Monthly Archives: November 2014

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…

(Sorry!)

  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

BZRK Apocalypse

When you approach Michael Grant’s third BZRK novel, Apocalypse, it’s worth remembering what happened at the start of the first one. People died. They seemed nice, but they still died before you really got to know them. To think that the third book is likely to be sweeter and less violent than the first is plain ridiculous.

It won’t be. Can’t be. But how many deaths is Michael prepared to ’cause?’

Quite a few. You know what Apocalypse means, don’t you? That.

Michael Grant, BZRK Apocalypse

At the beginning there were the evil Armstrong Twins, and the slightly better BZRK, fighting them. The twins might be weakening, but not so BZRK. Although, that’s not as good a thing as you’d want it to be.

‘Excuse me. I believe I’m about to go mad. You may want to move away.’ That’s about as polite and collected as it gets, in this book where very many people go mad. It’s not a pretty sight, and it will not end well. Michael has a go at many people we ‘know’ and it would be wrong if he let characters miraculously survive, because they were on the same side as us.

After the first book I could see that someone like Bug Man would change and do things differently. Well, it wasn’t this kind of different I had in mind!

We learn who the main players behind our diminishing group of fighters are; the ones we’ve come to rely on, who will lead wisely, and make sure the world is all right. Hah!

This might be based on games, but there is still a strong feeling that it wouldn’t take much to make this reality. And while I believe that, I’m not so sure that the knowledge and bravery displayed by the ‘good guys’ is terribly likely to be there to help us.

A thrill all the way to the end.

Topping & Company Booksellers

So, two days after Kirkland Ciccone’s crazy bookshop tour, saw your Bookwitch in St Andrews, in the brand new branch of Topping & Company Booksellers (to call them by their long and proper name; from now on Topping’s). I, too, am crazy like that. I had a[nother] Christmas tree to deliver, so decided to kill both tree and new bookshop with the one stone.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

You might recall I had pressed my nose against the shop window during my bookshop crawl on my last visit. Now I didn’t dare, as the shop was nice and done and open and I’m certain the window was lovely and clean.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Instead I went in, followed by the Resident IT Consultant and Daughter, on standby to catch me if I looked like I might get my wallet out (my sincere apologies to Topping’s). And let me tell you, the shop is so wonderful that any wallet is at great risk. Even mine. (It actually broke yesterday…)

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

This was my first visit to a Topping’s, and I can quite see what all the fuss is about. I’m most grateful to my favourite Hodder publicist, who was the one to tell me this new shop was on the cards. If I leave my wallet at home, I can see I might be allowed to return to this haven.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

The place was full of people. Much fuller than the photos suggest, as I tried to avoid people so you can see the books and the shelves and the ladders and the chairs and tables, and the woodburning stove and anything else. Sofas. Little rooms at the back. Window overlooking some local wilderness. And all this just round the corner from the Students’ Union.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Charming children’s books corner, containing what you’d want and expect, plus rather a lot more. Pleased to see Nicola Morgan’s Stress on the reference shelf.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

They have a lot of signed first editions, including Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, which is quite a feat I feel.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I located a man who looked like he might be Mr Topping himself, and he was. It seems that one reason behind the new branch is that he has done what the Bookwitch just did; moved to Scotland. He will be running the St Andrews shop.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

I suppose all this is what you can expect from a man who was sacked by Waterstones for selling too many books.

Topping & Company Booksellers, St Andrews

Sketches From A Nameless Land – The Art of The Arrival

When ‘reading’ Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, I wondered a great deal about the background to the book, and how he had managed to work on one thing for so long.

Now I know. There is a companion volume out, where Shaun describes his work on The Arrival, and how he thought, and how the ideas arrived. It is beautiful.

It’d be so easy to assume that a ‘picture book’ can’t mean a lot of work. But here you can see just how much went into each and every one of all those drawings that fill The Arrival. For instance, there is a picture of a group of people sharing a meal together. Simple? Well, first Shaun invited some friends round for a meal, then he filmed them eating, and then he drew countless pictures of the people round the table, until it became what’s in the book.

