Gillian Philip looks shorter in her facebook photo. Now, I don’t know how you can decide anyone’s height from a picture of their face, but I don’t mind jumping to conclusions. So, she is taller in real life. And much more soft spoken than I tend to imagine from her online persona.
I’ve wanted to interview her for some time, so decide to corner her at the Edinburgh Book Festival. We agree to meet after her event one Friday lunch time, and as luck would have it – sorry! – someone at Strident Publishing falls ill, so I can have their ticket and get to see Gillian in action. After a respectable signing queue in the bookshop we repair to the decking outside the authors’ yurt, in the company of Keith Charters from Strident.
It is uncharacteristically sunny again, so she asks ‘You don’t really want me to wear sunglasses, do you?’
‘You can still see?’
‘We’ll all put sunglasses on, so to speak.’
‘That went really well’ I say about Gillian’s event. ‘It was so good.’
‘Yes, I liked seeing you in action, because I didn’t last year and you mentioned you’d been quite nervous. I saw you afterwards “to pick up the pieces”.’
‘Oh great, so it worked?’
‘Yeah it did. You came across as cool, and what you were talking about was gruesome enough.’
‘I was talking to someone just the other week, asking how far should I go with the torture?And of course they said “take it the whole way”!’
‘You sort of half answered this earlier, but I need to know how on earth you can write all these marvellous books and still be on facebook all the time?’
‘Uhm, OK. I think it’s due to two things; I’m a deadline junkie. I do facebook and twitter and I get hardly any work done, and then I see a deadline approaching that’s a week away and then I just have to work solidly,’ she laughs, ‘and I have to actually work. I do work in-between, but I kind of need my deadlines to get going, so I work better in panic situations.’
‘You’re saying you can write a book in a week or two? Because the deadline is coming up?’
‘Not quite like that, no, but if it’s approaching over the horizon I definitely feel more pressure.’
‘I’ve been worried about the new book series. I thought you’d have all the rest to write after Firebrand, but are they all written? Or are they going to be rewritten?’
‘They’re all written, but they’ve all got to be rewritten. I’m about a quarter of the way through the first one.’
‘The second one is what you’re working on?’
‘The second one, which was originally the first one. After doing Firebrand I thought I would be happier to rewrite the whole thing. It helps that I’ve got them. At least I’ve got the plot there, the story’s there, I’ve just got to take it from a different angle.’
‘But you’ve actually been writing them for six or seven years?’
‘Must be. It was when the kids were two or three, and I had an hour and a half, and that’s when they were first started. I just had to get something out of that hour and a half.’
‘You mean you had nothing better to do, so you just had to write a book?’
‘Absolutely,’ she laughs.
‘Do you know when the next book is out? Or what does the boss say?’ I say to Keith Charters who is sitting on my other side.
Keith - ‘Originally we said a year, but we might be shortening that. Gillian’s made such good progress with the second that…’
‘Progress?’ Gillian laughs.
Keith – ‘She says it’s just rewriting. Normally when a script arrives it’s pretty polished.’
‘So virtually nothing to do when it arrives?’
It sounds like Gillian and Keith have had quite a long conversation about this, and they’ve realigned things to be in line with the first book.
‘By the time I wrote Firebrand I’d written two and a half (books) and I understood the characters much better, so when I wrote Firebrand it all made more sense. And I thought, I’ll just have to rewrite those.’
‘Is there going to be a big jump in time for the next book?’
‘Yes, there’s going to be a big jump in time now, pretty much up to the present day.’
‘But the same characters are still going to be in it, because of the long life thing.’
‘I thought maybe it would be one book a century.’
‘Well, in some ways I would have liked to do that, and I still think I’d like to go back to Victorian times. But I think that would be a different project. The next two books had to be much closer together time-wise, and I thought about taking it back to the turn of the century, but it just wasn’t going to work.’
Keith – ‘The second book now it starts in a way that feels familiar.’
‘You know the characters, that’s right.’
‘Knowing they were alive hundreds of years ago…’
‘Yes, and starting in the same kind of situation as in Firebrand, set in the same kind of landscape.’
Keith mentions something about the beginnings of chapters, and needing things soon.
‘It’s easy with deadlines,’ Gillian says determinedly and laughs.
‘Will this make you rich?’
‘No.’ Gillian laughs long and loud. ‘That question again.’ She laughs some more.
‘Now, I’d just like to know, and it’s a bit awkward when you’re here’ I say to Keith.
‘I can go away’ he offers, but I say it’s fine.
‘Why all the different publishers?’
‘Basically I just went to Keith first, with Bad Faith, and he liked it. And it was great and I was just so excited. Around the same time my agent had Crossing the Line.’
Keith – ‘And with Firebrand, I think you gave us the manuscript at the launch of Bad Faith. You gave it to me and I was dropping Graham (from Strident) off at Stonehaven and gave it to him, and he phoned me when he’d reached Dundee to say “buy it, it’s brilliant”.’
‘When did you write Bad Faith and Crossing the Line?’
