Category Archives: Interview

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

‘Her election book’

It was gratifying to discover an online book event, shared with the US, where I was still awake enough to attend. But I suppose with Elizabeth Wein sitting not too many miles north of Bookwitch Towers, it needed to be early enough, while still permitting Carole Barrowman, somewhere in the US Midwest, to have got past her morning coffee.

They met up at the end of a week filled with online events for Elizabeth’s war time book The Enigma Game, recently published in her home country America. Carole gave us all of one sentence in a Scottish accent before switching back to her American one. I wish she’d said more! It’s strange really, how she’s over there and Elizabeth is over here.

The above quote is Carole’s who, having started reading the book on election night and loving it, now felt it was her ‘election book’; the one which made her week endurable. (I just want to know why she waited so long.)

Anyway, there we were, and I suddenly realised I was sitting next to two of my former interview subjects, which felt a bit weird. But nice. And fun. Because Carole is good at this interviewing thing, and Elizabeth has just the right books to be interviewed about, even if, as she said, she’s no good at elevator pitches. After an extended pitch, Elizabeth read us an early chapter about the German and the grammophone.

For this book she learned Morse code. Of course she did. Apparently it’s easy to learn, but hard to understand when it comes at you, so to speak. It was a suitable thing for young girls to learn, giving them something to do.

As Carole pointed out, everyone in The Enigma Game has something to hide, or they are hiding, like being a traveller, or a German refugee, or in the case of Louisa, someone who can’t hide her darker skin. Elizabeth said she always has someone like her in her books, a stranger, and she thinks it’s because she has never quite belonged where she’s lived.

During the conversation Elizabeth even began mixing herself up with Louisa, which proves the point. As a child in Jamaica she spoke fluent Jamaican patois, which she quickly had to shed when moving to the US. Carole compared that with her and her brother John’s needs when they moved from Scotland to America, quickly having to fit in.

Carole kept discovering more and more of Elizabeth’s books, and made notes on what else to read. The Enigma Game was going straight to her parents. She had actually read the Star Wars book, Cobolt Squadron, which Elizabeth described as her practice for Enigma, saying ‘how much fun is it to write an air battle?’ (Quite fun, I’d say.)

She’d got the railway line up the east coast somewhat confused, which means she forgot it had to be allowed for. So the northeast of Scotland was slightly altered by Elizabeth. Her fictional airbase is based on Montrose airfield.

Slightly behind her deadline for the next book, which she is not allowed to tell us about, is a kind of Biggles for girls, set in the 1930s. That’s good enough for me! And then Carole read out my question! I never ask questions in Zoom events. But I’d really like more books about the three characters in Enigma. No pressure, but yes.

As always when you have fun, this event came to an end. But it was good, and this was a perfect pairing of people to chat about a perfect book. Like Carole said, read The Enigma Game!

Was happiness wasted on him?

We ‘went’ to Kirkland Ciccone’s book launch this evening. By which I mean we attended the online launch, happening on Facebook, and which Daughter cast to the television, for us to sit in comfort and enjoy.

Well, after some ‘casting around’ for the actual event, we found it, but immediately discarded it, since it was clearly a mistake, what with mad fuzzy lines in colour and then there was some maniac who muttered curses, and fairly loudly too.

Turned out it was the real thing. Very psychedelic, it was. But once our dear host had been messaged to mute his sound, we could actually make out what was being said in his interview with Gillian Hunt at Cumbernauld Library. Well, some of it… And the rest was taken care of by some of the most inspired subtitles I’ve come across in my life. ‘Hommage’ turned into ‘a mash.’ And why not? Kirkie mentioned that he would usually launch his books at Waterstones in Argyle Street, which became ‘our street.’ That too.

He read the haircut episode from the book.

Did I mention the new book? It’s for adults. Hah. It’s called Happiness Is Wasted On Me.

And then he was at home again, Kirkie. He wasn’t sure we could hear or see him, when we could actually do both. Sort of. He kept breaking up, and laughing so much that we decided he’d overdosed on IrnBru. But he was very Kirkie.

He has a playlist that goes with the book, somehow. Daughter warned me never to try listening to it. (As if I would.)

