Monthly Archives: October 2010

Bookwitch bites #29

I was relieved to read that someone has looked into this business of the Nobel prize for literature. Not relieved they’ve looked into it, so much as finding that being awarded this lovely prize will not generally block the happy author from writing more books. The kiss of death is what it’s been called. But it seems that aside from poor Steinbeck, there is no sign that people stop writing after they’ve become unbearably rich.

Which – ahem – brings me neatly to the Hans Christian Andersen literature award. Earlier this week the Danes handed over 500000 Danish kroner to J K Rowling. It’s a difficult thing, this. I do feel she deserves the award. I just can’t help thinking of the many other very worthy potential recipients who could use the money.

Orion Star

Orion Children’s Books have launched The Orion Star newsletter. It looks very nice, but I’d like to point out that Orion is not a star. He’s a constellation. (Subscribe to The Orion Constellation! No it doesn’t sound as good, does it?) You can read the first one here. Or if you like, you can read Bookwitch. Or both.

Speaking of stars I was really excited to receive an email telling me I could buy three Björn Borgs for the price of two. Didn’t know there were that many to go round, but who wouldn’t want three instead of a mere two?

One star I’m continually failing to see or hear is Michael Rosen. I think we might be doomed, him and me. Michael was doing a big event for the Manchester Literature Festival this week, but I still haven’t morphed into a school so didn’t succeed in getting in.

And I gather there was a good interview with Gillian Philip (surely not better than mine?) in the Times on Saturday. But because they want money for their online content, I haven’t read it. I sort of object to paying for online news articles. I don’t object to popping out to buy a copy of the paper occasionally, but by the time I have heard about something like this, it’s usually too late to get hold of the paper.

I remember once when I knocked on the door of every house in our neighbourhood to see if I could lay my hands on one or more of the Sunday broadsheets, only to find that most of my neighbours appeared not to take a paper at all. Fancy that.

(And I apologise for all those zeroes further up. I wanted to break the monotony of 00000 with, well, with something. But with what? In Sweden we/they do one thing, and in Britain we/they do the other. But right now I can’t get my commas sorted from my full stops, maths-wise. It could be 500,000 or it could be 500.000. Sorry, I’m having a nervous breakdown just looking at it.)


Women are more ‘properly interesting’

Val McDermid

We have all wanted to murder someone, but most of us don’t succumb to those murderous instincts. Something to do with no laptops in jail. Or that’s what Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid claimed last night at their Manchester Literature Festival event. But they do murder well in their books.

Val described feeling that ‘the bridegroom had to be dead by bedtime’ when dreaming up a new plot, and she did so in a much more Scottish accent than I had anticipated. Don’t know why. The anticipating, I mean. Maybe it’s because Manchester claims her for their own, so she has to be a Mancunian?

Sophie Hannah

Sophie reckoned that women crime writers are more interesting, and they write more devious books than the men who just write about being chased by the FBI and other letters of the alphabet. And she tells a good story, such as the time when she bought a copy of Val’s book twice. It’s what might happen when you sit down next to a Strongbow drinking fan of lesbian fiction on a train.

I could see Sophie and Val mirrored in the large window behind them, which was good because I didn’t see much the normal way, in the very packed Whitworth Art Gallery. We sat in an ivy-papered room, with an exceedingly green feel to it. On leaving we had to walk through an artificial wood in the dark. Whether this had anything to do with what they’d just been saying about late night walks and being scared, I don’t know.

Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid

They mentioned the guilt many of us feel on reading crime, because we read it purely for pleasure. It’s slightly ‘better’ if it’s Swedish (of course!) or technical like Patricia Cornwell’s. And they are both critical of the idea that publishers ‘need to have one like that, too’ as soon as a new type of crime novel becomes successful.

There’s the Swedish tidal wave, and there is other foreign stuff which nobody understands, so the author must be a genius. None of them are into cosy crime, where you get recipes or instructions on embroidering bookmarks.

Sophie likes her crime dark, feeling that murder is dark, whereas Val likes humour and claims the Scots even laugh at funerals. Sophie keeps lists of the books she reads, and she has come to realise that her favourite books never win any prizes. She knows she’s right.

Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid

We ran out of time long before we ran out of questions, and then it was book signing time, which took place in an exceedingly dark room. But as Val pointed out, ‘it’s never too early for Christmas shopping’. Though I suspect I was the only one bringing a Moomin book to the signing.

