Monthly Archives: August 2012

Was there a World War I?

I know. It’s hard to even imagine asking that question. You might not know a lot about any particular period in history, but you sort of feel (well, I do) that everybody knows it happened. And if you are a student of History at a reputable university like Uppsala, it seems a very unlikely question to ask.

But it’s one Peter Englund had to answer as a History lecturer, and it’s what made him write The Beauty and the Sorrow, which takes a look at WWI from the points of view of twenty randomly chosen people.

I have not read it, but I understand it’s a rather special book. Hardly surprising when the author is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Partly because of this, I persuaded myself to attend his event in Charlotte Square on Sunday, and partly because the English translation was done by Peter Graves, who has become a bit of a household name in the Bookwitch family.

Peter Englund

Peter didn’t disappoint. What he had to say was interesting, and he said it in excellent English. Not surprising for an academic, but still much appreciated.

The book is an experiment in historical writing, and an experiment which seems to have worked well. Peter was looking for multiplicity, wanting to get in as much of the war as he could. He had a matrix which he filled as he went along. He didn’t look to see what X did on a certain day; but who could fill the hole for that particular date.

The people chosen didn’t know what was going to happen, because they lived the war. You lived in a bubble of ignorance. From his own experience in the military Peter knows how easy it is to forget why there is a war. Momentum keeps it going. He found that the daily observations of the women were generally more interesting and more detailed than those of the men.

The book turned out better than Peter had expected. Which is nice.

Angels – the bad guys

OK, it was the long way round, this getting Daughter to take an interest in Lee Weatherly’s Angel books. (It’s a Blurbs & Covers problem. She had been totally put off by both.) For someone who was a great Lee Weatherly fan some years ago, I was surprised, but luckily a book festival event with Lee herself dealt with the doubts and hesitations.

Mission accomplished.

Lee began by showing us a trailer for Angel, and by surprising Daughter by being American. And then it was straight for pictures of gorgeous guys, so we know precisely who Lee had in mind for Alex, and for Seb in book two. I do have to disagree with Willow, however. She is definitely no Amanda Seyfried for me.

The Angel books have been a long time coming (so to make things quite clear, Lee was not jumping on any Twilight bandwagons at all), having begun life fifteen years ago as something totally different. It didn’t work, and gradually Lee worked out what she needed to do, and after all this thinking she ended up with vicious, bad angels.

Lee very kindly put up with some research trips for our sake, driving from New York to New Mexico via the mesmerising Texas panhandle. She and Mr W searched New Mexico for suitable deserts and canyons, which apparently was harder than you’d think. But for the most part Lee works in her pyjamas in her home office. 2000 words per day is the norm (or perhaps the target).

Lee Weatherly

She has long known about the angel stuff, but had to find out more about guns and cars, and when Alex suddenly began speaking Spanish she had to work out if he was allowed to. He was. And Lee and Mr W ‘had’ to go to Mexico.

With one exception (we have been sworn to secrecy) Lee doesn’t put real people in her books, although a lot of her can be found in many of the characters. She loves the bad guy, and has put herself in him, and enjoys writing his scenes.

There might be more half angels. All will be revealed in book three, next year. After that, she can see another trilogy coming, but only after a standalone book.

In answer to ‘why young adult books?’ Lee said that it’s what she has always liked, and it’s what she wants to write. It’s what we want her to write, too.

Rain and fizz

Steve Cole

Were you scared? Could you work out that Spiderman was really – only – Steve Cole? See, nothing to worry about.

Steve Cole

Steve came out of his lunchtime event fizzing. So did his Pepsi. All over the signing table. Hence the ‘handy-with-a-cloth’ Spiderman you can see here.

Steve Cole

Most unusual sight. Make the most of it.

We’d heard about the suit. Seeing it was almost better than the anticipation. Didn’t see much of the squirrels, though. Those that weren’t appropriated by the audience had already been stashed into a bag. (And they looked like teddies!)

Let’s see how long we can spin out our last weekend in Charlotte Square. There will be more detailed reporting on events, but the general goings-on come first.

We began by getting the first train out of Stirling, in order to go to Michael Grant’s morning event. It was worth it. Once you’re actually out of bed and dressed and all that, it’s not too bad.

