Friday, 31 October 2008

Saying Goodbye - by Marie-Louise Jensen


I’ve just sent a manuscript to my publisher. It’s a wonderful feeling. That long term project has finally been completed. I’m happy with it. Now I’ve got time at last to clean the house, which sorely needs it. I can catch up on the ironing, which means I’ll be able to open the airing cupboard door without worrying I won’t be able to shut it again. I can relax and spend some time with the kids away from the computer screen.

But after the first delight, I begin to feel the loss. I’ve spent the last 14 months involved with my main character, Thora. She’s been my best friend and constant companion. I’ve been with her through her trials and her joys. We’ve shared tears and smiles and I know all her secret thoughts. I’m really going to miss her.

Of course, we’ll have quite an intensive reunion when I do my rewrites. I’m already looking forward to working with her again. But then it’ll be time to say goodbye. And goodbyes are always sad.

Then, rather like when your best friend leaves your school and you have to start over with someone else, it’ll be time to start getting to know a new character. At first, I won’t feel as comfortable with her. We’ll be sizing each other up and I’ll be thinking, ‘It’s not going to be the same. She’ll never be a friend like Thora.’ But of course she probably will be. We just need to get better acquainted.

Something for This Night : Penny Dolan

The wind blew down the sides of the moor, and something stirred in the ditch. It heaved itself out and along, and began to whimper like a baby, like a child.
“All alone and lonely oh!” it cried.
Down it came, along by the byre, and across the yard, and the pair inside heard the calling and crying.
“All alone and lonely oh! I’m all alone and lonely oh!”
The woman looked at the man and the man looked at the woman, and the sound of weeping and wailing outside grew louder.
“All alone and lonely oh!”
Something somehow made them pull back the latch, something made them open the door more than a finger-width.
“Alone and lonely oh?” Something outside whispered. Then it gave a kind of laugh, way way down in its throat.Then something came through.

Old Joe said – and mind you he was known for his drink – that as he passed the farm jut as dawn was creeping across the sky, something was singing in a voice burning with glee.
“All alone and lonely oh, again, again, again . . .”
And the farmer and his wife were never seen in these parts anymore.

Enjoy your night tonight!

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Falcon Flying - Joan Lennon

My brain is full to the brim with interesting facts about birds of prey and diamond clear images of Squeak the Harris hawk coming in to my glove. I even have a tiny scratch of honour on my arm where the Bengal owl took off a little to the left of the leather. I have had such a FABULOUS morning!

A birthday voucher for a 2-hour Falconry Experience is what brought me to the Scottish Deer Centre on a beautifully blue-and-gold autumn morning - that, and the excuse of research for a book about a Viking boy and an eagle.
Please don't wait for any such excuse - go now and be as happy as when the writing is going really, really well - yes, flying falcons is THAT good!


You would not believe how beautiful her plummage is close up!



Squeak - a prince among birds.





Bengal owl - she of the fluffy pantaloons. (That's the bird I'm talking about.)

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Long Live the Fairytale - Lucy Coats


I have lately been engaged in a debate about Professor Richard Dawkins’ stated intent to research the ‘insidious’ and ‘pernicious’ effects of fairytales on young minds, and it set me thinking about imagination and its rôle in our lives. Why are many of those who blog here—and thousands of others—writers of fiction? Why do we find it a necessary compulsion to ‘make things up’ instead of sticking to facts with a proven scientific and evidential basis, as the Professor, I think, would prefer us to do?

I, personally, do not think that science and imagination have to be antithetical to one another. Surely the great scientists and inventors—the ones who put forward new and, to their peers, simply absurd theories were and are men and women with an immense capacity to dream the unthinkable? To predicate the laws of gravity from a falling apple took, in my opinion, a tremendous leap of the imagination from Isaac Newton.

But writers of fiction use their imaginations in a different way to scientists. We are inventors too—but some of us are inventors of new imaginary worlds, where the laws of science may be circumvented, ignored, or turned on their heads. In our heads, anything is possible—magic of many kinds, machines which defy earthly edicts as to how they should behave, talking animals, enchanted beings—the list is as endless as the words in a thousand Thesauri. Professor Dawkins wonders whether the fact that so many of the stories about frogs turning into princes, which he read as a child, allowed the possiblity of a sort of insidious effect on rationality. Perhaps—though not, I feel, in his case! But the million dollar question is: would it have been a bad thing? I don’t think so.

We, if we are to grow up to be truly balanced human beings, need the world of the imagination which writers and storytellers have been providing since man first acknowledged ‘wizardry’ in those long ago cave paintings which show a stag-headed shaman. Stories about magic, fairies and otherworlds can hugely enrich the inner lives of child readers and listeners alike—can transport their minds to places they never even dreamed about. They can teach important lessons as well. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.’ Myths, too, are not ‘true’ in a quantifiable sense, but they also teach children about many of the great lessons in life, about taboos, about courage, cowardice, love, hubris, the danger of strangers, not judging by appearances and so on.

Our intellectual world, whether Professor Dawkins accepts it or not, is filled with the non-scientific and non-rational. Our individual and collective imaginations cannot be pinned down, quantified, examined under a microscope. Our imaginations are what makes each of us unique, and so we should carry on reading fairytales to our children regardless of any deleterious effects. As Philip Pullman so rightly says: ‘It takes “Once upon a time” to reach the heart.’ What the Professor must realise is this: a child’s mind is absolutely capable of containing many ‘once upon a times’ and evidential scientific formulae all at the same time—and what’s more, distinguishing entirely successfully between the two without any harmful effects whatsoever. Vivat Fabula!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Looking for a hero - Anne Rooney

With the mermaids finally out of here and lounging wetly around my agent’s office, candidates for the leading role in the next story have been pushing at the door. I don’t want to make a hasty choice – I’ll be spending a lot of time with this character and I've been swayed before by suave looks and the lure of dark exploits. So I've instituted a strict selection procedure by interview.

Name: Darius the Great

Date of birth: around 549 BCE

Where do/did you live? Persepolis, Persia (now Iran)

Current position: Great King of Persia, Pharaoh of Egypt, conqueror

How did you get your current position?
I killed the previous incumbent in a coup d’état and claimed he was an impostor.

Previous occupation: Lance-bearer

What makes you a good candidate for the role of protagonist in a novel for young people?
I am an exciting action hero and soldier. I lived in an exotic land in a spectacular palace complex of my own design. I fought battles against the Ancient Greeks. I am a good role model, since I am courageous, ambitious and fair (except when killing said previous incumbent). I treat conquered nations with consideration and compassion, and respect other belief systems.

What makes your story relevant to boys of today?
I lived through the first confrontation between the West and the Middle East. I have an enlightened attitude and do not approve of slavery. In my current position, I have organised a decent fiscal system, which might be a useful model for any young boys thinking of a career in banking.

[Ed: ‘career in banking’ is an oxymoron]

Do you have CRB clearance?
No – I have been known to kill other young people in stressful situations.

Will your story be acceptable to American booksellers and librarians? ie free from violence, use of offensive weapons (including knives, swords, lances, bow and arrows, guns, bombs), smoking, drinking, drug use, bad language, sexual activity, immoral behaviour, hedgehogs, wardrobes, sausages, mixed-race relationships, skimpy clothing.
No. There is a lot of violence, weapons, sex with siblings, bad language, drinking and skimpy clothing (I wear a garment something like a short skirt). However, there are no hedgehogs, sausages, wardrobes or smoking.

Next please!

Name: [silence. Interviewee mimes he wants paper. Writes: Andrea. I am a deaf mute. The rest of the interview is conducted on paper]

Date of birth: 1569

Where do/did you live? The Vatican

Current position: Secret assistant to Pope Gregory XIII

How did you get your current position?
The Pope bought me from my mother for two ducats. She would have drowned me in the Tiber otherwise.

