Tag Archives: L J MacWhirter

Potions & Poisons

The programme self-destructed. Or so it seemed when I went back to double-check I had the right names and the title for the event. Because, you know, I am old, and I forget.

Tickets for Cymera

Anyway, for my first Cymera event on the first night, it was all potions and poisons, and they were far too cheerful about these dangerous substances. They were Melinda Salisbury and PM Freestone, talking to Laura Lam, and the rule for the evening was ‘no spoilers.’ Unfortunately, this rather cramped their style, as nearly everything they wanted to contribute could count as spoilers.

Apart from having to stop themselves from giving too much away, they seemed to get on very well, laughing like a group of friends out, chatting away about what they write about. I think the audience got what they wanted; they seemed to be knowledgeable about the same stuff, and as they filed into the Upper Hall, they looked like fans too. I know that sounds silly, but they did. Sometimes the, well, wrong people go to events.

I wondered what the bucket was for. One of the volunteer ushers carried around a bucket. Seems it was for money. (I sent mine by bank transfer…)

Pleasance, where the Cymera Festival is doing its thing this weekend was very pleasant. At least if you ignore the lift. I will never ever go in that lift again! Afterwards I was further alarmed when one of the very helpful and polite volunteers came up to me to say the lift was now activated..! I don’t think I want to know.

I arrived early. Again. Was ushered to the lanyard table, where I found Sarah Broadley and Lari Don, and also my nice orange badge. Came across one or two people I knew, including someone who also knew me, but we both agreed that while we had met, we had no idea where or when. LJ McWhirter sat in front of me at the ‘poisonous’ event and had much news to share.

The venue does look very good, nicely decorated, albeit with too many stairs. And that lift. Fashionable café and for the weekend a lovely bookshop stocked with all the science fiction, fantasy and horror you could want. Possibly more.

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The 2019 Yay! YA+

It was time for another instalment of Kirkland Ciccone’s vendetta against the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday.

Yay! YA+

Only joking. (But if you at first don’t get invited, start your own book festival.) This was the last time at the old Cumbernauld theatre, with great plans for what it’ll be like in the new one. Bistro. With chips. Or so I gather.

After introducing all his authors, Alex Nye, L J MacWhirter, Moira McPartlin, Philip Caveney/Danny Weston, Paul Murdoch and Ross Sayers, Kirkie sent the others off to their respective bars and dressing rooms, while he and Alex stayed in the main theatre for their longer performances.

Kirkland Ciccone at Yay! YA+

Considering that many of the school children who came, are less used to reading and book festivals, it was good to hear Kirkie talk about his own humble background. We got the lot; the exploding council house, his mother’s ‘apple juice’ and his older brother, Scotland’s worst armed robber. Yes, he mentioned the lamp post incident, Kev. And going to collect the benefits Kirkie discovered the library in Cumbernauld and it changed his life, starting with Meg&Mog.

The only reason Roald Dahl didn’t adopt him, despite his repeated entreaties, was that Dahl was already dead. After Dahl and Matilda we quickly covered Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Point Horror, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Robert Cormier, Harry Potter and Twilight and Stephen King. All these were somehow responsible for Kirkland’s own books that have since been released into the wild.

Alex Nye’s turn next, where she took us back to the morning of the roof of Cumbernauld Castle falling down and how Mary Queen of Scots helped tidy up afterwards. Then we were in the snow on Sheriffmuir, in the ghostly tales of Chill and Shiver, before moving on to Glen Coe and Darker Ends.

Alex Nye at Yay! YA+

She bemoaned the fact that not enough Scottish history is taught in Scottish schools, and that it’s more British history. Mentioning the new film about Mary she said it was good, but featured a fake meeting between Mary and Elizabeth I and some laundry. This year Alex has two new books out, one about Mary Shelley and another about children from Syria.

When Kirkie turned up again to tell me that lunch was ready, I ordered him to assist Alex in coming to an end, so that the entire lunch break wasn’t taken up with questions from the audience.

Moira McPartlin and Alex Nye at Yay! YA+

Over lunch I was struck by the fact that out of the eight of us sitting round the table, three had a past in Stockport. Bit of a coincidence. Four if Danny Weston counts as a person… We ate fruit, and discussed the latest phenomenon of how to eat a pineapple. And when the children came with books to sign, the authors were surprisingly badly equipped with pens!

Alex Nye and LJ McWhirter at Yay! YA+

Photos and selfies were taken and books got bought, before everyone was herded back to their bars and dressing rooms for the afternoon. Having sworn never to return to the nether regions of the theatre, I’m afraid I missed Paul Murdoch and Ross Sayers, which was a double shame as they were the ones new to me.

L J McWhirter at Yay! YA+

I began in the bar where L J MacWhirter had music and candles and string lights to help her talk about her book featuring dreams back in the 1500s. She talked about the characters in the novel that took her 15 years to write. L J read to us, until the bell went and it was time to up and change to another author in another bar.

