Wednesday 26 October 2011

Have You Read…

KILL ALL ENEMIES by Melvin Burgess

I’d been good for nearly a week. Only one fight; it must have been a record for me. I should have known it couldn’t last…

Billie keeps getting into trouble - she doesn’t mean to, but somehow it just happens. Chris thinks school is a waste of time - he’s desperate to leave, but his parents are forcing him to stay. And Rob might look big and tough, but his violent stepfather keeps getting the better of him, and inside, he feels utterly helpless. Soon, events take a downward spiral for each of them and they get excluded from their schools and are sent to the Brandt, the local Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). There, their lives collide, with surprising results for all of them.

At first glance, Billie, Chris and Rob seem like the sort of teenagers the media delights in demonising - troublemakers, wasters, no-hopers. But there is more to their stories than first meets the eye. Almost immediately, you start to learn the real reasons behind their behaviour, and why school isn’t – and often can’t – be their number one priority. As the story unfolds, it reveals a hidden world where the characters are unsung heroes, fighting for themselves and their loved ones, while so many of those around them are blind to what's really going on in their lives.

Burgess, author of the controversial and brilliant Junk and Doing It, as well as many other highly-acclaimed novels for children and young adults, visited several PRUs in the course of researching Kill All Enemies – which started life as a project commissioned for Channel 4 – and Billie, Chris and Rob are based on the kids he talked to. They are such engaging and believable characters, and knowing their stories come from real life makes them all the more harrowing, because they could be the stories of people you see every day: that kid slouching at the bus stop with their hood pulled over their face and a cigarette dangling from their lower lip; the one getting into fights behind the school; the one hanging out in the park late at night in the rain because anywhere’s better than home…

Luckily for Chris, Billie and Rob, there are a few people who do understand them – or at least try to – and who help to stop them falling through the cracks completely.

As for the ending… when I read the closing lines, I wanted to punch the air and cheer. Chris, you’re my hero! But I won’t spoil it by telling you why - if you want to find out, grab yourself a copy now!

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Author Interview - Abi Burlingham

This week, I’m thrilled to be doing my first ever author interview with my lovely writing friend and fellow Hound minion Abi Burlingham. Abi is the author of the RUBY AND GRUB picture books - RUBY AND GRUB, GRUB IN LOVE and the forthcoming GRUB’S PUPS, out next week! Gorgeously illustrated by Sarah Warburton, they're published by Piccadilly Press, who are also publishing her BUTTERCUP MAGIC series for 6-9-year-olds, with the first book, A MYSTERY FOR MEGAN, out next spring.

So, Abi, tell us a bit about yourself. (Ooh, that sounds proper interviewer-y, doesn't it? *Adjusts microphone*)

 Well Emma (ha ha! you see I can do it too), I live in Derbyshire and teach adults literacy, but mostly, I write. I'm a huge animal lover - all of them, and regularly cry at nature programmes. I love trees and woods and growing things, especially potatoes - there's something so satisfying about planting a spud and then digging out a whole load with your hands. I love the sea, and am a compulsive picker upper of bits of wood and pebbles. I like to draw and paint too, but have less time for this than I'd like. Mostly, I love to write, just love it. It feeds my soul and if I can't do it I am a total and utter misery guts!

When did you start writing, and why?

My first memories of writing were from when I was around nine I guess.  I used to make up rhymes and 'odes' all the time. My mum liked poetry and would buy me funny poetry books, which I loved. I used to pore over her Cecily M Barker 'Flower Fairies' book, and 'The Butterfly Ball'. Then I asked for a portable typewriter for Christmas. I was lucky - I got one. It was in a gorgeous dark green zip up case and I adored it. I would sit and type letters from people who didn't exist to people who didn't exist - often very funny and very quirky. They make me howl when I read them now. After that, I wrote poem after poem, often accompanied by drawings and sketches. I think the 'why' bit is harder. It always felt right.  Also, I was painfully shy as a child and would clam up in front of people. The words were all inside and writing was their way out. 

What made you decide to write for children?

