The Things We Do . . .

Well, ‘Merciless Reason’, the third Wildenstern novel, is well and truly out in the shops (and libraries, of course). There are a lot of up and coming authors out there (though I still count myself as ‘up and coming’) who focus all their efforts on getting published for the first time – which is natural enough. But I thought I’d post a bit about some of the things you have to do as a writer to stay published and sell books.

Having just come back from Paris for the book fair there, I had another school event in Cortown, in Meath, during the week, and then headed south for the Waterford Writers’ Weekend. This was originally known as the Sean Dunne Writers’ Festival, and they had an impressive list of guests down for the weekend, including Brian Keenan, Martina Devlin, Tim Severin, Donal MacIntyre, Monica McInerney and many others.

I had four different kinds of events on over the weekend: a theatre session for schools on the Friday in Garter Lane, the keynote speech for the Sean Dunne Young Writers’ Awards, a writing workshop for kids in the library on Saturday morning, and ‘The Ideas Shop’ with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in the afternoon. In this talk/show, we take turns talking about our influences, inspirations and techniques. I’ve done this gig a few times in different places with Sarah and Judi, who are always a pleasure to work with. They speak a lot calmer and somewhat more coherently than I do on stage – and are less prone to sensationalism. We approach writing from three very different points of view, so this event gives an audience a well rounded view of the craft.

Anyway, that’s four very different types of talks in the space of two days, while trying to get some work done in the downtime. But Waterford is a lovely city centre to walk around, with a pedestrianized square and the long quays along the river. The library building is beautiful inside, although it’s somewhat echoey if you’re trying to run a workshop right in the middle of it. They do have other rooms for that kind of thing, it’s just that Sarah and Judi were running workshops at the same time and must have bagsed them first.

In case I hadn’t done enough driving over the past week, I’ll be in Athenry in Galway tomorrow, and in Belfast the day after.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to be a shortlist judge for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards (I’m doing it for the 12- to 16-year-old category), which is run by the Scottish Book Trust. I’ve judged children’s and amateur competitions a few times, but this is the first time I’ve been asked to sit in on national award for published books. I’ve just received the box of fourteen novels through, all by writers who are from or live in Scotland. I can’t tell you which ones they are – it’s all very hush-hush. I’ve got less than two months to read them all – which is just about my limit – before the meeting in Edinburgh to set the shortlist near the end of May. It’s an award that authors should really appreciate, as the winners are decided entirely by children and young people in schools and libraries across Scotland who will read, discuss, review and vote on their favourite books.

There’s so much you have to do to promote your work when you’re in this business, that getting long stretches to write can be a quite a rare pleasure. I’m looking forward to the Easter break for just that reason, but in the meantime, I’m currently designing the poster for a competition I’m going to run to promote ‘Merciless Reason’. I’ll launch it officially after the Easter holidays, but the winner will make a cameo appearance as a character in my next novel. So if you fancy seeing your name in a novel, keep your eyes peeled for the release of the details after Easter.

Finally for now, here’s a cool example of someone who got a job as a screenwriter (and went on to enjoy great success), through the skillful expression of his love of words in his application letter.

A Moveable Feast

‘Ancient Appetites’ (aka ‘Voraces’) and les Mordus du Polar got us to the Paris book fair – see a transcript, in French, of the authors’ panel event here. And while the Salon du Livre was a great experience, but there was also the city, of course . . .

After landing at the airport, we took a taxi to our hotel, where we dumped our luggage. From there, we took the Metro into the city centre, wandering around, taking in the sights. We didn’t have a lot of time, as I’d be working all of Saturday, so we didn’t want to spend a huge chunk of our time queuing at the city’s main attractions. We did find our way to the Louvre, but we didn’t go inside, happy to meander around the outside (which would boggle your mind if you looked long enough) before going for lunch.

