Tag Archives: Barry Cunningham

Firsts?

We both had the same idea, the bookshop owner and I. At a not terribly well attended event at his bookshop many years ago, the visiting author waved a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone about. It was a hardback, and the visitor was – how shall I describe him? – a bit old-fashioned and naïve. I suspect he didn’t truly grasp how big J K Rowling was. To him, she and her book were merely part of his somewhat unusual topic, which was the many British authors who had been teachers at some point in their lives.

That will be why two of us suddenly thought ‘what if that’s a first edition Harry Potter he’s got?’ We maneuvered ourselves into position to check, as discreetly as possible.

But no, it wasn’t. Phew. Probably.

J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

One night recently when I wasn’t sleeping as soundly as I would have liked, I spent some time thinking about Harry Potter first editions. As you do. I have already mentioned that I know an author who appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival alongside J K Rowling, and how the two new authors exchanged copies of their books with each other.

It struck me that there must be other categories of people who’d have [had] a first in their possession. Other than the lucky book buyers who actually did what one is supposed to do with books, which is find them and buy them and read them.

I’m guessing J K’s editor has one. Whether a publicist would hang on to a copy of a book they work on is less certain. And did she even have an agent? I think maybe not.

Thomas Taylor, the illustrator of the cover design, probably?

Then there are the reviewers. I wonder how many copies were sent out to them, back in 1997?

Libraries. Did they buy copies, and when Harry Potter went crazy, did they do anything with those books? They could have been worn out by then, of course.

Friends and family of the author?

How many of the above first editions ended up at Oxfam?

Then I must have fallen asleep again.


Our first two Harry Potter books were paperbacks, and I let them become Son’s (Daughter was too young at the time), but by book three I realised I’d need copies of my own, so quickly set about getting the first three books for me. I have just looked up Harry Potter first editions, and discovered that my catch-up edition is somewhat more respectable than I knew.

Takes a witch, I suppose.

Chicken House at Cornerhouse

Not every book event can be reached by 19-minute train trips from the bottom of my garden. I almost wish they could. So, full marks to Chicken House for coming ‘up north’ in the first place, and second for picking that rather excellent watering hole Cornerhouse as their venue for breakfast on Thursday morning. Good and convenient.

Annexe at Cornerhouse

It was quite nice meeting authors there, too. Melvin Burgess, being one of our token Mancunians, I had not seen since our Christmas dinner, and newbie Fletcher Moss not since that coffee-less morning coffee a couple of months ago. They were the only advertised star turns, but there were more Chicken people present; a fact which had me resorting to stealing. (Sorry.)

Dan Smith

Fletcher introduced me to Dan Smith, whose book I had not thought to bring. So I sort of helped myself to another copy of My Friend the Enemy (out in July) in order that Dan could sign it. I had to lend him my pen – which he actually returned after some further borrowing – but at least he didn’t need to practise his signature. (By the time Fletcher had warned him that I’d head straight home to write all kinds of stuff about everyone, it was too late for Dan.)

That was one wonderful breakfast! I have rarely been so well fed at an event. By the time I’d checked out the double buns with sausages on Tony Higginson’s plate (did I mention Formby’s no. 1 bookseller was there?), I noticed Melvin and raised my camera to photograph him, which caused the poor man to pause his sausage bun eating… They had a veggie version too, meaning I could join in, and it was Very Delicious! (Now that I think about it, maybe it was Fletcher who had a double helping. Or someone.)

Melvin Burgess and Barry Cunningham

At this point Barry Cunningham started the chatshow, so the eating had to cease. First Barry told us why children’s books are so good. We knew that already. He mentioned the peculiar fact that it wasn’t raining. Apparently you can’t use the words sunshine and Manchester in the same sentence. Then he talked to Melvin about the background to The Hit, and after that Melvin read the first chapter. (He’d done some research into the willingness of teenagers to sleep with someone who was about to die a virgin…)

Fletcher Moss

Our second Mancunian was Fletcher, who talked about winning a book competition only to have to re-write the whole thing. He read the first chapter of Poison Boy, by which time I had liberated a chair to sit on, right at the back where I could do as I wanted.

