Thursday, 26 November 2009

The meaning of life

I have spoken about book jackets many times in this blog. Writers underestimate their importance at their peril I think.

A book jacket at its simplest level is just product information. It tells you what the book is and who made it. The blurb is a kind of ingredients list.

All of that is important stuff, and it all needs to be there and readable. But of course a jacket is more than that. The cover can also give a visual impression of the book. It can show one of the characters or a scene from the story. It can give some idea of the setting or the historical period or even the prevailing mood.

But though all those things are important as well in their way, I think the truly vital quality of a book jacket - one that can get lost in all those discussions about typefaces and illustrations - is its ability to make the book a desirable object.

This is clearly a subjective thing: what is desirable to me might not be desirable to a fifteen year-old girl, but that is where clever graphic designers come in. A good book jacket will both confirm tastes we already held, while also intriguing us and showing us something new.

I have bought many books on the strength of their jackets and I find it almost impossible to buy a book - even by an author I like - if it has a bad jacket. And I think I'm far from alone in this. As long as a book does not actually misrepresent a book, I think the main design aim should be to make it as attractive or compelling an object as possible.

Which brings me on to the Oxford University Press A Very Short Introduction series. These books are great. They are perfect for authors in that they give a short grounding in a variety of subjects. They are well-written and thought-provoking.

As well as being short, they are also small - half the size of a normal paperback: perfect for rail journeys as they weigh next to nothing. But they are also beautiful objects. Non-fiction jackets that are a thousand times more desirable than many, or even most, fiction jackets.

I assume the abstract covers (painted by Philip Atkins) were a way of providing a series continuity whilst answering the problem of the diversity in subject matter. But there could have been a crushingly dull solution to that. Go into any bookshop and see.

These jackets are lovely. They bring out the collector in me. They make me want to buy the whole lot.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Turkish tales of terror

Of course I should maybe have pointed out that Boris Karloff (real name, William Henry Pratt) was British - like Colin Clive who plays Frankenstein (Henry, rather than Victor in the movie). The director James Whale was also British, but it is odd to see how early that American conceit of having dubious characters played by Brits actually started.

And I was very pleased to hear that there is to be a Turkish edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. It occurs to me that I haven't seen the Turkish edition yet. By an odd coincidence the Turkish translator of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Zeynep Alpaslan - was kind enough to get in touch a couple of posts back.

So merhaba to all my (existing or potential) Turkish readers.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Happy birthday Boris

It is Boris Karloff's birthday today - or at least would be were he still alive. I was trying to think where I first became aware of that iconic image of him as the monster in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein movie. I suppose it would have been through parody and cartoons first. It is so ingrained in our consciousness that it feels like we were just born with it.

I first saw that Frankenstein movie when I was in my teens as part of a series - called, I seem to remember, Monster Movies - on TV late on Friday nights. I was spellbound by those early RKO and Universal movies. I haven't seen them for a long time, but they had a huge impact on me and I still think about them now. The series went all the way through to the sexy Hammer movies of the 1960s and I certainly enjoyed those too - though perhaps for other reasons.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of late and although the book bears little resemblance to the James Whale movie - especially in regard to the creature, who is an intelligent and articulate being rather than a shuffling mute - the movie has a resonance all of it's own.

Karloff's performance is superb. Karloff had acted in dozens of movies before but he became synonymous with horror after that. He appeared in so many horror movies it would be boring to list them, but here are a few: FrankensteinThe Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, The Walking Dead, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and The Raven. He was great in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. He had a wonderful voice and even narrated Chuck Jones's animated version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But it is as that shuffling mute creature that he really got to me. He managed to act through the make-up and diver's boots and made that character both frightening and sympathetic.

And that is such a haunting combination.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Wind and rain

I took my son plus Will Hill and his son, to football today. We were playing on the AstroTurf pitch where the team do their training. Familiarity did not help them - they lost 6-1. It was nice to see Will though and have a chance to chat on the way there and back. We seem to have lived parallel lives in many ways.

