Category Archives: Writing

Bookwitch bites #129

You saw this already, didn’t you? The world needs more books. The world needs more Madisons, too. And Little Free Libraries.

So much enthusiasm from one articulate little girl!

Good news this week for Kathryn Evans; who has been writing a book ‘ for some time.’ She has a publishing deal with Usborne, for her debut YA novel More of Me (although we have to wait until 2016 before we can read it), which sounds truly different. I seem to know some people who have read the manuscript, and I trust them when they say it’s good.

And, in time for today’s Lucia celebrations, here are my ginger biscuit pigs, which finally have seen the light of day, or at least experienced the heat of the oven. Before I eat them…

The 2014 ginger biscuits

Rachel Hamilton – runner up

When I noticed a photo of three people in the Emirates Lit Fest email, I decided to take a closer look, on the off-chance that I’d know one of them. And I did! The two men I have no idea who they are, but the lady on the right was Rachel ‘Exploding Loos’ Hamilton. It seemed she had been at the festival, and that she’d been runner up in their writing competition. I didn’t know that! I thought Rachel ‘just’ wrote amusing books about exploding portaloos.

Which is not a bad thing. We need books like that, and she does it so well. But anyway, I immediately emailed her to demand a blog post explaining her past, her runner up status and anything else interesting. Because if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that exploding loos authors can be pretty entertaining on almost any subject:

Rachel Hamilton

“I’m Rachel Hamilton, author of The Case of the Exploding Loo a title I’m beginning to regret now people have started to refer to me as the Exploding Toilet Lady!

There I was, minding my exploding toilets, when Bookwitch got in touch to say she’d spotted my name on the author list for the 2015 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. (A spectacular list, full of kids’ book superstars like Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams, Julia Donaldson, and . . um . . . me!?!). She asked me to write about my journey from struggling scribbler, via literature festivals and exploding toilets, to the wonderful world of published author-hood. How could I refuse a witch? She can do terrible things with that wand.

So here are the steps that helped me create my own Happily Ever After.

I got my family on side early

It’s rubbish to live with an absent-minded author – my daughter tells the story of the day she opened her school lunch box and found a sandwich and a packet of biros. So I try to make up for my frequent lapses into rubbishness by involving my family in the bits of my book journey I think they’ll enjoy. When I did my book tour I asked my drama-loving daughter to come up with a comedy routine to introduce me at each event. My computer-obsessed son helped me organise my website and blog tour. And my husband has been entertaining himself making facebook ads for my book (although he may be fired from my campaign after adding a ‘shop now’ button to the last one and accidentally linking it to the Amazon page for Veet hair removing cream!?). I grab every opportunity to tell my family how much I appreciate their support and dedicated my book to them:

Rachel Hamilton acknowledgement

I kept on writing even when I wasn’t quite sure why.

Rachel Hamilton - footprint 2

I love strange words from other languages. One of my favourites is ‘Sitzfleisch’ (literal translation, seated meat) which means the power to persevere in a sedentary activity – for example, putting your bottom on a seat and keeping it there until you’ve finished your book. I’m proud of my ‘Sitzfleisch’! I’ve heard people liken being a wannabe author to being Wile E Coyote – with obstacles being flung in your path or dropped on you from a great height – but the authors who succeed are the ones who laugh in the face of killer boulders and jagged rocky ravines, and keep on chasing that bird.dream.

I found my ‘voice’

I wasted a lot of my early writing years trying to create books for adults. But, over time it has become clear that my brain never fully matured to adulthood, so writing that kind of book always felt like hard work. It was only when I started making up silly stories for kids that my imagination and my writing really started to take off. Writing become more fun than fun, and people wanted to read what I’d written.

I found brilliant people to play at ‘book writing’ with.

Writing is often described as a solitary profession. Not for me. I drag everyone I know into the creation of my books! I kidnapped my sister Kate and my cousin Chris and forced them to rampage through the Science Museum with me for The Case of the Exploding Brains, setting off alarms as we acted out ways the bad guys might have been able to steal the museum’s moon rock. I lured all my cleverest friends and relatives into helping me solve the science problems that popped up in early drafts of both books. And I regular harass my forensic detective, policeman, explosive expert and prison officer friends to help me with fact checking.