As for how he built a small city of cardboard boxes, and filmed himself with his dad’s overalls and a garden pesticide sprayer, to achieve that industrialised genocide feeling, well…

Shaun Tan, The Arrival

This book is like being invited to Shaun’s studio and getting a personally guided tour where he explains all his thoughts and how he tried various ideas until he got it right.

If you liked The Arrival, then this is a must.

Kirkie goes to St Andrews

At five past nine yesterday morning, Waterstones in St Andrews had still to discover what lay in store (pardon, that was a little wittier than intended). That’s because Kirkland Ciccone and his travelling mate Theresa Talbot, along with their publisher Keith Charters, were running a wee bit late.

Kirkland Ciccone

Hardly surprising, considering their 6.30 start (from Glasgow, I’m guessing) to drive to all the Waterstones in the country in one weekend. Now, I know you will say that’s impossible, and it is. First, the country is Scotland, not the UK, and second, I don’t think they meant quite all the Waterstoneses. My branch, and that of some of the larger towns were not part of it. We get our share later. Apparently. More far flung branches may well remain unvisited, at least for some time.

But anyway, on Saturday they went to ten shops, in Fife, as far west as Falkirk and to all those branches in Edinburgh. In fact, had Son not very wisely decided to visit the old people over the weekend, he’d have been mere minutes away from this gang. As it was, it was only Daughter who went near the crazy travellers, and she was the one who found that they were already running late for their first shop.

Kirkland Ciccone and Theresa Talbot

I don’t think we can blame the authors. It’s that Keith who hatches insane plans. He’s done this before, because I have hazy recollections of other people being conveyed cross-country in this manner. But it’s good; it introduces authors to lots of shops in two fell swoops.

Kirkland has – as all my faithful readers will know – written Endless Empress, his second YA novel. Theresa Talbot – about whom I knew nothing a few weeks ago – is famous off the radio and has written about her life, so far, in This Is What I Look Like (because on the radio no one can see you). And Keith is the one who made the books.

Kirkland Ciccone and Theresa Talbot

I gather they turned up at 9.15 or something, and Daughter chatted and took pictures, and Kirkland totally charmed her. I had suspected this might happen. Behind the Kurt Cobain lunchbox is a kind and friendly person. Crazy, but those other things as well.

He appears to have worn his delightful little leopard number again, and it was a close call as to who was the most beautiful in that bookshop. Which might never be the same again.

Theresa Talbot and Kirkland Ciccone

So there you are, madness on the road. And while you read this as part of your peaceful Sunday, spare a thought for the six Waterstones in the Glasgow area who are about to be visited today.

On Sheriffmuir with Alex Nye

’twas a dark and stormy night.

Hang on, no it wasn’t! It was a dark and wet and windy November noon. I had sort of almost wished for snow. It would have made things more atmospheric, and for meeting an author like Alex Nye it would have fitted in nicely. But driving up to Sheriffmuir in snow might have been dicey, and besides, I don’t much care for the white stuff. Especially in November. Murky clouds did very nicely, thank you.

Alex Nye

The Resident IT Consultant had to sacrifice himself and go for a walk while Alex and I feasted on Earl Grey and desserts (the Sheriffmuir Inn doesn’t do cake, but they do have pudding to go with hot drinks) as a kind of late elevenses, seeing as it was twelveses.

It was thanks to Kirkland Ciccone (or more precisely his book launch last month) that Alex got in touch. She was there too, but with ‘someone’ forgetting to make the introductions, I had no way of knowing if Alex was there, and if so, if she was a girl Alex or a boy Alex, if she was an author, or anything else. All I knew was that I had been promised Alex Nye’s presence and that this Alex would be ‘the sensible one.’

