Author Archives: bookwitch

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

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Love and commitment

We’re ‘getting older in a younger way,’ as Janet Ellis said at the beginning of the event with Kit de Waal and Jo Nadin. I’ve not heard it put so well before, but have often thought something similar. Kit de Waal had had the idea for her book as a teenager, but discovered at the age of 58 that 60 is nowhere near as old as her 16-year-old self had imagined.

Kit de Waal

She also found that the place where she set part of her story, based only on the memories of a childhood trip to Ireland, wasn’t quite as she remembered it. Much smaller for one thing. Reading from her The Trick to Time, she described a scene with a father talking to his young daughter about her mother who is ill. I’ve never heard it put better; why one should do something now even if it feels uncomfortable, because the time will come when you will regret not having done it.

Kit also finds YouTube excellent for teaching her almost anything, from hedgehog racing to drawing with vegetables. She is an ‘anal plotter’ who writes in fragments, and when it goes wrong she has to go back and rewrite.

Jo Nadin is also a plotter, but puts her pieces together sooner, comparing it to that awful feeling when you’ve knitted lots of little squares and find yourself facing sewing them all together.

Her novel, The Queen of Bloody Everything, features a dream mother, the total opposite of her own. She wanted the kind of childhood she read about in books, even if it would have been chaos. Jo has based characters on people she knows, and admitted as much at her book launch!

Jo Nadin

She has also deleted a couple of books completely, so now has some safety measures in place, in case she gets trigger-happy again.

Kit reckons there is love and kindness in everyone. She has a past working with criminals, and says they can be hard, but still cry over Bambi. Noting that bad behaviour is always blamed on mothers and never fathers, she discovered when her mother died recently that the theory of losing your mother isn’t the same as in real life.

All books are proper books, whether chicklit, crime or children’s. If a book will make you turn the pages, it counts as a good book and is worth someone’s £6.99.

Asked what made them turn to teaching writing, Jo said she needed to earn money. Kit wants to help other disadvantaged people to write, because she was one herself. Having been advised not to set up an award for working class writers, she has crowdfunded a collection of memoirs, where she asked 17 well known writers to write 2000 words, and then paired this with 17 unknown people’s memoirs. Kit wanted to show that working class does not equal only drugs or a dismal life.

Both Jo and Kit write books while visualising what the characters look like, based on famous actors. So Jo’s next book is set in Fowey and ‘stars’ Dominic West and Ben Whishaw, while Kit’s next work has Brendan Gleeson in it!

Unavoidably, there were spoilers if you hadn’t read the two books, although it was obvious that many had. And I hope Janet Ellis gets her copy back. Never lend books!

(Photos Helen Giles)

A second Saturday of EIBF 2018

Our second book festival Saturday was mostly spent chatting to author friends we’d made earlier. And that’s a very nice thing; this meeting up with people who’ve all come to the same place. It’s also a rather bad pun to indicate that the first event yesterday morning was chaired by Janet Ellis. I got slightly more excited by this than my Photographer, until I did my maths and realised she’s too young for Janet’s time on Blue Peter. But us oldies enjoyed the BP-ness of it.

Kit de Waal

We had to get out of bed really early to get to Edinburgh to hear Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal talking to Janet. But thank goodness it was in the Spiegeltent, where you can buy tea and cake to revive yourself. I reckon we survived until well past lunch on those calories. It was so early when we got to the gates that the gates were actually not open, so we joined the queue, where we were discovered by SCBWI’s Sarah Broadley. My eyes were not open enough to see anyone at all just then. (That’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in case you were wondering. It is, even if you weren’t.)

Jo Nadin

Once my eyes had opened a little more, I saw Alex Nye arriving for her event chairing A L Kennedy. And when we were back by the yurts after the first event, we watched A L being given the Chris Close treatment, although I think she might actually have given Chris the A L Kennedy treatment. She had her own ideas of what to do, like covering her face with a mask.

Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal

We also hung in the signing tent while Jo and Kit did their thing, meeting young miss Nadin for the first time, and after that they were ushered out to the photocall area, which brought back fond memories for Jo. And us.

Sent the Photographer over to catch perennial weekend morning favourite Andy Stanton and his long signing queue. It’s nice with traditions.

