True Survival

Bosco Theatre

As I approached the Bosco Theatre to do a bit of a recce 25 minutes before the event with Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff, I was surprised but pleased to find a queue of fans already waiting. I suspect it’s the fantasy effect, which seems to have really keen fans. Girl fans, mostly. And I have no idea who they came to see, Alwyn or Maria. I understand that Alwyn is quite big. But then, I believe Maria is big too.

Chaired by Daniel Hahn, these three knew what they were doing, having already got together for an event in Hay. Alwyn wore the wrong – but lovely – shoes, and walked down those stairs carefully, so as not to get stuck in the gaps. Maria wore a Moomin dress, i.e. made of a fabric that might have looked like white spots, but those spots were Moomins. (Philip Pullman would kill for a dress like that!)

To the accompanyment of screeching seagulls outside, Daniel introduced the ladies as exciting new voices in YA fantasy. He started by asking them how they came to write, and Alwyn said she falls asleep by making up stories in bed (me too, which is why I fall asleep), and she really can’t undertand how people who don’t write manage to sleep. From there she moved on to Harry Potter fan fiction.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

Maria admitted to being far too old to have done any Harry Potter-ing, but in kindergarten she would be allowed to stay up when the other children had a nap, and she would write stories. So while Alwyn sent herself to sleep, Maria stayed awake. She liked Moomin, so wrote Moomin-style stories. She knew she could write, but didn’t have ideas of her own. She wants writing to be easy; a bed of roses.

Alwyn wanted to write about girl heroines, but discovered that it was considered wrong to have girls do what male characters have long been doing. ‘Dragons were realistic, girls were not.’ Girls were not strong enough. She wanted sharpshooters, in order to avoid the requirement for strength, and it became a sort of Western crossed with a Thousand and One Nights.

Maria found a Greek island where women were forbidden to land, and this inspired her to write Maresi, about an island that didn’t permit men to visit. Both authors agreed that you just have to wait for things to click, and then the writing will work.

Reading from Naondel, Orseola’s story – because it was the happiest – she said she has not tried to protect her characters from bad things. You only need to look at what’s in the news to realise how much bad stuff your readers will already be aware of.

Daniel asked about gatekeeping, quoting teachers on an awards committee, who wanted to recommend certain books to their pupils, but feeling they were not allowed to do so. It had to be the parents who permitted their children to read. Maria said that she was not aware of any banning of books in Finland, and that Naondel was part of a book parcel offered there.

Alwyn read from chapter two of her second book in the Rebel of the Sands series. When she writes she likes to do so with fast music in the background,  and she needs to write fast, using placeholders to get past obstacles, saving details for later. And that’s also when she removes unnecessary details. The most she’s ever written in one day was 8000 words. Maria sets a goal of perhaps 2000 words, because she is lazy and she needs to have something to work towards.

Asked about how to deal with writer’s block, Alwyn said she always carried a notepad, and she would listen to people on the bus, and write things down, and she’d look at people and practise writing descriptions of them. ‘Me and my art,’ she called it.

Regarding writing ‘real’ books instead of fantasy, the answer is that if you don’t like reading those ‘real’ books, then you can’t write them.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

Another question was how to explain what a fantasy world is like, if that world is the norm to those living in it. The best solution is to introduce a newcomer, like Maresi, who then describes what she learns about the island. Or you take an outsider like Gulliver and put them in ‘a situation.’

I hope Alwyn’s fans grew as interested in Maria’s books, as I did Alwyn’s. And there really is something about fantasy fans.

Coming of Age

Waiting for the two double-Cs to appear in the Bosco Theatre, I studied those cracks in the floor again. It’s not just the poor stiletto heel that needs protecting. You could chuck pens down there, even the whole notepad. Or why not your mobile phone? I mean, I know why not the phone, but it’d slip so easily. I held on to my pen and pad and put everything else away.

I was sure there’d be plenty of people, because Cat Clarke has lots of fans, meaning that even though Christoffer Carlsson might have begun the evening a relatively unknown foreigner, he’d win fans during the event. So, lots of teen girls and a few older girls like myself. And two grown men, one of whom was fellow author Jared Thomas.

