Category Archives: Writing

Meyer on Meyer

One of the loveliest things is when a superb publicist grabs hold of me and introduces me to an author I know nothing about at all, but someone I find I really do want to learn more about. I knew Deon Meyer is a big name in the world of crime, and I could sort of place him in South Africa. But I didn’t know that he writes in Afrikaans and not in English. He is visiting Europe right now, on what is mainly a Dutch book tour, with a couple of days in London, to publicise his brand new novel Fever (which between you and me looks like a fabulous read).

Deon and I were meant to email chat one evening this week, but holiday wifi being what it turned out to be, it was as well that we had a plan B. Nothing will stop me from asking famous authors silly questions, so here goes:

Deon Meyer, Fever

Tell me who Deon Meyer really is! How famous are you? Do people stop you in the street? Any relation to Stephenie Meyer? (I’m almost not serious about the last question.)

In South Africa people do – and I have been stopped in France too. In the UK I was stopped once, but that was by people who wanted directions. I also admit to being stopped for speeding.  And my wife’s beauty stops me in my tracks every time!

I was fascinated to learn that you write in Afrikaans; somehow one just expects people from ‘English speaking’ countries to turn to English for most things intended to travel. Did you ever consider not using Afrikaans, or is that as stupid a question as people asking me whether I really speak Swedish? (Which, of course, I don’t actually expect you to know the answer to.)

May I first say that South Africa is not an English speaking country … it is actually a Zulu speaking country. There are as many other languages spoken  there as there are English speakers. Then I would say that writing is tough anyway – and to do it in a second language, constantly searching for the correct word, would be tricky if not downright difficult. And thirdly, even though the Afrikaans book market is relatively small, it is immensely strong, and to lose out on that market would be financially imprudent of me ..!

Not sure whether I just imagined this, but do you translate your books yourself? If so, does that feel a bit weird?

No – I have a wonderful translator who does a terrific job of moving me from Afrikaans into English – for the English speaking market.  For most other languages I have to trust my foreign editors and believe them when they say the job has been done well. Of them all, I think Chinese is the biggest mystery.

I’m assuming the reason you have a Dutch book tour now, is that you are particularly popular in the Netherlands (and Belgium?)? Are the two languages close enough that there are no language barriers with your Dutch fans?

Actually, Afrikaans isn’t that similar to Dutch at all, so that is a good question, and there really is no simple answer. Slow, clear and unaccented speech makes it a bit easier – but that ‘ardly ever ‘appens. As they say …

And does the Afrikaans/Dutch aspect sort of make you a little bit Nordic? By which I mean half Anglo, but also half something completely different; something that means you stand out from the UK/US crowd [of crime writers]?

I don’t know the answer to this one!

If you weren’t Deon Meyer, who would you like to be?

If I wasn’t me … hmmm.  Let me think.  I’d say Ridley Scott because I love his visual storytelling, and it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to make a big budget, entertaining movie.

Do you happen to know what young South African readers like to read? (The one person I know, whom I asked, could only suggest Harry Potter…) I ask because children’s and YA books are closest to my heart.

The young in South Africa do read the same sort of books as British (and Swedish) children. Most of what is available here is available there – for young adults as well. They also love to read Facebook posts, of course.

What do you yourself read for pleasure?

I have been meaning for some time to read Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants… which I now am.  He is such a great storyteller, I don’t mind taking on a big book – and it is part of a trilogy, so I know there is lots to come.  I am an omnivorous reader – I even read the labels on the condiment bottles on tables … I find it fascinating how some makers can disguise what goes into their product. But crime and suspense fiction are still my favourites.

Finally – if you’ve survived my questions this far – please tell me you have a favourite Swede? (A simple ‘yes’ is not enough of an answer.)

My favourite Swede choice would be Svante Weyler – my Swedish publisher.  He is a great guy, a really smart bloke and a wonderful publisher – and if I can’t be Ridley Scott, I want to be Svante Weyler.

Deon Meyer © Guido Schwarz

I have met Svante, and I’m inclined to agree with Deon, with the exception of perhaps not wanting to turn into him. Admiration is enough. Now I want to meet Deon, either as himself, as Ridley Scott or as Svante Weyler. And how right this speedy and romantic man is regarding languages. Zulu… I should have known!

