Category Archives: Interview

A view of the laureate

If I’d known he’d one day be the children’s laureate, I’d never have addressed Chris Riddell as deluded the first time I emailed him. But I didn’t know, and I did.

Although, he started it, by contacting me and wondering if he might be deluded. I suppose he didn’t have the slightest inkling about any laureateships either.

Now, however, I always feel I must be on my best behaviour around Chris, and that’s a thought I have until I see him, and realise – yet again – what a nice and normal person he is. Not deluded, and just the right amount of stately to carry off the fancy title.

Anyway, enough with the musings about whether one has to be extra polite or not. Here is the interview, and it only took me a month to get it ready. (Never travel or have the builders in when you have a laureate interview to transcribe.)

Chris Riddell with questions box

‘Don’t show your ghosts too soon’

Jonathan Stroud had been in Gothenburg before. 11 years ago, he reckoned, which is true, as that’s when we met him the first time. Then he had his Bartimaeus trilogy to talk about, and now it’s Lockwood.

On Thursday morning Jonathan did a short event with his publisher, and he only had to warn her once that she must be careful with spoilers. I’m glad I was already past that bit, so it didn’t upset me. I’ve been reading the 4th Lockwood all week (and the reason I’m not done yet is not because I’m slow, but simply that there hasn’t been enough time in the week) and it has been just the right background for a bookish few days at the Gothenburg book fair.

Jonathan feels there’s a bit of Pippi Longstocking about Lockwood. And needless to say he wants to be him. (So it was interesting to hear him tell Lotta Olsson on Friday that when he tried to use Lockwood as narrator in book two, he gave up as he didn’t want Lockwood’s interior monologue.)

Everyone is impressed by his extensive research (this is fiction, folks!) into ghosts and the weapons he gives his characters in their fight against the ghosts. Poltergeists are – sort of – real, but most of the rest he obviously made up.

Mats Strandberg, Lotta Olsson and Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood began when Jonathan wrote a short introduction, featuring a boy and a girl outside a door, and he wanted to find out who they were and what they were about to do. Lockwood and Lucy and George emerged from that short opening. The reason he uses – an alternative – London as the setting for a fantasy is because it’s more realistic and exciting in a real place. He doesn’t know much, but builds things up slowly.

The agencies in the books are growing increasingly corrupt, so he made the ghost hunters young because they are more open than adults. Jonathan compared the work the young agents do on a nightly basis with our own everyday tasks that we just have to do, whether we want to or not. He feels that by implying things and being sparing with details, you have a more powerful story.

In his event with Lotta Olsson, he and scary author Mats Strandberg discussed the difference between horror and terror. It could be that horror is more for children, while terror works better for adults. Mats, who has been inspired by Harry Potter [the films…] described his new book as being a bit like The Walking Dead, set on the ferry to Finland. (Which sounds pretty terrifying, if you ask me.) And apparently in his next book Mats is even scaring himself.

Jonathan believes in suspense, which is why he doesn’t want to show his ghosts too soon. You will be more frightened by not knowing what’s coming. There’s the bump in the night, versus machine guns. Mats said that in terror it is generally the underdog who fares best. Asked by Lotta how the easy access to violent [real] videos for even quite small children will affect future writing, Mats hopes that empathy can save the world.

Freedom to Think is a campaign Jonathan is involved in, which wants to give our far too busy children some time to themselves, when they can simply sit and do nothing; dream up new ideas and maybe learn the skills to be an author or to do other creative things. Not to be ferried round by parents to ever more activities.

Lotta wondered if Lucy was meant to be the main character in Lockwood, and Jonathan felt that the fact she is flawed, brave, and has anxieties, makes her a useful and very suitable hero, and why he discovered that Lockwood was no good in that role. Finding your voice is the best thing.

Asked by someone in the audience for their favourite writers, Mats confessed to being a Stephen King fan, while Jonathan likes M R James and his ‘short and nasty’ stories.

