Category Archives: Interview

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.

And we’re back at Charlotte Square again

Some of the ducks are new. I’m sure of it. The Edinburgh International Book Festival opened yesterday, and my photographer and I joined them for a few hours. Not too long, and not too short. We have learned to pace ourselves in my old age.

Chris Close

We had fortified ourselves with some meze before collecting our press passes, rudely interrupting press boss Frances Sutton’s lunch in the process. Photographer Chris Close was yet again stationed outside the yurt with his camera, and some new boxes, which I genuinely hope he’s not going to ask any authors to balance on. There was new fake grass for the ducks.

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy was our first prey, signing after her event, resplendent in her favourite green and with what looked suspiciously like a tub of cookies next to her. Well, signings can take time. And for her they did, as we could see Cathy still signing away an hour later. She had time for a hug before starting, and we talked about how I now live in Scotland and she doesn’t. And her latest book – Broken Heart Club – looks good enough to eat. (I have a thing for such very pink book covers.) Great to see her publicist Tania again, too.

Cathy Cassidy, Broken Heart Club

Came across Michael Grant being interviewed next to the ducks, and was told he’d been looking for me. Gratifying, but unlikely, I say. I was pleased to actually recognise Alice, his publicist, now that I am increasingly losing my marbles and generally failing at things. Michael got the Chris Close treatment, and then we grabbed him for a photo session of our own. We discussed how much money he spent on his daughter’s hair this last year. (Looking on the bright side, he must save on his own.)

Michael Grant

Before going to Michael’s event – which you will be able to read about tomorrow –  we caught illustrator Kes Gray in the children’s bookshop. I’d hoped to chat, but he had a long queue of young fans wanting their copies of Oi Dog! signed. I should have brought mine… Glimpsed his publicist Rebecca before she disappeared, and watched as Falkirk librarian Yvonne Manning did post-its duty along the queue.

Kes Gray

We hobbled off to catch our train home, grabbing seats by the skin of our teeth. This travelling is getting worse every year. In order not to look at all those who had to stand all the way, we buried ourselves in a book each. Lovely, life-saving things, books.

The #20 profile – Sally Nicholls

Today is Sally Nicholls’ birthday. I think it’s an excellent date on which to get older, and by now not even Sally is quite as young as she once was. (Happens to us all.) I felt like celebrating, and Sally was kind enough to sacrifice some of her holiday to be my #20. I just hope I haven’t prevented any writing of books, and that Sally still has plenty of time for cake. And other holiday stuff.

Here she is:

Sally Nicholls (by Sue Eves)

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

No full-length ones. I wrote Ways to Live Forever on an MA for Writing for Young People, and as part of that we had to write picture books and early readers and all sorts of things (one of which is actually going to be published next year). But Ways to Live Forever was my first novel-length book.

Best place for inspiration?

The library!

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

I don’t, but I wouldn’t rule it out. If I ever got round to writing any fan fiction, I wouldn’t publish that as Sally Nicholls, for example. (But I’m not sure anyone would want to read my fan fiction. I’m usually more interested in writing about characters’ interior lives than I am their sex lives.)

What would you never write about?

Good question! I’m not sure. I don’t think I’d ever write in praise of something I personally found morally objectionable – although I might write from the point of view of a character who was morally objectionable, I hope I wouldn’t do so in a way that could be used to support their viewpoint. But in this business it’s never a good idea to say never, because sometimes a project will come along and surprise you. I used to say I couldn’t see myself writing from the point of view of a murderer, but … well … you’ve read my back list. I have at least an attempted murderer already.

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

I bumped into Jenny Agutter at Quaglino’s at the Costa Book Awards. That was quite unexpected.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

Dreadful things happen to most of my characters, I’m afraid. I do have a couple of Edwardian adventurers in a book I’ve got coming out next year, who I suspect live rather thrilling lives – he’s a Collector of Antiquities and she’s a Lady Anthropologist, and they meet in a Peruvian jungle. But – um – then terrible things happen to them both.

My child heroes have a better time of it in that book, though. Maybe I’ll pick them.

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

A film has been made of Ways to Live Forever and it was a Very Good Thing.

