Bronwen Fraser and Marcie Winstanley interview Meg Rosoff

1 Jun

Q. The end of ‘What I Was’ was very powerful because the main character seems to be old and about to die. We read that you are an atheist so we were wondering what your views on life after death are?

A. Well, I don’t believe in it – that’s kind of a fairly short view. But the thing is, I was brought up Jewish but I am an atheist. But even in the Jewish religion there isn’t a whole lot of emphasis on the afterlife…and it’s like one of those things where you don’t expect very much and then when anything happens you get a great bonus. So if there is an afterlife, if there is a gateway to heaven, I’ll be really, really happy. But I’m not counting on it. How about that?

MW: Yes, I think that everybody should believe what they want to believe, and there’s nothing really wrong with any belief.

MR: Yes, I completely agree with that. And…[the man] who wrote ‘The God Delusion’, Richard Dawkins, who sold a billion billion copies…[whose] whole thing is…there is no God…[well] I just find that [viewpoint]…really uninteresting, in a way, because OK, if there is no God, why is it that, say, six billion out of seven billion people on earth all believe in something…? So to me the more interesting question is, what is it about us that we are driven to believe?

Q. Which of your books are you most proud of, and why are you most proud of it?

A. Oh my God. Which of my works am I most proud of? Hmm. You know, it’s a bit like saying, which of your children are you most proud of? (I only have one child, so it’s pretty straightforward.) But in a way the first one, ‘How I Live Now’, because it’s what got me writing and so it started my career in a way. But I often say that ‘How I Live Now’ is like the child who you don’t have to worry about because it’s popular. Everybody likes ‘How I Live Now’, it goes out in the world, you don’t have to think, oh God, what if nobody likes it – you know? So in some ways, although I’m proud that I finally at the age of 46 wrote a novel, [I don’t know about]… most proud of. You know, no one’s ever asked me that question before. It’s a very interesting question. ….‘There Is No Dog’…was definitely the hardest one to write. It really was difficult and it took me a very long time and it was very complicated and for a long time I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to make it work. So in a way I feel like I’ve survived that book, in a way that I didn’t feel about any of the others. And ‘Just in Case’ was quite difficult too but not as hard as ‘There Is No Dog’. Most proud? I mean, the one I like the best…I think personally might be ‘What I Was’.

MW: Yes, that was a really good book.

BF: I really enjoyed it.

MR: Well, I’m glad you liked that. That’s really interesting to hear, because I always think that it’s more of an adult book in a way, than a kid’s book…It’s very complicated, emotionally, and…if you’d asked me, I would have said, ‘no no, you’re much too young.’ So you’re obviously both very sophisticated young readers.

MW: Well I actually read it in Year 8, when I was 13, because we had to do a book challenge, and I found it in the school library. It was in the Year 8 Only section for the more sophisticated teenage books, and … I really liked it…I read the blurb and I thought it sounded really good, and my teacher said that she thought it was good as well, so I decided to read it for the book challenge. And yes, I thought it was a very kind of mature topic…that young children wouldn’t be able to…read, exactly, but…I really, really enjoyed it.

MR: I’m really, really glad to hear that.

BF: Well, I think it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in quite a long while, because…it really vividly described all the settings, and I really liked how there are the descriptions of the sea, because it really reminded me of …….a cottage in Scotland that we often go to…The sort of peaceful atmosphere of the hut reminded me quite a lot of our cottage in Scotland, and I really enjoyed reading it.

MR: I spend a lot of time in a little tiny house on the sea in Suffolk, and I wrote a lot of the book actually sitting there with the howling wind and the waves and all that. And I …think sometimes when you feel something really deeply, it communicates itself really deeply to the reader. And so I’m glad to hear that because that’s kind of how I felt, really. And … it’s the most personal, I think, of all my books, I guess. I’m really glad to hear it, because I mean, I sort of give it up, and actually sometimes some kids want to buy it [and] I say, hmmm, you know, I think you should be 14, 15 at the minimum before you even try it. So good for you. You’ve restored my faith!

Q. Do you create your characters and settings out of your imagination, or are any of them inspired by real people or places?

A. I would say the answer to that is both. So they’re all inspired [by real people or places]. …You can always write from what’s in your head in a way. So even if you’re writing pure fantasy, you’re still writing about people. So for instance, I think I’m quite an outgoing, twisted person in some ways and for some bizarre reason I’ve always attracted really pure souls…as friends, and my husband is a real pure soul. He would never lie; he can’t. He can’t even lie about ‘sorry, I can’t come to dinner on Thursday.’ I say, ‘OK, just tell them that we’ve got, you know, we’re already … we have to … you know’. And he says, ‘Just tell them the truth’…[and]….I say, ‘What, we don’t feel like it?’ So…those characters, those pure characters, show up in all my books. Like Peter in ‘Just in Case’; Edmund in ‘How I Live Now’….[and] Estelle, maybe, in ‘There Is No Dog’.

