Category Archives: Interview

Flash Forward

His inhaler, a bag of helium, and a games console were the single luxuries Wednesday morning’s three time travelling fantasy writers chose from life today. They should have thought this through more, shouldn’t they?

The indefatigable Ann Landmann was at the book festival to chat to Jonathan Stroud – who played it safe by remaining in Hertfordshire – and who’s written three gazillion books (Ann has read every one of them), and to relative newcomer Ben Oliver and debut author Femi Fadugba. This was, not surprisingly, another really good event.

They all had to start by describing themselves, so now I understand better what’s been happening at earlier events. It’s so people with impaired vision knows who’s who. Ben regretted getting his hair wet on the way, and Femi seemed to wish he’d picked a different t-shirt (I liked it).

We were promised a spoiler-free conversation, and I’m grateful, having read just Jonathan’s Scarlett & Browne, but not the other two books. I want to.

Ben is a teacher from Glasgow, who writes about a character on death row, in a world maybe 150 to 200 years in the future. It’s very dark.

For Femi Physics comes first. His book is two narratives of 4D space time, in Peckham. No, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either, but it’s how I heard it. (The short excerpt in the Guardian is Very Promising.) And as time travel goes, Femi moves only 15 years into the future. He wanted it to be somewhere well known.

Jonathan on the other hand, has placed his characters in a submerged England, maybe 500 years away, and no one much knows what happened. I expect we’ll learn along with the characters. Jonathan likes using humour, because everyone’s mostly like they would be now. Except Scarlett who started life as a middle aged man, but is now a teenage girl.

Asked if their worlds could become reality, Femi feels that maybe his already is. Ben hopes sincerely not, whereas Jonathan is full of optimism, despite the giant otters. Another question was about possible actors for any films they may have given life to. Femi already knows, but can’t tell. Ben would like young, unknown actors. Plus Hugh Grant. Jonathan, too, goes for someone unknown, as long as she has red hair.

This just left me wanting to read. And that’s really what this should all be about. More. Reading.

Don’t drop those walrus tusks

Thursday morning’s bookfest event featured a talk between Barbara Henderson about her version of the Lewis chessmen and Dr Alice Blackwell from the ‘local’ museum who also knows a lot about them. The one keeping the ladies in order was dinosaur professor Steve Brusatte, who’s no dinosaur, but he knows about them, and they are even older than the chessmen.

It’s always good when grown-up academics can demonstrate so much enthusiasm for children’s fiction on a subject they might know a lot about. It’s not just me who rather liked The Chessmen Thief.

Barbara started off by reading from the beginning, where her hero does his best not to drop the walrus tusks. They will break into smithereens if you do.

She has long been fascinated by Vikings, and by board games, and the fact that not only did they carve these chess pieces nearly nine hundred years ago, but they actually played chess!

When it became impossible for Barbara to travel to Shetland for research, she re-routed to Orkney instead, which is why her characters stop by Orkney on their way from Norway to the Western Isles which they called the Southern Isles. It’s all relative. And when they got there, the much older Callanish stones were already waiting, although they were not necessarily as ancient as the dinosaurs…

Alice took over and talked about the chessmen in her museum. They have eleven of the 93 pieces found, and the British museum have some of the rest. Because we – they – don’t know everything about the chessmen, they lend themselves well to be used in fiction like this. They’re not all walrus; some pieces are carved from sperm whale teeth. Alice is their carer, and when some of the pieces are lent to other museums, she gets to travel with them.

There were questions, both from our dinosaur expert (on Skye, you should always keep your eyes open in case you find a bit of dinosaur) and from the audience. Barbara has plenty of new plans, with an eye on the Forth Bridge, and not forgetting Mary Queen of Scots.

Malorie Blackman – Flipping reality

The one event I wanted to go to on Saturday was Malorie Blackman talking to Gemma Cairney. Turned out she was only appearing remotely, but you can always record from your attic, which is what Malorie did. I’ve heard her talk many times, but never knew she went by the name Lorie. So I live and learn.

It’s what she does herself as well. Malorie likes taking a new course at City Lit every year, just to learn. And these days she gets paid to daydream. Take that, teachers!

Her Noughts & Crosses series is an alternate Britain, a recognisable here and now. It’s not dystopian; Malorie simply flipped reality. Callum is most like herself, and she gave him a couple of her own experiences. One was the time she was on a train travelling first class and the guard thought she’d stolen the ticket. The other was at school, being told by a teacher that there were no black scientists [to tell them about].