The pitch if on the crest of a hill and there was a piercing wind at our backs as we fathers stood moaning on the touchline. It was freezing. I needed several more layers than I was actually wearing and was very jealous of the fact that Malcolm Harding had nipped home to add a layer before the game started.

I had an email back from Helen and Richard who we stay with in the Lake District. They told us what life has been like up there in the recent horrendous weather. It sounds incredible. It is hard to imagine the water levels being that high. Ullswater rose by 4 feet apparently. 4 feet! And there is more rain to come.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


I went to London yesterday. I was meeting Paul Stewart at the Royal Academy. I decided to walk to the station rather than cycle and on the way I did I what I do in pretty much all of my spare waking hours - I worried away at the story I have been writing.

Sometimes this process is like whittling a piece of wood, honing it and perfecting it, sometimes its like trying to catch a trout with you're bare hands, another time it can be like doing one of those wooden puzzles where the pieces will only work if put together in one particular way.

I love writing, and this part of it - the sketching things out in your head, is very much part of what makes writing a compulsion for me. I am aware that I have always done this - for as long as I can remember.

As I was walking past the Botanical Gardens I had one of those lovely moments when things just come together. An idea popped in to my head like a cartoon light bulb being switched on. It will amount to no more than a sentence or so in the book, but it will change the whole thing. As I have said many times before, I think it's important - vital - to be surprised by your own work. It is why plotting can be such a killer.

Writing isn't about plodding on towards a predetermined end. It isn't one long methodical steady labour. Or not for me anyway. It is hard work punctuated by dizzying spells of effortlessness. You push and push and then suddenly there's no resistance. You struggle up the hill and suddenly you're whooshing down a snowy slope on a sledge of your own devising.

Of course, you know in the back of your mind you are going to hit a tree at some point. But still - its fun while it lasts.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


I went to life drawing at King's. I still have not lost my childish thrill at entering the college at night. The approach to the wing containing the life drawing studio is magical. Right up until you open the door and hear the thump, thump, thump of music coming from the bar and see the shabby and unsympathetic interior. Once inside you could sadly be in any underfunded institution in the land.

Of course the excitement is increased for me in knowing that M R James told his stories in a study nearby all those years ago, as Christmas treats for his friends and favourite students. What a setting. I wish my audience had to approach my stories via a huge wooden door in a vaulted gatehouse and a wide open quad lit by the glow of old lamps and enclosed all about by silhouetted pinnacles and spires.

I wish all this had an inspirational effect on my life drawing. . .

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

I hate Dell (continued)

I had a very, very, very long conversation with a representative from Dell today. She was supposed to be from Customer Services - but the customer seemed to figure a very long way down her list of priorities.

I have a Dell desktop which has caused me very few problems at all in the last few years. It is starting to get a bit slow and cranky in its old age, but aren't we all? My Dell laptop however - a machine that is only a year and a few months old - is a very different story.

That laptop has been back to Dell on two separate occasions, the last time in June this year when it was extensively refitted. The hard drive was replaced. The DVD drive was replaced for the second time. It still didn't work and has subsequently had the DVD drive replaced for the third time.

But far from being ashamed of having sold someone such a can of scrap, she was much more concerned with trying to convince me I had wasted my money getting support elsewhere despite the fact that the Dell technician had been adamant the problem was a software one. It wasn't. The laptop had simply failed again and had the technician spotted this it would have gone back to Dell a third time. Instead of which a technician came out to Kevin, my support. After messing him about of course.

At the end of an hour and a half conversation where she tried to convince me the laptop must have worked fine after it came back, that I should have paid for software support from Dell because they would have discovered that it was hardware and refunded, etc etc etc, I happened to mention that I intended to contact the Consumer Association and suddenly she offered to refund the money I had paid for support and Dell would extend the warranty until July 2010. When I asked her why it had taken her so long to accept any need to compensate me, she said that she was responding to what I had said during the conversation.