With many thanks to the ever efficient Kerry Hood for organising this opportunity to put Deon on the spot, and with rather less thanks to the local mobile network masts. But we beat you, so there!

And I’m off to read a nearby ketchup bottle.

Missed

It was when Son mentioned Nepalese food the other day, that I thought of the only time I had to drop out of an interview. Twice. And it still hasn’t happened, which is mostly my fault. First because I didn’t arrange a trip specially to go and see this author, and second for moving further away, making it harder to do.

At the time I assumed that we’d soon meet up again, in an organic sort of way, because authors are always doing events. This is someone I have admired a lot, and who was one of my top names when Bookwitch was born. Which is why I arranged the interview date to begin with. And the second one.

But I was wrong about one thing. Authors don’t keep putting out new books for us to read, review and go to events for. Not because they don’t write, I think. Because somehow the publishers move on.

Never mind that X has a dozen, or 75, books under his or her belt. Publishers move on to new stars. That’s clearly fine, as long as the new people are good writers, and as long as the already established ones also get their books out there.

I believe that’s what happened in this case. This author, despite me being such a fan, has not published anything since. That’s not to say I can’t do an interview. I can. But the easy way you end up in the same place because of a new event for new book has gone.

The #22 profile – Marnie Riches

She likes her Swedes. That’s always a good thing. Marnie Riches is about to spill a few beans, to celebrate the fact that you can actually have the Kindle version of her new novel Born Bad absolutely free if you hurry. Do it! Or pay money for the paper book. Or even both.

Marnie sent me a really beautiful photo of herself, smiling. Now, I don’t want you to get too comfortable, so here is a non-smiling Marnie instead, ready to tell you about herself and her writing:

Marnie Riches (by Phil Tragen)

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

All the books, ever! I slaved over a novelization of an epic 12th century Dutch poem that I eventually turned into a rather crap YA historical thriller. I lovingly put together a fully illustrated picture book about a messy hippo called Billy. I gave it the imaginative title of, Billy, the Messy Hippo. I wrote three middle grade novels, which turned out to be practice. I wrote six historical adventure novels for 7+, which were published under the pseudonym, Chris Blake (the first six in HarperCollins’ Time-Hunters series). But still not in my name! I wrote half of a YA manuscript, which got put to one side and forgotten about because of writer’s block nonsense and because it was…nonsense. I wrote a women’s novel that’s STILL on submission, even though it’s totes hilaire (yes, that was said ironically). Then, I was finally published with The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – my crime-thriller (not for kids) about a criminologist, set mainly in Amsterdam. I wrote three more George McKenzie thrillers, but the entire series is still digital only. SO…my first paperback didn’t come out until March 2017. Technically then, Born Bad – my tale of Manchester’s gangland – is my first book made from actual book. That’s many thousands of books before I got published. Luckily, I’m better with words than numbers, much to my accountant’s chagrin.

Best place for inspiration?

Walking amongst normal people.

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

My Time-Hunters books were published under the Chris Blake pseudonym as there were several writers working on the series at once. I’m fine with that. I’d happily write again under a pseudonym and fully expect any of my women’s fiction to be published as such. Many crime-writers relaunch their careers as debuts by writing under pseudonyms.

What would you never write about?

I’ve written about people-trafficking, the sex industry, Charlemagne the Great, fairies, dead Egyptians, Vikings, organ harvesting, paedophile rings, missing children, Mexican cartels, gangsters and Manchester. I’ll pretty much tackle anything as long as it doesn’t involve too much hoovering.

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

I’ve spent too much time trawling Amsterdam’s red light district and also the medieval churches of the low-lands and Germany. But that’s more to do with my being a little odd, a history dork and a linguist than being a writer. I met a couple of very interesting criminologists and had an exchange with the head of forensic pathology at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Unexpected enough for you, Bookwitch? I could tell you I also met the Duke of Edinburgh on many an occasion, but then, I worked for him, so that was fully expected.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

I’d like to be George McKenzie, of course, because she’s even mouthier than me and doesn’t grunt when she bends over. She’s got better hair too.

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

This would be wonderful because those enjoying the TV programme or film would rush out and buy all of my books. I could have Born Bad merchandising with special Sheila O’Brien dolls and a branded range of antacids, “As used by Chief Inspector Van den Bergen”. It would rock.