Imagination is like a muscle. You need to use it. And you should read read read. Malorie calls herself nosy, which is another way of talking about research. One should be curious.

Othello was her first coloured character. Later on she frequented the black bookshop, (New Beacon Books), in Islington. They stocked mostly African and Caribbean books, as there were relatively few black British books.

After a slow start for black authors, according to Malorie, about fifteen years ago they were ‘almost fashionable for a while’, but six or seven years ago it was down to her and someone else again. One of her early books was accepted by a publisher purely for their ‘multicultural list’ and they said no to her second idea for a book.

Reading The Colour Purple Malorie felt that ‘maybe I can do this too’. Before that she read Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (leading to her reading all the other Agatha Christie novels as well). This was due to the influence of the librarian who pointed her in the right direction. These days she often gets sent books, or her agent does. One recent book she recommends is The Upper World by Femi Fadugba, which is out soon.

In answer to a question whether she waits for the muse or just starts to write, Malorie said you ‘sit down and get on with it’. In her case it’s from nine to six in her attic office, with an hour for lunch. She’s looking forward to the second television series of Noughts & Crosses, and feels very lucky to be able to experience the bizarre, lovely feeling of seeing her own thoughts translated onto the screen.

To finish, Malorie read chapter 16 from Endgame, the last in the Noughts & Crosses series, publishing in September. We’ll just have to wait.

The first day

Today was the first day of the rest of its life, for the new Edinburgh International Book Festival. I had to be there. It’s now in the Edinburgh College of Art in Lauriston Place. It’s different, but not that different. As the Photographer and I dithered near the entrance, the first person we encountered was Ian Rankin. Rather like on our first ever EIBF in 2009. This was clearly a good omen.

The next thing for us was to find the press yurt, looking smaller than ever, but still our press yurt. It still had Frances Sutton and were it not for current circumstances we could have hugged her. We all agreed we had missed this very much; this getting together in the same place, especially with people who had not Zoomed endlessly during the last year and a bit.

The ducks were in situ, which was a relief for us and them. However, the badge for my Photographer was classier than mine. Just saying.

We saw one of the crew (I’m never quite sure what he does, but we’ve seen him every year), who still had Covid hair. Very fetching.

Walked around the courtyard of the college, getting our bearings. It’s smallish, and very green. It’s got a lot of decking, because although small, it’s ‘hilly’. Trees and tent coverings have my favourite little string lights. I’ll have to come back in the dark. There are picnic tables and several mobile bars serving stuff, as well as the college café which does hot food. Play tent for the young and first aid tent for the unfortunate.

Didn’t think much of the bookshop. Few books and looked more like the old signing tent.*

There is a large, but not too large, screen in the middle of all this. We arrived in time for the live event with Zoë Wicomb, talking to Stuart Kelly (another stalwart of the festival, who is always there), and this was something I liked. It was a free event to enjoy from wherever you might be sitting, resting, eating lunch, or whatever. Good quality picture and decent sound. I’d never heard of Zoë, and for that reason would never have bought a ticket to see her, but this was good. I dipped in and out of their chat, feeling it personified the general sentiment of the bookfest.

Saw two gentlemen wearing top hats and tails, and felt they looked a bit familiar. Decided they were Macastory, whose job it was to do live talks and walks on the Meadows. So there were a few familiar faces, at this new hybrid affair of books. Missed Daniel Hahn whose recorded event with Jenny Erpenbeck was done closer to [his] home than previously advertised. I only cried a little into my cups over that, but they were Moomin cups, so…

Having brought with us foreign food to eat, just in case, we then made the sacrifice of road testing the college café as well. Just to be sure. It was very pleasant. I could go back. (At least if the train journey wasn’t quite so hot and crowded.)

*That would be because it was the signing tent. As we left, turning the corner to go find a train home, we came across the real bookshop. It was bigger, with more books. And it has seating outside if you are overcome by some urge to read what you bought.

Tea?

This morning I woke up to an offer of afternoon tea with Jamila Gavin and S F Said. I immediately assumed I was not worthy, because I’ve seen these ‘afternoon tea withs’ advertised before, for members of the Society of Authors. But I pressed the buttons and some hours later, there I was, not actually having actual tea, but watching S F drinking something from a large glass while chatting to Jamila.

