A selection of interviews with writers from a variety of genres. From an author / illustrator of graphic novels, to historical fiction and psychological teenage thrillers. Gain an insight into the mind of a writer and hear some of their thoughts about their own work. Perhaps even pick up some writing tips!
Illustrator and writer Sarah McIntyre is, among many other things, the brains and the pencil behind Vern and Lettuce – a comic strip from the DFC made book form last year as part of the DFC Library. She kindly let me ask her some questions about the book and about children’s books in general, while I subtly suggested she should write more Vern and Lettuce…
Most importantly – will there be more Vern and Lettuce??
Yes! I’m working on a few other books first, but David Fickling has signed me up to illustrate a picture book about Vern and Lettuce that I’ve already written. There might be more comics, too, but you’ll have to wait and see! Vern and Lettuce do tend to pop up on my blog, where they get up to all sorts of antics. Last time I checked, they were riding around the countryside on a paper tractor.
Where did you get the idea for the characters?
I based Vern on a sheep I’d made out of clay at Christmas, when everyone else was watching telly and I was mucking about with Sculpey clay in the kitchen. I had no idea at the time that my clay sheep was going to star in a comic. I made the first strip just about Vern, but then he seemed a bit lonely, so I gave him a rabbit friend who would be as unlike Vern as someone could be.
Who out of Vern and Lettuce do you think you are most like?
Definitely Lettuce, although Vern’s even more like my husband, Stuart. Stuart’s very careful, considerate and house-proud, whereas I tend to be more impulsive and messy.
Do you have a favourite moment in the book? (Mine is any bit with Lettuce’s brothers and sister in really, but particularly when they add raisins to Vern’s cake!)
That’s funny, a lot of people tell me that’s their favourite page! Everyone likes a poo joke. Perhaps my favourite scene is when they fly back home over London in an airship. Before Vern and Lettuce, I did a comics jam with my friend David O’Connell called Airship, and we took turns drawing each page, setting ourselves a time limit of one hour per page. I made this scene of an airship flying over London, but I couldn’t draw much building detail in an hour. So when I made Vern and Lettuce, I was glad for the chance to muck in and draw the scene more carefully. And it made me very happy, thinking about how much fun Vern and Lettuce would be having way up there over their city.
Who are your favourite writers and illustrators?
My work’s very influenced by Satoshi Kitamura, Posy Simmonds and Maurice Sendak, as well as a lot of Russian painters I discovered while studying Russian literature for my university degree. I’ve learned loads from the other comic artists from the DFC (a weekly comics magazine which is now published in book form by David Fickling). But I’ve made a lot of good writer and illustrator friends over the past few years, including my studio mates at the Fleece Station: Gary Northfield (you might know his Derek the Sheep comic), Lauren O’Farrell (who’s the queen of graffiti knitting) and comics artist Ellen Lindner. Viviane Schwarz and I love mucking around with craft stuff and recently Philip Reeve and I have had fun drawing landscapes and trees where we live (Dartmoor and London), posting them on our blogs, and comparing notes. (My blog is jabberworks.livejournal.com and Philip posts his drawings at philipreeve.tumblr.com.)
A classic – you are trapped on a desert island and are only allowed three books. Which would they be? I think my answer might change every time you ask me! But right now I’d say these three:
The Twenty-one Balloons by William Pène du Bois: It’s about a balloonist who crash-lands on a tropical island, only to find it’s inhabited by vastly wealthy and hugely eccentric inventors. I think a book like this would keep me entertained by reminding me that my island could host all sorts of weird and wonderful stories.
Vainglory by Geraldine McCaughrean: I’d bring this because I’m right in the middle of reading it right now, and every chapter has its own amazing story within the bigger story. So it would feel like I had more than three books, and I could take time to understand how she’s managed to write it so beautifully.
Watership Down by Richard Adams: Even though this book is about rabbits, it’s a wonderful reminder of how communities work, and I think reading it might make me feel less lonely. I love how all the different rabbit all have very distinct personalities, and the last bit is so wonderfully exciting when the rabbits escape from the Efrafa rabbit police state and defend their warren from attack.
Could you tell us a bit about the events in schools and comic book workshops that you have done – what goes on?
I’ve had loads of fun making monsters and aliens with kids and adults alike; the great thing about making a monster is no one can tell you that you’re drawing it wrong. They always have fun being disgusted by the dung and bogeys in Morris the Mankiest Monster. We’ve had a great time coming up with stories about our monsters and aliens, and making comics with older children and adults. Lately I’ve started doing workshops about railway journeys, getting kids to design their own railway carriages (filled with zany passengers) and creating their own adventure board game. I’ve also had a lot of fun doing joint events with people, such as monster making with Steve Cole and Robot Wars with Neill Cameron, who created another book in the DFC Library called Mo-Bot High. Neill draws one of his Mo-bots, I draw Vern the sheep, and the kids help us kit them out for battle and then decide on the winner. Usually when the kids are younger, they come up with fairly serious, hard-core battle gear and the Mo-bot wins, whereas older kids and adults come up with silly accessories and let the sheep win.
Do you have any tips for young comic book artists?
Keep a sketchbook and draw in it all the time. Experiment with new ways of drawing, and jot down ideas for stories. Don’t be embarrassed about copying other artists’ characters to practice new ways of drawing, but then try to tie in details from real life so you can start drawing characters that look like your own unique creations. Try setting some comics in the everyday life you see around you, and then contrast that by drawing comics set in far-off places you’ve made up or researched. Keep in mind that a very important thing is clarity, that people can read your writing and understand at all time what’s happening in your story. So don’t make your pages so complicated that they’re hard to look at, or your writing so small and cramped that no one can read it. Give your characters space to breathe.