MW: I thought Lucy was quite a kind of gentle character.

MR: Yes, Lucy was a very gentle character.

MW: Yes, she’s kind of quite innocent.

MR: She’s very innocent, which is different to pure, but yes, absolutely….But…[the characters] are never my husband, you know, or….my best friend, who’s also like that. They’re all sort of versions with a little bit of that and then a whole character out of my imagination as well. So [the answer is] both, really. I tried, because I was fired a lot when I worked in advertising, …using some of the horrible people who fired me as villains in my books and it just didn’t work. It’s just because they’re too much like reality – and I wanted them to be completely recognisable so they would recognise themselves and say, ‘Oh my god, I’m a horrible villain’ but A: I don’t really have horrible villains and B: it didn’t really work. ..…I always think fiction – the world of fiction – and the world of reality run right next to each other. It’s like they share a border. But….I can’t really cross too much reality into the fiction.

Q. How old were you when you first started creative writing, and what was the first story you wrote – but I think that was ‘How I Live Now’, wasn’t it?

A. … I wrote a lot when I was a kid – little, like seven – and then … it somehow got … educated out of me.

MW: That’s a shame.

MR: It’s a real shame, yes, but it’s because I was reading so many books and I kept thinking, ‘I can’t – I’ll never be as good as this.’

LB: I think it happens a lot.

MR: I think it does happen a lot. I really lost my nerve. And also, I never met a writer. You know, in my generation, you just didn’t meet a writer. So I thought they were like magical unicorns, and…I could never be one of those people because I didn’t have the golden glow, or whatever it was. So the very first novel I wrote was a horse book, a pony book, that I wrote a year before I wrote ‘How I Live Now’, and I used that pony book to get an agent. And it was a mess of a book. Every so often I go back to it and think, ‘yes, I’m gonna publish the pony book.’ [The agent] turned it down because it was sort of too dark and had too much sex in it and … it sort of told me that even though I’d said I’d write something really simple, what’s in your head will come out on the page. So even when I tried to write a pony book, it turned out kinda dark. I know … it’s like really fancy writing. ……like…was it ‘My Secret Unicorn’?

BF: Yes, I used to love those when I was little.

MR: Oh, my daughter loved them!

LB: People go through the whole series; there’s like, fifty of them!

MR: Yes, [my daughter] used to go out at night and recite – wasn’t there an incantation: ‘make my little foal forlorn turn into a unicorn’ or something?

BF: Something like that, yes.

MR: She used to stand there like this (demonstrates and laughs) – sweet!

LB: So did you just stop writing altogether?

MR: Pretty much … I mean, I wasn’t writing stories, I wasn’t even writing articles much for newspapers. I wrote a couple, but … no, I just thought I couldn’t do it. It’s pathetic, but … you guys think you can do it, though?

Meg Rosoff appeared at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham at 10.30am and 1.30pm, Monday 30th April as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival.

Kate Nissen reviews the Amanda Baker event

11 May

Ever heard of a comedic poet? No, neither had I, until I had the pleasure of seeing Amanda Baker live at the Hexham Book Festival. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from her show ‘Snail Love’, but I was thoroughly entertained throughout her short, but sweet, act.

The show took place in the café of the Queens Hall, which created a relaxed and friendly atmosphere where you didn’t have to sit in uncomfortable silence with a few awkward laughs and obligatory applause. Our laughs were genuine and our applause was honest.

Amanda started off with her poem ‘Soap Opera’: an enjoyable poem with a mix of sarcastic comments and satirical humour about the soaps we watch. The audience enjoyed the poem, as most of us in Britain are secret (or maybe not so secret!) soap addicts, and what she was saying was very true and also very funny.

Amanda then went on to comment that inspiration for her poems can come from everyday things, for example TV and radio advertisements. This led on to another humorous poem, ‘Aspirational Bathroom’, which mocked advertisements from how they are said, to the strange things that are actually said to try and convince Joe Public to try, buy and use products. The truth in this poem generated many laughs.

The poems Amanda then proceeded to deliver varied from serious topics, such as Irish terrorists, to arguing with bus drivers and experiences of going to an all black church. However, all the poems had an individual spin, making the audience see the funnier side of subjects usually seen in a negative light.

