Category Archives: Writing

When books become retro

In the end it was the fonts that made me go all nostalgic.

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Här är Lilla Anna

I was reading Scandinavian Retro, a style magazine, featuring mainly mid-20th century things. I’d expected furniture, china, textiles. That kind of thing. But here were all 105 books by Inger and Lasse Sandberg; every cover of every book they wrote and illustrated together for over fifty years.

First I wondered why, when they started in the mid-1950s, I hadn’t really read any/many of their books. I’ve always been aware of them, but had somehow felt they were after my time as a picture book reader. And mostly, it turned out they were. They had a slow start and I must have missed the early books while I was still young enough.

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Är det jul nu igen? sa Spöket LabanI did read about the little ghost, however. Both for myself, and later to other young people, including Offspring. Lilla spöket Laban (Laban, the little ghost) is rather sweet. He is scared of many things, including the dark, which is awfully inconvenient for a ghost. Apparently he was born to help the Sandberg’s middle child who was afraid of the dark, after his older sister locked him in a wardrobe.

But, as I said, I can only have read a handful of the 105 books. They all look thoroughly familiar, however, and I worked out it’s because of the font(s) used on the covers. The pictures are also quite typical for that era, but there being so many, for me they blend into one and the same. There’s probably a name for the font, but for me it will always be the ‘Swedish children’s books font.’

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Fixa fisk, sa Pulvret

And, as I also said, there were obviously more than one font, and styles developed over the years, but mostly they all look soothingly familiar.

Just as Laban was born to deal with the dark, many of the books were written by Inger to cover a small matter of some importance to small people everywhere. I really like the sound of the story about the man who suddenly shrinks and discovers what it is like to be small and treated like a child again. He becomes a children’s politician after that, with notes explaining to young readers what a politician is.

Never mind your ABCs. You can have a book about the number 0, which when standing next to other numbers, becomes terribly important.

And when all is said and done, this whole concept feels frightfully Swedish and egalitarian, besides being trendy and nice to look at.

The effect of jail, and stealing a book

Or how good comes from bad.

Very pleased for Alex Wheatle who won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize last night, with his book Crongton Knights. Congratulations!

I know very little about Alex, who’s not been on my horizon long. But I like the sound of him. The one fact that seems to stand out when people write about him, is that Alex discovered books and reading while in jail over thirty years ago. So something good resulted from a fairly negative event; both the starting to read, and eventually writing books himself. And I believe there’s an MBE in Alex’s past as well.

Another vaguely criminal background story was given some attention this week when Chris Riddell illustrated a story by Jenn Ashworth about how she discovered YA books in her library as a child. In her case it was finding Melvin Burgess’s Baby and Fly Pie and reading it in one morning in the library, before stealing it.

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 1

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 2

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 3

Yes, that’s not to be recommended, but to find yourself in a book to such an extent, and to be guided by this new reading experience into becoming an author feels right.

Sometimes bad leads to good.

(And I seem to have done my normal thing and borrowed very freely from Chris. And I can’t claim never to have taken something that wasn’t mine.)

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.

Haverdal

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.