Category Archives: Writing

Big in Barnes

Today I bring you a review from the keyboard of the Resident IT Consultant. He’s been enjoying Bernard O’Keeffe’s debut crime novel, The Final Round:

“DI Garibaldi is the only policeman in the Met who can’t drive a car which means when he’s not being driven by his DS, he uses a bicycle or buses to get around. The tube gives him claustrophobia and he feels you learn more about London and its people by travelling by bus. You have to go back sixty years to the crime novels of John Creasey and his ‘handsome West of the Yard’ to find a London detective who travels by bus.

DI Garibaldi lives in Barnes, so when a man’s body is found near the Thames, he’s conveniently close to hand. The victim was last seen at a charity quiz at which, during the last round, a series of scandalous allegations were made about his Oxford contemporaries, most of whom also live in Barnes. Any one of them might be the murderer, and their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction only reinforces one’s suspicions.

Perhaps DI Garibaldi is a little unrealistically free from the police procedures and paperwork that dog most other modern detectives, but it’s an amusing story, firmly rooted in southwest London, and leading to an exciting climax.”

And, there’s more! On the day of publication – Thursday – the Resident IT Consultant joined me at the launch, held online and also a little bit in the Barnes Bookshop, where Gyles Brandreth showed what a fan of the book he is, by asking Bernard lots of questions. And he’s also a Barnes inhabitant…

After explaining quite how much the book, or rather, the detective, has to do with Garibaldi biscuits, Bernard read from the beginning of the book, when the dead body is found..

Generally speaking, this was a very Barnes-y launch, quite noisy, in fact, with what I suspect to have been mostly Bernard’s friends and family, plus the publishers. And us at Bookwitch Towers and Bernard’s publicist Fiona, also up here in the north.

Apart from being a bit related to the biscuit, on his wife’s side, Bernard refused to jinx book no. 2 by talking about it prematurely. He is a pantser, not a plotter, and it sounded as if he’s the kind of author who changes his mind about who did it, somewhere in the process of writing. More exciting that way.

Asked who he’d like to see as Garibaldi on screen, were this ever to happen, Bernard moved swiftly between [a younger] Tom Conti, or maybe Peter Capaldi, to Toby Jones, which really doesn’t leave us any the wiser as to what the man looks like.

Oh well.

The virtual Phil Earle

One has some great looking string lights and the other a colour coordinated bookcase. And it really does improve things when someone with a new book to launch – Phil Earle – gets to do the launching with a good friend – Sarah Crossan, or two – Charlie Sheppard. The always enthusiastic Charlie, who is Phil’s editor, introduced everyone and pointed out that the best thing is to be friends with authors, followed by free food and wine.

Sarah Crossan, who is a great friend, took over the chatting with Phil. She knew what to ask and which direction to go, even if she was having to get used to not chatting as privately as usual. Although, no secret was made of the fact that Phil has had some personal problems, when ‘everything went wrong’, in the last five years or so. It had made him worry that he was ‘done’ with his idea for the new book – When the Sky Falls – but in the end he channelled all his pain and wrote it.

According to everyone who has provided a quote for the book, and I do mean literally everyone, this is not just Phil’s best work but really great stuff in general. (I can’t wait to read it.) It has been compared to Goodnight Mister Tom, The Machine Gunners, Kes, and so on. Set in WWII it’s about a boy who is so badly behaved that he is packed off to London, in a reverse evacuee kind of way.

The idea appears to have come from Phil’s ex father-in-law’s father and what he did in the war. (Basically, if there was a bomb threat to the local zoo, he was to shoot the lion.) Phil read to us – from page 30 – about when his main character meets a different animal at a different zoo. It’s the kind of reading that makes you want to know more.

He put his own feelings into this book, and as Phil said, ‘I can only write like I can’. He’d been afraid he was too old, in a world of publishers obsessed with debut authors, but judging by what everyone has said, he’s done all right. There was a lot of emotion, for a book launch. And contrary to what most authors say when asked about their favourite of the books they’ve written, Phil really does love When the Sky Falls best of all his. And he has written some seriously great books.