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

Where’s your bodyguard?

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I can play bridge. I used to be able to speak basic Japanese. And I have another which is far too rude to mention.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Narnia.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Pippi Longstocking. Or, if I’m not allowed fictional people, her creator, Astrid Lindgren.

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

I have two big sets of shelves in my home – one in my bedroom which covers an entire wall and then both alcoves in the study I share with my husband. The ones in our bedroom are arranged by ‘authors which feel like they belong together’, a scheme invented by my husband. There are loose themes – science fiction, fantasy, poetry, biography etc all go together, then when you’ve read a new book you have to work out if it’s more similar to Conan Doyle or Colin Dexter. This creates something of a problem when authors write very different books, since all books by the same author must be shelved together.

Children’s books and ‘work’ books live in the study. They are shelved much more haphazardly by the ‘which shelf do these fit on?’ principle. And then there are all the books I don’t have shelf space for …

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

Where’s Wally? Reading is supposed to be fun, it’s not something you’re supposed to do against your will. And then while we were finding Wally, I could find out what he’s actually interested in and give him a book about that.

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

Reading.

I have to say I think Sally’s husband is clever coming up with this tricky shelving system. You could have endless moves caused by an author changing direction very slightly.

Now, where is that bodyguard?

And it all comes back

As I was saying, the filing cabinet got the once over this weekend. You find an awful lot of rubbish, and wonder what it’s still doing there, and then you find memories and some quite nice bits of the past.

Philip Pullman

I must have looked more closely than on previous prunes, as I encountered virtually ‘unknown’ stuff, like the photos from the Gothenburg Book Fair 2005. Not as paper copies, but on a disc. ‘Can I just put it in the laptop to access the photos?’ I asked the Resident IT Consultant (I’m not used to photos on discs). ‘You can if you have a disc drive,’ he replied, and I do, so I did. I was puzzled by this antiquated way of storing photos until I remembered we didn’t actually own a functioning camera at the time, so had to borrow School Friend’s (interviewing Philip Pullman, and not even having a camera…), which is why we had to carry the photos home in this manner.

Gothenburg Book Fair

As I was very non-techy at the time, I left it to Son. This means he gave me a few photos to use, and I never saw the rest. Hence the relative new-ness of ten-year-old photos. Here they all were! In my filing cabinet, filed under ‘Authors.’

Philip Pullman

I’ve used the one of Philip Pullman and the ice cream many times. I know he likes coordinating his socks and shirts [or is it shoe laces?], but to coordinate your shirt and suit with the ice cream flavours? Takes a great mind.

Philip Pullman with ALMA judges

Ryoji Arai

Philip did a small platform chat with the ALMA jury, along with his co-winner Ryoji Arai. As it was our first time we didn’t know about these smaller pop-up events that are free, which is why we splashed out for the full seminar ticket. Glad we did, as it meant we saw other events we’d otherwise have missed.

There were pictures of authors whose events I’d almost forgotten, because I didn’t actually blog at the time, so had nowhere to put events memories. There were also pictures of authors who I simply couldn’t identify any longer. I’ll assume they weren’t all that great. Or I wasn’t terribly great at taking notes.

School Friend and Son

I’ve hesitated before about revisiting old Book Fairs, but after more than ten years, it seems almost like archaeology, so is all right. It’s only the last one in 2007 that I put on Bookwitch, so there is much I’ve not shared with you.

Yet.

Retired Roger

About eight years ago I wrote this blog for the Guardian Music. (Yes, imagine that. A Bookwitch on music…)

Roger Whittaker, blue light

‘He’s the greatest singer in the world, so why do so few people in Britain appreciate Roger Whittaker?

I still remember the New Year’s Eve party some years ago, where another guest inquired about my Christmas presents. She perked up when I mentioned a CD. “Which one?” “Roger Whittaker.” My friend was about to offer her condolences, when she suddenly pulled herself together and said, “Did you actually want it?” “Yes.” “Oh, well. I believe my parents-in-law like him.”

I have loved Roger’s voice since I was twelve. I used to feel that he’d get away with singing from the telephone directory, if necessary. Luckily he hasn’t had to resort to that.’

