Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Here are another couple of skull-related images I've been playing about with.

I developed a twinge in the small of my back yesterday and it blossomed into jarring pain by the evening as I watched the rather dull match between Barcelona and Chelsea. My back is still astonishingly painful this morning if I try to bend or swivel. And it turns out I bend and swivel quite a lot.

And children are very happy to kick a man when he's down, so I got a hard time from my son yesterday who told me that his English teacher had put up posters of the Carnegie Medal shortisted authors and because I was such a loser I wasn't there. I'd let him down, he said. 'You've let yourself down, and you've let your family down,' joked my wife.

At least I think she was joking.

I'm due to fly up to Newcastle on Thursday for the presentation (to somebody else presumably) of the North East Book Award. I'm shortlisted along with five other authors. I spent seven or eight years in Newcastle before going to art college in Manchester and my father and my sister still live there.

My sister phoned this morning and I told her that I may have to cancel if it gets worse, but I really don't want to have to. She was happily impressed by the hotel Bloomsbury have booked for me, though. As things stand, I will fly early on Thursday, get a cab across to my old house in Kenton where my dad still lives and see him and my sister. Then get over to my hotel on the Quayside and then on to the awards bash at the Centre for Life. I'll go back over to my dad's on Friday and then fly back in the evening.

I received a couple of packages from Bloomsbury today: one was a book very kindly sent by Isabel Ford called Unnacustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (a book she had mentioned during our editing session) and the other was a collection of David Roberts' roughs for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. They are going to be great.

Oh - and I forgot to mention that Joad Raymond ran the marathon on Sunday in, what seems to me anyway, the incredible time of 2.57.11. I watched the finishing line waiting for him, stepped out of the room to check what he was wearing and missed him! He describes the whole day on his blog ('Miles to go before I sleep' in my blog list on the left)

Monday, 27 April 2009

Frosted skull

I went to the studio today. Although the day started well, it was drizzling by the time I set off on my bike. Cold too.

It still feels odd being back in the studio and using the artistic side of my brain. I love drawing. I love just moving a pen or a pencil or a brush over a piece of paper. It has been a kind of comfort thing to me ever since I can remember. Doodling is definitely a basic need of mine.

I've been playing about with this frosty skull effect, drawing it in black ink, reversing it out then colourising it on Photoshop.

Friday, 24 April 2009


Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror failed to get onto the Carnegie Medal shortlist today. I'm not (sob) upset. Really I'm (sob) not.


Sorry about that. But whilst I am generally a 'let the best man/woman win' kind of a guy, I was troubled to see the spin put on the shortlist: namely that it was a 'boy-friendly list' of books that showed 'what it was like to be a boy'.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but let's face it all books with a male protagonist - whether they are gritty urban realist stories, historical fiction or out and out fantasy - (if they are to be believable) need to conjure up what it is to be a boy.

Just as there is no one boy, so there is no one 'boy's book'. When I saw Mark Walden at the Edinburgh Festival last year, we both felt that we had been writing book that had a lot to do with fathers and sons (or surrogate fathers and sons). We did not set out to write a book that tackled the issues surrounding the relationships between fathers and their sons, but we are both sons and we are both fathers. These things just come out, like it or not.

Anyway, the shortlisted authors are:

Frank Cottrell Boyce
Kevin Brooks
Eoin Colfer
Siobhan Dowd
Keith Gray
Patrick Ness
Kate Thompson

Good luck to all of them.

I'm pretty content to be propping up the bar in the Salon des Refuses commiserating with the likes of Phillip Pullman, David Almond, Mary Hoffman, Eva Ibotson, Celia Rees and Geraldine McCaughrean.

Maybe next time.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The lakes of Canada

I went into the studio for the first time in ages today. Lynette came in later and we had a coffee and caught up on each other's news. The yard where we rent studio space has been burgled twice in the last week or so and there is much activity putting in alarms and added security.

I saw Peter Kirkham for a drink this evening. We went to The Pickerel near Magdalene College. We talked about Newcastle - Peter and I went to the same school there, though at different times (he being young, I old: so very, very old) - as well as our families, comics and music.

