Category Archives: Writing

Kazuo Ishiguro – wanting to go electric and get booed, just like Dylan

He’s got his grey world of hitchhikers, possibly stuck off the M5, on a roundabout in Cumbria. But there is no plot. Yet.

I suspect that geographically the above doesn’t make any sense, but who cares? This is Kazuo Ishiguro who made up his own Japan as a child, based on what his mother told him, the comics his grandparents sent, and sheer speculation. It had little bearing on the real place, which he left at the age of five.

This makes a lot of sense to someone who knows what it’s like to belong in two places where you don’t necessarily belong. He was 20 when he realised this Japan perhaps didn’t exist, and by leaving it alone, it has faded away. It gave him a sense of liberation when by his third novel there was no Japan in it.

Tuesday evening’s Guardian event with Kazuo talking to Alex Clark, and with thousands of us listening in, was the first in a virtual book tour to launch Klara and the Sun, his new book. He promised to give us all the best stuff.

Although, there wasn’t as much about the new novel, about AI friends for lonely teenagers, as you might expect. There was so much else to talk about. Kazuo’s daughter Naomi had prevented him from making this a children’s book, saying they’d be traumatised. It is now a much more optimistic novel for adults…

Kazuo likes testing new genres, a bit like we might try some new food. He also reckons he could easily move the plots of his books into other settings, should he be legally required to do so.

Alex Clark called him bonkers, then apologised, but Kazuo said ‘bonkers is good’ and ‘I am not a professional writer, but quite limited in what I do’. He meant he can only write what he can write. And with a Nobel prize behind him, that writing isn’t all that bad.

The organisers had planted famous people, like Bernardine Evaristo, to ask particularly good questions. His pal David Mitchell wondered about the frequent mentions of Worcestershire, which appear to be some kind of cameos, coming from a hotel stay in Minneapolis.

Emma Thompson wanted to know whether films of books can reach the depths the books do, and it seems that if she writes the script, they can. She sported pandemic hair, and had also had time to paint her walls the same colour as her jumper. Kazuo did point out, though, that an actor only ever has to learn to be one character in a book, whereas the author needs to know everything.

Kazuo always knows the endings of his books; he knows where he has to land. ‘You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say’.

He refused to commit to an opinion of how the pandemic might influence his writing. It is too early and too many people have died. It would feel wrong to escape into his world, ‘where my work sits in the word’. He has many great worlds with no story, and great titles without a story to go with it. The worlds and settings in his head wait for ‘the play’ to come.

You will not be surprised to learn that the event overran. But that’s what you get from an author who dares to presume he knows about butlers, giving his readers an ultra-English novel, even mishandling the port. Foreigners, eh?

You need five weeks between the squirrel columns

Some time back when things were normal, I wrote to the Guardian and asked them to send me Tim Dowling. They wrote back and said they would think about it.

Finally, last night Tim was in my living room! Admittedly only on screen, and he had Hadley Freeman with him. But it was good; two of my favourites at the same time.

The squirrels, as you will know, are his. But there’s a limit to how often even Tim can write a column about them. Not every week, that’s for certain. (But I did think it could be more frequently than every five…)

And he sounds so English! For an American, I mean. Almost like an Atlantic version of Colin Firth. I admired his living room (?), until it was suggested by someone that it might be Tim’s shed. Was it just a fake background, to fool me?

I knew Hadley’s ‘background’ was in fact her bedroom. I’ve been in her bedroom before. The bedroom with the wallpaper.

Apparently it’s hard writing a weekly column, although for Hadley it provides a break in her ‘parenting’ as she knows she should refer to the child care as.

For Tim the task is to make Mrs D laugh on Saturday mornings. She’s generally not ‘pissed off’ by what he writes, knowing full well she’s the funny one. Tim ‘only writes it down.’

If they were to write about last night, the first you would read about it – except on here, obviously – is Saturday next week. That’s as far in advance as they need to be. They both dread coming up with acceptable topics, and for Tim not much beats the squirrels. Or a hole in his sock. He started his writing career with a column [elsewhere] on ‘How to live off your girlfriend’. Because it’s what he did, having followed the future Mrs D to England. She has tried to send him back.

We all love Hadley’s interviews. When asked who her dream future interviewee would be, she said Eddie Murphy. Also a lot of already dead people. And apparently her recent piece on Angelina Jolie, which I enjoyed, caused very many readers to write in to defend Angelina…

Both Tim and Hadley have books on the go. To write, I mean. But Tim filled me with dread when he said he might need three months off to finish his novel. Don’t do it!