So we arranged to meet for ‘coffee’ all on our own, and once I’d found out that Alex’s books are set on Sheriffmuir, I felt deep inside that the Inn would be the place to have the ‘coffee’ and maybe some dark, ghostly weather conditions.

Sheriffmuir Inn

As I was saying, we were lucky with the weather. The rain bucketed down from low clouds, and inside the Inn was a warm fire, tartan seats, a shaggy dog and tea and sticky toffee pudding. It was perfect!

Alex Nye

What did we talk about? Well, let’s see. A bit about accents (Alex is English) and what it was like to live on Sheriffmuir (which Alex did when she first moved to the area in the 1990s). The weather, children, education, what we read, ‘progress’ in the shape of the authorities digging up and ruining nice bits of countryside. Lots of stuff.

When the Resident IT Consultant turned up looking like he’d drowned, we took pity on him and he was allowed to sit down and have a coffee. So someone did actually have coffee in the end. And the conversation strayed on to things like horizontal wallpaper and making handbags out of crocodiles.

I know.

Alex Nye, Chill & Shiver

Where was I? Oh yes. On Sheriffmuir. Alex very kindly signed copies of her two books, Chill and Shiver, for me, and I know I haven’t read them yet, but they do look just right, if you know what I mean? Lovely covers, and they are ghostly, snowy, winter adventures set not far from where we were sitting.

Just the thing, really.

Children’s Activity Atlas

The frill-necked lizard? I had no idea it existed. But apparently it does, somewhere in Australia. So even an old witch can learn new facts from a children’s book. In this case it’s another atlas; the Children’s Activity Atlas.

And it’s wonderful! It’s got stickers! Flags. They are actually flag stickers and you can stick them all over this atlas! I feel young and keen and stickery, all of a sudden. There are also animal stickers and stickers of famous buildings. Postcards. You will learn, whether you like it or not.

Children's Activity Atlas

There’s even a passport for you, at the start of the book. And then you travel, from continent to continent, sticking your stickers. Preferably where they belong, and not just in any old place.

This is an American book, and I must admit it felt odd to begin ‘over there.’ Usually anything atlas-y begins over here, and then darts from side to side, whereas this way we begin in the west and travel eastwards.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I learned another thing. It makes sense, but I don’t believe I’ve had it spelled out before. The Sahara desert is larger than the USA. Look at the right kind of map, and it will stand out. For all my staring at maps, all my life, I had missed this fact. That, and my Aussie frill-necked lizard pal.

Rhea comes twice. She can be a tango dancer (apparently), or she is a bird. Every area depicted comes with a brief fact file, giving you the longest and the largest of mountains, rivers, lakes, and so on. Old facts from school re-appeared in my memory file.

And there are the flag stickers. Let’s not forget. As it says on the cover, over 250 stickers. That should keep anyone going for a little while. I’m controlling my urges, and hope to pass this atlas and all its stickers on to a worthier sticker-person.

Like yesterday’s atlas, an excellent Christmas present which ought to keep the recipient happy and quiet for a while. (Depends on how fast they stick.)

Atlas of Adventures

Atlas of Adventures is a huge – and rather yellow – book, and it’s one I would have read endlessly as a child. I want to believe that there are many children today who would love to pore over a volume like this. I hope that the thirst for information and a wish to learn while you play is as common in the world of Google as it was in the olden days.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

Each page features a new continent, a country or a particular area, with beautiful pictures by Lucy Letherland. There are two ‘main characters,’ a girl and a boy, who travel to all these places and experience something typical in each of them.

I’ve tried to look at both illustrations and activities with a jaundiced eye, aware of the risk of stereotyping, and while I’m sure there will always be a bit of that (if there wasn’t, we’d all be portrayed as identical, and we’re not; equal, yes, the same, no), this looks a fine book to me.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

The choice of where to stop is sometimes obvious, sometimes not. This makes for good variety. I don’t believe that ‘every gaucho wears a poncho’ but I dare say that many do. It’s a typical thing, not a prerequisite for gauchos. Haggis hurling and thermal glass igloos are other interesting facts.