Peter agreed with me about Heath Ledger's Joker, but we disagreed about contemporary comics. Peter is an avid purchaser of comics, but I just can't get past the prevalence of Photoshop rendering techniques and much prefer the people who are working in graphic novels (admittedly with a lot more time and control). To me comics are all about drawing and the way the panels and pages are designed to tell the story. A perfect comic for me is one in which the story and the images just melt into one another. Bad drawing and design is not improved by airbrushing and light effects. But, as I may have mentioned before - I am an old man, so what do I know.

Anyway, in amongst our chat about music, I mentioned that I have a soft spot for Sufjan Stevens. Here he is up on a roof with a banjo and a head for heights singing, not one of his songs, but The Lakes of Canada by the Innocence Mission.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The man who laughs

I went to London today to meet Helen Szirtes for lunch. It was a glorious day and we sat at the terrace cafe at Somerset House on the river in bright sunshine.

As usual, I talked too much. Writers are all probably a little too fascinated by their own story and have a tendency to blather on. Or at least that's my excuse. Although Helen is a writer too and she is no where near as bad. Perhaps - and this goes for so many things - it's just me.

Or maybe it's men.

Or maybe just me.

We talked about all kinds of things - my work (a lot), her work (a little), books in general, movies - and in particular The Dark Knight.

I watched The Dark Knight on a boy's night in with my son. We had watched Batman Begins the week before and though that movie was violent, it did not prepare either of us for The Dark Knight. How on earth did that movie get a 12? Has the world gone mad etc etc?

But that (nor Christian Bale's silly Batman voice) was not my main problem with the movie. Heath Ledger has been so lauded for his turn as the the Joker it seems something approaching sacrilege to say that I did not think he was right at all. I'm sure he gave the performance he was asked for - and I'm not faulting that performance at all - but the Joker is not a beefy, brutal thug. No, no, no.

Helen tried to convince me that this was simply a clash with my take on the Joker, but I don't think it is true. I think the strongest thing that Batman has going for him is the way that he is reinvented constantly so that he acquires the quality of a myth. But the Joker (like all Batman's enemies) is bizarre and nightmarish (and I would question the point in trying to make a 'realistic' Batman movie). He is doesn't smirk, he howls with laughter. He is demonic.

Some say (though it is hotly disputed) that Batman's creator, Bob Kane, claimed as his inspiration for The Joker, Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Oddly Heath Ledger uses the story of this movie as one of his explanations for his scarred face: namely that as a boy a knife was used to carve a permanent grin. . .

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Los objetos malditos

I'm indebted to someone called 'Anna' (see comment on Devil's Dictionary post) for sending me a link to the cover of the Spanish edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror which I hadn't seen. Not sure who the publisher is (or when it's out) off the top of my head - I'll have to check. I'm not fluent in Spanish - in that I don't really speak it at all - but I'm guessing the title roughly translates as Tales of Terror of the Evil Objects. But I stand to be corrected.

The sharper eyed among you may detect that some additional figures have appeared among the trees at the bottom right. I'm not sure David Roberts had anything to do with drawing them.


Saturday, 18 April 2009

Stimulating fiction

So I was walking through Waterstones today and I noticed that the existentialist/dystopian table top formerly known (perhaps as a subtle and knowing reference to the doublespeak of 1984) as Feel Good Fiction is now called Discover Stimulating Fiction. I count that as a small victory for customer power. And well done to Waterstones for actually responding to comments so positively.

My only criticism would be: shouldn't all fiction be stimulating? I mean - isn't that the point of fiction? What effect do they see the rest of their stock having?

Friday, 17 April 2009

The next thing

I spoke to Philippa Milnes-Smith today about the 'next thing'. I don't want to go into too much detail about what this is at this stage, other than to say it is another creepy novel, but this time contemporary and urban. Of course I will say more if Bloomsbury like what I write as a sample. I am writing a synopsis and a couple of chapters to give them a feel for what the book is going to read like. And hopefully - like any potential reader - to get them hooked.