Michael Grant

He had a very long signing queue, but after more than an hour we were permitted to drag Michael behind the tent to the dustbin area for a private photocall.

We hung on for Steve Cole’s signing, having found two well positioned chairs to watch from. I couldn’t help but admire the ‘Cole Mothers’ who were still smiling after over an hour waiting with their children.

Julia Donaldson

Julia Donaldson sat on her chair for a considerable time, and her ‘Gruffalo parents’ were very patient indeed. Her event was on first, and she was still there, signing away, hours later. Julia’s trusty musician entertained the crowds, and the Gruffalo did his bit.

The Gruffalo

A lovely message came via facebook, with the news that Jenny Colgan – who doesn’t know us at all – had managed to find Daughter a ticket for her Doctor Who talk that evening. It made our day.

Steve Cole

We trailed after Steve back to the yurt, where everyone jumped at the chance of seeing him jump. He jumped for a solid ten minutes for Chris Close while director Barley watched, along with Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess and many more, who happened to be passing.

Found Holly Webb in the children’s bookshop after her early morning event. Very long queue.

Holly Webb

Once things quietened down, we sat out in the yurt ‘garden’ again, until I spied Theresa Breslin and Nicola Morgan and we ran over for a signature in Theresa’s new book, Spy For the Queen of Scots. I made the mistake of telling the Guardian’s Michelle Pauli it wouldn’t rain. Hah.

Peter Englund

Back to photocall with Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy. He was bemused to be getting instructions in his own language on how to turn. In typical Swedish fashion he shook my hand. I suspect that is as close as I’ll ever get to a Nobel Prize. Oh, well.

As we ran to get to his event, we spied Philip Ardagh, so stopped to chat briefly. That’s when he decided to lean on me. Someone will have to tell him it’s not good manners. Besides, the cool red shoes of 2011 are no more. He’s back to black brogues.

Mrs, Baby and Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Philip introduced us to Mr and Mrs and Baby Wigtown, which was nice of him. Apparently they have nine star hotels in Wigtown. (Like I believe that!)

Mr Wigtown and Philip Ardagh

Then we ran on, and after Peter’s event the heavens opened. It’s a most effective way to make people take cover. If they have a cover to take, that is. We really, really needed to go and eat lunch, seeing as it was coming on for five pm, so covered all our techie stuff in polythene, looked at the one umbrella between us, and panicked. All was not lost. In the entrance we found people covered in some delightful white bin liners with the words The Guardian on the front. We bought an Observer and got ourselves two ‘free’ bin bags to wear, and the afternoon was a little drier. So were we.

On second thoughts, we could have sheltered under Ardagh’s beard. Should have.

Post lunch we returned for Daughter’s eight o’clock Doctor Who talk, which she very much enjoyed. A quick chat with Jenny Colgan over signing, followed by a dash for a train.

We are now officially back at Bookwitch Towers.

Silly Sunday

Spiderman called in at Charlotte Square on Sunday. (Sunday. What a joke. First we were lured into believing the weather would remain dry and bright. And then it rained… Have you any idea quite how soggy a blue carpet can become?)

MacSpiderman

Anyway, Spiderman’s Scottish cousin Mac turned up. (I consider it cheating to wear a kilt over such a nicely clingy pyjamas.)

Philip Ardagh and victim

What can I say? I never should have allowed it. I knew Philip Ardagh to be cruel, but I never imagined it would go this far.

A day of politics

I’m afraid we swapped allegiance by going to the Scottish Parliament on Saturday morning, instead of to our intended event in Charlotte Square. (It was sold out, anyway, so we weren’t missed.) Theresa Breslin was talking in Parliament about The Importance of Reading to Children and to Society, along with a few others, and had invited us along.

So down to Holyrood we went, subjecting ourselves to airport style security to be allowed in. Found Mr B in the foyer, and he wished he’d stayed in bed an hour longer. I think we all did, but this was a good cause. As we lined up to go in, Daughter asked me who the people behind us were. She could recognise their voices. I turned round to look (why didn’t she do it herself?) in order to tell her she was hallucinating and why would she know anyone in Edinburgh?

The voices turned out to belong to Linda Strachan and Julie Bertagna, so she was right and I am an idiot. Sigh.