Christoffer Carlsson and Cat Clarke

When the CCs and their chair Ann Landmann arrived, walking down those steps to sit underneath the glittering disco ball, I noticed that Christoffer carried a Fjällräven rucksack, blue with leather straps. Naturally.

Ann urged us to come closer, to get ready for the audience participation, saying the trapeze would be lowered later, and that perhaps they’d better lock the door so we couldn’t escape. Not a soul, apart from Jared, moved…

She also said there’d be a signing afterwards, in the signing Portakabin, the ‘white kind of box’ near the theatre. I’m glad she said it. I’d hate to be complaining about its, erm, lack of space.

Having forgotten the title of the event, Ann referred to Death & Murder, two of her favourite subjects, pointing out that Swedish Christoffer has a ‘real degree’ – to which Cat added, a PhD – in criminology. ‘A terrible over-achiever.’ And Cat is ‘not quite homegrown,’ having been born in Zambia, but Ann doesn’t think she has ‘a strange accent.’

So that Ann could shut up for ten minutes, she handed over to her guests, asking them to read. Cat said her book Girlhood is set in a boarding school (she loves them!), and she read from chapter five, about some sort of initiation of a new girl which, to be honest, is why I don’t want to go to boarding school. But I can see that it’s better to be wearing the Trump mask, as you don’t have to look at it.

Christoffer Carlsson and Cat Clarke

Christoffer told us about Halmstad, asking if anyone has heard of Roxette, and described the darkness of Småland, where October is the Coldest Month is set. He read the first chapter where we meet Vega. Both books feature darkness, rain and cold, so not much difference between Scotland and Sweden.

An obsession with Mallory Towers made Cat set this book in a boarding school, and needing a mix of the best and the worst in life, she gave her heroine a dead twin. Christoffer hears voices, by which he meant he talks to his characters. He has to write fast to get it down on paper, and many ideas don’t work. Unlike other Swedish authors who set their books in Stockholm or Gothenburg, or even ‘mid-level cities’ such as Örebro, he chose the countryside close to where he grew up. He wanted to write about violence against women.

This wasn’t planned as a YA book, but he realised he was writing for himself at 17. And that way you can have a smaller book; one that fits in a pocket and can be read on the bus.

Cat feels it’s fun to explore teenage feelings, and said the new girl is a bit weird. She had an idea to begin with, but it changed, and she feels Girlhood is more honest than her other books. But she never did pretend to be a prospective parent at a boarding school, to find out more, and left this to a documentary about Gordonstoun.

Christoffer Carlsson and Cat Clarke

Christoffer wrote his book during the summer, in Halmstad, where he now feels like an outsider, belonging neither there nor in Stockholm where he lives. A bit like Vega. His dad who never usually reads, has in fact read October is the Coldest Month, while his mum hasn’t, although this keen reader always reads all his books, at the expense of everything else. The title refers to the TS Eliot poem about April being the cruellest month. He set the story in October, because he needed Vega not to be going to school.

As for Cat, she had lots of titles for Girlhood, including one she might use for some other book. Regarding characters’ names, she has to like them, and they must type easily. Such as Harper in Girlhood, which unlike George is easy on the keyboard. She does find though that good names are running out. Even bad characters have to have good names.

I found that Christoffer used the word ‘sucks’ a lot. He needs to learn to be ‘crap at’ things in Britain. Anyway, he gets up early, to write from five am, until maybe eleven. He can edit anytime, but not write. Cat writes in chunks of 25 minutes, acording to the Pomodoro Technique, although she might be taking rather longer breaks than prescribed. She too has to write before noon. This book took her ten years to write, which is too long, for someone who is not famous.

Describing writing like go-karting, Christoffer swore enough that he had to stop and apologise, even if his replacement word was only marginally more sanitised… The pitfalls of a second language. He feels one difference between YA and adult novels is that the sentences can be shorter. He’s a middle class man living in Stockholm, writing about a working class teenager in the countryside, and the book needs to be accessible to everyone, including non-readers.

The last, and really excellent, question from the audience was on hating what you write. Cat said this is normal. You should write, even if it is crap. ‘Crap can be moulded.’

