Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who is it 'for'?

This post first appeared on 

I’ve written about thirty books, of which all but one, A Love Like Blood, is ‘for children’. Or so I’m told, and so I am led to believe by the fact that it’s the imprint of a children’s publisher that appears on the spine of all of them, apart from this new title. But is it all that straightforward? What makes a book for children, and another for adults? And indeed, what does that innocent preposition ‘for’ even mean?

The world of children’s books has changed over the years. It used to be pretty obvious what was a children’s book and what was an adult novel. That was the case when I was a teenager at least, and I should probably specify that in this train of thought I am speaking about the reading that teenagers choose. Perhaps we can all agree that not many adults are picking up Horrid Henry’s latest outing. Perhaps.

Of course, even back in those dim distant days of teenagehood, there were strange books that threatened to make things more confusing; Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies are the ones that are most often touted as hovering somewhere in a liminal space between the worlds of the teenager and the adult, but there were always other books that appealed to the young adult as much as the more mature version of the human being: Camus’ Outsider, the science-fiction of Heinlein, the horror of Poe, the epics of Tolkein. Publishers, being canny people, have over the last few decades been instrumental in defining a new area of the bookshop – the notion of the YA novel was born, with those at the forefront being writers like S.E. Hinton, like Alan Garner (I defy many adults to fully appreciate Red Shift on first reading), or Robert Cormier, who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to find in a book ‘for’ children. There were many others. So now we live in a complex grey area of what’s-for-who, and I can say that at least four of my books have been widely perceived to be as appropriate for adults as young adults. When John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let The Right One In) read Revolver for example, he told me he couldn’t see why it wasn’t published as an adult novel. To confuse things even further, some of the foreign editions of my books have been published as adult books.

And yet, despite this, I can see that A Love Like Blood is the first of my books that is ‘for’ adults. Why?

To unpick this, it’s necessary to understand what motivates a writer. I’ve spoken to many writers about this, and with a totally unscientific guess, I would say 99% of them don’t write a book for anyone other than themselves. This can sound a bit arrogant at first, but if you think about it, it’s quite the reverse. What would be arrogant would be to assume that you, the writer, knows best. That you know what a 40 year old male commuter in Berlin would like to read on their Kindle, or a 16 year old girl in Rio, or a 65 year old pensioner in Penzance. No. That’s not how you write. You write the book that you yourself would like to discover. Nothing else is going to make you sit at your laptop for 8 hours a day for months on end until the thing is finished. That’s the only honest and true way to do it – to write something that excites and moves you, and then, when it’s published, you can hope that someone else might be excited by it too.

Looking at it from the other side, the reader doesn’t by and large choose a book because they think it’s ‘for’ them. Of course, things might put a certain reader off reading a certain book, but all the reader is looking for is a book that grips them. That’s why, as a teenager, I was reading Arthur C. Clarke alongside Hemingway, and why any adult now is as free to choose The Hunger Games and Twilight as Martin Amis’s latest, an author I mention for his contention that he would only ever write a book for children if he had a serious brain injury (Faulks on Fiction, BBC 2011). And we know adults are reading these apparently teenage books because the sales figures could not possibly be as high if they were only being sold to teens. Although, Amis went on to reinforce the very point I make above when he added that ‘the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me’. Quite.

Like the White Queen, I also believe in the possibility of thinking six impossible things before breakfast, and here’s just one: at the same time that I am writing the book purely for me, I am also aware that it has a publisher waiting for it, and beyond that, a logo that will be printed on the spine and an area in which it will be placed in the bookshop. So, once I had the concept of A Love Like Blood, I knew no children’s publisher would publish it. For one thing it’s just too unpleasant, for another, I wanted to delve more fully into psychological depths which would be deemed uninteresting to the young adult reader. Who knows? Has everyone forgotten what the landscape of their teenage mind was like? These questions are not mine to ponder, however. It’s only up to me to write the best book I can. And do I care who it’s ‘for’? Ultimately, no, I don’t. All I hope for is that someone will like it, that people will buy it, and I for one am glad to be selling books to adults as well as their younger selves.