Jonathan is currently writing the fifth and last Lockwood novel, which is nervous work. But he finds that the scary bits make the jokes better.


You might remember that Meg Rosoff left me in the corridor on Thursday afternoon. I was still there when she woke up on Friday morning. Or so I tried to claim. I had returned to the same spot, sorting out my plans for the day, when Meg came up and asked if I’d come for coffee with her.

On the understanding I’d not actually have to have any coffee, I agreed, and that’s how I ended up slurping my own pink blueberry yoghurt drink after all. Meg had one as well, and also coffee (Swedish coffee, where you don’t get to choose what kind) to set her up for the day.

(It must be tough to find that the only person ‘in town’ you know is your long time ‘stalker.’ A bit like when friends of ours moved to a new town and the only person they knew there was the bishop. Talking of whom, the bishop was the only famous person I encountered in the corridors during my two days at the fair. Except I refer to him as the former archbishop. Same difference.)

We talked about amusement parks, and nearly falling off carousels, and I recommended Liseberg [across the road] if she wanted a walk. Anyway, it turned out Meg had even more mini-events to appear at than I’d been told about, so I attempted to steer us towards the Brombergs stall, except in the end Meg did better than me. Oh well.

Meg Rosoff

It’s amazing how at a fair this size, with thousands and thousands of visitors you ever accidentally find people you know. As I was making my way to see Chris Haughton, my attention was caught – with some difficulty – by the New Librarian, who was standing there eating lunch with Pizzabella and School Friend. So we chatted over their Thai food, until it was time for me to eat my own lunch during Chris’s event.

My next event was 45 minutes on horror with Jonathan Stroud and Mats Strandberg talking to Lotta Olsson. And from there I ran to the stage where Meg was appearing, again, and where I’d arranged to meet both School Friend and Pippi. Failed to see School Friend, even with the help of the New Librarian and Pizzabella, who both passed by individually, and who both failed to find their mother. Pippi turned up and we chatted until it was time for me to force a couple of signed books from Meg. At this point School Friend materialised, but when offered the opportunity of meeting Meg she vanished, claiming she had another event to queue for, so in the end Meg only got to say hello to Pippi, who then insisted on buying me tea. And a kanelbulle.

Meg Rosoff

I just might have noticed Sven Nordqvist, of Findus fame, walk past. But on the whole I don’t recognise Swedish celebrities. I decided that gossiping was more important than a third Jonathan Stroud event, and when we were done I sent Pippi on her way to look at books and things, while I chased Jonathan for a signature, but missed him.

And that was that.

I went to pick up my suitcase from Miss Vet’s, called in at a bookshop on the way to the station (because I’d not had enough, and because the fair didn’t have the book I was after), and caught a train to go and spend the weekend with School Friend. And that is where I am now.

Halving your equations

It was really very interesting. I may not know too much about maths and physics, but that doesn’t mean an event where people who do know about these things and talk about them, can’t be fascinating.

Christophe Galfard and Ulf Danielsson spoke to Karin Bojs about the universe, last thing on Thursday at the book fair. Christophe is famous for having done his PhD with Stephen Hawking, but they were at pains to point out that Ulf had studied with David Gross of Nobel fame, and he is now Professor at the University of Uppsala. Words like theoretical physics and string theory always have entertainment value.

Christophe Galfard, Ulf Danielsson and Karin Bojs

Apparently it was ‘quite easy’ to become a disciple of Stephen Hawking. You just turn up as sober as possible, the day after the May Ball in Cambridge, and you talk to the people there and decide who you like best. It was hard work once he got in, though, but also good because in such illustrious company you get to meet the greatest names in the business. You have to ‘think the unthinkable’ to get ahead.

Karin made Christophe explain the rather famous E = mc2, which seemed to surprise him, and this led to the wisdom of avoiding equations when you write for us normal people, as you halve the number of readers for each equation used. (That strikes me as an equation on its own.)