I went to hear Moira in ‘the Fireplace’ where she had bluetacked photos of her inspirations for her characters; Nicole Kidman and Sheila Hancock among them. Moira had purple badges with Celtic knots to hand out, and she told us how she got started writing, being bored when travelling on business. Then she was a runner up in a story competition, where Gillian Philip was a judge, and she told her this was material for a full novel. So she wrote a book.

Moira McPartlin at Yay! YA+

Moira read a piece from the first book in her trilogy, and it sounded pretty good, I have to say. With time for just one question, it was lucky it was an excellent one, about technology in her future. Good children, who paid attention.

Moving to the next bar where Philip/Danny was, I stayed for two talks, seeing as he alternated between his two personalities, and I didn’t want to miss one of them. Danny was born out of necessity, when Philip wanted to go darker in his writing, and the publisher wished to avoid upsetting his fans. And is there anything scarier than a ventriloquist’s dummy? Hence Mr Sparks, which he read in a variety of accents.

Danny Weston at Yay! YA+

By the time Danny became Philip again, he complained his voice was going, but ‘I don’t know where.’ He read from The Slithers, and it was no less disgusting than when I read the book. He reckons that writing fiction is ‘one time in your life you have autonomy.’ There were good questions, and Philip also had a great technique for dealing with the not so good ones, not to mention a way to force unwilling children to come up with questions. This was clearly not his first time out.

Yay! YA+ bookshop

At this point I discovered the bookshop was closed, which was a slight disappointment. I went back into the main theatre and listened to the end of Alex’s talk again, before all the authors congregated down ‘in the pit’ to answer the odd question – very odd, in fact – from Kirkie and the children. Someone wanted to know why they were all so ‘dark.’ It seems it’s what makes writing interesting, so I suspect the time for happily ever after is long gone.

Alex Nye, Ross Sayers, Philip Caveney, L J McWhirter, Paul Murdoch, Moira McPartlin and Kirkland Ciccone at Yay! YA+

The seven/eight signed books and exercise books and bits of paper, and were photographed with ever bolder fans. I saw at least one boy clutching three books, and it gladdened my heart. I will now imagine him sitting at home reading.

Yay! YA+

Carrot topping was discussed at least twice, and I for one am glad Alex still has all her fingers. And then L J went and mentioned Macbeth. In a theatre.

To be on the safe side, Moira drove L J and Philip/Danny to their train and then she gave me a lift home. Let’s hope for the best.

Coping with change

I found I rather liked ‘The Polar Bear,’ aka Steven Camden, at Wednesday evening’s bookfest event. I knew nothing about him, but would quite like to read his book, Nobody Real. I imagine most people were there for Melvin Burgess, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. With them was late addition L J MacWhirter, and they were all kept in reasonable order by Agnes Guyon. (I do like the French way of pronouncing Agnes…)

Steven Camden

Not that Melvin was ever out of my good books, but I appreciated the way he said ‘I love witches.’ His new book is The Lost Witch, and the subject of witches was suggested to him by his editor. I think. And that led to him thinking through what a book about witches would be.

Before this L J volunteered to go first, so she read chapter 11 about the stairs…

Steven didn’t have room for imaginary friends, and this made Thor Baker – an imaginary friend – angry. He read the A-level scene from Nobody Real. Talking about change – the topic for the evening – he said that what’s good is what you add to a situation.

Melvin feels that for teenagers change is obvious, and that’s why YA is interesting.

Agnes wanted to know whether the panel considered themselves to be feminists, and after rambling for a bit, Steven checked himself and replied ‘yes.’ Melvin said you have to be careful, because we all carry our prejudices around. He starts with a male character and then does a sex change halfway through. (Not sure if this is feminist behaviour.) For his next book he’s got a black character, and a friend had explained what he could and couldn’t do. L J loved writing Silas in her book. He’s a bit of a Poldark, apparently.

L J MacWhirter and Melvin Burgess

There were a couple of big names from the children’s book world in the audience; Julia Eccleshare and Ferelith Hordon. It was Ferelith who asked about morality in books. Melvin ‘objects to that’ and fears it might make you sound too pompous. Ethics, on the other hand, are interesting.

L J spoke of disadvantaged teenagers she had met, who wanted to do work that might not be an obvious choice for someone of their background.

Steven doesn’t know about morals. He’s ‘not a great believer in answers’ and prefers to trust his gut. Reading The Bunker Diary ‘messed me up for a week.’ (And then he asked the audience if we’d eaten. He was starving..!)

I’m not sure how we moved on to favourite books, but Melvin is very fond of Not Now Bernard, and Steven loves I Want My Hat Back.

For some reason this made L J mention dark books, which you want or things could get really boring. But after the dark, there should be hope. This might be from Geraldine McCaughrean, or it might not.

