Category Archives: Blogs

My St George

It’s St George’s Day. We have our very own Dragon guarding Bookwitch Towers.

He used to belong to the Grandmother’s mother, and Son liked him so much that twenty years ago Dragon came to live with us. For years he sat on the bedroom windowsill, staring out into the garden. That’s Dragon, not Son.

But with the Scottish move, Son was roomless for long enough that Dragon had to find somewhere else to live. He tried the mantelpiece for a while, but found it boring. (So do I. It’s not exactly my favourite mantelpiece. I don’t sit on it. I just stare.)

Then he tried the window towards the street, turning his back on the room and all of us. He likes it!

DSCN7060

There is a lot to look at out there. Well, actually, not that much. It’s a fairly secluded street. But there’s more action than in the former back garden. And he can give the postmen/postwoman a good stare when they walk past him every morning.

He’s a good guard-dragon. And I doubt very much that he will deign to face us again, now that he’s discovered the outside world. Such as it is.

The #14 profile – Tanya Landman

It appears I just managed to tie Tanya Landman down to answering some questions right in the middle of some serious travelling. Recently back from Istanbul (who says an author’s life is not charmed?), I understand she is about to travel to Sharjah, for its Children’s Reading Festival. I’m guessing they feel about Tanya as I do after having read two of her fabulous novels, that she’s not a bad author to invite.

Here is Tanya, telling you some of her trade secrets in my latest profile:

Tanya Landman

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

Ouch. Do I have to answer that one?

Really? You’ll apply thumbscrews if I don’t????

OK, OK – if I must….

One and a half. (But PLEASE don’t mention this ever again. They were dire.)

Best place for inspiration?

Asleep in bed. Seriously. I quite often wake up with new ideas or solutions to plot problems that have been bugging me.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I do. (My real name is Eunice Petunia Biggs III.)

What would you never write about?

Anything creepy. I am a complete wuss when it comes to scary supernatural things. Vampires, demons, ghosts…I can’t cope with reading it so I certainly couldn’t write it.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

The Houses of Parliament at the launch of the Summer Reading Challenge just after the last election. I got my fingers stuck together whilst trying to eat an unexpectedly gooey fondant fancy and couldn’t shake anyone by the hand. Ed Vaizey gave a speech. (I should have headbutted him when I had the chance.)

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I love Charley (Buffalo Soldier), Siki (Apache) and Itacate (Goldsmith’s Daughter) but they have such a tough time I wouldn’t want to be any of them. Poppy Fields just KEEPS on finding dead bodies, which might get tiring. I think Katrina Picket (Waking Merlin) would be best – she gets to ride on a dragon AND save the world.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

Good thing. Deffo. I’m expecting a call from Johnny Depp any day now.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

‘When your son was sick on the swirly-whirly super de-luxe leather executive chair – what colour was the vomit?’

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I have magic scritchy-scratching fingers that can make a pig faint with happiness.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Narnia. Talking animals? Timmy just can’t compete.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

ABBA

ABBA. They count as one person, right?

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

Arrange? You what??? Mine are stacked double on shelves or standing in piles. It’s all a total muddle and I can’t ever find a thing.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

Stig of the Dump. Works every time.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

I am confused. I mean if I’m writing I’m reading what I’ve written, aren’t I? Or am I supposed to write blindfolded?

I suspect that Eunice Petunia didn’t take these questions all that seriously. Which is good, as it means she was obeying my orders. Although, that tin foil was stretching things a bit, even for me. It seems that if Tanya can switch off the tin foil a little, she might have chosen Thomas Lundqvist, genius puppeteer, instead. (No, I’d never heard of him, either.)

(If anyone is up for doing profile #13, get in touch with me…)

Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Monday miscellany

I’d – almost – concluded I have no friends, but before you gallantly cry that I have you, I realised how wrong I was. Today is School Friend’s birthday. (Her 60th, but don’t tell anyone. She looks like 29.) And I’m not there. I suppose that’s what I meant, really. I’m not physically surrounded by friends, but I know they are out there, at various inconvenient distances for birthday parties and the like.

I could have gone. But with a future kitchen having just arrived, sitting in the hall (which has not had book boxes stored in it for maybe as long as a couple of weeks, and was beginning to look almost normal), and a sink that needed to be crowbarred free by Son, now seems an unwise time for me to up and frolic.