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

I haven’t been asked anything really odd yet. I was asked at a bookshop recently what advice I’d give to the reader’s 24 year old son, who aspired to be an author. My answer involved living a little longer and doing a good deal more before attempting to write.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I can lay laminate flooring, tile badly and decorate. I can pave a patio. I can router out a hole in a worktop for a kitchen sink. I bake brilliant bread. I play bass and rhythm guitar. I’m excellent at sewing on buttons. I’m really good at swearing.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Narnia, any day of the week. Everyone knows Enid Blyton’s best books were “The Mystery of…” books and “The Thingy of Adventure” books.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

Bookwitch, of course! Then, my ex-husband. Then, Stieg Larsson, for giving us Salander. Then, Saga Norén.

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

In packing boxes, currently. I moved house almost a year ago and still haven’t unpacked for fear that the various infestations in my superannuated bungalow will see my books as a food source or new habitat.

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

My Time-Hunters books. Although my own son is a reluctant reader and wouldn’t read them. He did, however, go bonkers over the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and other Jeff Kinney books.

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

Writing. Some might say writers are just a bunch of narcissists telling big fibs. I say, every author has stories inside them, trying to punch their way out. We get dented in the head if we don’t tip those stories onto the page. So, the writing comes first.

Marnie Riches, Born Bad

The Duke of Edinburgh! Who’d have thought? And strictly speaking Marnie chose far too many Swedes (I said favourite!), but I’m feeling generous today. In my head Marnie is George McKenzie, and no one sensible would want to hoover unnecessarily. I could do with a new patio, though, Marnie.

Marnie??

Where did she go?

Patrick Ness – setting aside expectations

Ann Landmann clearly knew she could fill the George Square Lecture Theatre for the Blackwell’s Patrick Ness event on Saturday afternoon. So she did. People were queueing before the doors opened. There were plenty of young fans, but also a good number of unaccompanied adults. It’s OK. I was one myself, as was Kate Leiper who turned up again. (We’ll have to stop meeting like this…)

Patrick Ness and Keith Gray

I knew it’d be good when I heard that Keith Gray was going to be the one to talk to Patrick about his new book Release. This was their third event together (and I’ve been to them all), and as Keith said, a lot has happened since the last time; three books, television, a film.

The edge of the stage nearly brought Patrick down as he entered, but he managed to right himself, and then he put his mic on, having left it off in case we could hear him in the Gents.

Keith wanted to know if he had anything he needs to get to before… ‘Death?’ Patrick is aware that every book could be the last, so he doesn’t hold back. He sets aside what the publisher and the market might expect, and writes what he needs to write. He pointed out that no one was expecting Harry Potter, and that J K Rowling’s joy with her book is clear.

Patrick never expected anyone would want what he wrote. Asked to describe Release to the people in the audience, most of whom had not yet read the book, he said it’s A Day in the Life of Adam Thorn, based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever, from buying flowers in the morning, to a party at night.

Patrick Ness and Keith Gray

He wants to kick off his safety net, and see how you survive the apocalypse; what feels like the end of the world. Asked why he wrote it now, Patrick felt the time was right. All his ten books are about him, but this one much more so. He’s not trying to be controversial for the sake of controversy. But it was time. It’s the book he’d have wanted to read when he was 16. And he can only write about his own experiences. Gay love needs to be described as more than romantic hand-holding, and he pointed out that his story contains ‘no worse’ than what’s in Judy Blume’s Forever.

Keith wanted to know if Adam might turn up in more books, but Patrick felt that was a terrible question. (He doesn’t know.) Yes, he does want to get people to read Mrs Dalloway and Forever, and there isn’t much difference between Stephen King and Virginia Woolf. Joanna Trollope’s name was mentioned, followed by a laugh. Patrick likes Donne, but not Wordsworth, which is perfectly valid.

Patrick only writes for himself at 16. He writes about everything that he’d have wanted to talk about at that age. When he wrote A Monster Calls, he knew he couldn’t guess how Siobhan Dowd would have written the story, so he had to do it his way. And books are like children; you love them, and send them out into the world, hoping for the best.

