Tuesday, 20 December 2011

My year of books and book-matters

It has been a real year of books for me, written, published, read, reviewed, researched in, awarded prizes and celebrated with other readers. It began in January at Oxford Town Hall, listening to Philip Pullman's impassioned speech in defence of libraries. By February my local library that was the most under threat, Bampton, which is in the village filmed for Downton Abbey (the library is the cottage hospital) had an action group in place and we had a brilliant Save our Libraries day with local celeb, Kirsty Young, Linda Newbery and me reading from loved books.

It was in February that Martin Amis said he would have to be brain-damaged before writing a children's book.

March was the first World Book Night and I stood in Trafalgar Square listening to Mark Haddon, Dvaid Nicholls, Philip Pullman (again!) and the wonderful Lemn Sissay, before giving out my WBN choice - Fingersmith - in Bampton library. Because of a bit of a mix-up I ended up with extra copies of Fingersmith, which meant I could launch my own book group.

We are the Nordic Readers, not because we specialise in Scandinavian crime but because it grew out of the Nordic Walking group I am part of. We've read half a dozen other novels since, our favourite being Kathryn Stockett's The Help and the one we liked least Christian Tsolkas' The Slap.

The spring took me back to the Bologna Book Fair as usual and I also made it to the London Book Fair. The two are so very different, but I'm determined to crack how to "do" the London one properly in 2012.

In April, a group of seventeen writers of historical fiction gathered in Michelle Lovric's fabulous Thameside apartment to talk about a mad idea I had. By the beginning of July we launched as The History Girls. We get the most wonderful posts from twenty-eight writers for children, teenagers and adults and in six months we have had nearly 60,000 hits and gained over 200 followers.

Something that had been started rather selfishly by me to promote my novel David, has become a terrific resource in its own right and next year we'll be having guest posts from Kevin Crossley-Holland and Hilary Mantel among others.

So David came out at the beginning of July and I did a Blog Tour with thirty-two stops! All were scheduled in advance but for two of the four weeks plus, I was in different cities in Italy, without WiFi, and had to rely on my daughter Rhiannon Lassiter and my good friend Anne Rooney to make sure they were up on the right day.

Promoting one book while writing another sounds like one of the silly games on British radio's "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue." And I certainly don't recommend it, but Stravaganza: City of Swords got handed in on time at the end of July and will be out next year.

August found me in Venice, at a "Writers' Boot Camp" on the Grand Canal, working on the adult novel I've written and am now restructuring. There's nothing like swapping ideas with two other writers over prosecco and olives on a terrace overlooking that green water and spotting egrets.

Caroline Binch and the Book Maven

In September Grace at Christmas was published and we had a party to celebrate twenty years of Grace in December.

October was a bit less literary as our middle daughter got married (in Bampton) in a heat wave but November took me to Somerset for another writing retreat, this time with other members of the Scattered Author's Society (SAS). I was able to do almost all my City of Swords edits there. We drank hot chocolate in the woods but failed to see badgers.

I've also joined a literary salon, about which my lips are sealed, but I have goggled at the amount of talent around the dinner table, combined with the warmth and friendliness of the other writers.

My books of the year

I bought a Kindle last year and the first book I read on in this year was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. This would be a book of the year for me whatever format it was read in but this was convenient to hold in bed and on public transport. The others were all read conventionally on dead trees: Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, Edmund de Wahl's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Tea Obrecht's The Tiger's Wife, which won the Orange Prize, most deservedly. (Actually maybe I should have put the Hare on my Kindle since the Faber paperback fell apart as I read it). My non-fiction favourite, which I'd been waiting to get in paperback, was James Shapiro's Contested Will, about who wrote the plays known as by Shakespeare. (He thinks Shakespeare and so do I!)

My Children's Books of the Year

The best picture book was for me Penny Dale's Dinosaur Dig (Nosy Crow), brilliantly combining two elements endlessly interesting to small readers. For juniors A Dog and his Boy by Eve Ibbotson was perfection. For older children, Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls(Walker Books), based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, will win prizes for sure. The most interesting teenage read was Sally Gardner's The Double Shadow (Orion) (I hope my Guardian review of it comes out before Christmas).


Three great children's writers died this year: Diana Wynne Jones, Eve Ibbotson and - just recently - Russell Hoban. I am a cover-to-cover reader of DWJ, though my favourites are Fire and Hemlock, Howl's Moving Castle and A Tale of Time City. She will be much missed. I haven't read as much Eve Ibbotson as I should but after A Dog and his Boy and The Secret Countess, I know I'll follow up on the others.

My daughters were brought up on Russell Hoban's Frances the badger books and phrases from them have entered family vocabulary. But in his adult novel, Turtle Diary, a writer is haunted by the children's books she has written about an insect and I wonder if he hated being remembered for Frances rather than his many fine adult books.


Sadness at losing these great writers can be tempered by noting that Tea Obrecht is only twenty-six and The Tiger's Wife her first novel. There were four débuts on the Man Booker shortlist too, though a veteran, Julian Barnes, won. New children's writers were Miriam Halahmy, whose Hidden was published by Meadowside, Sita Brahmachari, whose Artichoke Hearts (MacMillan) won the Waterstone's First Book Award and Candy Gourlay, whose Tall Story (David Fickling Books) was truly original.

The Book Maven wishes all readers a happy and bookfilled year in 2012

Friday, 9 December 2011

Know Your Reader’s Inner Synaesthete by Nicola Morgan

Book Maven is happy to welcome Nicola Morgan today for a guest post on her Blog Tour. Mondays might be red but this makes Friday a Red Letter Day. Thanks, Nicola.

Mondays are Red was Nicola Morgan’s debut YA novel, published in 2002. Nicola is now delighted to be producing the ebook, with a new cover and brand new extra material, including creative writing by school pupils inspired by the book. For details about how to buy (price around £2.23) See here

About the book
When Luke wakes from a coma, his world has altered. Synaesthesia confuses his senses and a sinister creature called Dreeg inhabits his mind. Dreeg offers him limitless power – even the power to fly – and the temptations are huge, but the price is high. Who will pay? His mysteriously perfect girlfriend, with hair as long as the sound of honey? His detested sister, Laura, with the wasps in her hair? When Laura goes missing, Luke realizes the terrible truth about himself and his power. His decision is a matter of life and death, and he will have to run faster than fire.

Thank you, Mary, for letting me invade your excellent blog today. I am honoured! You said you’d like me to talk about synaesthesia and because there’s so much to say about it, I’ve paired it with Lucy Coats’ blog. So, Part 1 – the facts and how to tell if you have the condition – was there and Part 2 – about what it means for writers – is here.

Synaesthesia, in short, is when two or more of the senses are “crossed over”, so that the person experiences colours when hearing sounds, or tastes when feeling shapes, or coloured shapes when smelling something. Days of the week, letters and numbers can have colours, and the sensations are always automatic, not deliberate, and remain identical over time. (More factual stuff on Lucy’s blog.) 

It’s my belief that, although true synaesthesia is rare, the vast majority of people can “do” synaesthesia. We almost all have an inner synaesthete. I also believe that understanding this gives writers an incredibly powerful tool – a much more powerful tool than true synaesthesia, an experience which most people don’t share. (A true synaesthete’s sensations are effectively random and will sound surreal to the rest of us, whereas the normal reader’s synaesthesia is connected with meanings, semantics, emotions, things we all share.)

I think it’s about time I explained. Or, more appropriately, showed.

