Category Archives: Writing

An ‘attention seeking little brat’

is how Helen Grant describes her younger self, in the days when her pudding basin hairstyle made people think she was a boy. Well, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake any more. Helen is a beautiful woman, who feels that Hannibal Lecter got a bit tame in the end, and that’s not how she wants to write her books.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

Helen Grant

The Bookwitch family were part of the discerning, quality audience at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening, there to launch Urban Legends. Admittedly, Son only popped in to say he couldn’t stay, but it was still somewhat of a witchy family gathering. The way I like it when an author reads from her book and chooses the bit where the killer eases off the strangling of his victim, because he has to have a hand free to grab his axe.

Even the lovely Susy McPhee, whose task it was to chat to Helen and ask her difficult questions, admitted she had been rather terrified of Urban Legends. Whereas Helen actually reads her own book in the bath (one assumes to relax…), which is why her copy looks decidedly dogeared.

Helen Grant, Urban Legends

Susy started off by asking what the difference is between entertaining books and literature. Helen reckons she is neither a Dan Brown nor a Nobel prize hopeful, but somewhere in-between. She doesn’t want to be more literary than she is. With her earlier books Helen pussy-footed around, while now she’s ready to ‘go for it, gloves off.’

Quite.

Helen Grant

If Urban Legends was a television programme, Susy said she would have switched off when they got to page 38. Helen admits Urban Legends is not for younger readers. She likes creepy, not bloody, and doesn’t set out to be deliberately gross. Here she used the word eviscerated, which Susy said she’d have to look up. And to make her pay, Susy had prepared some tricky words for the audience to test Helen on. Mine was vivandiere. Helen ‘cheated’ by knowing Latin too well.

The weirdest thing Helen has eaten is probably not crocodile (which Susy agreed is delicious), but the fried ants as served in Jericho in Oxford. (At this point I could see Daughter silently removing Jericho as somewhere she would ever return to. She had already decided she’s not up to reading Urban Legends.)

This might be a trilogy, but Helen won’t rule out more books. She likes Veerle’s world, and would love to write more. She herself has tried a lot of what’s in the books, visiting sewers and getting herself inside a forbidden church, for example. Her favourite is the definitely-not-allowed visit to a former factory, which she put most of into her book, in a most charming way… She likes a high body count.

Susy McPhee and Helen Grant

On that note Susy brought the conversation and the questions to an end, and we mingled over the wine and the literary discussions. I introduced the Resident IT Consultant to the man [Roy Gill] who did interesting things to Jenners department store in one of his books.

Once I’d secured a signature in my copy of Helen’s book, we left in search of a bus to take us to the tram, which took us to the car and home.

Farewell to Mal Peet

Football. Who’d have thought I’d like novels about football quite so much? The answer is that I obviously wouldn’t, had it not been Mal Peet who’d written them. And now Mal Peet has died, which is not only a dreadful loss for his family and friends (one of whom was thoughtful enough to let me know how things were, only a week before Mal died), but for his readers.

Mal Peet

Lots of people write very good books. Only a few manage what Mal Peet did, which is to write exceptional books. I remember the buzz on Facebook among his peers, last September when the proofs for The Murdstone Trilogy became available. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so much admiration, or read so many quotes, as I did then. And they were right. Murdstone is a marvellous take on fantasy literature, executed in a way only an expert could.

I felt then that it was really quite autobiographical in many ways, despite Mal -sort of – saying it wasn’t. And when I re-read the ending of the book just the other day, it felt even more as though he had put himself in there.

Mal Peet

Mal didn’t have hundreds of novels published. There wasn’t time for that. I don’t know if he wrote hundreds. That wouldn’t surprise me. I believe I’ve read all the published ones, and they belong to the category of books you just don’t get rid of. The Keepers. And now that I knew Murdstone was going to be Mal’s only adult novel, I simply had to go and move it from the adult section, to join its siblings on the YA shelves. It didn’t seem right to have poor Murdstone sitting there on his own, as it were.

