Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sweet Pizza

This Guardian prize longlisted book is the kind of story where everything falls nicely into place as you read. I’m quite fond of that kind of development, so have to say I really loved G R Gemin’s Sweet Pizza. (I probably would enjoy the actual sweet pizza, too.)

G R Gemin, Sweet Pizza

Set in a small town (or is it a village?) in South Wales, with an Italian café at the centre of the plot, we meet teenager Joe who loves being Italian. His poor mother not so much, as she’s saddled with working in their slowly failing family eatery. Joe just wants to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

His Nonno is frail and becomes ill, but manages to share some of his and the family’s past with Joe, and this only confirms Joe’s wishes to make something of the café.

And then his glamorous – Italian – cousin Mimi shows up, turning everything on its head. All the males are besotted, and nothing is the same again. At least Joe makes something out of this, by studying Italian cookbooks and trying out the language, while also attempting to keep all his rivals away.

With Mimi’s help he slowly comes up with a plan for what he wants to do, for the café, for his his mum, for the village and everyone in it. It becomes a bit of a shared quest, which is good for the little community.

This is all slightly crazy, but also quite sensible and something you wish more people would do in more places. There’s a lot of quiet humour and lots of love in this book. (I do love Italians.)

And the sweet pizza doesn’t sound bad.

Don’t Waste It

Kicking off a blog tour to celebrate his new book, Malcolm McNeill is here today to warn us about wasting ideas. As if we would!

Beginning Woods blog tour

“When I was at university, I knew a peculiar fellow called Rahul Gupta who could recite Milton by heart and quote Anglo-Saxon poetry. He was fantastically intelligent, an oddity, an anachronism. He told me the story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—it took him an hour. How could someone so young, I wondered, be so old?

In poor return I told him an idea I had for a story, about a forest where all myths and legends came from.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he told me. ‘Don’t waste it.’

I never wrote those words down, but I remembered them. The sentiment behind them—that ideas were important, that they had value, that they could be cheapened—became part of my ‘core’ irreducibles, my six-pack against whatever sucker-punch life had in store.

So did I waste it? Well, I’ve been taking stock.

Looking back at old saved copies of The Beginning Woods is like performing an archaeological dig. The earliest full version I have on record bears the stupendously naive title FINAL WORKING DRAFT. (There are over fifty more versions after it, each a redraft of the last.)

Looking at the document properties tells me it was last modified 16/01/2005. This means there’s a prehistory, a dark time before records began. To delve into that, I have to open another Word document called Part One Bits, created 16/06/2003, in which I stored passages I cut but wanted to keep just in case. These total 133,842 words. There are two more documents of cuttings containing 100,045, and 99,842 words, but some of them overlap.

Most of it I have no memory of writing at all. It’s all just broken pottery and arrowheads.

I actually started developing the story after university, in about 1999. An Excel document entitled PLOT (last modified 12/12/2006—I haven’t plotted things out since) lists events that bear only a passing resemblance to the story in its current form. What’s obvious is that I had big plans for the project. It was to be a series of five books. Five long books.

This first was called The Alexandrian Society. Its length fluctuated between about 120-150,000 words. I spent an inconceivable amount of time working on it. In their twenties, most people transform whatever potential they’ve generated in their school years into the foundations of their professional lives. They do this by socialising, building relationships, and developing a career. It takes time and hard work.

I did none of that. I was serving an apprenticeship that brought me rich, otherworldly rewards, but at a price; it exerted a downward pressure on everything else. I built no career, developed no relationships, and transformed the considerable potential of my education into nothing. I just wrote a book that was never published.

It came close. But, not unreasonably, publishers were wary. I was unknown. It wasn’t a conventional fantasy book. Worse, it wasn’t a stand-alone book—it was clear more books came after it. To tell the truth, these thoughts had always been in the back of my head; I didn’t lack self-awareness. I was stubbornly iconoclastic. Write from enjoyment, from pleasure, from intellectual or sensual abandonment, but whatever you do, do not write to get published. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, tough.

In 2007, I submitted to a single publisher in the States, a golf shot from Western Siberia that sailed over Europe and the Atlantic and landed on the putting green, an inch from the hole. I ended up with a lovely editor who got me going on a rewrite (‘let’s see how it turns out’ was the deal). I moved to Berlin to work on it, but it was not to be: a couple of weeks before I finished the rewrite, she left the publishing house, and the whole thing collapsed.

