Category Archives: Authors

Shelving it

Bookcases have been coming and going at Bookwitch Towers. This last week has seen several carryings in and out, both here and at Daughter’s new abode. (Well, one can’t always get the right configuration on a first try, can one?)

Until now I have stashed Son’s books – by which I mean those he has translated – on the low shelf behind my armchair. But the books have sort of outgrown that space. I don’t know how that happened. Maybe I washed the shelf and it shrunk?

So we were discussing what to do, and it seems that the Resident IT Consultant’s Scottish collection will be going upstairs, just like one of the new-to-us bookcases. And then we will display the Nordic Noirs in a more prime position than behind me.

That was when the postman called today. He huffed and puffed a bit, but not too much because he’s a very nice postman.

He was delivering two copies of a children’s Space encyclopaedia on which Daughter has been the specialist consultant. (See, we don’t have just the one consultant any longer!) And because there were two copies, it seems that us old people get to hold on to one. It needs a shelf to live on.

The book is Children’s First Space Encyclopedia by Claudia Martin. It’s the kind of book I’d have liked as a child, and which I might have got for Offspring at the right age too. It features the unnamed Goldilocks and dwarfs and giants, as well as a really large telescope. It is not the consultant’s first, nor her last, but at least she’s not going at the same speed as her brother.

I wonder how long there will be space – hah – for both space and murder on this new prime shelf? Not long I suspect.

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Terry Pratchett – A Life With Footnotes

He was there. All the way. And that makes a difference.

So thank you Rob Wilkins, for writing the biography of Terry Pratchett, and for writing it so well, making it almost as humorous as if Terry himself had had a go at it. But most of all, thank you for being there with Terry, especially towards the end, when it can’t have been much fun.*

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a book quite as much as this one. Even when tears threatened to overwhelm me towards the end of the book, it was still [sort of] funny.

The doubts were there from the beginning. Can Rob really write a book, and can he write this particular book? Well, yes, he can and he did. He had help, from Terry himself, who had begun to gather facts about his life, especially the early years. Convenient, since Rob wasn’t around then. Other people helped, like his UK editor Philippa Dickinson.** (When Philippa once talked to me about editing Terry’s books, it wasn’t at all obvious how much she did. Now I know.)

Setting aside the fame and the money and the ability to write all those lovely books, I discovered I had a lot in common with Terry. He was clearly more right than I was when he suggested this.***

And, I know this is not about me at all. But I could only read A Life With Footnotes by keeping in mind where and when our paths crossed. I was at some of the events mentioned. In other cases I was there before or right after. And it seems I was less wrong than I thought in ‘holding on to’ Terry on that September day in 2010. Also, much of the off the record information I’ve been keeping quiet about has now been revealed.

I’ve said this before; I am so glad I have as many books left to read as I do. Now that Rob has shared what went on backstage, I feel the urge to go and check stuff again.****

If you love Terry Pratchett, this is the book for you.

*That taxi ride in New York, for instance.

** Who is ‘not a cantankerous bat after all.’

***At our second interview in 2010.

****I will need to make lists.

‘My Favourite Spoon’

I know I’m a witch, but this is slightly silly. For some reason, which I can no longer remember – and it was only yesterday – I was going to take a picture of a spoon and put it on here. ‘I can do that,’ I thought.

Today I started reading one of my Christmas present books, Rob Wilkins’s biography of Terry Pratchett. It’s very good.

Somewhere in the introduction he mentions ‘what Terry referred to as the “My Favourite Spoon” slots in the newspaper supplements.’ I count my lucky stars that I never asked him for one of those!

But, anyway, there I was and I had thought of spoons. And as I thought a bit more, I realised that this was indeed my favourite spoon. Here it is. I have always loved it. And I still get upset if it finds its way into someone else’s hands at the table. You can have Borås, but leave Varberg alone.

Of course, this is the story of my spoon. I’m not asking you to participate in any spoon slots.