And on that note we piled out and over to the Portakabin.

Day 5

If you thought day four was short, then day five was – blissfully – shorter still. I went for one reason only.

Started my evening by quickly eating my sandwiches, because it’s finding a time and place for eating that has been the hardest. I sat on the press pew and stared at the rubber ducks for a few minutes.

Kathryn Evans by Chris Close

And then I took one turn round Charlotte Square, to see if there was anything new I’d not seen before. Any new crazy photographs by Chris Close, for instance. There weren’t, so I offer you some I found earlier and kept back, in case I needed them.

Juno Dawson by Chris Close

Walked over to George Street and the Bosco Theatre again, and was really pleased to find that the event was being chaired by Bookwitch favourite Ann Landmann. She had the double Cs to deal with. I’m sure someone knows I use initials when taking notes, and thought it’d be a hoot to have CC and CC talk to each other. (That’s Cat Clarke and Christoffer Carlsson.)

Signing queue

There was no way I was going to miss this, seeing as Christoffer and I come from the same place, and he has such a lovely surname. So I queued up behind all the fans afterwards, for my books to be signed and to chat. And having ‘missed’ my first train, I had 15 minutes to spare on Christoffer. Enough to have some water near the yurt, and find out why he’s ditched the accent. Apparently his Stockholm students couldn’t understand what he was saying in lectures.

Christoffer Carlsson and Cat Clarke

It was meant to rain, but it didn’t. How could it? I was there. In fact, I’d say that my walk back to Waverley around nine o’clock was the balmiest evening I’ve had so far, with no rain, and a comfortable temperature, and the lights and the [not too many] people. The kind of evening when you want to sit out, over drinks, and chat to someone.

Hang on, I did. OK, I didn’t have any water, but I had a companion, and we chatted. It was pleasant and warm. The poet laureate sat at the next table. There were [other] nice people around. Ticks a lot of boxes, that does.

Day 4

The days are getting shorter. Well, I suppose it’s that time of year. And it felt like even the long trains were also shortening; unless there really were that many extra daytrippers yesterday, being a Sunday and that.

DSCN0184

I didn’t quite make it to see Jo Nadin or Tony Ross at their signings, but you can’t have everything. I was there for the event with Maria Turtschaninoff and Alwyn Hamilton, chaired by the little known Daniel Hahn. It was in the new Bosco Theatre venue, out on George Street, and this was my first time. What I will say is that Theresa Breslin was spot-on earlier in the week, when she said it was lovely, but not for wearing stiletto heels in. At the time, Keith Charters and I looked at each other, both fairly secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be.

The other thing about the venue is that the signing tent is very small. No room for Bookwitches wanting to take pictures, except for this close-up of Alwyn’s handbag contents. But I dare say it wasn’t made with me in mind.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

I joined Daniel Hahn outside instead and forced him to sign a book (one he had edited, so I wasn’t being totally unreasonable) and then he made me want to go to Denmark with him in October…

After this fantasy event I wandered back to Charlotte Square, catching William Dalrymple signing for a queue of fans, after what looked like a full Main Theatre event. I feel I know, as I stood there trying to take photographs of Chris Close’s picture display, and I tried at just the wrong moment, when the whole tent walked past, very slowly. Well, obviously it wasn’t the actual tent that moved, but the people who had been in it.

William Dalrymple

Hoped to see Ross Collins and Claire Barker after their event, but they must have been busy chatting to admirers, as they hadn’t emerged when I had to make a move.

Because, dear readers, I had an interview to conduct, and was meeting Maria Turtschaninoff in the gap between her own event and seeing Jonathan Stroud. We sat in the sunshine on the deck outside the authors’ yurt, chatting about mothers and books and how arrogant Sweden is towards the other Nordic countries. I mean, I said that. Maria is far too polite to.

And as she went off with a bagful of Lockwood books, I walked to Waverley again, prepared to fight the other festival-goers, but struck lucky by finding an unexpected train going my way a couple of minutes later, and it wasn’t even full.

Bosco Theatre

Siobhan – ten years on

Siobhan Dowd and Helen Graves

In the midst of the madness that is the Edinburgh book festival, I remember Siobhan Dowd, who died this day ten years ago.