If you could be any character from a book, who would it be?
I’d be Roxanne from Cyrano de Bergerac, except if I was living the story, I would change it by not being stupid like Roxanne, and figure out pretty quick that it was Cyrano writing me love letters all along, not that poseur pretty boy, Christian. Then we’d get to have some great time together, instead of realising I’m in love with him two minutes before he dies. Cyrano’s death is so poignant in the book, but I couldn’t string him on like that if I went in knowing what I already know as a reader. It’s an old French play, not a book, but Geraldine McCaughrean has written a good adaptation that I read fairly recently. (But the film version with Gerard Depardieu is still my favourite telling of the story.)
And finally... (because this is Armadillo and because Vern and Lettuce are a sheep and rabbit duo , so I'm sensing an animal theme) ...would you rather be a flying monkey or an invisible penguin?
Flying monkey. Or a flying gibbon. I met some gibbons when I was travelling in Thailand; one mama gibbon came right up to the side of the big cage in Chiang Mai zoo, stuck her hand through a hole in the fence and we held hands for nearly an hour. She sat there looking at me so very thoughtfully and it made me a bit teary, she was so lovely. We also stayed in a cottage in Khao Yai National Park where loads of gibbons were leaping in the tree branches above us and making the most amazing hooting noises. I was totally smitten with them.
Flying away with Jill Hucklesby
Jill Hucklesby, author of If I Could Fly, has kindly taken some time to answer a few questions that I was fortunate enough to be able to pose to her on behalf of you, the readers.
I hope that you find this an interesting insight into what I thought it was the most beautifully written and moving book. I was quite touched by the time I had finished it and needed time to sit quietly and reflect on its beauty, simplicity and power. I love the way the story develops with the real twist coming so close to the end yet it is powerful, thrilling and also amusing. I hope that with these questions you will be able understand a little more about the process Jill underwent to write it
Your writing style is very concise and to the point. How did you develop this style and when did you actually start writing?
I remember writing stories and poems when I was five – it seemed natural to respond to things around me by putting my thoughts into words. I was the youngest of four children, quite quiet, as my siblings were quite a bit older, and noisy, and I wasn’t very good at articulating things verbally. Given the choice, I still prefer to write rather than speak.
My first professional creative writing work was as a screenwriter and it’s a precise, concise discipline. Characters have few lines – every word and every silence has a weight. I was a journalist before this – deadlines and the factual ‘bones’ of a story were the driving forces, and I think my normal instinct because of this is to get the story down.
If I Could Fly felt different from my first two books from the arrival of the initial idea. It seemed to have an urgency about it and some danger for Caly. The action seemed to drive the narrative and probably helped keep things moving along. (Together with reminders from my lovely editor, Ali, to focus on ‘pace, pace, pace’ !)
Did you always intend to write professionally and for children or did it just happen?
I knew I wanted and needed to write. I wasn’t sure of a direction though, or whether I would be able to make a success of it. Writing shows at university started the quest. My first job was as a producer for a children’s theatre group, adapting work for presentation. Journalism and PR work took me to London and I found a very dynamic screenwriting workshop and began learning the craft and submitting work to producers. Many, many rejections followed! Eventually, I was selected to join a writing weekend with comedy gurus Marks and Gran through the Television Arts Performance Showcase organisation. A year later, my pilot sitcom ‘Decapitating Cupid’ was chosen for showcasing at Riverside Studios and then at BAFTA, where it was nominated for a TAPS comedy award. Around the same time, I was lucky with a commission to write for the ‘TeddyBears’ series on ITV. Then an idea for a TV drama series was optioned by Endemol, a production company. It was about a teenage champion swimmer who loses a leg in an accident and fights her way back to competing. After two years of trying to place it with a broadcaster, the producer suggested I write the book instead. Without his suggestion, I don’t think I would have found my way to children’s books, so I have a lot to thank him for! The idea became Deeper Than Blue, which Orchard Books published in 2007. Last Kiss of the Butterfly followed in 2008, and If I Could Fly was developed for Egmont and published in January 2011.
The story in If I Could Fly has a mix of messages but I was particularly struck by the dystopian nature of the society – was this intentional and is it intended to reflect the status quo? The theme of disease causing exclusion zones is very topical. Did you derive ideas for the story from current society and political issues? I felt it was our world, but worse, and it was intentional to have a bleak backdrop and undercurrent to Caly’s story. It was sparked by lots of events: the recent foot and mouth disease control zones; the culling of animals during the outbreak; the fear of birds spreading disease; British law increasingly being dictated by the European court: the rise of gang culture in cities: the insidious removal of small freedoms: the heavy hand of the State at work in every aspect of life: the knowledge, after the exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, that ‘truth’ and ‘government’ don’t go hand in hand.
I imagine that if there were to be a food or medicine shortage in the UK, the freedoms and ideals we cherish in our democracy would quickly be under greater threat than they are now.
Throughout the story you drop lots of hints for the reader as to what is actually happening, do you expect readers to pick up on these clues or are they there so that when all is revealed the reader has a feeling of ‘oh yes’?
It’s my first mystery story and I enjoyed the challenge of unravelling the clues for the reader as Caly’s memory came back. I wanted to take readers on Caly’s journey without giving too much away! I’ve been asked whether Caly’s adventure only happens in her head. I’m fascinated by quantum physics and the possibility of being in two places at once, and so for me, Caly’s life with Alfie and Dair, and her choice about returning, are completely real.
Was it very hard to hide the truth from Calypso and the reader?
I tried to see everything through Caly’s eyes, so I wouldn’t be able to reveal too much. I think writing in the first person is an advantage, as you only know what the character tells you. When I was planning the story, it took a while for me to know what was happening to Caly and why she was running – the slow return of her memory gave me the structure I needed.