Sophie left in a chauffeur driven car, whereas Val walked over to her own car and changed into a more comfortable jacket before driving off into the night. I know this not because I was stalking them, but because my own ‘chauffeur’ was a little late, so I had nothing better to do than watch everybody else.

Saying goodbye to Eva and Hazel

I was sad to learn two days ago that Hazel Townson has died, and only a day later that Eva Ibbotson died on Wednesday this week.

With Hazel being a local children’s author I can’t gauge how well known or not she was in the wider world, or even further afield in Britain. She was tireless in doing school events, and I witnessed her appeal to young children at first hand when Daughter required every single one of the books available to buy when Hazel came to her school. I remember it was this time of year, because Hazel signed a book saying Happy Birthday, which made it even more precious.

More recently Hazel gave up her work with the Lancashire Book of the Year, handing over the task of overseeing everything to Adèle Geras.

Eva Ibbotson was such a special author for so many. Her name always came up whenever authors expressed admiration for a colleague. But I never needed to hear that, because reading her Journey to the River Sea was enough to convince me I’d found a real star.

As another foreigner I suppose I was particularly happy to find someone who could write so well in another language, while retaining that different outlook on both Britain and Europe. It was good to read novels set in Europe as though it wasn’t abroad.

I’ve been a little slow in working my way through Eva’s books, and her recent shortlisted novel for the Guardian prize is high on my tbr list. The Secret of Platform 13 was another one that waited for my attention for far too long. But at least this way I know I have a few to keep me going.

I did nurse a secret dream to interview Eva, but felt I could never hope to improve on Dina Rabinovitch’s chat with her in 2004. I have to admit I would have quite liked for Eva to win the Guardian prize, if it’s OK now to show favouritism.

Which Witch? This is the Bookwitch saying thank you, and goodbye.

Taxi confessionals and intertextuality

The way to catch Amanda Craig is to go to one of her events where she can’t just do a runner. She was in Manchester yesterday, with Michèle Roberts, talking about their most recent books. They were already there when I arrived, and I was virtually first, so that’s keen. I think I overheard them discuss those perennially important subjects, e-readers and schools. The place was respectably full, given it was the middle of the day. The audience was predominantly ladies (4 men at the last count).

Amanda Craig

It was weird, because I sort of ‘know’ Amanda from facebook, whereas I was sure I didn’t know Michèle at all, but she looked familiar in that way some people do.

Amanda – who has the most magnificent hair! – kicked off on the strength of her name coming first in the alphabet, and she read us the preface to Hearts and Minds, after describing how she began this novel which took her seven years to write. Basically she wanted a story about people who are from somewhere other than Britain, so she researched everybody from au pairs and taxi drivers to prostitutes.

Michèle Roberts

Michèle enjoys short stories, and reads one a day, which gives her time to think about them afterwards. She was once shortlisted for the Bad Sex Award, which surprised her but didn’t stop her. The latest book is Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, and she read us a bit, which I think is where the intertextuality came in. Inspired by Boswell and Johnson, she can see no reason why men are allowed to walk cities at night, and women can’t do the same. It’s the difference between ‘flaneur’ and ‘street walker’ which annoys her.  ‘It won’t do’!

She is thinking of doing an ‘art installation’ in the form of a taxi where you confess during your taxi journey, having been inspired by the taxi drivers of Norwich who used her to confess while driving her to the station.

Amanda is currently writing a North and South kind of novel, and is very aware of Mrs Gaskell while in Manchester. She recalled an early visit, when the city was dark and dirty, and I suspect she and I must have visited round about the same time. We also seem to share some witchy instincts, with her planning all sorts of things for her novels, which then happen in real life.

They both had plenty of books to sign, but I think Michèle was the only one faced with a carrier bag full of books. And I do wish I knew how authors manage the beautifully draped beautiful scarf bit. Michèle did it. Amanda didn’t need to, with that hair.

Fire alarm ringing? Then it’s Tuesday in Manchester

In his hotel room on Tuesday morning the fire alarm went. Lars Saabye Christensen debated what to take with him; laptop, shoes or photo of lovely wife? As he descended to reception he wondered why everyone was so calm. Seems they test the alarm every Tuesday.

Well, it beats possibly cooking your grandfather day in and day out. Maybe.

Lars visited Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday, and I’m hoping you’ve never heard of him either. Me, I’ll blame it on having left Sweden in 1982, so a Norwegian author published after that is unlikely to feature on my – possibly narrow – horizon. I asked Lars afterwards if he gets recognised in the street. Yes he does. And all that attention can get tedious.