They should have replaced the laptop. But of course, that is not going to happen. They would rather keep replacing parts and ferrying it to and fro and paying technicians to work on it than admit that they have been at fault from day one.

I will never buy so much as a mouse from Dell in the future.

And of course I should have bought a Mac.

Monday, 16 November 2009

This is the BBC. . .

I went to BBC Cambridge for 1 o'clock as arranged, feeling dreadful. I had been offered a taxi, but chose to cycle, arriving flecked with mud (I must get a rear mudguard!). I announced my arrival to the receptionist and whilst I wasn't expecting paparazzi exactly, I was a little taken aback to be ushered unceremoniously by her into a small, deserted cell-like room. I felt like a sperm donor. Or how I imagine a sperm donor to feel. In terms of the awkwardness and grottiness, not the - this metaphor isn't working really. I asked the receptionist if there was any chance of a glass of water and she seemed to look at me as if I was Mariah Carey asking for a basket of puppies.

I was told to put on a pair of headphones and wait until lights lit up on the rather 1950s-looking console. Actually 'console' is overstating it somewhat. It looked a bit like the control panel on an old guitar amp. It all felt a little like The Lives of Others. Sitting there in that room with my headphones on, I caught a whiff of what it must have been like to be in the Stasi - except I was listening to the Scottish news rather than eavesdropping. The receptionist brought my water and I sat and waited.

Suddenly there was a voice in my ears and I tried very hard not to do a BBC voice as I spoke into a massive microphone of the kind that Churchill or Attlee is usually sitting behind in old newsreels. It was dented as though a visiting author had headbutted it in some kind of existential rage.

The voice was the engineer checking I was there. He, like everyone except me, was in Edinburgh. Edinburgh sounded fun. I began to wish I was in Edinburgh with the other guests and not in my isolation chamber here in Cambridge. Then Bronwen Tulloch, the producer of The Book Cafe, came on the line. I had spoken to her already and she was great. How amazing to be both coolly efficient and warm. She was a very reassuring presence throughout. And Chris Kane who presented the programme was very good at including me in the conversation - and making me sound as though I was actually there with the other guests.

I always feel like I am going to develop a career-ending bout of Tourettes and say something wildly and loudly inappropriate. I didn't though.

I spoke a little about scary books and read a short - very short - extract from Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. We had a bit of a discussion about horror and children's appetite for it, why I write creepy stories and whether it is good or bad for children. I stayed around for a quick discussion about Twitter and the various novelty ways it has impacted on the world of literature. I might go into more detail of who they were and what we actually talked about tomorrow.

Then it was all over. The headphones went back on the table, I said goodbye to the receptionist and with her reply she gave me a look that was probably only total disinterest but felt like something between pity and disgust, and then I was back on my bike cycling home against a fierce headwind.


Sunday, 15 November 2009

Low battery

I felt dreadful today. My battery needs recharging. I seem to have no energy at all. I have been like this for some time now. My hand still hurts like someone stamped on it. I am perpetually exhausted but can't sleep. I missed my son playing football for the second time this season because I felt too rotten to drive him. It doesn't feel right simply hearing that they lost. I should have to see it for myself.

I spent some of the morning thinking about my radio appearance tomorrow. I am going to the BBC studio here in Cambridge to take part in a discussion on BBC Radio Scotland's Book Cafe. We are talking about scary books for children as well as Twitter and its relevance (or not) for writing.

Funnily enough I have been helping my son with his homework. Part of the brief is to imagine that you are the author of a book and be quizzed about how and why you wrote it. He has chosen Tom's Midnight Garden as his book. I actually learned a few things about Philippa Pearce that I didn't know as I tested him on his knowledge.

It fascinates me how much analysis expected of 12 year-olds these days. It does not seem to be enough to read or even understand a book anymore; the children have to tease out themes and even find fault. They are expected to be critics.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Do I like graphic novels?