I found the book very compelling, both the story and the style of writing. Was this done intentionally or just a result of your style?
Thank you! With each of my books, the voice of the narrator has always come fully formed. Caly is a free-runner who lives with oppression, at home and in the wider world. She is edgy, fearful, on the run. The rhythm of the language is a reflection of her situation. In fact, the initial idea began with the sound of running feet in my head. That set the pace for the book.
I love the language that you use when some of the characters are speaking, particularly the gang speak. Do you feel that this reflects modern life or was it just to have some fun?
I liked the idea that the Phoenix Feathers were cautious with conversation – it’s not safe to question the System – but expressed themselves through their running. I wanted to convey that words could get people into trouble, even though it’s a ‘free country’. The gang has it’s own guarded way of speaking, which Caly emulates. She has already learned to be careful not to annoy her father with senseless chatter. With Alfie, she is more expansive, more true to herself. When she finally returns home, she is ready to speak out. I hope the language reflects the tensions in Caly’s inner and outer worlds and that the different rhythms of Dair and Alfie offer some light relief!
I think it is the same with the abbreviations that you use, are they a reflection of the modern audience and what they will be able to relate to?
Our world seems full of abbreviations, from Government committees to hospital departments. Text-speak rules on our mobile phones and spills over into our e-mails. It’s the dialect of Facebook and the social networking sites. I think it’s the norm and it felt natural to embrace it.
There are gangs that seem far from sinister and a strong sense of humanity – Andy the teddy and Furball the rabbit are just two examples. Are these intended to be a contrast to the horrors of the controlling authorities?
I’m a great optimist and even though Caly’s society is in trouble, there are good people trying to make a difference. (She’s destined to be one of them). And there has to be an animal – I love them! I think they often bring out the best in us. Caly needs allies. It’s a dark story, so Andy, Dair, Alfie and Furball are there to bring some light, love and hope.
Bravery is a strong theme in the book. Calypso is a strong character, does she reflect elements of you or anyone you know or would even like to be?
All my stories have been about teenagers who face huge problems in their lives and succeed in overcoming them, or, at least, begin the journey towards self-discovery. The roots of this are probably in my own turbulent growing up time. Would I like to be more like Caly, Jaz, Amy and Jodie? Yes. I don’t like physical challenges. And it’s much easier to write about bravery than exhibit it. But if an armed robber appears in my High Street, I hope I will have the courage to tackle him with my handbag!
Calypso spends the story trying to piece her memories together. Do you want readers to work with her on this and share her experiences as intimately as possible?
I hope readers will share Calypso’s loneliness, her fear, her happiness, frustration and strong spirit – and feel her grow up during the story. I really like writing in first person for this reason – it allows a more immediate connection, like when you hear a voice on radio.
The story is based, for the most part, in and around the hospital. Does this reflect your experiences of working in great Ormond Street? Did the children inspire your writing?
Great Ormond Street did have a great impact on me, reinforced by my freelance work as a PR specialist for a number of medical research charities. I was very privileged to meet and write about many children who had benefited from new treatments. They were stories of incredible courage and hope. The hospital I imagined in If I Could Fly is actually in Brighton and is currently derelict, waiting for redevelopment.
Having been shortlisted for no less than two book awards do you feel determined to win one or are you continuing to write for the pleasure with awards as a part of the job?
It’s really encouraging to reach a shortlist and it’s fantastic to win! Deeper Than Blue won the 1066 Schools’ Book award in 2008 and I’m very proud of that. But there are more than 1000 children’s books published each month in the UK! So the odds are against being nominated. If it happens, that’s wonderful, but it’s not something you can set your heart on.
The strength of family ties is evidently very important in the story. Is it equally important to you and something that you want readers to feel the importance of?
Family can be good. It can be bad. It can be destructive. It can be nurturing. There’s no doubt it helps to shape us. Family life is complicated and I wanted to reflect that. Caly has great polarities in hers – positive love and negative control. But it’s unconditional love that wins in the end – a maternal bond that helps Caly return home. Parental love is important, an anchor in a stormy sea. I hope Caly and Little Bird’s relationship will resonate with readers and provide hope.
Finally, a couple of now standard questions for Armadillo readers; Who inspires you? What is coming next? Can you reveal any hints as to what you might be working on?
Inspiration is everywhere!
I’m inspired by creative people who fill empty space, pages or canvases with something beautiful. By those who make big sacrifices in order to stand up to injustice, or overcome deprivation or disability and achieve amazing things. And especially those I’ve been lucky enough to meet or have in my life who have faced serious illness with courage and humour.
Next, for me, will be Samphire Song in July, my second book for Egmont. It’s the story of a teenage girl’s close bond with a troubled stallion. And on the screen front, an adaptation of Deeper Than Blue, plus the development of a new drama, whose title I can’t reveal!
Present & Past with B R Collins
Having read Tyme’s End and been enthralled by the depth of story telling and the skill with which Bridget Collins twisted three strands of history into one very effective and consuming thriller it was with great pleasure that I took up the offer of an interview with Bridget.
I hope that you find her answers as engaging and insightful as I do.
Did you always intend to write professionally and for children or was it something that just happened?
No, it was definitely something that just happened! I trained as an actor, and that was really where my heart was, but after I left drama school I was unemployed for a while. At that point I’d been in continuous full-time education for nearly twenty years, so I felt utterly lost and bereft. I had to do something to keep myself sane, and so I started writing my first novel (which hasn’t been published). Although I was in my twenties, the story I found myself writing was about all the classic coming-of-age questions – Who am I? What’s special about me? What’s going to become of me? – and so it turned quite naturally into a teenage book. Later I used that novel to find an agent, and so it seemed logical to carry on writing things she’d be interested in selling!
