Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fantasy friction

Sorry - a better person would have resisted that heading.

There was a good programme about fantasy books tonight on BBC4. Actually, it was OK. There are so few programmes about writing that it felt like such a treat. But the talking head in various settings (Philip Pullman in a church - ha, ha) felt like one of those '100 Greatest' schedule-fillers on Channel 4. And Phil Jupitus? Why?

Of course there was a lot about C S Lewis and how loathsome he was for foisting his odd version of Christianity on unsuspecting children (although to hear people talk you would think he was foisting subliminal Nazi propaganda or hardcore pornography on them).

But of course it was - is - loathsome to trick children into sharing your beliefs, whatever they are. The hideous attitude to girls is offensive. Of course it is. It is indefensible. But all that does not make him a bad writer. A bad person maybe.

Things have moved on. Philip Pullman's Miltonian references are more to our taste now than C S Lewis's biblical ones. He is like the anti-Lewis.

I like Philip Pullman. The world is a much better place for having him around. He is a clever man and not scared to show it. He is a good man, I think, and a much warmer one in person than he ever appears on TV or in print. I prefer his world view to that of C S Lewis and he says little that I disagree with. And Northern Lights is a wonderful book in many, many ways, and has more great ideas in it than most writers come up with in a lifetime and yet...

And yet...

And yet I can still feel the fur coats on my face and the cold of that snowy winter in Narnia. I still can still remember - forty years later - choking back tears when I read the section where Aslan is tortured; when that great mane is cut off. It was the first book to do that - to move me that strongly; testing emotions I did not know I had.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did not make me a Christian, any more than Sunday school did, but it did affect me deeply. I suspect a lot of people have this relationship with this book - a first love which, in later years, you may feel - in retrospect - was not wholly appropriate. But nevertheless it has a special place in your affections.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Payne's Grey

A few blogs back I mentioned that my routine of writing in the morning and drawing/painting/illustrating in the afternoon was different on Tuesdays because I had to be back so that I can be around to do an art club at my son's school. I also mentioned that it is the day I deliver my strip to the New Statesman.

The strip is called Payne's Grey and features a different character each week (named after a small village somewhere in Britain). I draw the faces in pen or with a brush depending on what mood I'm in, then scan them in and drop them into a framework I made in Photoshop. I then type in the text and colour them in.

There is no theme exactly. Someone once said of another strip of mine that it went A-B-K rather than A-B-C. I took it as a great compliment. Here is last week's. . .

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Music at the Fitz-diddly-William

Today we went to one of the Music in the Fitzwilliam concerts and listened to Mary Pells playing the viola da gamba accompanied by Dan Tidhar on the harpsichord. We were surrounded by eighteenth century paintings and they provided the perfect backdrop for the music by Abel, Schaffrath and C P E Bach. I do love this kind of music, even though it does as much arbitrary diddlying as Flanders in The Simpsons. It all looked a bit like this. . .

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Dry rivers and sweaty backs

I read in the paper yesterday that Venice is high and dry on a low tide, the gondolas sitting on silt. Well it seems like Cambridge has come out in sympathy because the river at Mill Lane is down to a trickle and the punts are all perched on a huge bank of mud that has built up in front of the sluice gate. The serpentine part of the river on Coe Fen is almost dry. It is all very strange.

I went to my studio after joining the gym. I hate gyms. The rows of treadmills, cross-trainers and sweaty backs fill me with horror. It is not that I object to excercise. I like excercise. It is the mind-numbing boredom that I hate and the constant feeling that there are any number of things I could be doing instead. Nice things. Important things. But though I hate the gym, I hate flab even more. Flab on a skinny man is a sorry sight.

I worked on my paintings a little. I tried to be bold. You need to be prepared to destroy a painting I think; to ruin it completely. It should be able to go anywhere. Actually, I think that is true of a novel as well, though when I paint I do not have a contract or an agent or publisher expecting results. Which is probably just as well.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Angelic conversation

I bumped into Joad Raymond outside school today. Joad knows an awful lot about Milton. He knows an awful lot about angels too - he is writing a book about them at the moment; or at least a book about their appearance in other people's writing.