I’d been to the Louvre before, and it would take you days just to see everything inside this one museum. It was an absolutely beautiful day, so we stayed outside as much as we could. After a bit more wandering round, we took an open-topped bus tour to get our bearings and get a brief look at the biggest sights: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées and the other wonders. Paris is astonishing, not just in the kinds of buildings it has, but also in the scale on which the city has been planned. We got off along the Seine to take a closer look at Notre Dame, stroll around the islands and grabbed an ice cream at Berthillon’s.

We’d been up since 4am, so by late afternoon we were knackered, and took the Metro back to our hotel, which was out on the edge of town. Keeping the romance in your marriage is quite a challenge when you’ve got three kids, so we didn’t want to spend our evenings sightseeing too – it was a pleasure just to chill, have a leisurely dinner and a glass or two (or three) of wine.

There’s no end of places where you can hear about the big attractions of Paris, so I’ll dwell a little on the quirky details; like buying a carnet of tickets – not a single travelpass, like in London, but a handful of small tickets you use one at a time. Or the late night green grocers (see above), of which there were several on our road alone, standing ready to supply the night-time fruit appetites of the citizens of Paris. As a compulsive apple-eater, this was something I appreciated. My kind of people, the French.

Maedhbh visited the Musee d’Orsay after leaving me in the book fair on Saturday, and we had pizza and pasta for dinner that evening – not traditional French fair, but Maedhbh is a vegetarian, and we had to look at the menus of a few restaurants to remind ourselves that the French don’t really do vegetarianism. In the restaurant attached to our hotel (which had a colourful, but uncompromising motorsport theme), we were told that they could do Maedhbh a salad, or they could give her one of the meat dishes, without the meat. But they’d still charge her the same price. We thanked them and left. On the way back to our hotel after our Italian in Paris (stopping for some fruit on the way), we passed an ironing board lying on the street. It had obviously been out on the town, and had had a few too many before trying to walk home.

If you’re travelling to Paris in the near future, I’d suggest you leave your ironing boards at home, there’s clearly a bad element among their type in the city.

On the Sunday, we had the morning to wander round town, although it was too much of a trip to have to go back to hotel before heading to the airport, so we had to haul our cabin luggage around with us – because of terrorist threats, the train stations apparently don’t do left luggage any more. We strolled around the Centre Georges Pompidou, taking in the fantastic, bizarre Stravinsky Fountain, with its collection of outlandish sculptures, including a voluptuous mermaid with sprinkling breasts.

Heading back towards the river, we passed more little quirks, including a tricked-out tricycle and a small market selling various breeds of caged birds. The queue for Sainte Chapelle was just too long for us, though we had to go through the airport-style security to find that out, because it’s in the Palais de Justice compound. We didn’t want to take the chance of missing our flight, so we decided to check out the Latin Quarter, and have a look at the famous bookshop, Shakespeare and Co, which was close to the train station on our way out.

Except we couldn’t find the bloody place. It’s supposed to be on rue de la Bûcherie, but we walked the length of this small, short street and there was no sign of it. We asked directions off two different people, both of whom directed us to the end of the street, where we merely confirmed it wasn’t. We went to a cafe to take a break, almost out of time, but happy enough with our wandering, even if we were disappointed with missing this one sight we were sure we’d get into. I mean, this shop was world famous – how could nobody know where it was?

It was on our walk back to the station, that we discovered why we couldn’t find it. There was a tiny park across the main street that butted up against rue de la Bûcherie . . . and on the other side of the park, were the last few dozen yards of the street – along with our missing bookshop (this part wasn’t labelled on our street-map and it wasn’t how the shop was marked on the tourist map). We had time to take a picture, glance inside, and then we were heading for the train to the airport.

It might sound like a frustrating tour of Paris, given that we didn’t go inside much, but there was still so much to see, and we had a great time just walking around, talking, taking photos, and spending some quality time together. We’d been to Rome a few years ago (another short stay), and spent our few days there cramming in as many sights as we could, and it was brilliant, but exhausting. This was very different, but made us desperate to come back for more (maybe with the kids . . . maybe not). I can say with some confidence, that Paris hasn’t seen the last of us.

