Riveting Reads with Julie and William

I knew my place, so sat at the back for Julie Bertagna’s event with William Sutcliffe. I was glad to see there were a good number of actual, proper teenagers in the audience. They are often the hardest group to tempt to book events; neither old enough nor young enough.

Julie Bertagna and William Sutcliffe

Chaired by Calum McGhie, Julie and William told us the background stories to Exodus and Concentr8. In Julie’s case it was a news story about a sinking island on the opposite side of the world, which became a Scottish island in Exodus. And now, 15 years on with a special anniversary edition and a new cover, we have much more of a refugee crisis and climate change to worry about.

William had been astounded to learn from a doctor friend that parents bring their children in, demanding to have Ritalin for them, because a diagnosis of ADHD means money for the family. He was shocked to find that people would put their children on what is a kind of amphetamine, for this reason alone.

William Sutcliffe

He’s aware that North London’s middle classes prefer to hide behind the familiar. It was after being the victim of a crime ten years ago that he became a mentor for a teenage boy, and it’s having known this boy so well that helped him get ‘the voice’ in his book. He feels that you can become another person by reading a book, whereas you don’t by watching a film. William said he borrowed from the 2011 riots, because it’s always good to start a book with a riot.

Julie was asked if she’d been tempted to re-write anything before the republication of Exodus, and she had, but in the end felt you can’t tamper with an already published book. Books are slower than films, and you are more in control when you read.

Julie Bertagna

She decided to make the tale more immediate by writing in the third person present tense; something that some readers have had difficulty with. You change the future by how you live your life, and the young have time on their side. Julie also admitted to having rearranged bits of Glasgow to fit the plot.

William described himself as neither a leader nor a follower, and said that when faced with an alpha male group leader it is generally impossible to either say no, or to leave the group. He has made it a point to hide which character you’re meant to like or dislike, which is so common in stories these days, and this has caused some negative reviews.

When it was time for questions, Julie and William almost talked at the same time, both eager to have their say. Julie likes the dynamics of the young; things might go wrong in YA literature, but there is hope for survival. And William pointed out that there is more to a book than the last ten pages.

Asked if they have worried that no one would want to read their books, Julie said yes, but that she’d tried to write what she would have enjoyed as a teenager, whereas William believes you shouldn’t think too much about the readers.

Why YA? William had written adult novels before, but needed a book to be YA for plot reasons and then started reading more teen books and liked them. He also feels they have a longer life through school events and similar, and that in the shops all YA novels sit side by side, no matter what genre, because YA itself is a genre. Julie reckoned that children’s books was a quiet backwater where she felt safe, until Harry Potter and Philip Pullman came on the scene and things started happening.

Books to recommend brought out Louis Sachar’s Holes from William, and Julie suggested the not yet published Book of Dust by Philip Pullman.

Julie is currently working on A Girl Made of Stars, about the Hadron Collider, and she knows what dark energy is. Or so she said. And asked if she’d get on the boat [in Exodus] or stay, she’d go on the boat, if there’s room.

Julie Bertagna, Exodus

On purple vomit and other horrors

He has moved on from weeing in the kitchen sink. This time Barry Hutchison was all about vomit, which occasionally was purple, and little white lies.

Introduced by Sarah Wright, who knew ‘nothing’ about Barry, because his website had been hacked, we still learned a great deal in this appropriately named Mischief and Mishaps event. I too came cold to this, knowing nothing about Barry’s new hero Beaky Malone. Seems it doesn’t matter, because all his best characters are really Barry. It explains a lot, although I do feel he should keep quiet about liking Beaky’s dad, on account that it’s himself.

Charlotte Square’s Corner theatre was packed with young readers, all keen to learn about Barry/Beaky/all-the-others. They were nice children, who showed concern in case Barry were to write any more scripts for the screen, as he has a history of making film companies go bankrupt.

Barry Hutchison

Beaky tells the truth. Always. Things like ‘I did a little wee.’ Honesty isn’t always the best policy, as Barry found when he was fired for pondering ‘what would happen if a monkey came through the door carrying a big gun’ when in a business meeting.

He is big on vomiting. But even Barry now feels you should take care when attempting to throw a sickie. Sometimes it is actually better simply to go to school [and not do what Barry did]. Not only did young Barry vomit a lot, but these days he’s an embarrassment to his children. He lies to Mrs Hutchison when he says writing is hard work, when in reality he sits staring into space for seven out of eight hours.

