Category Archives: Interview

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.

Desert islands

Have I been doing this for too long?

On Sunday I was minding my own business, hanging the washing, absent-mindedly catching the last bit of Desert Island Discs as listened to by my Sunday chef, the Resident IT Consultant. While I rarely listen to the radio, I do like Desert Island Discs.

I heard the ‘victim’ say he needed Alice in Wonderland as his book. Apparently all the editions in the world, but this was disallowed. Some people…

And then we moved on to his luxury. Lots of sketchbooks. The penny dropped; I was listening to Chris Riddell. Quick double check with the Resident IT Consultant, ‘oh, is it Chris?’ He nodded sheepishly. I’d like to think he felt guilty for not alerting me to this state of affairs.

But how weird it is when one man’s luxury makes him immediately identifiable.

The seventh chair

I read the article several times.

Before that I had had a telephone conversation with Son, about various things. One of the ‘things’ was Åsa Wikforss. It was a professional sort of mention. Minutes later I sat down to eat supper in the company of the December issue of Vi magazine, of which page 30 was already lying open.

It turned out to be a long interview article with Åsa Wikforss. Coincidence? Serendipity, more like. She was photographed on top of a stepladder, wearing a shiny – but nice – copper coloured dress and a scarf billowing in the studio’s wind.

So I ate, and I read about Åsa. I liked everything I read. In fact, I felt a bit like her. No, not that exactly. More that we seemed to have a lot in common, in that comfortable way you sometimes discover when you talk to people. I wish I could. Talk to her, I mean.

The reason I probably won’t be able to, and the reason we are not the same, is that today she will be sworn in as a new member of the Swedish Academy. Yes, that slightly tarnished but formerly great institution. Chair number seven, I believe. The one that belonged to Sara Danius, whom I also felt strangely close to.

Åsa sounds very sensible. Intelligent. She doesn’t hail from a privileged background, so as far as I’m concerned she is the real deal. By privileged I mean money or family ties. Otherwise she was really quite privileged, having sensible – working class – parents, growing up in a concrete suburb of Gothenburg. Possibly studying at the Literature department at the same time as me. Possibly not. Then the obvious stuff; Oxford, international romance, New York, back to Sweden to be Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, and now the Swedish Academy.

It’s a long article, and the author, Stina Jofs, regrets not having had room for all the information she’d collected. So there’s no point in me going on and on here.

But she’s been where I’ve been, even if she did it in New York and I was in Stockport. It’s almost the same.

I read the article again. Told Son about it, and he wants me to save it for when he gets here. Fine. I will. But I might want to read it again.

Here’s hoping Åsa’s first day with her Swedish Academy colleagues goes well, and that soon she and her rookie peers will sort them out good and proper.

Åsa Wikforss, photographed by Thron Ullberg for Vi

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