There is a convenient bus between Parliament and Charlotte Square, and we got back fairly painlessly for an afternoon with Lee Weatherly on the subject of Angels. After her signing, and before she rushed off home, Lee posed for photos for us.

Lee Weatherly

We had intended to go ‘home’ after Lee’s event, but when we found that both Steve Cole and Joanna Nadin were taking part in the Amnesty International reading, we went and got tickets and joined them.

Afterwards it struck me that it’d be a good thing to take some photos of Jo (Steve very wisely disappeared…), so we walked over to the yurt area. It turned out to be covered with photographers taking pictures of Seamus Heaney, and there was simply no room for us.

Joanna Nadin

My bright solution was to invite Jo round the back, as it would be empty. Which it was, and we got started. The famous Irish poet must have been quick though, because soon the full set of paparazzi were upon us, and more specifically, on Jo. They wanted in as well. (They do have a soft spot for a pretty woman.) So through no fault of her own, Jo turned this way and that way, and posed like crazy.

Once the mayhem we’d caused was over, we hotfooted it out of there. If I’m lucky, Jo will even remain on speaking terms with me.

The Amnesty reading

We had to go round the corner and cry a little after Saturday’s Amnesty International reading at Charlotte Square. The only blessing was that it wasn’t us doing the reading or sitting next to someone doing it. They really couldn’t start blubbing, although I believe Joanna Nadin was close after her reading.

They get four authors to come and read every evening, and by fluke, or by utterly inspired design, three out of the four were children’s authors, mostly known for being funny. Apart from Jo it was Holly Webb and Steve Cole, as well as the perfectly ‘normal’ Oliver Balch.

You don’t know in advance who will be there, but we had inside information on Steve and Jo, which is why we made a point of going. The world is a cruel and unfair place and many writers are treated dreadfully for simply writing.

Steve read three Mexican poems by José Emilio Pacheco, Homero Aridjis and Javier Sicilia. Then Jo read a Guardian article about Razan Ghazzawi by Jillian C York, as well as a blog post by Razan Ghazzawi herself.

It fell to Holly to read the most horrifying piece of the evening, by Turkish journalist Asiye Guzel. I suspect many of us could have happily left then, but since Asiye couldn’t, why should we?

Finally Oliver read Pain by Shi Tao from China. The evening’s readings were introduced by Louisa Walsh from Scottish PEN, who reminded us of the Russian members of Pussy Riot who have just been jailed.

I’m glad PEN and Amnesty do these evenings, and very pleased the visiting authors give up their time for their less fortunate colleagues.

The Kelpies Prize

Not all Scottish books for children feature a kilted man rowing across a loch. But it’s what it felt like to Theresa Breslin, many years ago as she contemplated what there was for Scottish children to read. She wanted something that was them, something which spoke their language.

Writer's Retreat

Theresa was at the Writer’s Retreat in Charlotte Square last night to present the Kelpies Prize to the 2012 winner. Floris Books support the prize, which is for unpublished manuscripts, aimed at boys and girls aged eight to twelve, and set in Scotland. The winner receives a cheque for £2000 and the promise to be published by Floris Books.

Winner's cheque

It was my first party at the book festival, so I was excited, but relieved it wasn’t me who was wondering if they’d win. I had a drink, looked at the nibbles, spoke to Vanessa Robertson of the Edinburgh Bookshop, and to Theresa, who later introduced me to Lari Don, a former winner of the prize.

Janis MacKay

Someone from Floris spoke about the history behind the award, and then Janis MacKay who won in 2009 read excerpts from all three shortlisted books, by Tracy Traynor, Rebecca Smith and Debbie Richardson.

Top Secret envelope

Then it was Theresa’s turn to speak (and she really didn’t need to say anything about me), which is when the kilted danger to literature was mentioned. As she spoke, I noticed a man creeping up towards the open door, and I wondered about gatecrashers, until I realised it was simply Mr B, wanting to enjoy his wife’s speech and to take photos of her. (I had been told he was engaged in something football related!)

Tracy Traynor

It’s always hard when you don’t win, but I am really pleased for Tracy Traynor who did, and I think she’s got a promising sounding book in Nicking Time. (I had been admiring her purple dress beforehand, so perhaps I sensed she was the one.)