Imagine the sound of a violin, the high, shrill notes. Now tell me which of these three colour groups you think most suit that sound: 1) pale lemon yellows and lime greens, 2) bright reds and orange, 3) dark blues and purples. Around 5% of you will have said 3. 10-15% of you will say 2. And at least 80% of you will say 1. And that’s a conservative estimate. How do I know? Because I used to have a game on my website and I collected hundreds of responses to these and similar questions; I also do this when I talk about Mondays are Red at school events, and the proportion of responses vary little.

Here’s another question. Think of the low sounds of a cello or bassoon. Which colour group? 95% will say 3. Around 4% will say 2 and almost no one will say 1.

Imagine two fish. One is thin and spiky. The other is round, fat and smooth. One is called a Baroom. The other is called a Kikxis. Which is which? Around 90-95% of people will say that the spiky one is the Kikxis. (Fewer if I’m talking to teenagers because they like to be provocative.) There isn’t a correct answer, by the way – the fish are invented.

Why? Well, the fish thing is obvious. The letters – shape and sound – in Kikxis are spiky and sharp; the letters and sounds in Baroom are round and soft. The music-colour thing seems obvious to me, too, but may seem less so to others. But when you think properly about the ways in which we naturally describe sounds, it’s not so surprising: a voice, for example, could easily be sharp, thin, thick, rounded, soft, hard, light, heavy, dark, warm, cold, rich, bitter. And many words can be attributed to different sensations. “Sharp” can be taste, shape, or touch, for example. Extend this to describing a voice (as I do in Mondays are Red) as buttery, melting, or tasting of apple-purée and it’s not much of a stretching of the imagination.

Part of this – as writers recognise – is because any word comes with a load of secondary attachments. So, apple-purée is more than mashed apple: it is warm and thick and sweet and soft, rolling on the tongue, slipping down the throat. It is not dry or dusty or icy or blue or spiky. In Mondays are Red, the girl with the cinnamon skin has “hair as long as the sound of honey”. Well, honey may not have a sound but it is thick and moves slowly and if dropped from a spoon is long and straight and golden and full of goodness. And that is what her hair was like. It’s not beyond the bounds of imagination to feel that it could have a sound, too. Violin sounds are lemon-sharp and lemon-yellow and lime-tangy, thin, sharp, bitter, stringy. All these words bring with them more than a single literal meaning.

And that’s what we harness when we write. We join our wordsmithery to the shared meanings and emotions and experiences in the mind and heart of our reader. We cross the void between two minds and truly connect. When we recognise the inner synaesthete in ourselves and our reader, and harness it, there’s no limit to the power of language. And that, in a nutshell is what Mondays are Red is “about”, as Luke discovers the infinite power of language.

Thank you, Mary, for allowing me to come and sound off on your esteemed blog! I hope your readers will give Mondays are Red a try and see more of what I’m talking about. http://www.nicolamorgan.com/author/books/mondays-are-red

Thank you, Nicola, for stopping by on your tour. Now you can relax on the sofa with a glass of something seasonal, as this is your last stop!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Charles Dickens and me

Over the years, when I've been asked "Who is your favourite writer?" I have often answered "Charles Dickens." And sometimes added that a lot of people say that without having actually read many of his books, while I have read them all.

And that is approximately true; I think I gave up before finishing quite all of the essays on America and Italy but I've read books like Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop and the "big" novels many times. My favourites are Our Mutual Friend, which has now become quite popular, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son.

But why do I like him enough to read and re-read him? We have had a long relationship, Dickens and I, but one thing I have always liked about him is that his dates are so easy to remember: 1812-70 and I have real trouble with dates, which is a drawback for a History Girl. I know things like the deposition of Richard 11 (1399) and Battle of Bosworth Field (1485) but that's really because of an obsession with Shakespeare (1564-1616) and currently the Plantagenets.

If you ask me even Jane Austen or J.S.Bach, I have to look them up - or ask my husband which is quicker because he has real penny-in-the-slot recall for facts of that kind.

Anyway, born 1812 means a big anniversary next year and the biographies are already coming out, with Claire Tomalin's having been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. It is being read on radio 4 currently and a fact I learned this morning interested me very much. Apparently Dostoevsky said that Dickens told him (imagine - Dickens and Dostoevsky having a chat!) that all his villains came from his own inner demons and all his "good" characters from the way he tried to live his life.

So Quilp, Mr Squeers, Bill Sykes, Mr Murdstone - what a wealth of villains there are! - were all aspects of Dickens' own personality. And why not? If Freud reckoned every person and thing in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer, that works just as well for writers who dream on to the page all day long.

When I was a child, my parents had a complete set of Dickens' novels bought through the Daily Express I think. They had a red binding and as soon as I was old enough I devoured them. When I left home I bought a similar set from a secondhand book shop. I have the Oxford complete set now, a present from the encyclopaedic husband, and the cheap ones are up in the attic but still on shelves, not hidden away in boxes.

They have been companions and friends, read while ill in bed, on long train journeys, on evenings without a TV, when I lived in London and the man I was to marry lived in Cambridge one long year.

And the reason? Because Dickens is such a generous writer, so prolific in his ideas, so prodigal with his plots and characters. I have always believed that he could have written a full-length novel about any one of his minor characters. And the physical descriptions are so memorable: Mr Vholes scratching with black-gloved hands at his pimples, Lady Tippins with her face like a reflection in a spoon, Mr Twemlow from the same novel, who is like an extra leaf in a dining table, inserted on certain occasions to make the dinner go more smoothly.

My late father-in-law disliked Dickens intensely and thought him a bad writer - "so crude." He preferred Flaubert. His privilege, but I think what he saw as crudeness, expressed after reading Hard Times, is what I think of as the energy and vigour. No, the prose is not refined, but the sheer inventiveness is a gift made freely to the reader.

So many favourite characters: Dick Swiveller, Betsy Trotwood,  Flora Finching, Peggotty, Mr Jingle - every book yields up a gem or two. There are maddening ones too, like Dora Spenlow and Tiny Tim and Little Nell, where the popular taste for sentimentality knocks Dickens temporarily from his splendidly keen observational perch.

There is also always a murder or violent death somewhere in all those hundreds of thousands of words. And those are the passages Dickens loved to read aloud at the personal performances which might have shortened his life, so physically exhausting were they. It reminds us of what he said to Dostoevsky; he had a strong sense of the potential for evil in himself, in every one of us, as I do.

In the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood, a foul murder is suspected and the main suspect is John Jasper. The late great Leon Garfield wrote a splendid completion of the book - utterly convincing - which I keep beside the collected novels. If that wasn't how Dickens was going to end it, it should have been: the convicted man waiting in his cell for the 8 o clock of his last morning on earth, knowing that there will be no reprieve and no spangly Christmas fairy coming down with a wand to make all things well.

I think we don't need another biography to tell us that Dickens did not live up to his aim of living "like his good characters" - though I shall certainly read Claire Tomalin's. But it is never a good idea to let the life dictate how the reader feels about the writer, or the composer or painter, come to that.

The Complete Works of Charles Dickens was one of my first purchases on my Kindle, along with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. With so many ways to read him, in and out of the house, there will be no excuse not to make 2012 the year of the Big Re-read. I can't wait!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Who owns morality?

By the time you read this, it will have been announced that The Great Big Book of Families has won the Under-7 category of the School Library Association's inaugural Information Book Awards.

This is naturally a great honour; writers and illustrators love winning prizes. But I have two special reasons for being pleased about this one. Firstly, it comes from an organisation close to my heart. For six years I ran a campaign to support and promote School Library Services in the UK. So I am very happy that an award given by the SLA has gone to my work.

