Category Archives: Interview

Going to Mars

Am I the only one to think of Douglas Adams when reading about the people who made it on to the list of travellers to Mars? I didn’t even know you could apply (not that I would have done so), let alone did I imagine people would sign up for it, seeing as it’s not exactly NASA.

Is it insanity? Or are they so grounded in reality that they realise it will never happen, so they might as well cause a stir? Does it sound good in interviews and on CVs? I ask, because Daughter was flabbergasted to find that someone she met in an interview round was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. And reading about them, the ratio of astrophysicists does seem remarkably high.

If I interviewed someone like that, would I think it showed admirable ambition, or would I feel that I mustn’t waste a position on someone that crazy who would get themselves killed in ten years’ time? Or, at least, not come back.

Then I discovered that Sheldon Cooper had applied. Not that that is a recommendation or a sign of mature thinking, but still.

Back to Douglas Adams, though, and the crashlanded batch of hairdressers and telephone sanitisers who had ‘gone ahead.’ Is this not the same thing? Almost.

Liz Kessler on Read Me Like a Book

The fact that I had looked forward so much to reading Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like a Book, doesn’t mean that I believe it will be all straight sailing. That’s why I nailed the lovely Liz to the spot and asked all kinds of questions on how she sees the future for this new book of hers:

Liz Kessler

So, from mermaids via fairies and a bit of time travelling and some plain invisibility, to a book on discovering you are gay… That’s quite a journey. (I know you actually began with the gay book, before moving on to more conventional mermaids.)

You’re right, I did write this book first – and it has been sitting in a drawer for over a decade! I personally don’t think of this as ‘the gay book’ though. I really hope it’s much more than that! But yes – definitely quite a journey!

Do you reckon your first fans are old enough to be ready for this complete change of genre? In fact, perhaps this older book is what you need, to hang on to readers as they outgrow the mermaids?

My first book came out in 2003, so I guess many of my early fans will now be in their late teens or even early twenties. Hopefully that means they are well within the age group for a YA book! I do hope that some of my readers will progress through my books, and that they will see the similarities and the links in terms of themes between all of my books. I don’t see this book as a complete change of genre at all. I just think it’s a book aimed at a different age group. Like almost all my books, this one deals with subjects like learning to accept others, becoming comfortable with yourself, standing up for what you believe in and being bold and honest. As to whether my readers are ‘ready’ or not – well, you’ll have to ask them that! All I know is that I very much hope they are!

Have you any fears regarding parental gatekeepers, or is Read Me Like a Book purely for readers who decide for themselves?

Up to this point, I have only received positive comments, and the book seems (up to now) to be coming out in a climate of celebration and support. Perhaps some of the gatekeepers – be they parents, librarians or teachers – might have issues with some of the content of the book. If they do, there is nothing I can do about that. To be honest though, I think that they would have to be fairly extreme in their views to be worried by this book. It isn’t setting out to be controversial in any way. It is about many issues which all teenagers can hopefully relate to, whatever their gender or sexuality. As to whether this is a book purely for readers to decide for themselves or not – it’s no different from any other YA book in that respect. I can only write the books. I can’t decide who will pick them up or what their motivation or decision-making process will be.

Are you expecting a ‘Melvin Burgess, Doing It’ type of outcry in schools?

No. Not at all. I don’t think anyone who has read both books would see any link between them. This is not a book about sex. It’s a book about first love, about the struggles of teenage years, about coming to terms with who we are.  

You seem like the kind of woman who’d encourage your fans to ask questions about all sorts of things. Has anyone ever sought advice on gay issues?

Not yet. I do encourage people to feel able to ask me questions, and if as a result of this book I am asked questions on LGBT matters, I’ll do my best to give my own honest answers and hope that they will help.

It’s been a while since you wrote Read Me Like a Book. Are there significant changes to society that affect gay teenagers, be they good or bad?

Society has changed a lot since then – and I would say that most of the changes are for the better. More famous people are ‘out’ today than fifteen years ago, so young LGBT people have more role models. The nasty, homophobic ‘Section 28’ no longer exists. We have anti-discrimination laws to give more protection to LGBT people. Attitudes are more positive. But we’re not there yet. If we were, I don’t think I would be asked whether I’m expecting an outcry for publishing this book! 😉

Why not write a completely new book? Was it hard to go into your first book and start editing it to fit 2015?

I do write completely new books all the time! (I think you’ve read most of them!) This book is important to me, and I wanted to get it out there. I’m glad that my publisher has agreed with me that the time is right to do that. There was a lot of editing to get it up to date, and up to scratch. Many things had changed in fifteen years, so I did a lot of work. In fact, I would say it probably feels like a new book now!

Is there anything you’ve worried about to do with this new book? Other than it is a new book, and you can’t know before it’s out there how it will do.

Yes of course – I worry that not everyone is as accepting and ready for the book as most people seem to be. I worry that some parents might not realise it’s a 14+ YA book and buy it for a younger child (although we’ve done everything we can to hopefully prevent this). Perhaps I worry that I will be asked to do too many interviews that make me feel like I’m having to defend a book that I don’t feel should have to be defended in this way! But my mind is mostly focused on the excitement I feel about it, not on worries.

What are you most looking forward to with Read Me Like a Book?

Getting an email from a teenager telling me that my book has helped them to feel confident about who they are and not feel alone. If I get one email like that, my job is done.

Might you write more books like this, or is it straight back to fantasy now?

I don’t think I write fantasy – I think that I write books about the real world, but quite often they have a magical element in them. I will continue to write those for the Middle Grade age group, and I am planning to continue to pursue a YA strand as well.