Debbie Richardson and Lari Don

My photo-grapher was indisposed, and as you can see, so were my own photographic skills. But it was dark. And very red.

It was good to meet Benedicte and Chani from Floris, and they very kindly gave me a copy of Theresa’s new book called Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Kate Leiper.

(The runners-up were Debbie Richardson with Pick ‘n’ Mix Mums, and Rebecca Smith with Shadow Eyes.)

When characters refuse to die

Nicola Morgan

Chaired by the Crabbitest of them all, Edinburgh’s own Nicola Morgan, there was no way we were going to miss Sally Gardner and Celia Rees, who weren’t bad either.

Only joking. You don’t get much better than these two, who have long been on my top reading list. Both have written a number of historical novels over the last few years, only to go more modern with their latest books. Celia totally up-to-date with her soldier home from Afghanistan, and Sally visiting WWII.

I know this was Monday, but we have had a backlog at the temporary Bookwitch Towers offices. This is very much last, but not least. For a Monday morning, there were lots of people there. I like it when people come to book events all week long.

Sally Gardner

Nicola divided the event up into halves, with Sally – who claims not to be good at plotting – going first. She told us about people who refuse to die, and new people who turn up uninvited. She writes a chapter at a time, finishing one, before going on, joining them up like a necklace.

Sally’s first attempts at fiction featured ‘bunny rabbits doing amazing things’ a very long time ago. Working in the theatre helped her to see, and she now thinks it’s wonderful to actually be paid to make up stories.

She read one of my own personal favourite chapters in The Double Shadow, where Amaryllis gets dead drunk. Apologising to Celia for keeping her waiting, Sally added the first, very short, chapter from her new book, Maggot Moon, which will be out at the end of August. It really was short, too.

Chair Nicola remarked about Celia that they have a lot in common, but said they’d compare notes later, in private.

Celia said she used to write contemporary novels in the 1990s, when she had a teenage daughter at home to check facts with. She wrote This Is Not Forgiveness to see if she still could, despite her daughter’s ‘betrayal’ of growing up and moving away. (I’d say she still can.)

Celia Rees

Unusually, Celia begins at the end. It’s also what she read to us, and despite knowing the book, it still sent shivers down my back. We need to realise we are living (tomorrow’s) history today. We don’t see it, but we are. Celia didn’t start last year’s riots, but writing while they took place, she needed to edit and change what went into her novel. It was great, and she enjoyed it.

The film Jules et Jim was the inspiration for the book, and Caro, the main female character decided herself what she was going to be like. Unconventional, interested in radical politics. It was impossible not to have each of the three main characters tell the story from their own point of view.

Celia doesn’t write every day. Sometimes she stops for a while, to think. And when stuck, she likes to go for walks, and she has memories from several books along her usual route; sort of a who did what where.

Sally takes her dog for walks in the churchyard. The dog is her excuse to stop every now and then to peer at gravestones for characters’ names, and to talk to herself. The phone can be a help, too. But if the dog’s not keen she takes a bath instead. Nicola says she irons, while Celia pointed out she does not iron.

Modern plots are easier, according to Celia. And Sally reckons she takes two years to do historical research for a book. So clearly, writing about now saves time. On the other hand, if you want dysfunctional, what can be better than the French Revolution?

And I am not leaving you with the story about Rupert Bear. (I think people got rather drunk…)

He can marry me anytime

Patrick Ness wanted to be an author from an early age, but had no expectations about getting to where he is today. Not through misguided modesty or anything, but his Pentecostal church knew the world was going to end (in 1980, I believe), so there was no point in looking further. He is now living on borrowed time, and reckons God just hasn’t noticed.

At this point Patrick tried to deflect the attention from him to Keith Gray by talking about Ostrich Boys, but Keith told him in no uncertain terms that this was no debate; it was an interview.

Patrick Ness

He – Patrick – actually entered the Corner theatre so quietly we hardly noticed he had arrived. But Keith made sure we knew all his achievements by listing Patrick’s awards, from the Carnegies and ‘down.’ The place was packed, and mostly by teenagers, which is almost unusual these days.

So it was interesting to hear Patrick’s next book is an adult one. The Crane Wife was written because he needed to write it, and he sort of omitted telling his publisher about it. It will be out in 2013, and so will the next YA book he is currently two thirds through editing the second draft of.