So as well as getting to grips with the second draft of The Dead of Winter, I am also looking past that to the next book. It is always like this. No book is ever written in isolation. Or none of mine anyway. You are always writing one thing, promoting another, editing something else, jotting down new ideas, trying to convince your agent/publisher of the merits of some new book.

I sent a couple of possible synopses off to Philippa last week and, as always, she had some very cogent comments to make - one of which has made change direction in a way that will definitely improve the book. Philippa, like many agents has a background in editing, and it shows. Editors are really annoying readers. They will insist in finding plot holes and inconsistencies. Infuriating.

I was talking about the editing process not so long ago and have made it plain on several occasions that I think the editing process in books is under appreciated outside the book world and there is an excellent article about this very subject on the Guardian books blog.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The devil's dictionary

I bought a copy of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary yesterday. It has a cover price of £3.50 in the Dover thrift edition. Now that's a bargain.

Bierce is a writer who I have always been intrigued by. I have a couple of compilations of his short stories and he pops up in mixed collections. He has a very particular tone of world-weary cynicism that I respond to. It gained him the nickname Bitter Bierce during his lifetime. He was a short story writer, political commentator, journalist and merciless critic.

But he was not your usual cynical wit though. He saw a lot of action (and was badly wounded) fighting for the Union in the American Civil War and the horrors he saw inform some of his writing. In his seventies he decided to head to Mexico and get some first-hand experience of the revolution. He rode with Pancho Villa as an observer. Then some time around 1914 he disappeared. Literally.

No one knows for sure what happened to Ambrose Bierce. It seems likely that he simply got himself shot but that hasn't stopped the mystery from fuelling the imagination of other writers over the years.

Here are some of the definitions Bierce comes up with in his 'dictionary':

Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.

Battle, n. A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.

Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.

And so on. . .


Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Black Ship sails to Holland

By a very strange coincidence Rio and the British School popped up again today as the postman brought a note from Raquel Trindade at the library in Botafogo. Raquel and Frederico were dressed as Cleopatra and Dracula respectively when I was there (it was a dressing up as a character from literature day), so I find it hard to remember them any other way. It was great to hear from her and it reminded me of a really nice day at the school with lots of bright kids asking lots of great questions.

I sent my copy of Leander Deeny's Gli Incubi di Hazel to Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury this morning so that she could take a look and see what she made of it. I'm not sure I have said that a big part of the issue with this, is that all the foreign publishers who have acquired the rights to Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror have so far used the David Roberts cover from the UK edition (with the odd change here and there).

As yet we have not sold to Italy and therefore this use of the cover on another book by a different author is annoying to say the least. It would obviously be ridiculous to have two different books in the same market with exactly the same cover.

Speaking of foreign rights, I heard from Sarah today that Bloomsbury have sold Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror to Turkey (to be published by Tudem) and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship to Holland. The Black Ship will be published by Pimento who have already published Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

I was also sent some Dutch reviews - though, as I don't speak Dutch, I shall remain blissfully ignorant of their actual content.

And sometimes with reviews that's no bad thing.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Visitor from Brazil

I had a nice surprise today. Mimi Liang - the head librarian from the British School in Rio - was over in the UK and came up to Cambridge to say hi.

Cambridge was packed with visitors but we went on a tour of the city. We had a look round the market, and the lovely Round Church and walked through the gardens at Magdalene, which were ablaze with daffodils, bluebells, primroses and snakeshead fritilliaries.

I took her to Kettle's Yard museum - the fascinating house that used to belong to Jim Ede, stuffed full of paintings by his friends - Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson and others. I had forgotten just how special that house is. All our searching for a house in Cambridge and the truth is that Kettle's Yard is probably the one.

I'm afraid it would be closed to visitors if we owned it though.

Walking back into the centre we looked in St John's College with its lovely bridges and then went for a cup of coffee in Heffers Bookshop. From there we walked through town heading in the direction of the station, popping in to Pembroke College on the way, huge carp moving around the pond like sharks, their fins sticking out of the water.