But I am SO glad that it happened like it did – even if I didn’t think it through at the time, I love writing for young adults, and the more I write the happier I am that I discovered that!
Do you intend to continue writing historical novels for young people?
Absolutely. I would hate to limit myself to the present day – it’s interesting, of course, but I love being able to occupy other times and worlds as well. I think the best historical novels are always about the present, in some sense, and yet you can exploit the drama and imagery and language of another life entirely... It’s very satisfying! And I think sometimes when something is beyond your own experience, it can be a way to write more honestly and truly. It gives you a kind of freedom – it’s the old story: give someone a mask and they’ll tell you the truth...
When I started reading I noticed that the book started with the Year 2006 but I did not expect the structure you gave it, working back though time, almost writing three short stories, how did you approach writing in this way?
It’s certainly (in some ways) the most ambitious structure I’ve attempted! Initially the book was just set in 1996, and was quite straightforward structurally, only following Oliver junior’s story. But it just didn’t work for me – I felt that there was something missing, that somehow I hadn’t quite located the heart of the book. It was really only a ghost story. I knew that what had driven me to write it was more complicated than that, and that what I really wanted to write was something that explored more clearly the themes that ghost stories always touch on: the way we feel about the past, the way it affects us in unpredictable, sometimes threatening ways, the way it’s at once knowable and unknowable... And so I scrapped 50,000 words of it, and started again, with Bibi’s story.
It was quite a challenge, writing the three sections, because I knew that there would be a certain unavoidable level of frustration for the reader – partly because the stories were going backwards, and partly because with any book in sections the reader’s almost always going to have a favourite... So I had to try very hard to make sure that it wasn’t episodic, and that even if the characters weren’t there all the way through there was a real narrative arc that included all three sections. I wanted it to have integrity as a novel, not just a series of linked novellas. For me, writing it, it did feel like a proper book, because of the central mystery and the slow process of revelation – but whether it works or not is for you to decide!
Each part of the book read as a short, stand alone story. Did you intend this or did it just work out that way? It is very powerful.
It was definitely important to me that each part be self-contained in a way, because obviously if I wasn’t going to come back to the stories again they had to be satisfyingly resolved – while maintaining enough narrative tension to keep the whole book moving until the end! My first draft had hinted at other narratives, but within a very linear, realistic structure, and it just didn’t feel right – I wanted to take a chance, and let the thematic links between the stories work for themselves, so that the slow revelation of the mystery at the heart of Tyme’s End (and Tyme’s End) gave the book momentum, and the self-containedness of each part set up subtle echoes and resonances... I suppose in a way the structure reflects the theme, as well, because there are recurring motifs and images that run through all of them, and they all affect one another, even though they seem to be separate. Not sure I thought all that through before I wrote the book, though!
Does the story in Tyme’s End reflect your own interest in family history, family or just history?
When I started writing Tyme’s End, and it was only a ghost story, I thought a lot about the past – not so much “history” exactly but the ephemeral details that don’t endure, and which can only surface in a supernatural context: the sense of someone’s presence, the dust they disturb, the sound of their footsteps, their voice... I was interested in the way “history” is what we know of the past, what we construct – and yet so much, so much is lost... For me, the ghost story lives in that gap, between “history”, which is manageable and more or less familiar, and the past, which is not.
Then, as I redrafted, I found that I wanted to write more widely about the past, and how it can resurface in less arcane and unlikely ways. When we think about who we are, we do think that our past is important, whether or not we’re responsible or even aware of it – and yet anyone who is too haunted, too much in thrall to their past isn’t free to live in the present. I think Bibi and Oliver – both Olivers, in fact – are living in the middle of this tension, trying to square their own identity with the pressures of the past. And the more I thought about it, the more the ideas seemed to take on weight, and become questions about world history as well as individual history, about race and colonialism and collective responsibility... So that although I don’t have much drama in my own past (unfortunately) I found that I had a very personal interest in the ideas my characters were starting to raise.
Using a deceased historian as a central figure in the story certainly gives it an added twist. Did you base him on any historical figures or was he entirely a creation of your own?
H. J. Martin was definitely inspired by T. E. Lawrence – as was the whole book, in a way. When I was fourteen or fifteen I had a real T. E. Lawrence “phase”, when I read anything and everything about him. He was my hero – and of course when you’re in love with a historical figure sooner or later you realise that you’ll never meet them, that no matter how many books you read or how close you get to their possessions, they’re gone. There’s this one-way mirror, so you can see them but they can’t see you, and that inspires a strange sort of loneliness. That was one of the things that inspired Tyme’s End. When I wrote the first draft there was much more emphasis on Oliver’s hero-worship of H. J. Martin, so that he almost willed him back to life; but in the end that didn’t work in the context, so it was one of the things that went. With that, I let go of some of the T. E. Lawrence-ness of the character. Now, although H. J. Martin is obviously inspired by Lawrence – there’s the wartime career, and the death by motorcycle crash – he’s a nasty bit of work, and not recognisably like Lawrence except in those details. I did think of adding an author’s note at the end, to explain that the resemblance was there but superficial – but then I thought that a) if you knew about Lawrence you’d see both the resemblances and the differences, and if you didn’t it didn’t matter, and b) author’s notes can be a bit pompous!
Did you have to do any research before or even during the writing of the story to get the details right for each period?