‘Several people advised me it was a really hard market for fantasy and I shouldn’t try to write it at the moment, so I just thought I’ll try something different and I kind of had the idea for Bad Faith in my head. So I tried that one first and then my agent wasn’t a hundred percent sure, it was a religion thing, I think…’
‘So after that I thought, well I’ll just do something completely different, more contemporary, and started Crossing the Line,’ Gillian says sounding cheerfully determined despite her many tries, ‘and she loved that one. Then I just went back to the fantasy ones, because they were all kind of niggling away at my brain. Even if I couldn’t sell them, I just wanted to get them out of my head, because they were kind of blocking everything else.’ She laughs.
‘And now do you write when the children are at school?’
‘But you don’t?’
‘I have a coffee and then I look at facebook and I have another coffee and I tell myself to start writing or researching or whatever. It’s probably about eleven o’clock, and it’s just ridiculous. By the time the kids come out of school, I’m into writing. They are wanting my attention and I say run along and play.’ She laughs. ‘I’m a terrible Mum. Terrible. Once I get started I write away into the night, if it’s going well. I don’t mind that at all. I’m just not a morning person.’
‘What do you yourself read?’
‘I read a lot of Young Adult. At the moment I’m tending to read less as you shouldn’t read the kinds of thing you’re writing. It kind of leaks in. I’ve recently read I Am the Great Horse by Katherine Roberts, which was just fabulous. And Keren David’s Almost True; that’s so fantastic. I loved it. I’d read When I Was Joe and I loved that. Almost True was even better. Have just started Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden. I bought Michelle Lovric’s adult book. That looked good, so I’m trying to read some adult fiction as well. YA fiction is fab, isn’t it?’
‘Not just because I’m looking at the market. I just love it. Such variety. I read Adèle Geras’s Dido, and that was fabulous, so yeah, I read most things.’
‘Some people feel sorry for me when I say that’s all I read, more or less.’
‘Oh I know.’
‘Were you really nervous just before your event just now?
‘Yes. I do get nervous. I’ll be worrying two hours before that I’m not more nervous, and then ten minutes before I just go “all right, I’m nervous now” – laughing uproariously – but once I get started the children are great. Their questions were fabulous, weren’t they? And the school this morning was brilliant, as well, so I enjoyed it.’
‘Does anyone, on the basis that schools might not like what the book is about; do they ask you in advance to avoid certain things?’
‘I’ve never been asked that, no. Apart from that school cancelling. No, I’ve never had anybody ask me to hold back at all. I’m not into stabbing people and burning witches. That is just the characters.’
‘I got awfully worried there.’
Gillian laughs out loud, ‘I was awfully worried because you’re a bookwitch.’
‘I did ask a few people before, earlier in the week about the witch hunt. Some of it quite gruesome, with fiendish torture and everything’, Gillian sounds very proud and satisfied. ‘You know kids love that stuff, but adults get queasy.’
‘I think the parts you read were well chosen.’
‘One of them came up to me afterwards and said “I love gruesome stuff!”’
‘Can you tell me about Darke Academy? How did it come about?’
‘A friend of mine who wrote for Hothouse introduced me to them, and I sent them some samples of writing, and they put me on file. They had these concepts, and one was Darke Academy. So I went for that and I submitted a chapter. They just literally give me a brief and characters and plot and I write it up, and it’s so different from what I usually write. I’m not a planner. I hate planning. I’m just not good at it and it’s what put me off writing for a long time because I thought you had to plan. I just assumed all novelists knew what happened in their novel and I don’t, so I couldn’t be one.
When I realised that I could just start, it was just grand. It’s been quite fun and it’s been an education. It’s a paragraph per chapter, and the funny thing is that quite often, we’ll get to the end and say “well, that didn’t work, did it? We shouldn’t have gone in that direction in chapter eight.” We have to change it anyway, so I think planning doesn’t always work, but it is quite nice to know that I don’t have to fly into a panic when I get to chapter 13, because I know how it’s going to end. Somebody else has done that for me.’ She laughs.
‘Would I like those books? What age are they?’
‘They are for younger teenagers than I write at the moment.’
‘More teen than YA,’ Keith says.
‘Yes, exactly. The editor at Hothouse gets quite cross when people say it’s Twilight. “I had that idea long before.” But because of the time lag in publishing, everyone assumes that it’s a Twilight copy, which in fact it isn’t. It was an original idea, until Twilight came out. It’s not actually vampires, it’s evil spirits.’
‘Are you the only Gabriella Poole?’
‘I am, yes.’
‘So it’s not a Lucy Daniels kind of thing?’
‘It could be if necessary. If they wanted a fourth book and I wasn’t available or if they suddenly were fed up with my style and they just wanted to go with somebody else.’
‘And what about your school books; what are they?’
‘I think they are supposed to stimulate discussion about issues. They tend to be about something that will spark a discussion. The first one was about binge drinking and drink driving. There’s a kind of issue behind them. They’re very short, 6000 words. I can sort of write them in-between…’
‘Yes, along with all your other stuff!’ We laugh. ‘And what about your next book, The Opposite of Amber? Why another book for Bloomsbury rather than another one for Strident?’
‘Well, I’ve a 2-book deal with Bloomsbury and I’m really happy having two publishers – really lucky in fact.’