Salon du Livre

Maedhbh and I were in Paris for the weekend, for the massive French book fair, the Salon du Livre. I’d been invited over because ‘Voraces’ (the French edition of ‘Ancient Appetites’) has been short-listed for les Mordus du Polar which, loosely translated, means ‘Mad about Mystery’. The winner will be announced on the 7th of April, but in the meantime, I’d been asked to speak on a panel of writers at the book fair.

Maedhbh and I hadn’t been away together on our own overnight since our youngest was born, so we decided to make a proper weekend of it, arriving on Friday morning, and coming back Sunday afternoon.

I’ll cover the work bit in this post, and do a separate one for the touristy bit:

After a day of wandering round Paris on Friday, Saturday was to be a very different affair. We left the hotel after breakfast and took a tram to the exhibition centre, which was enormous. The Salon du Livre only took up one pavilion, but must still have been the size of a couple of football fields. Very little was in English, of course, so there we were surrounded by stands covered in the most amazing looking books, and couldn’t read much at all (both of us muddling through with our secondary school French), but it was still incredible to experience. Unlike some book fairs, this one was at least as much for the public as it was for the trade, so there were crowds of people of all ages milling around, checking out the stands.

We met Sarah, Sylvaine, Helene, and some of the folks at the Mango Jeunesse stand (my publishers) and made our way to where I’d be taking part in a panel interview with the other authors who were up for the award: Élise Fontenaille, Marie-Aude Murail and Anne & Marie Rambach, two sisters who wrote their book together.

It was a good panel, with over a hundred and fifty people in the audience – many of them kids – and a lot of onlookers passing by and stopping to listen at the back. I was the only one who needed a translator, so the person who actually did the most talking was a woman named Sheila Pratschke, Director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, who basically had to repeat what everybody said. Thanks again for that, Sheila.

It was interesting to note that, once you pin writers down about their processes, the essentials don’t change from language to language. Each of us had our own very different way of going about writing, but the elements that first grabbed us about creating stories when we were young, and the need to convey thoughts accurately from your own head into somebody else’s were familiar to all five of us.

The panel went on for just over an hour and a half, with a lot of questions from the kids, as well as the inteviewer, and then we signed a few books before moving on. For the rest of the day, with just a break for lunch, I sat at the Mango stand, meeting people and signing more books. My French wasn’t up to making small talk, so I spent a lot of time doing drawings which we handed out when people bought books, with one of the gang from Mango translating for me if somebody came up and wanted to chat.

One other piece of good news came up while I was there that day – I found out I’d made the long-list (one of ten titles) for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire 2012 for the Wildenstern Saga as a series. It’s in the ‘Young Foreign Novel’ category.  ‘Voraces’ was short-listed for this award last year, but didn’t get it. The ten titles will be whittled down to five, before the winner is announced next year. The competition is pretty tough, with ‘The Hunger Games’ and Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Leviathan’ series on the same list. I’ve already posted something on ‘The Hunger Games’, and I’m on the second book of Westerfeld’s trilogy, and think it’s brilliant.

The cover of ‘Feroces’, the French edition of ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’ – designed by Aurelien Police – is also up for an award in the cover design category. I can’t take any credit for that, but I’m happy to bask in its association. Vive la France!

Rare Treats

I was invited to Dublin Zoo for World Book Day, to do a spot on the John Murray Show on RTE Radio 1. Basically, they said ‘we’re going to surround two classes of schoolchildren with snakes, elephants, and other wild animals, oh . . . and there’ll be live music from somebody from ‘The Voice’ too.

‘Then you’ll be given about three minutes to get the kids’ attention.’

I mean, I love a challenge, but . . .

It was good craic, but a pretty typical example of being on the radio. Even though it’s a great chance to reach a huge audience, there’s rarely time to say much, so I’ve learned to plan what I want to say, and how to get it said in the time allowed. They’re not big into meandering discussion in the media.