Ulf also worked hard, and he once carried Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair. It was heavy. During his time working for his PhD he also became a father, while Christophe said he didn’t, or at least not that he knows of. A bit risqué, perhaps.

David Gross insisted Ulf had to learn how to keep his papers in order, and Christophe remembered the time Stephen’s computer voice broke as he was about to talk to his peers, and first year Christophe had to do the talking in his place.

Christophe Galfard

The first book for Christophe was George’s Secret Key to the Universe, which he wrote with Stephen and Lucy Hawking. He said the name helps sales. It’s a story everyone can understand. He is interested in what we don’t know, but also what we don’t know we don’t know. Christophe no longer works with research, but writes full time. He explained why we can’t fly, as well as why we don’t sink through the chairs we sit on. Something to do with quantum physics. And there’s some string theory at the end of his new book, The Universe in Your Hand.

As a professor Ulf has other work to do, but gets his writing in at night on the principle that a little will eventually become a book. He used words like dark matter, dark energy and a Star Wars-y title (Mörkret vid tidens ände), but also has thoughts on geography. His new book, Vårt klot så ömkligt litet, is about Earth and how we are no different from stone age people. And he’s flying back to Uppsala.

The bad news from Christophe is that the Sun will die. And if only the dinosaurs had had a university, they might have learned about theoretical physics and done something about becoming extinct. Not sure if this had any bearing on his trilogy on climate for children. He feels it’s important.

As I said, this was really very interesting.

Afterwards I hung around at the signing, just so I could walk up to Christophe and say hello and tell him we’d met before, and that I wasn’t buying his book. And ‘does he really speak Swedish?’ A little, it seems. Who’d have thought?

At last! Meg at Bokmässan!

A mere eleven years after I told people in no uncertain terms that they must invite Meg Rosoff to the Gothenburg book fair, she’s finally here. She only had to go and win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for it to happen, but at least she got here in the end. And it’s not just me who’s happy. A great many people have gone all star struck over meeting Meg, so I reckon this is a good thing. I’d like to think I helped, but I probably didn’t.

Gothenburg book fair

And I actually didn’t run up to her when I first saw her yesterday, feeling she might need the respite. Five minutes later I knocked on her back, however, as she was waiting to go on for her first of four events, one of the many free floor events they put on in Gothenburg, meaning you can see your stars without forking out a fortune. Or being a librarian. I was introduced to Helen Sigeland from ALMA, who remembered meeting Son a few months ago. (There’s no stopping this family.) I also accidentally saw Meg’s iPhone password when she needed to show me a photo from Tasmania… As you do.


Talking to Boel Westin, she covered everything from getting the news of the award (good news can be as much of a shock as bad news), believing they’d made a mistake, past the prairie of silence when you need to start a new book (generally early January), the sexy horse book, her mother’s dog who is not allowed on the couch, and possibly basing her male and female characters on her husband and their daughter. A little.


One hour later it was the turn of magazine Vi Läser to host Meg at their stall, and the seats were long gone (so I borrowed one from the University of Lund). The conversation was slightly different, and Meg talked about the beginnings of her adult novel Jonathan Unleashed, and leaving Penguin over it. At the signing afterwards I tried to buy a couple of copies of Jonathan in Swedish, but as my faithful readers know, you can’t always buy things with cash in this country.

Meg Rosoff at Vi Läser in Gothenburg

Jonathan-less I made my way round the corner to Piratförlaget and their little stage, grabbing a comfy seat early on. Which is where Meg found me, slurping something rather pink. Her slurping; not me. She showed me a photo of her with Patti Smith, so I said they were on at the same time. Meg told me to go and see Patti instead of her, again. Meg also offered to buy me my own pink blueberry yoghurt drink.