Sam Hepburn

The third author was Sam Hepburn, who is a girl, despite the name. Sam writes what Barry wants most; crime for and about young people. I’ve had my copy of Chasing the Dark in my tbr pile for a while, and I knew I wanted to read it even before hearing Sam read a chapter to us. She told us her children thought she’d based the really horrible aunt character on herself!

Stuart Hill

Author no. four was former bookseller Stuart Hill, who wrote lots of – unpublished – books before finally sitting down to write the one he really wanted to write; the one no one would read anyway, so he could do what he wanted. And that’s the one Barry published. Apparently his prequel Prince of the Icemark happened because readers wanted to know what went before Cry of the Icemark. And you know, I don’t exactly love zombies and werewolves, but I liked what Stuart read. Even though I was under the impression he had a witch called Cadwallader. It turned out to be the cat.

David Massey

Dan Smith (about whose name I said some less than polite things, on account of it being a bit common) and David Massey were not there to read, but mingled nicely, and I helped myself to a copy of David’s book Torn.

Jake Hope's shoes

It was good to meet some new people, and nice to see old acquaintances like children’s books expert Jake Hope (wearing very snazzy shoes). I noticed from the un-claimed badges that I could have met up with even more old friends, and I hope they are now thoroughly regretting their absence from this culinary-literary event.

Chicken House breakfast

Then I went back for another of those sausagey things. I don’t know what I was thinking. Not only did it make my subsequent chat with Sam a little difficult, but it was very filling. As I stood staring at the cake selection, I realised just how filling. I ate a slab of carrot cake. Large piece, since it was the only size available. (I reasoned the icing made it impossible to smuggle home in a napkin.)

Cake, Cornerhouse

I witnessed someone else wrap a blueberry muffin (ginormous variety) to take home, so went to get a napkin to do the same thing, seeing as my earlier stealing of books had gone so well. Had barely touched the napkin when Tony demanded I take a photograph of him and some of his closest author pals. So I did.

Dan Smith, blogger Kate, Sam Hepburn, Tony Higginson and Fletcher Moss

Tina from Chicken House

As I got closer to the muffins again, I was waylaid by the lovely Tina who had organised the whole shebang, and we had a nice long chat, seeing as it was our first meeting in person. She was also vaguely thinking of pocketing muffins.

When I finally thought I was in the clear, Waterstones new events manager Louise came up to talk, while valiantly dealing with some carrot cake. So we talked events, we talked John Green – as you do – and books in general. Barry came up and discovered Louise had moved here from Reading, which is a most suitable place for someone involved with books. (Even when you know how to pronounce it correctly.)

Barry Cunningham

With Barry’s blessing I finally helped myself to the muffin, while he apologised for having said bad things about the Mancunian weather. Which was when I happened to glance at my watch, realising I had just enough time to catch my train home so I could make dinner. There was a Resident IT Consultant who needed feeding.

I – on the other hand – didn’t.

Meeting Fletcher Moss

I suppose it’s safer this way. Instead of Poison Boy author Fletcher Moss coming to Bookwitch Towers for coffee, he has opted to meet us on neutral ground. Sensible man. You never know when someone will next want to poison you. Not giving away his real name, is another thing. Fletcher is assistant head at a local school, and wants to ‘keep it secret.’ I’m not sure this is possible, or even necessary. Pupils ought to love having a real live author for their English teacher. Someone who knows their stuff.

(For any Mancunian who has already thought that the name Fletcher Moss sounds familiar – but odd – it’s because he’s taken the name of a park in Didsbury. The park in turn, was named after Alderman Fletcher Moss, and the new Fletcher says he wants to pay homage to the old one.)

Fletcher Moss

However, the neutral ground idea backfires when it turns out that the Waterstones coffee machine is broken. As for choosing his name, Fletcher has worked out this could have been a mistake, too. His books will have to sit next to Michael Morpurgo’s… You should always think ahead.

(That’s what I did the night before, putting the book where I’d remember to take it with me in the morning. In the morning it wasn’t there. After giving the matter some thought, I worked out the Resident IT Consultant must have ‘borrowed’ it. He had. I borrowed it back.)