MS 15/3/14

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Where I Work

(This post first appeared on Mulholland's tumblr)

A few years ago I moved back to Cambridge: when I saw this shed in the garden of one of the houses I was viewing, I put an offer in on the spot. Like most writers, I’ve had to work in all sorts of inappropriate spaces, and, like most writers, always craved the perfect place to work.

My shed is near perfect. It’s a little on the small side, but that just means I have to tidy up from time to time, which is no bad thing.

Here’s what it looks like on the inside (just after a tidy up)

The stuff on the walls is never just random – they’re all things to do with books, most usually, they’re inspiration for books I’m writing or have just finished writing.

High up on the wall are a couple of guardians – ‘V’ from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, one of my favourite films, and Edgar the raven, both of whom make me smile every time I walk into my shed. That’s more important than in sounds, and links to the word that Edgar’s standing on. That one word – PLAY – is the single most important thing I’ve learned in the 15 years I’ve been a published author. I’ve thought a lot about writing in that time, I’ve had moments of block, I’ve had many fears and worries and concerns about how to best do the art. The importance of play, and I mean play in a focussed yet relaxed, serious and yet fun way, cannot be denied: it underlies the best work I do, I think.

Underneath that are a few spirals; I’ve just finished the second draft of a new YA novel called The Ghosts of Heaven – it’s a slightly complex quartet of novellas, each of which has the motif of the spiral underlying the text.

Beneath the spirals we come to a series of rough art by my friend Thomas Taylor. I’ve started to write graphic novels in the last year or so – and these are images from a forthcoming project: Scarlett Hart. It won’t be out for a while though. I finished a first draft in the autumn; a second draft is due and then Thomas has the gargantuan task of producing almost 200 pages of full colour art. That will take him a year or so to do. And then publication will be a year after that – comics take MUCH more work than many people give them credit for. Personally, I’ve found it a wonderful challenge to learn how to write for comics – to set up plot, character, backstory, atmosphere etc etc and yet to have so few words to do work with (95% of what you ‘write’ as the author of a graphic novel disappears into the images) is a huge task. Then, add to that, that you have to hit a page count more or less exactly (due to the cost of production of comics) and you have a major set of hills to climb. But I like a challenge.


On the left of the desk here are a few books I’ve been using to research my next novel for Mulholland – I’m deep in that process of hunting out things that I know will be useful, or hope will be, and connected to that, I guess, are the red notebooks at the back of the desk. I’m on book 10 at the moment, since 2000, and the previous 9 I keep close at hand as you never know when browsing through old ideas might finally make a connection to something that’s been lurking in your unconscious for a while. Connections are as much the stuff of a writer’s art as the imagination.

Next to the books are the edits for a short story I was recently asked to write – that will be what I work on later this week. I love writing short stories – they’re a chance to let your hair down, try something new, and experiment with style. Something which can feed back into longer work in the future, perhaps.

I tend to change the view on my screen saver, and find something central to what I am writing about at the time – this is a building that will appear in this second Mulholland title. I won’t say where it is but it’s more sinister than it might first appear. Me view is pretty limited  - a hint of my neighbours’ garden – but that’s a good thing – it’s interesting enough to stimulate day dreaming (a friend in my opinion, not an enemy), but not so interesting that you end up not doing what you should be doing.

Over to the right, although I’ve finished work on it long ago (the book is about to be published) is the cover of my first novel for Mulholland – A Love Like Blood. Covers are so important. I know that’s obvious but what might be less obvious is the nerves with which you open an email with the subject line “cover of your book”. Whenever we get to the moment of designing the book cover, I live in fear, and the hope that your publisher will come up with something you love. Fortunately, this time, I loved the cover from the first design. A little tweaking and it was done. If you get sent a dodgy first attempt, you know you might be in for months of wrangling. But if you have to, you have to, because covers are the first and primary thing that sells your book once it’s out in the world. Something that some authors might not like to admit, but which, having worked in sales, in publishing for many years, I know to be true. Above the book jacket is a photo of the Italian village where the book opens – a weird and wonderful hilltop place called Sextantio by the Romans.

