Category Archives: Interview

A definitive guide to HDM

I occasionally fantasise about having written this fantastic reference book – The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – but then I catch myself and I know it’s not something I could even remotely have managed. But I don’t mind knowing the woman who did write it.

The guide first came into my hands over twelve years ago, and it was hard to believe that someone was out there who had not only read and loved the three books by Philip Pullman, and who was crazy enough to write a detailed analysis of every single thing in that trilogy. As Philip himself says, whatever you want to know about the world he made up, it’s all in the guide. He ‘can’t recommend it too highly.’

And now Laurie Frost’s reference book is back in a new fresh version, just in time for the second Book of Dust – The Secret Commonwealth – which is published today, and for the soon to come television adaptation of the original story. If you don’t already have a copy, you will want one, if only so you can show off and obsess and look up anyone or anything you may have forgotten.

Over to Laurie:

Laurie Frost

What on earth possessed you to sit down and write the book?

I figured, if I didn’t write this guide, someone else would. I expected someone was already writing one, so I found Philip’s home address and sent him a few pages. At this point, work was beginning on the National Theatre production and The Golden Compass movie, and he was getting a lot of questions a book like mine could answer.

If it was now, would you start a book like it?

I was 20 years younger and had a better memory and more energy. I’m far better at doing nothing now. I have no desire to deal with publishers ever again. So, no.

Had you ever written a book before it?

Yes. I re-cast my dissertation as Reminiscent Scrutinies: Memory in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a small and eccentric meditation. The little academic publisher and its warehouse burned down years ago.

In fact, did you know it would turn into a book rather than a pamphlet?

It would either be a book or nothing. It passed pamphlet length after a few days!

Has anything been changed since the first – how many? – editions?

Different covers. The 2019 edition has newly drawn maps. I added a sentence or two.

Are you tempted to add The Books of Dust to the guide?
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Somewhat. But I’d do separate ones for the interludes and Book of Dust. Unless a publisher paid me upfront and handled the page numbers, I wouldn’t do it with the same level of detail.

What are your thoughts on La Belle Sauvage?

La Belle seems prophetic to me on the dangers of climate change and a wake up call regarding the historic and contemporary instances of family separation and undermining of the family as a fundamental unit of stability and humanity.

Have you any specific hopes or expectations for what will happen in The Secret Commonwealth?

I’ve long thought that the found materials at the end of Lyra’s Oxford would mean a visit to the Mid-East. This has been confirmed in this week’s New Yorker interview. The title makes me expect more time in alternative realities, compared to La Belle, almost exclusively set in Lyra’s.

Will you race through the book, or go slow, savouring the experience? Or have you had access to an advance copy?

Slowly.

Did any of the many stage versions of HDM get close enough for you to go and see one?

Not remotely. I haven’t been overseas since 1979.

What did you think of the Golden Compass film?

I thought the movie was awful. It was way too short. It was unsatisfying to readers and incomprehensible to newcomers.

And what do you think the new television adaptation will be like?

I will watch the mini-series, and I think a longer format will work better than the film. But these are novels of the mind. Consider Moby Dick. Credible action movies have been made of the plot, but none approaches the encyclopedic essence of Melville’s masterpiece. The daemons seem like they would be a cool way to reveal a character’s thoughts, but they really emphasize how much the novels are about body, soul, and mind, making them hard to translate to film. We will see. They will probably work better for people not meeting daemons for the first time.

Do you have a daemon?

Well, as a human, I must. But I haven’t glimpsed him. I argue with myself a lot. So I guess that voice is my daemon’s.

How has your life changed through writing the guide?

The best thing that has come from writing the book is the kindness of Philip’s support.

Also, I will have something my kids and theirs can see as evidence that their mom had a curious mind. Or was a bit obsessive. Or both.

Can we expect to see you in Oxford one day? There is a bench waiting for you to sit on.

Some day. Maybe.

Laurie Frost, The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

A twist on the cosy

And I’m afraid we all laughed at the memory of Catriona McPherson’s grandmother’s funeral. (But I’d say we were meant to.)