An inspiration lost

I don’t quite remember why Lars Westman was talking to the postbox. But it was the kind of thing he was wont to do.

I’m thinking it had to do with no stamps or not enough postage on something he had just posted, and he was trying to persuade the postbox to give the letter back, so it could be rectified. It’s obvious, you put your face close to the opening and say what you need to say.

In this case, the most interesting thing was that there was a reply. I believe there was a postal worker the other side of the hole where you post your letters, which probably means it was one of those postboxes inserted into a wall, or there would hardly have been room for a man inside the box. Certainly, my own postal background does not incorporate talking postboxes, however crazy we might have been.

It was a hilarious tale, the way many of Lars’s columns in Vi Magazine were. I read him for decades and he was always good. He was one of the people who made me want to write.

And now he’s dead. Retired for some years, he was 86. But his entertaining columns, and longer articles are ones I still remember. Except when I’ve half forgotten, like the talking postbox. (I was fully expecting Lars to get stuck, or something. Not that there’d be an actual response from within.)

‘What if you’d been dead?’

That’s crime writers for you; coming across an unusual event with a happy outcome, and then making it worse by killing someone [in a book]. In Meet the Author event with Dr Val McDermid, organised by the University of St Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, Val described how she came to write The Distant Echo by murdering former students, and how someone unwittingly provided her with the spot for the original death.

This was a well-run online event, as you’d expect from a leading university, when treating their students to a talk by one of their Honorary Doctors. After an introduction by the Principal, Sally Mapstone, Val talked to Professor Gill Plain, who teaches a crime fiction module. With two new books, Val had lots to say. Still Life is her new crime novel, and then there is her 2020 bonus book, the Christmas is Murder anthology.

Sitting in her library, with a lovely Christmas tree next to her, Val talked about various aspects of her writing career, and not only stuff I’d heard before. At the beginning of the year there was only Brexit as a cloud on the horizon, until it became obvious that there would be more. Her yearly pattern of writing, followed by events, was broken, and the short crime stories in Christmas is Murder filled a gap.

Val had a bout of Covid in March; 17 days when she can’t really account for what she was doing. Writing took longer when spending a lot of time on following the news. The online events she did lacked the sense of camaraderie she loves, and she misses the conversations with colleagues. Walking with friends helps.

She doesn’t think people will want to read Covid books. Coming up with an idea for a quintet of novels set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019 respectively has given her some breathing space.

Meanwhile, we have her new short stories that were a struggle to write, including the one titled Holmes for Christmas… Val hopes for a Christmas equivalent of Norway’s Easter crime reading.

The conversation moved on to Hamish’s hipster porridge. Yes, really. Seems Val has been ‘Cooking the books’ on YouTube. There will be a Christmas special, and maybe one for New Year, but she will call it quits while she’s still having fun.

Generally she knows where she will start a book, and where it will finish, but the road in between she can only see glimpses of as she writes. For the new Karen Pirie novel, Val had to make up some sort of art, which turned out to be a collage of a person, cut into pieces and reassembled as a portrait. Or something like that. And it’s important to keep track of what you are withholding from the reader. She introduced a new detective as a plot device; someone who might now stay on.

When asked who people will still read in a hundred years’ time, she hoped she’d be one of them, but more seriously said it will be the game-changers, and compared this to who we read today, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and Allingham and Marsh. Authors with memorable characters. So perhaps William McIlvanney, Patricia Highsmith, P D James and Thomas Harris.

I shall have to look into these cooking sessions.

‘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.

Launching Allie

You could tell it has been cold in Edinburgh. For the launch of his new book The Sins of Allie Lawrence on social media, Philip Caveney has walked, or been made to walk, all over the place to be filmed saying stuff about his book. This is good. I reckon authors should be made to work hard. And Philip looks reasonably handsome in a knitted hat, so that’s not the disaster it could have been.

He started by reading from this, his 54th, or maybe 55th, book. He’s been at it for 43 years (which fact made Helen Grant say something less well thought through), so that could be why he’s not counting so well. But at least the flowers in the background were not plastic. Kirkland Ciccone wondered about that.

As you can tell, this launch was well attended by quite a few of Philip’s peers, and it felt almost as if we were meeting in real life. Except there was no cake. Apparently I was meant to do the cake. Oops.

Philip took us round past Söderberg’s and round some fancy apartment near the Meadows, and at least two theatres, plus other Edinburgh sights. It made us all wish we were there.

Once this prancing around town was over, it was question time, with lots of people asking, both from before and also during the event, as well as some recorded questions from three child readers. He likes his covers. In fact, he seemed to have some of them framed on the wall behind him.