Secondly this book sums up a lot of what I think about children and books. I had wanted to write something like this for a long time, ever since a girl of twelve wrote me a letter thanking me for helping her learn to read and mentioning that her family consisted of her "my mum and my budgie."

I have felt for ages that children's picture books lag far behind children's reality in depicting the wide range of what constitutes a definition of "family". And reflecting children's own experience is one of the two most important things a book can do (the other of course being to introduce them to ideas way beyond their experience).

I'd done what I could in the past with books about Grace, who lives in a family of three generations of women, with an absent father, and in stories like My Grandma has Black Hair, Nancy No-size and The Colour of Home, in trying to widen the portrayal of families in picture books. But I wanted to tackle the big idea that "families come in all shapes and sizes" in one book. And I wanted to do it with Ros Asquith.

I honestly believe that if Ros hadn't been taken with the idea, The Great Big Book of Families, would not have been written and published; I certainly told my editor at Frances Lincoln, Janetta Otter-Barry, that if Ros said no, I might not write it.

So I was thrilled when Ros did like the idea and wanted to illustrate it. From the small acquaintance I'd had with her before and my knowledge of her cartoons, I just knew she would understand "where I was coming from" politically with this book and would not need elaborate explanations. Over a couple of lunches in Gloucestershire and North London, we talked about exactly what the book was about and for and then I took the plunge with a draft text.

It changed of course when Ros's glorious pictures came in. And we worked on it as a very committed quartet: me. Ros, Janetta and the Art Director, Judith Escreet. It was published in the UK in April 2010 and in the US in 2011. Pleasingly, it has already picked up foreign editions in double figures but we always knew that there would be an issue in some countries with one spread.

On the second opening, headed up just "Families" I wrote, among other text, "Some children have two mummies or two daddies." Ros illustrated this statement appropriately. This seems to me to be incontrovertible fact, at least as far as the western world is concerned. The book has had three starred reviews in the US, which is where you might have expected a book containing this statement to be not so well received.

But I had to turn down an edition in an Arab country which would have involved removing those words and those pictures. My publisher was very understanding, even though no publisher likes to give up a foreign rights deal.

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen two conflicting reactions to the book. The first was a review on amazon.com, which Ros emailed to me (I make it an iron rule never to look at Amazon reviews or rankings so had missed it).

This one-star review was headed up "Lacks morality" and included the words: "For those who think "this looks like a cute book", think again. I checked this book out at the library and actually had to have a discussion with my kids about why we don't marry people of the same gender. As a Christian with high moral standards I don't have to teach my kids that such things are acceptable. It is not acceptable to God and it is not acceptable to me. I hate it when people are so concerned with "political correctness" that they worry more about offending people than offending God."

I have learned over the years to mistrust the term "political correctness," even though it refers to something I have been thinking about for around four decades. I prefer words like "inclusiveness" and "diversity" because in my experience, PC is only ever used by people who are against those things. Take the reviewer above. S/he says my book "lacks morality" when s/he means "does not share my morality." And "we don't marry people of the same gender" when clearly we do. At least we do in  nations from Argentina to South Africa, as well as in 20 European countries and 13 American States.

S/he also has a hotline to the Almighty about whether such unions are "acceptable." Something, I as a professed though uncertain Christian do not share.

I was not upset by the review - the less so as a few days before I had received an email through my website from a teacher in the US who said, " Sadly, there are many parents in my school community that do not believe their students should be learning about people in the LGBT community....It's people like you who make families with "two moms" the norm, that keep me going." I think my correspondent meant "normal" rather than "the norm" but I really appreciated the email.

There will always be people who don't understand what I am getting at or do understand it and don't like or approve of it. Every time writers publish a new book, they are putting their heads on the block. It would make for a quieter and easier life just to stay schtum.

That doesn't appear to be an option for me. So it is especially pleasing to have a book that means so much to me acknowledged with a prize. Thank you SLA!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Writing up and down with A.S.Byatt

Last weekend I appeared at the Cheltenham Festival, talking about David on a panel with H.M.Castor (Vlll) and Pauline Francis (Traitor's Kiss), very ably chaired by Nicolette Jones. It's the third time I've "done Cheltenham" which is only down the road from me and I always enjoy it. The sun always seems to shine, the Green Room is the BEST (beating even Edinburgh's Yurt) and the other events are always interesting.

And this time my book was actually set in the same century as the other two writers' - namely the 16th.

After our session, I went to hear A.S.Byatt talk about her latest book, Ragnarok, which is in the Canongate Myths series. I've always loved the Norse myths best of all - Balder the Beautiful was the first story I can ever remember being told - so I was specially interested in how she might have treated it.

Wagner's Gotterdammerung, which I was pleased she didn't dismiss, is sometimes translated as Twilight of the Gods but can mean Death of the Gods.

What Antonia Byatt wanted was a really bleak ending in which the black waters cover the earth. She was being interviewed by Libby Purves, who is a bit too perky for this subject. But then I remembered they had both lost a son, so maybe she had some empathy with her subject.

What struck me very forcibly was that Byatt said she would not any longer be able to write novels about characters who were much younger than her. I think that's a shame. But I understand what she means, though in her case it's about the technology as much as the moods and emotions.

So I hope she will reconsider. There is a character in Ragnarok called The Thin Child in Wartime and Byatt could write about her because she is really the author herself. The child who was moved out into the countryside from Sheffield in the war.

She would finish her work ahead of time in the small rural school she attended and then be allowed to browse in the book collection, which was where she discovered the Norse myths.

About ten years after her I was doing the same in my Secondary School Library, while bunking off games. Balder was speaking to both of us and the bleak beauty of the downfall of the gods.

Monday, 10 October 2011

What do do if you win the Lottery

If you should ever be so ?lucky as to win millions of pounds, you might wish you had read this latest book by Keren David. Her heroine Lia finds herself the surprised owner of £8m after her best male friend buys her a lottery ticket for a birthday present.

David has already made a mark on the children's book world with When I was Joe and its sequel, Almost True. It must have been a relief after those novels featuring knife crime, witness protection and life on the run, to turn to champagne, designer handbags and luxury hotels.

But although there are a younger sister with longings to go on Britain's Got Talent, love interest in a mystery boys and some delicious side swipes at the fashion for Paranormal Romance for teens, this is not a frivolous book.

Lia is flung up against some quite hard problems straightaway. What is the morality about keeping all the money? Should she give half to Jack, who bought the ticket? Buy a flat and go and live on her own or help out her struggling baker father and buy her family a new house? Should she stay on at school and take her exams? Lia is only sixteen and doesn't have all the answers.

At first, she doesn't come across as very likeable; in fact when we meet her, she is being thrown out of the house by her mother for being rude and obnoxious. And she does seem to me rather young for her age; more like a fourteen-year-old. But you have to be sixteen to play the lottery and that's the donnée of the book.

Later on it's important that she is sixteen for another reason.

Perhaps we all dream of winning large sums of money? I know I do (though it's offset in my case by only once ever having bought a lottery ticket!) It's difficult enough to be sure we'd use it wisely even if we are quite grown-up and sensible. For a sixteen-year-old the whole story is full of pitfalls.

All sorts of people come out of the woodwork claiming to be friends (= worthy to be bought expensive presents) while Lia's two real best friends both have problems with accepting anything from her. Jack wants a motorbike but his mother is terrified he'll have an accident when he gets it. And Shazia is made to return a few gifts because her father disapproves of the gambling represented by the lottery. Actually so does Shazia, when she comes to think of it, because she is a devout and serious girl.

All of which gives Lia food for thought. And then her little sister seems to be in danger.

It's an exciting read with plenty of surprises along the way. But a one-off, I think. I believe David will be returning to gritty adventure with her next book, a third title about Ty, the protagonist of the first two books.

