Category Archives: Interview

Booked – Elizabeth Laird and Daniel Hahn


As Janet Smyth – who organises the children’s books programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – said yesterday, away from August and Charlotte Square it can be a lot of fun to revisit events and ideas in greater detail. So that’s what they are doing, with a programme under the [extremely clever] title Booked. What’s more, we are no longer suffering from bookfest fatigue.

The Bookwitch seat

I arrived at Assembly Roxy with plenty of time, and as the first one there (I know…) I was not only given the choice of best seat, but was more or less led to the most comfortable seat in the place, which happened to be a high-backed leather armchair [with just the right support for an ouchy back] which I sat down in and then simply never left. (Feel free to copy this idea at other venues.)

My back and I had come for Elizabeth Laird in conversation with Daniel Hahn, on the occasion of her nomination as the UK representative for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award. This IBBY book award is a global one, which looks at an author’s whole body of work. Liz has written around 30 novels, translated into about 15 languages, and she has lived in several countries, including Malaysia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Asked how she feels about her nomination, Liz said it’s ‘absolutely stunning!’ She spoke of having a couple of her books translated into Arabic, which led her and Daniel to talk about the way so many children’s books in English are translated into other languages, as witnessed by them at a big book festival in Tehran. And Daniel compared this to the relatively few foreign books that are translated into English.

Janet asked if you have to be dead to make it into translation, and he said yes, or you are Cornelia Funke. From his own childhood he knows that children don’t care (possibly don’t know) that books are foreign. He grew up with Moomin and Asterix, and feels that publishers worry too much about what you can put into a book, in case it doesn’t translate well, and this goes for the illustrations too. As for the difficulty of translating rhyming verse, he says that doesn’t seem to stop Julia Donaldson’s books from selling abroad.

Liz said we don’t want child characters who do what their parents say, and Daniel pointed out that’s why we have so many orphans in books. As an example he mentioned James and the Giant Peach, where the parents are killed by a rhinoceros on page one; presumably because Roald Dahl felt he had to get it over with.

Children will engage in a story, and offer hope, endurance, forgiveness and love. Liz likes happy endings, and said that she wants to write hopeful, if not happy, endings. Children’s books should be something to remember as an adult. These days we have emasculated stories, making Grimm and Noah into tame versions of the original stories, in order not to upset.

Daniel Hahn and Elizabeth Laird

When it came to the Q&A, no one knew what Hans Christian Andersen did when he visited Edinburgh. (Did any of you see him?) Daniel reckons this keen but neurotic traveller probably worried about losing his passport, and that he would have had a rope in his luggage, just in case. And he’d quite like to be able to read HCA in Danish.

Asked for a racy story, Liz told us her favourite about the beautiful girl and her silly husband, equally silly father, and hopelessly silly neighbour.

They talked about Liz’s book A Little Piece of Ground, which is about football in Palestine, and she finished by saying she’s not ‘holding her breath’ as regards winning the award.

I think she could. Should.

Elizabeth Laird

There was a signing afterwards, but not before Liz had rushed to put her warm coat on, as she must have been freezing up there on stage. I finally cornered Daniel with my copy of his Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, ‘this lethal weapon, a nightmare,’ and it has been duly signed.

Daniel Hahn

Bookwitch bites #131

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

David Almond scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize on Thursday. Congratulations to him, and commiserations to young ‘Master Sally Nicholls,’ who at his very young age let his disappointment that Mummy didn’t win be known. I like a baby who can cry when the time is right. And apparently he was passed round like a – very valuable – parcel, so I’m quite jealous I wasn’t there.

Sally is also on the shortlist for the Costa, so perhaps the young Master will appear at another awards event soon. Because as he well knows, Mummy’s is one seriously good book, and he will read it as soon as he can.