Andy Stanton

While getting ready to cross to George Street, we spied Barry Hutchison coming away from his morning event, and I could have sworn that was Chae Strathie who turned up as well. Barry came over for a hug. Two hugs, really, but that was before my Photographer mentioned the squirrels. We were treated to an impromptu show about a banana drink and a piece of popcorn in the wrong place (Barry’s throat; the wrong part of it) before he was called on to drive his family home.

Lari Don

There was a queue for the SCBWI event with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, but it was all right. We got in and we got seats.

Candy Gourlay

Elizabeth Wein

Afterwards we hung in the George Street signing tent talking to the various SCBWI members and waiting for Candy to be free to socialise. Even Mr Gourlay turned up for a moment before deciding it was hopeless and walked off again. When the wait was over and Candy had promised not to talk to anyone else – hah! – we went for tea in the yurt, where we had such a good time that we forgot that Candy was going to be photographed by Chris Close, and she had to be extricated to high-five herself and to smile at the unlikeliest props. (At least she didn’t get the head with the black and white-chequered cloth covering!)

Candy Gourlay

Finally met Barbara Henderson in person, a split second after I worked out that’s who she was, and mere hours after talking about her book at home. Chatted to a charming **illustrator, whose name I forgot immediately, and her charming son, who will go far. Caught a glimpse of Donna Moore and then Photographer and I disagreed on whether we saw Jenny Brown or not. But it was definitely Yanis Varoufakis outside.

When there were more SCBWIs round the tea table than you could shake a stick at*, we decided we needed to run for the train we had picked as reasonably safe from too many Runrig fans heading to Stirling. Seems most of the 20 000 or so had not chosen our train. Just as well.

*There is obviously no such thing. I have plenty of sticks.

** Hannah Sanguinetti!!

(Photos Helen Giles)

Dogs in Space

In the last few weeks I’ve come across dogs and space several times. Most recently it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who mentioned Belka and Strelka earlier this week. And the odd thing is, that before I read this picture book about them by Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, I’d never heard of them.

Laika, yes. I thought she was the most famous space dog, even if she did die up there. And now it turns out that Belka and Strelka orbited Earth in 1960 and lived to ‘tell the tale,’ paving the way for [the human] Yuri Gagarin the following year.

They were street dogs, recruited, ostensibly because they were used to the rough life out there. But you can’t get away from the fact that if things went wrong, they had not been anyone’s pets.

But once lured off the street, they received cosmonaut training rather like their human colleagues, and the best dogs were picked for the first space flight.

Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, Dogs in Space

And it does seem as if the pair was ideally suited for this job. I’m glad to have made their acquaintance after all these years.

Orangeboy

Orangeboy is just as good as everyone said. Patrice Lawrence has written about being young and black, and male, in London today, without making it.., I was going to say ‘too grim’ but it obviously is grim. Just not in the way it could have been, given its topic.

16-year-old Marlon, from a good home in north London, can’t believe his luck when beautiful blonde Sonya chooses to go out with him. But you know what they say, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably won’t end well.

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

The date from hell gets its grips into Marlon, who so far has tried hard not to be what his older brother Andre was at the same age, finding that it is rather hard to escape crime and gangs once things have gone wrong.

His mum expects him to revise for his GCSEs, while Marlon finds out far too much about drugs and weapons and the police. And much violence. As a loving son he attempts to protect his mum while adhering to the rules that say you don’t tell, even on your enemies.

And he’s only 16, so maybe has to be excused from using common sense and telling trusted adults what’s going on. He does have a great friend across the road, but she’s also young.

I couldn’t see how this could end well, but felt that it had to, at least partly, without selling out and getting too unbelievably sugary. You just want to read on and on, and the 432 pages melt away as you pray Marlon will be safe.

Sky falling

Discovered someone was sitting in ‘my’ seat in the Corner theatre for the event with Sophie Cameron and Sally Gardner. But I can be flexible, if I really have to.

Sally and Sophie’s books are both about people falling out of the sky. Sally was looking for what it is that makes us human; what we have that aliens don’t. It’s love. Sophie, on the other hand, had been inspired by the falling angels in an old deodorant commercial.

Sally kicked off by reading from My Side of the Diamond, and I was reminded again of what a great voice she has.