Only for 1936. For 2006 and 1996 I relied on my memory – with some adjustments for things like A- vs AS-levels, mobile phone technology and so on! For 1936 I did some research – I had to check things like electric light, ice-boxes, train timetables from Tunbridge Wells, domestic staff, subjects you could read at Cambridge, etc – but what I was most concerned about was getting the voice exactly right. I immersed myself in books from the period, and when I was writing I used the OED online incessantly. Whenever there was a locution I thought might be too modern I looked it up to check the date of its first use – and got very excited when I found that you could search words by timeline! I could get a list of words that had been used for the first time in, say, 1935, and I thought that was wonderful, so Martin and his friends have a taste for new-fangledly 30’s words... The other thing about the OED is that words can tell you what exists and what doesn’t – so if you look up, oh, “espresso machine”, for example, you’ll find out not only when the word came into common use but also when the concept arrived in the public consciousness. (That was a random choice, so if you want to know the actual date, you’ll have to look it up yourself...)
Are you an avid fan of thrillers and ghosts stories yourself? I am not usually but I found this story to be utterly gripping and thrilling as well as very scary, yet I couldn’t put it down!
Thank you! I’m pretty much an avid fan of any kind of book, and I only write books that I would want to read – so yes, I suppose I am! I definitely have moods when I want to read thrillers or ghost stories, and I don’t think anyone could write a book that they wouldn’t want to read. I love Susan Hill and Robert Westall,The Little Stranger, and Mal Peet’s Keeper ... Although sometimes when I’ve over-indulged I need to read realistic, light-hearted things for a while to work off the angst!
How important is it to you that your characters have a sense of belonging in the story? Each of the characters in Tyme’s End seems to be struggling to find their place – Bibi being adopted, the young Oliver not knowing his parents and the older Oliver seemingly lonely. It seems to be a strong thread in the story, was it planned or did it develop?
I think in a way the book is about that very thing – that need to find out who you are, and yet also not to be too imprisoned by what you find out... It wasn’t exactly planned, because I always start from plot, and the shape of the story, and the characters emerge from that like a Polaroid. But at the same time, it’s certainly not accidental! When I was redrafting, I was thinking about themes, and where the heart of the novel lay, and in the end that seemed to be in these questions about identity. So it seemed natural for the characters to have that in common – so that their journeys should echo and reflect on one another’s.
Also, on a much less self-important note, it’s sometimes easier to put your characters in intense and threatening situations if they’re not too secure to start with!
As a result of the need to belong there is a considerable amount of angst in the story – did you need this to create a balance between happy and sad, thriller and romance?
I suppose so, although as a writer I’m much more used to angst than to romance and happiness... I think I have quite an old-fashioned view of plotting, i.e. that you put your characters in a nasty situation that they then have to get out of. (I’m simplifying, of course, but you know what I mean.) So the nastiness comes automatically! What I found exciting was writing Bibi’s section, which is really much lighter and optimistic in tone than the others, and I was really pleased with the balance that it gives to the book as a whole. So yes – but the other way round!
Why did you choose to combine the genres of thriller, romance and horror/ghost story?
I’m not sure, to be honest! As I say, the ghost story came first, and I always knew that the ghost had to have some anchor in what had happened sixty years before, so I knew there had to be some sort of high drama to leave something evil lingering for so long... But the romance just happened. Bibi had been in my head for a while, mooching around and waiting for her book to come along, and when I went back to look at the first draft of Tyme’s End I think she’d had enough, and insisted on coming out! I had the image of Bibi and Oliver’s picnic next to the river in my mind’s eye, and I knew that I wanted the book to have some beauty in it that wasn’t tainted by horror. And her story seemed to hook in to Oliver’s, completing it and expanding on it – and offered the possibility of redemption. I did want the ending to be sort of happy, at least!
Were you ever scared as the author? It is certainly, in parts, very frightening for the reader!
Not when I was actually writing it. I think when you’re writing, you feel in control – you’re in charge, so even though the characters are scared you’re not. You identify more with the frightener than the frightenee... But I think the ghost story is one of the few genres where you’re consciously trying to push specific emotional buttons, and so you have to work out what your own triggers are. So it did involve a lot of thinking about what’s frightening, and how, and why, which meant I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed thinking deliberately about things that terrify me, so that I could put my finger on how it worked! That was frightening – and once you’ve imagined something in enough detail to write it down, it’s hard to stop it surfacing that night in the dark... And to compound the problem, I read a lot of the ghost stories that I really admire, to see if I could glean any useful tips... and that was pretty frightening too.
There are many questions left unanswered yet it does not appear to be the type of story that invites a sequel, do you want readers to come to their own conclusions?
Yes, it’s not the kind of book that wants a sequel. What I would love is for it to be the sort of book that lives on in people’s imaginations, where they provide their own answers or simply enjoy the fact that they don’t know!
Finally, a couple of now standard questions for Armadillo readers; Who inspires you? What is coming next? Can you reveal any hints as to what may be coming next?
Who inspires me? Gosh. Everyone!
As to what’s coming next, I can reveal with great pleasure that I’ve got a book coming out in July and another one in January, both with Bloomsbury. The first one, Gamerunner, is a sci-fi thriller for a slightly younger audience, set in a dystopia where the last corporation left in England is the maker of a virtual reality game. It’s sort of a retelling of the Daedalus/Icarus myth, but with a lot of action and excitement... I hope! It’s very different from my previous books, but probably has more in common with them than I realise. For anyone who enjoyed Tyme’s End, I would particularly like to recommend the book that’s being published in January. It’s called The Way We Went, and it’s about the Children’s Crusade of 1212 – not the French crusade, which is the better-known one, but a parallel crusade that started in Cologne at about the same time. It’s an adventure story, of course, but I hope it’s more ambitious and thoughtful than that suggests – for me, it’s a coming-of-age book set against a medieval background, and I’m really pleased with it. At least, I was, the last time I glanced through it – when it comes back to me for editing, it may not be quite such a masterpiece as I thought... J
Off on Crusade with Linda Press Wulf
Linda Press Wulf’s novel Crusade, a story of the children’s Crusade is a historical fiction based on a reality that it perhaps not well known. Her insights into how the Crusade may possibly have taken form are interesting and thought provoking. She gets into the heart of her characters, takes the readers to the roads and forests of France with them and brings history to life though her writing. Here she answers a few questions about the story and about writing historical fiction.