This was a bit disheartening. But at least I was in Berlin. Then the entire world economy imploded. My teaching work dried up, and I moved to Saudi Arabia. The perversity of this decision pleased me, that it was in Saudi Arabia of all places, that I would regather myself.

Within a year I had the draft of a stand-alone book. By the time I got back to London, in 2011, I was ready to submit to publishers again; nobody wanted it. One agent said she would consider it if I cut 30,000 words. I declined.

This all brought me rather low, and I gave up. I’d wasted an entire decade of my life. I’d made the mistake of putting all my eggs in one basket. I’d then used the eggs to make a giant omelette nobody wanted to eat. So I had no eggs.

I heard about Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing platform, bought one of their packages, and prepared the manuscript for upload to their system. I was too exhausted to care what happened to it afterwards. If anyone read it, that was a bonus. I’d been working on the story too long, and the reduction of all that material into one book was a dispiriting compromise I bitterly resented making. The main thing was to shove it all away from me and do something new.

Then I got an email from Gregor.

I knew Gregor because I stuck up my hand in assembly when I was in sixth form. My boarding school had a sister school in Japan. Every year, a Japanese scholar would arrive and study with us for a year. In 1993, our school decided to reciprocate the exchange, and I volunteered to be the first exchange student. So off I went to Tokyo.

Also in the Japanese high school was a Brazilian exchange student called Juan Carlos. He was with Rotary, so he had a network of fellow exchange students. I fell into their company, and a group formed; Joe, from the USA, Vanessa, from Brazil, Marwan, from France, Bager, from Turkey, Eiji, from Japan, my girlfriend Kaori, Raphael, from Germany, and me.

Afterwards we kept in touch for a few years, but gradually our relationships loosened as we disappeared into our adult lives. Then, in 2001 I think, Raphael got back in touch. A friend of his was visiting London, could he sleep on the sofa?

Sure!

A few years later, Raphael himself showed up, working as a translator for a group of German musicians, and the Japanese production company of Issey Ogata. I spent a few days with this group of actors and musicians, and my friendship with Raphael was cemented. A couple of years later, fed up with the actor’s life in London, I moved to Berlin for a time. I didn’t stay long, but I visited him regularly over the years.

In 2007 I was in Berlin again, smashing eggs, making an omelette the Americans would decide not to eat. By now Raphael was a hard-working and resourceful lawyer, living in Mitte. I met his neighbour, an anglophile called Gregor. We became friends. I told him about a forest where all myths and stories come from.

Gregor worked in publishing. He got me a job designing a coursebook for German learners of English.

Four years later, he found out I was about to upload The Beginning Woods onto Amazon. Had I sent it to any publishers in Germany? It had never occurred to me. I emailed him the manuscript, and he passed it to someone he knew.

In 2012, I went to Berlin to meet the editors. ‘We hardly want to change it at all,’ they said. And they didn’t. It was published in translation in 2014. I’d worked on it in the UK, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, so it seemed appropriate it was first published abroad.

In 2015 I had to add Vietnam to the list. I was in Hanoi in 2014 when I heard Pushkin Press were interested in acquiring the English language rights. Great! But was I prepared to work on the book again?

When I heard this I felt very odd, like there was no escape. Was I doomed to work on the book forever? But it was too good an opportunity. ‘Just agree,’ I snarled at myself. ‘They want to eat the omelette.’

In actual fact, after the initial shock, I relished the chance to have a go at it again. The editor was fantastic. Worked with a light touch. Made excellent points. I rolled up my sleeves.

I felt like a boxer coming out of retirement to do battle with an old adversary who had always defeated me. This time I was merciless and out for blood. It was brutal. Better than that—it was revenge. They had to drag me off it.

Reading the story now is like wandering through a city. Some buildings are new. Some are extremely old, from another time in my life altogether. There are passages I wrote when I was twenty-one. There are passages I wrote this year, at the age of forty.

I’m glad it’s over.

What have I learned? Plant a flag, by all means. But be prepared to bleed.

And, Rahul, if you’re reading this, old chap—I didn’t waste it.”

Malcolm McNeill

Special thanks to Rahul and Gregor. And I must mention that I like omelettes. Keep smashing those eggs!

The Beginning Woods

This is a good book. Very good. Just thought I’d mention that.

If you’ve never heard of Malcolm McNeill or his The Beginning Woods, it’s because this is his first book and it was first published in German. I’d say it’s not only the language Malcolm has in common with Cornelia Funke. Here is a worthy successor (at least if he can keep this writing up…), who has written a most enjoyable fairy tale-based book, about a young boy who starts off as a rather unattractive baby. He has teeth, for a start, and he is not cute. Or easy to handle.