But the most helpful ‘playmates’ of all are my kids and their friends, who act as slightly crazy guinea pigs for early versions of my books. When they laugh, I know that chapter’s a keeper. And when they start poking each other instead of listening, I know that scene has to go. I am also shameless about picking the brains of brilliant fellow children’s authors. The wonderful Tony Bradman was my hero and mentor while writing The Case of the Exploding Loo. The hilarious Tatum Flynn (author of the hellishly funny, D’Evil Diaries) was my brilliant critique partner for The Case of the Exploding Brains. And the marvellous Joe Craig very kindly allowed me to gatecrash one of his school visits to see how the professionals do it.

Rachel Hamilton book covers

I got lucky

Obviously, I think my book is brilliant 😉. But there are thousands of other brilliant books sitting in cupboards or on laptops out there, so I’m very grateful for the chances I’ve been given. I was lucky enough to enter the right competition at the right time – the 2013 Emirates Festival of Literature First Fiction Competition. I didn’t even win, but as I always say (and I do mean ALWAYS, it drives my daughter mad) being runner up didn’t hurt One Direction. My entry caught the eye of the competition judge, Luigi Bonomi, who became my literary agent a couple of weeks later and within a month, he had negotiated a two book deal with Simon & Schuster! Which is why I keep telling everyone (cue: more groans and eye-rolls from my daughter), ‘I couldn’t have written myself a better happy ending.'”

There you are! I like immature people with Sitzfleisch. (And Rachel is right about the wand.)

The Lure of Elizabeth Laird

It might have been a dreich November night, but my route through Edinburgh from Waverley to Blackwell’s took me through the Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens to the Scottish National Gallery (no I was not lost) and up the hill past the charming St Bookwitch Street and St Bookwitch Cathedral, and slightly down again (such a waste of the uphill!) to my event with Elizabeth Laird. To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten what it was to be about, but that doesn’t matter when it’s Liz. It will be good. And it was.

The event was for adults, which was lucky, because last night Elizabeth used rather more adult language, if you know what I mean. You also needed to know your Bible well, so I was on slightly shaky ground.

Elizabeth Laird

I was early (no surprise there) so was able to hog a corner of the sofa, and when I remembered I’d forgotten to eat my sandwich on the way, I asked for and was granted permission to eat. There were mainly women in the audience. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since Elizabeth reckoned it was the women in Ethiopia who had the best stories to tell.

She said that she was going to ‘drone on about Ethiopia’ and we should interrupt if necessary. Her book The Lure of the Honeybird, began when Elizabeth returned to Ethiopia in 1996, after thirty years away. There was an encounter with an ‘ant motorway,’ and a farmer telling her a marvellous story about ants.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth promptly forgot how the story went, but she came up with an idea, and she talked to the British Council and demanded a Landrover and an interpreter so she could travel and learn new stories and write two books. This was deemed to be such a good idea that a demand for 24 books was made, and Elizabeth found herself travelling round the mud and the bureaucracy with a driver and an interpreter.

Many of the stories people told her had a lot in common with the Bible. She reckons they didn’t come from that famous book, though, but believes that the Bible most likely borrowed its stories from ancient Ethiopia. The same thing goes for Aesop, who by all accounts cleaned up the story about the hare and the tortoise. And there was a funny story about the beautiful girl who gets married, and the three ridiculous men in her life…

Because the thing is, Elizabeth told us these stories. She didn’t just talk about how she went about finding them, but showed us her photos, described the people she met, and which of them had an interesting story to share. And she can definitely tell a story!

Elizabeth Laird

Was it worth risking the lives of her driver, her interpreter and herself for these stories? Yes, she believes it was. Now. Walking through tall grass with pythons and lions on either side wasn’t quite such fun at the time. Nor was driving along a road where only the day before people had been kidnapped and killed.

When she met a group of naked women, far away from anywhere else, she found it difficult to get them to understand what she wanted to hear, so as an example she told them about Little Red Riding Hood (the unexpurgated version) and they all agreed about the unsuitability of walking alone in the woods, and of talking to the wrong man.