Previous occupation: None – unless you count being a nuisance to my mother

What makes you a good candidate for the role of protagonist in a novel for young people?
I am young and suffer many hardships, yet rise above them and achieve something very great – though at enormous cost to myself. I am courageous and imaginative and could also be an inspiration to readers with a disability.

What makes your story relevant to boys of today?
Even the most insignificant person can overcome the tyranny of a powerful organisation if they are dedicated and resourceful.

Do you have CRB clearance?
I live under the personal protection of the Pope – I am outside the normal legal system.

Will your story be acceptable to American booksellers and librarians?
No – it reveals the most terrible secrets at the heart of the Catholic Church. And I hide in a wardrobe quite a lot.

Next please!

Name: The not-yet-Ancient Mariner

Date of birth: 1753

Where do/did you live? No fixed abode

Current position: Itinerate story-teller and some-time ship’s mate

You’re a vagrant? Er, yes

How did you get your current position?
I was press-ganged.

Previous occupation: Scallywag

What makes you a good candidate for this role?
I’ve had an exciting life, if you can call it that. A trying existence might be a better phrase. My mum was a laudanum whore and my dad – who knows? No doubt some sailor. I’m more a lesson in what to avoid than a role model. If you don’t go around killing, you might not end up in my, er, sticky situation.

What makes your story relevant to boys of today?
We all face the same growing up issues, more or less. The names of the drugs change, the pressures to join a gang vary in type, but it’s all similar stuff through the ages. And boys like monsters. My story’s got monsters. Oh yes, there are monsters. And demons, inner and outer.

Do you have CRB clearance?
It shouldn’t be a problem - I don’t have a criminal record as I have never been caught.

Will your story be acceptable to American booksellers and librarians?
The drugs, drink, rape, murder, madness and violence towards innocent animals might be a bit tricky.

Next!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Romeo and Juliet? - Linda Strachan


With a big family wedding almost upon us all thoughts of writing have been pushed into a far corner of my head and the space has been filled instead with lists and more lists.
But lurking at the back of my brain the writer in me can’t help but notice the possibilities in the situation.
Emotions are the food of thought for any writer and families can be the greatest source of deeply felt emotion, especially when they are brought together for a wedding.

What could be more contentious? You don’t need the extremes of Capulet and Montague feuding to prescribe caution. If you think about it; why should two completely different families agree on everything when they might be of different culture, religion, class or colour, and the only thing that brings them together is the happy couple?
Happy? Well, they probably were before the wedding planning started!

It is a time when emotions run high, small family disagreements can potentially turn into fierce battles; decisions such as where the guests are seated can be more difficult than organising a state banquet for opposing nations.

Weird and wonderful relatives are wheeled out from the back of the family cupboard, where they have been happily nursing the family skeletons– “For heaven’s sake don’t seat great aunt Maud beside cousin Belinda, they fell out 30 years ago when she ran off with an insurance salesman. You must keep Uncle Jack away from Granddad, he’s never forgiven him for selling the family antiques, and we just don’t EVER mention Cousin Gemma’s first husband!”

The potential for comedy and misery, the complicated family relationships and the stress levels accelerate as the great day approaches. There are endless comic plot possibilities in almost everything from the fussy or stroppy flowergirls to the petulant bride, the harridan of a mother-in-law to be to the eccentric aunts, and more heartrending possibilities with broken dreams and family feuding.

But I'm keeping my fingers firmly crossed that these problems will remain in the realm of fiction, at least until after the big day - when I can mercilessly milk the experience for all sorts of plot ideas….

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Criticism Catherine Johnson


I have spent most of this autumn doing rewrites on two books, which I hope will make it out next year. The most memorable thing I ever read about rewrites was by Frank Cottrell Boyce who reminded us writers how blessed we are to have a chance to make things work a second (or third, or fourth time). Wouldn’t any (Spurs especially) striker love a chance to say, “Hang on, can you not let me take that kick again, I know I’ll get it in this time….”

We writers are so lucky. Apart from having a job we can do in our pyjamas – or stark naked if the mood takes us - we get someone to read through our work and point out all those places we know are lacking but hope no one else has noticed. And then fix them.

But I have this weird reflex. I read the notes through the first time and the words go straight over my head, straight past my ears because I really don’t want to hear them at all. It’s like Bart Simpson when he listens to Mrs Krabappel in class, all I hear that first time is blah, blah, blah…. It takes at least three straight readings and then a load of deep breaths and a read through of the work (which I’ve not looked at for months – in this case since July) to get it into my thick head what has to be done.

And it’s always the last thing to do on my list. After knitting socks and baking bread (no cleaning though).

One other quick - and stupid - thing. I’ve noticed the book for next year, The Munro Inheritance – yes, yes, the one I still haven’t finished the revisions for – is up on Amazon. My heart fairly leapt to see it, I suppose it’s a bit like your babies’ first scan, indistinct, no real picture but a blurb that reads full of promise of what might be if you hit the mark. It’s full of possibilities and hope and even though I try and be cynical and writer-world-weary I can’t help feeling excited.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Glad, glad, glad... - Meg Harper

I’ve just read John’s ‘Pollyanna’ blog and boy, do I need to hold it in mind right now. Writing fiction? What’s that? Most of my writing time (I also run a youth theatre, am training to be a counsellor and spend far too much time doing school visits!) in the last week seems to have been taken up by sending e-mails, letters and Facebook messages because I have a penfriend, Eric Cathey, on Death Row whose execution date has been set for November 18th. I’ve recently been given the go ahead by his attorney as writing ‘can do no harm’ so am writing as much as I can in an attempt to save his life. The chances of my writing – or anybody else’s writing – making any difference are so slim (this is Texas I’m talking about and they’re executing two a week at present) that I almost feel like not bothering and working on the kids’ novel I’m trying to draw from the horror. (‘Wow! That’ll be a big seller then, Mum,’ says my sixteen year old daughter. ‘For 12-14 year olds? You think?’ She wanders off, shaking her head at her mother’s lunacy.) But my husband, the one who does the real work around here and funds my craziness, is sanguine. ‘You’re a writer. You have no choice. That’s what you’re here for.’ He doesn’t mean the fiction.
It was 85 days ago that I heard the news. There are 26 left out of a friendship that has lasted over 3 years. My latest letter arrived yesterday. Eric’s unit is on lockdown (all privileges, including hot meals, withdrawn because someone misbehaved – this isn’t the place for more detail) but Eric rejoices that he has been allowed a visitor, is glad that he is in good health at present and writes:
‘Yesterday my friend 6:6 fixed us something to eat and I swear, I never thought chilli and corn chips ever tasted so good! : ) So I got a chance to eat a good meal while listening to my favourite team win their first game of the season!’
Eric has been in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for eleven years now, with no TV, just a radio. I think he could empathise with Pollyanna at the worst moments! What a continual and very present reminder he is to me to value my smallest blessings, including, as John points out, the support of my community. (The phone goes – it is a friend, bless him, checking that I am OK. Timing, hey?) Eric values the friends he makes shouting through the doors and the bars of the exercise areas, the few visitors who can visit once a week and talk to him through the plexi-glass and the letters from his eight penfriends. Even on Death Row the survivor makes community. Those that cannot, for whatever reason, lose their minds.
So yes, John, let us be deeply Pollyanna-ish in our gladness for whatever we have and most of all for the support of our communities – and, as we are writers, let us be particularly grateful for the communities we make through our writing.
If anyone does want to write or e-mail in defence of Eric, I would be very grateful. Personally, I don’t care if he’s guilty or innocent of the murder of which he was convicted; I am against capital punishment. But Eric has always claimed he is innocent and there is doubt about the ‘safety’ of his conviction, which has been the subject of several petitions. The details you will need are as follows:

Governor Rick Perry,
Office of the GovernorP.O. Box 12428Austin, Texas 78711-2428

e-mail: publicrecords@governor.state.tx.us

Eric's convict number is #999228. He 37 years old and is an inmate of the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas.

