Category Archives: Writing

Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.


And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

On board the EF III

I went down to the quayside in Varberg last week. I sat for a long time in the sunshine, just enjoying being near the water and sitting there on my own, not having to get up because other people were ready to do something else.

My eyes strayed to the ramp on my right, wondering how much it gets used these days. It’s where the ferry to Denmark leaves from, and back in ‘my time’ there were four sailings every day, which isn’t bad for a four and a half hour crossing. The summer I was 19 I worked on the Europafärjan III, and we left Varberg at noon and at midnight.

Clearing tables on a boat is not exactly glamorous work, washing up while feeling seasick. But it was a job. And you sort of get less seasick after a while. Occasionally you’d have to go round the tables collecting only the dirty knives (leaving surprised passengers in your wake, because they felt you should remove all the dirty things from their table) and giving them a quick wash, as we’d unaccountably be out of [clean] knives. And you’d have to tell non-Danes that no, you don’t generally sprinkle dried onion on top of the Danish pastries.

Being able to say ‘remoulade‘ in as Danish a way as possible eased understanding between the two countries.

I shared a cabin below car deck with two other Swedish washer-uppers, and one cigarette smuggling Danish cleaner. Well, two really, as the shifts were different and their coming and going was out of sync with ours.

For an antisocial witch, I got on well with the others. We’d sit on our bunk beds writing nonsense stories, taking turns to write a sentence each. Not the kind where you don’t see what the one before you wrote, as we managed quite decent nonsense even with the knowledge of what went before. The best one was about me.

Understandable, really. The others were nowhere near as weird as I was. I’d let you read it if I could. But I’d need to find it, and translate it, and you never know what secrets might be let lose on an unsuspecting world. But it ended happily, with me and the dog arriving in Denmark. Can’t remember where the dog came from.

But there we were.

It’s fine. You can write about me if you like.

You’ll probably get it wrong. But as long as you don’t insult me – and by that I mean say unkind things about my size, age or intelligence [I prefer to cover this myself] – you can write about me. If I were to review you, I’d most likely point out how wrong you were, while trying not to insult your intelligence.

But I can’t see how writing about me, the Swede, if you are not one yourself, can be wrong, or that it should be forbidden.

I wondered a bit where all this upset over cultural appropriation went while I was away. It was all over the place as I left, and I was in the very odd position of having to agree with Lionel Shriver; something I generally take steps to avoid. The Guardian printed her whole Australian speech from a few weeks ago, and I could find fault with nothing.

How can we not ‘appropriate’ someone else’s culture? It’s everywhere, and if I were to write a novel, say, it’d be pretty boring if it only featured 60-something females from Sweden.

Never mind the sombreros. If we must write only about what we ourselves are, I need to leave the men alone. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. If I tried, he might be insulted. Or an 85-year-old Englishwoman. Or just about anyone.

It is, of course, possible to outlaw all this. There could be a legal requirement not to write about other people, not to make things up. I hope we never get there, but the way things are going it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. As for asking permission first; how can you find everyone who owns a particular kind of culture? What if they don’t agree – with each other – and some say yes and others say no?

I believe I actually complained about someone getting things wrong, and having missed the point of the life of a Swede like me, earlier this year. I didn’t feel the person responsible for the rather attractive book cover in question shouldn’t have done it. I just would have preferred my ‘correct’ view of what things looked like to have been used. In fact, Seacrow Island is a good example of this thorny issue, because I do have strong feelings and opinions on the matter. But I really don’t feel that ‘foreigners’ should leave my childhood dream alone. It’s there for anyone to use.

And if you are of an age to have been around when the Famous Five were written, I apologise for thinking everyone in England was like that. And then there’s the belief that Wales is in England.

We can all be so very wrong about so much. But many of us mean well.

While I was away a book arrived in the post. It’s about Prince George and his potty-training. It’s a cute book and a cute subject, and I can see how potty-training is a good topic for young readers to become enthused about. But it suddenly struck me that this was about the supposed problems of getting used to a potty, as experienced by a real person. A Prince, yes, but still a small child with the right to privacy.

‘Don’t show your ghosts too soon’

Jonathan Stroud had been in Gothenburg before. 11 years ago, he reckoned, which is true, as that’s when we met him the first time. Then he had his Bartimaeus trilogy to talk about, and now it’s Lockwood.