Her lovely interviewer asked Meg about coming to Gothenburg, and she mentioned she’d been hinting for years with no luck, and talked again of the strain of surprise on hearing about the award and how they must have had the wrong number. Many Swedes seem to like What I Was best of Meg’s books, which she – probably accurately – explained by saying how she’d based it on her own ‘feral existence’ in Suffolk, and this is pretty much a Swede’s dream life. Meg told us about her very responsible daughter (she has to be, with a writer and an artist for parents), and how her own mother had confused her early on by saying she was bound to meet Mr Right one day, and how Meg feared she’d be in the wrong place at the crucial time.

It was a good thing I rejected Patti Smith, as the queue for her event was worse even than for Desmond Tutu last time I was here. I and all the librarians managed to sneak past the hordes to get to Meg’s ‘big’ Thursday event, with Boel Westin. I was joined at the last minute by the New Librarian, as well as others made late by the ‘Patti effect.’


Life after ALMA is fine, with everyone wanting to see her, and travelling like crazy. She’s not writing anything at the moment, and Meg probably wants to remember to pay her car insurance this time, as she finishes her to-do pile. Skirting past the sexy horse book, she told us how she acquired her agent, relishing being told to write ‘as fiercely as you can’ after having grown up being told the opposite. When How I Live Now meant Meg could give up her job, she had to ask how to do this, more used to being fired.

Meg talked about finding one’s voice, (apparently it can be a bit like a horse and its rider), telling us that her husband brings her coffee in bed, and she reckons that for this she will hang on to him. Not being good at remembering things, she suspects that what she does remember will be important. Boel said she feels Meg is good at coming up with great book titles, so we learned about Googling ideas for titles to see if you’re original or not.

She doesn’t know what logarithms are, and sometimes she and her husband wake up to the sudden awareness that they actually live with animals. And art is important, as is thinking about death all the time (Meg not being the type of person who thinks about what car to get). She finished by reading from the Swedish favourite, What I Was.

I saw her again as I was enjoying a well earned armchair rest in a corridor. Meg stopped to say she needed to go and lie down, and she was heading for her hotel room, except she wasn’t entirely sure where it was. I realised belatedly that she was walking in the wrong direction…

The Children’s Launderette was here

Scottish Friendly book tour banner

When my window situation prevented me from seeing Chris Riddell in Edinburgh three weeks ago I was a bit upset. But when Chris came to Stirling yesterday – which I have to say was awfully convenient – I was happy again. I wish people would do this more often.

And then – me being me – I spent the morning wondering why I do these things; blogging in general, and arranging to see Laureates in particular. I can tell you why now. It’s because people like Chris Riddell are so very lovely to meet and talk to. They make you feel all nice and warm inside.

Children's Launderette

He had been invited by Scottish Friendly to be taken round the country by Scottish Book Trust in their friendly little book van, visiting as many schools as can be fitted into a week. That’s two a day, plus interviews with radio stations and Bookwitches and that kind of thing.

Tiny Vader

I joined them at Riverside Primary where the children were being mesmerised by Chris as I arrived (it’s not always easy to work out how to enter schools these days) and I had some time sitting in on the questions and answers session. They had put answers on cards in a cheerfully lit box, and Chris drew some cards to answer, and then he drew the answers on a thingummy which enabled everyone to see his hand and the drawing on a big screen on the wall.

Chris Riddell, the pizza tester

Little Cameron was quite taken when Chris drew him a personal Tiny Vader (really Darth Teddi), and that was after we’d seen [a drawing of] the scalpel that airport security had removed from Chris’s possession the other day, leaving his pencil blunter than it wants to be. If Chris didn’t draw, he’d be a [fat] pizza tester, and he rather hopes to be drawing until he’s very old (=for ever and ever). And if that lets us see lots more drawings of his drawers and other garments, that is fine with me. This Children’s Launderette is fun.

Chris Riddell

The session over-ran. Obviously. The queue for the book signing took forever, as it should. Chris gave the children attention and answered more questions. Scottish Book Trust’s Beth ran back to the van for more books when required. Her colleague Tom and I photographed the children’s own drawings, which were very good.