Elizabeth Laird

Elizabeth told us many stories from Ethiopia last night. If you want more you can read The Lure of the Honeybird, or you could try these websites, recently set up by Elizabeth: ethiopianfolktales.com and ethiopianenglishreaders.com. Both have been financed with the help of one of her students from the 1960s, whom she just happened to meet in London one day. He’s now a fund giver, which is nice, since so many of Elizabeth’s other students are dead, having turned revolutionaries while attending university, instead of becoming teachers as they were meant to.

You’ll wish you’d been there. Elizabeth Laird is a fantastic storyteller. And she may well have been scared when out collecting the stories, but it’s only the brave who do this kind of thing, and who don’t mind admitting to being frightened. She’s also a beautiful woman, and I have yet again failed to take photos that do her justice. You will have to take my word for it.

Knowing how

When a friend nudged me and said it was my turn now, it irritated me. She had gone back to school and studied and gained qualifications when her children were about ten or twelve. She was so happy, and I was happy for her, too. But I really didn’t feel like going back to school. This kept irritating me for some time, until I worked out why. I mean, I know I’m lazy, but I also felt I didn’t have the time. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to do.

It wasn’t until I started thinking about what I’d study, if I did it, that the penny dropped. We were different, my friend and I. And the reason I didn’t actually have to do what she had done, was that I already had a university degree. I know, you can always do more. But she had done nothing before she married and had children, which is why her new education was such a big deal for her. Her assumption was that I was the same.

My reaction proves that you can soon feel inadequate, however. The other weekend I noticed that the Guardian had a couple of courses on offer, that sort of spoke to me. There was a one day course, Secrets of successful blogging, £99. And a two day affair, Blogging for absolute beginners at a staggering £449.

And, I immediately felt I ought to better myself, somehow. I know that I won’t try either course, for cost reasons, and because they are in London. But I’m finding it harder to actually convince myself that I don’t need them.

Which is stupid, since whatever I am, beginner is not it. I just wonder what they teach and why it will take all of two days. And if you are willing to spend nearly half a K on this kind of thing, you either have too much money, or you believe blogging will pay you back. It would be an investment.

That leads me directly to the £99 course. What are the secrets of successful blogging? Are they so secret I’ve never encountered them? And what exactly do they mean by successful blogging? Is it what I do? I sit down and write something and I get it onto WordPress and out into the world it goes.

Do they mean number of readers? If so, at what number are you successful? Does successful merely mean you write well? Or are we back to the expectation that you can make money out of it? Is that successful?

I just don’t know, and with some effort I could be made to feel inadequate enough to tell myself I would benefit from some tuition.

Michelle Magorian in the limelight

If anyone had told me ten years ago that I’d be able to put together a few questions for Michelle Magorian, and that she’d actually answer them for me, and take the time to check that she hadn’t written too much (too much? – Impossible!), would have seemed close to unbelievable.

There is a love and respect for Michelle both among ‘ordinary’ readers and among her peers, which stands out. She’s not the most famous author in the world, nor the richest, but there is something about the way people have a special room in their hearts for her and Mister Tom.

I loved her new novel Impossible! and I felt I wanted to ask her about it, and why it took so much longer to appear in print than you’d expect from a ‘Michelle Magorian novel.’ Why didn’t publishers tear it from her hands? Here is Michelle with – nearly all – the answers:

  1. You must be the same age as Josie. What things do/did you have in common? Were you in the Girl Guides?

I was in the Girl Guides. It was the only way I could go camping. Like Josie I was also a tomboy and went to ballet classes and I loved acting. In my teens I used to hide in our local theatre and watch new companies set up the scenery and lights. I was discovered by the man who ran the theatre who said, ‘you naughty girl!’ He directed to me to his office where he promptly gave me fliers to hand out to people to advertise the new show.

  1. And did you watch ITV? You must have got those commercials from somewhere.

Yes. My family watched some of the programmes mentioned in Impossible! Other commercial jingles around at the time were:

            Don’t forget the fruit gums Mum, You’re never alone with a strand and You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  1. Were you too young to have seen a Joan Littlewood production back then, or is this told from experience? If not then, did you see one later?