After these comedic poems, Amanda went on to tell us how she had written a more serious poem about the grief after someone close to you has died. This poem was submitted for the Bridport Poetry Prize and Amanda said, ‘My socks were blown off when I found out that it was shortlisted.’ The poem demonstrated just how talented she is and left the audience speechless.

The audience enjoyed every moment of this event, from the witty sarcasm to the comedic rhymes. It was a brilliant, lighthearted way of listening to poetry.

Amanda Baker appeared at the Queens Hall, Hexham at 6pm, Thursday 3rd May as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival.

Dorothy Hakim reviews the Meg Rosoff event

9 May

The words ‘fate’ and ‘hilarious’ sum up author Meg Rosoff completely. Last week I was lucky enough to hear her talk at the Hexham Book Festival and have never once regretted it since. Meg told us about fate and how it can change your life. She talked about it with humour and in such a way that, as I looked around the theatre, every single pair of eyes was focused on her. ‘It was fate’, she told us, that found her a lovely husband, stopped her becoming a screenwriter, didn’t let her publish a pony book with sex in it and made her famous. ‘It is fate’ that affects our lives every day whether we notice it or not, she said. Yet another reason we should stop, look and listen before we cross the road!: you never know what fate is going to do to your life. Those of you who have read Meg’s book ‘Just in Case’ will know what I mean when I say that she is obsessed with fate. I will let her off because she is such a fabulous writer. And I wish her the best of luck for the film of ‘How I Live Now’. Good luck Meg!

Meg Rosoff appeared at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham at 10.30am and 1.30pm, Monday 30th April as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival. For more information about the forthcoming film, you may like to visit Meg’s own website.

Megan Ashford and Dorothy Hakim interview Simon Scarrow (part 1)

4 May

Q. Who or what inspired your character Marcus from your ‘Gladiator’ series?

A. Marcus is pretty straightforward really: he is my own son Nicholas. By some uncanny coincidence when it came to picking someone to shoot for the cover design they picked someone who looked exactly like him, which is bizarre.  Nicholas is about the same sort of age – or at least he was when I started writing the book.  I basically had a model.

Q.  How did it feel when your first book got published?

A. Brilliant!  Because before I got anything published I used to have these long fantasies about going into a bookshop and seeing my book on the shelf: I would die a happy man if I only ever had one book published.  So it was magic when that actually happened.  When I rang my father to tell him I had got a publishing deal it was the only time I had heard him cry.  It was a lovely occasion all round. It has become slightly different since then because once you have had your first book published you often have a second, a third… Now I am up to seventeen! I miss that kind of sense of achievement.

Q.  Do you have a really particular interest in history then?

A. Yes. History is where all the good stories are. That’s why it’s called his – story!

Q. Isn’t that a bit sexist?!

A. (Laughs).  When I was teaching I used to say it was unfair and ask whatever happened to her – story.  I used to tell my students how history is always kind of represented from a male point of view primarily.

When I was young I was lucky enough to be taken to a lot of places by my parents.  I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was.  When I was about four or five I remember being taken to see the Colosseum in Rome and thinking ‘stones, boring stones!’  Eventually you realise that there is slightly more to it than that.  Then I found it impossible to travel anywhere in the Mediterranean and not get diverted by ruins or temples and the like.  History is not just an interest.  It’s important to know history because we need to know where we have come from and we need to know where we are headed. .

Q. Did you research to write your ‘Gladiator’ series and, if so, did you find anything interesting or bizarre?

A.  Yes, I did a lot of research.   Obviously I needed to know about gladiators.  I also needed to know about trade routes, the archaeology of the gladiator schools and what was going on in Ancient Rome at the time.  I think that’s why the second book was very easy to write as it was set in the year that Julius Caesar was consul and Rome was run by gangs who were fighting!  There was plenty of good material to work with.

There was one thing you could say was a bit odd.  I had always assumed that gladiators where men.  But there was a body dug up in York two years ago of a 16-year-old gladiator who had a deformed right arm from all the training.  Due to the nature of this find and its abnormality they were able to work out how old this gladiator would have been when he started training.  The answer was six!

Q. Why did you give up teaching to write?

A.  Teaching is the best job I have ever done, and that includes writing.  But if you have an ambition to write like I do then you don’t really get any choice in that!  I ended up having to push my writing ambition to the front and my teaching to the back. If I am, say, writing two books at a time it becomes impossible to stay a good teacher and write.  If things had worked out differently I would have been quite happy to go back and do some teaching because the opportunity to do something good, to improve someone else’s life is really what the payment is.  It means a huge amount to any teacher if in any way they have helped to improve someone’s life chances.