Without her there might well not have been a Bookwitch such as you know today. I might not have a book festival to be grumpy about, because it makes me tired, even when it’s such fun.

I have said this before, but must say it again; Siobhan introduced me to so many marvellous people in the book world, and the rings on the water keep spreading.

Still.

We never met. At the time I expected we would, even when I learned that she had cancer. She looked so well in photographs. She ‘sounded’ chirpy in emails. There would surely be time.

Thank you, Siobhan, for the books, and for the many friendships you caused.

Helen Graves and Siobhan Dowd

(Photos by Geoff Morgan, Siobhan’s husband, of her and her very good friend Helen Graves.)

Thrilling Fiction

They fought about who would sit on the middle chair, Michelle Paver or Peter Høeg, and while they did, their chair Daniel Hahn quickly sat down on the shiny red chair on the far side. In the end Michelle won, and Peter’s fame got him the chair between her and Danny.

I’d never thought about this before, but when Son pointed out earlier this summer that Peter Høeg hardly ever does events, it sort of made sense. So we made sure we were there to hear him speak, sparingly, about his new book The Susan Effect. (Everyone knows him for Miss Smilla.) And as I said last week in my review, I loved Michelle’s Thin Air.

Daniel began by saying they’d discovered they had one scientist and one mountaineer between them, and one book about science and one on climbing. But the trouble was that the ‘wrong’ person wrote the books; with Michelle covering the climbing and Peter the physics.

Describing Thin Air as a ‘thrilling, intense, really scary book’ that he shouldn’t have read alone late at night, Daniel asked Michelle how it came about. This story about the frozen world of Kangchenjunga began with her suffering from a frozen shoulder and when she couldn’t sleep, she got up and read something from her shelf of mountaineering books. Originally it was to be set in South America (she fancied making a research trip there), but in the end it had to be Kangchenjunga, with God at the top and the abominable snowman further down. And ghosts.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

Peter usually gets his ideas during a ‘fleeting short moment’ in the middle of another book; this time about a woman who makes people speak the truth. He’s got a couple of such people in his own family, so knows what it’s like. It’s important how the character speaks. It has to be someone the reader can spend a week with, and the author maybe two years.

Like many Scandinavians, Peter speaks English well, slowly and with a marked Danish accent, but quite competently. He said Michelle ruined his reading of Thin Air, but Danny pointed out that this is what book festivals are for; having your illusions destroyed.

For her children’s series Wolf Brother she felt it important that children could like the characters, but for her adult books she’s quite happy to ‘be’ her new character, however unpleasant, or racist, they might be.

Peter tries to create something new each time, feeling it’s dangerous to repeat yourself. He was surprised by the humour in this new book. It’s warmer and more fun, and that makes him happy. Michelle mentioned that his line about a raisin made her laugh out loud when reading.

Peter Høeg

They both read from their books, with Peter apologising for his bad English as he read a short piece from the beginning of The Susan Effect. Michelle read the bit where her character wakes up in the tent, and how there might be someone out there…

As the middle of three sisters, she felt she had the necessary experience to write about sibling rivalry, and she mentioned the background of ‘beating the Hun’ and the public school ethos, and how men couldn’t admit to things like altitude sickness, which might affect a whole group.

Both authors admired each other’s books, and spoke about different – non-literary – genres, and how you need all kinds of books. The Danes, like other Nordics, read crime in the summer, a bit like porn. Michelle said that YA is good, because it tends to have a plot, and it doesn’t need to be literary.

Peter writes his first draft by hand, from beginning to end, and then he types it up, editing as he goes along. And if a day feels as if it won’t be a writing day, then he doesn’t force it. According to him, there are no books, only reading. We all read differently and there are as many versions of a book as there are readers.

Question time made a slow start, with Danny saying that if this had been a children’s event, all hands would be in the air. He mentioned one very important aspect about Peter’s book, which is that none of the words are his, but those chosen by his English translator (Martin Aitken). Peter said how grateful he is to him, and how all of Denmark relies on people to translate their small language. Daniel described the translating process as the translator first reads the book, then has to become arrogant – in a positive way – in order to rewrite the words so the book reads as though it is English. ‘Little Denmark’ likes this.