Lars Saabye Christensen

Well, when it gets too much he can just come over here where we will be cynically cool the British way. And also we’ve never heard of him. But from what I learned yesterday I think it would be a good idea if a few more people did get to know Lars and his books. After his talk I abandoned several of my principles in one fell swoop. I don’t spend money on books, if I can help it. Decided to buy. Have no time to read more, especially not 600 page novels. So I bought two. (Sorry, boss.) I prefer to read in the original. So I got two translated books.

There you go.

A hardy group of book fans gathered in Manchester’s Town Hall at lunch time to hear Lars talk about his novel Beatles, now recently translated into English after 25 years of success in Norway. Apparently Lars is (one of?) Norway’s most popular author, and Beatles is a significant and important book.

He read an excerpt from the English translation, stumbling a little on some of the words. Lars then read in Norwegian which he did absolutely perfectly. A poem about tightropes that end halfway along, which doesn’t sound a good idea. And we get the cooking of grandpa from Beatles, which has to do with India, but I won’t go into more detail here. You could always buy the book and read it yourself.

Like all Norwegians Knut Hamsun played a big part as inspiration for his writing, and whether you like Hamsun or not, you can’t avoid his influence. Hamsun is the reference frame for all Norwegian writing after him. According to Lars, if Hamsun had had a decent English translator we wouldn’t think of him as a Nazi first and foremost. He reckons translators are literary ambassadors, and they can do what they like to his books as long as they keep the basic feel to the story.

And I hope you have worked out what happened then? Lars (and the rest of us) experienced the day’s second fire alarm, so out we went. You can empty the impressive Town Hall impressively fast, even with tired bookwitches carting birthday cakes around. The only thing Lars forgot was his hat, which the moderator picked up for him. And then we had ten minutes in Albert Square (no, not that Albert Square) before they sent us all back in again.

Lars Saabye Christensen in Albert Square

The moderator wanted to move on to questions, but Lars needed to talk fire alarms for a while first. He thinks we need more of them. His Leonard Cohen bomb alert caused him to meet his wife (Which I secretly thought was very convenient indeed. Just think if he’d met someone else’s wife.)

The Beatles book almost didn’t survive an early trip to Paris, many years ago, disappearing in a suitcase on the plane home. The – temporary – loss of his only handwritten manuscript got Lars started on writing his next book, but the characters have become his own universe. (I take this to mean they recur in several novels.)

‘Do I talk too much?’ he asked as our time was nearly up. Well, he did talk quite a bit, but it’s nice when people go off on a tangent and tell us unexpected stuff.

Then we flocked to the buying table, after which we queued up for our books to be signed. All but the Norwegian fan who already had her well worn Norwegian paperback. After that lovely encounter, a Swedish bookwitch isn’t much to write home about.

And Lars – your English is not ‘lousy’. Most authors can’t do events in another language.


Did anyone see a blue streak in Didsbury yesterday morning? If you blinked you probably missed her. It was Adèle Geras, fitting in a book award coffee – Costa, to you and me – between last minute chores and moving house. Very sweet of her to even contemplate elevenses at a time like this.

Adèle Geras 11

She and Norm are deserting Manchester for somewhere nearer the grandchildren. Adèle told me all about the new house, which sounds wonderful, and now that Norm has managed to part with some of his beloved books they may even fit into their new home.

We talked about our children, and it seems that Adèle’s (that’s Sophie Hannah) did what I wanted to do, and spent the weekend in San Francisco. I can’t decide whether to go for green with envy or to breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not recovering from an exhausting trip.

We talked about Ann Widdecombe. As you do. Shoe shops. Marcus Sedgwick. Christmas parties. Universities. And most likely other things, already forgotten.

Adèle is doing a guest blog on Normblog today, so it’s worth popping over to read what she has to say. I gather Norm is too busy masterminding the move to spend as much time on blogging as he usually does. Seems the same doesn’t apply to Adèle…

Getting paid for daydreaming

Buses may come in threes, but recently I had authors coming in fives. It’s that fact, and nothing to do with me engaging in daydreaming, which has delayed the interview with the ever lovely Cathy Cassidy.

But hopefully she has had her head full of chocolate and cute boys, so that she never noticed that she was last in line at Bookwitch Towers.

Cathy Cassidy

Admire her crinkley hair curtain and read about her love for her fans. Cathy may get paid for daydreaming, but she gives the job 110%, so I forgive her.

I’m still slightly under the influence of that pixie charm, so will go and lie down now…