretty artistically enabled. We did so well. Although the adults never got any sweeties.

Possibly for the best. Our teeth would fall out.

Mina May

As I was saying, Mina teaches like an adult. (And I know it’s irrelevant, but that was one fantastic pale green lace dress she wore!) She is just about an adult at 13, seeing how she sent her first portfolio of pictures to a publisher at the age of eight. By the time Wendy Quill came to be, the publisher felt Mina’s illustrations were better than her mum’s.

The audience was asked what parts they had played in the school play, and we had two angels, a Mary, a scorpion and a cow. And then there was Wendy’s crocodile’s bottom.

Wendy read from the crocodile book, and we had the scene where Kevin, the school rat, jumps out of the teacher’s handbag, and later on we jumped on our bed to make our big sister’s diary fall off the out-of-reach shelf.

Wendy Meddour and Mina May signing

All in all, a fun afternoon. And I do like a woman who not only comes out about her invisible dog, but takes her children to work.

Treasures and mysteries

It’s interesting going to a two-author event where you have read one writer’s books but know nothing about the other’s. They will obviously have been paired for a reason. I know that Michelle Harrison is quite famous, but I still haven’t read any of her books. Charlie Fletcher, on the other hand, I have come across a few times. This event was good in that it had a large number of readers of the right age group, plus the unavoidable parents. And, erm, me and a few more un-accompanied adults.

Michelle Harrison and Charlie Fletcher

Calum McGhie, who chaired, let Charlie and Michelle fight it out as to who should go first. Charlie is clearly a man of the ‘ladies first’ brigade, and Michelle read from her current book, a prequel to her other novels. She likes writing the beginning, although these 300 words took her a day to write.

As Charlie finished reading the first chapter from Dragon Shield he got to the part where everything ‘freezes’ and that’s when our tent started moaning in the wind.

The best fantasy is where you put magic elements into the real world. London is old, and Charlie has enjoyed teaching his children some history by fitting his characters into a ‘real’ old world. He goes for walks, and stories simply fall out of the houses he passes.

Michelle Harrison

For Michelle the problem was that her characters grew older and that made the books older, so when her readers clamoured for more about these characters, she decided to write a prequel, to stay within the younger age range. She has read up on fairies, so knows for a fact that red makes you invisible (the walls and floor in the tent were red…) and to wear your clothes inside out means the fairies can’t hurt you. (I think I’ll take my chances, thank you.)

She is the second author this week who grew up on the Point Horror books, ‘where your best friend could be a serial killer…’ Quite.

Charlie was asked by his publisher to write another three book series, and at first he said no. Then he realised he writes for money and that he was stupid not to, so changed his mind. He reckons that museum exhibits simply must talk to each other at night, and that mass produced dragons are like cooking food without a saucepan. (I have to admit that made more sense when he said it, than it does right now.)

Charlie Fletcher

Asked if there is a book they’d like to write a sequel to, Charlie replied Far Rockaway. He feels there are many more old favourites he’d could put in another book. He always knows how a book will end, whereas Michelle only knows approximately how. Charlie loves finishing a book, and he pointed out that a book needn’t be perfect; it just needs to be finished.’

Michelle read the Famous Five books as a child, before moving on to Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which was the first one she decided to buy for herself. She likes being scared, and doesn’t care for the film version of The Witches. Charlie pointed out that to read books is more dangerous than the internet. It won’t be the same as what your friends do, and in films everything has been decided for you, while in a book you do.

His advice is to ‘read dangerously!’ That way you end up with interesting, awkwardly shaped people. Here Calum suggested that boys should read Michelle’s books and that girls should go for Charlie’s, in order to avoid stereotyping. He’d enjoyed both.

Before we went, Michelle mentioned that her favourite read is Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot. So there you are!

The Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture #1

Having been – sort of –  ‘in’ on Siobhan Dowd’s memorial trust since its start, there was no way I wouldn’t go and hear Patrick Ness deliver (such a posh word) the first lecture in aid of the trust. He is well known for calling a spade a spade, so my feeling was that it wouldn’t be boring.

Tony Bradman

It wasn’t. Introduced by Tony Bradman, Patrick got his usual superstar greeting from the audience (I’m trusting there were lots of young people in the theatre…), before offering us his 90 minute talk in 28 minutes. He talks fast when he gets nervous. Apparently. He reckoned there would probably be time left for some Q&A at the end.

The end. Yes, for him that was meant to come at the age of eight, in 1980, according to the pastor in his pentecostal church in Washington (state). They were all going to die.

Patrick fiddled with his stopwatch as he told us about Siobhan’s first short story, which she offered Tony Bradman for his collection Skin Deep. Just hearing about it again made my hairs stand on end. It’s that good. Siobhan was that good. ‘Just plain damned good’ as Patrick said.

Children have always suffered in silence. Not just being condemned to death by their pastor, but he told us about the poor girl who was certain she’d die a death by artichoke. Being young is ‘impossible.’

And it’s wrong to use the word ‘them’ for children. We’ve all been children. Patrick sees himself as one big warehouse, storing all his previous ages, because he is all those ages at all times. He at least had Judy Blume when he was young. And whereas he wanted to write, his understanding was that only famous people become authors.