Michelle likes MR James, likes ghost stories, and she recognises that it’s unusual with ghosts somewhere empty like Svalbard (Dark Matter). Daniel said first you are scared because you are on your own, and then a stone moves, and you think ‘oh my god, I’m not on my own!’ And that is worse.

She does a fair bit of research, travelling to the places she sets her stories, and looking into things like illnesses and reading up on what others have already written, like the early climbers on Kangchenjunga.

Peter did research the first twenty years. And then the internet happened and he lost interest in old style research. He has a love for both science and music, but neither loves him back.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

At the signing afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Michelle never travels without her paw print stamp for when fans bring copies of Wolf Brother. And she let me have a paw print in Thin Air. After all, we don’t know what’s out there on that mountain. Could be anything.

The Great Gender Debate

‘Yes, but my book’s really for girls.’ Best to get the embarrassing comments out of the way early. This was Kathryn Evans, who once said that to a school librarian. Hopefully accidentally. She has since recognised that lots of boys buy and read her More of Me. And surely it can’t be because of Kathryn’s ‘sneaky thing’ where she advises boys that they can learn a lot about girls by reading her book?

There should be more events like the Great Gender Debate on Friday night at the book festival. Not just because it was interesting, but because it sold out, and it did so to a surprising number of teenagers. I often wonder what it takes to get young readers come to events, when they are too old to be taken by a parent, but possibly too young to choose to come a long way for a literary thing.

David Levithan

It was an interesting line-up of authors, too; with Kathryn flanked by Jonathan Stroud and David Levithan. Three quite different – from each other – writers, gently guided by chairs Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo from SCBWI. Asked to tell us about an achievement which made them proud, David said being given the Albert Einstein award at camp, Jonathan was pleased when he found the voice of Bartimaeus, and Kathryn was so excited to be published after writing for 15 years. They were also asked to admit to some embarrassing past event, of which I will only mention that a young Jonathan got himself locked into a bookshop in Hay.

This was a longer than normal event at 90 minutes, but it wasn’t long enough to cover what the audience wanted to discuss. And there is always Enid Blyton. A mother wanted to know what she ought to say or do about the sexism in Blyton, whose books her six-year-old son loves. Jonathan thought the boy could be left to enjoy them, whereas both Kathryn and David felt some educating on the sexes was wanted, and David mentioned that there are other books. Kathy also had a little go at Jonathan, about his character Holly, who bakes, and to be perfectly honest, that thought had occurred to me as well.

But as someone pointed out, what matters most is what it’s like at home, and then it doesn’t matter if Blyton is OTT.

Kathryn Evans

Asked for recommendations on who to look out for next, David said he’d enjoyed a book about a young trans boy. Kathryn praised Penny Joelson, and Jonathan really likes Jo Cotterill. As for books that changed their lives, David didn’t have one, Jonathan loved Treasure Island, while Kathryn was a bit of a non-reader (too many words) until she discovered Watership Down.

One – female – member of the audience wanted ideas on how to make the audience more balanced, seeing as there were far more females than males. David reckons YA engages girls more than boys, and girls read more, too. But ‘books don’t have gender.’ Jonathan mentioned that his books are read by 14-year-olds as well as by those over sixty (I’ll say…)

According to David social progress will get on no matter who is President or Prime Minister. Teenagers are more open. Kathryn has had discussions with both the older and younger generation, arguing with her daughter and discovering she is very privileged, while her own father now accepts that her lesbian friend is ‘allowed in the house.’

Jonathan Stroud and Kathryn Evans

A youth worker said that hardly any of his young people read. And those who do, have read Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. He wanted to know what he could do about this. Jonathan felt it was good that there is something – even if it’s this – that gets them reading. He had not read either himself, and both Kathryn and David had struggled with Fifty Shades, with David managing ‘one shade’ before putting it down. Kathy liked Twilight.

Kathryn Evans

How to understand that not only girls can be feminists is another problem. On screen more females tend to die, but Jonathan kills his characters regardless of their sex. David said ‘people tend not to die in my books.’ As for lesbians, they have a much higher than average death rate on television. And whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!