Thursday, 31 January 2008

How I write

Having written a little about where I write, perhaps it might be a good point to describe how I write. This is my routine. . .

Every morning, unless I'm away from home for some reason, I walk my son to school - or nearly to school as these days he is eager to ditch me at the end of the street. I say hello to any of the parents I know and then pick up my paper. I make a pot of coffee and drink a cup with my wife before we head off to our different rooms and different jobs (she is a textile designer). By now, it is about 9.30 am.

The next half hour is taken up with various kinds of dithering and displacement activities - looking at my emails and replying if necessary, looking at the post, Googling things, and now, looking at my own blog just to check I have not written anything too stupid.

But by 10 am I am usually writing something. I write at a PC. I wish I could type but I am pretty quick with two index fingers. I have all kinds of shortcuts on my desktop to files containing anything I might have rattling round in my brain. I am usually working on at least two things at the same time.

I carry on writing with the odd break for tea and emails until 12. I do a word count when I start and feel happy if I head past one thousand words. Most days I do. Some days it might be two thousand. Or even three. Then I stop for lunch.

After lunch I now draft a little of my blog and then get on my bike and head off across Cambridge to the studio I share with two graphic designers and a painter. Here I have all my drawing and painting gear, my sketchbooks and so on. But more of that another time. . .

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Where I write

Every Saturday morning I stroll round to the local shop and buy my copy of the Guardian. After shaking my head wearily at the front page news, the next thing I tend to look at is the Writer's Room piece in the Review section, showing a photo of a particular writer's study with a few words by the writer themselves. They are always fascinating, but spookily tidy. Rooms in these Guardian articles are almost always utterly devoid of clutter with a laptop placed dead centre on a huge, empty desk. Mine is not like that. . .

I write in the front bedroom of a Victorian terraced house in Cambridge. Around my keyboard - in no particular order - as I type this, are the following: a small Moleskine notebook, my son's digital camera, a mug of green tea, a variety of pens and pencils, a copy of R. Crumb's Kafka, a calculator, a telephone, a USB cable for my iPod, a USB cable for my son's iPod, a vehicle licence application, an entry form for the Eastern Open exhibition in King's Lynn, a pack of photo quality paper, a few cds, a couple of blank DVDs, two printers, speakers, an invitation to a private view at Tate Britain for the Camden Town Group show, a pair of glasses I never wear, a leaflet about the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators conference in the summer, a pair of scissors, an Edward Gorey book and a few receipts.

Actually that makes my life sound much more interesting than it is. I think that is because this layer is hiding layers of unseen dull stuff. And the rest of the room is no better. It is small and made smaller by the clutter. There are a couple of chairs (beside the one I am sitting in). They are covered in piles of stuff. There are more such piles at various points across the carpet and under the desk. There is a box with some hardback editions of The White Rider and a small perspex bookcase full of books. There are more shelves behind me, mainly full of non-fiction books and I have a tall A3 plan chest full of bits and pieces from newspapers and magazines that I use as reference in my illustration work and to focus my mind on characters and settings when I am writing. There is a horned sheep's skull hanging on the wall.

I wish I could say that this untidieness was vital to the way I work - that this chaos is creative - but it actually just gets in the way. I waste so much time searching for things. I carry on until I can not get to my desk or can no longer see the keyboard when I get there. Then I tidy.

And I love it when it is tidy. If only it stayed that way for more than a day. I definitely have a tidy person trapped inside me, trying to get out. If they could just get past all that rubbish and open the door . . .

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

And speaking of M R James. . .

M R James was on my mind a lot last year, one way and another. Uncle Montague was named after him and the stories are set in the fusty, oppressive world he and Saki portrayed so well. Uncle Montague's tales deliberately aim at the sort of dreamlike atmosphere James evoked in his classic ghost stories and I now live in Cambridge where James, as Provost of King's College and later Vice-Chancellor of the University, would read those stories to invited guests in his rooms at Christmas.

I was asked to write a piece about James for Deathray magazine recently and I pointed out that I initially came to him via television. In the 1970s, the BBC had the inspired idea of adapting M R James' stories as creepy Christmas treats (echoing those readings at Kings). The BBC repeated some of these classic adaptations this Christmas, including the earlier, 1968, weird and wonderful Omnibus film, Whistle and I'll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller.