I only met Mal a few times. First when he won the Guardian prize in 2009. And then at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2010 and 2011. I introduced myself again, but it seems he remembered me. Mal even allowed himself to be taken out to ‘the tree’ for a photography session.

Mal Peet

Thank you for everything.

(I must add the link to Meg Rosoff’s tribute to her dear friend in today’s Guardian. I will be discreet and not ask who she’d like to see dead instead.)

The tributes are piling up, as are old interviews, so here are a few more links: Guardian obituary, Tim Wynne-Jones, BookBrowse, Achuka. And on Open Book with Mariella Frostrup.

Translating the Peripheries

Remember Maria Parr? I read her Waffle Hearts a couple of weeks ago, and here she was, at the NRN conference, along with fellow Norwegian (well, half, anyway, and a quarter Dane and a quarter Swede, unless I misunderstood the maths) author Harald Rosenløw Eeg and Danish Merete Pryds Helle. They had come to talk about their writing, as well as take part in the discussion on reading translated children’s fiction.

Maria Parr

Maria read from Waffle Hearts (with her translator Guy Puzey right there in the room) in English, and then in Norwegian. I didn’t understand a word of the latter (well maybe a little, since I had actually read the book) as Maria’s accent is very hard to understand.

Harald Rosenløw Eeg

Nordic mix Harald came next, saying how Jostein Gaarder paved the way with Sophie’s Choice twenty years ago, showing that you can do anything you want. He didn’t feel he wrote YA, but simply wrote to please himself, in a Catcher in the Rye way. He’s grateful for the Norwegian state support to writers, which in effect means they get a sort of minimum wage. Harald read from his untranslated Leave of Absence, a novel inspired by a forgotten rucksack on the Oslo underground, which he’d finished just before the 22nd July 2011. His book felt too close to reality, so he changed a few things after the Oslo bombs. He said he speaks Nynorsk (New Norwegian) but writes in ‘Ordinary Norwegian.’

Merete went from ordinary adult fiction to what she calls digital fiction for children. She has tried a variety of techniques or media, and has settled on apps for iPads. She showed us one ‘book’ featuring children from all the Nordic countries, where the reader would start by choosing their language, and then the characters would meet and talk to each other, and you could learn to recognise different languages.

Merete Pryds Helle

By asking an IT friend what you can do with iOS 8, Merete then wrote stories to fit the technical frames, which could mean (does mean) that the reader might need to shake their iPad violently in order to make the pine cones fall off the tree. Or you could light up the forest by showing your iPad something yellow. Very effective. She had a more traditional looking picture book, where the child can see themselves, and get to choose what happens next (like meeting pandas in China, or ending up on a pirate ship).

If you’d asked me beforehand, I’d have said this didn’t sound like anything that I’d be interested in. If you ask me now, I’d have to say it looked brilliant.

The discussion moved to films, and Maria said she was lucky with the Waffle Hearts film. Harald reckons you have to let others do their work, and that once there is a film, you will never get your characters back. Merete does choose the illustrators for her digital books, but not the voices. And her multiple choice advent calendar has four endings, but also two set days when the choices end up the same, to restore order.

As for language and dialects, that’s a big deal in Norway, while Merete reckons there are barely any regional accents in Danish. People use social accents more, and switch to mainstream Danish when it’s required. Maria is always asked if Nynorsk is important to her writing, which she thinks is strange, because it is simply what’s natural and normal. Harald’s children are better at English than the ‘other Norwegian.’

Guy Puzey

After a break for air – and more cake – we continued with the translation side of things, where the authors and Guy were joined by translator Kari Dickson, who volunteered that she has done ‘a lot of crime.’

Kari Dickson

Too few books in the UK are translations. 2% here as opposed to maybe 30% in Europe. And as Daniel Hahn discovered when he counted books in a bookshop recently, children’s books fare even worse. Kari feels it’s important to read foreign books to help a better understanding of other people and countries.