On Thursday morning Jonathan did a short event with his publisher, and he only had to warn her once that she must be careful with spoilers. I’m glad I was already past that bit, so it didn’t upset me. I’ve been reading the 4th Lockwood all week (and the reason I’m not done yet is not because I’m slow, but simply that there hasn’t been enough time in the week) and it has been just the right background for a bookish few days at the Gothenburg book fair.

Jonathan feels there’s a bit of Pippi Longstocking about Lockwood. And needless to say he wants to be him. (So it was interesting to hear him tell Lotta Olsson on Friday that when he tried to use Lockwood as narrator in book two, he gave up as he didn’t want Lockwood’s interior monologue.)

Everyone is impressed by his extensive research (this is fiction, folks!) into ghosts and the weapons he gives his characters in their fight against the ghosts. Poltergeists are – sort of – real, but most of the rest he obviously made up.

Mats Strandberg, Lotta Olsson and Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood began when Jonathan wrote a short introduction, featuring a boy and a girl outside a door, and he wanted to find out who they were and what they were about to do. Lockwood and Lucy and George emerged from that short opening. The reason he uses – an alternative – London as the setting for a fantasy is because it’s more realistic and exciting in a real place. He doesn’t know much, but builds things up slowly.

The agencies in the books are growing increasingly corrupt, so he made the ghost hunters young because they are more open than adults. Jonathan compared the work the young agents do on a nightly basis with our own everyday tasks that we just have to do, whether we want to or not. He feels that by implying things and being sparing with details, you have a more powerful story.

In his event with Lotta Olsson, he and scary author Mats Strandberg discussed the difference between horror and terror. It could be that horror is more for children, while terror works better for adults. Mats, who has been inspired by Harry Potter [the films…] described his new book as being a bit like The Walking Dead, set on the ferry to Finland. (Which sounds pretty terrifying, if you ask me.) And apparently in his next book Mats is even scaring himself.

Jonathan believes in suspense, which is why he doesn’t want to show his ghosts too soon. You will be more frightened by not knowing what’s coming. There’s the bump in the night, versus machine guns. Mats said that in terror it is generally the underdog who fares best. Asked by Lotta how the easy access to violent [real] videos for even quite small children will affect future writing, Mats hopes that empathy can save the world.

Freedom to Think is a campaign Jonathan is involved in, which wants to give our far too busy children some time to themselves, when they can simply sit and do nothing; dream up new ideas and maybe learn the skills to be an author or to do other creative things. Not to be ferried round by parents to ever more activities.

Lotta wondered if Lucy was meant to be the main character in Lockwood, and Jonathan felt that the fact she is flawed, brave, and has anxieties, makes her a useful and very suitable hero, and why he discovered that Lockwood was no good in that role. Finding your voice is the best thing.

Asked by someone in the audience for their favourite writers, Mats confessed to being a Stephen King fan, while Jonathan likes M R James and his ‘short and nasty’ stories.

Jonathan is currently writing the fifth and last Lockwood novel, which is nervous work. But he finds that the scary bits make the jokes better.


You might remember that Meg Rosoff left me in the corridor on Thursday afternoon. I was still there when she woke up on Friday morning. Or so I tried to claim. I had returned to the same spot, sorting out my plans for the day, when Meg came up and asked if I’d come for coffee with her.

On the understanding I’d not actually have to have any coffee, I agreed, and that’s how I ended up slurping my own pink blueberry yoghurt drink after all. Meg had one as well, and also coffee (Swedish coffee, where you don’t get to choose what kind) to set her up for the day.

(It must be tough to find that the only person ‘in town’ you know is your long time ‘stalker.’ A bit like when friends of ours moved to a new town and the only person they knew there was the bishop. Talking of whom, the bishop was the only famous person I encountered in the corridors during my two days at the fair. Except I refer to him as the former archbishop. Same difference.)

We talked about amusement parks, and nearly falling off carousels, and I recommended Liseberg [across the road] if she wanted a walk. Anyway, it turned out Meg had even more mini-events to appear at than I’d been told about, so I attempted to steer us towards the Brombergs stall, except in the end Meg did better than me. Oh well.

