Category Archives: Writing

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?

[T]OBE or not [T]OBE

Sorry about that. I was trying to think of some sort of heading, but as you can see, I failed.

Translator, and general facilitator of all things literary, Daniel Hahn has been awarded an OBE in the [rather late] Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Many of us are very happy about this, and we’re hoping Danny is too, and that he didn’t accept his OBE just to please the rest of us. Although that would be a perfectly good reason, too.

Children’s laureate Cressida Cowell is another new OBE.

It’s rather lovely to be a little bit involved in a trade like children’s books, where some participants go on to be recognised in this way. Last year it was Theresa Breslin, and I’m very proud of her efforts too, especially considering how purply she dressed.

To return to this year, I’m also happy for the new Dame Mary Berry. I’m not into baking in any great way, but she has a nice crinkly smile.

‘One of mum’s fanciful ideas’

Or welcome to Bloody Scotland 2020!

After a worthy introduction by the First Minister herself, this year’s online Bloody Scotland kicked off with four crime writers dishing dirt and trashing reputations and generally having a good time, despite the fact that Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown, kept in some sort of check by Abir Mukherjee, were all at home. Each in their own, where we were treated to two sets of book backgrounds, one of posters plus Lin’s sauna, although I suspect that might have been a joke.

Bloody Scotland as ‘one of mum’s fanciful ideas’ was how Lin’s children explained how it came about. ‘A lot of good ideas come out of alcohol’, and as Gordon said, organising a crime festival ‘cannae be that hard’. For this year’s online weekend, Lin had apparently suggested that the whole country could light torches. Gordon had to tell how he ruined the town’s bowling green when he set up the football pitch five years ago. The grass died in a pitch pattern.

They all feel that this new crime festival has many advantages, including the ability for anyone, anywhere to attend; both authors and audience. It was great being able to ask Ian [Rankin] and Val [McDermid] who they most wanted to talk to, when anyone is possible.

The Curly Coo – the pub where shenanigans take place on the Saturday night – is actually Craig’s local pub and it was his ‘daft idea’ to organise an event there. It usually sells out in seconds.

Abir asked the others how the pandemic had affected them. He had found that his usual workflow of 15000 words per month dwindled to about 15. Craig found writing easier, if only because he couldn’t pop to the Curly Coo all the time. Gordon got up at five every morning and wrote a new novel, while Lin was so traumatised she couldn’t write at all, and had to stick to jotting down ideas for later.

Two thirds of the way into this event, I got up to go to the kitchen and put dinner on. This has never ever happened to me at the Albert Halls. But the four Bloody Scotland board members were able to follow me there and merely continued their bickering.

There were audience questions, and we learned that Abir once got asked about another authors book, because they were both brown authors. Gordon [also Brown] once had to explain to an irate bookshop customer why he was out signing novels instead of attending to the election. Lin told a fan at an event why she’s so good at sex. Lots of practice, I gather. A fondness for pina coladas is spreading wherever Abir goes, because he treats all crime gatherings like holidays.

Whether that will have to change now, we don’t know, but they believe there will be a Bloody Scotland after the virus. If there is an after the virus. And continuing digitally looks like a real possibility, regardless of viral status.

Abir did well, getting his unruly lot to finish on time, just as the pasta was ready.

How to find your voice as a writer

We began by watching the teacher’s two-year-old daughter chatting to a cushion, telling it to sit down. It’s as good a way as any, when you are looking to find your voice.

From time to time I have stared at the lists of Guardian Masterclasses offered by the newspaper. But the time and the distance travelled would never justify the cost of them. Now though, when Covid has forced everything to go online, I grabbed the bull by the horns and signed up for a class. It was the subject, on finding my voice, and the fact that the master was Aditya Chakrabortty, that made up my mind. I thought I could always consider the fee as my contribution to the Guardian’s survival if I didn’t make it on the day.

There were technical hitches to begin with, but they mostly disappeared as we went along. And while at first it felt like quite obvious stuff, it was actually very interesting. I suspect I have already found my voice, in which case it was good to have it confirmed. And my inner cynic also tells me that however charming that voice may be, it won’t pay. I suppose that’s where I felt more could be said. It’s all very well to write a good piece, but right now I doubt anyone will want to pay for anything like that.

But that’s OK. Writing can be fun anyway.

I quite liked being told that one should never try to be someone else. (Whenever I get a bit precious I realise I’m writing absolute rubbish.) However, bits of ‘my voice’ always got edited out when I had my blogs published in the Guardian. Just saying. I could always see where someone else had had a go. Not so much the pruning away, but the words added that I would never use.