And here we leave the Guardian blog post, because it actually gets too confusing, with so many years in between. I just wanted to share him with you today, on his 80th birthday, when he is well and truly retired. No more concerts. Probably no more albums. There is a new one just out, but it’s 98% rehash of old hits; the German hits.

They are not the best, because all Roger has done has been ‘the best’ in my opinion, but the German stuff is good. Very good, as well as a bit different from the usual English language easy listening. Back to the Guardian post again:

‘The Germans really do know how to love their stars. Enormous, sold out venues, with people of all ages going mad, singing and dancing in the aisles. I took my teenagers along last year, and their reaction was simply that they needed a few more Roger Whittaker tracks for their iPods. Seriously uncool, but there’s nothing quite like Ein Bisschen Aroma, especially live.’

Roger Whittaker and CultureWitch

That was 2007. I went again with Daughter in 2009 and with Son in 2011, and then had to skip the very last farewell tour in 2013 because it clashed with something. On neither occasion did I have to twist any young arms to come with me.

Roger Whittaker concert

When I was twelve I thought Roger was dreadfully old (he was 32). Since then he’s just got younger, relatively speaking. Retiring at 77 was certainly not too early, and I hope he has many more years of ‘living happily in France’ as his agent put it to me a few weeks ago, with plenty of time to not fall over his dog (Roger’s been accident-prone over the years) or worry his wife too much (he had to go through with the last tour despite ill health, as he was too old to insure…).

Us fans still have the hundreds of albums Roger recorded over fifty years, and let me tell you, he’s not boring or purely parents-in-law material!

Right, that’s me done for today. As you were. Might be back to books tomorrow if you are lucky. I only have one favourite singer, after all.

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

Photos Helen Giles and Ian Giles

(And another thing; as I looked at the video link, I discovered a Facebook friend standing practically with his chin resting on the stage. It’s the RW universe.)

When Philip met Danny

It’s all my fault. I wanted to ask Danny Weston a few questions on his winning the Scottish Children’s Book Award last week. But then I had this – I thought – brilliant idea. So I asked Philip Caveney if he’d have a go and do the interview. I might get better questions that way.

I’m so sorry.

“The brief was very straightforward. ‘Get an interview with Danny Weston,’ she said. ‘Go to his house and get him to talk.’ It sounded easy enough.

But it wasn’t as simple as I might have imagined. For a start, it wasn’t to be at his apartment in Tollcross; that would have been too easy. No, it was to be recorded at his ancestral home in the Highlands, a big rambling Victorian construction out in the sticks and the only way to get there was to hire a pony and trap at the local station. There followed a long, slow ride across the moors and the aged driver, a grey bearded fellow with a wizened face, clearly wasn’t in the mood to make polite conservation.

‘Do you know Mr Weston?’ I asked him and he gave me a long, withering look.

‘Aye, I know him,’ he said darkly, and spoke no more.

When we finally arrived at the house, I asked the driver if he’d wait for me but he simply shook his head and set off back in the direction from which we had come, whipping up the horses into a near gallop. Charming, I thought. The ancient front door of the house was ajar. I pushed it open and stepped into the hallway. There were no lights on within and the place smelled of decay and neglect. I shouted Weston’s name and my voice seemed to echo throughout the house but there was no reply.

I was obliged to wander disconsolately from room to room until I finally found him sitting in what looked like a library, surrounded by shelves of mouldering books. ‘What kept you?’ he snarled and indicated a vacant seat in front of him. There was no offer of refreshment after my long journey so I settled myself down, thinking what a poor host this man was. Perhaps everything I’d heard about him was true.

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I switched on my voice recorder. ‘You must be pleased,’ I ventured. ‘After winning the Scottish Book Award and everything.’

‘Delirious,’ he said, but his expression remained grave.

‘But it must be nice, surely? After all, this is your first attempt at a novel…’

There was no reaction to that, so I decided to dispense with the niceties and asked him a few questions about his childhood. I was amazed to discover that the two of us had rather a lot in common – both of us had fathers in the Royal Air Force, we had spent much of our childhoods in boarding schools and both of us acquired the overpowering urge to write in our teens. Astonishingly, we were inspired by the very same book, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. ‘I’m not always banging on about it like you, though,’ he muttered ungraciously. I let that one go.