I was too young but when I was a drama student I knew of her and I assumed most people did. It was only later when I was carrying out research that I discovered how badly the Arts Council in this country had treated her and how she was fêted abroad. At a time when new playwrights in England were being hailed as angry young men, girls and women were told that they must never show their anger as it would make them appear ugly. Joan Littlewood did not follow this advice!

During my research I also began to have the most extraordinary coincidences. I remember looking at my October 1959 calendar and thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if Joan Littlewood was directing a production that had crowd scenes in it so that Josie could be one of the crowd’. To my astonishment I discovered that at that exact time she was directing a new musical called Make Me an Offer and that there were market scenes in the Portobello Road. I couldn’t believe it. Then I discovered that one of the cast was a young Sheila Hancock.

  1. And for the celebrity question; do you know Sheila Hancock?

I had met her briefly at award ceremonies and then later when she was made Chancellor of Portsmouth University. I received a doctorate there and try to attend at least one ceremony a year to show my support to the students who are receiving their degrees. She very kindly allowed me to interview her and shared her memories with me.

And then, before one of the summer ceremonies, when I was standing in the waiting area in my robe she suddenly walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve been offered the part of the grandmother in Just Henry.’ I was stunned having only just received the script the previous evening. After we had chatted I realised that the vice-chancellor was standing nearby. ‘This is all under wraps, ‘ I exclaimed. ‘I haven’t heard a word,’ he said.

  1. Who actually were Scowler and Moustache? Just a couple of crooks?

If I answer this question it will give away some of the Just Henry plot. So – and this is for your eyes only…

(Sorry!)

  1. I know you researched things, but were there really that many police available to solve crimes and rescue people even then?

The River Police were fantastic. As I mentioned many of them were ex-Navy. One of their many jobs (which I haven’t mentioned in the book) is that they had to keep an eye out for ‘jumpers’ (people who committed suicide). In Impossible! the extremely nasty piece of work who is after Josie has been known to Scotland Yard for some time, which is why they are using extra man power. Although he has been responsible for a number of crimes they have never had enough evidence to pin him down as he always has other people to do his dirty work and if those ‘hired helps’ don’t do a good job they ‘disappear’ until their bodies are found. Naturally I haven’t put those details in the story as it is a book for young people but I have hinted at it in a conversation between DI Gallaway and Auntie Win. They are also convinced that Josie’s life is in danger.

  1. Five years ago you reckoned the book could be out in a year. What slowed things down?

When I delivered it to my publisher I was extremely shocked to be told that she wanted me to cut most of it and make it more of a stage school story, and for it to be no more than 60,000 words but the book was mainly about a child actor working professionally in an adult world and how those experiences changed her. I looked for ways I could cut it but realised that she was telling me that it was not the kind of book she wanted to publish. In other words it was a rejection.

The literary agent representing me offered it to other publishers but she told me that they had rejected it too because it was historical fiction and that my way of writing was too traditional. She suggested I find a publisher for it myself but as you know publishers won’t look at a book unless it comes through a literary agent.

I decided to ask Martin West for advice. He had been my editor for Goodnight Mister Tom. It was then that I discovered that he had started an independent publishing company called Troika Books. He asked me to send him the manuscript and loved it. He said it had him laughing one moment and then wondering how the hell Josie was going to get out of trouble the next, which was exactly what I had intended, a mixture of comedy and drama.

He also knew of Joan Littlewood and had actually been and seen the original performance of Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was later that I began to wonder if some of those publishers who had rejected the manuscript had thought that Joan Littlewood was a character I had invented as I have discovered since then that there are many people who have never heard of her.

By the way, they loved her in Sweden! And in France and in Russia and…

  1. Do you think people and publishers see you mainly as a writer of WW11 fiction? More of your novels are about the theatre, although Cuckoo In the Nest obviously shares some wartime experiences.

Perhaps they do. I don’t know. Most of my books contain the seeds of later books. Goodnight Mister Tom and A Little Love Song are the only novels I have written set in the second world war although Back Home, Cuckoo In the Nest, A Spoonful of Jam and Just Henry are about families finding ways to adjust to living together and cope with post war problems.

In 1947 there was a baby boom as demobbed men returned to England and families took to their beds to keep warm as electricity was rationed during the coldest winter since the 1880s so even Josie’s existence is influenced by the second world war.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on publishing today (that you are willing to share?)