Someone (Muckle Media. And you know, I blogged about muckle only the other day) has been looking into who is most popular on Twitter in Scotland. It seems J K Rowling does quite well with followers and such. And what’s fascinating is that I’ve never heard of some of the top names, although Ian Rankin and Val McDermid ring a bell. As do Bookwitch favourites like Gillian Philip, Nicola Morgan, Julie Bertagna and Helen Grant. Long may they tweet.

On Twitter (where else?) I learned that Teri Terry was interviewed when she was in Denmark recently. Her answers are perfectly easy to understand. For those of you who still don’t read Danish after all those Killings and Bridges, I can only suggest you guess what Teri is replying to, as the questions are in Danish.

Anne Rooney has been interviewed by the Society of Authors about non-fiction (I thought of it first!), and it makes for very interesting reading. Times are hard. Being interested in everything is good. Anne is good.

If all this feels like it’s getting on top of you, counselling is at hand. Nicola Morgan is now the proud owner of a Certificate of Counselling, part of her Diploma in Youth Counselling. She is so good at so many things. And I’d have happily unburdened myself to Nicola even before she was certified.

In conversation with Dr Death

There were many jokes and puns based on death last night at the University of Edinburgh event with Sarah Death, eminent translator from Swedish, in conversation with – the also quite excellent (cough) – Ian Giles. Although, as a mere woman Dr Death can only be a Member of the Order of the Polar Star, whereas her colleague in the audience last night, Peter Graves, is a Knight. (Graves, Death..?) But as someone said, it’s not often you find yourself in the same room with one, let alone two, such eminent polar stars.

Ian mentioned how he’d been pleasantly surprised to be approached by Sarah, when he was doing translation for his MSc. It was the idea of being contacted by the person he wants to be when he grows up…

This ‘110% clueless mother of a demanding child’ went part-time with her PhD back in the day, and started translating books on the side. The only time available to do it was when she was babysitting other people’s children, who were good enough to actually sleep. But eventually Dr Death emerged with her thesis on Fredrika Bremer and Elin Wägner; both good Swedish feminists from the olden days.

Sarah’s favourite author to translate would be Kerstin Ekman, who is so popular that she’s being shared by many translators, and Sarah has several other authors she likes, and some that she has yet to persuade a publisher to take on. So far she has translated 26 books from Swedish and two from Norwegian.

She is the former editor of the Swedish Book Review, having taken over after Laurie Thompson. The SBR is highly thought of for being independent, and publishers are happy for their books to be reviewed there. Sarah has reviewed around 70 books for the SBR, but feels she needs to limit herself so that she actually has time to translate as well.

The ‘mushrooming’ agents are a new concept in the bookworld, and a very new thing is the idea of sample commissions, translating a book without definite plans to publish. It’s a good way for the emerging translator to practise, but with no guarantees if the book does make it into being published. Likewise doing book reports, which takes time and pays badly, but which could be considered part of the apprenticeship.

You don’t necessarily get to translate the books you like. You translate the books you are offered, and then you might find your dream book gets offered to someone else. Sarah’s advice to the emerging translator is to get a foot in the door, to make contacts. And not to take on too much work. She compared herself to Judi Dench who claims to feel more scared the more she does, suffering from ‘prestationsångest’ as Sarah called it. (Interesting to find someone who borrows words in the opposite direction!)

And then you wait for someone like Joan Tate to die. (Before you worry too much; Joan Tate is already dead.) Basically, if there is someone older than you, someone very good, you may have to wait for them to die, or possibly retire, before the plum jobs come your way. And no, Sarah has no retirement plans. Translating is a slow career, so you don’t stop at 65. And like Bookwitch, she ‘suffers’ from loyalty; to publishers, to authors, so can’t really slow down too much.

Working with authors varies. Some want to ‘help’ a lot, some can’t be bothered. The dead ones are not difficult, but nor are they helpful. Sometimes Sarah has books queueing up to be translated, and it can be hard to keep her enthusiasm for as long as it takes to start on a book. She has been known to begin a book in the middle, and she always tries to get the first draft as good as possible, as there is only so much editing she can tolerate. That’s why she likes short books best.