In short, it simply seems like a fun book, and you ought to be able to spend ages looking at the pictures and reading the snippets of facts, over and over again.

The main hurdle I foresee is where to store the atlas. It’s big, and it’s yellow. (I know, the colour makes no difference.) On the other hand, maybe it will be used so much that it won’t need a shelf to crouch on.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

(I took the liberty of borrowing the images from Lucy’s blog.)

The Bubble Wrap Boy

Charlie in The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle is small. Very small. It causes a considerable amount of embarrassment in most situations in his life. But this 13-year-old is determined and courageous and very funny. He tells of all his daily mishaps in a wry tone, that doesn’t demand pity.

He has no friends. Well, he has Sinus (Linus, really), who is friendless because of his enormous nose. Also, he stares at walls. In addition, Charlie has parents, and his mum interferes with everything he does. If she could, she’d cover him in cotton wool, and never let him out of the house. Charlie’s dad runs their Chinese takeaway, and prefers not to get involved in his wife’s decisions.

Phil Earle, The Bubble Wrap Boy

After a lifetime of causing havoc wherever he goes, Charlie discovers the one thing he could love. Skateboarding. It doesn’t go so well with his mum’s cottonwool ideas, though. But after she discovers what he’s been up to, Charlie discovers an even greater family secret. (And it was one I’d not been able to guess at.)

So, he’s left to try and solve this new massive secret, while also wanting to retrieve his skateboard and his skating. He’s only 13, so some of his ideas aren’t so good. But you get some marvellously comical scenes as he and Sinus investigate The Secret.

There is a lot of sadness behind it, but you can’t beat the exuberant optimism of youth. Phil doesn’t resolve this unexpected secret in the way the reader might hope for, and that’s very brave of him.

Tears and smiles, and giggles, and quite a bit of skateboarding. Terrific story.

Oooh, look at Anne Rooney!

What better way of celebrating National Non-Fiction November could there be but to ‘speak’ to Anne Rooney, and to learn a few new facts about this tireless non-fiction writer, who would scare me witless with her ability were it not for the fact that she is very funny, and very kind.

Anne Rooney

For information, yours is probably the best and most amusing author’s website I’ve come across. And that’s really quite upsetting, for me. Could you possibly give us a very brief summary of who you are, anyway? Feel free to reply with a simple ‘yes.’

Polymath – which is not a mathematical parrot, though both maths and birds are involved. I think I’m a kind of information magpie. I pick out all the shiny, fascinating snippets of fact that float around and try to make them into interesting collages which publishers prefer to call books. That’s not what you meant, is it?

I write stuff – pretty much anything that’s up for being written, really. Fiction for children, and non-fiction for children and adults. I like writing for children best, but it’s hardest. I think on some level I must be deeply stupid in a commercial sense, as I most like writing for children who don’t want to read. Write books for people don’t want books. Yeah. Good plan. And then there’s the me that lives in the Far-from-United State of Domestic Chaos, fails to go to the opera/theatre/cinema often enough, struggles to spend enough time seeing friends, and spends far too many happy hours playing with the local baby and her plastic phoenix and peasant.

I think of you as the mistress of non-fiction writing. Am I right?

Pretty much, I guess. I do tell lies sometimes, though. But if I spend too long writing only fiction I feel ungrounded. There’s only so long you can spend with imaginary people before it gets to you. That’s why so many fiction-writers walk dogs, bake cakes and make changes to their houses – they need to engage with real stuff.

I don’t think you can write non-fiction unless you are genuinely excited by the world and still feel a sense of wonder at discovering new things. People sometimes ask me how they can get into writing non-fiction because they aren’t making enough money doing whatever they are currently doing (usually writing fiction). That’s not really going to work; you might get a couple of book contracts that way, but you won’t be successful (=happy). You might make a living but you won’t make a life.