My Glorious Career - Katherine Langrish


I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. My mother wrote; my grandmother wrote: it always seemed an occupation as natural as breathing. Back in my early schooldays, the emphasis was always on reading and writing. (Arithmatic fell on stony ground.) Fairytales, poems and Bible stories went in, and poems, descriptions and stories flowed out.
I still have an exercise book from when I was about seven. Remember those lined exercise books, with their bendy paper covers in dusty blues, greens or greys, two staples in the spine? The teachers cut them in half to make two smaller books with one staple each. On each page we wrote what were termed stories, but really they were only a couple of lines long:
I have a litel dog her name is Lassie wen she liks to sleep in frunt of the gas fir she lies down flat.
I see the moon floting jently up lik a silver ball.
“Floating gently up like a silver ball…” I was the same writer then as I am now.
When I was nine I began writing poetry. I’d heard that Shakespeare was the greatest English poet, but he’d lived hundreds of years ago. Nobody had written better poetry since then? Look out world, I thought, here I come! I’d need to practise, of course, I knew that: but I reckoned that by the time I was grown up, I would probably be at least as good as Shakespeare. I spent my time reading, writing, and riding ponies. My schoolfriends admired my stories, especially if they were about horses – or later, about ethereal love affairs between lords and ladies ‘as beauteous as the stars’. I was rubbish at all subjects except English and Art, but in those I knew I was good.
My verse drama career kicked off with an adaptation – don’t laugh too hard – of ‘Lord of The Rings’, in pantomime couplets. I took this very seriously. My group of friends were going to act it out in the apple loft of our barn (we lived in the country); and we spent ages making costumes out of curtains. The script has long since vanished, but I can still remember two lines from the play. Frodo and Sam are struggling across Mordor, and Frodo pauses to exclaim:
“The Dark Tower seems – ah! – just as far away.
We’ll reach it not tomorrow, ne’er mind today!”
Pretty good, huh? See that neat poetical inversion, and the apostrophe? I can’t remember now if the play was ever put on, but we got some fun out of the rehearsals. And meantime I was writing a book of short stories about magic: it was springtime: I used to sit outside scribbling, and the sunshine and the celandines somehow found their way into the stories.
“Once there was a golden land, full-filled with mirth and joy
And in that land a lady lived, more beauteous than the stars,
And she took joy in simple things
Like butterflies with coloured wings
And little flowers, and green green grass,
And crickets’ chirp, and birdsong…”
Oh, it’s bad, I know it’s bad! But I didn’t know that then. All I knew then was that I was writing my absolute best: and to this day I don’t know a better feeling.
Soon after that I began a series of discoveries. I discovered Alan Garner, and started writing a long story based on ‘Celtic’ mythology. I discovered Rupert Brooke, and threw myself into sonnets beginning, Dream-like on the broad river drifting slow… I discovered Mary Renault and tried my hand at historical fiction. And, somewhere along the line, I discovered how to be self-critical…and the gates of the Garden of Eden shut behind me.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Be Fair to Pollyanna - John Dougherty

This morning’s Times carries an article about a new report which recommends doing “five simple things a day” - connecting with others, being active, being curious, learning, and giving - to enhance mental well-being. The paper’s commentary on the report includes the line: “They [the recommendations] might sound like pure Pollyanna, but they are based on evidence...”

The implication is that an accusation of Pollyannaism would be most unfair to the report and its authors. Perhaps it would; but it would also be unfair to Eleanor H. Porter’s literary heroine, whose name has unjustly become a byword for ridiculously sunny optimism in the face of the facts.

As I recall the story, Pollyanna’s point was not that we should pretend everything is fine even when it isn’t, nor that we should pretend everything can be made to be fine when it can’t. Rather, faced with a situation in which everything seemed to be negative, she would ‘play the Glad Game’.

The point of the Glad Game is that the player, no matter how negative the situation, should find something in that situation to be glad about. To play the game properly, then, actually requires the player to begin with a fairly objective, evidence-based outlook; if you’re not seeing things as they really are, then the thing you find to be glad about is likely not to be real either. And then you lose.

It’s been years since I read Pollyanna, so I’m quite prepared to be corrected on any of this by anyone who has a copy to hand, but to the best of my recollection the emotional turning point of the book came when Pollyanna was faced with a situation in which playing the Glad Game became impossible. She was injured so badly it was feared she would never walk again, and no matter how hard she tried she could find nothing in her situation about which to be glad. If she was the irritatingly unrealistic optimist she has latterly become in the public imagination, this is the point at which she would have been forcing a brave smile and saying, “Well, perhaps the doctors are wrong.” (And if she was the ‘living the dream’ type held up as an example by much of today’s media, she would probably have said, “I will walk again, for I am strong and independent and my life is what I choose to make it!”)

Instead, she almost gave up hope, and what saved her was the support of her community. Which she had earned with her, yes, relentlessly sunny optimism; but an optimism founded on teasing out some positive aspect, however tiny, from any situation - not on closing her eyes and pretending.

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Eyelash of an Elephant - Dianne Hofmeyr




An overnight plane journey can lull me into a state of permanent somnambulism with my thoughts hovering somewhere between the real and the imaginary (helped by a few glasses of crisp sauvignon blanc!) Last night on the final leg of a three week journey that involved nine flights and a long overland haul on a dust road, my mind was probably even more susceptible to hallucinatory thoughts.

At the airport bookshop I’d hurriedly picked up Alex Smith’s Drinking from the Dragon’s Well on a whim. The title appealed and it had Chinese images on the cover (I’m a complete Sinofile, enjoy Ma Jian and Dai Sijie and have sat through Hero too many times to count!). As I dipped into Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, I found in Alex Smith a kindred spirit drawn to China by the elusive ‘pearl’ that hides under the dragon’s chin. Her grandmother had urged, ‘Find the pearl: find the drama, the perfect story, the reason to be...'

No writer would turn his or her nose up at a ‘pearl’ but pearls aren’t easy to come by and we all know how fiery that dragon’s breath is and how easy it is to be singed. But it got me thinking of the journey I’d just experienced. Africa is a bit short on pearls and gold and diamonds seem too brash and lack a pearl’s delicate lustre. So where was my perfect story in all that I’d seen?

As the small plane had banked over Mfuwe in Zambia I’d been struck by the muted earth shades and mauve mouse-greys of the far distant trees disappearing into the heat haze. It was Africa in its driest season. And by the time I’d stepped onto the runway, the safari clothes and jacket, the camera and lenses and binoculars all seemed too much. In the space of an overnight flight from London with a few hops via Livingstone and Lusaka to Luangwa, I’d travelled from 14 degrees to 40.

With the noise of the single prop still humming in my ear, it dawned on me, the further I’d been travelling away, the smaller the plane had been getting, and the lighter I was becoming until I seemed to be floating over a landscape worn with animal paths winding through desiccated trees like scattered strands of spaghetti. In an open safari vehicle with heat and dust settling in a thick film, there was the equally illusive experience of driving past tiny trading stores with names like Uncle Mule’s and The Big Rich Boutique and Aunty E’s Bar while women on bicycles wearing chitenga cloths printed with palms and papayas and monkeys and mangoes would have been an inspiration for any of the characters in Niki Daly’s Welcome to Zanzibar Road.