Ah well, you only win the lottery once I suppose.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who owns the virtual teaset?

A few months ago, I started a book group with some friends. Yesterday we met to discuss the fourth and far and away the most popular title so far: Kathryn Stockett's The Help. In fact, so much did we like it that we've made a date for us all to go and see the film together next month.

For anyone who has been living at the bottom of a hole for the last two years, The Help is a first novel by White American Kathryn Stockett, who was brought up in the South, largely by Black maids. It is set in the early '60s and features one brave young White woman who has lost contact with her Black maid in mysterious circumstances, which no-one will explain to her.

Skeeter wants to be a writer and has a slender contact with a publisher in New York City; all she has to do is come up with a commercial idea. Gradually a project grows of getting the  Black maids in Skeeter's community to talk about their lives. The "book within a book," called just Help, has to be published anonymously, or the maids would certainly lose their jobs. But the truth begins to leak out.

It's a wonderful book, told in the first person by several voices, prime among them Aibileen Clark. It was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic and very popular in book clubs. Then one Ablene [sic] Cooper, who is the maid to Stockett's brother's family, took out a lawsuit against the author, claiming she had stolen her name and appearance. You can read the Controversy about The Help.

But the case was dismissed in August because of the statute of limitations. Cooper was very upset, calling Stockett a liar and saying "she knows she did it."

This is reminiscent of the Bookseller of Kabul controversy although that book was presented as non-fiction by author Asne Seierstad.

What is so awful about this case is that the character in the novel, Skeeter, knows she has no book without the testimony of the maids and pays them an exact equal share of the advance she gets and any future royalties. Ablene Cooper must have brought her $75,000 compensation case at least partly because no such arrangement was made with her. (I assume).

It leaves a bad taste even though I still love the book.

So what has this to do with tea sets? It got me thinking about who owns the events in someone life. Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S.Byatt famously have not got on very well for many decades although there has been a certain civilised rapprochement in recent years, with Drabble attending Byatt's 70th birthday celebrations.

But something that seems to have fuelled their mutual animosity was An argument about a tea set
I have another writer in my family, my daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter We are both as parasitical and predatory for stories as any professional novelist but we have a gentlepersons' agreement to check with one another about who uses what.

Many is the time she has told me a story about someone and I've said, vulture-like, "Can I have that or are you going to use it?" The answer is usually no but that's fine.

But should I be asking the person who experienced the event, owned the tea set, as it were? Neither Drabble nor Byatt owned the real set; it belonged to their mother. But she didn't write about it. Both sisters owned the memory of it, different memories, as were those of their mother. So who had the right to write about either?

In my view, anyone who can! As it happens both of these women are expert novelists and writers of non-fiction and their contrasting viewpoints would be of interest to their readers. In the novel, The Help, it is obviously that the maids would never have dreamed of writing their stories, had no publishing contacts and there would have been no Help without Skeeter. And yet she was scrupulous about dividing her profits with them.

Does it matter that the fictional Skeeter was writing reportage and the real Stockett was writing fiction? These are murky waters.

I have one writer friend who suggested once we should have a writers' exchange of family stories so that those who used them in novels would not be identifiable as sources by said families. We haven't done it but it's an interesting idea.

And I have a hunch that Cooper will get her own book deal and that the product will sell. I'd be interested to read it. But will it prove who owned her story? We shall see.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Shedding some light

For a small establishment, this building has generated a lot of heat in the last two days. Know what it is? Roald Dahl's writing shed. It's not looking so good these days apparently. It is going the way of all sheds, when the Ronseal eventually fails to preserve them. Wood, like flesh, in the end will rot.

It's in the news because Dahl's granddaughter Sophie, the supermodel, appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme and explained that the contents of the shed needed to be moved to the Roald Dahl Museum nearby in Great Missenden, to be preserved and exhibited as her grandfather left them.

So far, so mildly interesting. But what has caused the Twitterverse and Blogosphere generally to explode is that she said this archiving and preservation (of the contents, not the building) would cost £500,000. She then seemed to be asking for contributions from the public.

This is it: all there is. And it got me thinking. I'm not a big Dahl fan but many, many people are and doubtless would like to visit what will be a
facsimile of the interior you see here. So I asked myself if I would go and if I would be willing to contribute hard cash to a project to preserve the working space of a writer I did admire. Calvino, say, or Joyce, or Terry Pratchett.

I have visited Jane Austen's house at Chawton and the Haworth Parsonage, wondered at the smallness of the rooms in comparison with the largeness of the works written therein. And been mildly interested to see pens and inkwells, tables, beds and chairs.

The last famous person's home/museum I visited was Gustav Holst's in Cheltenham. It really was quite interesting, especially the kitchen of the period.

But it satisfies an idle sort of curiosity. It doesn't even begin to compare with reading Emma or Jane Eyre or listening to The Hymn of Jesus (better yet, singing it). It's part of the passion for biography which now seems to be an accepted way of shedding light on the works of a creative person. I read them just as much as anyone else does and sometimes I wish I hadn't. I could have done without knowing that Proust drive long pins into live rats - the only fact that sticks in my mind from George Painter's biography.

But if you read James Shapiro's excellent Contested Will, you discover that biography is a very young branch of the literary arts, and reading someone's life into their work even younger.

Philip Pullman wrote in a shed, before his huge success with His Dark Materials enabled him to buy a house with an indoor study. Many of my writer friends have sheds; Linda Strachan calls hers Tuscany. When Pullman moved house he gave his to a writer-illustrator friend, who demolished and reconstructed it in his own garden. It even still had plot post-its adhering to the walls.

One practical writing space practically handed on to another creative person. Not magic, not biography, not - heaven preserve us - "inspiration." And certainly not requiring half a million pounds. I imagine a pint changed hands in an Oxford pub or perhaps a bottle of wine was given. I like that story better.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Women's fiction is dead!

At least in WHSmith. I heard this item on Woman's Hour this morning:

The term ‘Women’s Fiction’ will no longer be gracing WH Smith’s shelves after two customers complained to their chief executive Kate Swann, appealing to her ‘in sisterhood’ to remove the term. Teacher Julia Gillick and policy advisor Claire Leigh complained to WH Smith after spotting a stand branded ‘Women’s Fiction’, which they felt was outrageous and offensive. So, is the term Women’s Fiction offensive and demeaning to women or is it a handy label for shoppers to find books they like? (Taken from BBC website)

There was a delightful irony in hearing this discussed on a gender-labelled Radio show but it's a real subject and one that greatly interests me. I don't know exactly which titles WHS used to stock under this label but I note that many literary agents use the term to clarify what kinds of books they do, or don't represent.

We are used to terms like ChickLit and ChickFlick, and they usually seem to be more about who wouldn't like the work described rather than who would. Men are supposed to like thick bricks of books, with tinfoil on the covers, written by ex-SAS men or Navy SEALs, while for women something that hints of shopping (especially with shoes involved) is supposed to press the right buttons.

At the movies, the testosterone-filled want exploding cars and gunfights, while the oestrogen brigade need kisses and tears: The Bourne Ulitamatum vs How to Make an American Quilt. But how did we reach this ridiculous situation? My husband can't be the only red-blooded male who enjoyed I Capture the Castle, Sense and Sensibility, The King's Speech and the TV adaptation of Ballet Shoes ("Why did no-one tell me about this book when I was a child?" "Because you were a boy!"). But I can't put the other side of the picture by being entertained by bloodshed and torture (although I do watch Torchwood, albeit through interlaced fingers).