And finally, here’s another important tool for me. Along with notebooks themselves, maps of one form or another have always been key to how I organise a book. So I use large sheets of paper, on which I write in pencil (because it changes all the time) and on these maps I sketch out a novel’s structure, themes character notes, and so on. Every book has a different kind of map, because every book needs to be written in a different way. Understanding that and not being scared of it is very important, and is again something I am still learning about. This map is the first go at one for the second book I’ll write for Mulholland. At the moment it doesn’t even have a working title, the characters don’t have names, the plot is still forming. It’s simultaneously one of the scariest and most exciting periods in a writer’s work cycle.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

William Blake - the first graphic novelist

That's a pretty big claim and others may want to suggest alternative candidates for the first graphic novelist, but I've always been struck by the way the Blake was master of both word and image, and mixed them both on his engraving plates with unrivalled skill.

I thought, since my first graphic novel, (co-written with my brother Julian Sedgwick and illustrated by Marc Olivent and John Higgins) came out this past week, that it would be a good idea to write a little more about why the book is called Dark Satanic Mills, and why William Blake is such a large influence on the project.

Blake: poet, painter, engraver, and visionary. Born 1757, died 1827.

There was a massive exhibition on the life and work of William Blake at Tate Britain some years ago. I remember peering through the glass of a display cabinet at one of Blake's handmade books, on one spread of which was a picture of the human anatomy. Not content with the depiction of the exterior of the body, Blake had made paper flaps to be opened, to reveal the organs inside the chest too. This probably makes Blake the first paper engineer too, but it's just one small example of the inventiveness of this rebellious, dissenting figure.

Dissent was at the heart of Blake's credo - his creation of a personal mythology that rivals that of more than a few small nations' remains both at once his greatest achievement, and the reason, I believe, that he remains underrated and unexplored: his works are simply so vast and so impenetrable that they defy easy understanding. It would take a lifetime of study to understand Blake fully, but that's not the only reason he does not feature as highly on the list of British cultural icons as he should. I also think that we're not very good at celebrating the genius who excels not just in one field of artistry, but many. I believe there's a prejudice; no one can be that good at so many things. But Blake was.

And yet he was largely ignored and derided in his own time, and part of the reason for that is his dissension. If there is one simple message you can derive from studying Blake; it's this: believe what you want to believe, not what you are told to believe.

Which brings us to Dark Satanic Mills. Those famous three words from the poem nowadays known as Jerusalem are often thought to refer to the factories of the Industrial Revolution. But to Blake it meant something different; the dark satanic mills were the churches of orthodox religion; which he saw as places of enslavement and oppression; which did not allow man or woman to follow their own spiritual path. Blake came from a long line of dissenting believers, but he took things to a new level.

Which brings me at last to our graphic novel; a world set in a near-future Britain in which the climb to hegemony of a new church threatens anyone who does not share their beliefs. It's no longer safe to believe in any other religion; it's not even safe to be an atheist, as one of the book's heroes is. Thomas Aikenhead is an atheist preacher, and is, incidentally, named after the last man in the British Isles to be executed for being blasphemy.

Our message, if we have one, is Blake's: create your own system of belief, or be enslaved by another man's. To put the reverse case, to put it more positively; again in Blake's words: "Lord of thyself; then thou art lord of all."

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Winner of the She Is Not Invisible writing competition

Last month I ran a small competition on the website  - the challenge was to write a short story about coincidence in exactly 354 words; 354 being the number that's hidden throughout my new book, She Is Not Invisible.

It's a cliché to say it was hard to choose a winner, but it really was, especially as I was left choosing between four very different pieces. I would like to commend Kieran Salmon, Rob Perry and Joe Greaves for their entries, each so different from each other, and each very different from the winner, more of which below.