Your writing style is very concise and also beautifully fluid. Did it take you a long time to be able to write in this way?
Thank you. I write fast without thinking, but when I read it back the next time, I correct anything that just doesn’t ... sound right. There’s nothing more technical or deliberate than that.
Did you always intend to write professionally and for children or was it something that just happened?
I’ve wanted to write a book since I was very little, perhaps 7. Writing for young readers – at least my first two books – probably happened because that was the most enjoyable reading period for me, and I still turn back to my young adult favourites when I need “comfort food.”
The story in Crusade has a mix of messages. I was particularly struck by the way in which religion moves from an apparently strong force to a completely corrupt one. Is this a historical reflection, a personal feeling or just a good tool for the story?
No, no, not completely corrupt at all. I have a deep respect for and almost a reliance on religion inasmuch as it provides a moral code. It is much harder for individuals to be good without such a code. What I set up the book to expose, through the journey of the pure soul Georgette and the clever soul Robert, is the evil that results when religion is abused. That happens when people believe the terrible lie arising from their own lack of humility (or fed to them in their leaders’ drive for power): “My god is the only god so I can feel contempt for (and in some cases have a moral duty to kill) those who refuse to follow my god.”
How much resonance do you feel there is with modern attitudes towards religion?
That’s exactly the point. Religious extremism in modern times is a concept as flawed as it has been throughout history.
How long did it take you to do the research for the story and were you tempted to write other stories that came from this work? I’ve worked on this story so long I’ve forgotten when I started, but it was after I finished the specific draft of my first book that finally found a publisher, which was in 2004. I work on my writing in spurts, so there were many lengthy interruptions, and unlike more disciplined writers, I don’t write regularly. Most of it was probably written between 2007 and 2009 on Wednesday mornings in the big library of my son’s high school, after I dropped off his carpool.
I found the book very compelling because it is not an historical event that has not been very well documented was this important to you - to tell the story of these children?
The story of this particular, unusual crusade never faded from my mind since I was taught briefly about it in history at elementary school. That not many people knew about it was a factor in my choosing to tell the tale – I felt it would be intriguing.
There are some wonderfully warm moments in the story – when you talk of the twins in the monastery for example. Did you want to assure readers that life was not all gloom or is this a reflection of how life may really have been?
Yes, I try to comfort first myself and then my readers with the conviction that there are some sunny moments in even very difficult lives.
What did you learn as a result of writing this story and what would you like children to learn?
Being religious is positive only if it is combined with humility and loving kindness.
Were you a fan of historical novels as a child and if so what was your favourite period of history?
Thanks to the influence of my older brother, I loved historical novels. There were the well-known subjects -- Marie Antoinette, the wives of King Henry VIII -- but any period could be made interesting by a good writer. And once you have lived in the rich world created by such a writer, you will always have mental access to that particular time in history. For example, centuries of English and French wars and alliances are entered by me through Charlotte Yonge’s book The Little Duke, about Norman King Richard the Fearless who was held ransom as a child by the last of the Charlemagne kings in the 10th century.
Are there any periods of history or events that you would love to write a novel about or conversely that you would never consider writing about – for children at least?
I’ve thought of writing about the famously chivalrous Muslim leader Saladin, but at the moment I’m working on my first novel, which is also my first book for adults. It is set in South Africa in the 1960s, my home territory.
Thank you Linda for taking the time to answer these questions for me and for the readers!
I loved your thought provoking questions – thank you.
Clashing with Colin Mulhern
Liz Bankes chats here with Colin Mulhern – author of brutal psychological thriller Clash (also reviewed in the YA section). When she spoke to him he’d recently taken part in a podcast called Litopia After Dark in a debate on swearing in children’s fiction. This seemed a good place to start!
So what was your take on the debate about swearing?
Well I’d recently found a script of a play I’d written when I was about 14 years old and it’s really shocking! Basically a copy of the Young Ones or something, but more offensive! But it was a good mirror of how we used to speak when we were teenagers, with every other word an obscenity. I thought it would be funny to scan it in and block out all the swear words and send it to my friends. So it’s just a page full of these big red blocks!
That’s sort of what I was talking about on Litopia, because I was fighting the case for swearing in children’s fiction. Because it does have a place as long as it’s used carefully – rather than saying ‘and then he swore’ or something similar. You certainly need that medium to deliver the blow.
So when writing Clash did you find that it came quite naturally to you to write how teenage boys speak?
I found it pretty easy – although it was difficult when it came to editing, because of having to switch between the characters (Kyle and Alex take turns narrating) and fully define their voices. Kyle is more colourful in his descriptions of things, being an artist, whereas Alex doesn’t use very many adjectives and his sentences tend to be short and stilted because he’s that kind of person.
It was really just sort of getting into that mindset – it’s a bit like writing under role play – you believe you are that person when you are writing and trying to get into their head.
What got you into writing for teens?
I discovered YA fiction by chance years ago. I got this book by Philip Pullman called The Butterfly Tattoo – and it just knocked me sideways. It’s like a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing – sort of heartbreaking tragedy, kids unaware of the dangers of adult worlds and things. It’s quite nasty!