Can there be dark middle grade books? Ferelith told Melvin that his books are dark, and he said they aren’t MG, but she replied they are now, The Cry of the Wolf, Baby and Fly Pie (ending with a dead baby). He agreed this was a dark end with no hope.

Melvin doesn’t feel education has a place in novels. You go to school for that. You read about things [to find out about them] and that makes it private. He played around with the word ‘resilient.’ Teenagers can be too resilient = resilient to change. He sent us on our way, wishing us ‘good luck with the resilience.’

Day #4 of the 2018 EIBF

That’s my fourth day, which to my surprise turned out to be a Wednesday and not a Saturday, meaning I was able to contemplate a much better train home. And as I said to Daniel Hahn when I waylaid him on his way in, having just the one event felt positively holidayish.

We exchanged fond memories of an event at Waterstones piccalilli three years ago, which Daniel seemed to remember even more of than I did.

I was there ‘early’ because I’d agreed to meet up with Toddler Tollarp and his mother. So we had a couple of hours chatting about everything under the sun. Almost. Unfortunately for TT, he slept through most of it, not even getting cake!

Sitting in the greenhouse watching the bookfest world go past, I saw Beverley Naidoo and Jackie Kay. Later on as I checked my train timetable outside the yurts, Nicola Morgan ran past, but I knew she was in a hurry, so didn’t run after her.

It was a pleasant afternoon, which meant lots of people were enjoying drinks on the yurt decking. Saw Alan Johnson and Allan Little walk to their event.

Melvin Burgess

Strolled over to my lone event with Melvin Burgess, Steven Camden and LJ MacWhirter, who were talking to Agnes Guyon. Chatted to friendly, but hungry, lady in the queue, who had a poetry tale to tell. Those are always the best.

L J MacWhirter

Steven Camden

Afterwards, I had my good train home in mind, so made sure the photo session in the bookshop was swift, and I didn’t stop to chat. So you know what happened then, don’t you? The train was late.

Oh well.

EIBF 2018 – Day 1

Philip Pullman and I talked about the weather, which was Goldilocks-like. Not too hot and not too cold. Not wet. Nor sunny. It felt very British, on this the first day of the book festival in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

Philip Pullman

It’s a new, streamlined square. Less higgledy piggledy, although no doubt more ‘character’ will find its way onto the fresh decking before long. I offered them my sandwich wrapping, but it seems they didn’t feel the need for it. I now know how they were able to make the Main theatre bigger. They picked up a whole theatre and put it in the middle of George Street. Very clever.

The Photographer and I arrived early and had a leisurely start, collecting tickets and getting to grips with all the changes, saying hello to press boss Frances, and gossiping with Theresa Breslin’s Mr B – whose t-shirt sported Mary Queen of Scots on the front and Rasputin’s dagger ‘in’ the back, so he had everything covered. Waved to Cathy Cassidy (wearing an unexpected red…), before venturing across to George Street to watch her signing in the much improved signing tent.

Cathy Cassidy

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

After noting that the festival regular with the magnificent beard was there again, we went to Theresa Breslin’s event with Holly Webb, chaired by Daniel Hahn. It was really full, despite Theresa’s grandchild choosing to go to see Terry Deary instead.

Chatted to Kate Leiper in the bookshop afterwards, and then went back to the behind-the-scenes decking where we found Philip Pullman with a pile of [his] books. Had a second go at chatting to Cathy Cassidy, and watched as Chris Close photographed an unknown, attractive female author who, when I got to my next event, turned out to be Tomi Adeyemi, appearing with Sophie Anderson.

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

Tomi Adeyemi and Sophie Anderson

This was another full event, and I realised that having left the Photographer to deal with Philip, I was on my own and needed to take pictures of Sophie and Tomi in the bookshop. I’m short, so was able to use the entrance for hobbits and munchkins. Saw Vikki Gemmell and wanted to say hello, but she ran away. Quite understandable.

There is a blur after that, but I definitely saw Linda Strachan and Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Kathryn Ross, and Carol Ann Duffy. Val McDermid was around, as Philip Pullman’s chair. Someone came up to me and asked if I was Bookwitch, so I had to admit I was. Seems our paths have kept crossing, and now she wanted to say hello.

L J MacWhirter found me mid-prawn sandwich, and I had no idea that this would scare her off so fast. Didn’t mean to, L J! And while I was enjoying those prawns I watched as Chris Close commented on Jacek Dehnel’s outfit – it was very, erm, chequered – before persuading him to pose.

Jacek Dehnel

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o was being interviewed nearby, before also getting the Close photo treatment, and director Barley himself brought some more tartan for this venerable author.

Ngūgī wa Thiong'o

My Photographer returned when Philip Pullman’s sold-out event came to an end, and we gathered ourselves and went in search of a train home, hoping that seven was both early enough and late enough and would mean there was room for two tired witches. There was. Just.