Then there was wine and crisps, as well as some freebies and useful leaflets. Dr Death professed pleasure at meeting the Bookwitch at long last, which is surprising, but understandable. Afterwards the emerging Ian Giles guided us safely (well, Peter Graves tried to make us turn right instead of left…) to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It was him, plus eight old people. We all had a good time. And I trust Daniel Hahn’s ears burned nicely all evening.

A Bookwitch interview

Only it’s the other way round. This time I have been interviewed, by the Swedish Book Review, in their autumn edition which is mainly about children’s and YA authors.

They have translated short pieces by several authors, and they have interviewed publisher and translator Julia Marshall. And me.

Swedish Book Review

The authors are Per Gustavsson, Annelis Johansson, Cilla Nauman, Frida Nilsson and Malte Persson. All good, honest Swedish names, and no, I don’t know much about these writers, either. But then they are not part of my area of expertise, and perhaps I don’t really belong in this illustrious company.

But there I am anyway.

It was fun to be included, although now I can see how hard it is to be on the other side, coming up with answers to what might not be the questions you’d imagined someone would ask.

Swedish Book Review

Swedish Book Review

Hej då, Henning

By now you probably all know that Henning Mankell died this morning. His death is in the news everywhere, which just goes to show how far crime will get you. Even when you’re a foreigner, as Henning undoubtedly was to most of you.

I never did get that interview, apart from my impromptu four-minute one in the children’s bookshop in Charlotte Square; the place where he wasn’t guarded at all, unlike for his adult events. But we did speak very briefly, several times, including that first meeting when Son startled him by wanting a book signed that Henning didn’t recognise as his. It was his, though, and after some discussion it got sorted out.

Even then, Henning was a grand person, while on Swedish soil; walking round with a bit of an entourage. But that’s how Swedes do their worshipping. His star status in the English speaking world came a little later.

I knew he was ill, and ever the pessimist I expected the worst. But as recently as last week I felt a moment of optimism. I have a Facebook friend, whom I barely know, despite having ‘known’ him for decades (he’s GP Cousin’s very good friend). He’s rich, and he’s a rather radical leftie, and he does unusual things with his time and money. His latest venture is some museum for another well known Swedish radical, which is opening next month. And the encouraging news was that Henning was to do the honours. So I thought, ‘Oh, he’s well enough to do that then?’

Today’s sad news took my radical millionnaire by surprise too, as he was due to have lunch with Henning a few hours ago. Which I suppose was a good sign in itself; that he’d felt able to make such plans.

As for me, I’m glad we met a few times, and I’m even glad I cried at his event in Gothenburg eight years ago. He was a good man who did lots of good to lots of people, and that’s not counting entertaining us with Wallander.

Henning Mankell(I prefer this photo from some years ago, to the one my local Swedish newspaper used, where you can clearly see how unwell he was.)

The Henning Mankell mini-interview

Another Michael Grant interview

Michael Grant

And by that I mean another interview. Not another Michael Grant. But you knew that.

Michael is always very American, and very professional, about being interviewed. And as I enquired about his wealth – again – he enthused about John Lewis and what a good value wallet he’d bought there!

If you’re a fan of Michael’s books, rest assured there are more in the pipeline than you can shake a broomstick at.

Read about blue hair and lovely fans and all the rest here.

The #18 profile – Hilary Freeman

Hilary Freeman has been busy. She has a new book out, When I Was Me, and she has a young baby daughter, who very kindly agreed to go for a walk with her Dad so her Mum could answer my questions. I like that in a child; an understanding that occasionally literature has to come first, like maybe 2% of the time. So here’s Hilary, sharing some of her secrets with us:

Hilary Freeman

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

None: I’m the luckiest person in the world because my very first novel was published. Piccadilly Press approached me on the strength of my journalism and teen agony aunt work, and asked me to pitch some book ideas. They liked the outline for Loving Danny, asked me to develop it, and commissioned it based on just one chapter. I am incredibly grateful for that break. I’m not sure I’d ever have had the confidence to send anyone my fiction writing, if that hadn’t happened.