‘So what attracts you to such dark stories?’ I asked.

He looked annoyed at the question. ‘Your stories aren’t exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ he growled.

Fair point, I admitted, but… a vengeful ghost haunting two young evacuees on Romney Marsh? And the new book, Mr Sparks… a twisted ventriloquist’s dummy who outlives his operators? Where do these strange ideas come from?

He gave me a scornful look as though he thought I should have known better than to ask that question.

‘Is there anything new in the pipeline?’ I asked. I was floundering here.

‘There will be a new story along in September,’ he said. ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise…’

‘See, right there,’ I interrupted him. ‘That’s clearly not going to be a laugh riot.’

‘Young readers love to be scared,’ he assured me. ‘And little wonder! What are the very first stories we give them? Little Red Riding Hood… Hansel and Gretel… These are horror stories and they are of course, thrilled by them, as soon as they’re old enough to understand words.’ He gestured to a shelf of books to his left. ‘It’s not as though you’re unfamiliar with the idea yourself, after all.’

I was astonished to see a whole row of my old titles residing there. ‘What about your Edinburgh trilogy?’ he asked me. ‘As I said before, your books are not all sweetness and light are they? In Crow Boy you deal with the bubonic plague. And Seventeen Coffins features the serial killers, Burke and Hare.’

I was frankly astonished. ‘I had no idea you were familiar with my work,’ I said.

‘My dear fellow, you are one of my biggest influences,’ he assured me. ‘After all, we have so much in common.’

‘Some of my books are lighter in tone,’ I protested. ‘The new book, The Calling, for instance, that’s about all the statues in Edinburgh, coming to life for one night a year. It’s quite funny in places…’

‘… and also features a brutal kidnapping,’ he interrupted. He raised his eyebrows. ‘The publishers sent me a proof copy,’ he added by way of explanation. Then his expression changed to one of annoyance. ‘Isn’t this supposed to be about me?’ he snapped.

‘Oh, er… yes. So… Jessop Rise. Tell me a bit about that.’

‘It features all my favourite things,’ he said, looking animated for the first time. ‘Ghosts. Children terrorized by things that go bump in the night. An ancient supernatural being. Oh yes, and a really cruel villain.’ He smirked. ‘There’s one scene where…’ He leaned closer and whispered something into my ear. I blanched. I’ve been writing for something like 40 years but that…. that was going too far.

He grinned at me, his face ghoulish in the already fading light. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked me. ‘Have I offended you? Are you shocked?’

‘Not at all,’ I said but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. I was uncomfortably aware that it was already getting late and I had no transport arranged. I glanced at my watch.’ ‘I er…. really should be getting back,’ I murmured. ‘I was wondering if you had a phone number for the coachman at the station.’

He smiled grimly, shook his head. ‘There are no phones in this house,’ he said. ‘And even if there were, the old man wouldn’t come all the way out here this late in the day. Not after what happened last time.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to walk back. Unless of course, you’d like to stay in the guest room for the night? The sheets haven’t been changed in several years and there’s been an invasion of slugs, but if you’d prefer to…’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a little too quickly. ‘I’ll walk. I… could do with the exercise.’

‘As you wish.’ He picked up an oil lamp from the table and handed it to me. ‘You’ll need this,’ he said. ‘To light your way. But a word of warning. Whatever you do, stay on the track. And make sure you keep your gaze fixed on the way ahead…’

It took me hours to get back to the station, by which time it was dark and the moon was up. The place was absolutely deserted. Sitting alone in the ancient waiting room by the light of the failing oil lamp, I wondered if I had got enough from Weston to actually write up the interview. I took out my recorder to listen back to what was on there.

There was nothing. Not a single word – only a deep rasping chuckle. And then, without any warning, the lamp went out.”