We were asked about the first translated books that we were aware of reading as children. Astrid Lindgren came first for many, and both Harald and Maria loved Saltkråkan. Roald Dahl is big in Norway. Merete didn’t read Lindgren, but Laura Ingalls Wilder and Agatha Christie (at age 7-8), and Dickens, and she feels Danish children’s fiction is too harsh and doesn’t like it. Guy enjoyed Babar, and discovered Pippi Longstocking at university.

Others mentioned more Lindgren, Paddington, Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas. There was the young Swede whose mother made her her read books about Africa and Vietnam, with not a single Donald Duck anywhere…

And then the peripheries where we live re-appeared in the debate, except for Merete who pointed out that Denmark is the centre of the world, and how her characters dig all the way to China.

Translating picture books is like writing the book from scratch a second time, because the translator has to work out how to make the original shift into another language. Harald’s opinion was that the translator might as well write their own stuff, as he won’t be able to read it anyway.

Squeaking wet snow is a problem. A lot of Nordic fiction describes things that the receiving language and country might not have. London is well known to most, but what the hamlet in Waffle Hearts looked like will be almost unknown, even to people in Oslo.

The session ended with the Norwegian authors saying we need real books to relax with on long journeys, and Merete disagreeing and saying how she would have loved an iPad as a child.

So, we’re all different, but we would benefit from reading each other’s fiction, travelling in our minds, making us feel calmer.

RED in Falkirk

Yesterday the Bookwitchy feet touched Falkirk soil for the first time since that fateful day in 1973. She (I mean I) saw red even on the train (a woman wearing a lovely red coat, but who wasn’t actually going where I was going). My mind was on red things, as there was a sort of dress code for attending the RED Book Award in Falkirk, and I’d dug out the few red garments I own.

Cathy MacPhail

Ever since I knew we’d be moving to Scotland, I’d been thinking how much I wanted to attend the RED Book Award, and then it happened so fast I barely knew what I was doing (I had to ditch Daughter, and feed up the camera battery), but everything worked out in the end. I walked to fth (Falkirk Town Hall), which was teeming with people in red, and I found Falkirk librarian and organiser Yvonne Manning (a Geraldine McCaughrean look-alike if ever there was one), and she showed me to the front row, despite me mentioning how I’m a back row kind of witch. There was coffee, and there were authors. All four shortlisted authors were there; Cathy MacPhail, Alan Gibbons, Oisín McGann and Alex Woolf.

Alan Gibbons and interviewers

They were being interviewed by some of the participating schools’ pupils, and it was rather like speed dating. I chatted briefly to Cathy, who’d brought her daughter along, and who said how nice Alex Woolf had turned out to be. (She was right. He is.)

Alex Woolf and interviewers

Barbara Davidson and interviewers

I found a very red lady, who turned out to be sponsor Barbara Davidson, who makes the RED award, and whose wardrobe apparently is extremely red. I like people who know what they like in the way of colour. There were even helpers wearing red boilersuits.

Back in the front row, we were treated to Yvonne Manning entering dancing, wearing a short red kilt, spotty tights and red ribbons in her hair, and she got the popstar reception treatment. Apparently ‘timing is everything’ and she managed to steer the whole day to a tight schedule.

There was a prize for anyone who found a red nose under their seat. Obviously. Another prize was offered for the school that left their seats the tidiest. After short introductions for the authors, the schools had prepared short dramatised sketches of the shortlisted books.

Yvonne Manning

At this point the Mayor came and sat on my right. Sorry, I mean Provost. Mayors are Provosts up here. Same lovely necklaces, though. And Yvonne reappeared wearing an incredible red patchwork coat, well worthy of Joseph, and it earned her some appreciative whistling from the audience.