Simon Scarrow appeared at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham on Saturday 28th April as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival.

Becca Binks and Alice Buckley interview Sir Andrew Motion about ‘Silver’ and other writing matters

27 Apr

Q. You have many awards, do you think this has made you change your poems to please people rather than for yourself?

A. I’ve done as much as I can to make sure that I change nothing about any part of my writing to suit what I think might be the tastes of awards-givers and prize-judges. Of course it’s nice to win things, but it would be ludicrous to produce something with the express intention of doing so.

Q. In an interview in 2010, you said that teachers made poetry a bore for children.  Do you still think this is the case and if so what could be done to make it fun?

A. I don’t think I ever said teachers made poetry a bore. I think I said (but may have been misquoted: it happens all the time) that the curriculum often made poetry boring. What to do about it? Study poetry for poetry’s own sake; put creative writing alongside creative reading; encourage students to learn poems by heart.

Q. If you could bring one of your characters from a book or poem to life, who would you choose?

A. Natty, in ‘Silver’. Because she’s appealing, even though (or because) she’s a bit of a minx.

Q. Has anyone ever inspired you to write (ie your friends or anyone in your family)?

A. I was originally inspired to write by my 6th form English teacher, Peter Way. Since then it’s been other writers I like (alive as well as dead): Wordsworth, Keats, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Auden, Larkin… .

Q. Was it strange writing a sequel to someone else’s book?  Was there anything you wished you could change?

A. I don’t think of ‘Silver’ as a sequel (though it is one), but as a sort of living homage – an extrapolation. And would I change anything about the original? I think the temperature drops when Robert Louis Stevenson gives the narration to the Doctor – so maybe I’d change that. But in all other respects it’s a book that gets everything dead right.

Andrew Motion is appearing at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham at 7.30pm, Thursday 3rd May as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival. Tickets are available from the Hexham Book Festival website.

Bronwen Fraser reviews Meg Rosoff’s ‘What I Was’

24 Apr

'What I Was' cover image

Set in 1962 on the coast of East Anglia, ‘What I Was’ is told in the voice of Hilary, a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, as he arrives at a grim, gloomy boarding school called St Oswald’s. Hilary dislikes study and sport, teachers and pupils, and finds school life unbearable. But one day he meets Finn, a mysterious boy who lives alone in a fisherman’s hut on a small island. Drawn to Finn and his simple, nomadic way of life, Hilary builds a remarkable relationship.

This is a very compelling and mysterious read, even though there is not a great deal of action. But the setting and characters are so vivid, and you get to know them as the book progresses. The book draws you right into the atmosphere of the seaside setting, the subtle way the relationship develops between the two main characters and the secrecy in which they have to meet. I loved the descriptions of the fisherman’s hut and the constantly changing sea, which is like a strong force and atmospheric presence. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking read and has a very moving ending. I would highly recommend it to both boys and girls aged 12+.

Meg Rosoff is appearing at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham at 10.30am and 1.30pm, Monday 30th April as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival. She will also be running a workshop on ‘Finding a Voice’ at the Beaumont Hotel from 10am – 12 noon, Tuesday 1st May. Tickets for both events are available from the Hexham Book Festival website.

Dorothy Hakim reviews Simon Scarrow’s ‘Street Fighter’

19 Apr

Having just read Simon Scarrow’s book ‘Street Fighter’ I must say I really enjoyed it.  ‘Street Fighter’ is part of the ‘Gladiator’ series and is the sequel to ‘Fight for Freedom’.  It is a fast-paced story full of the adventures of Marcus – a slave in Rome in the year 61BC.  Marcus was trained as a gladiator and has now been sold to Julius Caesar to work as a bodyguard for his young niece, Portia.  Caesar is a consul in the senate and is trying to win a political war against his arch-enemy, another consul named Cato.  Yet Cato is intent on winning and he takes his side of the argument too far and it turns to war – war where the streets are plagued by vicious gang war attacks.  Attacks that are organised by the two rival consuls.  Attacks on Caesar’s life that only Marcus can stop…

Simon Scarrow is appearing at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham at 12:30 pm, Saturday 28th April as part of the 2012 Hexham Book Festival. He will also be making an appearance at the launch event for issue 3 of Cuckoo Quarterly (also at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham) at 3:00 pm on the 28th April. This event is free to attend but ticketed. Tickets for both events are available from the Hexham Book Festival website.