We asked how our respective books were getting on and I told him about my builders. Joad suggested music as a barrier. I was not sure about this. I have always liked the idea of music when I write (and I prefer music when I illustrate and particularly when I paint), but whenever I have tried it, I find I end up listening to the music too much and writing too little. I have always believed that I like music too much to treat it as background noise. So I have convinced myself I can only work in silence.

But it never is silence is it? There is always something leaking in - traffic noise, neighbours, kids, whatever. Music ought to be better than that. So I gave it a go and it seemed to work. I stuck my iTunes library on shuffle and gave myself a rather bizarre background music selection. And I certainly got more done that I had managed in the last few days.

It occurs to me now that I know nothing of Joad's taste in music and maybe did not have The Handsome Family or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or any of the other things I have floating around inside my computer in mind when he made his suggestion. Maybe a man who writes about angels listens to Bach not Bjork. But it worked - that's the main thing.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

More about painting

I just wanted to add something to the last post. Although it is true to say that my paintings do not deal with ideas, I might have given the impression that they do not really depict anything. That certainly is not true. Many of my paintings portray a particular place for example.

I lived in London for many years, sharing a studio in Shoreditch - with Francis Mosley whom I've already mentioned, John Morris and Louise Brierley. I was at college at Manchester with Louise where we both trained as illustrators. Louise was always hugely talented. She is now a painter, as you will see if you follow the link.

When I worked in London I painted landscapes, many of them of the British coast. I have a fascination with the work of British painters and illustrators from the middle of the 20th Century - people like John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Keith Vaughan, William Scott, Paul and John Nash. I felt a kind of Romantic attachment to them as so many of them also produced illustrations. The line between painter and illustrator seemed more blurred. I related to that. I even sent some samples of my work to John Piper and got a nice postcard back.

When I moved to Norfolk in 1993 I thought I would paint more, but in fact I became busier as an illustrator and painted less. Besides which, I found the Norfolk landscape difficult to get a handle on. I felt like I wanted to tip it up like a table top, or take to the air like Peter Lanyon and see it from above. In fact my most successful Norfolk pictures were not landscapes at all, but watercolours of pieces of flint I picked up on the beach (yes - I know it was wrong). There is something about them that seems to contain an essence of that coast. Here is an example.

Monday, 18 February 2008


As well as being an author and illustrator, I also paint. I bought myself a stack of small canvases recently and I have begun two paintings based on the bit of land called Sheep's Green that I pass every time I go into town. The ground is often flooded and is studded with trees; most of them ancient willows, most of them pollarded.

After years of being an illustrator, where content was everything and meaning had to be clear and easily understood, I tend to shy away from those kinds of concerns when I paint. The subject matter is just a way of getting started. After that it becomes about colour and texture. I can get very excited about the quality of the edges of these area of colour. I paint for no one but myself (though I do occasionally show my work - and sell it even, sometimes).

But now that I illustrate only rarely and no longer do the kind of tricksy, idea-based stuff I used to churn out for magazines and newspapers (when I painted to keep myself sane), the notion of actually having some kind of subject matter or content in my paintings is starting to appeal to me. Either way, I shall put some examples up on the blog to show what I am doing.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Green Man envy

I have lived in Cambridge for a year and a half now and there is still so much of it that is a complete mystery to me. So much of the life of the city revolves around the university and unless you are involved in university life - which I am not - you feel a little shut out.

So getting a chance to go into a college - as I did today to see our friend Lauren Kassell - is always very exciting. Lauren is an expert on alchemy and magic (and wouldn't you love to be able to say that) and has the most fantastically appropriate rooms in Pembroke College. She even has her very own Green Man carvings - how cool is that? My copy of Pevsner says that her wood panelling is 17th Century and comes from the old hall they ripped down in the 19th Century. I want a wood panelled writing room. It's not fair!

