Saturday, 28 April 2012

Shakespeare or Hitler?

The Chandos Portrait, National Portrait Gallery, London
Shakespeare had a birthday this month and so did I. Unfortunately they did not coincide. They would have done if my mother had waited three days. Instead, I share a birthday with Adolf Hitler. In fact one friend who couldn't remember the date, looked up Hitler on the Net to find out when my birthday was. (You see she remembered that coincidence).

Another friend emailed "I know your birthday is the same as Hitler's but I always think of it at Shakespeare's" - which was consoling.

But actually no-one knows when Shakespeare was born. He died on 23rd April 1616 and had been baptised 26th April 1564. It was customary to baptise babies within days of their birth in the mid-sixteenth century. Hence the convenience of assigning him one date for the beginning and end of his life.

But who knows? Maybe he was born weak and "peely-wally" like me? (I was born with bronchitis and my lungs are still my weak point). Maybe he could have been born on the same day as I was? Or rather the other way round.

Whatever, I have been enjoying all the Shakespeariana  in the media, especially James Shapiro's The King and the Playwright on BBC2 (Mondays at 9pm), which coincides nicely with a period currently interesting me. And Neil McGregor's Shakespeare's Restless World on Radio 4 each day at 1.45pm, where he takes an object as in The World in a Hundred Objects, as a starting point. We've had John Dee's obsidian mirror this week and a model of a bewitched ship - great stuff!

But if I had been born on 23rd April, I would not have been an Aries and I definitely am. Some horoscopes try to tell me Aries stops on 19th but I know better. - "independent, generous, optimistic, enthusiastic, courageous, moody, short tempered, self-involved, impulsive, impatient" says the first website I check and goes on about being ambitious and jealous and not the best mate for a domineering man.

Hmn. Closer to Hitler than Shakespeare, methinks.

Of course it's all nonsense but I do find myself identifying with these traits. How about you?

Do you share a birthday with someone famous and do you feel happy about it? What about zodiac sign and traits? Can you find anything to identify with there?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012

This was my favourite stand at the London Book Fair, where I was Monday to Wednesday. It was from Romania, who were not the official guests, but more of that anon. Cool, isn't it?

Monday was light for me with a chance to snoop around after coffee with writer friends. (Indeed there was a point where five of us* were Tweeting from smartphones or iPads that we were having coffee together, instead of talking to one another!) Earls Court 1 was very crowded and I heard many stories of people tripping over bits of stands or other people in the melée. I bumped into people myself but in a good way.

I went to a YA seminar chaired by Julia Eccleshare, with Celia Rees and Nick Lake as speakers. Asked whether it was harder to be a teenager now than in the past, Nick Lake said this was a better time to be gay, or black than at earlier periods. "We have exported horror to other countries." But Celia Rees talked about the numerous small choices young people had to make every day.

And Julia Eccleshare made the very good point that, "Big successes drive underground books we know are better."

I had to dash off just as Candy Gourlay was asking a question because I had an hour long session coming up with a publisher, which was very profitable - watch this space.

Monday night saw ten  writers, some of whom had been to the Fair and some not, gathered for a Thai meal just off Oxford Street. One man and nine women, which tells you something about writing for children and teens.

Actually it wasn't the first writerly dinner because we had assembled for one on Sunday, just five of us. I went to the Fair with two very good friends. Here is one of them, Lucy Coats, who was making a film on her iPad; I'll add the link when she has put it on her blog.

This was right opposite the Illustrators' Bar, where we seemed to start every day with a meeting over coffee. On Tuesday it was Kit Berry of Stonewylde fame. The other good friend, Anne Rooney, dashed off to collect her set of seven Vampire Dawn books (6 novels and a manual, Bloodsucking for Beginners) from the Ransom stand. It was publication day! These are for reluctant readers - no reason why they shouldn't have their own vampire series - and I'll be blogging about them when I've read them.

On her way back to the coffee bar, Anne had been accosted by a man with no shirt on who "wanted to give her something." Turned out to be a free copy of E.L.James's bestselling erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. That, unlike the man, has received enough coverage.

Tuesday was my busiest day at the Fair. Meeting with a journalist, lunch with a literary agent and film scout in the US (an old friend), then a very productive meeting with the people at Frances Lincoln. Editor and Art Director as before but now joined by my illustrator for the Great Big Books of .... Ros Asquith.

Then off to a seminar on deafness and disability, with a huge panel of speakers, including Ros and Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson. Had to dash away before the end of that too in order to make the Tweet-up, which was congregating in the - guess where? - Illustrators' Bar. Now, for the benefit of those who don't use this method of communication, a Tweet-up is a meeting in real life of those who know each other on Twitter.

It was fine at the Fair but once the Exhibition Halls closed we all trooped off to a club called the mango Lounge, which was noisy and dark. After one bottle of Prosecco and meeting @FlossieTeacake, who had just been a Twittername to me before, we decamped for a nice Chinese meal and a chat to Lucy's husband, known in her blog as the Wanton Toast Eater. (We did not have Won-ton though).

Back to the Fair on Wednesday for coffee with Celia Rees and a quick dash to secure seats for what we knew would be a popular interview with Patrick Ness. Bagged seats in the front row, with Celia Rees and Beverley Naidoo, Candy Gourlay sitting behind us. Lucy filmed the whole thing and I'm sorry I don't have a photo for you. I was busy "live-Tweeting" the event and making notes so that was quite multi-tasking enough.

Patrick was Author of the Day for Wednesday, a well-deserved honour. His Chaos Walking trilogy won for each successive book, the Guardian Award, The Costa and the Carnegie Medal! His current book, A Monster Calls, his best yet in my opinion, is also shortlisted for the Carnegie and, if I were a betting woman, I'd be off to William Hill for a punt.