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Last night at the Golden Lion was one of the very best Bloody Scotland events I’ve known, and I’ve been to some good ones. As Vaseem Khan said, it was quality over quantity, referring to the fact that he and Catriona and Lynne Truss were competing with Ian Rankin and Nicola Sturgeon down the road. But really, who’d choose those two over these three, so ably chaired by Laura Wilson, who’s just as fun and capable as I remembered from CrimeFest eleven years ago?

Right, so it was a discussion on cosy crime with three authors and a select audience, which contained, among others, Catriona’s parents. I liked her parents and wouldn’t mind borrowing them.

But was it really cosy crime we were dealing with? No, it was more whether you can kill kittens, and about writing with humour. Which, as far as I’m concerned is the best. Well, perhaps not the kitten-killing.

Apparently all cats are psychopaths.

It was actually a fairly animal-centred discussion, ably led by Baby Ganesh, Vaseem’s little elephant. While it was his detective Chopra’s wife’s involvement with where to deposit your poo that got us onto this, it was Catriona’s question whether he never worried whether Ganesh might, well, deposit, something somewhere unsuitable as well, which took us straight to Blue Peter’s elephant poo memory. This made us laugh a lot.

(Here I have to insert an apology to Lynne. I am not at all sure I get my thats and whiches and anything else right. But that’s the way I am. I loved Eats Shoots and Leaves. I just didn’t learn anything.)

And let’s get the panda out of the way right now. Not allowed to say what Vaseem thinks about pandas. But he likes vultures. He gets mail from fans, warning him not to let anything bad happen to Ganesh. There is no great plan for his little elephant, since when he wrote the first book he didn’t expect to get published, or that there would be more books. Ganesh will obviously outlive Chopra.

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This makes dogs more suitable to your plots; they won’t live as long. But this thing with age is difficult. Apparently Catriona and her Dandy were the same age in 2002 when they started out, but now Dandy is four years younger than her.

Catriona wanted to write her period crime as though it was written back then, and the greatest praise she’s had was the comment that it was just like a novel you might encounter in a wet Norfolk cottage (and not in a good way). Or, Dan Brown meets Barbara Pym. Her problem is that the action happens in the shadow of WWI, while the reader knows what is to come.

Lynne’s novels are set in Brighton in 1957. She wanted to go back to a time when her parents were young, and while it’s easy enough to know what was in the cinema at the time, it’s harder to get people to act the way they did. Do you let them swear, or not? The criminals can’t be seen to swear, even if they would have.

And you certainly didn’t swear in the wet Norfolk cottage.

Murder on the other hand is fine. Even of kittens.

What all three authors were annoyed by is that cosy crime is seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and as not proper books, and you can’t be funny. This snobbery is so unfounded.

Police in Brighton were notoriously corrupt, and Lynne wanted to write about the ‘relentless idiocy’ of her stupid policemen. She quite enjoys the sexism from the 1950s, meaning the police can’t even imagine that a working class woman could be the villain. But Lynne doesn’t set out to scare people.

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This panel almost fought to chat to each other, and to ask questions, and it was all interesting and fun, and if I ever get one of those ‘who would you invite to dinner?’ opportunities, Catriona, Lynne and Vaseem will be the ones, along with Laura. And hopefully Catriona’s parents. Maybe their friends whom I eavesdropped on outside on the pavement afterwards.

Before that afterwards, there was the signing. I already had books by Vaseem and Catriona, but hurriedly bought Lynne’s book as well. It was that kind of event. Vaseem insisted on taking a selfie with me, even after looking dubiously at my [conventional] camera, realising that no selfies would be coming from that. He had a mobile to hand, and now I’m afraid the internet will explode once that goes on Twitter.

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Catriona remembered the Witch, even after so many months, after just the one review. I might have said I now need extra time in my life to be able to read all her books, but all she could offer was more books… Like the fourth in her trilogy. And she couldn’t speak to me until she’d written down the ‘just arrived’ idea for her new book title on the back of the Bloody Scotland programme.

And Lynne, well, her book on the pitfalls on grammar and punctuation has put her forever in my, erm, good books. It’s like talking to royalty. Her next book will be the impressively titled Murder by Milk Bottle.