(Photos Helen Giles + Bookwitch)

L J on her roots

When I discovered that debut author L J MacWhirter had attended the same secondary school as Offspring, I felt I had to know more. There were a few years between their appearances at this institution for education, and I don’t know about L J, but we were more than satisfied with the place. Although it has to be said that neither Offspring went in for history, either.

L.J. MacWhirter

How I wish I’d known that Ruth’s home was ‘really’ Bramall Hall! Why didn’t you say? I was busy trying to imagine where she lived and what it might look like.

Heh heh. Loosely, yes. But for the plot, Ruth’s home needed to be located about a day’s horse ride from London, so I invented Crowbury Hall. Perhaps the paperback should feature a picture of Bramall Hall 😉

And while we’re in Bramhall… Can we blame your old school for your vivid imagination? Did you daydream in the classroom?

Absolutely. Especially during history lessons…

The science in your book, and the interest in space; is that something you share with Ruth and her father, and grandfather? Or was it more of a plot device?

Both. My own father was an engineer and gave me microscopes and chemistry labs for teen birthdays, although all I really wanted was a hairdryer and vinyl! He took us to museums around Manchester to see working steam trains and mill pistons from the industrial revolution, which seeped into my unconscious.

I’ve always found the weird vastness of space and time completely mind-blowing. So when I visited the Science Museum in Florence, Italy, I was struck by the 16thcentury mechanical Armillary Sphere with its old representation of ‘the heavens’ with the earth at the centre. This Sphere became an important motif in Black Snow Falling.

Ruth comes across as a fairly modern girl. Did you give her a more recent type of personality to assist with her search for the truth?

Long answer to this one! According to historians, the 16thcentury was early modern Britain, and so I made Ruth an early modern girl, influenced by progressive values. Her father was an adventurous merchant in the new ‘middling’ class – socially mobile – who had married into nobility. As her mother had long since died, Ruth had been largely left her to her own devices before the Countess came along, so she was friendlier with the household than her contemporaries.

This was the time of the late Renaissance, so Ruth was well educated and had absorbed the radical notion of individuals beginning to think for themselves, especially with a secret copy of Copernicus’ heretical book (early science) in their possession. Books were Ruth’s lifeline to the outside world, which her father inhabited. These influences made her slightly out of step with her friend, Meg, who was blue-blooded nobility. The tectonic plates of culture were shifting and Ruth, with her early modernity, is trapped in those fault lines. I set this up to expose the monstrous sexism of the time.

The Countess can force Ruth into marriage and she also tells Ruth to stop reading, as it was believed to affect a woman’s fertility. I also gave Ruth universal problems that we all share. What do you do when your understanding of someone is shattered? How do you cope when you’re betrayed – or when you have let a friend down? Ruth’s story is her journey to find agency. I confess I did make her language and thought processes sound much less Elizabethan so readers could relate to her more easily.

I know you spent many years writing this book, but it is still admirably short compared to current trends of thick trilogies, or worse. Did you have to prune a lot, or is this pretty much what you wanted your story to be?

I’m a copywriter by trade. I’m pithy all over.

And what comes next?

There’s a juicy synopsis for a follow-up to Black Snow Falling but I’m enjoying writing something completely different right now, a love story set in war torn Scotland. There’s also a contemporary thriller that keeps calling me.

It remains to be seen what our pithy L J will come up with. Her hair looks fine, so I imagine the hairdryer materialised at some point. And I do hope the school library where I spent four years will buy a copy of L J’s first book. There must be some sort of proud list of what former students have got up to after they left…

Black Snow Falling

I raced through this very beautiful volume, to find out what it was really about. Had L J MacWhirter written a romance, or a horror story, or was it pure fantasy and /or science [fiction]?

L J MacWhirter, Black Snow Falling

Black Snow Falling features people who believe Earth is at the centre of the universe. Well it is the 16th century, so not too abnormal. But this can cause problems, as it might have done for dear old Copernicus.

It’s a kind of Cinderella situation, with a loving and sensible, but widowed, father who goes off somewhere, leaving his daughter Ruth with a wicked stepmother and some step-siblings, and this being 1592 there is always a risk of being married off to some ghastly man.

Some of the story happens in 1543, when Henry VIII visited Ruth’s home, except she wasn’t born then. He was between wives, and he would not tolerate any nonsense about the Sun being the centre of everything.

There are creatures who come at night and steal your dreams. There is much that seems inexplicable, but Ruth being a determined heroine type of girl (she skates, for instance), she sets out to find what goes wrong and to put it right.

I’m beginning to suspect I must have had a dream or two stolen from me at some point…

(One thing; any book with as gorgeous a design as Black Snow Falling ought to come with a ribbon bookmark, as well. That’s what I think…)