Angela in Release was based on his oldest friend, and he used the name Angela Darlington after someone paid £1000 (to charity) to have their name in his book. Someone wanted to know if Patrick would ever write about a trans character, and he replied ‘never say never.’ He mentioned his friend Juno Dawson [formerly James], who came out to him about being trans, and he feels it’s wrong that even now you ‘have to’ come out about sexuality.

Another question was about the world ending, and Patrick said he had waited for the apocalypse, but when the world kept not ending, he didn’t know what to do. Now he worries more about the boiler making odd noises, than about the apocalypse. He had a very kind answer to the age old question about what inspired him to become an author, and which book he liked writing the best.

Stories get to stew in his head for a long time before he starts the painful process of writing. And it never becomes what you think it will be. If he has a new idea when reading the first draft, he pretends in the second draft that he always knew about it.

Queue for Patrick Ness

Keith brought the discussion to a close, and Ann Landmann directed everyone where to go; those who had books for signing, those who still needed to buy books, and those who had no intention of stocking up on Christmas presents.

George Sq Lecture Theatre

Patrick Ness

As for me, I realised this was too long a queue for me to stand in (it was of Pratchett/Gaiman proportions), so I stared at the recently emptied auditorium, at Ann waving her hands in the air, took a few fuzzy photos from a distance, said goodbye to Kate, and walked out into the sunshine again.

And here is a prettier one ‘we’ snapped earlier:

Patrick Ness

(Photo above by Helen Giles)

Lari Don – aiming higher with every book.

She’s got some lovely fans, this author who wrote her first book in Primary 2. Lari Don has aimed to improve her next book ever since (although I’m sure the P2 book wasn’t all that bad). And I suppose because she remembers her own early start, Lari is quite happy to read what anyone in her audience has written, which is really generous. She even said she’d hand out her email address [the better to receive these works of fiction].

Lari was at Blackwells on Saturday to launch her second Spellchasers book, The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away. I brought both my Photographer and the Resident IT Consultant. The latter was the first at Bookwitch Towers to read the first Spellchasers book, and he is currently ensconsed in his reading spot with the second.

Lari Don

But as I said, Lari didn’t have to rely on us oldies, as she had a lovely collection of nice girls who have read and loved her books and who had lots of opinions and questions. The perfect fan audience, in fact. She got quite a bit discussed as we waited for two o’clock, thanking the fans for choosing her over the park on such a nice day (of course they would!), finding out their favourite characters, and reminiscing about a school pupil, years ago, who was started on reading by an author’s visit to his/her school.

Lari Don

After an introduction by Ann Landmann, who reckoned we were the right kind of audience, liking the right kind of books, even more readers arrived and everyone had to squeeze in. Lari said she’d tell us about her writing process, and then she’d tell us a story, because Ann had asked her to.

She showed us her older books, including the embarrassing (to her own children) The Big Bottom Hunt. Lari likes novels the best, and after she had made the characters in the Fabled Beast Chronicles suffer enough, she started on Spellchasers. The trilogy will end with The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat, which is out this autumn.

Lari Don

Lari read us the first page of it, which is still only in manuscript form [until later this week], and she had changed the odd thing over breakfast. Book two is about shapeshifting, so Lari asked the audience how they perceived this would look as it happens. They had a lot of ideas; eggs, smoke, eagles on top of bunk beds. That kind of thing.

As Lari began telling us the promised story, about a boy with a drum in Africa, I sort of rested my eyes a little, and the Resident IT Consultant looked as if he was asleep (I’m sure he wasn’t, really), but we both rallied when Lari requested snoring sounds, as though coming from the beast in her story… There was a monster who ate the boy’s parents and then vomited them out again. You get the idea.

Lari Don

After a brief reading from the second book, we had five minutes left for Q&A. I estimate those five minutes to have lasted about 15, so that was good value. The girls had a lot of questions, but I suppose it’s to be expected from people who know that eagles need to sit on bunk beds in order to see better.

She doesn’t want to think about how many hours she uses up on writing her books. One book takes about a year, but she’s always working and hours would be too scary to contemplate, in ‘the interest of sanity.’ A brief mention of the excellence of Speyside whisky, Alan Garner and Diana Wynne Jones, and then we found out that the pre-school Lari had been quite sneaky and faked reading in bed when she was actually ‘writing’ books. Unfortunately the squiggles she wrote back then are hard to read now and she doesn’t know what the books were about.