Wished was best

2022 was not my best year for reading. I’m sorry about that, and so are the books.

There were books, though. And because I was so hard to persuade to read, or to continue once begun, to be the best this year is pretty good.

Wished, by Lissa Evans, is the kind of book you wished for as a young reader. Even more perhaps at my age when cynicism sets in.

I’d wish for more stories like Wished, only I don’t have any magic birthday candles. But thank goodness for this one.

Cover illustration by Sarah McIntyre

Elevators. Again.

I prefer elevators not to take me to the 17th floor. I mean, I prefer for me not to need them to do this. Elevators are obviously a better solution than walking all the way up. First hotel I was given a room on floor 17. I closed my eyes, prayed and survived the night, before going downstairs and begging to get something a little further down. I even arranged my facial features into a semblance of a smile, to look friendlier and maybe be more successful. Five was the lowest they go. I was happy with five. But still needed to use the elevator to get there. The ones they had clanked like wooden boxes being dragged up manually by someone.

Elevators continued being an issue, but always a new issue in each place. Next hotel had five lifts, unless you stayed on 16 or above, in which case there were faster ones to get you started. But it would have helped if all were in operation. Two lifts for the period when hundreds of new guests arrive is a little frugal. It took us half an hour to go down four floors, get cups of tea, and travel back four floors.

By Toronto there were more elevators than customers.

Elton John was there. In San Antonio. On his farewell tour we hit town on the same date. We had the wedding, he had his 65 000 fans. But somehow we all fitted into the same elevators.

It’s generally a nice thing to see real people when you’re away, so for New York I had arranged to meet blogger Monica Edinger, who has been writing Educating Alice. I’ve been aware of Monica for years, with some direct contact, and knew she lives in Manhattan. In fact, she lives in what I would term the archetypal New York apartment block. Very New York, in other words. As was her little dog, Ruby. We talked picture books and travelling, and Daughter turned out to be best versed and kept me afloat. (They’ve been to the same places.)

Last but not least there was Cousin E, who lives near Cousin C. She’s often more tied up with ‘life’, so it was a special bonus to visit Cousin E for a chilly but sunny afternoon tea in her garden. This was because of concern over Covid, but as I said, we have had two winters of cold meals outside, and we’d love to sit in her garden. It’s a nice garden, too. While one can sometimes conjure up what houses might look like, I had not been able to imagine the outside. E’s husband D had been baking, which was very kind of him. Also briefly saw their son J, so that was three new face-to-face moments. Well worth the efforts of getting to Canada.

The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.

Tack!

There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

SELTA at 40

Well, me. And a few other people, at least one of whom I know.

Personally I like my ambassadors to be present when I visit, but then they probably quite like me to be there when invited too. In the end neither the ambassador nor I made it, so I suppose we’re even. (I had a cough.)

The event was to celebrate the 40th birthday of SELTA, which took place in the ambassador’s home. You want a bit of bling on occasion. The embassy’s Kulturråd hosted the party, and the chair of SELTA was there, saying a few things. I have every faith in them, and I’m sure a great time was had by all.

Not only was it a birthday, but ‘chair Ian Giles announced the news that SELTA has been awarded Svenska Akademiens pris för introduktion av svensk kultur utomlands (the Swedish Academy’s Prize for the Introduction of Swedish Culture Abroad). This is an annual prize, established in 1992, for efforts to disseminate and promote Swedish culture outside of Sweden). The prize is worth SEK 160,000 (£12,600).’

So that was quite a nice birthday present.

Marcus and the ‘maneater’ jellyfish

Marcus Sedgwick died this morning. He was far too young to go, and I understand it was unexpected. Many very good books will now not be written.

I have a small bookcase near my bed, with some of my favourite books. There is more than one by Marcus, because you just had to like them.

When I first became aware of him and his writing, I was surprised to learn that he was taking Swedish lessons. I wrote to him to ask. Because that’s the kind of thing I did. And when I looked back on our correspondence today, I discovered that occasionally he wrote to me in Swedish, completely unprompted. (Maneter are jellyfish, and to the English-speaker they sound like man-eaters. This is something Marcus incorporated into an event, or two.)