On the first morning in Luangwa, from the depths of my mosquito net, I heard a gentle rumbling and the sound of something in the apple-ring acacias next to my open-sided tent. Two elephant stepped out so close I could see the sunlight on their eyelashes. Later in the honeyed light of late afternoon, smeared with mosquito repellent and listening to the piercing call of a Fish Eagle sitting sentinel on a dead branch, another group emerged from an afternoon swim. Marked by the river’s water line, mouse-grey above, burnt charcoal below, with the babies totally dark from their complete dunking they disappeared as silently as they had come with Carmine Bee-eaters taking to the air in flashes of turquoise and red around them.

That night with the howl of a hyena and the deep pant of a lion breaking the silence, Laurence Van der Post’s words came to mind…the lion’s roar is to silence what the shooting star is to the dark of the night. Then some days later out in a bay in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa, in what seemed a very light and vulnerable boat, I felt the blow of a Southern Right’s breath against my face, so close that my lens was blurred and I looked deep into the eye of a whale.

No wonder then that last night on the overnight flight back to London, with all these images blurring and merging I became hallucinatory. Did I find the elusive pearl under the dragon’s chin? I’m not sure. But here at my desk today the image of the eyelash of an elephant and the glint in the eye of a whale fill me with an incredible lightness of being. I wrote my first picture book, Do the Whales Still Sing? without ever having seen a whale. Would it be a different story if I wrote it this morning?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Cheyne Reaction - Charlie Butler


In my last post I wrote about some literary coincidences. However, I forgot to mention the strangest one that ever happened to me – an omission I intend to make good now. There is no moral to this story, but it still makes me blink whenever I think what the chances are of this happening. 
After my father Thomas died a few years I started going through his papers: writers are nosy like that. Amongst them was a small book, Nearly a Hundred Years Ago, written by his great aunt, Annie Robina Butler. Annie Robina was a children’s writer, and founder of the Children’s Medical Mission, with many titles such as Little Kathleen, or Sunny Memories of a Child-Worker (1890) to her name. This book, though, was a privately printed memoir of her own father, also Thomas, who at the time she wrote it in 1907 had just died, in his nineties. As a young man Thomas had lived at 6 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where his father and grandfather had run a classical school (Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been amongst the pupils). That was where Annie had spent her childhood too, until the age of 13, and her book had plentiful details of what it was like to grow up in the house’s lofty, oak-panelled splendour in the 1840s and '50s.
Annie Robina’s book was a fascinating find for me, of course, full of family information, paintings and photographs, and strange excursions. But the truly weird part of this story comes a few weeks later. I was at a lunch for Scattered Authors, and found myself sitting next to Linda Newbery. We chatted, and she told me about a set of books she was writing with Adele Geras and Ann Turnbull, known as the Historical House series. All the stories were to be set in the same London house at different periods of history – each with a young girl as the main character. “Where exactly in London is the house going to be?” I asked her. She told me it was to be in Chelsea, and that although they’d made up a street name, Chelsea Walk, it was very firmly based on Cheyne Walk. The hairs on my neck started to prickle. “Do you happen to remember the house number?”
Of course, it was number 6 – the same house my family had occupied from around 1783 to 1854, and which Annie Robina had described in the memoir I’d just read.
What are the chances?
Naturally I wanted to know if any of the Historical House books were set at the time my family had lived there. I got pretty close:  Adele Geras’s Lizzie’s Wish was set in 1857, just three years after the Butlers had left. (In real life, Thomas Butler had sold the house to the Chapel Royal Choir School.) Lizzie’s Wish is an engaging story, which tells of young Lizzie Frazer’s time in the rather grand and formal house of her London relatives, where she offsets loneliness by nursing a wish to plant a walnut tree from her country home. Lizzie and Annie Robina would, in fact, have been almost the same age.
It was fascinating, laying the childhoods of the fictional Lizzie and the real-life Annie side by side. Their lives were very different, even if they lived in the same house at more or less the same time. In the fictional 1850s lonely Lizzie longs to stand on the Chelsea Embankment and watch the shipping. In Annie’s real-life childhood there was no Embankment yet. When the Thames flooded, as it occasionally did, she and the other children reacted with “extreme delight”, and “ran on improvised bridges and sailed their paper boats down the long passages, and fancied themselves in Venice.” (“But Annie Robina,” I cry, “the Thames in your period is a running sewer! Have you no fear of the cholera?” Alas, the miasma theory of cholera transmission is still in vogue, and no one is listening.) In the fictional 6 Chelsea Walk, the ambition of one of Lizzie’s cousins to become a nurse á la Florence Nightingale is at first squished by her class-conscious grandmother. In the real 6 Cheyne Walk Annie’s sister became a medical missionary, dying in Kashmir, and was regarded by her family virtually as a martyr.  In the fictional 1850s, Lizzie’s longing to plant her tree is discouraged by her snobbish cousin, who says that London people prefer their flowers in paintings, samplers and vases. In reality, when the classical school failed in the 1820s Thomas Butler and his brother turned the school playground into a lush garden, which was the delight of Annie’s generation. The soil was poor, she admits, and she spent much of her time digging up bricks from the demolished baths of Dr Dominicetti, a hydropath who’d owned the house in the eighteenth century;* but she’s as lyrical as any fictional heroine when she remembers the “hedges of cabbage roses and thicket of many-tinted lilacs”, the wallflower that “sowed itself in the mellow brickwork boundaries, and stonecrop that ran over the wall”, the “jessamine, southernwood, and lavender that breathed their sweetness through the walks.” Immense sunflowers and peonies, double dahlias, Aaron’s rod, giant rhubarb and cat’s head apple trees were amongst the other treasures there.
In general, and with the significant exception of religion (but that’s another story), Victorian reality seems to have been a good deal more unbuttoned and informal, and altogether less – how shall I put it? - Victorian than Victorian fiction, at least in this case. Perhaps there is a moral there, after all?
But – 6 Cheyne Walk, 6 Chelsea Walk. Mirror worlds of fact and fiction. I ask again – what are the chances?

* Dr Dominicetti was scoffed at by Samuel Johnson, but I think he was ahead of his time. How much would you pay for a weekend at a place like this today? “On the right side of the garden, and communicating with the house, was erected an elegant brick building, a hundred feet long, and sixteen wide; in which were the baths and fumigating stones; adjoining to which were four sweating bed-chambers, to be directed to any degree of heat, and the water of the bath, and vaporous effluvia of the stove impregnated with such herbs and plants as might be most efficacious to the case.” An Historical and Topographical Description of Chelsea and Its Environs, Thomas Faulkner, 1810.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Wire Anne Cassidy

This will be a short blog because I'm otherwise engaged watching the final series of THE WIRE. I've waited months for it to come out on DVD. I've even ignored the Sky Plus recordings I've made in order to wait and have the whole thing in my hand so that I can watch it all together, when I want, at what pace I want.
Every superlative has been thrown at the Wire. Every possible compliment I can think of has already been made. So I'm not going to compete.
I'm going to focus on what is most important to all writers - a character. Omar is a villain with a moral code. He walks through the streets of Baltimore with his coat flying out behind him in search of ways to rob other drug dealers. He is violent and unpredictable. He will kill without thought or conscience. He has a scar down one side of his face which speaks of a desperate past. He doesn't mix with the Law or the crooks. He is a maverick and looks out for himself. I ought not to like him/admire him and yet I do. He is mesmerising. He is homosexual and sensual and falls in love. He cries from grief and sorrow. He likes a particular kind of breakfast cereal and will expose himself to assassination in order to get it. He is cunning and thirsty for revenge.
And yes, I know what happens to him in this last series. I've been tempted over to Utube to watch the clips that fans have put there.
In the Wire there are many characters that you could just talk about for hours (I have - ask my husband) but Omar is a wonderful creation who thwarts our moral compasses while he pulls our heart strings. OK enough of the cliches. Back to the television set.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Susan Price: Cuts and Capers

"Well done! You've saved the day! Let me reward you with these tickets to the circus and a slap-up feed at the Hotel De Posh!"