I did get to touch a hefty red-footed tortoise and a small royal python, which was nice.

There was a time, back in school (quite a long time, and quite a long time ago), when I wanted to be a zoologist (as well as writing and illustrating stories), so it was cool to get to wander round the zoo while there was still hardly anyone there, and get a look at the new gorilla enclosure among other things. That wasn’t open last time we took the kids.

I’ve still got mixed feelings about zoos; I know they’ve got a lot better, a lot more humane over the last few decades, but we’re still keeping animals in captivity that are built for the wild, particularly the bigger ones, which should be roaming for miles to find food. The elephants, the giraffes and rhinos, the zebras and the big cats, and particularly the apes . . . they really shouldn’t be kept this way.

But they are treated well, they’re well fed and they do have an easy lifestyle, medical care and I’m sure that the keepers truly love their charges for the most part. Maybe this connection that zoos create between ‘wild’ animals and people – particularly children – and the knowledge they spread, make up for keeping these creatures imprisoned.

Speaking of being well fed . . . with all the events I do in different places, people can be very generous, and as a visitor, I’m occasionally given some small gift, or particularly pieces of artwork created by the kids I meet. These are never expected, but always appreciated. But yesterday I was in Strangford College in County Down, and was presented with what could be the best gift I’ve ever received at an event.

The school librarian there, Joanne, had her local cake designer create some buns using images from my books, and you can see the results in the photo. The two reddy brown rectangles, if you can’t make them out, are the rusting barrels of toxic waste in ‘The Poison Factory’, but the self-portrait from my website and the cover image from ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’ should be easy to see. To use the cliche, my jaw dropped when I saw them.

My thanks to Joanne, and everyone at Strangford College. These really did look too good to eat but, y’know, it would be rude not to . . . and they taste as good as they look.

For Educational Purposes

In Ireland – and, I’m sure, many other places around the world – if you’re in the business of making children’s books, then schools represent an important part of your market. Obviously, this is not just because it’s where the kids are learning to read, but also because it’s where a large proportion of kids will have their first (and sometimes their only) experience of books. This relationship that children’s authors have with schools is generally one that is mutually beneficial, but it can have its downsides too.

I received two pieces of news recently, one good, one bad, which serve as examples of the quirks of being involved with the education system:

I’ve just learned that ‘The Goblin of Tara’ is to be translated into Irish. An tAisaonad have bought the rights for Northern Ireland, for the purposes of teaching Irish. Ironically, they bought the rights for this retelling of an Irish legend from Barrington Stoke – a Scottish publisher. In the great scheme of things, it’s a tiny deal, as it’s a very short print run, solely for the Northern Irish market. But it’s the first time I’ve been translated into Irish, and it’s a nice one to have under my belt.

On a more negative note, I was in a secondary school in Belfast recently, and there was this young lad who was mouthing off a bit in one of my sessions – a common enough occurence – but he was actually familiar with some of my work, including the Mad Grandad books. Having satisfied himself that I was indeed the author of these books, he then told me that, when he was in primary school, a teacher had made him write out one of the Mad Grandad books as punishment for misbehaving.

Bloody hell.

It’s bad enough that writing itself is used as a form of punishment, ensuring that it will be regarded as such by a few lucky souls for the rest of their lives. But imagine that something written for entertainment and, hopefully, to encourage young kids to read, has been used to punish them. It makes you wonder about some of the people teaching our kids, and what’s going through their heads. I can’t think of a more effective way of killing any enthusiasm for reading (and reading my books in particular).

Thanks for that, whoever you are. Much appreciated.

And finally, for anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to an online interview I did for Hibernia College for their Literacy Week, for all those student teachers who are only taking their first plunge into the system. You’ll have to excuse the chest cold that I’d been trying to shake for a couple of weeks, and the angle is such that it was almost filmed in profile, which looks a bit odd, but hopefully some of you will find it interesting. Thanks to Hibernia for hosting the interview.