Talking about the future, Vaseem clearly has too much time on his hands, as Chopra and Ganesh will be joined by a new series, about a female Indian detective in the 1950s.

I really will need that extra time.

Women in Gangland

That’s Manchester’s finest, plus a contribution from Lanarkshire. Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller come from Manchester’s troubled north and troubled south respectively, and I have realised I was right to be scared of Marnie when I first met her. Anna Smith – with no exotic name – came more from poverty than the violence the other two were used to.

Mandasue Heller, Brutal

Gently guided through the finer details of gangs by Jacky Collins – no not that Jacky Collins – we spent an hour learning about the seedier side of life. Mandasue came to writing after a life as a singer, after having been attacked in her flat, along with her ten-week-old baby, and feeling fed up with the bad treatment she got from the police afterwards.

Marnie was so bored at work that she decided to write some children’s books, before realising that her language is ‘too foulmouthed and dirty’ for children, and she reckoned that what dead Stieg Larsson could do, alive Marnie Riches could do as well. And she has, with her George McKenzie books followed by her Manchester ones and now more crime on her home ground in and near Hale – ‘where the orange people roam’ – with Tightrope.

It was Anna’s publisher who suggested she try gangland crime, and having read one Martina Cole novel, she decided to have a go. Her character can be described as a ‘much more exciting me.’

An expert on Nordic Noir, Jacky found the books by these three women an eye-opener. They were really dirty and draining; ‘so raw.’

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Referring to Mandasue as the gangland queen, Marnie described her own childhood and how she ended up as the angry teenager from the council estate when she made it to the posh school, and from there to Cambridge. I learned more about her mother, too, and she sounds like quite a woman.

Mandasue started life in Warrington, before moving to Manchester at twenty, and she loves it! Anna knows about the poverty in Glasgow through her work.

Tightrope and Fightback

The way to write about bad characters who do really awful things, is to use humour. In fact, many of the bad people they have met are quite amusing. Sometimes the women are worse than the men. Marnie mentioned two girls everyone was scared of where she used to live.

The first question from the audience was how they felt about women being murdered [in books] and the short answer seems to be that since this really happens, it’s very real. Marnie has also murdered many men (fictionally) and while Anna likes men, she makes bad things happen to them.

Another question was if it’s possible to write about bad men with no redeeming features, and make it work. Admitting to being someone who used to have a massive crush on Darth Vader, Marnie said she writes about serial killers, and that she feels the continuity with their back story is important. She’s afraid someone will ‘recognise’ themselves in her books, and then she told the story of her builders, their criminal past and what you might do with a wood chipper.

Mandasue never writes about real people, but they do come up to her and ask if that was them. One criminal came to an event and said he liked her book, and how realistic it was. As did the undercover cops who used to work where she lived. She said her move away from the city in her latest book, Brutal, was not intentional; she just wrote what was in her thoughts.

She’s been a bit of a serial starter of books, and she described how her changing one line in the prologue, meant that the whole [of her next] book changed. Urged on by her agent, Marnie said she was supposed to mention that the Kindle version of Tightrope is available for 99p. And the next book is Backlash, out in January.

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Unlike last year when Jacky overran, it seems to have helped that she had no watch today, and we started and ended just when we were meant to. This was definitely worth missing the sunshine for.

The #26 profile – Ambrose Parry

It was the witchyness again. In the past few months I’ve come closer to Ambrose Parry than most of the other big Scottish crime writers I am capable of recognising in the wild. By that I don’t mean I’ve been stalking him [them] but just that we’ve ended up in the same doorways several times. So that will be why Ambrose [was] volunteered to answer my silly questions to mark the 2019 McIlvanney prize at this year’s Bloody Scotland, where his The Way of All Flesh is one of the shortlisted hopefuls.

Though it appears it really was Chris Brookmyre, despite me suggesting some split personal history between the two halves of Ambrose Parry. I suppose it would have ended up with arguments over who read Enid Blyton and who didn’t…

So, here he [they] is [are]:

Ambrose Parry (c) Alan Trotter (1)

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

Four. I made the mistake of trying to write what I thought publishers wanted. When I wrote for my own amusement, I got a deal.

Best place for inspiration?