The book made it hit home how good young adult writing could be. And I moved on from that to reading people like Malorie Blackman and David Almond. I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and I was knocked sideways by it. I think it was the strength of the writing and the tightness of it and there wasn’t the sort of endless droning you get in adult fiction. A lot of the thrillers and crime novels I was reading at the time – because that’s what I wanted to write – were just boring me and I was only getting through half of each one before throwing it at the wall.
Was it this reading that inspired you to write Clash?
I wrote a couple of novels and sent them off, and I’d get so so close every time that I got fed up. One agent, who’s my agent now actually, phoned me up and said ‘Look, I’m going to reject you, but you’re so close to getting accepted!’ So I got utterly fed up and thought ‘Right! I’m not gonna bother any more, but I like writing, so I’ll continue doing that – I’ll just stop trying.’
And I sat down and I started writing Clash. And I think the first scene I wrote was when they are getting chased. I just went back into teen mode and I started writing pretty much from the heart without ever trying to impress anyone and it just sort of developed. And, because there was no pressure on to try and write to a style, or thinking what is or isn’t acceptable, there are lots of scenes I would never have written if I was trying to write to be published. I just thought well, I’ll send it out anyway – what the hell! And I got a call from my agent – it was a bit of a surprise, that! So I guess the only thing is to just write just to entertain yourself.
When did it come about that you were going to have the two boys alternating as narrator?
Was it like that from the beginning? No, it came quite late. It was originally just Kyle’s story and I think the very first draft of it was like three long short stories. Only one was about him with Alex Crowe. One was with a girlfriend and one was him going off camping somewhere. But the thing about Alex – when I went back to it, it did something and I thought he was more complicated. I started to see things from his point of view.
He’s like a dangerous pet. You don’t want to have him round your house, because, although he’s being nice now, he’s got the ability to switch. And there’s evidence of that all through the book – from Alex’s point of view when he’s in the cave and he’s talking to them and he’s aware of himself ready to snap all the time.
It was also about seeing how people remember events differently, and that’s what I put across in the first couple of pages. Kyle’s first recollection of Alex is the scene in the toilet, whereas Alex’s first recollection of Kyle is different. He remembers Gareth, because Gareth is the one who’s knocked to the floor, but he doesn’t remember Kyle, he just remembers there was another kid there. His first recollection of Kyle is the scene in the playground. So it’s that thing where people remember things slightly differently and you’re never know quite who’s right.
Had you always thought that Alex would be a cage-fighter?
No, that came in pretty late. It certainly wasn’t it the first draft. It was once I decided to develop the character of Alex Crowe. And, with the kids that I’m teaching now, sometimes it’s those little wiry ones who are the vicious ones, not the big strapping lads, these little wiry ones. And I had this idea of Alex being small and thin, and I was thinking there’s got to be a reason for him being so good and so violent. At first I thought of him being a boxer, but I have this friend who was a cage-fighter. And the book is set in the nineties, when cage-fighting’s just about to break.
You’re doing a tour of lots of schools in your area. What sort of things will you be doing?
I’m going in to talk to reluctant readers. Boys who wouldn’t go near a book if you covered it in money. Because that’s what I was when I was at school. And I want to see their take on things. And tell them that not all books are stories about happiness and unicorns.
Will you be doing storytelling workshops?
Yeah – I’ve offered to go in and do character development and plot mechanic workshops. But they’re not standard stand up in front of the class and talk. The plot mechanics one involves bits of magic. The character development one involves a story that isn’t read – it’s more like a performance story. It’s a story I wrote a long long time ago, but it’s one I know by heart so I can deliver it so it’s more like a real memory – and I’m trying to get people to guess whether it’s real or not and which parts are real, which parts aren’t. So it’s a mixture of performance and workshops. I want to actually offer something rather than just go in and do a shameless plug – stand up and read a chapters and say ‘hey, I’m an author, come buy my books.’
What stopped you being a reluctant reader?
The novel that got me reading was just about a gang of kids. They were reluctant readers there was a writer that used to go into their class and just sort of talk to them, and they would sit around and act up if she was telling them a story. So she said one day ‘well why don’t you tell me a story? They said ‘but we don’t do anything’ and she said ‘well tell me what you did last night’ and at first they were sort of embarrassed and they wouldn’t, but bit by bit they started telling what they did at night or on weekends. And she made it into a book. And it was brilliant – it’s out of publication now, has been for years, but it was because it wasn’t like a book for children, and it was just a book about this gang of kids pinching cigarettes and robbing shops and things, it was just unusual. It got me reading. It was also the librarian. I read it once and I decided to read it again and the librarian just looked at me and she says ‘What are you reading that type of rubbish for?’ and she called me a moron for getting it out! I mean, it’s her book, it’s in her library – you’d think she’d be happy I was reading something, but she’s not, she’s called me a moron for reading cheap rubbish! I thought, brilliant!
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Yeah, get out and enjoy life. People who like writing don't necessarily make the best storytellers. Creative writing is driven by experience, enriched by tragedy and loss and hope and joy and misery and all of the things that make us feel human. If you really want to be a writer, you'll end up doing that anyway - that part of you will take care of itself. In the meantime, you need to develop as a storyteller, so go out, have fun, live life!
Can you summarise Clash in a sentence?
Not really. Clash isn't easy to pin down. It's about the dangerous games that boys play, about friendship and the longing for friendship. It's about kids realising that the adult world is complicated and painful and terrible. And ultimately, it's about hope.
A Supernatural Spring
In February OUP launched a trio of Spring reads with a supernatural twist - Buried Thunder by Tim Bowler, Ice Maiden by Sally Prue and Wreckers by Julie Hearn. Armadillo's Laura Graham-Clare and Liz Bankes went along to chat to the authors and delve into the minds behind these thrilling tales.