The Hotel De Posh's signature dish: a great mound of mashed potato, with sausages sticking out horizontally all round it, and a bottle of fizzy lemonade (or, more likely, Irn Brue). Desperate Dan's favourite, his Aunt Aggie's speciality, is far too famous for it to be worth my mentioning it here.

Oh, the roll-call of the heroes: Lord Snooty and his Pals, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx, Dennis the Menace. (My brother's first word was not 'Mommy' but 'Nennis' as he called for his Dennis the Menace annual). Little Plum and the Three Bears. And Pansy Potter, who let slip her Dundee origins because her title didn't rhyme unless pronounced with a Scots accent. She was the strong man's dotter.

A subtle Scottish cadence ran through all the speech bubbles. People were sent to 'do messages', whereas in the Black Country, we ran errands. Dan's being called 'desperate' too - he was desperate in the sense of being wild and a handful rather than being at the end of his tether.

When I was a child, our house had lots of books - shelved floor to ceiling in most rooms, piled on the stairs and window-sills - but we were rarely bought comics. My parents had nothing against comics - far from it - but didn't think them worth spending their scarce income on, when they could buy us a second-hand book from Dudley market for little more.

Next door lived a brother and sister who were obviously filthy rich, because they each had several comics every week. On Friday evenings it was my regular chore to carry next door a lump of bloody meat wrapped in newspapers (the Sunday joint, delivered by a mobile butcher and taken in by my mother for her neighbour, who worked). Every month or so my reward was to have my arms piled with a stack of old comics and magazines. I'd scuttle home, clutching the pile, and burst in through the back door with a cry of, "Comics!"

"Bags me the Beano," my Dad would say.

There was The Bunty, The Judy, June, Jackie and, later, The Romeo and Valentine. Even, occasionally, The Red Letter, which my mother remembered from her own young days. Looking at the cover she said, with satisfaction, "They've still got the nasty neighbour spying round the curtains - she was always there, every week."

But the girls' comics were quickly skimmed through and thrown aside, with their tales of butch (female) car mechanics being made over to win beauty contests, and champion hockey-teams kidnapped to play for aliens. They were appetisers, something to read while other people had the comics you really wanted. While, for instance, my Dad had the Beano.

It was the boys' comics we really loved: The Beano, The Dandy, The Topper. The Valiant, the Hotspur, The Buster, the Victor. After we'd finished with them, my Dad took them to work, and his workmates read them during their tea-break, feet up on the stove, laughing at The Bash Street Kids. It takes a real man, I think, to admit that he finds the Beano a good read.

My Dad, my brothers, sister and I, all drew. The house was littered with pencil ends and opened-out envelopes, covered in sketches. We studied the comic's drawings, as much as the words, and could never understand why friends never seemed to notice, or care, when a favourite strip was drawn by a different artist. The comic art was often of a high order, and taught us a lot. We much admired the drawings for 'The Steel Claw' in the Valiant, a sort of comic-strip noir. And the Bash Street Kids, careering along in a massed group, all feet off the ground at once, were a joy, full of liveliness and movement.

The artist who drew the thick, woodcut like strips for 'Faceache' and 'Jonah' was a master, his strips not only grotesquely beautiful, but laugh-out-loud funny. I remember one in particular, where Faceache resolved to be good. This turning over a new leaf was a regular motif in the strips of the 'naughty' characters, such as Dennis, Roger and Minnie.

Anyway, Faceache vowed that, for that day at least, he would cease from twisting his face into terrifying gurns, causing dismay and panic among the locals. Instead he would be good and help the baker. Cue a series of wonderfully managed panels where Faceache burning his hand coincides with an innocent delivery man looking in through the window just as pain convulses Faceache's already unlovely features into an especially novel shape. Panic and unrest ensues. It was filmic. I remember my Dad took that particular strip to read in the bathroom. He said it nearly gave him a rupture.

My siblings and I used to discuss and dissect the comics in a sort of junior book club. We scoffed at Captain Hurricane, his 'raging furies' and exclamations of 'Cowardly Cabbage Crunchers' and 'Suffering Sausages!" My mother told us that, as a child during the Second World War, she'd seriously believed that Germans only ever said, 'Achtung, Pig-dog!' Well, apart from 'Heil Hitler!' obviously.

We discussed whether it was sensible of Fish Boy (who'd been abandoned in the wild and raised by fishes) to take a wounded fish from the ocean and lay it on a rock to 'bathe its wounds'. And which was better - Galaxo, the giant robot ape, or the boy who controlled an army of little robots via his metal armband? We were cutting our critical teeth.

At the same time I was reading The Norse Myths, Hans Andersen, Kipling - but that was literature. I could enjoy it, but hands off.

Comics were on our level. Often well-drawn, funny, inventive, but emphatically not literature. We could kick them around, and say and think what we liked about them. We learned discernment for ourselves. Once learned - and not least of the lessons was that it was enjoyable - we could carry it with us into other fields.

I once read an article in which a critic declared that it was impossible to appreciate Mickey Mouse and Tolstoy equally. In order to be refined enough to enjoy Tolstoy, apparently, you had to leave Mickey far behind.

Rubbish. You can enjoy and appreciate Mickey - and Dennis and the Bash Street Kids - and Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam - for the skill, verve and wit that they have. And then you can shift gears and appreciate Tolstoy or Austen or Dickens, on their level, as artists who had entirely different aims. Just as you can appreciate both Hardy and Beatrix Potter. The ability to move from one to the other demonstrates a flexible mind - which is probably necessary for creativity.

George Orwell got a lot from smutty seaside postcards.

It takes a real critic to appreciate both Mickey and Natasha.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Questions - Sally Nicholls

I always approach the question and answer part of a school visit with some trepidation. What if no one asks anything? (This is most nerve-wracking when facing teenagers, when embarrassment and hormones have squashed any curiousity. If I'm facing a class of ten-year-olds I'm pretty sure I'll get asked something. Even if it's fairly random.)

"What primary school did you go to?" I got asked once. ("Er ... one two hundred miles away from here.") "Do you like football?" ("Er ... no, but my boyfriend supports York City.") And, my personal favourite, "When you told your mum you wanted to be an author, did she tell you to be something sensible, like a doctor or something?" (Poor kid! Fortunately, my mum thinks children's author is a perfectly sensible career. Plus it means she doesn't have to think up Christmas presents for all her extended family - she can just give them my book, hurrah!)

At the Edinburgh Festival, I told them I had a happy author dance and was duly asked to perform it live. (I got my revenge by making the kid who asked the question do his.) "Which teacher did you like best when you were here?" I was asked when I went back to my secondary school. (I didn't answer - some of my ex-teachers were in the room.) And then of course there are the questions you get when you tell people you write for children. "So, you're going to be the next JK Rowling then?" ("No, I'm going to be the next Sally Nicholls.") Or "I've had an idea for a children's book - maybe you'd like to write it?"

Anyway. It has occurred to me that this is supposed to be a blog for people interested in writing for children (whether as writers or as readers or both), so I thought I'd throw the floor open to you. What questions would you like answering? What sort of things would you like further blog posts on? What have you always wanted to know about being an author ... but never dared ask?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

How To Write: Penny Dolan

I am wary about admitting this. Even now I can feel the heads shaking and the fingers wagging, but here goes. I have an addiction to books about writing. I know this is weak and feeble of me, and I should be consuming worthy tomes, and soaking up how the masters (and occasional mistresses) did and do it. But every so often, a “How to Write” book wakes my mood or mind up again.

Yes, I’ve Written Down the Bones with Natalie Goldberg, though found the focus on one’s own life slightly overheated. I’ve scribbled three morning pages with Julia Cameron, and, though the snazzy-pens-and-notebooks treats annoyed me, I often return to that morning exercise when things don't feel right.