‘The ideas will come’, he said ominously regarding where he gets his ideas from. And he does like all his children, I mean books, because if he doesn’t, then how can he expect the rest of us to like them? Good question.

There will be at least three drafts of a book, taking two to three months to begin with. Philip quite fancies being picked by Netflix, and who wouldn’t? His alter ego, Danny Weston, was originally a character in one his early books, and someone he needs for the really creepy stuff. Like his most evil character, Mr Sparks, in the book dedicated to me. Such a relief to know that.

Having autonomy when he writes  might be the best thing about being an author. In fact, if no publisher were to be interested in his books, Philip would still write them. He said something about ‘howling into the void’ but mercifully I have already forgotten what that was about. Sounds desperate. And just think, if his then 10-year-old daughter hadn’t wanted to read his totally unsuitable adult novel, there might never have been these books to entertain, or scare, younger readers.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. He’s still not quite Ray Bradbury (but it can’t be long now), author of his favourite book, the book that changed his life. As to why Allie comes from Killiecrankie, Philip simply needed a ridiculous name. But not even this passed without argument (from a man closer to Killiecrankie than some of us).

That’s book launches for you. All sorts of people attend them.

Grace’s North-South divide

She was a little vague about the where, but the difference between southern food and northern food is whether people like it wet or dry. It settled a discussion Daughter and I had had just that day, about my – apparently southern – liking for dry food, whereas some people can’t have too much sauce.

Or champagne. This is the Guardian’s Grace Dent we’re talking about, and she was very grateful, but surprised, that some of us had paid money to hear her talk about her new book, Hungry, because otherwise she’d have been sitting there talking to herself, drinking champagne. As it was, Grace was chatting to Felicity Cloake, also of the Guardian, and general facilitator of how to make the best Waldorf salad, for instance.

I had happily forked out my £5 for an hour with Grace, but when Kirkland Ciccone decided to launch his book at exactly the same time, he won. So that’s why, a couple of weeks later, I sat down with Grace and Felicity and my cheese sandwich, for a belated hour of fun.

Not yet having seen Grace’s book, I am merely guessing that it is an autobiography of her life so far. I read some excerpts in the paper a while back, and they were mostly about her dad. Being northern, they like Asda, and unhealthy food. I know, that sounds a bit prejudiced, but it’s roughly how Grace put it, and there is nothing wrong with this. It’s merely an observation. She feels safe in Asda, and her father was always very happy to be taken out for meals there, or to Morrison’s.

I had hoped that Grace could still eat out incognito, but it seems not. Not even when she covers her face with masks and glasses and everything. So yes, if she were ever to walk into my restaurant, should I have one, I’d be trembling with fear.

The chat covered a lot of common sense, and a lot of food and eating and cooking. I’m relieved to see we see eye to eye on many things, and Grace is right to concentrate on entertaining all of us who will rarely, if ever, make it to one of those places, rather than on making the fortune of the restaurants. I like a [food] writer who wants nothing more than to fill a restaurant with dynamite and get rid of the whole lot. Even if it turned out to be much better than expected, and with no real need for that dynamite.

I suspect Hungry is a fun book to read. I mean, it even gives away Grace’s deep, dark secret of comfort-eating oven chips with Bisto. I obviously wouldn’t, but why not?

On writing about robotic cats among the lilacs

It was strictly BYO cupcakes for the launch of Sheila Averbuch’s debut novel Friend Me. But we didn’t know that. Ah well. Nor did all of us know how to find ‘the way in’ for this online launch party. Quite a few of us bumbled along on virtual darkened pavements before the door magically sprang open.

So, I might have missed a bit.

Sheila was talking to her pal and fellow writer Louise Kelly about those 17 years when she was trying hard to write a novel someone would want to publish. It’s good to know that it’s not always plain sailing for everyone else in life, but 17 years is a long time. A long time to keep working towards a goal. But she did it!

You should always show your work to writer friends. And early rather than late, because they will give you the best advice and help you on your way. As did Sheila’s two teenagers who had much to say about her book, including the ‘missing’ last three pages.

Starting up a local SCBWI group helped too, and having Keith Gray come and lecture on how to write made a huge difference. When nerves got too frayed Sheila decamped to some lilac bushes in her gorgeous garden, which seems like a great place to write. The same can be said about Moniack Moor where she was able to spend some writing time, thanks to financial help through Scottish Book Trust.

Reading a lot helped as well. (When I first met Sheila she asked me for recommendations, and I was most taken by her seriousness in writing it down.) Reading soothes when you are stressed, and reading other books will give you ideas and inspiration.