You have written a very large number of non-fiction books, and I have read only one of them, The Story of Physics. It was very good. In what way is that typical, or not, of your writing?

It’s about half typical, I suppose. It’s atypical in that it’s for adults, whereas most of my books are for children. But it’s typical in that it’s fairly wide-ranging and it has a light, informal tone. What I aim to do in all my books is make interesting information accessible and to show that it’s interesting. That sounds very formal. All my books are, basically, variations on ‘Oooh, look at this!’

And how many books have you written?

Oh dear. I always say ‘about 150’, largely because I gave up keeping a database of them but Amazon was an unreliable guide. I’ve been saying that for a few years, though. My Amazon count has just dropped from about 400 to 198, so I’m going to assume that’s because they have stopped counting duplicates and so it’s accurate. That includes some that aren’t quite out yet, but let’s go with 198.

Should we read more non-fiction?

Yes, we should – but only if we want to. I suppose I mean we should want to read more non-fiction. Actually people spend a lot of time reading non-fiction – in newspapers, magazines, on the web, and so on. Unfortunately, rather too much of it is about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, which is of no importance unless one of them is you.

I despise the faux-pride some people take in not knowing things – being proud of their ignorance of science or supposed inability to do any maths. Being ignorant is not something to be proud of. But nor is it something to be ashamed of – it’s an opportunity to learn something.

What kind of books do you like best?

What kind of books do I like best? That’s a very difficult question as I like lots of kinds of books! I’m currently reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a 17th-century German picaresque ‘novel’ called Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a book about economics (that’s work, but it’s interesting). But I also love picture books, and books about science, and books about – well, anything interesting. I like books that are clever but not arrogant. There are whole swathes of books I don’t like at all but I won’t mention them because it’s a personal taste thing and some of my friends write those kinds of books, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone.

It seems you have so many books on the go at any one time that you forget; either that it’s being published today, or what your deadline is, or even that you wrote the book in the first place. I suppose I can’t ask you how long it takes you to write a book, but how long on average does it take you to write 1000 words?

You are being very diplomatic; you have seen my Facebook updates!

How long it takes to write a thousand words depends on which thousand words it is. Sometimes, it will take several days to write 1,000 words. Other times it will take a couple of hours. I type at about 55 wpm, so the quickest is, I suppose, about 20 minutes. But some of them will be the wrong words and need changing, so no less than 90 mins, I guess. But writing isn’t the time-consuming bit – research takes longer. If I’m writing a book that takes a lot of research, those 1,000 words can take a week. If I’m writing a story that doesn’t need much research, it can be right in an hour, or it can take months.

And how long is your average book, if there is such a thing?

Which kind of average? Median? Mean? I’m going to say about 7,000 words. But the shortest are 300 and the longest 80,000.

Do you have to pitch ideas for books, or do publishers now come to you and say they need a short book on Swedish book bloggers?

The latter. I have to write three books about Swedish book bloggers this month. Actually, I am so busy writing books publishers have asked for I hardly ever get time to pitch ideas. And that makes me sad, as there are some books I want to write that I can’t see I will get round to until there is another recession.

Is there a work of non-fiction by someone else you wish you had written?

Animalium, by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, because it’s beautiful. Otherwise, Velcro Cows by Martyn Warren but I’m not sure it is non-fiction because most of it isn’t true. No – I’ve changed my mind: Montaigne’s Essais.

Do you ever use a pseudonym? Maybe it was really you?

I have done. But obviously I’m not going to tell you what it was. I have also threatened to when a publisher majorly screwed up a book. I said I wanted my name taken off it, and suggested a pseudonym – something like Clytemnestra Sponge – that would signal that it was not a real name. They saw through it, realised I was ridiculing the book, and the uber-editor, to her credit, worked through the night to restore my original text the day before it was due to go to press. But that’s not a normal state of affairs…

You seem to have a tremendous work ethic, always working, always a book to finish. How long is your working day, or week? And do you take holidays?