As the photographer and I stand in the café searching for a brand new author-cum-teacher poison expert, Fletcher – at least we think it’s him – appears, pushing an empty pushchair, and asks if we are who he’s meeting. We say we think so, and he goes off to find drinks that aren’t coffee. The pushchair belongs to young Miss Moss who has wandered off to discover new picture books with Mrs Moss while we talk with Dad. (I gather The Worst Princess found favour.)

While the photographer stirs the tea, Fletcher thanks me for my review of The Poison Boy, and I say how relieved I was to find I liked it, having worried about what I’d do if I hated the book. And then I ask about everything there is to do with winning competitions and turning into an author, and all the work that comes with it.

Fletcher Moss

For one thing, Chicken House have had Fletcher change a lot about the book. They loved the end, but felt it was in the wrong place. (It now comes about a third into the story.) He had too many characters. It was a case of simplify, simplify. The politics had to go. Fletcher couldn’t help wondering how he won the competition, with so much editing being necessary. But he says the first chapter was always the first chapter. And he found he had been rather too fond of the word ‘caked.’ At one point it was absolutely everywhere.

Although, after ending his book with a cliffhanger, Fletcher has had second thoughts about whether there will be a sequel. He’s got ‘one or two ideas that [he’s] quite excited about’ and he does like Eyesdown as a character. There could be a book about him.

Fletcher is very happy with the support he’s had from his publisher, and is more than a little impressed to have spoken after Melvin Burgess at a recent Chicken House launch. Fletcher once organised a school trip to Preston to hear Melvin talk, and here they were, as equals…

Combining the ‘assistant heading’ and teaching with writing and editing a book sounds like gruelling work, and he says ‘you need to be so disciplined.’ Fletcher wrote the book by doing 1500 words every Sunday for a year. He goes to a writing group one evening a week. In between he thinks about what he will write when he next sits down at his computer. He reckons he’s a 65,000 word book kind of writer.

At the end of our chat I ask Fletcher to sign my copy of The Poison Boy. He looks a little embarrassed and explains he’ll need to practise on something first, just so he knows what he’s doing. I offer my note pad and after a bit of scribbling; ‘I’ve got it nailed!’ (On the off-chance that Barry Cunningham has indeed found the successor to J K Rowling, I will hang on to the piece of paper. Might pay for a new kitchen one day.)

‘I want the book to be a success’ he says, before we take him down to the children’s books department and stand him where he belongs. Next to Morpurgo.

Fletcher Moss

When Rachel went to Stockholm

When I heard that Rachel Ward was going to Stockholm to open a bookshop I could barely contain myself. Never mind that it might actually be fun for her, and an honour and all that, but I could get her to tell us what it was like. So here she is, spilling all on the cutting of ribbons (I trust there was a ribbon?) and eating ambassadors and other little things:

“‘I’ve got nothing to write in my blog yet,’ I say to Husband on the train from the airport into Stockholm.

‘You can start with how expensive Swedish public transport is,’ he replies grimly. (Well, sorry!)

Expensive, yes, but feel the quality. Whisked from the heart of the airport at great speed in a train where all the carriages look First Class. The space! The upholstery!

Husband is here to talk science with our host, Wilhelm Engström. For me, the business part of our trip is an evening at the English Bookshop in the company of members of the Swedish British Society. The bookshop is fairly new and sister to one in the university town of Uppsala which has been open a lot longer. It’s tucked away in a sidestreet on Lilla Nygatan in the Old Town (Gamla Stan).

The English Bookshop, Stockholm

I meet Christer Valdeson, one of the partners, and Tiffany, his lovely American assistant. Their enthusiasm for books, reading and their shop is infectious. They’re genuinely committed to creating a community around the shop, running reading groups and story times, tailoring recommendations to their customers and looking for new services to deliver, like printing out English language mini-newspapers on demand. It’s a wonderful place and one that deserves to succeed. Do call in and see for yourself if you’re ever in Stockholm.

There’s just enough room for the audience to squeeze in. I give them a quick rattle through my route to publication, and what it’s like to be published, including a few trusty anecdotes that won’t let me down (e.g. how I met my publisher, Barry Cunningham, the man who signed J K Rowling to Bloomsbury – a story always met with smiles and even the odd gasp, very satisfying), followed by reading the London Eye bit from my first book, minus the swearing. I’m pleased by the reaction to my talk, given that they’re not my normal target audience. There are lots of questions and even some sales.