I think thoughts about publishing today would be better coming from someone inside the industry. I have noticed a lot of moving around of staff from one publisher to another.

  1. Might you return to these characters in another book? Or have they suffered enough?

I will be returning to some minor characters for another children’s novel for Troika Books but I have to confess that I would also like to write an adult book about one of the people who is in Impossible!

Witch and Michelle Magorian

Coincidences are good. They show that something was meant to be. Michelle’s writing is ‘too traditional?’ And they don’t want historical fiction? What’s wrong with people? God bless Troika Books.

I’m already looking forward to both these books. Take your time, though, Michelle. I can wait.

And I can’t resist this: ‘Den gula hinnan det är känt, den borstas bort med Pepsodent!’ It’s the only jingle I can recite, and try and visualise it delivered by Björn Borg if you can.

Oooh, look at Anne Rooney!

What better way of celebrating National Non-Fiction November could there be but to ‘speak’ to Anne Rooney, and to learn a few new facts about this tireless non-fiction writer, who would scare me witless with her ability were it not for the fact that she is very funny, and very kind.

Anne Rooney

For information, yours is probably the best and most amusing author’s website I’ve come across. And that’s really quite upsetting, for me. Could you possibly give us a very brief summary of who you are, anyway? Feel free to reply with a simple ‘yes.’

Polymath – which is not a mathematical parrot, though both maths and birds are involved. I think I’m a kind of information magpie. I pick out all the shiny, fascinating snippets of fact that float around and try to make them into interesting collages which publishers prefer to call books. That’s not what you meant, is it?

I write stuff – pretty much anything that’s up for being written, really. Fiction for children, and non-fiction for children and adults. I like writing for children best, but it’s hardest. I think on some level I must be deeply stupid in a commercial sense, as I most like writing for children who don’t want to read. Write books for people don’t want books. Yeah. Good plan. And then there’s the me that lives in the Far-from-United State of Domestic Chaos, fails to go to the opera/theatre/cinema often enough, struggles to spend enough time seeing friends, and spends far too many happy hours playing with the local baby and her plastic phoenix and peasant.

I think of you as the mistress of non-fiction writing. Am I right?

Pretty much, I guess. I do tell lies sometimes, though. But if I spend too long writing only fiction I feel ungrounded. There’s only so long you can spend with imaginary people before it gets to you. That’s why so many fiction-writers walk dogs, bake cakes and make changes to their houses – they need to engage with real stuff.

I don’t think you can write non-fiction unless you are genuinely excited by the world and still feel a sense of wonder at discovering new things. People sometimes ask me how they can get into writing non-fiction because they aren’t making enough money doing whatever they are currently doing (usually writing fiction). That’s not really going to work; you might get a couple of book contracts that way, but you won’t be successful (=happy). You might make a living but you won’t make a life.

You have written a very large number of non-fiction books, and I have read only one of them, The Story of Physics. It was very good. In what way is that typical, or not, of your writing?

It’s about half typical, I suppose. It’s atypical in that it’s for adults, whereas most of my books are for children. But it’s typical in that it’s fairly wide-ranging and it has a light, informal tone. What I aim to do in all my books is make interesting information accessible and to show that it’s interesting. That sounds very formal. All my books are, basically, variations on ‘Oooh, look at this!’

And how many books have you written?

Oh dear. I always say ‘about 150’, largely because I gave up keeping a database of them but Amazon was an unreliable guide. I’ve been saying that for a few years, though. My Amazon count has just dropped from about 400 to 198, so I’m going to assume that’s because they have stopped counting duplicates and so it’s accurate. That includes some that aren’t quite out yet, but let’s go with 198.

Should we read more non-fiction?

Yes, we should – but only if we want to. I suppose I mean we should want to read more non-fiction. Actually people spend a lot of time reading non-fiction – in newspapers, magazines, on the web, and so on. Unfortunately, rather too much of it is about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, which is of no importance unless one of them is you.

I despise the faux-pride some people take in not knowing things – being proud of their ignorance of science or supposed inability to do any maths. Being ignorant is not something to be proud of. But nor is it something to be ashamed of – it’s an opportunity to learn something.