But I like my fiction a lot more muscular than most of the books that would probably have made it on to WHS's shelf designed to appeal to my sex. The Lacuna, for example, is by a woman - Barbara Kingsolver - but it never occurred to me it might be for women. It's about Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and McCarthyism in America. And what about books like The Hare with Amber Eyes? Not fiction I know but equally appealing to both sexes I would have thought.

What is gained by this rigid assumed division of gender tastes? One of the contributors on Woman's Hours - Claire Leigh, I think - asked why not group books under genre: Romance; Historical fiction etc as is done with Crime/Thrillers, Horror or SF/Fantasy. A very sensible suggestion I thought.

But the rot has set in LONG before anyone is old enough to choose an adult book in a bookshop or Stationers. Girls brought up on a diet of Rainbow Fairies and similar series would have no problems with a section labelled "Women's Fiction." In fact, you might as well call the shelf "pink books" and be done with it! Likewise, boys who are  encouraged to read only titles like Beast Quest, will have no trouble avoiding the books provided for Sisters once they are grown men.

Perhaps this is another area where e-readers will liberate people who are worried about being judged by the cover of the book they are reading? The reading preferences of anyone holding a Kindle remain a secret.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Two sequels

Writing a sequel isn't easy and when it's the middle book in a trilogy or longer sequence it's especially hard.

I've chosen two books where the authors have carried it off - and I speak as someone who has always liked best The Empire Strikes Back in the Star Wars films (original trilogy obviously) and preferred the Two Towers to the other two books and films in Lord of the Rings.

(And I've written two trilogies and a sextet so far, so know some of the pitfalls.)

First, Pat Walsh, whose The Crowfield Curse was a runner-up in the Times/Chicken House Children's Books Competition in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Children's Fiction Prize when it was published in 2010. It told the story of William an orphan boy taken in by a monastery in the 14th century and befriended by a Hob, a friendly nature spirit. They discover after a complicated plot, a buried Angel in a place avoided by locals and monks alike. And it is - terrifyingly - still alive.

This time it's an altogether more sinister being which is struggling to get free of the bonds that constrain it and is pulling down the Crowfield Abbey chapel in the process. Young William is now bound to a mysterious and powerful fay with a scarred face and silver hair and it takes both of them and the Hob and the good Brother Snail to find out what is going on and prevent the spirit worshipped by the evil Dame Alys and her pet white crows from coming back.

Raum, or Belinus as Alys calls him, is a crow-headed demon with blood-red feathers and even the local alchemist can't circumscribe or dispel him. There is a thrilling return of another character at the end and promise of much to come in the next book.

Gillian Philip's Firebrand was my favourite book of last year, introducing Seth McGregor, another fay or fairy who is as much like the little winged folk as David Starkey is like Camilla Batmadjeli.

There are going to be four books all together in the Rebel Angels sequence and Bloodstone, the second, is just out. many female bloggers have waited, hearts a-flutter, for the return of Seth and tend to fall into rather overheated descriptions of his appeal so I am going to be restrained.

Seth and his brother Conal are not immortals but are immensely long-lived and have now arrived in the 21st century in our world. They are searching for the bloodstone, an apparently impossible task set by Kate NicNiven, the Queen of the Sithe, and have been doing it for centuries. But Seth is still a teenager with an admired older (half)-brother.

That's clever, because boy readers can identify with him and girl readers lust after him and he is still one of them yet with a wealth of experience and a long history behind him, which makes him as cool as he is hot.

It's a complicated plot and the McGuffin of the stone is well-disguised. Unlike Pat Walsh, Gillian Philip has a harsh approach to the recap and I was floundering fora  while about when and where we were. But it is a legitimate approach, given that neither writer would want us to start here.

My only cavil about Seth in this book is that he seems to have learned so little in four hundred years, not about the stone, but about himself and his own temper. This leads to a bit too much unsconsidered bashing for my taste.

But there are some heart-stopping scenes and one that will break your heart.

And if I don't quite love either of these sequels as much as the original books it is not a comment on the writers' skills; more an acceptance that once you know the worlds and the characters, you settle into quiet and satisfied recognition rather than being knocked out by the shock of the new.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Normal service Resumed

Well, the David Blog Tour is over and I now know how perhaps a very small Rock band feels, after 32 stops in as many days.

There is a tiny coda over at Katherine Roberts' Reclusive Muse Blog tomorrow, about who or what is my Muse. I wonder if you can guess.

Then I'll be back to the old kind of Mavening. There are several books coming up for review so watch this space.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

BLOG TOUR day 32 Mars and Venus

The last day in my full month of dragging David round the world with me and we are with my good friend Lucy Coats talking about Mars and Venus. Are men and women really from different planets?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

BLOG TOUR Day 31 My 5 favourite things to eat in Florence

By chance and coincidence I should actually be in Florence today, while simultaneously telling Dwayne Without a Bookshelf my favourite things to eat there. With luck I'll be having some of them!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Sunday, 31 July 2011

BLOG TOUR Day 28 -an ideal dinner

Do you like imagining the guests you'd have at a fantasy dinner party? I'm telling Jenny Sharp about my five ideal Italian ones today at: Revolving Papyrus

Saturday, 30 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 27 Versatility

By the wonders of 21st technical brilliance, I am simultaneously in Italy, Australia and wherever you are when you read this blog post! But David is definitely with Pat Pledger at Read Plus where the subject is the plusses and minuses of being versatile.

Friday, 29 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 26 Invented characters

It's a great pleasure to be visiting my old friend Saviour Pirotta today and talking about mixing historical and invented characters in a novel. Swords and Sandals

Thursday, 28 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 25

Today I am at A Dream of Books, talking about my five favourite places in Italy. Tomorrow I'll be off to visit some of them!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 24 The Shadow of Death

Some cheery reflections today over at Books for Teens where Jesse Owen gave David a very nice review yesterday

Monday, 25 July 2011

Sunday, 24 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 21 What if?

So sorry about yesterday's late posting of Liz de Jager's review  at My Favourite Books. She had terrible technical problems. And I was on the road and in the theatre and didn't know!

I am definitely today at The History Girls talking about how pondering on what ifs is a way into historical fiction writing.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 20

Today I'm the guest of Liz de Jager on My Favourite Books as part of the month celebrating fiction for under 14s (July 2011).

Friday, 22 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 19 Writer as Sculptor

You can find me here today: Mostly Reading YA thinking about how writing a complex novel is not so different from excavating a figure from a block of marble.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 18 From Concept to Copy

David's "bookends": from the "light-bulb moment" to holding a finished copy. You will find us at Anne Rooney's Stroppy Author blog

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 17 Republican or Medicean?

I'm back at one of my old haunts today: Armadillo blog talking about what appeals about the Republic of Florence and what about the family of de' Medici.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 14 Celebrity

I'm at a virtual Festival today with Bec Kavanagh: A Thousand Words, talking about celebrity and how it was different 500 years ago.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 13 Michelangelo and Monna Lisa

You can find me back in Australia today - my, how this boy David gets about! - at teamouse books: http://www.teamousebooks.com

I am speculating about whether there was a history between the great sculptor and the model for Leonardo's famous portrait.

Friday, 15 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 12 Why 1st Person?

I feel right at home today over with my friend Ann Giles, the Bookwitch,, where I talk about why David is written in the First Person: http://bookwitch.wordpress.com

Saturday, 9 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 6 What’s the attraction of the Renaissance?

Today Mary is blogging at Love That Book about the attraction of the renaissance.

Meanwhile the Renaissance Woman is herself in Italy, so this is her daughter Rhiannon Lassiter posting on her behalf.