He wanted to write about being young and gay in Washington, because there is a lot of shame involved in being young. And Siobhan Dowd was the writer Patrick always wanted to be. ‘Stories told with love.’

On the calling a spade a spade, Patrick felt that the first question put to him on Saturday evening was more of a comment from the member of the audience (How I resent those who use vaulable time voicing their own opinions at times like these!) The next question was more a ‘Patrick compliment’ kind of question, about what message he’d leave his eight-year-old self if he could.

Patrick Ness

Adept at avoiding tricky corners, Patrick wriggled out of a favourite list of books, which was the third question. On that note we ran out of time and Patrick attempted a fast escape out the fire exit, at which point he discovered a witch sitting nearby, so he said a quick hello, waved and ran.

The queue for his book signing was long and I’m sure he was there for a while. If people will insist on being photographed with their favourite author and can’t get the camera to work, queues like these will take forever. Although I saw Patrick later, so he must have escaped eventually.

Ghostly Tales

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling and Cathy MacPhail

But I didn’t. Back out, I mean. I entered with some determination, because I was there for ghosts with Cathy MacPhail and Eleanor Hawken and Curtis Jobling, which is no small thing. I had only read Eleanor’s Grey Girl, but am happy to take the word of others as to the ghostliness of Cathy and Curtis. Their books. Not them.

Cathy’s most recent title is Scarred to Death, which is a great play on words. Haunt, Dead Scared by Curtis is about a dead boy whose trainers are either intact or quite ruined, depending on whether you are dead or alive.

Eleanor Hawken

For all three the fondness for ghostly things began at an early age. Eleanor consumed two Point Horror books a day before going to a boarding school with a resident ghost at 13. Cathy liked ghosts ‘ever since she was a wee girl’ and then she came up with the idea of seeing your dead teacher in the queue at Tesco. Curtis has loved ghost stories ‘since he was a little girl as well’ – the remains of hurricane Bertha flapped the tent at this point, if it was Bertha – and has a past which includes flour and string, and a father who liked to scare his children.

Andrew Jamieson, who chaired the event, sensibly let the audience ask questions early on. It was a pretty ghostly minded audience – apart from the lovely baby who chewed on a green guest lanyard to avoid crying – and the answer to whether novels tend always to be autobiographical is yes.

Cathy MacPhail

Eleanor dreamed Grey Girl and Cathy also made a sleep related comment. She started work in the mill at 15, being too poor to stay on at school, and then began writing when her children were small, in the belief that one short story ought to be enough, and then discovering she was addicted. Mills & Boon found her attempts too humorous.

Curtis Jobling

Curtis reckons you should work hard at your hobbies, and you might find your hobby turns to work (yes, but we can’t all draw Bob the Builder!). He drew us a Were-Bob on the strategically placed flipchart next to him.

On what they like to read, Eleanor fell in love with Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials as a teenager. Cathy reads anything from Stephen King to Young Women, but not romance. (I suspect the M&B problem has just been explained.) All seem to be fans of Let the Right One In, which doesn’t reassure me one bit. Bite.

And do they believe in ghosts? Eleanor does. Curtis doesn’t. He said it was just the wind, since we’re in Scotland now. Cathy, well, maybe. She’s not scared, but… Have they seen a ghost? Eleanor has (the advantages of having attended the right school), while Curtis explained that he wakes his wife if he hears a noise in the night. Poor Mrs J.

If anyone is still not scared enough, Andrew mentioned that he quite likes Chris Priestley’s short stories.

Asked if they have plans for what they will do next; yes, they do.

Eleanor Hawken, Curtis Jobling, Cathy MacPhail, next to David Roberts and Alan MacDonald

At this point we’d run over in time, and as we were ‘thrown out’ I glanced at the bookshop’s signing area and decided they’d have their work cut out to fit three more authors in, next to the two who were still there. And that while they did, I’d have time for a super fast comfort stop.

As I re-emerged, I found that Curtis had had the same idea, so we walked back to the bookshop together, where there was just space for him between the ladies. There were queues everywhere, and people wanted all kinds of things signed. Curtis even got to ‘deface’ someone’s notebook.

Wish I’d thought of that!

Telling stories about story tellers

Scarlet, in Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis, is a story teller. It’s what she’s good at, and it also serves to keep her autistic younger brother Red calm and happy. Similarly in Jo Cotterill’s Looking at the Stars, Mini makes life bearable for herself and others by telling stories. She makes them up as she goes along, even, not quite knowing where the story will go or how she will end it.

I read these two books close together, and was struck by the similarities. But as I stopped to think about it properly, I realised that many books have a main character who tells stories, writes, draws, daydreams, or all of these.

Jo’s Mini felt very much like a Jacqueline Wilson girl, except in a war torn country. Jacqueline’s heroines frequently, if not absolutely always, tell stories. They are her, really. We know how Jacky herself spent her childhood dreaming about things, making up characters and plots, drawing, and so on. She simply puts versions of herself in her books.

From that thought, I realised that authors are of necessity story tellers. It’s what they do. And if you follow the sensible advice about writing what you know, then the reality of story telling will be close to very many writers.

I don’t know if there really is a disproportionate number of fictional heroines (mostly girls, I believe) who do what their creators do. But I suspect so. More authors/dreamers than accountants or cleaners.