Eager to take any opportunity to poke my nose into the academic world I had accepted and invitation to a formal dinner at Newnham College as a guest of another academic friend of ours - Mardi Dungey - but it has been cancelled. And I was looking forward to having chance to wear my tuxedo. All of it.

I bought my tux when my book Death and the Arrow was up for an Edgar award in New York a couple of years back. My editor there - the wonderful Nancy Hinkel - came to pick me up from my hotel just as I discovered that I had forgotten to pack the trousers. Luckily I had another suit.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


I checked my junk mail today and found a message from the British School in Rio asking if I might be interested in being involved in their library week this March/April. The message had come in on the 13th but ended up in my junk mail because after a spate of spam from Brazil a year or so back, I blocked all messages with the br. international coding.

There has been talk of a trip to Brazil for a while. John Clarke - who I share a studio with - has a sister living there and she has expressed a desire to get me over there to her English language bookshop - the Jamer Bookshop in Rio. I was very excited for a while, but nothing came of it and so I had forgotten all about it. Perhaps it is back on the cards. I certainly hope so.

Friday, 15 February 2008


I have been cursed by builders. The house opposite is having an extension built and all this week, builders have been yelling and laughing and jabbering on their mobile phones and throwing bricks and goodness knows what else into a trailer because the street is too narrow to get a skip lorry down. I even heard a wolf whistle the other day - I have not heard a wolf whistle in years. I decided it would be a good time to begin the slow process of tidying my office.

So I can now actually see the top of my desk - well some of it at least. Now there are only a couple of notebooks, a sketchbook, the phone, two of those Penguin book cover mugs - Vile Bodies and Frankenstein. And I can almost get to the window without standing on piles of paper. It is a work in progress.

Thursday, 14 February 2008


It was a wonderfully foggy day in Cambridge yesterday. It did not lift all day and even the pinnacles on top of King's College were hidden from view as if a rather smudgy charcoal drawing was in the process of being rubbed out.

Fog is very spooky - undeniably spooky I would say. And spookiness has been on my mind a lot over the last year or two. When I began writing the stories that form Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - some of which I had roughed out many, many years ago - I set out deliberately to create an atmosphere of creepiness or spookiness; to unnerve rather than jolt or revolt. Movies do a very good job with the Boo! kind of fright. That is harder to achieve with a book.

What books are very good at doing is taking you to places you would not willingly go to. There is no shutting your eyes or hiding behind a pillow when you read a book. The process of reading is - or can be - very intimate, and there is a vulnerability there that a good writer can exploit.

I love the stories of M R James and of Saki, and of a host of other writers who have specialised or dabbled in the supernatural - writers who skillfully make your flesh creep. But I also like writers who produce something more weird and nightmarish - writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Franz Kafka. Someone once said to me, 'The trouble with you is that you read too much Kafka.' But you see the trouble with him was he didn't read enough.

Of course, the other thing that books can do is pile on the vileness in terms of revolting detail. I have been reading a book by a writer who shall remain nameless but writes gory teenage horror. It made me want to have my eyeballs decontaminated, but instead I picked up a copy of Coraline by Neil Gaimain. Two pages in and my faith in writing was restored. It is genuinely scary and unsettling in a Kafkaesque way, but more to the point it is just plain well written. And the fantastic Dave McKean illustrations are the icing on a very weird cake.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Today is tomorrow's yesterday

A big part of my output so far as an author has been historical fiction and this is no doubt due in part to my enjoyment as a child of the work of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece and of their illustrator, Charles Keeping. And I still enjoy historical fiction - as a writer and a reader (and a movie-goer).

Historical fiction is a strange genre though. In children's fiction there always seems to be an element of worthiness about it - as if somehow you are not only getting the children to read a novel, but also getting some historical facts down them by stealth. And now there seesm to be a spate of writers of historical non-fiction turning to novels.