Lari Don

Ann Landmann finally put a stop to Lari and her fans (who simply continued talking over the book signing), after admitting she’d missed half her requested story because she’d had a customer to serve… As for us oldies, we had tea to drink in the café, and felt we really couldn’t compete for Lari’s attention with such ardent fans, anyway.

Where are the girls?

Well, mostly not in yesterday’s book, Kid Got Shot. It’s a pretty male book, and apart from Garvie’s mum and his teachers, the female part is played by the gorgeous Polish girl everyone – including Garvie – falls for.

As I believe I tried to suggest when telling you about Mother-of-witch last month, I was brought up in such a way that I never felt women were worth less or that you have to constantly count the sexes and make sure they are balanced.

Am I weird? No, don’t answer that!

I happily read about musketeers and anybody else offered in the books I came across. Thinking back, I wonder if I found it hard to identify with girls in books when they were not the kind of girl I was, and then I felt that if I’m not going to be like them, I might as well read about male characters. In the end it didn’t matter as long as it was a great story.

But I recognise that not all girl readers have such belief in themselves, and they do need to see more female characters in books. In its article Balancing the bookshelves, the Guardian wrote about the need for more girls. It is not wrong, but I didn’t absolutely agree either.

When I think of the ‘new age’ of reading that to my mind began with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I don’t think of the sexes or any balancing. Yes, Lyra is a girl and a strong one, too. But her daemon is a boy. Harry is a boy who hangs out with best friends Hermione and Ron, making up that traditional fictional trio of two boys and one girl. The Famous Five are two of each, if you don’t count Timmy the dog, and you forget about George being George.

I’ve not really stopped to check whether there are more boy characters because more men write books. When it comes to children’s or YA I believe, without having counted, that there are more female authors. And many of them write about boys. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

Looking at my three favourite books, we have [primarily] one girl, two girls, and then a boy. All three authors are women. But while Meg Rosoff has Daisy in How I Live Now, she has also written some wonderful male main characters. I don’t feel that is wrong. In fact, I assume the stories demanded it. Can male writers manage good female characters? Yes, they can. Look at Marcus Sedgwick’s girls! I’m guessing his books needed females.

I think it’s too easy to get worked up about the sex of a character. What we need is a society where all are equally valued, albeit not all identical. But obviously, if reading about a particular person in a book turns into a life-changing experience for a young reader, then I’m all for it.

YA? Or actually for old, proper adults?

When I read the two books by Michael Grant recently, Silver Stars and his WBD book Dead of Night, I thought – again – about what makes them YA. Why not just plain adult? After all, they are about adults. More or less. OK, his characters lie a bit to enlist, just like teenagers did in WWI. But they are to all intents adults, and with what happens in the stories, they definitely become adults pretty soon.

There’s a lot of bad stuff happening, and some of them die. The reader is treated to war scenes that can be quite upsetting, especially when you know they are based on reality. It’s not just something the author has made up to spice the book up a little.

There are relationships that are more grown-up than what you find in ‘high school’ stories. Some sex, as would be appropriate for what is being written about.

Take Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which is also about war and also about characters only just adult enough to do what they do in wartime. They are adult enough to appeal to the real adult reader, but not so old that they don’t suit teenagers.

At that age I used to read Nevil Shute, because there was no Elizabeth Wein or Michael Grant. His books were accessible enough, and often about the same kind of topics, but the characters were – generally – older, and their problems also a bit older.

But I think the main difference is still that there is hope. Yes, people die. It would be unrealistic for them not to in a war. But as Michael said in our first interview in 2010, ‘it’s always good to hope, don’t you think?’

While I’m going on about YA war books, we can mention Lee Weatherly’s Broken Sky dystopia, set in a world based fairly closely on WWII. Her characters are also adults, and behaving as such. And to me the books feel like YA, unless I’m thinking this because I know they are. Not having got to the end of the trilogy yet, I still hold out hope that the end will not be as bleak as an adult-only version could get away with.

And anyway, Debi Gliori told me years ago about signing her Pure Dead books for an adult reader, who refused to believe they were children’s books… After all, if you have them in your book club, that surely proves it?