It was nice to see Mimi and catch up on news of all the great librarians at the British School. They made me feel so welcome when I was there, though as I said to Mimi, I felt frustrated that I did not really see Rio. I spent most of my time in the back of a car or in school libraries. I didn't walk around the place the way we walked around Cambridge today and that is what I always want to do in a new place - walk around and have a cup of coffee and just see what goes on. I like seeing what people eat, what's in the shops, what music is coming out of people's cars.

Maybe next time. . .

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The empty frame

I walked into Cambridge with my son today and we happened to walk through Waterstones. I showed him the Feel Good Fiction table and we had a chuckle. A member of staff walked past so I asked him if he really thought The Outsider was 'feel good fiction'.

He looked a bit nonplussed and mumbled something about it not being something he would have put under a label like that. What about 1984? The Handmaid's Tale? The Great Gatsby? A man nearby chortled at the idea of The Outsider being on a feel good fiction list and the staff member said that perhaps the label ought to read something along the lines of 'Fiction that we really like' but after a couple more chuckles from the man nearby he took the label away, leaving only the empty frame.

Somehow the empty frame seemed a lot more appropriate.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Feel bad fiction

I went into Cambridge today. It was weird weather: one minute muggy, the next chilly. Big black clouds trying to rain but never squeezing out more than a few drops. I saw a heron fly over as I walked in across Lammas Land. I'm very fond of herons, and they look so fantastic in flight - like pterodactyls.

I was wandering aimlessly after doing a bit of food shopping and wandered into Waterstones. There was a themed tabletop of books with a little banner in a frame declaring it to be Feel Good Fiction.

I have no idea why I looked at the books. I can think of few labels more designed to put me off than one with Feel Good Fiction on it - bit look I did. The first book I saw was Albert Camus' The Outsider. If you haven't read it, then you will have to take my word for it that you should not come away feeling 'good'.

Nor, with its vision of the future as a 'boot stamping on a human face - forever' is George Orwell's 1984 a book that is ever going to put a spring in your step.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men? Feel Good Fiction? Has anyone at Waterstone's actually read any of these books?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Two spines

A delivery van brought a copy of Newton Compton's Gli Incubi di Hazel today - the Italian edition of Leander Deeny's Hazel's Phantasmagoria that has 'borrowed' the cover from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

It is a curious thing. The book is weirdly padded so that you can squeeze it and it makes a slight hissing noise as you let go (unintentional I think). It is illustrated throughout with David Robert's illustrations from the Quercus edition of the book here in the UK - and one of them pops up on the back cover. He is credited and acknowledged as the copyright holder.

The plot thickens. . .

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Files and folders

I spoke to Chris Riddell today. He and Paul Stewart have returned from their UK tour. Chris is always full of enthusiasm for what he is doing and always eager to know what I'm up to. Usually, a lot less than he is.

So what is the next stage of a book - what comes after thoughts and notebooks? Anything half decent from the notebooks quickly becomes a file on my computer. There is a file titled The Jet Brooch (see last post). These files cluster together into folders. There was (and still is) an Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror folder. The same for the Black Ship and Tunnel's Mouth.

In these folders are more stories than I ever use in the books. There are stories that for one reason or another I just felt needed to be bedded down for a little longer. If I have a story that I like I want it to be the best I can make it or I would rather wait until I can fix whatever bothers me about it. And so there is a Tales of Terror 4 folder filled with these spare stories that need a tweak of some kind.

The story that provides the setting for each of the Tales of Terror books has been the one I have most enjoyed writing. This is because it really develops as the book develops. The short stories have characters that make fleeting appearances, but Uncle Montague and Edgar, Ethan and Cathy in the Black Ship and Robert in Tunnel's Mouth are more rounded characters that hopefully grow as you read the book and get to know them. It is vital to me that the device of having a narrator and a storyteller does not become simply a contrivance. I want that story to be just as strong as the others.

This wraparound story is the key to the book and it is this plus a couple of the other stories that I showed to Bloomsbury to give an idea of how the book would end up. With Uncle Montague I more or less wrote the whole thing first, but because there is a format now, I can write the rest of the book under contract (and the accompanying deadline of course).