Interestingly, both Phil and Sarah, are currently reading Hilary McKay’s new book, and Phil also praised Elizabeth Wein’s war stories. He likes to read about ‘the small stuff’, rather than official war history.

He’s now off to visit sixty bookshops to sign books. ‘I have waited for this!’

You’d better watch out, for Phil and his book.

An evening with Dan Smith and Tom Palmer

I can’t be sure, but I think Tom Palmer might have been sitting on his desk. His fellow author Dan Smith sat next to the requisite bookshelves, and their Barrington Stoke ‘boss’ Ailsa Bathgate had shelves behind her desk.

Thursday evening’s event with Tom and Dan was a comfortable sort of affair, where a few friends sat around chatting about books and writing. It was well worth rearranging dinner plans for.

They talked dogs when Zoom opened its doors. I got the impression that someone had been so smitten by Tom’s dog in D-Day Dog that they had got themselves a dog… Not all dogs are the same and real ones are not like their fictional peers. Tom apologised, saying he didn’t know he was influencing anyone to get a dog. He made it up.

According to Ailsa, Tom has written something like 17 books for Barrington Stoke, while Dan is a relative newcomer with two, and a third on the way. Tom read us the first chapter from Arctic Star, and it was nice to hear his voice again.

Then Dan read from somewhere in the middle of his Beast of Harwood Forest, and as far as I’m concerned I never want to see those creepy dolls’ eyes hanging from the trees. Or was it the dolls that were hanging? Anyway, they had eyes. Dan writes for himself, both the adult and his younger self. He read us a letter he’d sent to his parents from boarding school at the age of seven, when he was very much into ghost stories.

Tom got the idea for Arctic Star from his wife, who used to work on the HMS Belfast. He also felt there’s very little children’s fiction about the navy. To make sure he gets his books right, he ‘tests them on children’ which tickled Dan’s sense of humour. Now that Tom’s own children are older, he sees things differently than when they were small.

He also asked Dan if he ever dissuades fans from buying one of his books if it’s aimed at a much older age. Tom apparently has done this, but maybe because they are about ‘real’ things. Whereas Dan’s books are made up, and children like creepy stuff, ‘being scared in a safe way’.

Dan likes writing dyslexia friendly books. It lets him skip the boring bits, as he put it. Now he finds he shortens his ‘normal’ fiction for another publisher as well. He enjoys reading Barrington Stokes books, too, and has a shelf for them.

Having been a late reader himself, Tom knows the importance of short chapters. His have been known to be one page long. As Dan agreed, children often ask how many chapters a book has, rather than how many pages.

The next books are another one from Dan set in Crooked Oak again, and Tom has plans for a girl in WWII. I can’t wait. While Dan doesn’t worry too much about getting his chapter one right, or so he said, Tom works at getting a James Bond style first chapter to catch the reader’s attention.

For inspiration Dan recommends walking in the woods, smelling it, and preferably being alone. (Not with those dolls’ eyes!) It’s not surprising he likes Stephen King. Tom was more for watching WWII films when he grew up, which he reckons is why he is obsessed with war stories. And he loves the research.

Other, or belonging

I grew up in a very white country. So the child Bookwitch was not really able to see that there could be more black characters in her fiction. The books reflected – mostly – what I saw around me.

There was a piece about the lack of black children’s books [characters] by Lenny Henry in The Bookseller. I wish he’d had someone in his reading world that he could have identified with. But he also makes an assumption about being white and reading ‘white’ fiction. He assumes that I could find myself in the books I read, because Julian, Dick, George and Anne, and I, all have white skin.

I always felt like the outsider. Others were more fun, slimmer, richer, cleverer, had more friends, had siblings, had two parents, were braver, had dogs, or could ride horses. And so on. They weren’t me.

I used to spend my time thinking that ‘if only’ then my life too would be ‘that other thing which defined others’.