For me, historical fiction is fiction, first and foremost. It has to work as a story, regardless of any percieved benefit in terms of helping to understand WWII or the Romans. That is not to say that I do not spend a lot of time on research and that I think I have a responsibility to get things right, but just that I am not convinced that we can really get an insight into another age through historical fiction.

Historical fiction often seems to say as much about the time it was written as when it is set. It is a little like science fiction in that regard. Just as the various future worlds of science fiction are often commentaries on the world of the writer, so historical fiction reflects the contemporary world by all the differences (and similiarities) to it.

The problem with historical fiction is that it can pretend to be 'true', or at least take upon itself a mantel of added authenticity because of the factual details. But it can only ever be partially true. I write historical fiction because the past, and the way we relate to it, fascinates me. Setting is important to me, and for children's books, a historical setting throws up all kinds of possibilities in terms of the narrative. I think it can also help to personalise an historical event or era and make it seem more real. It can also bring a valuable new perspective to the present.

But history is more complex and our knowledge of it more full of holes than fiction - certainly children's fiction - easily allows for. At the end of the day it is the author's job to make the story compelling. Historical or not, it is still fiction. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

More on Stephen King

I think I should have pointed out a few blogs back, that before I read On Writing I had never actually read a Stephen King book. I had a friend at college who always seemed to have a Stephen King on the go and I can see myself giving him a withering, pitying look as I worked my way through Satre's Roads to Freedom trilogy. The fact is, I had - and still do have - an aversion to gold embossed lettering and airbrushed illustration. Plus I am not a joiner and Stephen King seemed like a club; a cult even. OK - I was a snob.

But however much of a snob I may have been about his books, I had enjoyed his stories as screenplays: Carrie, Stand By Me, The Shining, Misery. I suppose that is why I read On Writing. Someone who tells such good stories must have something worthwhile to say about writing. After all, you can't judge a writer by his covers. And there is nothing wrong with being popular. Dickens was popular. In fact now I do the job myself, being popular seems strangely appealing.

On Writing was so interesting (and well written) - and I liked Stephen King so much by the end - that I went out and bought Misery (a story which King says he dreamt in its entirety on a flight to England). But I am afraid it did not make me a convert, despite being a very nicely packaged edition devoid of embossing or cheesy illustration. The movie had spoiled it for me, I think. I preferred the paired down screenplay to the novel, even though I could appreciate Stephen King's gift as a writer. And because of that I will certainly give him another try. Not that I suspect he cares one way or the other.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Saturday, 9 February 2008


Most writers keep some kind of notebook. Personally, I always carry a small Moleskine notebook wherever I go and fill it with all kinds of stuff that may or may not be of use one day. It has observations of things I want to remember, snippets of dialogue I overhear, bits of dialogue that pop into my head. I might come up with a solution to some problem in a book I am working on and I scribble it down before I forget it (which these days is about thirty seconds later). There are diary entries and jokes for my strip. There are phone numbers and titles of books and bands that friends have recommended.

I remember seeing a documentary a while back that said that Beethoven used to carry a notebook wherever he went and he made sound sketches of waterfalls or wind in the trees, using musical notation. I love that idea.

Yet still I do not use my notebook as much as I should. I tend to forget how bad my memory is. The observations are the most valuable, I think - and they are the things you are most likely to forget. I had certainly forgotten this - the entry on the first page of my last notebook: Wino in Norwich wearing huge headphones and singing 'Tragedy' by the Bee Gees in an out of tune falsetto.

Friday, 8 February 2008

On Stephen King

Stephen King came up in conversation with my agent, Philippa Milnes-Smith (as I suspect he has come up in many agent/writer conversations over the years) in a discussion about scary novels and the difficulties thereof. I read Stephen King's On Writing last year (I am a bit of a sucker for books about writers and writing) and was surprised to find that he says he is not a big fan of plot.

It may seem bizarre for such an out and out storyteller to say, 'I won't try and convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as little as possible.' But is it? I do not think so.