I had a very exciting email from Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury asking what I made of graphic novels and whether I liked them or had ever done one?

To which I replied along the lines of I only like them in as much as I love them. Or good ones anyway.

This may be one of the many things in my life that appear to dazzle like a new star only to go phut at some later date, but I am excited about the mere prospect of having a conversation about the vague possibility of doing something remotely in the area of a graphic novel. You heard - or perhaps caught a vague whiff of - it here first.

More - or possibly nothing - about this at a later date. . .

Thursday, 12 November 2009


I went through the proofs of The Dead of Winter with Talya Baker at Bloomsbury. We went through the book page by page and flagged up the various issues we had found. These were either resolved immediately or I put them aside and got back to her later. Talya added to my reading out loud tip by suggesting that you place something under the line you are reading to isolate it and stop the eye from wandering. Good idea, I think. I'll be doing that next time.

This is always such a massive stage in the life of a book. This is the very last time that anything can be done. Well - until the paperback tweaks. But essentially this is the book as it is going to be read by the punters who buy it. Bestseller or landfiller, it's done.

Next please. . .

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Reading aloud

Today I am having a last run through the proofs of The Dead of Winter. I am reading the book out loud like a madman in my office. I have said - many times - that this is the only way I know to catch those stupid clanging errors or ugly phrases that make you want to pull your own head off and do keepy-uppies with it when you come to read it out loud on publication.

And I don't just read it like a speak-your-weight machine. That wouldn't work. I try to read it well, with all the intended drama and force. I feel I have to do this because, if I can't read it to sound as I would want it to sound, then I probably haven't written it like that either.

I would recommend this method for another reason. I think that when you read your work out loud it can surprise you. I find sad scenes that I have written difficult to read, for example. I know what's coming and yet I still get that flutter and catch in my voice.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

An Education

My wife and I went to see An Education this afternoon at the Picturehouse cinema here in Cambridge. We hardly ever go to the cinema it seems and here we are again. It's only a week since we came to see Fantastic Mr Fox with my son.

An Education was a lovely film with a fantastic performance by Carey Mulligan in the lead role. But everyone was good. Even Emma Thompson's cameo as the headmistress was spot on.

Having said all that, it wasn't an especially cinematic experience. I don't mean that there were no car chases or whatever. I mean that British movies often look like television, don't they. In fact maybe they always look like television. Or at least they have for many years.

I'm not really sure why this is or even whether it matters. I enjoyed An Education a lot and I'm not criticising that film at all really. But it would be nice to see a British movie where you knew - really knew - that you were at the movies.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

What about me????

The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway longlists are out. Good to see Mary Hoffman and Philip Reeve on the Carnegie longlist. And Kevin Crossly-Holland. But there seems to have been some sort of mistake because - sob - I don't appear at all.

Chris Riddell is nominated twice for the Kate Greenaway - once for his work for Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and the other for Don Quixote, another of his Walker Books spectaculars. Chris has already won the award twice - in 2001 and 2004.

Give someone else a go!!

David Roberts, who has done such brilliant job illustrating my books has been nominated for Julia Donaldson's The Troll and Paul Fleischman's Dunderheads. Dave McKean is nominated as is my old illustration tutor Tony Ross. Good luck to them all.

Pleased as I am for David Roberts, it would have been nice for him to have been nominated for his work on my book - not just because I think it is some of his best work, but because, selfishly, it would mean more exposure for me.

Me, me, me, me, me.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Still-born in the USA

I realised that I never did answer questions about the American edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Well, sadly, the fact is there will not be one. The first two Tales of Terror books were published by Bloomsbury's American arm. Though the books have done well on this side of the Atlantic, they have obviously underperformed on that side.

It is hugely disappointing - both that readers have not taken to the books in the USA, and that there will not be an American edition of Tunnel's Mouth - but there you go. The British edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth will be available in the States in the spring I'm told.