I crouched wide-eyed over the mix of horrific incidents and writing hints within Stephen King’s “Being A Writer”. Fretting over my lone cocoa seemed a rather tame life in comparison. I've read them all: mused on Myths, studied Story Structure with Robert Kee, and tried to find my business mind through books by various agents and marketing gurus. There have been some great books, and many less than great. I'm sure you know the titles.

But one day, I came across something that stuck in my mind, something that really, really helps me when I’m imaging a story, writing a story, or revising a story. I was reading “Seeing Things: An Autobiography” by Oliver Postgate, creator of classic animations such as Noggin The Nog, Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, and so on . Though he goes on to write about filming, frame by frame, he begins a paragraph in this way:

Writing a story is not simply a matter of writing lines of words, but calls on the writer to assemble sentences in such a way that the reader receives them in the right order for stacking in the mind . .”
Just listen to the simplicity and the rightness of those words. For me, that quote says almost everything I need to remember when I’m writing for children. Hope it works for you too.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Spoiling it: N M Browne


What is it about the blank page? It is like the first snow of childhood, the first cut of the birthday cake my grandmother made me; it is the unknown, the unsullied, the promise of something wonderful.
Once upon a time when I was a child, I used to be given a new exercise book in every subject at the start of the new school year. I was so careful to be neat, to make the first incursions upon that virgin territory perfect as I could contrive them. I wrote slowly, my tongue lodged between my teeth, an unconscious indicator of extreme concentration.

I sometimes wonder if we change at all. Here I am grown up and long past the days of new exercise books and a simulacrum of a blank page, courtesy of Microsoft still fills me with strange reverence, a curious excitement as, my tongue still squeezed between my teeth, I try to make marks that will have some inherent quality, something that will somehow compensate for the defacing of this perfect, rectangular white space.

Some people I know are fearful of those first marks, of beginnings, of somehow committing to an act of desecration, of putting something onto nothing and maybe spoiling everything. Some people run headlong into the snow, joyful and abandoned jumping feet first into the emptiness.

I am not fearful; well, not exactly,for all my reverence and concentration I know it will all go horribly wrong, just as I knew as a child that my neatness would barely make it to the second page. The first mistake was almost a relief – I was a messy kid so I never had to wait long. It is much the same now. I usually mess up by the second line. The words are never good enough, but it’s OK.
I love that moment before I put pen to page, type words on the screen, put my imperfect muddy footprints through the snow and I welcome the moment not long after when I know I’ve blown it again, I’ve blotted my copybook, made my usual mess and so can relax.

There. I’ve done it again - destroyed all the hidden potential of a blank page just for a blog.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The parable of the pebbles – Nick Green

Wandering on the beach, I pick pebbles off the sea shore. They looked like colourful jewels, all glistening, so I give them to Mum to put in her pocket. Later I turn them out on the floor of our hotel room. Oh no – what happened? My sparkling stones are now lumps of drab rock.
A few days later we meet the man on the promenade. He is selling string bags of pebbles that look as bright as my own stones used to be. Yet they’re dry. How did he do that? I polished them, the stallholder explains. I put them in a tumbler with sand and gravel and grit, for hours and hours, until they wore totally smooth. And now they look as fresh as when I first picked them up.

Perhaps I’ve merged two separate holidays in this childhood memory, and perhaps the actual dialogue wasn’t quite so loaded. But I did collect pebbles, and I did meet the man with the polished stones, and I still remember.
Pieces of writing are like those pebbles. Pulled fresh from the sea of your mind, they’re all shiny and enchanting. Time passes, and they look like rubble. Polishing is what’s needed – not to change what you’ve created, but to put it back the way it’s meant to be.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

How books shape people by Lynn Huggins - cooper


In the last few days, I have been Samhuinn - cleaning the house. It's like spring cleaning, but more thorough (Samhuinn is new year for pagans). That means I spent a *whole* day cleaning the dining room, and a *whole* day cleaning the living room. I have ten more rooms to clean so as they say, I may be some time...anyway, as a part of this effort I have been de-cluttering. My eldest daughter is nearly 20 and has decided to train as a primary teacher despite me (an old lag) telling her 'How Things Have Changed' through sucked teeth, on a regular basis...

My house is clogged with books. A feng shui expert would have a field day. So I asked my daughter if she would like all of the foundation stage and KS1 materials I still have (I home-edded my youngest - another story) and she said yes - so I have been piling up boxes of books - including picture books. I spent a gloriously happy and tearful day today sorting picture books. I saw my childrens' lives flash before my eyes. Favourite books - the hungry caterpillar (my son, now 22 with his own mortgage and business, could tell the story along with me at 18 months (and would startle waiters by asking in a lispy voice for ' a slice of swiss cheese' in restaurants) 'Maurice's Mum' by Roger Smith prepared them for a batty, witchy mum, 'The Big Big Sea' by Martin Waddell was my nearly -20-year-old daughter's favourite because the illustrations looked like her and I on our favourite beach...'The Tough Princess', 'Tarzanna' and 'Dulcie Dando: Football Player' prepared my girls to be everything they wanted to be (daughter number 1 is an FA football coach)...'Giant' and 'Dear Greenpeace'helped them to be green...the Dr. Xarges series helped them to develop an off-beat sense of humour...'Hello Sailor' by Ingrid Godon was a gift for children with a gay aunt and a gay uncle...'Elmer' helped them to learn about celebrating difference...Valerie Flournoy's 'The Patchwork Quilt' taught them about the value of their own history..all I hope is that one day, I write a book that helps to 'speak' to children and enables them to find a hook on which to hang their picture of who they are. Books have been *so* important in our house. I hope that one day I shall write a book that is important too.

Bizarre Trouser Accident - Joan Lennon


I love my job. I remember telling somebody once I was happy and they replied, "Is there something specific or are you just unaware of the facts?" The same thing could be said about saying I love writing. (Don't worry, I am NOT unaware of the facts, and I whinge plenty about them.) But there are MANY specific things about being a writer that make me want to hug myself with delight (or anyone passing within reach - disconcerting for strangers). And one of those things is how often I get to grin - and giggle - and, on occasion and not always appropriately, belly-laugh - at the felicities of language, and call it work.

As when, for example, a friend wrote to tell me that she'd been laid up because of "a bizarre trouser accident." Poor woman was on crutches and all I could do was snicker and think "what a great phrase - I HAVE to put that in a book!" Or another who said she didn't care, she intended "to irritate the conkers out of somebody." Or a son's long-term belief that the word "ostentatious" was actually spelt "Austentatious" and meant "thinking you're a better writer than you really are" - the same son who recently meant to say "Gilbert and Sullivan" but came out with "Sodom and Gomorrah" ...

Anyone could delight in such things, but only a writer - or perhaps a stand-up comic - could classify them as research. Some of them are just too gorgeously off-the-wall to be shoe-hornable into fiction - nobody would believe them! - but I live in hope that some day, somehow, I'll find a use for them all.


And, in the meantime, they are one of the reasons I love my job.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Fantastical Passion - Lucy Coats


I have a passion for fantasy—both reading it and writing it. There, I’ve admitted it—stood up to be counted, stuck my head above the parapet, ready to defend myself against any verbal bullets and brickbats. I too am a purveyor of lies (see previous post), as well as a traveller into the arcane worlds of the imaginary, and I am proud to say so. My childhood was full of hobbits, fauns with umbrellas, and weirdstones, but I discovered almost all my favourite children’s fantasy authors well after I had grown up and, perhaps, might be thought by some to be too old for such indulgences. I find, looking in my bookshelves, that most of them are women, and I would like to pay tribute to the sisterhood of ‘sheroes’ here—they are the ones whose work encouraged me in my fledgling desire to create and write about fantasy worlds of my own.

