Elizabeth Wein was clutching a bunch of flowers when I found her just inside the doors of the Perth Museum last night. (I hadn’t thought to get her anything…) She introduced me to a fellow American, whose name I immediately forgot. Sorry.
I said hello to Elizabeth’s publicist Lizz, and it is so nice to find that London-based people occasionally venture this far north. I mean, Perth is practically the North Pole. I stepped outside again to fortify myself with a sandwich, where Alex Nye found me. She had also braved the travel situation, but had to drive (trains stopped at her station going north but not south, which is no way to get home), unlike me who had the luxury of the London train. Very nicely timed.
After bagging a seat on the back row, I was greeted by ‘Mr Wein’ who was doing his utmost not to pass on his cold. And five minutes past the starting time the museum’s lecture theatre was just about full.
Elizabeth was joined by Jess Smith, another local author with a traveller background, who’d been an early reader of The Pearl Thief. They were kept in order by Gavin Lindsay of the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust. We were treated to the first chapter in Elizabeth’s book, and she apologised for not being able to read with a Scottish accent. (That’s OK.) Then Jess read a long poem called Scotia’s Bairns, accompanied by a slideshow of old travellers, showing how they lived. She described it as a fading culture, that has to be grabbed before it disappears.
Elizabeth made her heroine Julie posh, so she could be educated and well-read in the 1930s. The reason the travellers are in the story is due to her PhD in folklore, having been introduced to them by her professor, and Jess was there to see to it that she described them properly. ‘Casting’ a pair of traveller siblings balanced Julie and her brother Jamie. Jess said she ‘lived’ in the story, but both she and the editors demanded more action. And apparently the villain was the wrong one.
Jess spoke of writing her first book, about her life growing up in the travelling community, explaining how she could deal with the bullies. She just learned to run fast. She hopes that young people will read her books, and she spoke fondly of her mother. Both writers agreed there is a lot of freedom in fiction.
‘A homecoming’ is how Elizabeth described The Pearl Thief. It’s the first book set where she lives. Lara, the librarian from Innerpeffray Library, was in the audience, and I wasn’t the only one to have visualised her as the librarian in the book. Asked when Elizabeth knew she wanted the library in her story, she said she’d always known it was a part of it.
The reason Elizabeth wanted to return to writing about Julie was that her voice is so easy, although in this book she needed to adapt because Julie is younger. And the back story had to be expanded, as Elizabeth only had a name for one of Julie’s five brothers. She doesn’t know whether it’s best to read The Pearl Thief before or after Code Name Verity, but said that the experience would be different, whichever of the books came second.
Jess had a cousin in the audience who’s read all her books and loves them, and Jess suggested she would like Elizabeth’s book as well, and that she’s not getting paid to say so.
Before finishing Gavin Lindsay mentioned the museum’s archeology programme for 2017, which includes the logboat that features in The Pearl Thief. And as long as we didn’t bring drinks in, we were allowed to have a look at the boat, which was much larger than I had imagined. It was surrounded by notices not to touch, and I was overcome by this dreadful urge to disobey, but didn’t…
People bought books, had books signed, had more to eat and drink, and chatted. I explained my conundrum to Elizabeth that I didn’t know which of my copies of The Pearl Thief I would like to have signed, so in the end I’d brought both. Yes, I know it’s greedy, but this is the prequel to the second best book in the world. A bit of greed is fine.
I helped myself to one of the free maps of Perth, having got there totally mapless (someone had left the printer without toner), and set off on the walk back to the station. Halfway there I was asked to rescue my new American friend, who felt a bit lost. I could do this, but I’m warning you; don’t ask if you actually want to catch your train. She had so much spare time that we talked about books and reading and she very nearly didn’t make it and had to run. Which was entirely my fault.
But it is good to meet other book fans.
After this I discovered that one route to my platform involved getting the lift up to a glass-fenced bridge over the station. Aarrgghhh.
Reader, I did it!
And the evening also solved a little problem I’d had. So it’s all good.