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.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Read for RNIB

Less than 1% of books are published in Braille. No more than 7% of books are published in some format which makes them accessible to blind or visually impaired readers; formats such as audiobooks, Daisy readers, large or giant print, and even if a book appears in one of these formats; it may be months after the publication of the traditional format or e-book version.

Yes, it is possible for e-readers to 'speak' a digital copy of a book to the blind, but text-to-speech systems typically offer an unrealistic electronic voice. If you think you'd wouldn't mind having a full-length book read to you by something like that, you should try five minutes of it to see...

I am therefore extremely proud that my newly published book, She Is Not Invisible, is available in a wide range of accessible formats, and from day one of its life.

The book is about a 16-year-old girl whose father is a writer. He's a writer obsessed with the question of coincidences, and when he goes missing, Laureth decides to follow clues left behind in his notebook to try to find him. This is somewhat harder than it would be for most 16-year-olds, because Laureth has been blind from birth. That’s what made me convinced the book should be published in accessible formats from the start, and I’m delighted that my publisher, Orion, agreed.

The book is part of RNIB’s Read for RNIB Day, and is one of six titles that have blind protagonists which have been chosen as suggested books for reading groups to read, in the Reading Group Challenge. This is a wonderful scheme aimed at raising money for the RNIB so they can continue their work of enabling the blind to have a better reading experience. The mere existence of certain charities in our society has always appalled me. The RNLI, the RNIB: aren't these services which any wealthy, civilised country ought to provide from central government? But they don't, so in the meantime, it's up to the rest of us to fund them, and help blind and VI people have an equal share in our country's culture.

It was, of course, an enormous challenge to write a book with a blind protagonist, not least because I chose to write from her point of view, in the first person. I had no idea just how great the challenge was until I started my research. Over the last two years I've made a series of trips to New College, Worcester, where I spoke at length with blind and VI students. Every single one of them was open, honest, generous and patient with me, and slowly, I began to get a little understanding of what life is like for them. How it is different, of course, but just as importantly, how it is the same. I cannot begin to pretend I know what it's like to be blind from birth, as Laureth is in the book. How could you ever forget what colour is, to give just one example? If I have achieved anything at all in this book, however, it's thanks to the help I received from the students there. I literally could not have written this book without them. It is their book, and I am grateful beyond words for the kindness they showed me.

Here's a short film made the RNIB about the day I went back to New College, with a finished copy of the book in my hands. And yes, I was really nervous.

Patron of Reading: aka, I must have grown up somewhere along the way

I just made the first visit to a brand new school, Cambourne Village College, just outside Cambridge. I accepted their offer to become 'Patron of Reading' for this academic year, a title which makes me think I must have become a grown-up somewhere along my journey. Not that I noticed.

I was delighted to receive this invitation because Cambourne is a very rare thing - a brand new school. It's expanded out of Comberton Village College: Cambridge parents have obviously been busy and there is a bit of a population explosion going on.

So here's the front of the new building.

It's really beautiful, and inside are some great new teaching facilities, a sports hall, IT rooms etc etc and most importantly of all, a brand new library. It was Alison Tarrant, the librarian at the school, who had the idea to appoint a Patron of Reading, and she got in touch last summer to ask if I'd take on the role, the purpose of which is to champion reading through the school. Cambourne have a great plan - get this first year of students really into their reading and hopefully that will set the tone in future years. Their Head of School is former English teacher, and that helps a lot I think, but all the staff seem to be right behind this great initiative.

The idea is that I will have contact with this very first intake (150 year 7s) throughout their first year at the school. We'll meet, either for real or virtually in some way, once per half term from now till the summer before they head up to year 8. Todays, by way of introduction, I gave a talk to the whole year group in their shiny new hall, with possibly the largest projection screen I've ever seen :-0

The students were wonderful, had some great questions. I signed a load of books and really enjoyed our first session together, so thanks to Cambourne for the welcome.

And since this was reported today, it feels like my visit could not have come at a more appopriate time. Not that there was any evidence of children being embarrassed to be seen with a book here! The enthusiasm for reading was plain to see - the challenge is to keep children reading as the move up through the school system. I think Cambourne are well on the way to achieving that.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


Or, to give them their proper name, coincidences...

Co-inky-dinks is what they get re-christened by 7-year-old Benjamin, brother to Laureth, the heroine of my new book, She Is Not Invisible. Laureth and Benjamin's dad is a writer, a writer who's obssessed by two things: coincidences, and the number 354. He's been trying, and failing, to write a book about coincidence for years, and as the book opens, he's gone missing. Always a little away with the fairies, when his notebook turns up in New York when he was last heard of in Switzerland (or was it Austria), Laureth knows something is seriously wrong.

I also love coincidences, and coincidentally, have also been trying to write a novel about them for a very long while. I'm glad I've finished, now, so I can get obsessed about something else, but before I leave them alone for good, I just wanted to record a further coincidence that happened this week.

I've had some pretty weird ones happen to me over the years, and this is not the most spectacular, but it amused me a lot. Since in She Is Not Invisible, Laureth and Benjamin's dad is obsessed with the number 354, I thought I would work it into the text in as many ways as possible. It's there, sometimes deeply hidden in various ways, at other times very obvious.

Here are a few examples: each chapter title is composed of three words: three, then five, then four letters long. 'Two Dried Mice', for example. With one exception; the chapter which is simply called '354'. One chapter, 'The Final Clue', is comprised of a sequence of words that are 3,5,4 letters long in turn, and furthermore, there are exactly 354 words in that chapter. The page count of the book is 354 pages. The blurb conforms to a 354 structure. The word Dad is used 354 times in the book. The 354th word of the book is 'coincidence'. There are dozens more, but you get the idea.