Then it was time for prizes for the best book reviews, and the winning one was read out (after the break, after Yvonne had apologised for forgetting this important thing). She’s sweet, but also hard. The authors were given four minutes each to talk about their books; ‘speak briefly!’ They spoke about where they get ideas from. Oisín stared at people until it got ‘creepy enough.’ Cathy had found out about a real vampire in Glasgow in the 1950s, and still regrets she couldn’t have ‘It Walks Among Us’ as the title for Mosi’s War…

Alan Gibbons

Alex described how his Soul Shadows came about, which involved him writing one chapter a week, and then offering his readers several options on how to continue and they voted on which they preferred. Alan could well believe in Glaswegian vampires, and mentioned meeting Taggart once. Football is his passion. Alan’s. Not Taggart’s.

We had more dramatised books and then we listened to the woman who is the answer to my prayers. Anne Ngabia is the librarian at Grangemouth High School, and in the past she has set up little libraries in Kenya. The RED Book Award is even being shadowed by a school in Nairobi, and she showed us pictures from her libraries, as well as a short film based on Mosi’s War that they’d made.

Oisín McGann

After a very nice lunch, where I just might have offered to sue the Provost as I got him to test the veggieness of the food (if he got it wrong, I mean), the authors signed masses of books and many other things as well. The pupils thronged so much that it was hard to move for the sheer excitement of it.

Back to business again (the people of Falkirk don’t believe in half measures when they do their book awards), and we learned that the dramatised books we’d seen would tempt most people to read Alex’s book, Soul Shadows. They do believe in prizes too, so next to be rewarded were the red clothes, etc. I’d tried to bribe the judge over lunch, but it seems the prize wasn’t for old people. He turned out to be quite good at rap. Something along the lines of Red Hot. (If you want to win, I reckon wigs or pyjamas is the way to go.)

RED clothes winners

With ‘no time for fun’ the authors were then seated in two blue velvet sofas (they got the colour wrong there, didn’t they?) and the Q&A session kicked off. Good questions, and lots of them, so I won’t go into detail here. Halfway through Oisín was asked to do a drawing, and Yvonne magicked up a flipchart out of nowhere and while the others laboured over more answers, Oisín drew a fabulous picture of, well, of something.

Oisín McGann

Provost Reid, Barbara Davidson, Alan Gibbons and pupil from Denny HS

Finally, the time came to announce the winner. Provost Reid – in his beautiful red gown – made everyone stamp their feet to sound like a drumroll, and I rather hoped the ‘terraces’ behind me wouldn’t collapse under all that vigour. He told us how much he likes books, and then it was over to a fez-wearing pupil from Denny to open the red envelope and tell us the winner was

Alan Gibbons. His thank you speech was on the topic of ‘ you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and that could be libraries, or it could be your life. We complain too much in our comfortable lives, compared to those readers in Kenya we met earlier.

There were prizes, naturally, for the runners-up. And photos. Lots and lots of them. Cathy commandeered her handbag to be brought and she pondered taking a selfie, but in the end she went for a conventional picture of her and her pals.

Cathy MacPhail, Alex Woolf, Alan Gibbons, Provost Reid and Oisín McGann

Cathy MacPhail and Alex Woolf

Us old ones chatted over mugs of tea before going our separate ways. And some of the helpers and I have vowed to wear much warmer clothes next time (that is, if I’m ever allowed back).

A big thank you from me, to Yvonne for inviting me when I dropped a heavy hint, and to her helpers for helping so well, the schools for their magnificent work, and to Cathy, Alan, Oisín and Alex for writing the books that caused us all to be there, at fth.

And the prize for tidiest row of seats? The prize was Oisín’s picture. And I can assure you it won’t go to us on the front row. Cough.

Resolutions

So what are you doing in the way of New Year’s resolutions? Losing weight? Going to the gym (more often)?

I know I should. But I’m so mature I know there is no point in resoluting. Still hope that one day I will surprise myself – in a positive way.

Starting a blog feels a funny* NY resolution, but I suspect it’s a fairly common one. And once people have done this, they look for other blogs to follow. Like this excellent one I’ve heard so much about; Bookwitch.

Every day my inbox tells me about more new followers. As I delete the messages I catch a glimpse of who they are. Or at least, seem to be, judging by their blogging names and the sample blog posts these emails list.