So no, I didn’t read Blyton thinking they were my kind of people. I read the Famous Five books for the same thrills that Lenny presumably did. The books were about others. White others, but still others.

Sweden in the 1950s or 60s could not be expected to have black fiction. Now it can, and to some extent it does. I was pleased to find the young first time authors I met in Edinburgh 18 months ago were less white than they might have been fifty years earlier.

And in Britain there should be more authors and books for and about non-white people. But I don’t think I personally can make that happen. I hope that those who want to write, will, and that publishers have seen the light and will publish.

Lenny mentions that when reading with his daughter, there was one child with dreadlocks in Harry Potter. The thing is, if that had been my childhood reading, I would merely have filed away another thing I was not, which is magic. And while I still don’t feel I belong more than anyone else, I have realised that many – most? – of us tend to believe that others are much more ‘that thing we’d want to be’.

The pen

This is the pen I dropped on the floor during Tim Bowler’s event in Edinburgh, 24th August 2015.

Yes, I know. That’s very precise. But I remember it well, because my backup pen also failed, and that was one pen problem too much for what was already a trying evening.

The good news is I found it again, and I have continued carrying it round with me ever since. It always works really well, especially considering it was a freebie. Most likely given to me by the Resident IT Consultant, a long time ago. At a guess, 1986. Because it says so on the pen.

I often look at it, wondering how the ink can keep going for what has now been 35 years. But as luck would have it, the ink appeared to run dry a few days ago, and I prepared to say goodbye to my freebie friend.

But I decided to take a look, to see if it was old enough that maybe I could actually change the ink ‘thing’, and found to my surprise that there was a Parker refill inside it. Hardly surprising that it had kept going so well. Decided to take another look and discovered it is an actual Parker pen.

Who’d have thought they gave away Parker pens for advertising purposes like that?

I’m guessing it’s not goodbye after all.

Travelling to Narnia

My first memory from meeting Katherine Langrish seventeen years ago, is that at the age of nine she wrote her own instalment of the Narnia books, because to her mind there weren’t enough of them. I was glad, because I used to feel like that about some of my childhood books, but I never got past page two. That was in 2004 and she was in our neck of the woods to talk about her first children’s book, Troll Fell, a Norwegian style fairytale. In fact, the days of Katherine are all Before Bookwitch, since the third book in the Troll trilogy was published on February 5th 2007, one day BB, making Katherine a very early author acquaintance of mine.

Anyway, back to Narnia. While I believe she might have shown us her childhood book then, I have now seen pages two and three up close, being used for the endpapers of her brand new book From Spare Oom to War Drobe, Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self (isn’t that a glorious title?). This is a book I’ve been looking forward to so much, despite it being about books I have not read and firmly believe I wouldn’t like, just because, well because I am convinced this is a really great book (with a quote from Neil Gaiman on the front cover), and because we say that you should write about what you know best. And I believe Katherine has arrived in Narnia, where she belongs.

It’s a gorgeous-looking volume, and one I’m very tempted to read, if only to learn more about Narnia. Half the population can’t be wrong, and in her online launch this evening Katherine mentioned Philip Pullman and his dislike of the C S Lewis stories, not totally disagreeing with him. The way I understand it is that it’s a pretty academic look at Narnia and its creator. It’s got footnotes. And the support of many literary names.

One of them, Amanda Craig, talked to Katherine about her book, as one big fan to another. It was quite enlightening and I really enjoyed their chat. I like people who like things that much. It’s good to look at stuff in-depth and to have sensible comments to make. I understand Amanda encouraged Katherine to write this book, after having read her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which is mostly about fairytales, and which has left me in awe of all Katherine’s knowledge.

This could have been a great launch in real life, but as it was, online made for a different great event, with many of Katherine’s peers peering out from behind their respective Zoom cameras. And the sun shone on her, forcing her to keep shifting her position.

