Julie Bertagna is doing a short but intense tour to launch her new book Aurora in the Manchester area, and we’ve agreed to meet for an interview over afternoon tea at my house. Having rescued Julie off her train from Scotland, we settle down on the deck in the sunshine. Wanting to concentrate on the tea and some more informal chatting, I say I’ll try to keep the interview quite short. Hah!
‘I’ve probably said it all before, anyway,’ Julie says.
‘It’s getting harder to come up with questions, knowing people so much better now.’
‘Yeah, I think you know too much,’ she giggles.
‘Did you research things for your Exodus trilogy, like stuff to do with the environment, or did you just make it all up?’
‘Well I did at the beginning because – when was I writing it? – I was writing it ten years ago and there was nothing. I saw this tiny article about the Kiribati Islands and it was like an SOS for the world. It was tiny. I was supposed to be writing something else, but I got stuck and I started to imagine. But I thought I don’t know what’s going on here, so I researched that and the more I researched… But it’s changed because at that point they were still talking about the millennium thing, and we weren’t at war or anything.’
‘Yes, it wasn’t the latest disaster to worry about.’
‘So, when I wrote it I remember my editor then saying “I don’t know if it will have much appeal, because there are no futuristic books out there, and it might seem a bit far fetched,” but I said “look it’s just a big story.” But what then happened was just as I was finishing it, global warming began to come to the fore, and by the time I’d got on to Zenith, it was all front page, so it was almost as if I was writing in real time.’
‘As if you were inspired by it.’
‘You couldn’t avoid it. It was just there, every time I opened the paper.’
‘What’s more important; the climate and the environment, or the politics?’
‘I don’t even look at it like that. I put the characters in that situation and those refugees and climate change, so when I’m writing I don’t think of those issues at all. What’s more important is really what they’re up against. When you’re writing you don’t think of politics, it’s just when you’ve finished it you think “well this is quite political.” You know, when Jane Eyre was published there were complaints because people thought it was really political, it was a godless book and she was a rebel against society.’
‘I do research, but when I sit down to write I don’t think about it, politics or any of that at all. It’s what the characters are up against. You have people in power, and when you have young rebels, like Fox, you’ve got to be kicking against something. And for him it’s very very personal, because it’s his family. So yes, I suppose that’s political, but it’s his story.
What I do find, talking to schools, is the kids are really interested in the issues. They want to try and talk about the future. It’s extremely interesting. I read an article saying a third of young Scots have no hope, and the rest of the country was saying it has no future, but then when you go round schools talking to kids they all want to talk about the future, and the Large Hadron Collider and black holes and if the world is flooded we’ll all be living in big ships… They’re really interested in these issues.’
‘I don’t know if I’m answering your questions? It’s really the story for me, the power of the idea behind it, and I think if you put too much politics in a story for young readers it turns them off. It’s only got to be the character and the story, and things can come through that. If they hear an author preaching at them, that’s a complete turn-off.’
‘Did you check out Greenland for this book, or did you just make it all up?’
‘I made it all up. I researched it in every way I could sitting at home, but I really wanted to go. The one thing I did do was we went up to Rovaniemi which is just over the Arctic Circle, and I saw the Northern Lights. I told Philip Pullman (sounds very gleeful) this once and he was so jealous, that I’d seen it and he hasn’t!’
‘So that made me feel better, because if he can imagine all that and he hasn’t been there that sort of gave me permission to…’
‘He’s not been all that far north, we discovered, when we talked to him about it.’
‘They are amazing, they crack, it’s very strange, it’s almost like a lightning strike. It felt somehow electrical.’
Our tea arrives.
‘Well trained son,’ Julie says.
‘They’ve got to be useful for something, I feel. So if I asked you where in Greenland they landed (in Zenith); do you know?’
‘I do know. I know exactly on a map. You can google earth it, but you don’t get much detail. I did as much as I could without actually going there. I could also see how if the ice all melted there is a theory that the island would rise up a bit, because the weight would be lifted.