For me, the purpose of such a writing exercise, i.e. writing to some kind of restriction, even one as simple as an exact word count, is that it forces you to consider your words. When you're paring down that 400 word draft to 354, you are made to consider every word for its merits. Every single word gets inspected and peered at and tested, and, if it doesn't really merit being there; it has to go. So once in a while it's a good exercise to try, to really sharpen up what you write. It's all too easy to throw words on a page as if good ones are easy to come by. Personally I think it's better to write fewer better ones, than more average ones...

If you entered the competition, thanks for doing so. Sorry we could only have one winner; competitions kind of suck, really, don't they? But it was good to see so many cool stories, and as I said, it really was hard to choose the winner.  (Incidentally, I was able to read the stories without knowing a thing about who wrote them).

The winner is called Of Grace and God and it's by Ian Kenworthy. I liked it because it manages to do many things in a short space of time; it's well written, it builds a small world in your head, and it's poignant. Most of all though, I chose this story over the many other great entries because it manages to do one of the hardest things of all; it actually conveys that sense of strangeness that we feel when a coincidence happens to you. Having just written about book all about coincidences, I know that's a deceptively hard thing to do, and Ian gets it just right. I hope you enjoy it too.

Of Grace and God by Ian Kenworthy

No atheists in foxholes? Wasn’t that the saying?
Sergeant Lane could see why. A foot deep scraping, the only shelter on a muddy battlefield.
Hardly more protective than a prayer.
Another barrage. Shells thundered from above. Ground erupted nearby. So close. A rain of fine grit –Patter-patter. Pitter-patter. Thump. A body flung itself down into the dirt beside him.
Inches above, cracks and flashes and sounds of Apocalypse.
“God save us.”
So I was right.
The barrage subsided, ushering in an eerie silence.
“Is it over?”
Slowly sitting up. Close in the scraping.
“For twenty minutes or so. You get used to it. I’d say don’t worry, but you will.”
Shaking hands. Close as brothers.
Frank Lane.”
“Eddie Parkes 76th  Infantry. Just got here today.”
 “Quite a welcome.”
 “Yeah.” Eyes tilted to the heavens. “Funny, you’d think the sky would be grey, not blue.”
“The sky is always blue when the angels descend.”
“Ha, used to know a priest who said that, old Father Margrove.”
Silence. For once not dreadful silence.
“Not, Saint Agatha’s Old Unitarians?”
A shared smile. Dare they speak it?
“Used to holiday there.”
A spark.
Eddie Parkes…?”
Away from this foreign field to a church field. Beneath the layer of grime and age were two boys. A summer spent defending battle lines with a bat and ball. Days of laughter, of trying to win hearts. Of hopes. Of japes and jealousy.  Eddie who could always hit a six. Always smiling. Always said he would…
“…work for my dad’s cotton company, worked.  Not been to Ashby in years, not since I met my girl. I got a picture, want to see?”
Everyone says that. I’ve seen so many pictures.
Except this was no girl. This was Grace Hopkinson. Darling Grace. ‘Met a lad from the city and moved away’, found happiness.
“You okay?”
“Just, remembering. Remembering home.”
“Feels so far away, right?”
“What are the chances of us meeting like this? From the same church, meeting up in the same field. What could be more of a coincidence than that?”

The answer, the whistle of an incoming shell.

© Ian Kenworthy 2013

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Meeting your heroes...

…can be a dangerous thing.

I remember as a child and young(er) adult that sense of disappointment and betrayal when you meet someone you idolise, either in person or through a biography, only to discover your hero has feet of clay. Is rude, arrogant, or otherwise obnoxious. How can this be!? you ask yourself. How can the person that made something I love not be lovely themselves?

That seems to be the heart of the betrayal. If you love a band, or a piece of music, and the composer turns out to be a racist bigot, it betrays your understanding of why you liked it in the first place, perhaps even who you are yourself. That's even more true with writing I think - books are full of the personality who wrote them, something some people seem to find hard to believe. So if you have thought the same way as the words that floated off the page and into your head, it seems impossible that you would not like the author who wrote them.