I didn't have a compulsion to write for children at any point, until I'd had my son. I had left my job - I worked in admin for a long time - and moved to Yorkshire with the sole purpose of writing, then I had my son. I was surrounded by baby stuff, mushy food being flicked onto walls, nappies thrown into a corner of the room in haste, the constant drone of Teletubbies and Postman Pat. I also had two dogs at the time - a whappy cairn terrier and our lovely springer spaniel pup, so I was suddenly in a very crazy place, not at all conducive to writing poetry. I am very quick at making decisions and tend to stick to them, so I decided to write some stories for young children and to research the whole process. Unlike many writers, apart from having to write at school, I had never even attempted a story. I had only ever written these whacky letters and poetry. All Grown Up, my first picture book to be published, was one of the very first stories I ever wrote.

How long did it take you to get published?

Between the first stories being written and the first book being published, it took four years. I wasn't working regularly at it because by then I'd had my daughter too, but I had received some really good feedback from a handful of publishers, so kept working away at ideas and trying things out. One particular commissioning editor for a big children's book publisher would spend half an hour or more talking me through ideas and ways of trying things, on regular occasions. She gave me the bit of self-belief that I needed in order to carry on.

What is your favourite book?

Ooh, I love this question. It would be hard to say an absolute favourite, but if push comes to shove, 'The Book Thief', by Markus Zusak. I love his writing with a passion, and this book has it all for me. This is the book I would love to have written.

What about your favourite film?

Philadelphia Story, starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, to name but a few. I love the old black and whites, and the old actors, the way they spoke, the chivalry, the wit. It must have been 'grand' to be a teenager then.

Your favourite music?

Ah! I used to be a punk - secret's out now. I had the back-combed hair and the weird clothes. In fact, I used to make quite a lot of my clothes from charity shop stuff that I butchered until they resembled something I quite liked. My favourite bands then were people like The Cocteau Twins, The Comsat Angels, The Cure, The Chameleons (I seemed to like bands beginning with C for some reason). But I was also brought up on Roxy Music and David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, 10cc, Elton John and The Who. All of these I still love to listen to. At the moment, I have The Horrors 'Skying' on constant replay on my car CD player. I like Arcade Fire, Editors and am a huge fan of Elbow. I also love Sigur Ross and one of my new discoveries, The Black Atlantic, who are from The Netherlands. As you can probably tell, I am a big music fan - music wins over tv for me any day.

And (because I’m nosy and I just have to know!) your favourite joke?

I am rubbish at remembering jokes. I have two - one isn't repeatable here, the other is: What's brown and sticky? A stick. The only reason this is one of my faves is because it's the only one I remember that I can repeat. Mostly, I just like it when people say random funny things that make me laugh.

Describe your perfect writing day…

This is a very good question, because my perfect writing day hasn't happened yet. My perfect writing day would be among the trees in a favourite part of Clumber Park, where no-one else seems to go, or in a wood, just me, a notepad and pen, a big bag of crisps and some water. Otherwise, I guess a day at home where all the words come and I have few other things to do, is fairly close to perfect.

…and your actual writing day.

My actual writing day is punctuated by doing the school runs and walking my greyhound, washing up, and of course, The Evil Menace of Distraction... commonly known as Twitter. Not to mention, answering emails, doing publicity stuff etc etc. I imagine it's much like most writer's days really when we do a bit of writing in the gaps between other things. I am lucky though as I only work 3 half days a week, so at least I can settle down for longish spells and get quite a lot done in that time.

If you could tell your teenage self one thing, what would it be?

This is a bit uncanny actually as I had a conversation with someone today about this very thing. I did tell my teenage self something, and would tell myself the same again. I was painfully shy, and I realised that I'd never get anywhere being like this, so I remember telling myself that it was about time I got a grip and pulled myself together. I can't say it was easy, but I was determined that I wasn't going to end up doing nothing with my life and I knew that my shyness would hold me back. I was bullied quite a lot at school but it gave me a steely determination which has stayed with me and always makes me come up fighting.