So, the latest coincidence: Last week, a wonderful actress called Anna Cannings recorded the audiobook version. Last night, I got an email from the editor of the audio, saying he'd just finished the final cut of the reading, which, without him being aware of it as he was working, has ended up at 354 minutes long...

So, what coincidences do you have to share? I'd love to read about all and any in the comments, so feel free...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Less is more

This post first appeared at the wonderful blog site, This Craft Called Writing, which really gets into the techniques behind writing.


I’m a great believer in less-is-more. That should be apparent merely from the page extent of my books – they tend to the shorter side, in some cases, very deliberately so. Revolver, for example, is only about 33,000 words long. It’s my belief that many books, films, operas are simply too long, and that if you’re working well, you can actually achieve a more powerful overall effect by keeping your writing on the sparer side.

Of course, there’s an immediate risk that if you are going to keep things shorter, that you won’t sufficiently ‘build the world’, or ‘develop character’, or any one of the many others things you’re supposed to do when you write a book. But I think it’s just a question of choosing just the right things, just the right words, to do your work for you, and I would always rather err on the side of leaving a reader wanting more than overwhelming and boring them with a five page description of a new character the protagonist has just met, or three pages of detailed depiction of the room into which they have just walked.

In any case, I read somewhere that studies have shown that a reader only remembers three things from a lengthy description of a new room, for example, and if that’s the case, then why overload your passage with much more than that? The goal is to bring the scene to life, and I think there’s a false belief that some people have which means that as the writer, you have to describe everything. You don’t. One of the principal beauties of writing is that you can allow your reader to do half the work for you. If you choose just the right details to mention, and mention them in the most powerful or elegant way you can, you will immediately trigger a wealth of other images and suggestions in your readers’ minds.

I’ve got a new book out, called She Is Not Invisible, and it’s taught me something I found very interesting. I run creative writing courses from time to time, for Arvon and other places, and one of the short warm-ups I sometimes get the students to do involves describing a scene without the use of sight. I always feel a bit GCSE English at this point, but the results are often worthwhile – after the initial protests that it’s too limiting, the final pieces of writing are sometimes the best pieces of the week.

This is pertinent to She Is Not Invisible because the book consists of a first person narrative by a girl who has been blind from birth. The whole book, therefore, has to let the sense of sight go completely unused; but here’s the thing I found interesting: only when it was done did I realise that far from finding it limiting, I actually found it liberating. It was such a joy to be freed from the tyranny I think we often all feel; of ‘describing a scene fully’.  With no sense of sight to have recourse to, I instead built scenes from the other senses, predominantly hearing, of course, but others too.

Here’s a short extract that shows this at work.

‘Benjamin!’ I called, waiting for him to come back.
It was probably only a second or two but I freaked out and rushed after him, then kicked into a bag or something, and went sprawling full length on the floor.
Even in the noise of the airport I heard everyone around me go quiet as they watched and I knew I’d made a stunning spectacle of myself. I’d landed with my legs over the bag and my arms flung out in front of me.
‘Am I invisible?’ a man said, angrily.
My sunglasses had shot off my face somewhere and I heard him sigh.
‘Why don’t you look where you’re going? My laptop’s in there.’
I got to my feet and managed to kick his bag again.
‘For God’s sake,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered. ‘Sorry.’
I kept my head down as the man unzipped his bag, grumbling.
‘Benjamin?’ I said, but he was already back at my side.
‘Are you okay, Laureth?’ he asked, pushing something into my hands. ‘Here’s your glasses.’
I slipped them on quickly.
‘I’m really sorry,’ I said in the direction of the man, and held my hand out for Benjamin to take. ‘We’d better get a move on.’

No need for the sight of anything in there. Who cares what colour the man’s bag is, for example, or what make it is? The embarrassment of our narrator is the point in hand, and though I will of course return to the visual in my next book, it was a good experience to have.

In fact, in She Is Not Invisible, I decided to impose a few more restrictions on my writing. I’ve long been wanting to write a book that follows the maxims of Oulipo, or writing that is constrained in some way. Oulipo is a fascinating thing, and includes some extraordinary works, such George Perec’s famous A Void, written without once using the letter ‘e’.  The proagonist’s father in She Is Not Invisible is a writer obsessed with two things; coincidences, and the number 354. I decided to see in how many ways I could incorporate this number into the text, from the chapter headers to the word count of the book even to the blurb on the jacket and the page count of the novel. And once again, far from finding this limiting, I actually found it stimulated me to be more creative than I might otherwise have been.

So try taking something out of your writing once in a while. You might indeed find that less is more.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Western Isles Tour 5/5

The final day of this tour of the Western Isles took us to Barra, and the sun returned, having not been seen since Monday. Barra is a gorgeous little island and the people really friendly. I've been delighted to be able to come to the Western Isles thanks to the organisation of Scottish Book Trust and the generous sponsorship of Scottish Friendly, so I'd like to thank them both for making this happen.

I'm not going to write much today, but instead am going to post a load of photos from the day. As with every other day of the tour, we visited two schools; both primaries. The second was CastleBay School; and the first was the smallest school we've visited all week - Eoligarry, just 23 pupils in all - I spoke to just 8 of them. The school has been threatened with closure but has recently won a reprieve for three years. To the local people, the school is vital. It's doing a great job. And I very much hope it stays open, because we met some of the most wonderful young people I've ever met doing school visits. They're obviously doing something right here on Barra...

Our view at breakfast...

The whole of P4, P5, P6 and P7 at Eoligarry 
Eoligarry School, Barra

Football, including the hole in the centre of the pitch

Saying goodbye...