It seems that I am far more worried about the world than Liz is. And she’s quite right; finding out – and learning to accept – that you are gay is actually much the same thing as discovering you are half mermaid. We’re all a bit different, but also the same. I wish her book and its readers all the best.

Coffee, beer and a book launch

You’ll have to excuse me, but I saw so many authors on Thursday that I am unable to list them all here. Not because the list would be too long, but simply because I no longer recall absolutely everyone, nor did I necessarily see or recognise them in the first place. But if you were there, tell me and I will add you to the list.

I had crawled out of bed to go and have ‘coffee’ with Marnie Riches who was also in town. She’d been doing her own book related things the night before, and was now up for grabs while on her way to CrimeFest via Paddington. We chatted and drank ‘coffee’ and then I accompanied her to her train and made sure she got on it, to join her murderously minded colleagues in Bristol. (I provided her with a secret list of who to talk to there, but I doubt she’ll obey.)

After some admin and a good rest (because having ‘coffee’ is hard work…), I packed my going to do an interview and going to a book launch bag and went off to Hampstead in the rain.

Anthony McGowan's beer

First I did a recce at my second Waterstones in two days, before walking uphill (they have some surprisingly steep hills in Hampstead) to a very old pub suggested by Anthony McGowan as a suitable venue for me to grill him on all kinds of authorly secrets. He was right; it was a good place to go, even if there was a slight but steady drip of water from the skylight above me. Before leaving for the book launch we were going to, Tony took his t-shirt off, but that wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

He brought me along the scenic route to Waterstones, and we encountered new author Nicole Burstein in a café across the road, and she came along as well. And then everyone started the game of turning their books face out on the shelves. Nicole’s bookshop past also meant she had to tidy all the book piles on the tables, and I have to admit it’s hard to resist…

Caroline Green, Rachel Ward, Joy Court and Anthony McGowan at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Laura at the Read Me Like a Book launch

More and more authors kept arriving at the shop, and even a few ordinary people. Liz Kessler, whose launch it was – for Read Me Like a Book, arrived accompanied by her wife. Before long the upstairs at Waterstones was full of guests, and after a while it was just about too crowded to move about and take photos of people, because there was always someone else ‘in the way.’ But believe me when I say they were all there.

Read Me Like a Book launch

There were drinks, and there was the most enormous cake. And you can’t celebrate a novel like this without some speeches. Orion’s Fiona Kennedy spoke of her decision to publish Liz’s book; because she ‘didn’t want anyone else to have it.’

Read Me Like a Book launch

Liz herself talked about why she wrote Read Me Like a Book, and how things on the lgbt front have changed over the last twenty years or so. She thanked all the people in her life who had made the book possible, from her former English teacher, to her wonderful agent and her publisher, to her wife.

She read a chapter from the book, where Ashleigh stays behind to talk to her English teachers, just because she needs to.

Liz Kessler at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Finally there was a short speech from Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall. And I believe there was even a little time left for the buying and signing of books

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.

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…)

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

I might wear purple

Terry Pratchett

Son ‘put a lot of sugar in it and showed it the milk.’ That’s Terry Pratchett’s coffee we are talking about, and you know why I’m writing about him, so I don’t need to announce to the world that Terry has gone to meet Death. I think what I’ll do is reminisce a little.

We were with Terry that time in September 2010 to give him a Mars bar, and because he had very generously requested a second interview with me. From me? Whatever. We came. We laughed. We left.

Terry Pratchett

I’d met Terry for an interview ten months earlier. He’d had such a long and busy day, and was so tired, and hungry, that all he wanted was a Mars bar. And because I don’t eat chocolate, I had nothing like that to offer. Otherwise, I’m a mother. You know. We always carry spares in case anyone needs anything.

He was upset that we didn’t get as long as he’d expected, even though it meant he could go and eat something. So he asked to see me again, partly – I think – to discuss the librarian I told him about, who wanted to ban his books to under sixteens. Maybe he even found me less hard work than the real professionals he had seen earlier, and liked a less intense kind of chat.

The interviews were followed by invitations to book launches, and a Terry Pratchett launch is like no other. I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity, which I did little to deserve. But in general we don’t mind having that which we don’t deserve.

Terry Pratchett - Dementia Friends

When I heard about Terry’s diagnosis in 2007 I immediately assumed this would be the end for him, for his books, and everything. That’s why I have felt that every new book we’ve been given in the years since, have been lovely bonuses. I’m amazed Terry could keep going the way he did, despite the handicap of being unable to write. 66 is too young to die, but it is preferable to 59.

In 2008 when Neil Gaiman signed Son’s copy of Good Omens, he said it was a shame Terry wouldn’t be able to sign it as well. There was even a catchphrase that went with the Good Omens signature. Well, you know me. I didn’t feel it was too late, and it wasn’t. Terry’s signature might have ended up somewhat shakier than it once was, but he knew the words to go with it.

Philippa Dickinson and Terry Pratchett

The last time for me was the launch for Dodger, and Terry wore the wrong hat, by which I mean it wasn’t his usual style, but a hat for Dodger. And I should have gone up to him and said a proper hello. Instead I went all modest and assumed he’d not remember me, because I was merely a small cogwheel.

I’m lucky, though. I have not yet read all Terry’s books, if that’s not the wrong thing to admit to in company like this? I’ll eke them out. And I shall wear purple, even if it was a colour Terry didn’t like. So there.

Terry Pratchett and witch

Many, many thanks to Clare, Philippa and Lynsey who made my adventures possible.

‘So where do you come from?’

‘Sweden,’ 

‘Sweden?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hahaha…’

‘It’s not that funny.’

‘Yes, hee hee, it is, it is. Let me tell you a story, to get ourselves warmed up.’