Kirkie is very popular. The event was well attended and we all love him. But next time I’ll insist he takes Daughter’s advice on the technical stuff.

Both Sides of the news

I’m more of an ice hockey girl myself. However I do know some names of football players, although Nicklas Bendtner was not one of them.

He appears to be a successful Danish football import, now returned to his own shores, where he teamed up with a most respectable ‘ghost’ writer, Rune Skyum-Nielsen, for his autobiography Both Sides. This is according to his translator, Ian Giles. So Nicklas was responsible for the exciting doings, Rune for writing about them well, and Ian for making it possible for you to read the whole thing, now that the English translation is out.

I have my own copy, I’m pleased to say, but will probably not get round to reading. The Resident IT Consultant did, though, and survived. (He’s not really into sports.)

With my experience of book publicity, I’d say Nicklas’s PR team is pretty good. Being famous for kicking a ball obviously helps, but so far this week there has been a double spread of excerpts from the book in the Daily Fail, followed by another couple of pages interviewing the man. This morning there were another couple of pages in the Guardian, adding quality. In the sports pages, so I could easily have missed the happy event.

I understand this is the translator’s first Danish book, so has very little to do with me.

Sir Tom

I should read more Tom Stoppard.

And I realise this is my second Sir Tom for the week, but you can’t have too many of them.

Enjoyed the Guardian’s online conversation between Tom Stoppard and his biographer Hermione Lee this evening. I gather her book about him is published tomorrow.

For all that he has been a favourite of mine for so long, I don’t believe I have heard him talk much, if at all. His plays and his opinions have been enough. I gather he’s gone more serious in later years, whereas it was the humour I was attracted to all those decades ago.

There were some slight technical problems to begin with. Hermione and Tom seemed not to be sure when to speak and spoke across each other. But it got better. Tom also seemed to have some woman escaping on the left hand side of the screen. Not as fun as toddlers in walkers, but nicely human.

And he smokes! I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. Someone has to, I suppose, even now when it’s become so unusual as to be a shock.

Mechanical tortoises featured. Apparently actors prefer them to live dogs. He couldn’t quite recall the title of a Shakespeare play that he admires. There has been a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead done with puppets…

Well.

I took no notes. This was purely an event intended for my enjoyment. And as I said, I might have to read a play or two.

Let’s meet up

A few days ago I had cause to think about interviews. I had to accept that I have slowed down, rather.

Where once there was no stopping me, and I did more author interviews than I could comfortably transcribe and publish within a sensible time scale, I am now doing nothing. Or close to. There is the odd Q&A with authors, but even that is more odd than regular.

For the same reason as my above cause to think, I re-read an interview from the past, just to see what it was like. Did I think it was any good and would I do things differently now, and so on. I was fairly satisfied, and almost determined there and then to plan my next one and to make it happen.

And then I thought one step further, and realised why there will – most likely – not be any interviews right now. Who would meet me, and where? And would I be willing to meet them? (No one, nowhere, and possibly not.)

I’ve been ‘fine’ with no events and no ordinary meetings with authors, even if it does make me bored, not to mention boring. But the thought that face-to-face interviews are a thing of the past; that was just too much.

Or maybe, someone who is geographically not too far away, and who might not object to shouting answers across the length of a café or bar, or meeting on some park bench. Just maybe. In fact, I suppose my own garden is still legal. Cold, and maybe damp, but permitted.

Maybe I should. I even bought a guest bottle of hand sanitiser yesterday, to keep by the front door. Just in case. And unicorn slices. Not right inside the door, but available.

Medals for ‘my’ boys

It’s good to know the witch senses are working just fine. I could simply not see any other outcome regarding the Carnegie Medal than that Anthony McGowan would be awarded it for Lark. It could have happened sooner, but this way we got all four books of the trilogy in.

(And I’m saying this even keeping in mind the competition Tony was up against.)

For the Kate Greenaway medal it was Shaun Tan for his Tales From the Inner City (which I’ve yet to read). One of my most favourite illustrators, and I’m more than satisfied.

This year the proceedings were short and on Radio 4, on Front Row. They interviewed both Tony and Shaun and both read from their books, and explained the background to what they’d written. Tony got so excited he had to be interrupted in the middle of his ‘terrific’ answer…

According to Shaun ‘painting is really a way of exploring anxiety’. Plenty of that around.