I was in my early twenties and a very junior editor at Heinemann when I came across the indomitable Damarian heroines of Robin McKinley, then published by Julia Macrae. I’ve just received her new book—Chalice—and am hoarding it like a dragon does its treasure until I have proper leisure to savour what I know will be its joyously sardonic humour. Something in Robin’s very particular style of writing spoke to me—showed me that it was possible to dance to a different fantasy drum. We have corresponded sporadically over the years, and have found that both of us like the discipline of creating gardens and pruning roses—and getting the nature bits in our books right, even if they are made-up bits of nature sometimes.

Diana Wynne-Jones was a latecomer to my bookshelves too—most of my editions of her works are American hardbacks, bought in the ‘80’s from the chaotic but lovely Books of Wonder in its old home in New York on 7th Avenue. I visited its new incarnation a few months ago, and was delighted to be able to discover new fantasy authors and eat cupcakes at the same time. Wizard Howl sets my teeth on edge at times with his arrogance, but I love Sophie in all her incarnations—and most of the Chrestomanci books are works of fantasy genius. It was a delight to discover a new one—The Pinhoe Egg—last year, and to renew my accquaintance with the Chant family.

How did I miss out on Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy for so long? I suspect that I was too involved with the high-flown works of literature I had to read for my degree when they first came out. Again, it was a delight when more novels in the series appeared fairly recently, and I could find out what happened to Ged later in his life, and to all the inhabitants of those myriad islands which are as real as the Cyclades or Sporades to me.

Last, but by no means least for me, came Tamora Pierce and her Lioness. What she has created in Tortall is a saga ranging back and forth over several generations. There is always a danger of disappointment when authors write about their characters’ forbears or descendants, but Pierce manages the transition from main teenage hero or heroine to parent of the next generation with deft grace. It is wonderful to meet old friends from previous books and to hear what has gone on with them in the intervening years. I can’t wait for the next.

All of the above is why, having vowed I wouldn’t do it because I couldn’t see how, I am now writing a sequel to my own fantasy novel, Hootcat Hill, at the urgent request of many of my readers. I feel all those admired and looked-up-to ‘sheroes’ at my shoulder urging me on. Besides, I understand only too well the position of the reader who wants to know ‘what happened afterwards’—and I want the huge excitement of finding that information out for myself as I enter into yet another world of my own creation. So far it’s already quite a journey!

Monday, 6 October 2008

The maundering old woman, kicked out of the republic - Anne Rooney

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My daughter wanted to talk about worthwhile careers - but not with me because I’m clearly not qualified to judge. Huh?
‘You’re a children’s writer,’ she said.
‘Isn’t that a worthwhile occupation?’
‘Duu-urrrr!’ (I’m not sure how to indicate that undulation of the word that carries all the weight of disdain – but you know how it goes.)
I asked what she thinks my job entails.
‘Telling lies about an imaginary bird’, she answered without hesitation.

Ever since Plato banished poets from the true Republic, writers have had to answer the charge of untruthfulness. Usually, it has been leveled against loftier works.
‘They’re not lies, they’re stories,’ I said.
‘But they’re not true,’ she countered.
I tried the line about deep psychological truth versus literal truth, dragging in Boccaccio as witness for the defence: ‘There was never a maundering old woman, sitting with others late of a winter's night at the home fireside, making up tales of Hell, the fates, Ghosts and the like … but did not feel there was a grain of truth in them.’
She eyed me suspiciously.
‘What’s maundering?’
Oh God, now she thinks I’m a maundering old woman. I wanted her to think I was Boccaccio.
‘He’s wrong,’ she said, with the inalienable confidence of the teenager. ‘They’re lies; they’re not true.’

Ah, but we know they are true, somehow. That’s why books are dangerous. It’s why books (and writers) have been burned throughout history. It’s why Arthur Miller faced the House of un-American Activities Committee, Salman Rushdie got his fatwa and the fabulous Wild Swans was banned in China. We liars tell dangerous truths that some people – tyrants, the Church, Americans don’t want voiced. I imagine a bonfire of the vanities, with first-readers about luckless birds prominent.

Book-burning bonfire
But writers can’t be subversive all on their own. Writers rely on intelligent readers. If the book-banning authorities thought readers would be blind to the message, they would have no reason to worry. Writers know their readers want the key to the secret room; the best writers know how to slip them that key, even under the harshest regimes. And childhood can be one of the most repressive.
Some children feel they are in solitary confinement, locked away from anyone who can explain what is happening in their lives, to their bodies, in their minds. A story can show them that their experience is universal. Some children need not just a key, but a file hidden in a pie. A good book, whether it’s a story or a fact book, can be the pie. That’s why the job is worthwhile. We don’t only tell lies about imaginary birds – we try to hide files in pies, too. We don’t need to make the files – they’re universal – we just cook the pies. Which is lucky, as I have a cooker but not a furnace.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Busy busy all the time but where’s the time to write? by Linda Strachan


For the last while my life and my diary have been crammed with things I promised to do; some chores and also some delightful events or opportunities that have had to take priority over sitting down to write. Some of these are events or related writing tasks, in relation to books already written (three of which have been launched this summer alone), others are family or other commitments.
Thankfully they have almost all been very positive and often wonderful reasons for not writing, but this means that for a while any creative writing has been in short bursts or moments when I can both steal the time and have enough energy to write.
These stolen moments mean that I have approached the writing of a my latest book in a different way than usual.
I have already plotted out the basic outline of the story - so I know where it is going - and have done some elementary research, but I have found myself dipping into it and writing whatever part of the story I feel like exploring in no organised fashion at all, whenever I have a few moments free. This way it is not progressing from start to finish but almost in the way films are shot, short scenes in no specific plot order and in my case these are almost completely at random.

Time will tell if this is a good way to write it, but for the moment it has freed me up a lot because if I manage to write a couple of pages and get to a bit I am not quite sure how I want to handle or need to research more or even where I don’t quite know what happens next; instead of stopping to work it out or research it, I go as far as I have time for and stop.
The next time I sit down I may be writing the end of the story or adding to the beginning or just somewhere in the middle, whatever bit I am feeling most fascinated by at that time. It also means that I am really enjoying it.

Of course I can’t do this all the time because at some point I will need to pull it all together and see where the bits mesh together or not as may happen but then I will be able to change things and possibly re write pieces but I hope by then I will have most of the book written in the first draft at least.

The butterfly part of my brain loves to work like this but will it work? I will keep you posted …watch this space!