Eight years ago I interviewed him on the day of his adult book launch for A Love Like Blood. It was a fun, but slightly traumatising, event for me. Mostly because of it happening on the 16th floor, and less because of the blood. But we sort of agreed on roller coasters.

Tack Marcus, och hej då!

Meeting Budge

I was sad to discover that Budge Wilson died last year. It felt as though this Canadian children’s author could, would, outlast us all. It’s been nearly fifteen years since we met, but I still have her address in my address book – both her summer address and the regular one – in case I might want to look her up if I ever get to Canada, and more specifically, Nova Scotia. These days of course, I live in the old Scotia.

“Meeting Budge Wilson was rather like meeting a long lost Canadian aunt, if only I had one. I met Budge at her London hotel during her whirlwind British publicity tour for her book Before Green Gables. Things at the hotel weren’t working out very well, so Jodie from Puffin had some complaining to do, before we were given somewhere to talk. Once the practicalities were sorted and a number of confused hotel employees had got their act together with pots of tea and endless bottles of water, we were fine.

Budge looked lovely in a pink top and matching pink lipstick, which is the kind of colour co-ordinating I like. When I said that she looked just as she does in her photographs, she wondered if I’d also been able to see how short she is. To start with Budge is concerned because she’s not feeling a hundred percent well, but she perks up during the interview.

The meeting-my-aunt feeling continues when Budge starts off by interviewing me, which is very sweet, and I just wish I had more important information to share. I confess that I’m worried because I know very little about Budge, but she says “it’s lovely for me”. Being so well known in Canada, and particularly so in her native Nova Scotia, she has got tired of being asked the same thing over and over again.

Still feeling guilty about the insularity of the British book scene, where we tend to know far too little of even English language books from the rest of the world, I tell her that I Googled her the previous day, and was surprised to find my own review of Before Green Gables on the first page. If Budge hadn’t made a point of telling me her age, I wouldn’t have known she’ll be 81 in May. It makes the travelling to publicise a book much more impressive, and I’m amazed at her stamina.

I ask whether she has been to Britain before, and Budge tells me of the trip the family made in the late sixties when the children were young, touring the length of the country in a dormobile during five weeks. She describes it as “a fate worse than death”, which I suspect was more because it was tiring, than that this country was particularly horrible. It was a “hard, hard trip and I remember very little”, she says with a rueful smile.

This time, having left snow behind in Canada, Budge and her husband Alan really noticed the green fields of England as their plane came in to land. “All so tidy. I’m not used to tidy countryside. Like Prince Edward Island, with the hedgerows, like a child’s drawing.” Budge had time to study the London suburbs as the traffic crawled on their way in to central London, especially the architecture and people’s homes; “the stick-together houses” made from different materials than she’s used to.

As I admit to understanding the Canadian style wooden houses, on account of them being similar to Swedish ones, Budge reminisces about a trip she once made to Finland. It “was so like Nova Scotia you wouldn’t believe it”. She feels rather guilty over placing Anne Shirley in the middle of the woods in Nova Scotia, and says if she could write the book all over again she wouldn’t. But we discuss this, as there is obviously a need for Anne to have lived somewhere very different to Prince Edward Island, which strikes Anne as paradise.

It was L M Montgomery who gave Anne’s past a day trip to the seaside, and this forced Budge to give her somewhere inland to live. She spent days driving round trying to find where to place Bolingbroke and Marysville and “up the river”. She had to settle on a fictional area after finding red soil somewhere, which meant that it wouldn’t do for Anne, who had never seen that colour soil before coming to PEI. Budge reckons Bolingbroke might have been Truro, as it fits the description given by Montgomery.

“Prince Edward Island has so many Japanese in the summer, it’s surprising the island doesn’t sink”, says Budge, adding that she feels she has “short changed my province”. I suggest that she couldn’t very well write her Green Gables prequel with an eye to the tourist industry.