And I visited my old friend Francis Mosley in Bath last summer and discovered he was illustrating M R James for the Folio Society. He sent me a copy of the book at the end of last year and it is a lovely thing. It is not easy to illustrate James - the drawings need to be as subtle as the storytelling or the spell is broken - but Francis's etchings hit just the right note. His beautiful illustration to The Tractate Middoth is a particular favourite.

Monday, 28 January 2008

More tales of terror

Of course, a big part of this blog is going to involve shamelessly plugging whatever I'm involved in at any given time. So - what am I up to at the moment? Well, for a lot of last year I was working on the sequel to Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and it is now at the fine tuning stage. This book - Tales of Terror from the Black Ship - will come out in October, at the same time as Uncle Monty goes into paperback.

The new book features a mysterious seafaring storyteller and the tales all have a nautical flavour. There is more outright horror in this book. If M R James was the main inspiration for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, the Black Ship owes more to Edgar Allen Poe.

The book will once again be illustrated by David Roberts, who did such a fantastic job on Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. My editor at Bloomsbury - Helen Szirtes - sent me the rough for the cover the other day and the book is going to look great. I will keep you posted on how Tales of Terror from the Black Ship progresses and give you an early glimpse of the finished cover when I get it.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Why I write

I was asked recently to make some brief notes about some of the things I thought may have led to my becoming a writer. Here are a few things I came up with. . .

When I was about eight or nine, I won a medal in writing competition for a sci-fi story called Journey to the Moon. At about the same time I can definitely remember telling my teacher that my ambition was to write and illustrate my own book (as well as becoming an astronaut, of course). The competition was run by a local newspaper in Gibraltar where I was living at the time, and there was something about seeing my work in print at such a young age that I think stayed with me and shaped my idea of who I was or who I was going to become.

My teacher at that time really encouraged me to write (and to draw) and it may even have been her who entered me for the competition. I can certainly remember her getting me to take something I'd written to the headmaster so that he could read it too. Who knows what any of us would be without good teachers? Or bad ones for that matter.

I suppose I had a natural flair for writing. I certainly always enjoyed writing stories at school. But then I had always enjoyed art too and it was art college that provided me with an escape from the dull office job I saw looming ahead of me.

Not that I stopped writing. I had attempted a fantasy novel in my teens, and later, at art college, I destroyed an existentialist novel I had begun by ceremoniously burning it in a saucepan as a symbolic (and with the gift of hindsight, rather Woody Allenish) gesture to a girl I was gloomily besotted with. I wrote some poetry. About being gloomily besotted.

Other people's books obviously played their part. I was not a great reader until much later in life. When I was young I was often drawn to books by their illustrations - this was certainly true of the Charles Keeping-illustrated Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe books I loved when I was ten or eleven. I have always enjoyed seeing good art twinned with great writing (or even great art twinned with OK writing).

I loved strips. I still do when they are any good. Reading Peanuts and Jules Feiffer in the Observer magazine in the 1970s definitely inspired me. I was an avid reader of American comics as a boy - The Silver Surfer, Dr Strange, and Conan the Barbarian being among my favourites - and the love of that way of telling a story has never left me, nor has my admiration for people who do it well. There are some amazingly talented people working in graphic novels today. More of that at a later date.

After college I moved to London to pursue a career as an illustrator. I began plotting short stories and keeping notebooks. A chance meeting in a pub led me to designing posters for the Dog Theatre Company. The plays were written by a very clever man called Clive Barker, who unbeknown to me was writing the horror short stories that would make his name. Suddenly I knew a real writer and I summoned up the courage to show him a story I had written. The fact that he read it and talked to me in a matter of fact way - writer to writer - was the start of me thinking that perhaps I could get something published.

I did a six year stint on the Economist as an illustrator and there met Chris Riddell. We did a strip cartoon together in the Independent on Sunday called Bestiary and it was Chris who later suggested that I write something for children. Chris handed what I had written to Annie Eaton at Transworld and that boyhood dream of writing and illustrating my own book was soon achieved with my first published book - Dog Magic! It was not the existentialist novel my twenty year-old self would have wanted to see published, but I suspect my eight year-old self would have been over the moon.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I suppose I'd better begin.

Welcome to my blog. Over the coming weeks and months I hope to give an insight into what I'm doing and how I work, and to share some of my thoughts with you. You will be a guest in my incredibly untidy office and studio and you can, should you wish, accompany me on my various excursions. In addition to all that I hope to point you in the direction of anything I happen to be reading, listening to, viewing or doing that especially enthuses me.

Watch this space. . .