‘So this is the one I wrote. I was struggling slightly when I was starting to write, and I was watching a Cutting Edge documentary one night about the Ipswich murders, and it just caught my imagination. It was a really, really good documentary but I didn’t want to write about the Ipswich murders. I didn’t feel qualified, but I wanted to write something about the family of a girl in that situation. That’s how The Opposite of Amber came about.’
‘You’ve got a very colourful past, haven’t you? Among all the former teachers and librarians you’ve been a singer and all sorts…’
‘Yeah well, I went to university, then went to work for my husband, who was a political candidate. He didn’t get into parliament, so we got married instead, as you do, and then he sort of said “well, what are we going to do now?” so we went abroad. We went to Barbados, and of course I couldn’t get a work permit. It sounds colourful, but actually it’s about me trying to jazz up my life. I did different jobs. Once I presented the religious Sunday morning programme. Co-presented it rather,’ Gillian laughs long and loud, ‘very funny.’
‘Well it is.’
Keith – ‘Especially if you told her what music you were playing.’
‘No, it was more kind of modern Christian pop and stuff. Or the Pet Shop Boys or something like that. Yeah, that was certainly different.’
‘It’s interesting. Do people ask you to sing these days?’
‘No. Probably fortunately, because it’s one of these things that you have to keep practising. I don’t know how I fell into this. Somebody was organising a Celtic festival in Barbados, and I got to do it. Needless to say in Barbados there was an Irish bar, and having got into this band, which was a very eclectic kind of band, we got a few gigs in the festival and then we got this regular gig at the Irish bar. It was the most fun – apart from writing – and it was quite amusing because being in Barbados we didn’t have this sectarian thing going on, which you might in an Irish bar in Glasgow. Some of the Irish songs that we were singing, over there they’re just lovely folk songs, not political.’
‘What’s the nicest thing about being an author?’
Gillian thinks carefully about this; ‘I can quite honestly say the nicest thing about being an author is being able to be anyone or do anything. I can just, if I’m interested in something or I am attracted by a certain situation, a certain time in history or just anything; I can just drop things and go and be there, be that character, do that stuff. You know, learn how to sword fight and just have fantastic adventures without ever leaving my desk.’
‘What you said about sword fighting; did you actually learn how to fight with swords?’
‘I used to fence. I still love fencing, but I haven’t done it for a couple of years actually. Nick Green does it as well, so does Ellen Renner. Maybe it’s an author thing. Romantic being a writer and fencing and things. I did actually get a fencing scene in one of the Darke Academy books.’ She laughs.
‘And what’s the most unexpected thing about being an author?’
‘I always had this idea that you’re in your garret and you never see anybody, and if you’re really lucky, one day you’ll find an agent who will take your manuscript and you’ll never see it again, and then appears a book and you’ll never have to do anything else, and that’s that. I love the editing and rewriting. I like seeing somebody else’s angle and having to change things and even arguing it out. I like that bit too. And because of the facebook and twitter thing, it’s like the water cooler. You can go at any time, and it can be very distracting, and sometimes I do have to unplug that dongle.’
‘You have to do that, do you?’
‘I do have to, because otherwise I get caught in things. But it’s fun. You’ll think something terrible’s happened, and you’ll almost inevitably encounter someone who’s had the same kind of problem,and it’s just so sociable! Though I suppose it wasn’t like that before the internet.
Hooking up with someone in New York, for instance. Writing Darke Academy I asked “has anyone been to Istanbul” and they had, and they said you can see what it looks like in a book, but I can tell you what it smells like. Which was great. I’ve never been to New York, and a friend said I could actually have a virtual tour (of a library), and it was great. The internet is wonderful in many ways, but a terrible distraction,’ she giggles.
‘Saves you from having to talk to your neighbours…’
She laughs, ‘that’s right.’
‘Do you even have neighbours?’
‘I’ve got some very nice neighbours who are a half mile away. Apart from that it’s just the town nearby.’
‘And what are you doing in Edinburgh, when you’re not being the star performer?’
‘I’m hanging around the yurt, being a bit of a star struck fan girl. I have a friend who knows Philip Reeve and she asked “would you like to meet Philip Reeve?” and I went “would I like to meet Philip Reeve?” Of course I’ll never wash my hand again,’ she laughs. ‘He was lovely and I was so star struck! And I go to the bookshop, signing, a lot.’
‘Turning the books around on the shelves?’
‘Absolutely. And going to other people’s events, because I’ve never been down for this long before, and I never had the chance to go to other people’s events, so this time I planned in advance. So that’s what I’ve done. Going to see Philip Ardagh tomorrow. And Mal Peet and Marcus Sedgwick was great.’
‘No adult events?’
‘I haven’t actually.’
‘The taxi driver this morning was saying “are there any celebrities at the book festival this year?”, and I said Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Reeve and Marcus Sedgwick and Mal Peet and he was kind of “are there any adult authors?” I was desperately trying to think.’ Gillian came up with Ian Rankin, in the end.
What she should have said, of course, was that she was there. She is a star. So it’s just as well I got this meeting sorted before she’s too big for me. And I don’t mean her height.
(All photos Helen Giles)