Jamila Gavin is royalty to us in Bookwitch Towers. And I started wondering how come I’ve not ever seen her in an event. I’m assuming she very sensibly stays at home and writes and stays sane, and anyway, you don’t expect royalty to come wandering into your neck of the woods. But there we were.

This was a well run event, from the technical to the discussion. No hitches. S F knew precisely what the rest of us would want him to ask Jamila. Starting with Wheel of Surya, named one of the 100 best children’s books by Booktrust, it seems SF is as big a fan as I am.

He asked Jamila to read to us, and she chose the bit with the bullock carts, and the sound they made, which was something she’d got from her mother, who was still alive when the book was written and who could share her own, adult, memories of people having to leave their homes.

Before that S F wanted to know how Jamila came to start writing. This wasn’t anything she’d imagined herself doing, wanting to be a musician, but via Paris and Berlin and the BBC, and after getting married and having children, she discovered that non-white children drew themselves as white, because they didn’t see children like themselves in books. So that’s how The Magic Orange Tree came to be. Jamila spoke warmly of her publisher, Methuen, who told her that other books which sold more copies, were there to support smaller books.

She was with a friend in the North when she first heard of the ‘Coram man’ and about child abuse from a long time ago. She went home and looked for all the Corams in the phone book and spoke to all of them, until she came across the Coram Foundation and discovered what had happened. It seems that while there was no specific Coram man, many child traffickers made use of the name. When Jamila met someone in Hebden Bridge during an Arvon course, she learned about the children buried in the woods, and with the slave trade added to this, she had what she needed for her book. Not sure it was even going to be a book for children at first, it’s what it became, because if children lived and died like that, then children could read about it.

Of Jamila’s more recent books she spoke about Blackberry Blue, a short story called In Her Element, and what went before it, a 1990s book called Wormholers. From there we were told about her work in progress, a WWII novel titled Never Shall I Ever Forget You, which will be published in January next year. None of us felt we wanted to wait that long.

In the Q&A someone wanted to know why Grandpa Chatterji is no longer available, and she wishes it was too. As a recommendation for adult mixed race reading Jamila mentioned Bhowani Junction by John Masters, made famous by the film starring Ava Gardner.

Mentioning children’s books with issues, be it Philip Pullman, David Almond or Jacqueline Wilson, Jamila said that one should try to ‘end with hope’.

Asked whether she feels that you are allowed to write about something you’ve not experienced, Jamila said that cultural appropriation are her ‘most dreaded words’. She feels everyone has the right to write about things. ‘It’s our job to find the truth of your stories’, and publishers must be prepared to publish them.

Her motivation to ‘write well’ is to read a lot, although she admitted to not reading as much as she’d want to. Also, she doesn’t like the way we now talk about ‘reading for pleasure’ which feels like an indictment on education. Reading should be spontaneous, not a timetabled event.

So that was a really excellent chat between two authors, and the questions from the audience were well above average, and Jamila’s responses to them very interesting. I will happily attend more events with Jamila, and it’s so odd that after all these years, this was my first time.

Down #6 Memory Lane

I was going to go with a male author this time, having gone down Memory Lane with mostly girls so far. But as it said in the Guardian at the weekend, men don’t read books by women to the same extent women do books by male authors. Although, as you will see below, there is a male reader involved here.

Having met Sara Paretsky quite a few times by now, I was recently reminded of the second time, and how surprised I was by the attitude of the bookshop owners, who provided the venue for our meeting, and subsequent interview.

Offspring and I talked to Sara in Gothenburg in 2006, when Son was able to ask his standing question (which we seem to have lost by now), which was her opinion of Philip Pullman. We took for granted that she’d be a fan, and Sara did not disappoint. She was very graceful, saying good things about another author, in what was her own signing queue.

And then came the second time. I’d seen she was coming to Manchester, so spruced up my interview hat and asked for an interview. All properly done through her publicist. I suggested we meet in the local bookshop, believing it’d be great for all of us, including the bookshop who’d get a major crime writer come to them.

I was so naïve.

They didn’t say no, but neither did they in any noticeable way advertise her coming. I don’t think it was that they disliked her. I reckon they just had no idea what a big name Sara was. And, yes, I had invited her. So clearly she was no one special.