And finally, what are you up to next?

At some point I would like to sleep and have tea and toast in bed... but before that, I have Grub's Pups coming out on 27th October and am having my first ever book launch for that, which is really exciting (and a tad scary!).  I've written the first of a series of books for 6-9yrs, Buttercup Magic, and the first of these, A Mystery for Megan, is out in April 2012. This means I have two more to write. I'm also working on a couple of picture book stories, another 6-9yrs novel about a rescue greyhound, a 9-11yrs novel about about a girl who aspires to be someone special, and my first YA book. I have also started a novel. Oh, and a poem or two inbetween. I've two poems due to be published in magazines soon, which I am ecstatic about. Hopefully all of this will be punctuated with feasts of cheesecake and fish-finger and fried egg sandwiches... hopefully!

And can I just say, thank you so much for interviewing me. This is my first ever interview, and these have been lovely thought provoking questions. I've really enjoyed thinking about them and I hope people enjoy reading my answers.

Thank YOU, Abi - it’s been great to interview you and I'm sure they will!

Abi has a fantastic website, and a blog which she updates every Friday - you can find both of them here.

If you are in the Chesterfield area on Saturday 29th October, Abi will be at Waterstones on Vicar Lane at 11am to launch Grub’s Pups. She'll be reading from and signing her books, and there'll be refreshments, colouring, lollies and free Ruby and Grub bookmarks for the children (I might have to pretend to be a child so I can get one!).

Thursday 13 October 2011

The Lucky Thirteens Blog Launches Today!

I'm really excited to announce that a brand new group blog, the Lucky 13s, will be launching later today - and I'm going to be there! 

We're a group of authors with debut children's and young adult books arriving in 2013. We'll be adding members as we go along and blogging about all aspects of writing and the writing life.

So why not grab some balloons and a part hat and come on over to help me and fellow founder members Rachele Alpine, Liz Coley, Jessica Corra, Lamar "L.R." Giles, Kristen Kittscher, Tara Lazar, Nicole Maggi, Ellen Oh, Steven dos Santos, Sarah Skilton and Jessica Young celebrate our launch day at The Lucky 13s? It'd be great to see you. You can also follow the Lucky 13s on Twitter.

Many thanks to all the Lucky 13s for their hard work over the last few weeks, especially to Nicole for getting it all going in the first place!

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Unearthing the Ichthyosaur

I grew up at an environmental studies centre, so in our house, being scared of spiders wasn’t an option. If I find one now, the only place I run to is the bookshelf to look it up in my battered Collins Insect Guide, handed down to me by my dad. I like snails. And snakes. And frogs. And I’ve loved going for walks in the countryside since I was old enough to well, walk.

But what I was most interested in when I was a kid (and still am today, actually) was fossils.

The centre is in an area known as the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills which were formed when much of what is now Britain was covered by sea between 97 and 65 million years ago. In that chalk – itself formed out of the remains of microscopic plants and animals – are all sorts of fossils of the animals that used to live in that sea, some preserved in the chalk, some in flint. Which is why, one summer, I found several almost perfect sea urchin fossils sitting at the side of a footpath, where they’d washed out of the soil.

More often, I’d find a lump of chalk with something just visible inside it, which careful chipping away would reveal to be a shell or a belemnite. And sometimes, we’d visit a nearby quarry, long abandoned, where there were shark’s teeth preserved in the chalk. I can't tell you how many hours I spent hammering away at lumps of rock with a geological hammer, only to find… more chalk. Although my sea urchins were beautiful, they weren’t exactly rare. A shark’s tooth would have been, well, special. But it wasn't to be.

Then we went on a family holiday to the South-West. It was a freezing cold December day, and there we were on the beach in Lyme Regis, with horizontal rain and a sea the colour of roof slates. What on earth were we doing? Why weren’t we inside watching telly like sane, normal people?

The reason was that Lyme Regis, which sits on a band of Jurassic-era blue lias clay, even softer than chalk, is one of the best fossil spots in the UK. If you go in the summer, the beach has usually been picked clean, but in the winter storms lash the cliffs, and they slump, and the fossils inside are revealed.