The photographer asks if Julie means Greenland.
‘Then it’s isostasy.’
‘Oh, I needed to know you years ago! And you’d be left with a huge inland sea. Also the idea of the ice channel through the mountains. So I didn’t make these things up. Everything that’s in there I found somewhere.’
‘You seem to be so busy now. Have you done fewer events and tours, while you’ve been waiting for Aurora to be published?
‘They’ve been more spread out. I do school visits. It’s kind of steady, every month or so, but it’s more local. There are odd things you get, like I went to Luxembourg for a day.’ She laughs. ‘And I didn’t see much of Luxembourg, with five schools in a day. It was great, but at the end of it, I didn’t know my own name. It was good to do. So you do get occasional things in London and places, but it’s sporadic.’
‘Is there a particular type of event that’s more fun to do than others?’
‘I get nervous about school events, but when I do them I really enjoy it. You get the rapport and I haven’t yet had one where we haven’t had a good discussion. The kids are always shuffling, but then they ask questions and they start talking about Doctor Who and things and the teachers are great, so I do like school visits.’
Before I pour Julie’s tea, I check if she wants the milk first or last, but she doesn’t mind at all. ‘It always tastes the same to me, thank you.’ We laugh. ‘But my Gran would be on your side.’
‘I gather you’re going to do Edinburgh this year?’
‘There’s a schools programme and I’m doing that with Keith Gray, and then what they call a public event. I’m having Keith interview me for that because I know him well enough to boss him about. He’s a very good interviewer. They say teenagers are difficult, but when they come along to Charlotte Square it’s really, really good.’
‘Yes, I sneaked in on two or three school events last year, which were much better than many of the public ones.’
‘Everybody’s completely different, some people are real performers, like Eoin Colfer. I couldn’t do what he does. People like that are fantastic, whereas other people like me (she laughs) just try and do an interesting talk, and with another author you can get a bit of a debate going and then you involve the kids. I think it’s quite a difficult thing to do, but I suppose it’s a bigger version of your own real self, if you know what I mean?’
‘You’ve got to project, and it’s exhausting, but that’s what you do, trying to be someone different.’
‘Like going to a party, you’re not the same as when you’re at home. You try and seem a bit nicer, a bit more interesting.’
Julie giggles, ‘I try to think of interesting things to say beforehand.’
‘Are you writing anything now?’
‘Uhm, I’m writing. I think it’s going to be a two-parter. It’s another futuristic one but very different, and it’s not all set on earth.’
‘It’s hard to say too much about it, but it’s called Riven.’
‘I like that.’
‘It’s quite good to say that’s it’s called Riven, because then that’s mine.’
‘Did you start it as soon as you handed in Aurora?’
‘I started working on the idea even when I handed in the first draft.’
‘You were saying you were writing a short story recently. Was it for Keith?’
‘Yes, he edited a collection last year called Losing It, about losing your virginity, and it had a lot of people doing different things. I was busy editing Aurora. This one’s called Next, and it’s about the hereafter. Different versions of what happens next.’
‘That should be good. Do you do lots of short stories, or just the odd one?’
‘The odd one every so often. I’ve done collections over the years. I probably do one short story every two years. Really just whenever anybody asks. I find them hard,’ she almost sounds surprised, ‘you always get an idea, but just to nail it and…’
‘For it to be both good and short?’
‘Yes, it’s actually harder in a way.’
‘I know you’ve written for newspapers. Do you still?’
‘Not so much, partly because newspapers have cut their freelancers.’
‘There’s no money.’
‘Ys, I did a couple last year and the payment was awful, so it doesn’t really encourage you to do it. I used to do a lot. Before I had Natalie I did loads.’
‘I was just wondering if there is a market?’
‘Somebody will tend to phone me up from one of the Scottish papers if there is something in the news, or some study to do with teenagers, and they look to teenage authors. There’s me and Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin, Nicola Morgan.’