Kazuo Ishiguro – wanting to go electric and get booed, just like Dylan

He’s got his grey world of hitchhikers, possibly stuck off the M5, on a roundabout in Cumbria. But there is no plot. Yet.

I suspect that geographically the above doesn’t make any sense, but who cares? This is Kazuo Ishiguro who made up his own Japan as a child, based on what his mother told him, the comics his grandparents sent, and sheer speculation. It had little bearing on the real place, which he left at the age of five.

This makes a lot of sense to someone who knows what it’s like to belong in two places where you don’t necessarily belong. He was 20 when he realised this Japan perhaps didn’t exist, and by leaving it alone, it has faded away. It gave him a sense of liberation when by his third novel there was no Japan in it.

Tuesday evening’s Guardian event with Kazuo talking to Alex Clark, and with thousands of us listening in, was the first in a virtual book tour to launch Klara and the Sun, his new book. He promised to give us all the best stuff.

Although, there wasn’t as much about the new novel, about AI friends for lonely teenagers, as you might expect. There was so much else to talk about. Kazuo’s daughter Naomi had prevented him from making this a children’s book, saying they’d be traumatised. It is now a much more optimistic novel for adults…

Kazuo likes testing new genres, a bit like we might try some new food. He also reckons he could easily move the plots of his books into other settings, should he be legally required to do so.

Alex Clark called him bonkers, then apologised, but Kazuo said ‘bonkers is good’ and ‘I am not a professional writer, but quite limited in what I do’. He meant he can only write what he can write. And with a Nobel prize behind him, that writing isn’t all that bad.

The organisers had planted famous people, like Bernardine Evaristo, to ask particularly good questions. His pal David Mitchell wondered about the frequent mentions of Worcestershire, which appear to be some kind of cameos, coming from a hotel stay in Minneapolis.

Emma Thompson wanted to know whether films of books can reach the depths the books do, and it seems that if she writes the script, they can. She sported pandemic hair, and had also had time to paint her walls the same colour as her jumper. Kazuo did point out, though, that an actor only ever has to learn to be one character in a book, whereas the author needs to know everything.

Kazuo always knows the endings of his books; he knows where he has to land. ‘You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say’.

He refused to commit to an opinion of how the pandemic might influence his writing. It is too early and too many people have died. It would feel wrong to escape into his world, ‘where my work sits in the word’. He has many great worlds with no story, and great titles without a story to go with it. The worlds and settings in his head wait for ‘the play’ to come.

You will not be surprised to learn that the event overran. But that’s what you get from an author who dares to presume he knows about butlers, giving his readers an ultra-English novel, even mishandling the port. Foreigners, eh?

You need five weeks between the squirrel columns

Some time back when things were normal, I wrote to the Guardian and asked them to send me Tim Dowling. They wrote back and said they would think about it.

Finally, last night Tim was in my living room! Admittedly only on screen, and he had Hadley Freeman with him. But it was good; two of my favourites at the same time.

The squirrels, as you will know, are his. But there’s a limit to how often even Tim can write a column about them. Not every week, that’s for certain. (But I did think it could be more frequently than every five…)

And he sounds so English! For an American, I mean. Almost like an Atlantic version of Colin Firth. I admired his living room (?), until it was suggested by someone that it might be Tim’s shed. Was it just a fake background, to fool me?

I knew Hadley’s ‘background’ was in fact her bedroom. I’ve been in her bedroom before. The bedroom with the wallpaper.

Apparently it’s hard writing a weekly column, although for Hadley it provides a break in her ‘parenting’ as she knows she should refer to the child care as.

For Tim the task is to make Mrs D laugh on Saturday mornings. She’s generally not ‘pissed off’ by what he writes, knowing full well she’s the funny one. Tim ‘only writes it down.’

If they were to write about last night, the first you would read about it – except on here, obviously – is Saturday next week. That’s as far in advance as they need to be. They both dread coming up with acceptable topics, and for Tim not much beats the squirrels. Or a hole in his sock. He started his writing career with a column [elsewhere] on ‘How to live off your girlfriend’. Because it’s what he did, having followed the future Mrs D to England. She has tried to send him back.

