Category Archives: Interview

Tea with Danny, OBE

OK, so the Society of Authors’ afternoon tea with Daniel Hahn might have been more like him wielding a mug – though not a Moomin one – of coffee. But it was nice anyway. He might be busy, but it never shows. Danny always seems very cool and calm, and that rubs off on the rest of us. It was good to have an event ‘to go to’ even if it was no further than our own screens and our own mugs of tea/coffee/wine. And this was last week, so I offer my apologies for the late report. Stuff happens.

There he was, and there we were, and there was Antonia Lloyd-Jones, his translator colleague. (I have it on good authority that she is nice.) They discussed translating, as you do. And no, Daniel does not have a chimpanzee in the basement. He does all the work himself.

We discovered to our great delight that he has a ladder – for his library – when he walked us from one room to another, in order to find the thing he’s working on now, so he could read to us. It had been printed out and he read it with red pen in hand for any necessary corrections that might make themselves known to him. And he did, indeed, note down something that was wrong, meaning we were sort of useful.

The reason Danny doesn’t read the books before he translates, is that he hates first drafts and the payoff is the discovery of reading something for the first time. ‘There is nothing like it.’

And the reason he translates what he does, is that you can only choose the opportunities that exist. And there is the mortgage that wants paying. To help with that are the several translations at different stages, because he needs to work on different things; not just the first draft. He works fast, which is his good fortune, and he’s good at multitasking. Moving between translations is energising.

Danny enjoyed cooperating with a recent author, being able to ask her questions. His current author is long dead, which is not terribly practical. And he’d have liked hanging out with this man who died 114 years ago.

Co-translating is great, and tends to make for a better book, because two people have looked at everything, and thought about it, and discovered the mistakes. He’s doing something with palindromes and anagrams, which seems not to be as hard as his audience felt it must be.

For pleasure Daniel reads mostly the same as when he works, but he also reads a lot of children’s books. He tries to engineer things so that he can do some interviews or festival work, chatting to authors, and being allowed to ‘deduct it off his taxes.’

To assist with his tax paying, you could always look into his new book about translating, Catching Fire: a Translation Diary. It’s both fun and interesting. As was this event. We want more, please.

When Frank went to Seattle

It’s half term, and Arvon – with Mary Morris – wanted to entertain children needing entertaining, so they brought in Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is just the man for it. He was backlit by the Solway Firth, but we could still see most of him, and the internet cables were only marginally gnawed on by sharks.

Frank read a couple of excerpts from his new book Noah’s Gold, about the dangers of incomplete addresses for the GPS in the school’s minibus taking children on a trip to the Amazon warehouse. You can guess the rest. The book is about being unexpectedly marooned on an island, where there is no need to be horrid to the others when you can be nice and helpful instead.

He loves ‘ending up where you shouldn’t be’, which is why his own day trip to Oslo, allowing him plenty of time to get back to his daughter’s school assembly, didn’t quite go to plan. (The heading is a hint at what happened, but don’t ask me how. Though Frank strikes me as the kind of man to make little mistakes like that.) He has personal experience of being marooned on Muck with his children and a packet of Bourbon biscuits.

Frank’s own start on writing happened in Year 6, when his friend Graham was off sick and he ended up writing a long story in class. His teacher couldn’t have been more surprised by this ‘if he’d laid an egg’ but she read it out and it felt good.

This, in fact, is the solution to the question on how to get secondary school pupils to read. You read to them. People like being read to. You can’t teach pleasure, but you can share it. Frank acquired his own confidence when he was kept back a year – although he didn’t actually notice – and grew very confident during his second Year 6, and this has never left him.

These days he writes in a notebook, and at the end of the day he reads what he’s written aloud, to his mobile phone, which in turn saves it as text before he continues working on it on his computer. The app isn’t very good, it seems, but it only cost 59p.

It is, apparently, easy to write film scripts, which is what Frank did first. But it’s hard to get one made into a film. On the other hand, if you write a book, it’s relatively easy to get it published, because it’s so much cheaper than film making.

The last reading we got was from Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, the lightsaber episode. It’s odd. This must have been at least my third time, but I swear it sounds different every time. The thing to remember, when you are a dog from space, is that you do not eat the children. Nor should you actually make the lightsaber work, even if cutting children’s hair with it is the new face painting.

Marmalading

I’m a lot later with this than the Resident IT Consultant was. He’s the one around here who listens to the radio, and four weeks ago he sent me the link to Michael Berkeley’s interview with Meg Rosoff. I think he sort of suspected I wouldn’t mind listening to this. It was Private Passions on Radio 3, which seems to be a classier Desert Island Discs, like with more classical, proper music.

I kept intending to listen, but so many things got in the way, and the available number of days left shrank at an alarming rate. This is why I’m only letting you have just over a day to listen. Depending on when you read this. Although Daughter said she thought these things last ‘forever’. She could be right. Or she could be wrong.

Anyway, I finally hit on the solution to finding time. I had some Seville oranges to cut for the Resident IT Consultant’s marmalade making. It takes time. And it’s better for some audio entertainment to jolly me along. It clearly sounded so irresistible that Daughter said she’d slice the oranges with me.

So there we were, Meg’s Number One Fan and her Second Favourite Physicist, slicing away with increasingly sticky fingers. Yes, we used knives, obviously, but it’s still sticky business.

I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know any of Meg’s music choices, and worse still, while I enjoyed most of them I really didn’t care for the one described as her favourite… I think it was the one where she uttered the probably more truthful phrase than Mr Berkeley credited, ‘words fail me’….

Yeah, well

I can see clearly now…

I’m not sure I knew quite what ailed me. Or what I wanted.

But I lasted something like two days before my two typing fingers were itching again. Watched an online Society of Authors Afternoon Tea interview with Jacqueline Wilson, where Dawn Finch asked lots of pertinent questions and got many interesting, neither stale nor old, answers from Jacqueline. I couldn’t quite adapt to the ‘watch only, take no notes and do not write about it afterwards’ regime.

If I can do this at my own pace, with no gifted books or events tickets breathing down my neck, I might well be able to share my opinions with you regularly.

‘Oh, goody,’ I hear you say.

Yeah, well, that’s life.

I’ll work something out. I have far too many opinions wanting to get out there, for me to hold them in. What if I burst?

Flash Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t drop those walrus tusks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malorie Blackman – Flipping reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down #6 Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

I was so naïve.

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

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

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