The day arrived. Sara arrived, chauffeur-driven, in the company of her publicist Kerry. I was beginning to worry that no one would turn up. Luckily, some people did, and it being a small shop, the small crowd looked bigger than it was. What pleased me the most, apart from getting my interview, was that the bookshop’s customers knew what a great deal it was, even if the owners didn’t. And one man, whose favourite author Sara was, had just come for his Saturday coffee, not knowing she was there, right then. This lovely surprise for one fan, outweighed the rest, as far as I was concerned.

From then on we have met in more sympathetic bookshops and at book festivals. Always with the assistance of Kerry. Some publicists are very special. Our next meeting in Nottingham, on a snowy Sunday is one of my best memories, complete with my half-eaten sandwich and discovering how ‘all’ involved were fans of NCIS.

Scottish by Inclination

Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination could be described as an essential read for all other types of Scottish people, not to mention English people, and those further afield who still don’t see, or believe, that Brexit had much effect. Especially not on me, or us, or anyone perceived to be an OK sort of foreigner. Unlike ‘those others’.

Once I began reading the book I couldn’t stop. It’s just so good and so interesting and feels so real. It’s back to what I keep going on about; if you write what’s close to you, it will always be far better than anything else. And Barbara knows how to be German in Scotland, until she ‘forgot she was a foreigner’.

This is the story of Barbara’s life in Scotland, starting a little before she decided to study in Edinburgh, continuing with her departure from all she knew and loved best and her arrival at Glasgow airport thirty years ago. Just the fact that it was Glasgow then, when now it is nearly always Edinburgh. Short chapters on what it was like to be a student, on getting married, training for a job and starting work. Having babies and ending up in Inverness, where she still lives.

Every short chapter ends with a brief interview with other foreigners, from all the corners of the EU, showing why they came and what they do now, and showing that even those from some of the countries people have been suspicious of, are nice people, working hard, belonging. They are worthy of being here.

Although why immigrants should have to be so much ‘better’ than the people born in a country is beyond me.

I’m certainly not better than anyone. Just thinking about all the things Barbara did, working so very hard, having so much energy, and smiling so much, and, I believe, learning to understand what people in Glasgow say. (Only joking. A little.)

One of the EU citizens Barbara interviewed was your own witch. She even makes me sound interesting.

It’s my belief that anyone would enjoy this book. As I said, I started and couldn’t put it down. Bunkered up with sandwiches for lunch so I could read straight through the afternoon. After dinner the Resident IT Consultant took over and if you knew him, you’d know that not going for that walk he was going on but just sitting there reading and smiling, well… As an Edinburgh alumnus, albeit older, he enjoyed seeing what Barbara’s crowd got up to.

We are all foreigners, and it was a relief to see that someone else had had the same or similar problems to mine. And I appreciated the quotes from old and famous people for each chapter. It’s amazing not only how much wisdom there can be in a selection of quotes, but how apt they were for what the chapters were about.

There are photos of nearly all the EU interviewees, and what strikes me is how they look like people I’ve always known. (I’m the only one who’s turning her back on the reader.)

Yeah, did I mention I think everyone ought to read Scottish by Inclination? I really do.

We have all arrived

And we would like to stay. I think that’s really what last night’s launch for Barbara Henderson’s book Scottish by Inclination was about. She came here thirty years ago, and has now written a non-fiction book about her time in Scotland, including interviews with a number of EU citizens who also came here some time in the past, and were expecting the right to a future.

The letter from the Scottish Government, telling us we are welcome here and they want us here, helped. But it’s no guarantee. Barbara has now acquired British citizenship, just to be on the safe side. She did this on the advice of Elizabeth Wein, who felt that it’s the only reliable thing to do, if you want to be sure.

Wearing her starry EU t-shirt, Barbara was talking to Margaret Kirk (who almost struggled to get a word in edgeways…). Barbara is a very cheerful force to be reckoned with. She read to us. Her arrival at Glasgow airport, where her first task was to find Fergus, which involved her walking round the arrivals hall singing, to attract the attention of the right very tall person. Then she read her memories from June 23rd five years ago, when the result of the referendum took her completely by surprise. (Available on YouTube.)

At first Barbara had no wish to write her memoirs, when it was suggested to her, but she changed her mind. And as I usually say, no one can tell you you have got your own story wrong.

She shared her path to British citizenship, which wasn’t plain sailing. With help from an excellent lawyer and making far too many trips from Inverness to Glasgow, she’s been successful. Barbara tested us on our knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ from the official test (which I passed with flying colours). This could be because I have also taken, and studied for, this test. Mostly it seems people (those born here) got three out of five.