‘What does a typical Julie Bertagna day look like?’
Julie pauses to think. ‘I get everybody sorted, breakfast done, clear up, and sometimes after that I just sit down and write straight away in the kitchen. Or sometimes I pack up my laptop and go down to a coffee shop and sit there, because I start to fritter around and do the housework and before I know it, it’s eleven o’clock. If I go out for a coffee I’m removed from everything and I start to work, and although it sounds like you’re skiving, it actually works better. You can just concentrate on what you’re doing, and then when I come home I carry on working, because it gets you out of putting on another load of washing. You could end up spending your whole day on things that need to be done, so then when Natalie comes home I tend to just slow down and do emails and things. I suppose I really work school hours, and it’s going to be a bit odd when she’s not here. I’ve been doing it like that for years.’
‘Yes, it’s when that pattern is broken and you’ve got to think of something else.’
‘I think I’ll keep to it, because if I don’t, then I just don’t get round to work, and then I get down. You feel a bit empty, so I think I need to keep to school hours.’ Julie laughs. ‘When I was younger I loved working at night. I was a real night owl, but when you have a child you can’t do that, you don’t have the energy.’
‘Do you get a lot of readers contacting you?’
‘Yes, lots. Lots of boys. It’s a certain kind of boy reader who wants stuff like that, who wants boy and girl characters, and who doesn’t want shoot-outs. Probably the ones who have been – and I’m not comparing myself to him – who have been reading Pullman. That whole world type thing. What do they go on to next? It’s that kind of boy reader.’
‘And what do they want?’
‘They ask lots of questions, about what’s going to happen and sometimes quite technical questions, about what would work in the future, about how the sky cities work. Most days I can answer them,’ she laughs. ‘Actually some of them through their questions have given me ideas. And they really like Fox, because he’s not aggressive.’
‘He does, certainly in this book he does things, but he’s not a shoot-them-up kind of guy. I think there are more boys out there like that than people realise. Maybe characters they can see themselves in a bit.’
‘I know I keep asking people this, but do you get recognised in the street?’
‘Once in Edinburgh, which was strange, and in Glasgow’s West End, but I think that’s because a lot of the time I’ve been in the newspaper.’
‘Yes, I was thinking you’re a local celebrity.’
‘And once in London, but only because I’d been doing a school the day before, and she remembered me. I don’t think I’d like it anyway. Obviously, I don’t ever envisage walking down the road and the paparazzi jumping out.’
‘It could happen.’
‘I think that was the biggest shock for Jo Rowling. She never for a second expected it would happen; she was just writing a book.’
‘You know, it could have been you.’
‘I’m glad it was her because she handled it much better,’ Julie laughs. ‘Those books have mass appeal, but she never knew that was going to happen, and I think when it did, it was a huge shock, which she had to learn to deal with.’
‘Which of your books was it that you were promoting when you did a signing with her?’
‘The first one, The Spark Gap. So Natalie has a signed Harry Potter.’
‘We’d better keep quiet about that.’
‘It’s safely hidden away. She’d fling it around the room and at three she didn’t care. I actually bought another one and that’s the one you can fling about the room. That’s what three-year-olds do.’ Julie laughs again.
‘I know, I’ve been three myself. I looked at your website again, and I am so ashamed that I have ignored your other books; The Spark Gap, The Opposite of Chocolate and Soundtrack.’
‘They were a wee while ago now.’
‘They are, but because I didn’t know anything about you at first, and then found out about Exodus and Zenith, when you arranged for me to have them and I read those two, and I sort of thought, right, that’s it, let’s wait for Aurora. And I didn’t go back and look at the others.’
‘Well, you have to read a lot.’
‘But they all sound so good, and I thought I want to read them and I don’t know why I wasn’t even properly aware of them.’
‘The one that you might like best is Soundtrack.’
‘It seems very interesting.’
‘It’s that whole Nordic influence. I can’t remember if it ever got translated, but I got a lot of mail from people saying it’s a very Nordic book, so I think that would be the one.’