What kind of books do you like best?

What kind of books do I like best? That’s a very difficult question as I like lots of kinds of books! I’m currently reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a 17th-century German picaresque ‘novel’ called Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a book about economics (that’s work, but it’s interesting). But I also love picture books, and books about science, and books about – well, anything interesting. I like books that are clever but not arrogant. There are whole swathes of books I don’t like at all but I won’t mention them because it’s a personal taste thing and some of my friends write those kinds of books, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone.

It seems you have so many books on the go at any one time that you forget; either that it’s being published today, or what your deadline is, or even that you wrote the book in the first place. I suppose I can’t ask you how long it takes you to write a book, but how long on average does it take you to write 1000 words?

You are being very diplomatic; you have seen my Facebook updates!

How long it takes to write a thousand words depends on which thousand words it is. Sometimes, it will take several days to write 1,000 words. Other times it will take a couple of hours. I type at about 55 wpm, so the quickest is, I suppose, about 20 minutes. But some of them will be the wrong words and need changing, so no less than 90 mins, I guess. But writing isn’t the time-consuming bit – research takes longer. If I’m writing a book that takes a lot of research, those 1,000 words can take a week. If I’m writing a story that doesn’t need much research, it can be right in an hour, or it can take months.

And how long is your average book, if there is such a thing?

Which kind of average? Median? Mean? I’m going to say about 7,000 words. But the shortest are 300 and the longest 80,000.

Do you have to pitch ideas for books, or do publishers now come to you and say they need a short book on Swedish book bloggers?

The latter. I have to write three books about Swedish book bloggers this month. Actually, I am so busy writing books publishers have asked for I hardly ever get time to pitch ideas. And that makes me sad, as there are some books I want to write that I can’t see I will get round to until there is another recession.

Is there a work of non-fiction by someone else you wish you had written?

Animalium, by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, because it’s beautiful. Otherwise, Velcro Cows by Martyn Warren but I’m not sure it is non-fiction because most of it isn’t true. No – I’ve changed my mind: Montaigne’s Essais.

Do you ever use a pseudonym? Maybe it was really you?

I have done. But obviously I’m not going to tell you what it was. I have also threatened to when a publisher majorly screwed up a book. I said I wanted my name taken off it, and suggested a pseudonym – something like Clytemnestra Sponge – that would signal that it was not a real name. They saw through it, realised I was ridiculing the book, and the uber-editor, to her credit, worked through the night to restore my original text the day before it was due to go to press. But that’s not a normal state of affairs…

You seem to have a tremendous work ethic, always working, always a book to finish. How long is your working day, or week? And do you take holidays?

There is no routine day. Some weeks I end up doing 50 or 60 hours and other weeks only 20, but on average I work a normal number of hours. I did a quick calculation for the first half of the year and I worked an average of 38 hours a week (so no holidays or sick time in that). I don’t go on holidays much at the moment, but that’s because of domestic issues. But I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was visiting my daughter (Big Bint).

The best thing about your job?

I don’t have to do things I really don’t want to do – I can just turn them down. And if there is something I really do want to do, I can do it and call it work. If I can’t sell it later, it was just a bad commercial decision, not skiving.

The worst?

Sometimes there is a project I really want to do and I can’t do it immediately as I’ve not got a contract for it and I need to earn money. And sometimes there will be a really good project and someone else in the process messes it up and I get disenchanted and don’t like it any more. And then I have to give it to Clytemnestra Sponge, who should have quite a body of bad books to her name by now…

Is there anything else you’d want to do for a living?

What else would I do? Something that combines history and science – medical archaeology, probably. Since I opted out of being a real academic, I can write about those things but not actually do the real research. That’s a shame. I don’t like only dealing in secondhand information all the time. I can do real research and I miss it.

How did this happen in the first place? I could see it might fit in well with bringing up children.

I’ve never worked for someone – you know, officially, doing as I’m told and turning up – except for weekend/holiday jobs as a teen and student. I had a part-time flexi-time job for 15 hours a week for a while when I was finishing my PhD, but they didn’t mind if I did all my hours in the middle of the night, so that doesn’t really count. I couldn’t really see any attraction in doing as I was told and spending hours a day getting to an office where some of the people would be unpleasant and some of the work I would have to do would be boring. I had an academic job briefly and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, and since writing was something I could do, I did that. I tried out lots of sorts of writing before settling on writing for children. Journalism was my least favourite – it seemed so pointless writing things that would just be thrown away a few days later. (This was before web archives!)