Outdoors. Doesn’t matter where, as along as I’m walking.

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

I write with my wife Marisa Haetzman under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry.

What would you never write about?

Nothing. I have learned that the things you forswear can end up central to a subsequent book.

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

Playing Glastonbury as part of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. I can’t think of any other confluence of events that could have seen me playing guitar on-stage at one of the world’s biggest music festivals.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

None of them. Even the cool ones are beset by horrible things that I would not wish for myself.

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

Unequivocally a good thing. Having your work reinterpreted by someone else in a different medium is both flattering and exciting. Even if they arse it up.

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

‘Can I bring up this book [on-stage] to be signed so that I don’t have to wait?’

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I used to be pretty good at Quake 2 and Quake 3 twenty years ago. These abilities were of limited assistance in my day job.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

I grew up on Douglas Adams and Tolkien. Blyton and Lewis were too twee for my taste.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth. He brings dry humour to progressive death metal.

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

I don’t even want to think about this. There is no sense, no reason, no arrangement. Just chaos. It haunts me.

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

You’re A Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. If he isn’t laughing out loud after about three pages, he’s unsavable.

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

Writing. It’s a need that does not sleep.

Hmm, well… More Swedes I’ve never heard of. Quake 2 and Quake 3?? I’m pleased the young Ambrose/Chris was good at it. And my victims must be getting younger. It’s not natural to have been brought up on Douglas Adams, but it does explain rather a lot.

And really, playing Glastonbury is cooler than meeting Obama. I don’t reckon anyone will be able to top this on here. Ever.

Bloody Scotland Blog Tour 2019

It’s the worst she’s known

Malorie Blackman apologised for sounding a bit Darth Vaderish (sore throat), but the audience in the full New York Times Main Theatre didn’t mind. We’d come to hear about Malorie’s new book Crossfire, the fifth book in her Noughts & Crosses trilogy. Or the second book in the second trilogy, whichever you prefer.

The title above refers to how Malorie sees life in Britain today. Not being black, I’ve only been able to guess at how the last three years have played out, and it’s dreadful to have it confirmed. In the YA world she’s a star, while outside it she’s black. Or, as readers have said about her Noughts & Crosses books, ‘it’s about Ireland, isn’t it?’ Or Israel. Or anywhere else where you have two opposing groups of people.

Malorie Blackman

Malorie was in Charlotte Square talking to Lindsey Fraser about her dark, but necessary, books that first arrived in 2001. And here we are – needing them more than ever – eighteen years later.

As Lindsey pointed out, you have to think when you read her books. Books written by someone who as a girl couldn’t afford books, so went to the library where she tried to make her weekly selection last the whole week. She at first found Jane Eyre a bit dry, but it’s long since one of her favourite books.

Discussing reading age, Malorie feels the Noughts & Crosses series is a little unsuitable for ten-year-olds, but some young readers just skip the ‘kissy bits,’ which proves that self-censoring works just fine.

Malorie Blackman

We will soon be able to watch a six-part series on television, and we were the first to be shown a video clip from it. Stormzy has been involved, somehow, because he’s a big Noughts & Crosses fan, just as Malorie is a big Stormzy fan.

There will be one more book, Endgame, the sixth of the trilogy, and then she ‘must stop.’ Malorie doesn’t want to write a prequel, but admits to having considered it. She reckons Jude is ‘a bit of a git,’ but he was fun to write. She wants her readers to understand why he did what he did, while not sympathising with what he ends up doing.

Having been prevented from going to university by her careers teacher, Malorie now feels that the woman actually did her a favour, teaching her not to give up when the rejection letters kept coming.

Malorie Blackman

And much as I and the rest of the audience would have wanted a literary university experience for young Malorie, we are grateful for the books. And for being a role model and for giving young, black readers a sense of belonging.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Cymera on the small screen

I have to confess I didn’t know there was going to be live coverage from Cymera on its Facebook page. But it was a nice thing to discover when my knees refused to go out this weekend. Had I known well in advance – about the filming, not so much the knees – I could have planned to make better use of it.