Barry Hutchison

Actually, whereas Barry solemnly promised he didn’t lie to us, I suspect he did. There is no way he could write all those books in the eighth hour alone. Even if he does write about himself, and even if he never does research, because he doesn’t like it. Why find out, when you can write about zombies instead?

And how did that pair of shoes, standing by the side of the motorway, get there? They could do with having a book written about them.

Day 1

What a day! Now all I need is for the rest of the Edinburgh International Book Festival to be as good. And if the sunshine could continue shining? As I might have mentioned yesterday, I had a good line-up for Tuesday, and it did not disappoint. Nor did any of the day’s little bonuses.

After collecting my press pass, which is a new, edgier design this year, I picked up my events tickets from a boiling entrance tent. I reckon they were expecting rain with that ‘glass’ ceiling in there. I nearly expired, and was grateful I wasn’t queueing up for returns for Peter May.

I ate my M&S salad and ran for Barry Hutchison’s event, where I found Lari Don, busy checking out the competition. Well, she said she was enjoying seeing her colleagues, but… In the bookshop, after I’d taken hundreds of pictures of Barry, I encountered Keith Charters standing next to the Strident shelves, surreptitiously checking they looked all right. They did. He’d been expecting to rearrange them.

Strident books

While we were talking about running, and stargazing, Theresa Breslin arrived on her off-day, and the conversation turned to Kirkland Ciccone, as conversations sometimes do. Then Keith and I went over to bother Barry for a bit, and to find out how he writes quite so many books quite so fast. He was mostly – I think – pondering the groceries he had to buy on his way home, and how appearing at the book festival wasn’t quite as glamorous as it was the first time.

Barry Hutchison

Glamorous would be the word to describe Judy Murray, whom I saw as I returned to the yurt area. Onesies never looked classier.

Stephen Baxter

I did another turn round the bookshops, and found Stephen Baxter signing for adults, and in the children’s bookshop a signing table for, well, I’m not sure who it was for. But after some googling I’d say that the people in this photo are Ehsan Abdollahi – who was originally refused a visa to enter the country – and I think Delaram Ghanimifard from his publisher. And I only wish I’d stopped to talk to them. (I didn’t, because the books on the table confused me.)

Ehsan Abdollahi and Delaram Ghanimafard

Begged some tea in the yurt before walking over to Julie Bertagna’s event with William Sutcliffe. I noticed a man in the queue behind me and my witchy senses told me this was Mr Bertagna, which was confirmed later. And I couldn’t help noticing that ‘my’ photo tree either has moved, or the Corner theatre has, or the theatre has grown fatter over the winter.


Was introduced to Mr B and also to Miss B in the bookshop, after Julie and I had covered Brexit and Meg Rosoff and lunches in our conversation. And then I needed to go and queue for Meg’s event, which seemed to draw a similar crowd, with much of the audience being the same as at Julie’s and William’s talk.

Julie Bertagna and William Sutcliffe

Miss Rosoff had come along, as had Elspeth Graham, who has been involved a lot with Meg’s work on Mal Peet’s last book, which Meg was here to talk about. Spoke to Louise Cole in the signing queue, before Meg persuaded me to miss my train in favour of having a drink with her.

Meg Rosoff

So she and I and Elspeth chatted over wine and water on the deck outside the yurt, and many people were discussed, but my memory has been disabled on that front. Sorry. They had a French restaurant to go to and I had another train to catch.

I hobbled along Princes Street as best I could, and hobbling fast is never a good look, which is why I paid little heed to being hailed by someone who insisted on being noticed, and who turned out to be fellow ex-Stopfordians Philip Caveney and Lady Caveney. They had been to a church half-filled with water. Apparently this was very good.

My train was caught, and the Resident IT Consultant and I ended up at our destination almost simultaneously. I believe we both thought that our day had been the best.

Låt stå!

‘Who are you seeing tomorrow?’ Daughter asked last night from her Andean mountain. ‘Barry, Julie and Meg,’ I replied. We don’t bother with surnames at Bookwitch Towers.