Best place for inspiration?

By the sea. I find it hypnotic and calming. It really helps to clear my mind and let me focus.

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

I would consider it, if there was a good reason, and I have been involved in a couple of ghost writing projects. But I do like having my own name on the front of a book, partly as an up-yours to anyone who put me down in the past.

As a journalist, I often masquerade as celebrities when I write first-person articles with them. Once I had to choose a pseudonym for a national newspaper because I had several articles in the same edition. I chose Sue Denim, thinking they’d just laugh and tell me to choose another. But they didn’t get the joke, and printed it. I later learned that when Kylie Minogue checks into hotels, she calls herself Sue Denim!

What would you never write about?

There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about (now there’s a challenge). When I trained to be a journalist I was taught that a good writer is able to write about any subject. You just need to do the research and ask the right questions… Which is how I ended up writing about insurance (yawn) early on in my career. It’s the same with novels. Of course, it helps a lot if you’re interested in the subject matter. I failed my maths O-level and gave up physics at 14, but I tackled quantum physics in When I was Me.

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

Will you allow me to be sentimental? I’m going to say, my baby daughter Sidonie, who is now just 10 weeks old. If I hadn’t taken myself away on writing retreats to Nice in France, I wouldn’t have met my partner Mickael, who worked in the apart hotel where I stayed, and we wouldn’t have had Sidonie. So in a roundabout way, she’s the result of my writing.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

That’s a tricky one, because most of my characters go through difficult times or have big flaws, so I wouldn’t really want to be any of them. Rosie from The Celeb Next Door probably has the most fun, so maybe her. And, of course, Naomi in Loving Danny is semi-autobiographical, so I’ve already been her.

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

I think it would be fantastic. I love film as a medium, and the way I write is probably influenced as much by films as by books. Then, of course, there’s the money and the publicity too, which would attract new readers. To be honest, I can’t really think of a downside. So if anyone is reading this…

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

At a school visit in London, a girl asked me: ‘Have you ever met Nicki Minaj?’ (In case you don’t know, she’s a very loud American pop star.) I haven’t.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I’m not sure what people would expect of me… I’m afraid I have no special talents (that are printable) but I do love a karaoke session. Once I get going, it’s hard to stop me. And I’ve been told that I can, surprisingly, be quite scary (not when singing Karaoke, I hope, but when I’m angry).

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Definitely Narnia. I loved those books when I was a child and there’s actually a little reference to Narnia in my new book, When I was Me. The idea of a magical world at the back of the wardrobe really fired up my imagination. I wasn’t allowed to read Enid Blyton as a kid – the only censorship my parents ever practised. They let me read anything on their vast bookshelves, but not Blyton.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

This is where I’m meant to say someone dark and brooding from a Swedish crime drama, right? I’m afraid my answer is far less cool. I love Abba (remember the karaoke) – all four of them – and actor Alexander Skarsgård is yummy.

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

I’m quite a messy person and my books are not arranged in any particular order. They’re shoved wherever they will fit. In fact, the bookshelves are so overfilled that they’re now bowing, and there are piles of books on the floor in several rooms. That’s why I really only buy e-books these days.

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

I’d give him a book that appealed to an interest he was passionate about, such as football. In fact, I once contributed a short story to a book called Football Shorts (Walker), which was aimed at encouraging literacy in young boys, and which contains stories by both children’s authors and footballers.

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

What an impossible choice. They go together like rhubarb and custard, one making the other sweeter and one, sharper. I keep changing my mind but I think it would have to be writing because the urge to express myself in words is like an itch. Although I guess I could speak the words out loud instead. Would that be cheating?

A big thank you to Ms Denim, and if you must sing Mamma Mia non-stop, please do it somewhere else. You’ll wake the baby.