I’m less sure where the spooky robotic cat came into it all. I believe it features in the plot, but above everything else, Sheila has one, right there. She stroked it as we all watched and it purred and miaowed, and I’m not sure what we felt. But the cat seemed happy enough.

Chatting to the Irish actor who is doing the audio book of Friend Me, she had experienced the exact same ‘washing powder incident’ as the character in the book. (I suspect I have, too.)

There were questions from the literally hundreds of guests, there was a giveaway, with free books on bullying, and we learned that Sheila has favourite chapters in the book. She mostly aimed the novel at the US market because, as she said, it’s where her own middle grade reading happened.

Before we all parted, going in search of cupcakes in our respective freezers, Sheila wanted to thank her mother. It’s what you do, and her mother has been really supportive. So we toasted mother McDonald. (No, not that kind of toast.)

It was lucky in a way that the launch party had to take place online. All those friends who turned up would have made for a very cramped bookshop in real life. And the cupcakes would definitely have run out.

Bookwitch bites #148

The trip to Spain might have been fake – fake Spain with rain, not so much fake trip – but this week Kirkland Ciccone went to Sweden. Only in cyberspace, but it’s hard to travel these days, so it will have to do. I’ve been itching to have a photo published on Boktugg, and when Kirkie ended up on my television screen last Thursday, I decided to send in my picture of the occasion, and they’ve printed not only the photo, but my words about him, including the murderous porridge.

I must think before I press send…

This week gave us the long nominations lists for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals for 2021, and as always, they are good lists. They give pleasure and hope to those on them, and I feel considerable guilt for having read only a few. But those few were Very Good. I’m sure they will make the longlists and maybe the shortlists too. Even if only one – in each category – can win.

Somewhere you can win a bit more easily is when it comes to pay. Equal pay. I had kept a link to something from absolutely ages ago, but ended up never getting to it to comment, so deleted it. Now in The Bokseller I see that the gender pay gap at PRH – Penguin Random House – has widened. That’s what I would call going in the wrong direction. If you really, really want to improve pay equality, you do. More money to the women, and not necessarily less to the men, but not increasing their salaries disproportionately. Pay is something you can determine in an office. No need to wait for pandemics to end or for politicians to grow sensible.

And the same goes for reviews of children’s books. Last year The Bookseller reports only 4.9% of book reviews were for children’s books, and a year later this had managed to slide down to 4.3%. 50% is too much to hope for, I suppose, but maybe a little more than barely 5%? I forget who said this in the last few days, but children’s books matter more, because they shape their readers into the kind of people they will grow up to be. I do my best, but as you well know, that is not a lot, and my viral reading has plummeted.

My local newspaper has launched this year’s charitable collection for Christmas presents for children who might not get any. I am gearing up to give them books again. Especially with the above in mind, but also with that in mind, I fear that plastic toys in primary colours will be more welcome. At least by the adults sorting the gifts. Except I know there are children who don’t actually own any books, and who would be happy to be given one.

And finally, thirty years on, we are looking at the last book by Jacqueline Wilson to be illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Not that we have been wanting this to end, but as they say, the time has come for Nick to concentrate on his own work. Here at Bookwitch Towers we will be forever grateful for the way he has captured Jacqueline’s characters and made so many children want to read her books. I have on occasion wanted to simply sit there and stroke the gorgeous covers, especially that pink one over fifteen years ago. And who can beat Tracy Beaker?

2021 ALMA hopefuls

The nominations for next year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award have ‘arrived’. Many are the same as in previous years, some are probably new. The list is long.

I was most pleased with recognising the Palestinian name, seeing as Palestine isn’t as big as it perhaps should be in the Bookwitch mind. Sonia Nimr. I have even heard her talk live!

There are some worthy names from, say, Sweden and Norway, but in most cases I feel these authors need a few more years to be ready. For the burden, if nothing else. Maybe excepting Jakob Wegelius. And then there is Maria Turtschaninoff from Finland.

I am mostly interested in the English language writers I read a lot by, and the contrast between those who have been around for a long time, and those who are really quite new, is interesting.

Beverley Naidoo comes under South Africa, and from Ireland we have Siobhán Parkinson and Sheena Wilkinson.

The UK contingent have Quentin Blake and Shirley Hughes on the one hand, and Juno Dawson and Katherine Rundell on the opposite hand, with Theresa Breslin and Aidan Chambers somewhere in the middle. As well as many others, I hasten to add.

Among US authors are Elizabeth Acevedo, Kate DiCamillo and Laurie Halse Anderson, to mention a few.

So, may the best unknown win?