There was a question as to whether as a foreigner you have to be better, prove that you can do more than the natives. It certainly seems like it. But by now Barbara has decided she doesn’t need permission from others to determine ‘how Scottish’ she is. It’s her right to say, and she is Scottish by Inclination.

And so say all of us.

This, of course, has no bearing as to which football team she was rooting for on Wednesday evening.

4 to 5 translations to pay the mortgage

I was ready to throw something at the screen. But as it was the television screen I had to restrain myself. Although, I don’t suppose the computer screen would have been a cheaper option.

I was enjoying Singing for Your Supper: How to Make it as a Translator, on Zoom last night. It was organised by DELT, which is to Denmark what SELTA is to Sweden. Literary translators. OK, so it was supposed to be literary. But to me that is as opposed to business press releases, mining reports or death certificates. Fiction.

But when Kyle Semmel, the chair of this event with Daniel Hahn and Misha Hoekstra, said as advice to new translators that there was no immediate shame to translating genre (he’d done it himself to begin with), well, I was reaching for something to throw. Because clearly you must be literary. Misha Hoekstra nodded in agreement, whereas Daniel had stressed that mortgages have to be paid and he likes to eat, too.

He wasn’t the only one to pipe up about how being paid is important. He translates four or five books a year just to make sure he has somewhere to live. Kyle translates when he feels like it, and Misha has the safety net that is a Nordic country with financial support for literature. Very different lives. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the translators or hopefuls who listened in were also in need of daily food and a roof over their heads.

Misha’s advice was probably sound for someone living and working in Denmark, and I suppose many of these translators were working from Danish, if not actually in Denmark. I know that some authors do well enough to be able to pay for someone to translate their books [without there being a buyer for it abroad], but not everyone is that lucky. The idea that a budding translator should approach some of the authors I know here in the UK, wanting money for a sample translation is, well, not terribly realistic.

If you want to know how a translator like Daniel works, I will suggest, again, his diary from earlier this year, on how he translated one particular Chilean novel. Aside from being an interesting window into how one person works, it’s a funny, well-written diary.

And no, you don’t have to love what you translate. As Daniel pointed out, there are more hopeful translators than there are books publishers want translated. And there is that mortgage that wants paying.

Genre, that is also literature. It can be crime. Or children’s. It’s not something to be looked down on. Especially not if you work with books, words and language.

Down #5 Memory Lane

Some of you may have been a little surprised that I’ve as yet not mentioned my fairy blog mother in my ‘memory’ pieces. The thing is that Meg Rosoff – for it is she – features in so many ways, from so many points in time.

I’ve recently been thinking of the holiday in Penzance in 2006, when Daughter and I got freezing cold on our way home via London to see Meg for the first time. The time when she talked about her new dogs, and then insisted on buying us something to eat and drink, first counting the money in her pocket. It was just over £6 and covered several items from the cafeteria. And then she drove us back to Euston, only partially engaging in some mild road rage in the middle of Euston Road.

And I remember the Aye Write in Glasgow in 2016, when she fed me again; some very nice Indian food, before limping back to her hotel, wearing new boots. That was just before we found out she was that year’s ALMA winner, which in turn meant that I stalked her round several parts of Sweden, meeting her US family who came over to the ceremony in Stockholm. (And I talked to Astrid’s daughter!) The Gothenburg book fair in September was particularly nice, with the two of us somehow bumping into each other over the couple of days I allowed myself there.

Or the book launch on the houseboat on the Thames, even before the Glasgow boot night. That’s not the sort of thing that happens all the time. Just the once, actually.

Two interviews in Meg’s house, one with decent photos and one not. A gathering in the same house for K M Peyton, one of Meg’s literary heroes.

A Puffin party at the Tate Modern, a fundraiser somewhere in Mayfair and the memorial service for Siobhan Dowd in Oxford. I’ve really got around, haven’t I? And so has Meg, obviously. Or the day when Daughter travelled to Oxford, and ran into Meg at the station, and enjoyed a little chat. This is an author who keeps track of people, and knows her ‘second favourite physicist’ in the wild. And will hug other people’s children, like when Son met her in Stockholm.

What else? Lots of Edinburgh bookfest appearances, where I particularly remember a lovely balmy evening with Elspeth Graham a few years ago. That was worth missing the good train home for.

I could go on. But you’ll be grateful that I won’t.

And we’ll say no more about the borrowed £1 twelve years ago.