Today is my first day at the 2017 book festival. It feels fitting that it was Meg Rosoff who lost out last year, as far as I was concerned, appearing on my last night when I was tired and didn’t go because I was travelling the following day. I suppose someone felt they had better put her in on what is my first night this year, and it’s been over 24 hours since I travelled.

My Swedish neighbour felt we could stay longer. ‘Are you not retired?’ she asked. ‘Mwmph,’ I replied. I might have to explain about Bookwitching and book festivals one day. People who are holding on to tails of tigers don’t retire.

The Resident IT Consultant is continuing his trek across Scotland, as I trek across Charlotte Square. We both required sandwiches, and with emptyish post-holiday cupboards this was a harder task than usual. Can you put frozen peas in sandwiches?

In the olden days Swedish teachers used to write the two words ‘Låt stå’ next to anything they wanted to remain on the blackboard, which presumably prevented cleaners from wiping important stuff off. I might have to take to doing that in my fridge. The greek yoghurt I’d carefully planned for to stand there and survive until I returned (they last a long time) was gone. Both Offspring have been visiting during our absence.

Oh well.

A sword called Keith

Well, in the end it wasn’t. Called Keith, I mean. But it could have been.

Piers Torday’s There May Be a Castle is the most wonderful of books, even with no Keith in it. Instead he has a boy called Mouse, who is small and full of imagination. And this story set on what is mostly Christmas Eve, after a car crash involving Mouse and his family, shows the importance of loving your toys. Because if you do, they will love you back.

And toys are good. So is family, of course. With the help of his beloved toys, 11-year-old Mouse discovers what matters most in life, at a time when it seems all might be lost.

Piers Torday, There May Be a Castle

The car crash turns the story into a journey for Mouse, and also his older sister Violet, as they independently try to find their way somewhere safe. Like a castle.

Both of them discover all sorts of truths they’d been too busy bickering to notice.

This was a delight from beginning to end. Although I wasn’t prepared for the end. I would have been had I paid a little more attention to start with. But I still enjoyed this book as I hurried through the cold landscape, along with a dinosaur and other useful beasts.

Pure chance

I read this a long time ago. It was about a very successful novel, which seemingly only managed to be published by chance. This was back in the days of slushpiles in publishers’ offices, when you didn’t need to charm an agent to sell your book.

This particular novel came to the attention of someone important simply because it was lying on the pile when this man ran for his commuter train home, and having nothing to read, he grabbed the book on top and started reading.

I can’t remember what the book was, except I thought it was great, and it seemed perfectly obvious to me then that it should be discovered and not just by accident. But I dare say that even then there were ‘too many books’ and some fell through the cracks and were never seen again.

Or something.

Anyway, this man obviously loved the book and contacted the author immediately and success followed, etc, etc.

I think of this tale whenever I do something similar. No, I don’t publish books, and I can’t make anyone’s fortune, but I do have piles of books. Most of the time they are well ordered and there is some kind of system behind how I pick my next book to read. But occasionally I just grab one. I’ve come to believe in not thinking too much, some of the time.

And I too come across unexpected wonders; sometimes in time for publication day, but often long after, when it just felt as if the turn had come for this particular book. I like this random-ness. And because it is random, I can’t plan it.

Or there is always eeny meeny miny moe. That works too.

Changing your ways

You know all those immigrants who come to your country (I find this applies to most countries) and want to take over how things are done? You fear the danger of their ways winning over yours, despite the fact that there are generally more natives in most places, than there are immigrants/refugees/newcomers.

The editor of Swedish Vi magazine seems like a sensible woman, and she and her family have for the past two years been weekly hosts to a teenage boy from Afghanistan. One of those who arrived alone. He’s come to have Sunday dinner with them, and is gradually picking up his hosts’ way of thinking.

He still has a mother and siblings in his own country, and as the oldest male (after his father was murdered) he is head of the family. He talks to his mother on the phone occasionally, when she has walked to another village where there is a phone.

Now the time had come to discuss his 15-year-old sister, who needed to be married off. Influenced by his new life, the boy said his sister should meet the man to get to know him, and then decide. The mother was very surprised, but the boy insisted. And not surprisingly, a few weeks later his sister said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ regarding her intended husband, and her brother said no to the marriage.

If this is the kind of influence you might experience when people from other cultures come to your [so superior] country, then surely it’s a good thing? Why do we always expect the influence to go the other way? Especially as we are so right about what we believe in.