2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards

I encountered Elizabeth Wein at Stirling station as I caught the train to Glasgow yesterday morning. We were both heading to the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘I missed my train,’ she replied, which might have been true, but I wanted to know why she missed it in Stirling, seeing as Elizabeth has her own perfectly good railway station from which to miss trains. I met ‘Mr Wein’ who is very nice, but unfortunately I gave him the wet handshake. Sorry! I wasn’t expecting to be socialising that early.

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We made it to the Glasgow Central Hotel, along with 1000 children and most of the shortlisted authors for this year’s award. Not having missed ‘my’ train, I arrived just in time for the photoshoot, where school children posed with their favourite authors. We were only a little bit in the way of hotel staff and their drinks trolleys and things, and there was an umbrella in my way and my camera stopped working for a bit, and someone mistook Elizabeth’s lovely book for photographic support…

Black Dove, White Raven - 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

I repaired to the Green Room, managing to lose most of my marbles on the way. Apologies to anyone subjected to my complete lack of conversational skills. (Age and sleep deprivation, I reckon.) Chatted to ‘Mrs Danny Weston’ and Lindsey Fraser, who was there representing Joan Lingard. I turned down the kind offer of exclusive interviews in place of informal gossip. And not every event has someone whose job it is to go round hunting for The Blue Feather. (Never discovered if it was found.)

Refreshed by a cup of tea, I went to the awards ceremony for the Older Readers, where Danny talked of [non-pc] battleaxes, and of wanting to terrorise children, which he did very nicely with a picture of ‘those dolls.’ Elizabeth impressed the audience with a photo of herself on top of an airborne plane. Lindsey took a photo of us to show Joan, and described how Joan uses an iPad for all her research.

Two students did an interview with the authors and there was a Q&A session, which revealed how Danny runs after his characters with a notebook in his hand, to see what they will do, and Elizabeth said she always has to tell her book cover artist that they’ve got the wrong plane… There were prizes for best book reviews (they won an author!), and then there was the Scottish Children’s Book Award which went to Danny Weston for The Piper. He thanked his wife, his editor Charlie Sheppard and his ‘friend’ Philip Caveney who taught him everything he knows.

Elizabeth Wein at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

Having brought loads – well, five – books to be signed, I joined the queues and was given a model plane to make by Elizabeth. Danny’s queue was too long so I went for lunch instead. Found Gillian Philip tackling the sandwiches, and we talked about motherhood and kelpies. Elizabeth Laird asked who I was, so I explained that I’m the one who always emails her after every event. She wondered if she ever writes back, and I assured her she always does.

The other morning session, which I had to miss, was for the [youngest] Bookbug Readers, and the winners were Simon Puttock and Ali Pye. Simon will be carrying his prize around for a couple of days, until he gets home. While ‘Mrs Weston’ secured sandwiches for her hubby I went and joined his queue, which had shrunk a little. Elizabeth Wein was interviewed on camera by someone, and I had the pleasure of witnessing another wet handshake, so at least I’m not the only one.

Danny Weston at the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

The Younger Readers award session started after lunch, with host Fergus introducing Gillian Philip, Liz Laird and Ross MacKenzie. When Fergus said they were going to read to us, they rebelled and said they were not. They’d decided to do things differently. (Good for them!)

Gillian talked about island holidays, cliffhangers, Saturday cinema and had a photo of the cutest puppy in a teacup. Her – very – early work consisted of many three-page books. Liz talked about Ethiopia and the running everyone does there, and mentioned the Emperor’s lion in 1968, and said she wasn’t guilty of that murder she was accused of. She also writes her books on the backs of used paper. (My kind of woman.) Ross described how you can find magic shops almost anywhere if you just look closely, and said an early reading memory was The Witches at school.

2016 Scottish Children's Book Awards

After a very successful game of Consequences (it’s funny how funny those little stories always are), it was time for more prizes for reviews (another author), as well as a prize for best book trailer (most professional). And then Ross MacKenzie went and won his category of the 2016 Scottish Children’s Book Awards for The Nowhere Emporium. He did the usual, thanking his parents and his wife and his children and all those other people he might have forgotten.

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The children queued up to have books signed, and I went to find a train to take me home. Which means I didn’t take any more of my failed photos of Liz. I suppose there’s always next time.