There is no routine day. Some weeks I end up doing 50 or 60 hours and other weeks only 20, but on average I work a normal number of hours. I did a quick calculation for the first half of the year and I worked an average of 38 hours a week (so no holidays or sick time in that). I don’t go on holidays much at the moment, but that’s because of domestic issues. But I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was visiting my daughter (Big Bint).

The best thing about your job?

I don’t have to do things I really don’t want to do – I can just turn them down. And if there is something I really do want to do, I can do it and call it work. If I can’t sell it later, it was just a bad commercial decision, not skiving.

The worst?

Sometimes there is a project I really want to do and I can’t do it immediately as I’ve not got a contract for it and I need to earn money. And sometimes there will be a really good project and someone else in the process messes it up and I get disenchanted and don’t like it any more. And then I have to give it to Clytemnestra Sponge, who should have quite a body of bad books to her name by now…

Is there anything else you’d want to do for a living?

What else would I do? Something that combines history and science – medical archaeology, probably. Since I opted out of being a real academic, I can write about those things but not actually do the real research. That’s a shame. I don’t like only dealing in secondhand information all the time. I can do real research and I miss it.

How did this happen in the first place? I could see it might fit in well with bringing up children.

I’ve never worked for someone – you know, officially, doing as I’m told and turning up – except for weekend/holiday jobs as a teen and student. I had a part-time flexi-time job for 15 hours a week for a while when I was finishing my PhD, but they didn’t mind if I did all my hours in the middle of the night, so that doesn’t really count. I couldn’t really see any attraction in doing as I was told and spending hours a day getting to an office where some of the people would be unpleasant and some of the work I would have to do would be boring. I had an academic job briefly and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, and since writing was something I could do, I did that. I tried out lots of sorts of writing before settling on writing for children. Journalism was my least favourite – it seemed so pointless writing things that would just be thrown away a few days later. (This was before web archives!)

My rather weird working hours evolved when I was a single parent trying to work when my children weren’t around, so very early in the mornings, during school hours, and when they were in bed. And the times they went to their dad’s house, so that meant working weekends and long hours in parts of the school holiday.

I have a feeling that you also teach and/or have university related tasks. What, exactly? How much time do you spend on each?

The last three summers I have run a summer school programme in creative writing with Brian Keaney at Pembroke and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. It’s part of the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme. Most of our students are undergraduates from the USA. It runs for eight weeks. This year I’m Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, which is two-and-a-half days a week during term time. I’ve been RLF fellow at other universities in the past, but it tends to be one or two years on and then two years off, so some years I don’t do any university work at all. RLF Fellows don’t teach a course – they help students with academic writing, in any discipline. It’s very rewarding and a challenge. Sometimes I’ll have a chemical engineering PhD thesis to look at, followed by an essay about some aspect of the Hebrew Bible, and then an anthropology dissertation on a tribe in Bolivia… You have to be intellectually agile!

Do you have a next book? I mean, is that even possible?

You mean next coming out or next to write? I don’t write only one at once. I’m working on a Gothic novel for 9-11s, just finishing a book about inventions (8-10), starting a GCSE guide to Jekyll and Hyde and doing The Story of Maps (adult). There’s also a picture book that needs sending to my agent and a couple of adult books I’m writing outlines for that I don’t think have been announced yet. Next out is, I think, Space Record Breakers from Carlton, which is out some time early this month. It might be out already, I’m not sure.

Finally, who plays you in The Life of Rooney?

Probably a muppet… Rowlf?

I should really have got you to ask the questions, shouldn’t I?

They wouldn’t have been very sensible if I’d asked them!

Now, hasn’t this made you want to read those 198 books? (And I must point out I’m really good at maths. And exo-planets. I should also have realised that Anne would ask things like ‘mean or median?’ and given her a proper question from the start. I blame that Clytemnestra.)

National Non-Fiction November