Yep, very satisfied with this.

Anthony McGowan, Winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2020 from CILIP CKG Children’s Book Awards on Vimeo.

Genre?

By turning as French as I can – no mean feat for a non-French speaker – I have retrieved the ability to say ‘genre.’ Which is good, because one sometimes has to say it. Out loud, and so others can hear what you’re on about. It was while I interviewed Anthony McGowan about five years ago I discovered that for the life of me I couldn’t say the blasted word.

To get round this handicap, I’ve had to avoid using it, or to spell it.

When I was young, and tremendously foreign, I learned this word. Both what it meant, and how to ‘say it in Swedish.’ It involved saying it really wrong, in a kind of pidgin Swench. I don’t know whether Swedes now know better, or still say it like that.

As to its meaning, well, it stands for sub-categories of fiction, like crime, or romance, or sci-fi. All very nice categories. And useful if you want to specify what something is about. Because that’s what I took it to mean, a useful labelling tool. Not that it might indicate anything less worthy.

But that’s what it’s come to. At least in Britain. Maybe it was always thus. Maybe the term was invented, or adopted into the English language, in order to refer to rubbish fiction, on a completely different level than Literary Fiction.

A couple of months ago the word and its meaning came at me from two totally different directions at the same time. One was a question on a Swedish book newsletter site, where someone was asking ‘What does genre mean?’ Except they did it in Swedish. And I think the question was prompted by the discovery of the more British use of the word.

The other was on social media, where someone reported a programme they’d listened to, which went roughly like this:

(I asked permission to use it.) It’s not an exact quote or anything; more an idea of how people actually think, and are not ashamed to admit to in public. But basically, anything not very good is genre.

It’s very snobbish.

I read practically only genre fiction. By which I mean several genres, like children’s, or crime. It’s really good stuff. Sometimes I read Literary Fiction. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t and that’s when I remind myself why I prefer children’s books and crime. Although, some really Literary authors have been known to lower themselves to genre-writing. Quite often something seems to go wrong when they do.

The #27 profile – David Long

‘Handsome and informative.’ So says a quote on David Long’s website, and who am I to disagree? Anyway, a man who can write so well about Apollo 13 is obviously a man worth knowing more about. Right? So here he is, spilling the beans on Swedes and other secrets:

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

None, although I ghosted half a dozen for other people before one came out with my name on it. These were not celebrities but interesting, successful men and women who had an interesting story to tell, but lacked the time or temperament to sit down and write it themselves.

Best place for inspiration?

To be honest it can strike anywhere (but I once had a great idea for a title when I was in the bath).

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

See above. I also spent 25 years as a journalist, when I think about 5% of my pieces were written under one of several pen names.

What would you never write about?

I wouldn’t rule out anything, although I find all sports incredibly boring.

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

I’ve shaken hands with two of the twelve men who walked on the Moon, which is one of the reasons I wrote Survival in Space.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

N/A.

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

A bit of both, but I have written a script – and won an award for it – so clearly I’d like it to happen

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

“Were there any rabbits in the war?” (during a reading at Edinburgh Festival).

Do you have any unexpected skills?

My handwriting is even worse than my father’s was, and he was a doctor. Does that count?

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Easy. Famous Five.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Carl Linnaeus, the botanist-zoologist who worked so hard to make the world understandable.

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

Alphabetically! I’m not a barbarian.

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

Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner

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

Writing, but that would be a really, really tough choice.

David sounds like a sensible man. Definitely not a barbarian. But I would have liked to know more about the rabbits.

Lowering the standards?

Thank goodness for David Lammy! I was really pleased to see his choice of book that made him laugh.

Usually even that question in the Guardian Review’s questions to writers gets a ‘worthier’ response. But here was a grown-up, a politician, willing to mention a silly – but funny – picture book.

I remember Who’s in the Loo? by Jeanne Willis. Like all her picture books it’s both funny and seriously sensible. And I have my own personal interest in toilets, making it a lot more relevant than some.

In fact, most of the books mentioned by David are more normal than I have come to expect.