I suspect Aditya expected to talk to a younger lot than what he got. Judging by the ‘Zoom’ pictures we could see, most of us were ‘older’. I like that. It’s good to know people have ambition, even when the world might think we’re past it. (When break time came, he told us to go to the toilet and be back in five minutes. Bar one, they all got up…)

Write if you really want to, and if you have something new to say. Not the same old as everyone else. You should know what you know (I complain about this all the time!), and ‘going home’ can be good. Aditya told us about what he saw when he returned as an adult to Edmonton Green where he grew up. He talked about minorities. Etonians are a minority.

‘Be new’ and never mind Twitter.

Read, read, read. Those are the three Rs. Aditya even suggested children’s books to read. I think as a shock to the system for being so different. (I’ll have to have a word with him, before his two-year-old does.)

Listen, smell, be a camera. (I appear to have written down several ideas based on this. Wonder if I’ll ever get round to them?)

Don’t write case studies. It’s what they do on television. Don’t repeat so much, but use more rhyme. Think of the carpentry in getting sentences to stick together. Get used to just writing, however bad. Five minutes on what you did yesterday. Be yourself. Write down what you had for dinner.

Daniel Barenboim. Aditya spent a week with him for an interview, but in reality he had about 90 minutes with the man. The rest was running after him and being fed too much pudding. (This, too, reflects my own experience. Not the Barenboim pudding, exactly, but how you do a lot with quite little.)

Going through the notes, which they emailed us afterwards, saving on the note taking, makes me feel a lot more enthusiastic again.

I’ll see what I can do.

Translating Wretchedness

I ‘went to’ a webinar on Thursday evening, to hear Nichola Smalley talking to Swedish author Andrzej Tichý about her work on translating his novel Wretchedness, which has had some good reviews. Hosted by Brookline Booksmith, someone had done some thinking of the timing. It was early in the US, but late in the UK and later still in Sweden. But we were at least all awake.

I have heard Nichola speak before, live, and I was struck by how well I know her voice. I have not read the book, nor had I ever heard of Andrzej. But it seems that this might be rectified if he’s as successful as people believe. And no, that’s not a very Swedish name. He’s half Polish and half Czech, but also Swedish.

Andrzej started by reading a few pages, before Nichola talked about how she’d found the book. It’s not an easy book, apparently. Nothing you’d take to the beach. And no, it didn’t sound like it from either the reading or the description.

Nichola asked Andrzej to read again, but he didn’t read what she’d expected. But ‘apparently I need conducting’, he said as Nichola apologised for pushing him about. Theoretically, of course, with everyone in their own room, in their own country.

Speaking of rooms, Andrzej had a beautiful wall of books in the background and Nichola had some very fetching children’s art behind her. There was also a car alarm somewhere, making it hard for her to concentrate.

There were questions for both of them, with Ian Giles asking ‘how was it working with Nicky as a translator?’ She instructed Andrzej to say only nice things. Which he did. I think. Someone else was interested in the time it had taken Andrzej to write the book, and whether he’d suffered writer’s block

And we learned how useful it had been for Nichola to meet Andrzej and to be able to discuss his book with him and ask him endless questions, in order to translate it. It was a difficult book, and she’d already read it twice, so meeting Andrzej was really helpful.

All things come to an end, and the host came on again, saying she hoped people might buy the book from them – but only within the US – and that they’d be back with more talks during the autumn.

After the War

The tears started falling right from the start of Tom Palmer’s new book, After the War. I missed The Windermere Children on television in January, so had been looking forward to Tom’s book. To say it’s an enjoyable book would be wrong. It’s very good, as always with Tom, and so important, especially now.

We meet three Jewish, teenage boys, who along with three hundred other children came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945, straight from the concentration camps.

The automatic reaction for the modern reader is how lucky these boys are, and how they must know that things will be OK from now on. But what you tend to overlook is what has been done to them during the war. Yes, we know about the camps and the loss of their families and the general awfulness of everything.

But here the boys are worrying whether they can really trust these people, whether they will really be all right now. Because being transported in large groups to somewhere new, where they are being promised better lives, food, and so on, has been done to them already. And we know what happened then.

When they arrive, the many buildings they see look a bit like the concentration camps. They have to remove their clothes, for obvious reasons, and they are told to wash, and they are deloused, etc. But this too rings a bell for the children. It has all happened before.

On the other hand, they have been given a piece of chocolate, for the first time since before the war. Maybe things will be OK?

To begin with they hoard the food they are given, in case they aren’t fed again. They even steal potato peelings, just in case.

But slowly, slowly, they learn to trust, they stop being hungry, they learn English. In fact, they are allowed lessons, which is something they’ve not been permitted for six years.

This is a beautiful book, telling us about something real. Until quite recently we would have taken this kind and decent behaviour by the British for granted. But whatever our future holds, I am so glad these children were given a future after all they went through in the war. And I hope there was much chocolate for them.