Friday, 3 October 2008

On Being Original - Charlie Butler


Is it possible to steal ideas? When the Harry Potter books started doing well, many people grumpily pointed out that other writers had been writing about schools of wizardry and witchcraft years before J. K. Rowling. Jill Murphy, whose first Worst Witch book came out in 1974 (when Rowling was aged nine), reportedly started to receive letters from young readers complaining that she had pinched her ideas from Harry Potter – which must have been galling indeed. Then there are the witch schools of Diana Wynne Jones and Anthony Horowitz – to say nothing of Eva Ibbotson, whose Secret of Platform 13 (1994) involves a portal to a world of witches, wizards and ogres, located at – yes, King’s Cross Station. Surely that can’t be a coincidence?
Actually, it probably can. The idea of the sorceror’s apprentice goes back a good deal further than Jill Murphy, after all. And train stations are, if you think about it, obvious places to locate portals for travel between worlds. If J.K. Rowling had really wanted to steal an idea from Eva Ibbotson, I think she would have had enough sense to move it to St Pancras, at the very least. 
Having a day job in literary research has taught me not to get overexcited every time I see evidence of some “undeniable influence” or “uncanny similarity.” Nothing is more likely to lead sober academics into making intemperate claims on the Today programme than the conviction that they have “found the key” to a writer’s work in this way. It can be a profoundly intoxicating experience, as I know well – but also one to be treated with great caution. Because, in fact, most coincidences are just that: coincidences.
Terry Pratchett has apparently proposed a fundamental particle called an ideon, which streams through the universe causing writers to come up with the same idea at the same time. I for one believe in it.  What are the chances of two authors publishing a book about a boy called Luke with synaesthesia in the same year, for instance? Yet it happened with Nicola Morgan’s Mondays are Red and Tim Bowler’s Starseeker, both published in 2002. My own The Fetch of Mardy Watt, which concerns a girl who finds that her life is gradually being taken over by a supernatural double, or fetch, had its publication delayed for six months when it was discovered that it was due to be released at the same time as Catherine MacPhail’s Another Me - which, again, involves a girl whose life is taken over by a fetch ( and even features a character called Mrs Watt). That my book about mysterious doubles should have a mysterious double of its own seems weirdly appropriate, but it’s not untypical. Ideons are very common particles.
Now, this isn’t to say that writers are never influenced, consciously or otherwise, by other authors. Of course they are. I’m proud to acknowledge my own influences, from Alan Garner to Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, to name but three. The sense that I’m working within a tradition that pre-exists me is, far from being something I feel detracts from the value of my writing, part of what underwrites it. As for J. K. Rowling, her books only make sense when placed in the context of the genre of the boarding school story, as well as the many folk stories she draws on and adapts. They are the air that her imagination lives and breathes.
Originality is an overrated virtue – if by originality we mean writing as though unaware of the work of previous authors. Of course, that’s not what originality is really about. But how do you set the desire to do something new against the desire to do justice to the tradition you’re a part of? 
That, as they say, is for another post. 

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Memories of Reading - Katherine Langrish


Like the smell of woodsmoke – which always takes me back to a narrow sun-striped Majorcan street lined with tall houses, silent in the afternoon heat, on a long-ago holiday when I was eight years old – certain books take me back to the particular place and time when I first read them.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, for example. Here I am, about nine years old, curled up in a big bristly armchair which prickles my bare legs, reading and reading. I’m alone in the house because my younger brother’s in hospital with peritonitis and my parents are visiting him. (He swallowed a small cocktail sausage at a children’s party, and amazingly the cocktail stick went down too. He’ll come out of hospital in a week or so with a three inch scar – this was before the days of keyhole surgery.) I’m unaware of the danger he’s in, and assume he’s getting plenty of fuss and attention. My parents have bought me the ‘Dawn Treader’ paperback because it’s the last of the Narnia books I haven’t read – I came to them out of sequence – and to keep me quiet, and console me for being left alone. It’s working. I’m away on those brilliant seas, looking down through clear water at the purple-and-ivory-skinned sea people, shivering with pleasurable terror at the nightmarish island where dreams come true (“Dreams, do you understand? Not daydreams: dreams!”), tiptoeing with Lucy along the sunlit empty corridors of the magician’s house.
We had a lot of classic books at home and I was allowed to read more or less whatever I liked. I loved Shakespeare, I loved “Jane Eyre” (Oh, poor Jane, locked in the Red Room by horrid Mrs Reed!) Now I’m ten years old, I’ve just finished “Oliver Twist”, and I’m cowering in bed with the lights out, terrified by Bill Sykes’ vision of dead Nancy’s eyes. I expect to see them, eyes floating in the darkness, coming in from the landing through my half-open door, hovering over my pillow.
“The Hobbit”. I’m in bed with tonsillitis: my mother works on the principle that if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to come downstairs. But I don’t mind: I can sit in bed reading library books, sucking blackcurrant throat pastilles and waiting for my mother to bring me dinner on a tray. I’m not reading “The Hobbit” because I like it; I’m reading it because I’ve run out of Enid Blytons, and I’m a child who will read the labels on sauce bottles if there’s nothing better to hand. I’ve just got to the chapter called ‘Riddles in the Dark’, where Bilbo the hobbit meets Gollum. And my dinner arrives: a plate of mutton, greens, mashed potato and a dark lake of gravy. I picture Gollum, pale as mashed potato, splashing in his dark underground lake. I am put off both my food and the book, and I’ve never really got around to liking “The Hobbit” since.
“The Tale of Mr Tod”. This takes me back a lot earlier. I’m about six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror. The bones outside the fox’s den. The baby rabbits, alive in the oven. The tension as Peter and Benjamin dig their way under the floor. The tremendous fight between Mr Tod and Tommy Brock the tramp-like badger who has gone to sleep in Mr Tod’s own bed – with his boots on! The Heath Robinson device by which Mr Tod tries to scare Mr Brock by dropping a flatiron on him – and then thinks he has killed him stone dead. The pictures; above all, the pictures: rusty reds and bracken browns and fern greens! I don’t know if my dolls are impressed, but I am thrilled. I relish the strength and darkness of the story.
“Jill’s Gymkhana” by Ruby Ferguson. I’m twelve years old, pony mad, but also terrified of riding. I go once a fortnight to a riding stables near Gloucester, and am white and sick with fear beforehand. Afterwards, though, I come back home, curl up on my bed and read blissfully about girls who own their own ponies, who arrange shows and gymkhanas, who win rosettes…
All my most vivid experiences of reading are from childhood. And not from school, either: books read at home in my own time. If any words of mine can ever give a child one of those moments of ecstatic rapture or terror that I remember from my own childhood, I’ll be a very happy writer.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Lost Books - John Dougherty

I wonder if everyone has Lost Books? I suspect most writers, at least, do; and I suspect they're not the only ones.

By Lost Books, I mean books which are out-of-print; books on which you can no longer lay your hands, but for which you retain a remembered fondness, and which perhaps at some level have had an effect on you or your writing. I'd like to share a couple of mine with you:

Borrobil, by William Croft Dickinson. Anyone remember this one? It's a magical fantasy about two children who find themselves transported to a Britain of the mythical past, where the narrative takes in dragons, faery creatures, viking raiders, mermen... I loved it, and the last sentence has just popped unbidden into my head after all these years: Borrobil! They knew - and they would never forget!

I don't think I'll ever forget, either; yet the book is now unavailable. It had a Wikipedia entry for a couple of days but that was deleted, apparently on the grounds of the book's lack of significance. For me, though, it was hugely significant - and probably a major influence on my latest book, Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy. Like Borrobil's Donald and Jean, my heroine finds herself in another world; like them, she gets there via a ring of standing stones; like them, she meets creatures from faery legend. My story is very different from Dickinson's, I hasten to add, but the influences are clearly there.

My second Lost Book is The Gadfly, by... er... I can't remember. I'd love to know, if anyone can tell me. I'm pretty sure it was published by Puffin, if that helps. It's the story of a young Greek boy who enters the circle of influence of the philosopher Socrates and witnesses the events leading up to his trial and execution (or, at least, State-commanded suicide). I can't recall so much about this book, but one thing that stuck with me was the reason that Socrates was condemned to death: his 'blasphemous' assertion that if there were gods, they would be better than those of Greek legend, who behaved like overgrown children with wonderful powers.

When the idea for my first book, Zeus on the Loose, was slowly awakening in my head, it was the memory of this assertion that suddenly brought it all together. Greek gods are like big kids! That became the conceit on which the book hinged. Without The Gadfly there would be no Zeus on the Loose.

I find this somehow comforting. Maybe in twenty years' time my books will all be out of print. Maybe in forty years no-one will even remember them. But perhaps some child who is now reading one of my books will grow up to write books of their own; and perhaps one day they'll write a book that in some way owes part of its existence to one of mine. And maybe that book will become the ancestor of another; and that one of another. Perhaps some day there will be a great and enduring classic of literature that would never have been written if not for one of my books - and that will perhaps therefore owe its life not just to my book, but to Borrobil or The Gadfly, too.