Friday, 8 July 2011

BLOG TOUR day 5 Why Italy?

On Friday Mary guest blogged at The Bookette about her long love affair with Italy.

(Rhiannon is posting this on Mary's behalf because she is... guess where?)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Blog of Blogs

It's publication day tomorrow and you must allow me a little gloat here about this fine young man. So far I've been interviewed on Radio 4's Open Book, by the Oxford Times and the Oxford Mail, who married me off to Ross King! (I had a hard time explaining that one to me husband).

Have also had two nice reviews in print (Saturday Times and Financial Times on 2nd July) and the first one, online, was a corker from the Bookbag: http://bit.ly/lLK959

But the real business starts tomorrow, with, TARAAA! The David Blog Tour. You can see the banner with the lsit of dates and places where I'll be for the next month (yes, month!) on the right, a page under Home. Many thanks to Emma Bradshaw at Bloomsbury for helping to organise it and to Anne Rooney for making the banner.

The tour begins, appropriately enough for publication day, at the Blog home (one of them) of Nicola Morgan, whose book Write to be published came out last month. Now, I can't write an unbiased review of this indispensable work, since I urged her to write it and have a quotation from me on the back.

It is the distillation of all her words of wisdom - and how many of them there have been and still are - on her Help I Need a Publisher blog: http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com
If I as the author of over 90 published books find useful stuff in here then you can see how invaluable it is for a beginner.

Anyway, Nicola, thank you for starting the ball rolling for my first Blog Tour.

And while we're on the subject of Blogs, I've started a new joint one, with 25 other writers over at The History Girls: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com If you like historical fiction, do drop by and take a look.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Aurora dawns

This lovely lady is Julie Bertagna and she is my special guest today. The reason is that after a long wait by her fans, the third book in Julie's trilogy has just come out.

I didn't read Exodus when it was first published but came across it when I had to review the second book, Zenith, and realised I really needed to do my homework before I could possibly do justice to the sequel.

Since then I have joined the ranks of "anxious awaiters" and was not disappointed when I read Aurora. Julie very kindly agreed to answer the questions I had in mind when I finished the book.

BM: There have been long gaps between the three books, published 2002, 2007 and this year, 2011. I'm sure the many fans will just be delighted to have the third episode but do you think there will be any problems with readers not remembering all the details from the other two books? Or are they just such avid re-readers that they remember even better than you do!

JB: New editions of all three books of the trilogy have been re-issued with fantastic new covers so I think there will be a whole new generation of readers coming to them afresh. For other readers, I took care in Aurora to explain things as much as I could as I went along, but in a way that didn’t interrupt the momentum of the story - just enough that would make sense, hopefully, for anyone who might be reading Aurora first or who hadn’t read the other books in a while. I always re-read books I liked when I was younger, and the feedback I get from readers tells me they do too. But to recap everything would have made for a very stodgy story. Often readers have picked up on details I’ve forgotten and asked questions that I haven’t thought of and it’s been very helpful!

BM: There is also a time lapse of about fifteen years between books two and three in the action of the novels. This is quite a risk to take with readers who have been on a cliff hanger for four years about Mara and Fox. Can you explain why you took this bold step?

JB: I think you should take risks as a writer. That’s part of the reason I’m writing YA fiction. I think it’s my job to take readers places they might not have expected or thought they wanted to go. Books would be very dull if authors were continually asking themselves, will the readers like this or is it too risky? Should I just play safe? I moved the action forward because, quite simply, it would have been a lesser story if I hadn’t. It would have been limited to one generation when this is a big epic tale that spans generations, different worlds and lives. Some people have been hooked and intrigued straight off, others have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to go there and make that jump in time but then I got lost in the story again...’ I’ve often had exactly that reaction when reading a book, but the challenge is worth it as I love big stories that take you on unexpected journeys.

BM: Would you yourself describe these books as "dystopian"? It seems to be the current buzz word but was new in 2002. Perhaps Exodus was an early example of dystopian YA fiction?

Dystopian seems to be an umbrella word for anything futuristic right now. Exodus was out on its own when it was published as there was really nothing else like it, and it felt like a risky book to write, so it’s strange suddenly to be part of a ‘hot trend’. The sky city empire in the Exodus trilogy is a dystopian regime which has shut out the refugees of the flooded world, but the rest of the novel is apocalyptic. So maybe my trilogy could be described as ‘Dystopalyptic’ - there, I’ve just invented a new buzz word!

BM: It's really a very political book or books, with the widening post eco-disaster gap between the haves and have-nots. Are you also telling us something about the present?

JB: All the ideas for these books have come out of the real world - from my first inspiration of the Kiribati islanders struggling to survive on scraps of land amid rising seas in the Pacific, to the boat camps of flood refugees and rampaging gypsea pirates, the bio-architecture of the sky city towers, and the walled cities in a time when we are debating the problems of mass migration into ‘Fortress Europe’. Speculative fiction about the future has a big punch when you can feel its roots stretching back into the real present, and see reflections of your own world in the imagined future of the story. But these books don’t preach - it’s up to readers to take what they want from these stories. I do find that they spark great debates and questions and opinions.

Just the other day I did an event in a library where I was talking up the need to keep our libraries open and one of my young audience said, ‘This fight for libraries is kind of like Fox’s revolution to keep the world’s lands free for the boat people.’ That was not a parallel that had ever occurred to me, but I liked it!

BM: I don't want to give any spoilers in this interview but do you think your readers will be satisfied by the ending of the story between Mara and Fox?

JB: One thing I’ve learned about my readers is that a whole lot of them would be insulted by an obvious, trite or sentimental ‘Hollywood’ ending - and so would my characters! I’ve had so many emails and there are debates on my talk forum on all kinds of reasons for and against Mara and Fox ending up together - everyone disagrees with everyone else. It’s great fun and I could never please them all.

I wanted to write an ending where you couldn’t just turn to the back page and find out what happened (as I can be shamefully guilty of doing). All three books of the trilogy end with a surge of forward momentum. There are rewards for careful readers - for example, Exodus opens with ‘once upon a time’ and Aurora ends with the same words. These words also link Mara and Fox and this theme - the power of stories - is at the heart of the books. I wonder if anyone will spot the elements of the ‘stone-telling’ prophecy in Exodus hidden in the ending of Aurora. That’s the kind of subtle detail that my readers seem to enjoy.

I love evocative endings that leave space for the reader to imagine. For me, the most powerful stories are the ones where the imaginations of the writer and reader work together. The best books I’ve ever read, the ones that have stayed with me, have left me haunted, provoked, infuriated, driven me crazy, left me wondering and imagining, sometimes for years...whereas ‘satisfying’ crowd-pleasers, cut and dried happy-ever-afters, have long vanished from my mind.

The ending of Aurora is a whole new beginning and that’s why it ends with ‘once upon a time’.

BM: I must ask because people always want to know: is this the end of the story?

JB: I’m working on a big new book called ‘Riven’ - it might end up as two - about a very different future and it’s very exciting so I’m all caught up in that. Maybe one day I will return to the world of the Exodus trilogy but that’s it for now.

A little bit more about Julie:

Julie Bertagna was born in Ayrshire and grew up near Glasgow. After an English degree at Glasgow University she worked as the editor of a small magazine, a teacher and then a freelance journalist. She has written many award-winning novels for teenagers and younger children and speaks in schools, libraries and at book festivals across the UK. Her books have also sold all over the world. Exodus, her first novel for Macmillan, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and was described by the Guardian as ‘a miracle of a novel’. Julie writes full-time and lives in Glasgow with her family.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Deadly Desperados

It was such fun having Caroline Lawrence drop by last Sunday to talk about the background to her new Western Mysteries series that I ran out of space to review the first book!