What strikes me is how little we appear to have in common. But then I don’t suppose ‘my biggest fans’ need to be into books at all. Exercise and diet and religion and philosophy is fine. Nice to meet you!

There could, of course, be an ulterior motive for the followings. The belief, or hope, that they will become visible here and will automatically gain my readers (which I reckon would only work if we are quite similar) for their own. Or that I will reciprocate. I know, somewhere in blogging etiquette it says you should. But with every Tom, Dick and Harry having New Year’s resolutions, politeness has to take a step back. I barely have time to follow my old favourites.

If it’s a good blog, I hope it works better than the diet. Or the jogging.

*By that I mean that it’s as though blogging is something you do because it’d be good for you. Not for fun, or to satisfy some urge to write. It has been fun for me, which is more than you can say for the diets.

What you are

Unless I believe that it would be better – for insurance purposes, say (I have heard that writers are riskier people) – not to be a writer, I now have the temerity to call me a writer. I have done for some time.

Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t go round daily patting me on the back, crowing over how wonderful I am. But the whole idea came back to me when reading the thoughts of Jackie Morris in the comments section of my interview with her Australian colleague Shaun Tan yesterday. (For some inexplicable reason WordPress have removed the comments from the right hand bar on the Bookwitch home page, meaning browsing guests won’t immediately find it.)

Jackie wants to be seen as an artist, not only an illustrator. She is right. She is entitled to want to be seen as one, and I reckon she definitely is an artist. I suppose I don’t feel that to be an illustrator is bad either, but I know what Jackie means. Shaun is a modest man, but he is obviously also an artist.

What you are has little to do with whether you earn money from doing what you want to be. I write every day. Hence I am a writer. I don’t have to be chosen by anyone to say that. Not by a publisher. Not even by readers.

When I was younger I always wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be bilingual; and guess what! I am. It doesn’t mean a person is 100% perfect at two or more languages. It means that someone uses those languages in their daily life. It probably doesn’t mean you are 50% in both, or 30/70. Most of us are likely to be 150% when both languages are taken together. Perhaps. Good. Adequate.

(For obvious reasons I don’t generally think of myself as a dishwasher-filler. But I’d be entitled to, unless ten minutes a day is too brief for name-calling.)

Peddling that pallet

The palate is smaller than a palette. Well, usually, anyway. Some of us have big mouths, or possibly just favour tiny art equipment. A pallet is bigger than the other two. People make coffee tables out of them.

I make many mistakes, and often, but recently I have had to grind my teeth (close to the palate) when seeing these words used freely to mean any of the three possibles. Do authors have problems with their palettes, or is it the editors?

Some years ago I tried to be helpful, so wrote to one of the large publishing houses to suggest that when they – inevitably – came to reprinting the rather successful book I had just read, they might want to change that palate into a palette. If only to continue teaching young readers what’s correct.

As thanks for my efforts they sent me a copy of another bestselling novel they published. I suppose they took me to be 14…

Of the three words, I never use a palette. Physically, I mean. My palate is in daily use, and I can’t help but quite fancy a weather-beaten pallet – on wheels – on which to rest my mug of tea and current book. But that may well remain a dream.

And dreams are good. We don’t have to have everything. Besides, I strongly suspect pallets are too large for our smaller size house. (Doesn’t prevent me looking hopefully round the beach to see if one has happened to wash up and is waiting to be adopted by me.)

Then there is the peddling. Of bikes. I actually don’t believe I have come across any fictional bikes being pedalled. So on the basis that if common use of something continues for long enough, it becomes the norm, I guess that peddled bikes will soon be the ones ridden, and not those sold.

Apologies for being a grumpy old so-and-so. I’m a profligate complainer, I am.

(I contemplated borrowing an image of a palette for illustration purposes here. I found a worrying number of pallets…)

(And I have proof read this post more than most, and found umpteen mistakes. Did I catch all of them?)