Which brings me to Thursday, when I met the very first writing hero who entered my life: Susan Cooper. I am not alone in people of my generation of having had my imagination fired and shaped and moulded by Susan's Dark Is Rising sequence. It's an absolute classic of children's fiction and remains quite rightly in print today, and still as revered as ever.

On Thursday I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan about her new book, Ghost Hawk, in front of a live audience at Waterstones, Piccadilly in London. Around 100 ardent fans arrived to hear what she had to say, and I was in seventh heaven, for the very first hero I ever had in writing turned out also to be charming, funny, modest, generous, deeply intelligent and, that thing I prize more highly than anything else: kind.

Over the course of the evening I only had this opinion reinforced, for Susan is a fascinating lady with a wonderful life story to tell. Furthermore, her new book, Ghost Hawk, is brilliant, and I urge you to go and buy a copy. A real physical one, because it's beautiful.

So sometimes, meeting your heroes turns out to be a very wonderful thing indeed.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Jane Austen, fantasy fiction and the morals of our children

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in The Independent.

The children of Britain are sliding into a terrifying quagmire of moral abandon. Or so certain commentators would have us believe. Joanna Trollope’s remarks that fantasy stories give children little moral guidance (Sunday Times, 6.10.13) echo those of Michael Gove back in May, when he declared "You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more... Twilight or Middlemarch?”

Along with Twilight, Trollope singles out The Hunger Games as books that should be ‘countered’ by teaching more classic fiction in schools, and goes on to say: “fantasy doesn’t really relate to the real world.”

Aside from the issue of a writer who hasn’t understood the concept of metaphor – no fiction, fantasy or otherwise, means anything to us unless it relates to the experience of being human – Trollope seems to be unaware of what is actually going on in children’s publishing. It’s hard to imagine an industry that thinks more, knows more and cares more about the quality of what it puts before its customers.

The central power of The Hunger Games is precisely the fact that Katniss is put in a terrible moral conundrum – should she kill in order to survive? Readers would not be gripped in their millions by these books if that question meant nothing to them. The fact they are shows that they have healthy morals, even if they’re (rightly) horrified by what Katniss goes through.  It’s ironic that Trollope picks on Twilight; simply because Stephanie Meyer’s books are Austen’s. Twilight is full of morals (which you may or may not like depending how closely your views are to Mormon Meyer’s) but its power for readers comes in returning modern teenage protagonists to the tension-laden salons of Austen’s heroines. By introducing the danger of the vampire, Meyer reboots the loaded sentence and the aching glance, and puts them into the school canteen. ‘Gosh, did Edward/Mr Darcy just look at me? I wonder what his intentions might be to poor little me,’ says Bella/Elizabeth Bennet.

Trollope’s remarks support the publication of her modern reworking of Sense and Sensibility, one of 6 titles in The Austen Project. She states that Austen’s book tackles “love, money and class”, and has messages that make it relevant today, and argues that modern reworking of texts should be used in schools if children find the original language difficult. This very assertion seems to imply there is something ‘wrong’ with the classics – if you want to teach them, teach them as they are, with their original text and un-bowdlerized power.

And they are being taught: it seems Trollope may also be unaware of what actually goes on in our schools. One of the main pleasures of my job is the opportunity I have to visit schools across the land; state and private, city and country. If you were only ever to watch disappointing things like Educating Wherevershire, you could be forgiven for believing that our children are wild, abandoned monsters. My experience teaches me something different: every week I am delighted, though not surprised, to meet hundreds of our country’s engaging young people, reading all sorts of things, from Twilight to Wild Swans to Captain Underpants to, yes, shock of all shocks, Jane Austen. Personally, I believe the main thing is that they’re reading, and enjoying what they’re reading, for that opens the doorway not only to the vast world of literature; it can also lead to the desire to embrace diversity, something Joanna Trollope seems unwilling to do.