And I really wanted to tell you about it because it's quite a remarkable book with an even more remarkable hero. Looked at one way, the book seems like a locus classicus for every theme and incident you ever heard about the Wild West:

Saloon bars; card sharps, mining claims; Indians, scalpings, sharpshooters, men in buckskins. It reminded me a bit of watching Roy Rogers at Saturday Morning Pictures - something Caroline is too young and too American to know about.

But wait, the scalpings haven't been done by Indians, our hero has lost all four of his parents (biological and foster) so is a double orphan and the card sharp is one of the most honest characters in the book. It is as if Caroline Lawrence has collected all the clichés and stereotypes about the West and then polished them to a bright new shine, like the silver in them thar hills, so that we meet them newly minted.

Which is of course what a child reader will do.

And that hero, P.K.(Pinky) Pinkerton is not like other boys. Caroline never uses the word "Asperger's" but the clues are there: P.K. does not like to be touched, can't easily read other people's faces and doesn't express emotion on his own. (This makes him an excellent poker player potentially).

He wears a lot of disguises and there is even what I thought might be going to be a Tyke Tyler moment of revelation towards the end but the author keeps us guessing. So, P.K., who had almost witnessed the murder of his foster parents and holds an important McGuffin (the apparent letter of deed to a silver mine) has to evade and outwit three horrible pursuers, including Whittling Walt, so called because he likes to cut small bits off people while questioning them.

P.K. gets tricked easily and is far too trusting, but he does meet Mark Twain in the newspaper offices and Poker Face Jace in the saloon, who are both genuinely helpful. Still at the climax of the chase, only P.K. can save himself.

My only concern is where can the series possibly go next - hasn't Caroline Lawrence used up all her possible plots in one book? But this was the author who wrote 17 Roman Mysteries in her earlier series and P.K. wants to be a detective, so I'm guessing there will be lots more mysteries for him to solve. And in P.K. I think his creator has invented a true original.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Romans 17, Cowboys 1 (but rising)

The Book Maven is delighted to welcome Caroline Lawrence, who is stopping off for a metaphorical slug of liquor and plug of baccy on her demanding blog tour for The case of the Deadly Desperados. And here she is, for once not dressed in a toga or full set of buckskins!

                                                WESTERN vs ROMAN

For most of the past ten years I've had a fabulous time writing a history-mystery series for kids set in ancient Rome.

My main motivation for writing is to transport myself to another place and time. I write about places Id like to have lived; civilized towns with a hint of danger and unpredictability, and populated by intriguing historical figures. While writing my Roman Mysteries, I have met Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, the Emperor Titus and his brother Domitian, the astrologer Ascletario, the orator Quintilian, and Suetonius biographer of the Caesars  when he was twelve years old.

But now I've turned my eyes to the west, the Wild West. So how did I get from first century Rome to nineteenth century America?

It was HBO's Deadwood that rekindled my interest in the Western genre. When I saw the first episode of this TV series in 2005, I had a eureka moment: THAT's what it would have been like! Grimy, grubby & unglamorous. No swinging saloon doors, no shootouts, no glossy saloon girls in ruffles. Instead writer David Milch and his crew gave us canvas pest-tents, knifings, and sorry-looking dope addicts. It was full-frontal, profane, and violent, sometimes almost too violent to watch. This is a shame, because the producers did such a marvellous job of recreating that look and feel of a mining camp in the 1870s.

Deadwood sparked my interest in Westerns because I wanted to see more of this world, which was the world of my own heritage. I had abandoned the US a few decades previously to study in the UK, and ended up settling here. But now I wanted to read about my ancestors: grizzled men, gutsy women and pioneer children. I craved big skies, sage-dotted deserts and shadowed canyons. I started to re-watch Westerns I hadn't seen in years. After Deadwood, most of them seemed laughably clean and unrealistic, but a few were as fresh and vital as the day they had first been screened. I was entranced by Eagle's Wing, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josie Wales and Dances with Wolves.

Then I saw The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, a spaghetti western from 1966. I remembered it as being rather silly, perhaps because of its famous theme song. But as I watched the remastered extended version I was amazed at how good it was. Exciting, clever, surprising, and blackly funny. And, like Deadwood, it got the look exactly right: grubby, dusty and sweaty. I fell utterly in love with this film. When I went to IMDb viewers ratings, I saw I wasn't alone. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo -- its original Italian title -- has consistently held a place in the top 5 films of all time.

Around that time a friend gave me a copy of Charles Portiss' True Grit, which I adored. I also started reading Larry McMurtry and Robert B Parker's Appaloosa series. All three authors employ wonderful dialogue and turn of phrase, but use such plain prose and clear vocabulary that a middle school child could easily read any their books, were it not for the content.

Another eureka moment came a few months later when I was visiting my mother in Northern California, sitting in a sunny outdoor cafe on a university campus. I suddenly thought, Why am I not writing a series of books set here? At that moment I resolved to write a new series based in the American West. Like the Roman Mysteries, it would be history-mystery, and like them for the 8 - 12 age group.

The only problem was exactly where and precisely when to set it? The West is so big, and the scope of American history so vast, but for time travel to work you need to be specific.

The following week found me in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. I went for an early morning walk and discovered a National Park. I didn't have time to do any hiking, but I came away from the ranger station clutching a map dotted with wonderful names like Mt. Disappointment and Hard Luck. An idea was taking shape in my head. As soon as I got back to my room, I wrote the first few pages of what was to be the first Western Mystery. Here is the original first line of those original first pages:

"My name is Pinky, and I was born in Hard Luck, not far from Mount Disappointment. That pretty much sums up my short and miserable life. Which is anyways soon about to end."

That was in October of 2006, five years ago. In that early version the character of P.K. (Pinky) Pinkerton emerged from my subconscious pretty much fully grown. All the essential elements were there: an enigmatic and slightly dysfunctional hero who is half white and half Indian, deadpan humour and an air of excitement and threat.

I had my guide. Now I needed my setting. The San Gabriel Mountains, while beautiful, didnt feel right. I then toyed with the idea of setting the books in San Francisco during the gold rush. Then I discovered something I hadn't known: Samuel Clemens lived in the west for a few years as a young man. His worked as a reporter for a two and a half years in Virginia City, Nevada during its most exciting period: the silver boom years. It was there that he first used the pen-name Mark Twain.

I had my third eureka moment. For my Roman Mysteries, the eruption of Vesuvius had given me a place and a time: 24 August AD 79, and that series lasted for the two and a half year reign of Titus. For my Western Mysteries, the arrival in Virginia City of Mark Twain would gave me not just a place, but a very specific time: Friday 26 September 1862, and my series could last for the two and a half year reign of Twain.

In researching my new series I have been to the Melody Ranch, California where Deadwood was filmed  and also to Virginia City, Nevada. My husband, my sister and I have done a Civil War tour, an Arizona Dude Ranch and a Death Valley road trip. I am learning about 19th century American music, theatre, photography, clothing and tobacco. I'm getting to know Mark Twain and some lesser-known but equally-fascinating sage-brush writers such as Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman and Alf Doten. I've also met some gutsy gals and pioneer kids. Virginia City and the area around it will be a great place to spend the next decade. An interviewer recently asked me this question: If you had a time machine, would you go back to ancient Rome or the Wild West? I couldn't answer her, because I am so passionate about both periods.