‘Somehow I had filed away the fact that you had written books for younger children, and I totally missed these and I am so disappointed with myself.’
‘Tell you what. I’ll make up for it by having a bit of your cake and you’re completely forgiven. Where is the best place to cut it?’
‘The middle?’ We laugh.
‘I feel guilty for ruining it. That’s gorgeous.’
‘Have you any thoughts on the new children’s laureate?’
‘I was wracking my brains, but for the first time I haven’t a clue. Oh, it’s today, I was travelling…’
‘… so you don’t know.’
‘I actually don’t know. Tell me.’
‘It’s Julia Donaldson.’
‘Really?’ She sounds pleased. ‘Gosh! I know Julia. I had no idea.’
‘I hadn’t considered her, but when I heard I thought, yeah, that makes sense.’
‘It’s very much younger books. What do you think?’
‘I think if you want a name that has an impact on the average person, then she’s a name. I think she’ll do a good job.’
‘Philip Pullman has said he doesn’t want to do it. I think there must be quite a lot of people who don’t want the job because, basically you can’t write, although I think Julia writes so prolifically that she probably can. She’s certainly an author that a lot of children will relate to. Gosh! All we need now is for Theresa to win the Carnegie. It would be a Scottish swoop,’ she laughs.
‘One last question; why did you decide to write for children? I read about why you wanted to write, but why for children?’
‘I was teaching, and I’d always been scribbling away at things, but literally this class that I had, in a really difficult part of Glasgow, deprived part of Glasgow… The Spark Gap, my first book, the setting was a big tower block that was right beside my school. I literally looked out my classroom window and there were these huge tower blocks. I was trying to get the children to read and write more. Couldn’t find anything that they wanted to read and I said, “I do not believe that out of all the books there are in the world you lot can’t find anything you want to read,” and I got them to tell me what kind of books they thought they’d want to read. They were saying “about people like us and places like ours, and the books there are are all about posh kids” and I said “well they’re not.” I said “I’ll go and try and find you a book,” and I found Theresa Breslin’s Simon’s Challenge, which was set in Glasgow.
And I was actually shocked that at that time I could not find a single other contemporary book for teenagers, set in Scotland. They were all historical novels apart from this one by Theresa Breslin, so I read them this and then I said “OK, I always wanted to be a writer. I’ll write a story for you,” and they all laughed. Some days we would sit down and I would write and they would write, to show them what writing was. So I’d write my story. Once I’d finished teaching these kids – I was very attached to them, they were scallywags, but some of them had really, really difficult lives – very loveable the lot of them. I wanted to take them all home for the weekend.’
‘So I had them for two years and they went, and I carried on with the book, and it was only when my friend said “are you ever going to do anything with that book?” My friend would every so often nag me, so I did one day. I can’t remember what agent I was going to send it to, and my Dad who’s dead now, said “who are you going to send it to?” and I said “there’s a list and I’ll start here,” and he said “you mean you’re starting at the bottom of your list instead of at the top?” I said “the one at the top is Judy Blume’s agent, there’s no way…” He said “no, you start at the top, and you work your way down.”
And I did and she took me on, and I just couldn’t believe it. Soon after she took me on she found out she had cancer, and she said “I’m going to place your book before I die,” and she did, and she died a few weeks later. Judy Blume wrote her obituary and she said “a young author, that she’d taken on and who was her last mission, and that young author will never know how lucky she is.” I just read it, and I cried. It was a strange thing to happen. It’s a funny thing when you know the writing is like that, ups and downs and I’m never going back to teaching. I do kind of think of her because it was huge; someone believing in you, almost like I should push on and pay it back. An act of faith.’
‘It was quite something, what she did. She didn’t need to do it, it was really quite something.’
Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, and it’s the sort of story that makes you believe in publishing and in people after all. And we did have some spare time for gossiping in the end.
(Photos by Helen Giles)