Sally Gardner and Sophie Cameron

From there the discussion went on to Sally’s dyslexia, and then back to how she came to start writing in the first place. It was the bailiffs. And you can’t argue with that. If you need money, you need to find a way to earn some. Sally’s first book came about with ease, as did the way it was accepted for publication. (Something to do with a Sainsbury’s carrier bag with a hole in it…) But after the first time, it’s not been quite such smooth sailing.

Asked if she prefers a certain age group, Sally said no, and that she has now written an adult book. Although she does feel that younger readers are more intelligent than adults.

Then it was the turn of Dick King-Smith fan Sophie to read from her debut novel Out of the Blue, which is set in Edinburgh, during the festival. Originally set elsewhere, Sophie changed this when she returned to work in Edinburgh and realised that there aren’t a lot of books set there. Her second, standalone novel, also has an Edinburgh setting. And somewhere in all this there might have been talking dolphins.

Both books have a black main character, and this led to some discussion as to whether white authors are allowed to write about black people, which Sally finds worrying. Also, there are not enough translated books, and after March next year she reckons other countries will not want ‘our’ books.

Chair Lucy Popescu had an author mother, who always put her in her books, so she wondered if Sally and Sophie have done that. Sally said her children would have killed her if she had.

Sally Gardner and Sophie Cameron

It’s important to bring boys up to read books by and about women, and Sally mentioned her favourite heroine, Daisy in Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. In some cases it seems that statistics on who reads might be incorrect, as boys don’t want to say they do. Sally had a story about a school where pupils were not allowed to read on their phones. One boy was caught doing so, but was nearly forgiven when the teacher discovered he was reading Dickens. But the boy insisted on the punishment of being expelled, rather than have his reading habits made public. He enjoyed books, but wanted to stay cool by reading on his mobile like everyone else.

So, books can be a very private thing for many.

Asked about fan fiction, Sophie said she’d written some. It’s good practice, and you get feedback on your writing. Sally used to tell herself stories [before she could read] and tried to see if she could make herself cry. She sees all her stories as films in her head, and until recently believed that this happened to everyone. When writing I, Coriander, she listened to the story as though it was radio.

Sophie is happiest writing in cafés, while Sally has adopted a rescue dog who insists on sitting on its favourite chair, forcing her to stay and write in the same room.

And apart from a drunk giraffe and a Rupert Bear with tits, that was pretty much it.

Intergalactic House Guests

Well, that was nice. Me and a Spiegeltent full of the right age Frank Cottrell Boyce fans, and they had read his books. They also own ‘more than one lightsaber’ between them.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank was very happy. Not only had someone just said he’s ‘quite tall’ – which was a first – but he had literally finished writing his latest book that morning. This meant he wasn’t ready to talk about it, but he did read us the first page and I’m already sold.

Instead he talked about Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, and I’m so glad he did. I want that book! Which is about to become a film from Dreamworks, with Frank writing the script. So he reckons he will have some influence over the result.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth

First he told us about the Soviet space dogs, which is a bit of a coincidence as I’ve just been reading about them. He tried to fool us about poor Laika, saying she met aliens in space, but it’s kinder that way.

Reading my notes right now, I suspect this tale will be almost as tall as Frank’s was. Basically, this is about an alien, who ends up somewhere near Dumfries, where the only one not to see a cute dog – possibly wearing a kilt? – is a young boy. That’s where the lightsabers come in.

The dog/alien repairs the toy one until it becomes so real that it ‘could be really dangerous.’ ‘Smell that burning hair!’ he says as the children’s birthday party grows wilder.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

It seems that there is a decluttering scheme for making new space for new planets, and someone needs to make a case for Earth not being got rid of.

My notes now go to chicken, Haribo, and something about meat pies and Aigburth. I apologise. After this we moved on to Cosmic, the idea for which might have happened near Tesco in Formby. It had been lovely meeting Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, and children sometimes have the most astounding growth spurts.

Frank has never had a pet. He said that his favourite child, and his favourite book, both know that they are. (Except he obviously doesn’t have favourites.) He’s from Liverpool, and he went to some lengths to avoid saying how old he is. The Empire Fights Back might be his favourite Star Wars film, unless that’s the wrong answer. He possibly likes Luke Skywalker the best. Or not.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Everyone should read a lot. Not only author hopefuls, but butchers and American presidents. Everyone.

As our farewell treat he read some more from Sputnik, about putting Hadrian’s wall back together again. Reverse dynamite. That kind of thing.

(Almost 59.)