Keith asked him about his rather public argument with G P Taylor, on age banding, which Patrick felt had more to do with G P T’s wish for publicity (he’s not here today, is he?) than anything else. Then it was on to Will Self, and later Stephen King, after which Patrick might have run out of steam, coming up with caustic comments about his peers… He doesn’t mince words, and I suspect that’s something young readers notice and like.

As for his own writing, if Patrick doesn’t like it himself, why should he expect anyone else to? You need to laugh at your own jokes. He needs to want to hurry back to writing, or we won’t want to hurry back to where we left off reading. You can’t be both an oracle and an author. To him being an author has to come first. Always.

‘Momentum is everything’ and the Chaos trilogy really has come to an end. He can’t rule out another book set in the same world, but these books are done. There will be no more. When he wrote The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick knew what the last line of Monsters of Men would be. (Although, there could be a few more short stories…)

For those who might not already know, Patrick explained the background to A Monster Calls, talking at length about Siobhan Dowd. It was important to him that the book should be his book. He didn’t want to pretend to be Siobhan. When he began, he could see the ruined living room in his head, so he knew what to do.

As to whether the tree is real, he leaves that to every reader to determine for themself. He knows what he thinks. But he won’t tell. He has written the screenplay for A Monster Calls, because he didn’t want it changed by someone else.

Patrick might feel he has left the church behind, but the phrase ‘totems are the work of the devil’ tripped very easily off his lips. One piece of advice he has for would-be writers is to write from a totally new or different point of view. If you are a boy, write as though you’re a girl. And write the best you can. You can always go back and fix it, so don’t wait for perfect.

And then to the last question, which Keith bagged for himself: ‘Will you marry me?’

Patrick pointed out they were both happily married, and not to be an idiot. (He might not have used that exact word.)

The explanation for all this was simpler, and also stranger, than you’d think. Patrick’s oldest friend in America had got married recently. She wanted him to marry her. So he went and got ordained online, and then he married his friend.

Form an orderly queue here.

Keiths bearing gifts

‘The real deal,’ is how Keith Gray described his co-eventee Patrick Ness. This time we had Patrick round the back for a photocall and that might be ‘bizarre,’ but you do need to treat a double (or should that be triple?) Carnegie winner as the star he is.

Patrick Ness

While we waited, we sat outside the yurt in the sunshine. My photographer in one of the fun deck chairs, and myself more modestly on a plastic, blue folding chair. It was a good spot. We watched Chris Close making Vivian French play the toy guitar, while waving her leg in the air.

The deck chair

And just as we started feeling lonely, Keith Charters came past. He stopped to talk, because he’s such a lovely man that he even chats to witches. Especially to witches. And as he regaled us with tales of Gillian Philip finishing writing her latest Sithe instalment while balancing on a li-lo in Barbados, he sat down on the somewhat soggy carpet at our feet. Which was so not a good thing. He resorted to kneeling after a while. That’s how I like them.

When Keith heard I didn’t yet have my Wolfsbane, he went and got me copy. Just like that!

While he was down, the other Keith (Gray) arrived, and joined us. He, too, brought a gift. Which was very nice of him. They are a bit like that, those Keiths. Then we talked about lack of sleep and courgette baby food. Admired the second Keith’s blue and yellow lanyards. So very Swedish!

After the Keiths wandered off, a semi-Swede came up to chat, and the Guardian’s Claire Armitstead joined us, doing a good impression of knowing who Bookwitch is. She’s rather like the Head Girl and I’m a little scared of her. But she’s lovely.

The time for Patrick’s bizarre paparazzi moment came, which was when Chris Close borrowed him for a bit, having him hide his face behind his hand, and later, rummaging through the recycling bin… (If that’s not bizarre, I don’t know what is.)

I had time to re-connect with Patrick’s new-ish publicity lady Sarah, and when they went to get ready for Patrick’s event, we wandered off to find Philip Ardagh and Axel Scheffler signing after theirs.

Philip Ardagh

Axel Scheffler

After which I headed towards the Corner theatre queue, to listen to Patrick and Keith argue about who’s boss. But that – as they say – is another story…