Riverside Primary drawings

Scottish Friendly Children's Book Tour

Eventually it was time to squeeze them and me into the van, recently used by, and now decorated by, Sarah McIntyre. Fuelled by enormous chocolate buttons we drove to Toast (yes it was warm), and found they were about to close, but this was quickly resolved by going next door to Frankie & Benny’s, where the old witch had tea, the Laureate drank wine – because he could – and the young ones ordered attractive looking, but dubiously colourful shakes.

Yes, I did mention I was interviewing Chris, didn’t I? We got through all the important stuff, like his passion for reading and libraries and their future, before he was to be driven to a live radio interview in Perth. But apparently I shouldn’t feel sorry for him, for having such a busy schedule. Chris thrives on it. So far he’s eaten pizza three times, going from not so good to pretty decent. Somewhere in Perth clearly has a duty to come up with a spectacular one. And then an even better one in Aberdeen.

As Beth and Tom began hustling Chris out the door, I managed to get my copy of The Graveyard Book out for a little doodle, next to where Neil Gaiman had already given me a tombstone…

The Graveyard Book and Chris Riddell

The Makar and the First Minister

In the end it was just me and Shappi Khorsandi’s handbag. Fantastic handbag, actually, and I felt sort of honour bound to guard it while it was sitting there all alone. Now, if you knew me, you’d realise how odd this was. It was mere minutes after I had spectacularly missed taking photographs of Shappi. Twice. Because I didn’t recognise her well enough. And now I know what her handbag looks like.

Jackie Kay and Nicola Sturgeon

This was probably due to the excitement ‘backstage’ after the photo session with Nicola Sturgeon and Jackie Kay. We’d waited, the way you do. And then it happened so fast, the way it tends to with people who have security staff and lots of commitments, but not so many that a First Minister can’t interview a poet at a book festival. They were nicely colour coordinated, the two of them. And it’s a sign of popularity for a politician when she is addressed by her first name.

So I missed Shappi’s photo call, coming immediately after this. Then I missed my unobtrusive photos of Shappi as she was being given the Chris Close treatment. And then everyone left, except for the handbag.

Prior to this I had skipped a book signing with Simon Callow. I decided I already had enough pictures of him, so went and sat in the yurt reading and eating my lunch. Only minutes later he joined me on that bench. Admittedly with an interviewer, but still. You can’t escape the great and the good. Luckily for Simon I hadn’t helped myself to the grapes in the fruit bowl as had been my intention, so he was able to polish them off as he talked.

Zaffar Kunial

Previously out on the grass, I had come across poet Zaffar Kunial seemingly doing an impromptu session with a large group of people. Maybe these things just happen as fans encounter someone they admire…

Holly Sterling

Carol Ann Duffy

Gillian Clarke

Then it was back and forth for me, catching children’s illustrators in the children’s bookshop and the more grown-up poets in the signing tent. Holly Sterling had a line of eager children after her event, and staying with the Christmas theme, so did Carol Ann Duffy across the square, along with her fellow Welsh poet Gillian Clarke. After them Jackie Kay signed, without Nicola Sturgeon. And I finally caught up with Shappi!

Jackie Kay

Shappi Khorsandi

Fiona Bird

Found Fiona Bird signing her nature book mid-afternoon, and she has such an appropriate name for the kind of books she writes! I went hunting for Kathryn Evans and Michael Grant, who had both been hung along the boardwalks by Chris Close. Had to try Kathryn several times, to see if the light would improve.

Kathryn Evans by Chris Close

Michael Grant by Chris Close

And there were no photos, but I glimpsed Kate Leiper, and spoke to both Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.

Tried to use my afternoon sensibly, so checked out various books in the bookshops. That didn’t mean I actually did sensible thinking, looking up ‘un-known’ names or anything. If I had I wouldn’t have been so surprised later.