We all love Hadley’s interviews. When asked who her dream future interviewee would be, she said Eddie Murphy. Also a lot of already dead people. And apparently her recent piece on Angelina Jolie, which I enjoyed, caused very many readers to write in to defend Angelina…

Both Tim and Hadley have books on the go. To write, I mean. But Tim filled me with dread when he said he might need three months off to finish his novel. Don’t do it!

An inspiration lost

I don’t quite remember why Lars Westman was talking to the postbox. But it was the kind of thing he was wont to do.

I’m thinking it had to do with no stamps or not enough postage on something he had just posted, and he was trying to persuade the postbox to give the letter back, so it could be rectified. It’s obvious, you put your face close to the opening and say what you need to say.

In this case, the most interesting thing was that there was a reply. I believe there was a postal worker the other side of the hole where you post your letters, which probably means it was one of those postboxes inserted into a wall, or there would hardly have been room for a man inside the box. Certainly, my own postal background does not incorporate talking postboxes, however crazy we might have been.

It was a hilarious tale, the way many of Lars’s columns in Vi Magazine were. I read him for decades and he was always good. He was one of the people who made me want to write.

And now he’s dead. Retired for some years, he was 86. But his entertaining columns, and longer articles are ones I still remember. Except when I’ve half forgotten, like the talking postbox. (I was fully expecting Lars to get stuck, or something. Not that there’d be an actual response from within.)

‘What if you’d been dead?’

That’s crime writers for you; coming across an unusual event with a happy outcome, and then making it worse by killing someone [in a book]. In Meet the Author event with Dr Val McDermid, organised by the University of St Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, Val described how she came to write The Distant Echo by murdering former students, and how someone unwittingly provided her with the spot for the original death.

This was a well-run online event, as you’d expect from a leading university, when treating their students to a talk by one of their Honorary Doctors. After an introduction by the Principal, Sally Mapstone, Val talked to Professor Gill Plain, who teaches a crime fiction module. With two new books, Val had lots to say. Still Life is her new crime novel, and then there is her 2020 bonus book, the Christmas is Murder anthology.

Sitting in her library, with a lovely Christmas tree next to her, Val talked about various aspects of her writing career, and not only stuff I’d heard before. At the beginning of the year there was only Brexit as a cloud on the horizon, until it became obvious that there would be more. Her yearly pattern of writing, followed by events, was broken, and the short crime stories in Christmas is Murder filled a gap.

Val had a bout of Covid in March; 17 days when she can’t really account for what she was doing. Writing took longer when spending a lot of time on following the news. The online events she did lacked the sense of camaraderie she loves, and she misses the conversations with colleagues. Walking with friends helps.

She doesn’t think people will want to read Covid books. Coming up with an idea for a quintet of novels set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019 respectively has given her some breathing space.

Meanwhile, we have her new short stories that were a struggle to write, including the one titled Holmes for Christmas… Val hopes for a Christmas equivalent of Norway’s Easter crime reading.

The conversation moved on to Hamish’s hipster porridge. Yes, really. Seems Val has been ‘Cooking the books’ on YouTube. There will be a Christmas special, and maybe one for New Year, but she will call it quits while she’s still having fun.

Generally she knows where she will start a book, and where it will finish, but the road in between she can only see glimpses of as she writes. For the new Karen Pirie novel, Val had to make up some sort of art, which turned out to be a collage of a person, cut into pieces and reassembled as a portrait. Or something like that. And it’s important to keep track of what you are withholding from the reader. She introduced a new detective as a plot device; someone who might now stay on.

When asked who people will still read in a hundred years’ time, she hoped she’d be one of them, but more seriously said it will be the game-changers, and compared this to who we read today, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and Allingham and Marsh. Authors with memorable characters. So perhaps William McIlvanney, Patricia Highsmith, P D James and Thomas Harris.

I shall have to look into these cooking sessions.