Five connections between Ancient Rome and the Wild West:

1. Both were horse-powered societies.
2. The state of medical knowledge was about the same.
3. The best westerns were made by a Roman director, Sergio Leone.
4. David Milch only conceived of the Deadwood after being thwarted in his hopes to do a series about Nero's Rome.
5. Samuel Clemens claims to trace his family line back to Flavius Clemens, a relative of the emperor Titus.

Caroline Lawrence writes historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine. She writes for kids 8 - 12 because that is her inner age. Caroline divides her time between 1st century Ostia and 19th century Nevada. In a manner totally befitting a split-personality Gemini, this Californian Londoner has two websites, one for her Roman Mysteries and one for her Western Mysteries.



 There are two more stops left on Caroline's blog tour:

Mon 13 June http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog – Caroline Lawrence on tips for writing historical fiction
Tues 14 June www.westernmysteries.co.uk – Inhabiting the West

Monday, 6 June 2011

Dissing Dystopia?

The Web is buzzing with the sound of trapped flies again. This time it's a journalist called Megan Cox Gurdon, writing in the Wall Street Journal, causing the vibrations:

Admittedly, her reference points are American, as you would expect, but I have some thoughts - indeed experience - to share on this. For a start, that word "dystopian", which Ms Cox Gurdon doesn't actually use but which is lurking behind her article. It was coined by those who mistakenly believed it was the opposite of "utopian." They thought that Thomas More's "Utopia" was a mistransliteration of the Greek for "good place", with the prefix "eu" (as in "euphony" or "euphemism"), whereas the first letter actually represented "ou" or "not."

Therefore Utopia means "the nowhere place" not "the good place" and "dystopia" is not its opposite. Glad we got that cleared up.
The journalist is not very knowledgeable about children's books, saying that "40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing." Maybe it's her Maths that is off, because I make that 1971, the year before my first book was published. No such thing as young adult literature? It wasn't called that and it might not all have been "dystopian" but it was certainly there.

Alan Garner's The Owl Service was published in 1967, Paul Zindels' The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger a few years later. Peter Dickinson's Changes trilogy was from the same period, beginning in 1968; John Christopher's Tripods series began at the same time. And this was also the period when novels originally ostensibly for adults, like Lord of the Flies (1958) and Catcher in the Rye (1951) were being given to teenagers to read because of the age of their protagonists.

But let that pass. Is there anything in the writer's main contention that the basic material for YA literature today is overwhelmingly bleak? Well, perhaps. To take speculative fiction first, there is no doubt that ever since  Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, the latest trend in YA has been towards the dystopian: Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Philip Reeve's quartet that began with Mortal Engines, Julie Bertagna's post eco-disaster trilogy (Exodus; Zenith; Aurora); William Nicholson's Windsinger trilogy; Cassandra Clare's really rather bad "City of ..." novels ... the list could go on and on.

But it followed the previous bestselling trend of paranormal romance, set off by Stephenie Meter with her ridiculous vampires and werewolves and though not as child-friendly as Harry Potter (which certainly had its darker aspects) was hardly corruptingly evil.

I think the journalist is thinking more of books like Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, though she doesn't mention it, perhaps because it's by an Australian and this is a US-centric article. Or Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden, a brother-sister incest novel about to be published across the pond.

Self-harm especially exercises this author:
"it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care."

This interests me because my current protagonist is a self-harmer and since the book I am writing is sixth in the Stravaganza sequence, there is a mixture of "real life" events and something more speculative as the heroine of City of Swords has the uncommon experience of travelling to a time and place where cutting with sharp weapons is about to become commonplace as a city experiences civil war and siege.

I don't see it, as Ms Cox Gurdon expresses it as bulldozing coarseness and or misery into children's lives. YA readers in my experience are very good at ceasing to read material that does not interest them, without the intervention of parents. But teenagers have a very wide experience of ways of being unhappy; in my books I try to help them come to terms with those, specifically to understand that hard times do not endure forever.

I think Ms Cox Gurdon is right in a way about vogues. A particular genre arises as a trend out of one or two bestselling titles then settles down to being just one of a range of possible genres. the next after dystopian will probably be "historical" something you couldn't sell for love nor money "40 years ago."

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A perfect picture book

They don't come along very often: the Ahlbergs' Each, Peach, Pear, Plum; Jez Alborough's Where's My Teddy; Margaret Mahy's Jam; Emily Gravett's Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear - each of these is for me a perfect picture book. So what do they have in common?

Not necessarily having the same illustrator as writer, as the list shows. Or being for one age group or audience. It is the combination of words and pictures which gives total satisfaction.

I have long been an admirer of Penny Dale, since I first saw Once there were Giants (Walker Books). (Actually that book could make the above list too). But with Dinosaur Dig, she has excelled herself.

Let me count the ways: Dinosaurs - tick; Diggers - tick; counting - tick; proper story - tick. And here's the bonus point: endpapers where the front one gives all the dinosaurs their proper names  and the back one ALL THE DIGGERS!

Elementary, you might say. Yeah? Then why hasn't anyone else done it? The combination of all these elements makes something more than the sum of its parts. I shall, with great reluctance, part with it to my nephew this weekend, who is about to be four. And I know he's going to love it as much as I do.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Bracelet of Bones

Quercus has just won the Bookseller Publisher of the Year Award. That might have something to do with the huge success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. But I'd like to think their quiet crescendo of excellent children's books might have contributed to their success.

Grgeory Hughes' début novel Unhooking the Moon won the Booktrust Teenage Book Award last year and is on the shortlist for the Branford Boase Award, where it shares the honour with editor Roisin Heycock.

More and more these days when you hear of a good YA novel, it seems as if it will have come from a small independent press, often Quercus. And now the treat of a new novel from Kevin Crossley-Holland, first in a series of Viking adventures.

My first glance at the cover of Bracelet of Bones, showed me a girl in a modern raincoat and I couldn't quite get that out of my head. Difficult to know what a Viking teenage girl might have looked like but not quite this. Closer inspection showed my mistake but the damage was done.

No matter for the writing soon corrects any misunderstanding. Solveig is being shown a battlefield by her father, Halfdan. As it turns out, it is his farewell gesture because he is leaving to join Harald Hardrada in Constantinople but he doesn't tell his daughter.

From the moment she discovers his departure Solveig determines not to stay with her stepmother but to wait for spring and follow Halfdan on this enormous journey. All she has to offer are her skills as a carver. There's a handy map tracing her passage from Trondheim in Norway across seas and down rivers to what the Vikings call Miklagard.

It was here a few years ago that Kevin Crossley-Holland found carved into the stone of Hagia Sophia, in Viking runes, the name, Halfdan, and that is how the story began. Solveig's journey is made mostly by ship and the skipper of that ship is the trader Red Ottar. We gradually get to know the other people on board - Torsten the helmsman, Vigot, the handsome but cruel mercenary, Edith, Ottar's English Slave and the terrifying cook, Bergdis.

A lot of "difficult" names for the 11+ reader the book is intended for but there is a useful cast-list at the beginning along with the map. The reader sets out on the journey of the book rather like the passengers on the ship but with these navigational aids you have a literary chart and astrolabe to orient yourself with.

It's a book that grows gradually on you and you realise that you have come to care about the characters. Solveig's single-minded determination to find her father is respected by many but there are others willing to take advantage of the ignorance of this fourteen-year-old adrift in the world. The hardships of such a journey are not played down and nor is the conflict between the old gods and the new Christianity that some, like Edith, practise.

There is a strong awareness of moral ambiguity; people are not easily classifiable and even a mostly bad man is capable of a good act. Kevin Crossley-Holland is very good at showing you the complexity of human nature and there is nothing like the closed community of life aboard ship to bring this out.

A book for a thoughtful early teen. Like Solveig in fact.