Rachel Ward at the English Bookshop

After a short break, I’m followed ‘on stage’ by Wilhelm. If the term ‘gentleman scientist’ doesn’t exist then I think we should bring it into play – it certainly applies here. He’s very entertaining company, with seemingly boundless interests and energy. He’s recently channelled some of it into publishing a joke book gently poking fun at Americans and his presentation is warmly received, even from the several Americans in the audience.

Presentation over, I’m now officially on holiday. Stockholm is a wonderful place to walk around. There are enough attractions here to amuse a visitor for plenty more than three days, but you don’t actually have to visit anything. You can just walk and walk and walk. The last couple of years in the Ward household have been a tad alarming and stressful, and Husband and I both appreciate the chance to spend some time together just chilling. Of course, there’s always a café around the next corner for when we need to warm up.

Or we can retire to our hotel, The Lord Nelson, which is quite literally packed to the gunnels with Nelson memorabilia. Portholes, binnacles, and yes, gunnels – they’re all here. We do call in at Junibacken, a story museum/experience based around the work of Astrid ‘Pippi Longstocking’ Lindgren, but including other writers as well. We felt a bit self-conscious as the only adults there without children, especially on board the ‘story train’ as it chugged slowly out of the station in full view of the long queue, but it was well worth the embarrassment. The train takes you on a charming, even moving, journey through Lindgren’s storyscapes. Not afraid of an unhappy ending was Astrid – it’s amazing that Swedish children appear so emotionally unscarred.

Courtesy of Wilhelm, our evenings are spoken for; dinner with the ambassador and a trip to the opera. It’s so like our home life that we fit right in…hem, hem. Actually, it’s a little glimpse of a different sort of life altogether. Strange the places that being a writer will take you to…”

Yeah, Rachel’s posh frock went from Stockport to Stockholm, unlike me, who went the opposite direction. And I would say that it looks as if she wore that divine coat again, which I admired last year.

Grumpy chickens

Why do publishers think that there is going to be a new J K Rowling? And if there is, that they will be the ones to find him or her. It’s not a God-given right to have another publishing phenomenon, and if it was that easy, we’d have them all the time, and then it wouldn’t count as a phenomenon any longer. I wouldn’t mind more books like Harry Potter for me and others to enjoy, but I don’t need the circus that accompanied our favourite wizard.

Why does Barry Cunningham think he’s going to find the new J K R? Because he found the first one. Still doesn’t mean he has more J K R finding talent than anyone else. I gather his Chicken House have set up a competition for new children’s writers, and I know I’m rather late gathering this. Last year’s competition already has a winner out of the 2000 books they received. Congratulations to Emily Diamand who won with her Reavers’ Ransom. I hope she does well, but having won only means that Chicken House is publishing her book, and hopefully that they’ll push it a little bit more than some books get pushed. Neither fame nor fortune is guaranteed.

I’m guessing from what Barry wrote in the Times recently, that there is another competition this year. That’s good, and may provide a much needed break for someone. Though I have heard from someone in the know, that to make space for Emily and the next winner, Barry has given some of his existing authors the shove. That isn’t quite so good. So, maybe it’s not the next J K R we are getting, because she lasted for ten years before her series came to an end. Perhaps we are just getting an annual flash-in-the-pan.

The piece in the Times ended with instructions for the aspiring hopefuls on how to write a good children’s novel. I think the potential winner already has it in them. What’s more, the ex Chicken House authors probably also know this, and they are still being chucked out.

As my informant put it; “A disturbing new development in the book world? It all smacks rather of The X Factor and ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Andrew Lloyd Webber?’ etc. Rather than focusing on nurturing talent long term, it seems that Cunningham’s and others’ new strategy is to pursue the momentary starburst of a competition winner, who will have a brief time to shine before being swept aside by the next year’s contest.”

My source also worried about not being grumpy enough to qualify for possible    J K R status. I’m sure it comes automatically with all those requests for money. Unless you’re a former Chicken House writer, in which case you can be grumpy for other reasons.