Category Archives: Interview

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

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

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

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

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

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

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

Quite.

Helen Grant

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

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

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

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

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

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

I might wear purple

Terry Pratchett

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

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

Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

Terry Pratchett - Dementia Friends

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

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

Philippa Dickinson and Terry Pratchett

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

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

Terry Pratchett and witch

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

‘So where do you come from?’

‘Sweden,’ 

‘Sweden?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hahaha…’

‘It’s not that funny.’

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

Triggers

Whenever I think of the run-up to my interview with Debi Gliori (almost six years ago!) I feel ashamed. Ashamed, because she wanted to feed Son and me, and I gave her a very long list of what not to give me. In a way it doesn’t matter. As I made clear last week, I can always not eat the chocolate dessert, but it’s easier not to in a restaurant where I won’t worry too much about anyone’s hurt feelings. But I know that if I’ve slaved over a hot stove to cook something for a visitor, and it turns out to be the one exact thing they simply can’t eat, we’d both have been happier if there’d been a list. Even a long list.

Do not feed Bookwitch

(And in the end Debi went for simple and utterly delicious and I can recommend her kitchen to anyone. Which she might not thank me for.)

But you’d think that when I cook my own dinner I’d know what to do. Or not to do. And I do, but sometimes I have my moments. On Monday I could either have put no onion in the soup, or used a little, frozen, onion. I put lots of fresh onion in instead and didn’t cook it enough, and as a result you are now not reading about James Oswald’s visit to the Stirling branch of Waterstones.

C’est la vie. Sleeping off migraines is all right, too. Apart from my date with James I have the time, so it could have been worse. Perhaps I’ll write myself a list to look at in the kitchen, before I start telling others what to do.

I’m reminded by what Asperger guru Tony Attwood told the audience at a long ago conference I attended. Some people have found they get a bit more ‘normal’ by following a fairly strict diet. Or less ‘aspie.’ Tony was having a meal out with aspie child author Luke Jackson and his mother. Luke followed this diet, so his mother asked for various things to be taken into account when ordering his food.

Tony said that after a while they became aware that Luke was behaving unexpectedly badly. They asked the waitress if any of the things they’d mentioned might have ended up in Luke’s meal anyway. It had.

‘We didn’t think you’d notice,’ she said.

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

Bookwitch bites #129

You saw this already, didn’t you? The world needs more books. The world needs more Madisons, too. And Little Free Libraries.

So much enthusiasm from one articulate little girl!

Good news this week for Kathryn Evans; who has been writing a book ‘ for some time.’ She has a publishing deal with Usborne, for her debut YA novel More of Me (although we have to wait until 2016 before we can read it), which sounds truly different. I seem to know some people who have read the manuscript, and I trust them when they say it’s good.

And, in time for today’s Lucia celebrations, here are my ginger biscuit pigs, which finally have seen the light of day, or at least experienced the heat of the oven. Before I eat them…

The 2014 ginger biscuits

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…

(Sorry!)

  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

On Sheriffmuir with Alex Nye

’twas a dark and stormy night.

Hang on, no it wasn’t! It was a dark and wet and windy November noon. I had sort of almost wished for snow. It would have made things more atmospheric, and for meeting an author like Alex Nye it would have fitted in nicely. But driving up to Sheriffmuir in snow might have been dicey, and besides, I don’t much care for the white stuff. Especially in November. Murky clouds did very nicely, thank you.

Alex Nye

The Resident IT Consultant had to sacrifice himself and go for a walk while Alex and I feasted on Earl Grey and desserts (the Sheriffmuir Inn doesn’t do cake, but they do have pudding to go with hot drinks) as a kind of late elevenses, seeing as it was twelveses.

It was thanks to Kirkland Ciccone (or more precisely his book launch last month) that Alex got in touch. She was there too, but with ‘someone’ forgetting to make the introductions, I had no way of knowing if Alex was there, and if so, if she was a girl Alex or a boy Alex, if she was an author, or anything else. All I knew was that I had been promised Alex Nye’s presence and that this Alex would be ‘the sensible one.’

So we arranged to meet for ‘coffee’ all on our own, and once I’d found out that Alex’s books are set on Sheriffmuir, I felt deep inside that the Inn would be the place to have the ‘coffee’ and maybe some dark, ghostly weather conditions.

Sheriffmuir Inn

As I was saying, we were lucky with the weather. The rain bucketed down from low clouds, and inside the Inn was a warm fire, tartan seats, a shaggy dog and tea and sticky toffee pudding. It was perfect!

Alex Nye

What did we talk about? Well, let’s see. A bit about accents (Alex is English) and what it was like to live on Sheriffmuir (which Alex did when she first moved to the area in the 1990s). The weather, children, education, what we read, ‘progress’ in the shape of the authorities digging up and ruining nice bits of countryside. Lots of stuff.

When the Resident IT Consultant turned up looking like he’d drowned, we took pity on him and he was allowed to sit down and have a coffee. So someone did actually have coffee in the end. And the conversation strayed on to things like horizontal wallpaper and making handbags out of crocodiles.

I know.

Alex Nye, Chill & Shiver

Where was I? Oh yes. On Sheriffmuir. Alex very kindly signed copies of her two books, Chill and Shiver, for me, and I know I haven’t read them yet, but they do look just right, if you know what I mean? Lovely covers, and they are ghostly, snowy, winter adventures set not far from where we were sitting.

Just the thing, really.