In the book Maya and her family move from London to a quiet countryside village. Are you a city or a countryside mouse at heart?
I'm a country person through and through, preferably with the sea never far away.
Was the supernatural/psychological thriller something that you were always interested in pursuing in your writing?
I've always liked spooky tales, whatever form they take, so I guess it was inevitable that I would enjoy writing them myself.
Is the belief that eating a fox’s brain will give you cunning and its stomach will give you strength a ‘true’ myth, or was it made up for the book?
There are many myths I found relating not just to foxes but animals in general and also to humans, some exceedingly gruesome. As to whether the myth quoted in Buried Thunder is true, I'm afraid you will have to research that yourself!
And why foxes?
I find foxes beautiful, sinister creatures. They're perfect for stories.
What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
I've read many scary stories but for pure terror I'd have to put The Turn of the Screw by Henry James somewhere near the top. It's a masterpiece and with its study of a female protagonist fighting evil and the breakdown of her own sanity, I cannot pretend James's story didn't haunt my mind a little when I was writing Buried Thunder.
Do you have any advice for young storytellers?
My advice to young writers is always the same: get writing, keep writing, and never give up.
Where did the story of the Ice Maiden begin, and did you know where the story would go?
Ice Maiden began with a book that I wrote about ten years ago called Cold Tom. That meant that, yes, I did know what was going to happen, though I didn't know exactly why, or to whom.
Franz sees his parents as animals – the Wolf and the Squirrel – because of their characteristics. Do you often see people like this, and which animal would you be?
Well, I once had a maths teacher who was a warthog..No, seriously, I don't usually see people as animals. Franz sees them that way partly because he spends so much time with the animals of the Common, and partly because he's more or less stopped trusting humans. I think I'd like to be a golden lion tamarin - I'd have such fabulous hair - but I'd want to live in a zoo. I wouldn't want to have to worry about being eaten by jaguars!
Is the story of the Ice Maiden that Franz’s father tells him a real German fairytale? Are there any other myths or fairytales that have influenced the book?
Yes, it's a real fairy tale. The version I found online went on for much too long and was rather dismal, but it gave me some ideas for my own Ice Maiden. A lake or pond is important to both stories, for instance.
The other myths that influenced Ice Maiden were actually ballads, which are sung stories: Tam Lin, and The Hunting of the Cheviot.
Why did you decide to set the story in 1939? And do you enjoy researching the settings for your books?
The decision about the date was already taken for me because it's part of the plot of Cold Tom, but I did find the run-up to the Second World War very exciting and thought-provoking. And, yes, I LOVE the research: it gives me something virtuous to do that gives me an excuse to put off starting writing.
You have a blog about words. What are your current favourite and current least favourite words?
Yes, that's right, The Word Den. The absolute villain as far as words is concerned is anaglypta. It's just oily and horrid! As for a favourite...well, how about dicephalous, which means having two heads. Not only does it sound like a sneeze, but it's a word I've never been able to use before until now.
If you could be any character from a book, who would it be?
Oh, I've wanted to be Lucy from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe for almost as long as I can remember.
Do you have any advice for young storytellers?
The really important thing is to daydream lots and lots and lots.
Where did you first get the idea for Wreckers?
At Port Isaac, an idyllic fishing village on the north Cornish coast. My partner, Phil, and I had gone there to have lunch with a man called Billy Hawkins who owns the Port Isaac Pottery and sings sea shanties in a group called Fisherman’s Friends (described in a recent Daily Mail article as the latest buoy band!) All ten members of Fisherman’s Friends are Port Isaac born and bred, and have known one another since childhood. It made me think about bonds formed in infancy, and about how the dynamic between girls and boys, who have been close since they were little, might change during adolescence. The historical element of the book came from my fascination with rumours, going back centuries, of wrecked ships being plundered by the locals - even lured onto rocks by false lights - and any surviving sailors killed. The idea of Pandora’s Box being washed ashore just popped into my head one day while I was loading the dishwasher!
There are six narrators in Wreckers, each with their own way of telling the story. How do you ‘get to know’ your characters and create such distinctive voices?
I like to know one important thing about a character, from the word go. The rest gets fleshed out as the story unfolds and the characters interact. Before beginning Wreckers I gave each member of The Gang a name and jotted down a couple of words for each of them, as a guide. The list went: “Dilly: a dreamer/a writer/insecure. Danzel: a joker/the razzle-dazzle boy. Jenna: a minx/provocative/fancies Danzel. Gurnet: a strawberry short of a punnet/potentially dangerous? Maude: painfully shy/frightened of her own shadow.” These little character sketches were my touchstones, inspiring storylines and informing the way each character behaved, spoke, and reacted to different situations. The omniscient narrator, I knew, needed to be god-like. I imagined him as a wild-haired storyteller, spinning tales in a marketplace somewhere, or a sacred grove.
And which was your favourite character to write ‘as’?
Jenna. I love writing “bad” girls. Jenna wanted to be a lot naughtier, but I didn’t let her.
If you could lock anything in a box, to stay hidden for hundreds of years, what would it be?
A copy of Wreckers.
Who are your top three writers of all time?
Alison Uttley because her semi-autobiographical The Country Child, which I read for the first time when I was nine, enchants me still; the Canadian writer Alice Munro – her short stories are exquisite – and the war poet, Wilfred Owen, because he told it like it was.
Do you have any advice for young storytellers?
Keep a diary. Pay attention to detail – to the little things that happen to you, as well as the big events – and to anything that startles you in the course of an ordinary day. Write it all down, before it fades.