Thus it was that I did that time-wasting staring at Facebook post-cup-of-tea yesterday, and arrived just as Cymera started off on James Oswald, or JD as he was for the weekend, with his Sir Benfro hat on. Not that he wore a hat. But on the very small screen on my phone, the ‘camera eye’ unfortunately sat right on top of his head, leaving only the beard and the pink jacket visible. But I know what he looks like.

(Yes, the image was better on the computer. But it buffered an awful lot.)

JD Oswald and David Bishop

But anyway, I got to see James talking to David Bishop and that’s what I had wanted to do all this time, after discovering he was going to be there, and after reading the first Sir Benfro book.

Much of what he said has been covered in my own interview from four years ago, but I was struck by how James said he now has three books a year to write. Plus being a farmer. And then someone asked what he likes to read! As though the man would have time to read.

Actually, he does, and he listed a number of books, but like me, he forgets immediately, making it hard to recommend books. And he ‘cheats’ by reading audio books when out on his farming duties. It’s mostly fantasy. Seems he doesn’t like reading crime! (So before you send him yet more crime novels for a quote; don’t. Send him fantasy instead.)

There was a somewhat abrupt end to the filmed event, but it was far better than nothing!

Below is the ‘only good’ photo Clare Cain got of the Ghost event with Claire McFall, Rachel Burge and Helen Grant chatting to Sarah Broadley. I imagine they are hearing ghostly voices there. Or something.

Claire McFall, Rachel Burge, Helen Grant and Sarah Broadley, by Clare Cain

And even more below, is another stolen photo from Sunday morning’s event where Moira McPartlin chatted to Sarah Broadley [Sarah does seem to be everywhere, doesn’t she?].

Moira McPartlin and Sarah Broadley

Cymera – meet the boss

If you haven’t already met Ann Landmann at some event, you’re in for a treat at her Cymera weekend. And today, as a bonus, I have asked Ann a few questions from which you can find out, roughly, how to start your own litfest. That is, if you have even a fraction of Ann’s energy.

How do you even come up with the idea of starting your own book festival?

I love book festivals, big and small, and living in Edinburgh obviously means I have one of the best on my doorstep. Over the years I have noticed that SFFH authors don’t feature in book festival programmes as much, and while I know there are lots of conventions, a lot of them are down South.

The easy solution to bringing authors that I love to Scotland was starting my own book festival. So, armed with festival experience, events organiser experience, an MA in Arts, Festival and Cultural Management and a lot of enthusiasm, I found some equally crazy people and here we are.

Was it obvious what category books and authors you wanted?

Yes. Cymera is dedicated to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and we pretty much stuck to those categories. As to authors, we’ve been super lucky – the support from publishers has been great, and we actually got almost every author we asked for. I suspect the lure of Edinburgh, Scotland, played into this too!

According to the press release you have 81 authors. Have you read all of them?

I have read a lot of them, but not all (yet). There’s still time though …

How do you go about finding a venue?

From the beginning it was clear that we wanted to create the buzz you get when everything is in one venue, like at a convention. We also needed a bar, it had to be accessible and have lots and lots of space.

For my old job as Events Manager for a local bookshop I’ve always stayed on top of what venue in Edinburgh does what, and I knew the Pleasance just had a refurbishment making it more accessible. EUSA, who run the Pleasance, have been great to work with, and hopefully the space is as perfect as I am envisioning it.

Has it been hard to get volunteers? Who is volunteering?

We’ve had a fantastic response for our call for volunteers for the weekend! We have people from all sorts of backgrounds, from students to people that have volunteered at festivals before.

Are you actually looking forward to the Cymera weekend, or just to it being over?

I can’t wait! I hope we’ll get that buzz going, that everyone has a great time, makes new friends, discovers new writers – all those things that make a successful festival!

Dare I ask; once it’s over, will you do it again?

We fully intend Cymera to become an annual event that people look forward to every year. There’s definitely plenty of authors out there to fill an annual programme, and we have lots and lots of ideas of what we else we can do. 2019 is the year we are trying things out, and we are hoping for lots and lots of feedback that we can build the 2020 festival on.

I like the convention idea! Now all I need is a bed under the stairs.

See you there! (At Pleasance, not under the stairs.)