Category Archives: Writing

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.

Andreas Norman and the chicken sandwich

Andreas Norman uses a fair bit of English when he talks, so I needed to come up with a way to mark his English words and phrases in the translated interview, where English is so plentiful that you’d not notice. Those are the green bits, in case you were wondering. (Why green, I couldn’t tell you, though.)

Andreas Norman

Here is the interview, homemade translation and all. And the green bits, totally untranslated.

His novel Into A Raging Blaze is published today. In it Andreas says uncomplimentary things about the MI6 and the Swedish Foreign Minister.

The chicken sandwich is what got slightly in the way of conversation at his end. Beats Ferrero Rocher, I suppose.

The #9 profile – Helen Grant

Today sees the long awaited publication of Helen Grant’s The Demons of Ghent, and I decided to grill Helen on a few topics I’d not yet got round to asking her about. It seems she’s not like her heroine Veerle, and all that running around on rooftops is simply fiction. (If not, then the photo of Helen was taken just after her windswept run across the top of Ghent, followed by her abseiling down some old church, or other.)

I give you the Queen of “he’s behind you” fiction:Helen Grant How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book? One. It was called Naming Rupert and it was about the dilemma faced by a young couple in financial difficulties who are offered a fortune in someone’s will if they will agree to name their unborn baby after him – although they don’t like him or the name. I completed the whole book and sent it off to various agents; I had some very positive feedback but no bites. In the meantime I got on with The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, and when that was accepted for publication the earlier manuscript was mothballed. I don’t think it will ever be published. It isn’t like my other books, which are more obviously thrillers, and was mainly an exercise in proving to myself that I could write 100,000 words of a single story. Once I had done that, I sat down and tried to write 100,000 better words.

Best place for inspiration? A room with a large window and a restful view: a hillside, forest or trees. I also find a country walk does wonders if I need to think through a plot issue.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do? Yes, I suppose so, if there were a good reason for it. At the moment I’m keen to get my actual name known so I think writing under a pseudonym would just double the work! I sometimes think perhaps I should have selected a pseudonym, because Helen Grant isn’t as memorable a name as, say, Desiree Von Tannenbaum. Also there are rather a lot of Helen Grants around – including a Tory MP – which can be a bit confusing.

What would you never write about? Stuff I don’t know enough about. Politics, for example, or quantum physics.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in? I’ve ended up in some very unexpected places while researching my current Forbidden Spaces trilogy, so it would probably be one of those. It’s hard to pick one, though. I have been up more bell towers than I ever wanted to (I hate heights) including one in a little village church in Flanders; that one appeared not to have been climbed for years as it was full of pigeon droppings – very nasty. I also went down the Paris catacombs and the Brussels sewers. Perhaps the most unusual location was a deserted factory in Belgium that was scheduled for demolition. I went around that with some seasoned urban explorers. When it closed down, everyone had just walked out leaving everything lying where it was: files, coffee cups, stuff like that. That was strange and a bit creepy.

Which of your characters would you most like to be? I don’t have to think about that for even half a second. Veerle De Keyser, the heroine of Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent. She has a lot of challenges in her life even without tangling with serial killers, but she’s fearless and compassionate and inquisitive. Also she has really exciting adventures and a very hot boyfriend. And she isn’t afraid of heights, as I am.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing? I think it would be fabulous. Mostly, film adaptations of books do tinker about with the plot and characters – after all, the director is fitting the story into a new medium – but I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I’d be interested to see what another creative person would do with the stories. I don’t really think of the characters in my books as ending when the book ends. I imagine them going off without me, the author, and having some more adventures of their own. (Does that sound goofy?!) I guess I’d see a film version with a reworked plot as an extension of that. The only thing I’d be sorry about would be if a film version relocated the action to another country entirely. To me, the characters in Silent Saturday and Demons of Ghent are intrinsically Flemish, and if the books were suddenly set in London or New York instead, something would be lost.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event? I’m trying to think…I remember talking about “real life” ghost stories at a school visit once so I guess someone had asked me whether I believe in ghosts.

Do you have any unexpected skills? I can do a back flip off a one metre springboard into a swimming pool. I have no other sporty skills at all but I learnt to do that when I was a kid and it stuck. It’s not really about physical prowess, it’s about having the nerve to fling yourself backwards. I like to do this when I’m in a pool and the teenage boys are showing off doing dive bombs. I get up on the springboard and you can see them thinking, yo grandma! And then I do a perfect back flip. Usually.

The Famous Five or Narnia? Oooh…difficult. Narnia, I guess. I did like the Famous Five a lot when I was a kid, especially the fact that Julian’s voice got politer and politer the ruder he was being; I always thought that was very cool. But I think Narnia is a lot deeper. The White Witch is genuinely scary because superficially she seems nice when Edmund first meets her but of course she isn’t at all.

Who is your most favourite Swede? Does everyone say “ABBA” at this point? Well, my favourite Swede (apart from you, dear Bookwitch) is the writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the right one in. I’ve read all his books in translation. My favourite is Handling the undead, which is so brilliant that I think it transcends “horror.” I’ve read it twice and both times I cried at the ending. My favourite fictional Swede has to be Count Magnus De La Gardie from the M.R.James story Count Magnus. He’s not a cuddly count. He’s been on the “Black Pilgrimage” and brought back some kind of nasty servant with tentacles. But he’s, er, unforgettable.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically? I don’t arrange them at all. They are stuffed willy-nilly into far too few bookcases and the ones left over are laid horizontally on top of the others. There are always books in subsiding heaps by the side of my bed and on the bathroom floor and tucked into the side pockets of the car.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader? A graphic novel. Or perhaps Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I remember when my son first got the Wimpy Kid books. We were living in Germany and he had learnt to read there so he had the German version. We read the bit about the Käsefinger (“cheese touch”) and we all laughed so much that our sides hurt. It’s good to associate holding a book with having fun!

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be? Writing. This is a truly terrible admission, but since I started writing full time, I have read fewer and fewer new books. It’s as though my brain only has enough room for so many fictional universes and I’m too immersed in my own to concentrate on other ones. I re-read a lot of old favourites instead. If I had to choose between reading and writing, I would choose writing and I would amuse myself by dreaming up new adventures for my characters, rather than reading.

And that’s all from Desiree Von Tannenbaum, and all from me.  See you at the Sint-Baafsplein, maybe. But not if it sees you first.

Belfort Tower, Ghent