Meg Rosoff

It’s amazing how at a fair this size, with thousands and thousands of visitors you ever accidentally find people you know. As I was making my way to see Chris Haughton, my attention was caught – with some difficulty – by the New Librarian, who was standing there eating lunch with Pizzabella and School Friend. So we chatted over their Thai food, until it was time for me to eat my own lunch during Chris’s event.

My next event was 45 minutes on horror with Jonathan Stroud and Mats Strandberg talking to Lotta Olsson. And from there I ran to the stage where Meg was appearing, again, and where I’d arranged to meet both School Friend and Pippi. Failed to see School Friend, even with the help of the New Librarian and Pizzabella, who both passed by individually, and who both failed to find their mother. Pippi turned up and we chatted until it was time for me to force a couple of signed books from Meg. At this point School Friend materialised, but when offered the opportunity of meeting Meg she vanished, claiming she had another event to queue for, so in the end Meg only got to say hello to Pippi, who then insisted on buying me tea. And a kanelbulle.

Meg Rosoff

I just might have noticed Sven Nordqvist, of Findus fame, walk past. But on the whole I don’t recognise Swedish celebrities. I decided that gossiping was more important than a third Jonathan Stroud event, and when we were done I sent Pippi on her way to look at books and things, while I chased Jonathan for a signature, but missed him.

And that was that.

I went to pick up my suitcase from Miss Vet’s, called in at a bookshop on the way to the station (because I’d not had enough, and because the fair didn’t have the book I was after), and caught a train to go and spend the weekend with School Friend. And that is where I am now.

Halving your equations

It was really very interesting. I may not know too much about maths and physics, but that doesn’t mean an event where people who do know about these things and talk about them, can’t be fascinating.

Christophe Galfard and Ulf Danielsson spoke to Karin Bojs about the universe, last thing on Thursday at the book fair. Christophe is famous for having done his PhD with Stephen Hawking, but they were at pains to point out that Ulf had studied with David Gross of Nobel fame, and he is now Professor at the University of Uppsala. Words like theoretical physics and string theory always have entertainment value.

Christophe Galfard, Ulf Danielsson and Karin Bojs

Apparently it was ‘quite easy’ to become a disciple of Stephen Hawking. You just turn up as sober as possible, the day after the May Ball in Cambridge, and you talk to the people there and decide who you like best. It was hard work once he got in, though, but also good because in such illustrious company you get to meet the greatest names in the business. You have to ‘think the unthinkable’ to get ahead.

Karin made Christophe explain the rather famous E = mc2, which seemed to surprise him, and this led to the wisdom of avoiding equations when you write for us normal people, as you halve the number of readers for each equation used. (That strikes me as an equation on its own.)

Ulf also worked hard, and he once carried Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair. It was heavy. During his time working for his PhD he also became a father, while Christophe said he didn’t, or at least not that he knows of. A bit risqué, perhaps.

David Gross insisted Ulf had to learn how to keep his papers in order, and Christophe remembered the time Stephen’s computer voice broke as he was about to talk to his peers, and first year Christophe had to do the talking in his place.

Christophe Galfard

The first book for Christophe was George’s Secret Key to the Universe, which he wrote with Stephen and Lucy Hawking. He said the name helps sales. It’s a story everyone can understand. He is interested in what we don’t know, but also what we don’t know we don’t know. Christophe no longer works with research, but writes full time. He explained why we can’t fly, as well as why we don’t sink through the chairs we sit on. Something to do with quantum physics. And there’s some string theory at the end of his new book, The Universe in Your Hand.

As a professor Ulf has other work to do, but gets his writing in at night on the principle that a little will eventually become a book. He used words like dark matter, dark energy and a Star Wars-y title (Mörkret vid tidens ände), but also has thoughts on geography. His new book, Vårt klot så ömkligt litet, is about Earth and how we are no different from stone age people. And he’s flying back to Uppsala.

The bad news from Christophe is that the Sun will die. And if only the dinosaurs had had a university, they might have learned about theoretical physics and done something about becoming extinct. Not sure if this had any bearing on his trilogy on climate for children. He feels it’s important.

As I said, this was really very interesting.

Afterwards I hung around at the signing, just so I could walk up to Christophe and say hello and tell him we’d met before, and that I wasn’t buying his book. And ‘does he really speak Swedish?’ A little, it seems. Who’d have thought?