Anyway, this was a real highlight with very considered questions from Sunday Times journalist Nicolette Jones and brilliant answers from Patrick. Nicolette questioned him quite closely about the waterboarding scene in The Ask and the Answer and he told us that he often, as an exercise with writing studies, got them to think about someone they loved and then imagine a scene of violence against that person. He said that if there is violence required by the plot, it should always feel as horrible for the reader as if it were happened to someone close to them.

Celia asked how much he knew when he started out on a novel and the answer was "the beginning, the end and three great scenes," adding that all a good book needed was three to five great scenes and no bad ones!

I won't write more about it, as I hope to put a link to the whole talk but he was charming, articulate, modest and intelligent throughout.

Patrick's talk was in Hall 2, where there was also an App Zone and a Digital Zone. Not to mention a Digital Lounge and a Digital Zone theatre. It was clear what the theme of the future was to be, even if agents and publishers were all beavering away in Hall 1 selling Rights on primarily paper books, with electronic Rights as a sort of add-on

The Fair had been preceded by a weekend conference called Digital Minds, where it was predicted that  trade e-books sold would overttake hardbacks in 2014 and paperbacks in 1216.

The official guests at the Fair were China but I am not posting a picture of their displays, not of a country where only "approved" writers could come as guests.

Instead I'll finish with a familiar image in a new context. Little, Brown were very proud of their upcoming coup, A Casual Vacancy, the first adult novel by a certain J.K.Rowling, whose image dominated the Hachette stand:

*me, Anne Rooney, Lucy Coats, Nicola Morgan and Gillian Philip.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The ?Joy of Writing

I have been spending a lot of time with other writers lately. First in Bologna then recently in London with three others that spanned three continents of origin. Another the next day, and next week will be full of them, at London Book Fair, at Tweet-ups and social meetings.

It is however unusual for us to talk about our own writing. Reading other people's, yes. But hardly ever do we talk about the process of our own fiction-making. Agents, editors, money, yes; creation, no.

However, recently I have and it was interesting to hear one person say how much (s)he hated the actual business of writing. It set me thinking. We all know that it can be difficult, that there are days when nothing comes right - or even comes at all.

We all know about the problems that the publishing industry is experiencing currently, and about Internet trolls giving our books horrible reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, sometimes in order to promote their own. We know about the brave Oscar-losers' face we sometimes have to adopt when we experience the opposite of Schadenfreude at our writer friends' successes.

But hating the act of writing itself? I had to think about that.

When it's going well, it's like nothing else in the world, except for ecstatic sex or maybe flying. (NB: Do not try this at home - it rarely happens this way). You have to believe that what you are writing is the best thing since Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Proust and Margaret Atwood all rolled into one. (And that's just the first page!).

But here's the mysterious thing. I have experienced writing on a roll and I have known days when it was like pulling teeth from an unanaesthetised crocodile, but how I feel while I'm doing it has no influence at all on how the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the whole book itself turns out - none at all!

Watching a writer at work is about as interesting as the traditional pastime of waiting while paint dries, which is presumably why Visconti chose to turn Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach from a writer into a composer when he made Death in Venice. It gave him a great soundtrack too; what would be the writer's equivalent of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony? From what Facebook tells me, more writers listen to Lady Gaga.

Still, the writer who was lamenting the pain of the job is a good one, whose end results are very satisfactory.  It's the process that is agony, not the end product.

So here's a question for those of you who write: is it pleasure or pain, agony or ecstasy?

Friday, 6 April 2012


Miriam Halahmy has pulled off a difficult trick - a second novel as good as her first. Hidden dealt with tough topics like illegal immigration and Illegal is just as hard-hitting. But it takes a minor character from the first book and makes her the heroine of the second, an elegant device.

The three books set all or partly on Hayling Island form what Miriam Halahmy calls a "cycle" - definitely not a trilogy.

On the face of it, Lindy doesn't have much going for her. Her parents don't work, her two older brothers are in prison and Young Offenders' Institution respectively, her baby sister has died and her younger brother is neglected and needy. Then a cousin offers her easy work watering his plants for cash in hand. Only those plants are a cannabis farm and the cousin is a drug dealer.

Why would you want to read the book after such a synopsis? Well, perhaps because Hidden was a fine début, dealing with a difficult subject in a fresh and positive way. But I can promise if you do pick it up to read you will be totally hooked.

I read it in one long gulp - just over two hours - unable to stop. Yes, Lindy's situation is terrible and getting worse by the minute, since cousin Colin now has her delivering packets of cocaine. Her parents seem quite catatonic since the death of the baby and Lindy doesn't have proper food or clothes. She feels desperately trapped and doomed to follow her brothers into custody.

"That's the trouble with the Bellows family," says school bully Jess. "They're all brain dead."

But we know that Lindy has capabilities, as does her English teacher. It's just that, like so many children, she has had a rotten start in life.

There are two bright points though: first the devotion of her little brother Sean, who is asthmatic and a bit clingy but brings out all Lindy's good qualities of caring and nurturing. Then there is Karl, the elective mute, who is jeered at in school for being a "retard" but is actually intellectually gifted. He and Lindy form a cautious, jumpy alliance and he finds his voice when he sees her in a desperate situation.

This leads to a heart-thumping finale in which Lindy, Karl, Sean and unlikely ally Jess need to act together to thwart the drug dealers, Colin and his sinister tooled-up friend known as Elf because of his pointed ears. It could have been a bit Scooby-Do with a lesser hand guiding the story. But it all works.

And, as with Hidden, there is hope at the end. I imagine these titles are immensely popular with teen readers, because there is no gilding of the lily; Miriam Halahmy was a special needs teacher for many years in London and knows what she is talking about. I'll be looking forward to Stuffed, the third book in the cycle.