This process of thought-notebook-file-folder is the same in a novel like The Dead of Winter. It is just that whereas I was writing notes about individual stories, the notes where more to do with the solving the problems of a sustained narrative, so there were notes about characters and locations and what I would call the stand-out scenes - the ones that move the story on and need to be spot on. These scenes are the ones you hope are going to stick in your reader's mind.

Friday, 3 April 2009


I spoke to Isabel Ford today. We had a long phone conversation going through the page proofs for the book, doing the last check through for errors and amendments on Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. This is the small but massively important stuff - the highlights in the eyes.

I have spoken before about the importance of the editing process, but I thought it might be good to just talk a little about the specifics of how this book has gone from a bunch of ideas in my notebook, to a book ready to be printed.

OK. Well, as I have just said, this book started, as all my books start, with little verbal doodles in my notebook. I always have a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook on the go, but I do have a tendency to keep things in my head too long (where they can be forgotten). I think it is best practice to get things written down.

Inevitably a lot of these notes are what you might loosely call 'ideas'. I was mentioning to Helen Szirtes the other day that I have become increasingly suspicious of 'ideas'. People often say 'I have this great idea for a book' but what they are really saying is that they have a premise. And having a great premise for a story is fine as far as it goes, but someone has still got to write it. Take twenty writers and they would all make twenty different books from that one premise - some very different indeed.

So what exactly are these notes in my notebook? Well, they are all kinds of things really. They might be notes on a character or a piece of dialogue. They might be a note on how to a untangle a knot of some kind that has developed in something I am writing. They might be the start of a story. They might be the end of a story. They might simply be a premise for a story or a title that suggests the possibility for a story.

For instance I have 'The Jet Brooch' written down. I like the title - I like the word 'jet'. A jet brooch would be black, of course, which is nice. I can see a lovely, sinister, glossy black brooch. But what form the brooch takes or what happens in the story, I haven't yet decided. I have a few ideas but none that is fully formed. It is there as an image, just to get me going. One day when I am on the train, or eating my lunch or falling asleep, a story will come to me about that jet brooch.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Dead of Winter

I can finally reveal that the title of the novel once known as Ghosts, then as The Secrets of Hawton Mere, is now called The Dead of Winter. As I have already said, the title of a book is sometimes obvious and sometimes not. The changes in title for this one reflect to some degree how the novel itself developed as I wrote it.

I hadn't wanted to say this before I had confirmation from Bloomsbury that they were OK with that title - that they didn't have another book in the pipeline with the same one or whatever. But there doesn't seem to be a problem and everyone appears to really like it.

So The Dead of Winter it is.

As I have mentioned before I keep lots of pages torn from magazines - a habit I picked up as an illustrator. I still use them for reference on the odd occasion anyone asks me to illustrate, but more and more I use them in my writing - to give some authenticity to a description or to suggest a location or the look a character. Sometimes the atmosphere in a photograph or a painting is suggestive in itself.

I have a feeling that this photo - something I took from a colour supplement years ago - maybe twenty or more years ago - may have planted the seed for this novel. The Dead of Winter will be published early in 2010.

Helen has just returned the second draft of the manuscript to me with her thoughts. My next job is to go through those and take them on board and look at what needs to be done to resolve any problems or anomalies. But so far - if I say so myself - it's looking good.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

April fool

I received another package from Bloomsbury today. This time it was three copies of the Japanese edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. I had one advance copy of the book a while back, but I can't have enough of these: they look so great.

Neil Gaiman is so famous that people have been writing April Fool's pieces just about him. Check them out on his blog (listed on the left). The Guardian's April Fool was so lame this year that I wondered why they felt the need to bother.

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, Coraline the movie is out soon in the UK. I was looking at the trailer the other day and though it looks fun and seems to be very well done, it isn't weird like the book. I mean there are weird things in it, obviously. But the way it is done is not weird in itself. Coraline had a brilliant nightmare feel about it. I'm not sure this movie is going to do that justice.

I think I was seeing something much more like Jan Svankmajer's Alice in my head. Although I can readily accept that it would not have been a very commercial way to go. . .