His point is that he begins with a situation - a situation (or a predicament if you like) into which he drops a character or three. Then he writes and sees what happens. Now I think what Stephen King is calling a 'situation', many of us would call a plot, but I think that distinction is still a good one; the idea that a plot will develop rather than be imposed dogmatically at the beginning.

And I think King's view is just as true in the plot-driven world of children's fiction. I certainly know from my experience that books work better when I wind the characters up and let them go than when I move them about like chess pieces. I have made a box for them - King's 'situation' - but hopefully it is a big box and an interesting box and they are free to bump into each other in interesting ways. That way things just happen, and they are often more real and more compelling than that brilliant idea you have had in your head for months (or maybe that is just me). Besides, plot problems are relatively easy to solve. Come up with a dull character and it is like dragging a corpse around.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

More tales of covers for the Black Ship

Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury sent me a copy of the US cover for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. They have adapted the UK design (see below), adding a stronger background colour as they did for Uncle Montague. As before, the illustration is by David Roberts.

I should have been at the private view of the students on the Cambridge School of Art MA in Children's Book Illustration this evening, but I sadly did not make it. The course is run by Martin Salisbury and judging by the invitation, the show should be great. It is at the Illustration Cupboard, 27 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6AL until Saturday and then at Anglia Ruskin University's Ruskin Gallery from 21 February to 5 March.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Charles Keeping

I went to Hitchin Boy's School at the end of last year on the invitation of Thomas Pilkington, the school librarian. During our email conversations prior to my visit I was pleasantly surprised to hear Tom - an American - singing the praises of the fantastic British illustrator and printmaker, Charles Keeping. Tom was expressing his frustration that Keeping's contribution to illustration was not better acknowledged on this, the 20th anniversary of his death in 1988. Keeping won acclaim and awards when he was alive (the Kate Greenaway -twice - and the Carnegie) but he does seem a little forgotten now.

Keeping could be in a post entitled Why I Write or Why I Draw. I wanted to draw as well as he did - I still do. I wanted to produce exciting and poetic illustrations - I still do. But as well as inspiring me to draw, he also pulled me through those books by Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece that he illustrated so beautifully. I wanted to know what was happening in those pictures and I read the books to find out. A Charles Keeping spine was a sign of quality in the school library and they still call out to me whenever I look round a secondhand bookshop. Here is the title page of a Rosemary Sutcliff from 1965 I picked up yesterday.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Tuesdays are different

The routine I've described on previous posts does not apply to Tuesdays. On Tuesdays I tend not to go in to my studio. I often have to finish my weekly Payne's Grey strip for the New Statesman. I also take an after-school art club at my son's school so I have a disrupted day.

Every week follows the same pattern. I set off to the art club muttering to myself that I will try not to be so grumpy or shouty; that they are just children - lovely, gifted, bright, delightful children, mostly. But like a horse knows you can not ride as soon as your foot is in the stirrup, children know you are not a real teacher. They smell the fear.

At the beginning of each class I try to inject as much enthusiasm into the new project as I possibly can, but within seconds I am growling and as jaded as Jack Black in School of Rock before he discovers the kids can play instruments.

Then I see what they are drawing. Suddenly I am transformed into Jack Black after he discovers the kids can play. Life seems full of possibilities - one of them being that I have the ability to enthuse and to pass on practical skills. This lasts about two minutes before I am once again threatening to throw various children (including my son) out of the class.

I nag my son all the way home, because he is the only one I can get at. This makes me feel small and spiteful. In art club I was just a bad teacher; now I am a bad father. It is all I can do to stop myself going back to bed with all my clothes on. I am tortured by my inadequacies as a teacher, as a father - as a human being.

Then I show my wife some of the drawings and we marvel at the ability of some of those children and I wonder if I did not, after all, play some small roll in the making of those drawings; that maybe I had encouraged them to do more than they might have done had I not been there. Maybe art club is not a total waste of time after all.

I'll do one more week, I think. And see how it goes.