The world has gone crazy, with adults simply vanishing all over the place, and no one knows why. The secret lies with the boy, Max, who was found abandoned in a bookshop, and whom no one seems to want.

Malcolm McNeill, The Beginning Woods

Max dreams of finding his parents and will go to any lengths to be reunited with them. He learns to love reading, which is fine until books and reading are banned. There are a number of situations in this story that bear a remarkable resemblance to life as we now find it, regarding culture and insane leaders and suffering for the greater good; generally someone else’s good.

In his search Max meets some highly unusual people, he travels to strange places, and he falls in love with a dead girl. There are dragons to fight, and wicked witches, and any number of fairy tale creatures in a magical forest. He needs to learn who he really is and what his role is in the vanishings and everything else that happens.

I dont say this enough and that is because there are not enough books to cause me to say it, but this is what a children’s book should be like. While set mostly in London, and partly in France, it has a nicely continental feel to it. I’m not at all surprised it was first snapped up by a German publisher. Luckily for us, it is now available in its original language as well.

All right, maybe some more last photos then

Nearly twenty years after J K Rowling was here with her first book, it has been illustrated by Jim Kay, and become much, much larger.

J K Rowling and Jim Kay, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

From Potter to poetry with Zaffar Kunial and the Scottish Makar. And festival director Nick Barley.

Zaffar Kunial, Jackie Kay and Nick Barley

And Pufflings, as in Lynne Rickards’ Skye the Puffling, with Jon Mitchell.

Lynne Rickards and Jon Mitchell, Skye the Puffling

Sticking with my letter P theme, here is Petr Horáček and Nicola Davies, busy entertaining fans in the children’s bookshop.

Petr Horáček and Nicola Davies

Slightly scarier stuff in Zom-B Goddess, but Darren Shan is as polite as they come.

Darren Shan, Zom-B Goddess

And before I leave you with another image of my favourite lights in trees, I offer you two people who always make my book festival a pleasanter place; local agent Lindsey Fraser in conversation with Mr B.

Lindsey Fraser and Mr B

Charlotte Square

(In order to find our first encounter with Mr B, I went down Memory Lane, which is about seven years away, and I was astounded to see how many authors were around then. We were only there for a week, but had authors practically coming out of our ears.)

Some book festival pictures

It’s time for Bookwitch to offer a last few photos from Charlotte Square 2016, and where better than one of the corners that has those mood-lifting lights hanging from the trees? I know it’s a bit un-natural in a way, but I do like garlands of lights in trees.

Charlotte Square

And I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for these new long benches that are slowly working their way round the square. Good for queueing on and most welcome for the general comfort of tired witches when there is no queue.

It is so encouraging when young readers are this keen to see what authors and illustrators get up to.

Richard Byrne

It is also quite fun to see how keen perfectly grown-up authors can be to have fun at the book festival. They even bring toys, as seen here with Kathryn Evans. Invite her back! Maybe even allow the toys back.

Kathryn Evans

The assembled photographers were also keen, and they go for celebrities such as famous politicians; someone that everyone has heard of (unlike many authors).

Waiting for Nicola Sturgeon

And after this festival, even I know who Shappi Khorsandi is, not to mention what she looks like…

Shappi Khorsandi

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I was filled with a nice warm glow reading the new Harry Potter stage play, enjoying myself a lot and just letting myself feel good about returning to a place I used to love.

And I think that’s OK. Others can have other views, and we’d all be right, in our own way. I believe we had been told there’d be no more Harry, but I see no reason why a person can’t change their mind. Also, this is not the same as another novel; it is merely revisiting people and places we know from before.

I am generally a sucker for finding out ‘what happened after’ and this is a good example. Not everything in the lives of Harry and his friends is perfect, but we see what they’re up to now, and how relationships have continued and developed, and we meet the next generation.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Young Albus Severus Potter is a complicated boy, but he is his own person. He’s not a copy of his dad. And he shows us that you can find friends in the most unexpected quarters.

It’d be interesting to see how this works out on the stage, but I have no idea if I’ll be up to sitting for so many hours, should I get hold of tickets at some point in the far future. I might hold out for the film.

And I’m guessing we can’t have more after this. That really would be taking it too far. Or would it?

(And another thing; this teaches millions of fans that you can read drama. That there are other kinds of texts apart from novels.)