My rather weird working hours evolved when I was a single parent trying to work when my children weren’t around, so very early in the mornings, during school hours, and when they were in bed. And the times they went to their dad’s house, so that meant working weekends and long hours in parts of the school holiday.

I have a feeling that you also teach and/or have university related tasks. What, exactly? How much time do you spend on each?

The last three summers I have run a summer school programme in creative writing with Brian Keaney at Pembroke and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. It’s part of the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme. Most of our students are undergraduates from the USA. It runs for eight weeks. This year I’m Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, which is two-and-a-half days a week during term time. I’ve been RLF fellow at other universities in the past, but it tends to be one or two years on and then two years off, so some years I don’t do any university work at all. RLF Fellows don’t teach a course – they help students with academic writing, in any discipline. It’s very rewarding and a challenge. Sometimes I’ll have a chemical engineering PhD thesis to look at, followed by an essay about some aspect of the Hebrew Bible, and then an anthropology dissertation on a tribe in Bolivia… You have to be intellectually agile!

Do you have a next book? I mean, is that even possible?

You mean next coming out or next to write? I don’t write only one at once. I’m working on a Gothic novel for 9-11s, just finishing a book about inventions (8-10), starting a GCSE guide to Jekyll and Hyde and doing The Story of Maps (adult). There’s also a picture book that needs sending to my agent and a couple of adult books I’m writing outlines for that I don’t think have been announced yet. Next out is, I think, Space Record Breakers from Carlton, which is out some time early this month. It might be out already, I’m not sure.

Finally, who plays you in The Life of Rooney?

Probably a muppet… Rowlf?

I should really have got you to ask the questions, shouldn’t I?

They wouldn’t have been very sensible if I’d asked them!

Now, hasn’t this made you want to read those 198 books? (And I must point out I’m really good at maths. And exo-planets. I should also have realised that Anne would ask things like ‘mean or median?’ and given her a proper question from the start. I blame that Clytemnestra.)

National Non-Fiction November

The Murdstone Trilogy

I am very grateful to Mal Peet. He may have written a novel bearing the title The Murdstone Trilogy, but it isn’t. A trilogy, I mean. And he has the sense to point this out in a message from the author, so the reader can relax and settle down with his bleddy fantastick nobble. (What’s more, this nobble from David Fickling Books is an adult nobble, which is interesting for someone you connect with children’s books. But DFB can do what they like, and they clearly like this book, and so do I.)

Mal seems to have set out to write a non-fantasy story. But for an anti-fantasy writer (if that’s what he is) Mal knows a lot about fantasy. (Btw, he claims it’s not autobiographical, but I was unable to read it without visualising Mal as his hero Philip Murdstone.)

Mal Peet, The Murdstone Trilogy

More than one recent novel claims to deal with the publishing world, but I haven’t seen anything that does it quite like this. What do I know? But it seems so very true. Why should the author Philip Murdstone keep writing worthy books about brave children, when his agent needs him to write a bestselling fantasy?

This non-trilogy trilogy (I mean it is a trilogy, in that it’s divided into three parts. But it’s all there, which is more than one can say for Mr Murdstone) is like nothing else. My online social circle of literary people kept going on about Mal’s book as though it’s the best thing since sliced bread, so I had to ask to be allowed to have a taste, and it is. People were falling over each other to quote the best quote from the book. This is really very rare, even for people who will – rightly – praise each other’s work.

You can’t describe it, and if you could it would serve to ruin the experience for anyone else. Let’s just say that Devon is over-run by weird stuff happening . Maybe that’s normal there. What do I know? But Philip Murdstone ends up living his fantasy, which is the book, the trilogy, he must write. It’s enough to drive anyone over the edge.

(I was there when Mal won the Guardian prize. I sincerely hope he hasn’t been Murdstoning about the countryside with gremlins and people with interesting accents since then. He deserves better. Let him not write fantasy. If that’s what he wants not to write.)