As of today I have a new agent. I am now represented by Philippa Milnes-Smith of LAW Ltd and I am very excited about it. Philippa is great and she has promised (in a charmingly non-committal, not-in-so-many-words kind of way) to make me rich and famous. And frankly I'd be more than happy with rich, so it should be a piece of cake.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Where I draw

Having glimpsed the messy bedroom office in which I write, come with me now as I cycle across Cambridge to my studio (you can sit on the handlebars - watch out for the bell!). I try to take this journey at a reasonable speed as it is now almost the only excercise I take, although if it's a nice day and I have my camera with me, I may stop and take photographs on the way (see foot of page).

My studio is in the upper floor of a little community of buildings and sheds, housing all kinds of enterprises, from second-hand furniture to web design. My space is quite small. The light is not bad but the ceiling is very low and there is no water (except for the stand pipe outside and the leak in the roof). I have a desk, a plan chest, an easel, assorted boxes full of paints and brushes and so on, some books, ink, pens, rulers and pencils. It is considerably tidier than my office, but that is not saying much.

I share this space with John Clark who works in computer games but is also (really) a painter. He is doing a series of oil paintings featuring big men with no clothes on. I may show one or two on this blog over the next weeks if he lets me. On the other side of a partition wall are Andrew and Lynette who are both graphic designers. Paint on one side of the wall, Apple Macs on the other.

As for me, I am filling a sketchbook with all kinds of things, including the drawings of skateboarders below. I have also just purchased twenty small canvases and yesterday began to paint on two of them. I have not painted in years. It felt great; like remembering how good mangos taste after not eating one for ages.

And I work until five or so and then cycle back - in the dark at the moment - and remind myself again how I really must buy a helmet and stop listening to Peter Bjorn and John on my iPod instead of listening for killer cars. Sometimes I stop off in the centre of Cambridge to buy food or art supplies or turn my books face out in Watersones or stand with the other comic book geeks in Borders. Mainly I do it so I can cycle past Kings College Chapel and think how lucky I am to be able to see that building any time I want.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The joy of sketchbooks

My bed/sofa/cistern-side book at the moment is Chris Ware's facsimile sketchbook, notebook and journal published as The Acme Novelty Library Diary 1996-2000 by Drawn & Quarterly. I am not sure I could have a meaningful relationship with anyone who did not think Chris Ware was just a bit brilliant. If you do not own any of his books, go and buy one now.

I thought that maybe I might start posting the odd page from my sketchbook just to give another angle on what I do and how I go about things. My sketchbook is not as funny as Chris Ware's and I do not go in for his 'notes to self' - like 'I SUCK!' and 'Jesus CHRIST I need to learn how to DRAW!' - even though those thoughts do pop into my head occasionally (or perhaps that should be often).

For reasons I can not completely explain, I have been doing drawings of skateboarders (without their boards).

Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Black Ship

Helen Szirtes at Bloomsbury emailed me a copy of the cover design for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship yesterday - so, as promised, here is an early glimpse. The book is out October 2008. The lovely illustration is by David Roberts.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Almost as good as Rolf Harris

I went to London yesterday evening to attend the private view of an exhibition of Chris Riddell's political cartoons for the Observer newspaper. Chris was genuinely worried that no one was going to turn up, but it was packed.

There can have been few people since the days of E H Sheppard and Tenniel, who have had such success and acclaim in the two wildly differing worlds of newspapers and children's books. I sat next to Chris for years at the Economist and I buy the Observer every week, so the quality of his cartoons and the effortless drawing skill came as no surprise. But it was refreshing to hear the editor of the Observer praise his cartoonist so highly and to state so unreservedly how important Chris is to the paper.

The exhibition runs until April 11 at The Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA. It is a great show in a very smart gallery space and there is a display case with some of Chris's sketchbooks and children's books. For further information call 02078869898 or visit Go along and see a real star at the top of his game.

Oh - and if you are wondering about the heading for this piece, it was said to Chris by a small child during a school visit he made as an illustrator many years ago. Still - that 'almost' gives him some hope.