Fossils like these:

These are four vertebrae from the tail of an Ichthyosaurus, a giant marine reptile that was around at the same time as the dinosaurs. And they were sitting on the sand in plain view. 

I never found any more of that Ichthyosaur, even though on subsequent visits, I combed the beach from end to end. But perhaps that’s what makes this fossil so precious – that it's such a unusual find.

And although I didn’t originally intend this post to be about writing at-all, as I put it together it I couldn’t help thinking how ideas can be like fossils. Sometimes, if you’re lucky – and it doesn’t happen often – you’ll just stumble across one, whole and almost perfect. Other times you have to chip away at it to remove all the extraneous stuff around it. If you’re lucky, you finally manage to get at it, but sometimes it comes out broken and mangled and you have hunt for something else.

But it’s thought of those rare, almost-wholly formed ideas that drives me forward with my writing, no matter how difficult or frustrating it gets at times. Who knows? There could be an entire Ichthyosaur buried in there… and I’ll never know unless I keep on looking. 

What keeps you going with your writing?

And in other news…

I’m excited to reveal that tomorrow a brand new blog, The Lucky 13s, is being launched – and I’m going to be part of it! I’ll post the link here and on Twitter tomorrow, so look out for it.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Those Eureka Moments

They can strike anywhere, at any time. You’re at work, or washing up. You’re at the dentist, or driving somewhere in the car. You’re lazing on the sofa in front of the TV, half-paying attention to the book lying open on your lap.

And then… BAM!

You get an idea.

If you can, you stop what you’re doing to scribble it down. If you can’t, you hug it tightly to yourself and grin when no-one’s looking, drunk on the sensation of it fizzing through your veins. Eureka moments can arrive at any time during a piece of writing: at the start, sparking the whole thing off; when you’re struggling to untangle a snarled plot thread; when you’re figuring out the exact way to decribe something, or trying to work out how to bring the whole thing to a satisfying end.

With ACID, I had several of these moments, but by far the most powerful was the one that brought the book to life in the first place.

I’d been trying to write ACID since I was fourteen (although it wasn’t called that then), after a friend and I challenged each other to come up with a story about someone who breaks out of jail. Like so many of the ‘novels’ I wrote when I was a teenager, I got only part of the way in before I lost direction and gave up. But the idea stayed with me, shadow-like, waiting.

I had another stab at it when I finished university, starting the day my course ended. I’d forced a three-year writing hiatus on myself while I was studying for my degree, knowing if I began writing, I wouldn’t want to do anything else. After so long waiting, sitting down at that computer felt right in a way painting never had, and I knew – as I had all along, really – that this was what I was meant to be doing.

But still, the prison-break story refused to be written. Still, it remained a shadow.

I abandoned it again and spent the next seven years trying other things: short stories, crime novels, picture books, poetry – and somewhere along the way, I discovered I wanted to write for teenagers. Then, not long after my first YA novel had collected its final rejection, I was sitting upstairs and wondering what to start on next when, through the open window behind me, I heard the sound of an car approaching from some distance away. All at once the ordinary village street outside my house disappeared, and instead, I saw a moor at night-time, vast and black and empty, with a single car driving across it on a long, straight road, its headlights two pinpoints of brightness in the dark. I was no longer in my house but a ramshackle cottage at the edge of that moor, standing at a window, watching the car draw closer and wishing I was in it, because I was trapped here and couldn’t leave.

Immediately, I knew this was a scene from my prison-break story. Other ideas began forming, almost too fast for me to be able to write them all down. An hour later I had two main characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. And after a few months of researching and plotting and procrastinating, the first draft of my story was finally ready to be written.

Ironically, the moor house scene was never used, as I realised my two characters, Jenna and Max, needed to be trapped in a more urban setting. But without it, ACID might still be no more than a collection of notes and dead-ended ideas.

Have you had any eureka moments recently? What were they? And what were the results?