I’d read somewhere that Budge had been reluctant to take on the task of writing about Anne’s early years when she was approached and offered the job. “I didn’t want to write it”, she says. “I said I’ll think about it. I thought about it for two months”. One reason was that Budge had another book on the go, a collection of poems for the Swiss Air disaster near Halifax ten years ago. Being two thirds of the way through this, she knew she couldn’t both finish it and write the Green Gables prequel. And “I was concerned L M Montgomery might not want me to do this”.

Budge was also fully aware of the strong feelings she would incur by writing the book. There are many Canadians “whose hearts beat so strongly for Anne, they’d not want me to do this”. After she had decided to do it, Budge found that when it was announced to people, there were a few who didn’t have time to “fix their faces” on hearing about it. On the whole, though, reviews have been favourable, with only “one that did tear me to shreds”.

As she approached the task, Budge found it was “a puzzle to solve, with a heroine not of my making”. Here was a girl who had suffered verbal abuse, there was physical abuse that she was seeing, drunkenness, postnatal depression, and so on. Budge had never written anything historical before, so that was another challenge. She likes to do her “research by asking human beings”.

I ask if Budge knows when Anne was born, and whereas she had thought it might be in 1876, careful counting backwards from when Anne’s son Jem joins World War I, puts her year of birth as 1866. This meant Budge had to be careful and “never mention the date”, and she had to stay vague to avoid inconsistencies. Budge considered bare light bulbs for the orphanage, but was told not to “touch electricity”, which is wise advice in more ways than one. Other problem areas are clothes and how people work, where both safety pins and assembly lines needed avoiding. For those readers who remembers Anne’s puffed sleeves, it seems that L M Montgomery got that wrong, but Budge guesses she just wanted to use them, and so she did.

As Budge talks about the process of getting started, she waves her arms about, indicating Penguin to the right and the Montgomery family and law firm on her left. She first had to provide sample chapters, as well as a long outline of what she would write.

To her astonishment, Budge loved writing Before Green Gables. “I tend to write the first draft extremely quickly”, and she wrote a chapter a day, in 71, non-consecutive, days, finishing on her 80th birthday.

Usually Budge likes to take a long time over “the lovely editing process”, sitting in her bed, with all her papers spread out, and writing by hand. This time she had a deadline to meet, so had to rush things rather more. Penguin originally wanted 300 pages and Budge’s reaction to this was that she couldn’t possibly write that much. The finished book is 465 pages, and that’s after some of the pruning Budge had to do. She tried very hard and managed to cut about 2000 words, initially. The Americans wanted her to cut another 32,000 words, but all she felt able to prune was another 4000. The scenes between Anne and Mr Thomas were some of the ones they suggested removing, but Budge stuck to her guns and kept those passages.

While writing, her “saddest moment was when Anne gave the teddy to Noah”, and she muses over the fact that as the author she could have changed this, but felt she shouldn’t. Anne couldn’t have kept the teddy when she got to the orphanage anyway. I ask how much research Budge did as regards what orphanages were like. She looked into things very carefully, and found to her astonishment that whereas Canada had laws about the humane treatment of animals, the humane treatment of children came later, in the 1900s.

We discuss the dead men in Anne’s life; Mr Thomas and Mr Hammond, as well as Matthew. I admit to a fondness for the Eggman, and Budge says how “very crucial” he is, and how she had to delay things in the plot to prevent it being possible for Anne to be adopted. In all, there were so many possible good outcomes for Anne, and it was heartbreaking that Budge needed to “keep” Anne for Matthew and Marilla.

Something that had puzzled me when reading Budge’s book, was what age it’s intended for. Somewhere I’ve seen 8+, but whereas it’s about a young girl, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s suited for that age group. And I wouldn’t say Budge’s style is difficult, but it’s not dumbed down, either. Budge herself feels it’s very much a book for all ages, but it seems that most readers are adults.