I typed ’tile’ instead of ‘time’ and that was most certainly a Freudian slip. I’m not 60, nor do I look like 29, but feel rather like 79 sometimes. The Resident IT Consultant and I went shopping for tiles last week. As we walked towards the entrance to the DIY emporium I halted and nearly asked him what we’d come for. Good thing I didn’t, as he beat me to it by a split second. We managed to remember why we’d come (I did have a list in my bag, but you feel that one item should be possible to keep in your brain and not have it slosh around uncontrollably) and the outing was a relative success. I mean, only the day before, we’d also ventured out for tiles but ended up eyeing raspberry bushes at the local nursery, where we’d gone for coffee, instead.

Speaking of gardens, we made some discoveries in ours. The Grandmother found we had a pond. Well, we knew that. But once the weeds went, we realised we have dependants. One duck. Plastic. An otter. Stone. A tortoise. Also stone. Frog. Real. Frogspawn. Also real, and watched over by the parental frog. And some days later, after all that unexpected light and air, we have ‘watery’ flowers as well.

As I said, Son and Dodo were here, carrying kitchens and liberating sinks. And stuff. Then they had to go home again, partly because Son is off to the London Book Fair this week. (It’s unfair! I still haven’t been. And I had to decline an invitation to Canada House. Again.) You can tell it’s that time of year, by how many publicists are already ‘out of office’ in their emails. (So, basically, I can blog as I like, and I am, as you can see.)

Before he left, Son borrowed the complete set of Martin Beck by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir. Seems he’s going to need the books for some paper or other. (Someone’s been getting their translators wrong…) He asked if we wanted anything from London, and you know, I am sure I was thinking just the other day that there was something. But what?

Middle grade, YA or New Adult?

Can we make our minds up, please? What is a YA book? In my post on 22nd March, which was based on an excellent list of YA novels, someone left a comment saying that despite being of almost YA age, she doesn’t read many YA books because they are all the same and mainly romances.

I’m thinking she’s only found the Twilight brigade. Even the publicity emails I get from publishers, trying to interest me in yet another one, tend to be a little same-y. But mostly those books have moved on and turned into New Adult books. Or I think they have. Basically they are today’s Mills & Boon but cooler. And M&B were (are?) read by young people as well as elderly ladies.

And then you could go the other way, and complain that YA books are far too childish. In that case you’ve been sold another middle grade book. Which is a shame, as the words middle grade describes a certain kind of age group very well, even if it sounds a little American to some of us.

But whatever you think, you’re – probably – not going to want sexy vampires if you are ten years old, and whereas you never grow too old for a really good middle grade story, some readers will not find enough action or ‘sex’ in a book by Eva Ibbotson or Rebecca Stead, say.

Publicists are there to sell books, so will to some extent say what they need to sell a book, whether or not it is true. But I feel they are doing the books a disservice by giving them the wrong label. Calling everything YA, when it isn’t, will turn readers off.

The Ibbotson fan may grow up to like dystopian romances a few years later, but the 20+ reader who is already too old for those, will assume YA is not for them, when there is a whole host of ‘ageless’ YA books out there.

YA is not the only attractive term for a good book. At least it shouldn’t be. I feel it’s a shame that readers miss out because of labelling.

Retiring Philippa

My pangs of envy and regret started even before Philippa Dickinson’s retirement festivities got under way on Monday. When you’re online you can see what everyone else is doing and quite a few people announced they were heading that way, making me wish I was too. But there are drawbacks to moving to Scotland, and the spontaneity of sudden trips south is one of them.

So I wasn’t there, and now I can follow – online again – those who were, and there are more pangs. But I’m glad there was a party, and that it was good, and that – almost – everyone else was there. Because Philippa deserves to be celebrated.

Philippa Dickinson

Back in 2009 when I was introduced to her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it felt a bit like meeting the Queen, although perhaps more relaxed. And six months later when her publicists invited me to actually come and spend a day in Ealing, I was impressed with her again, and not only for remembering me a little.

Random House Children’s Books felt like the most active publishing house at the time. And she might have been the MD, but Philippa was still hands-on (editing Terry Pratchett, the lucky thing), working like a normal person. During our brief meeting in her office, she made a point of showing me her personal recommendation and arranging for me to have a copy of Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza.

Philippa and I are almost the same age, and occasionally I have stopped and asked myself what I have achieved with my life, and why I couldn’t be a bit more like her. (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Sometimes when I think of Philippa and wonder what made her better or more interesting than other publishing bosses, I realise that apart from a few directors of smaller publishing houses, I didn’t meet or get even a little acquainted with anyone else.

So maybe that’s why. You need to be out there, possibly rubbing shoulders with the little fish.

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.