Once Budge had finished Before Green Gables, she had a lesson in saying nothing in interviews, as the publisher wanted nothing given away too early. Budge says her blood pressure shot up, until she learnt to talk without saying very much. Unlike with me, where Budge suddenly starts worrying that she’s talking too much. She gets out a copy of my review of her book and asks me about the Ipecac. She felt it had to be included in the book, but she was so uncertain about whether it was safe, and Budge was intrigued to find I had used it. That brings us on to homeopathy in general, and then I feel it is I who talk too much.

We get chatting about book covers, and Budge shows me the Canadian cover. Under the dust wrapper the Canadian edition is really very attractive, with an old style faded look. I ask how the book is selling, and in Canada it’s “selling extremely well”, and had sold out before the launch. The launch, incidentally, was held on a day with a blizzard, which caused most of her family to be late for the event, although they arrived safely in the end.

Budge gets out her bag to show me. Her daughter made it specially for this trip, and although it’s not Budge’s usual colours, she really likes it. So do I. It’s a beautiful green fabric, with BGG appliquéd in orange on one side and the name Budge on the other. The handles are plaited in orange wool, and they are of course Anne’s hair. It’s the perfect Anne bag. Budge had expected the British to be so sophisticated that they wouldn’t appreciate a hand sewn bag, but everyone has liked it.

I say that people here have less time to make things, and Budge has noticed how much “everyone is rushing”. Apparently a sure sign of a Nova Scotian is that they stand still on escalators. I wonder what that makes me?

I ask Budge to sign my copy of her book, and I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone consider so carefully what to write. When I read it, it’s an invitation to come to Nova Scotia, and that’s definitely a first. Budge has described her home province so vividly, that I don’t think she needs to be concerned that she’s not “selling it”. Their “springs are very grim” and Budge says she never makes school visits outside town in April, because it’s “ a hideous month”. She tells me to come in September to see their “magnificent fall”. I get the impression that autumn colours are better in Nova Scotia than anywhere else. And her description of the varying seascapes near her home, almost has me on the first plane to Halifax.

The next day, Good Friday, Budge and her husband Alan are going to Oxford to visit old friends. She’s brought a book to give them. Not Before Green Gables, but something else. Budge starts to tell me something to do with this, and then forgets what she was going to say. “Don’t you feel that the things you lose are always the ones you think are the most interesting?”

It’s an unkind thought, but I’m almost grateful for the migraine that cancelled Budge’s next interview, which gave us twice as long to talk. Had it not been for my train home, I may well have been there for much longer still. We find our way out, and Budge grabs the large, almost full, bottle of water, and says she’ll take it to her room. I admire someone who is sensible and thrifty.”

(This interview was first published in March 2008.)

Fictional New York?

I’m not able to keep track of all new books of this kind, or most kinds, actually, but this is a nice return to a nice children’s book, which I reviewed just over ten years ago. Doesn’t time fly?

“Liar & Spy is what I have taken to labelling a New York kind of children’s book. Do you know what I mean? I love them with a passion, and I’ll have to stop ridiculing the Americans for loving boarding schools and castles and other charming – and English – things.

Rebecca Stead has written a wonderfully warm story about Georges, who has to move with his parents from their house in Brooklyn to an apartment when they fall on hard(er) times. It’s close enough that he can stay at his school. But he is being bullied, and his only friend has joined the ‘other side.’

There are other children in the apartment block, and Georges makes friends with Safer and his sister Candy, who are home-schooled. Safer invites Georges to join his spy club and they take to spying on the neighbours, until things get a bit bad. Things at school are also not going well, but Georges doesn’t share any of this with his father.

We don’t see much of Georges’ mother because she works double shifts at the hospital. She leaves him messages by way of Scrabble tiles when he sleeps.

Eventually we learn why Safer spies on people, and Georges works out what to do about the situation at school. It is all very American. I don’t think this would work in the UK, and that’s the whole charm of Liar & Spy. I just loved it!”