It makes me all the more appreciative of the efforts of Bloomsbury in the UK. I have been very lucky in the way Bloomsbury has decided to put resources behind the books and get them in shops and noticed.

When the book is finished and it's the very best you can make it and you've corrected the proofs - as I have just done with The Dead of Winter - then the publisher takes over. Writers may take the credit from successful books (and the blame for unsuccessful ones), but so much of what happens next is to do with the marketing and publicity departments (and budgets).

And luck of course.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My precious. . .

And talking of rings - I lost my wedding ring a year ago tonight. My son and I went to the annual firework display here in Cambridge and later I realised my ring was gone. I have few things that are truly irreplaceable, but that was one of them. Every day, I hate that its gone.

We didn't go to the fireworks this year. Thursday night is football training night and my son opted for that instead. Not that it really matters. Cambridge is firework crazy. There is a massive display every other week.

I drove over to Bottisham to pick my laptop up from Kevin, my new computer support guy. He has had all kinds of nonsense with Dell, of course. An angry letter will ensue. If only I had bought a Mac!

On the way over there I caught a bit of Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 doing a 'Top Ten Bedtime Stories' thing with Michael Rosen. By a spooky coincidence they - and Bea Campbell - were extolling the virtues of Each Peach Pear Plum. Although the whole enterprise was partly derailed by Jeremy Vine's weirdly creepy reading of the book at the end. It frightened the life out of me.

Michael Rosen was great, though. As I have already mentioned, live radio can be daunting, but Rosen was so incredibly articulate and generous about the books mentioned. He is a national treasure.

I watched the first part of my old friend and boss (and national treasure) Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain on BBC iPlayer. It was great. Andrew is just one of the cleverest people on the planet. There isn't much he doesn't know an awful lot about and, more importantly, he he has that rare gift of making that knowledge accessible without making it simple or easy. The sad state of history teaching in this country is a bit of a thing with me at the moment. This programme shows why it is so important.

Although I wasn't sure about Andrew's George Bernard Shaw accent. It sounded a bit like Dudley Moore.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ring around the moon

There was a ring around the moon last night. It was really magical. Cambridge is very badly lit. This can make cycling rather more exciting than it is perhaps meant to be, as pedestrians loom out startlingly from the surrounding murk, but it does have the benefit of allowing us to see the night sky.

It is lovely to be able to see the stars while cycling across my local park, and better still to be able to step out of my front door and see a bright moon, a little smudged by mist, with a great glowing ring around it.

I gather that it is an effect caused by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. That may explain it, but it does not contain it somehow. It was weirdly moving. I stood for some time in the middle of the road just gazing up at it. Tap 'ring around the moon' into Google images. There are lots of photos. It will give you a little glimpse of what it looked like.

But it won't give you the magic.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

All saints

All Hallows or All Saints depending on you preference. I had a friend at school when I was about nine years old who was inordinately proud of being born on All Saints Day. Robert Turnbull his name was. Where are you now, Robert, I wonder?

My son played and lost a game of football in the pouring rain this morning, bless him. Bad enough to play in driving wind and a cold shower without getting thumped 4-1. Ordinarily I would have been on the sidelines berating him, but my friend Ian Farnan (whose son also plays for the team) was good enough to take him there and back for me.

The day got better though because he managed to sell some of his old toys to a neighbour. Not only did he make some money but he had the satisfaction of knowing his cherished toys will be enjoyed by children he knows and is fond of.

Certain toys have such a sentimental aura about them. It was what the Toy Story films tapped into so brilliantly. Some toys doggedly refuse to have a life of their own, but others will seem to embody a whole period of a child's (and so by extension, their parents') life. They may not be sentient, but they do come alive in play.

It is the same with books of course. Picture books - favourite picture books - get read over and over again. If they are really good - and so few picture books are - then they become something else by that repetition. Something is created in the air - a mixture of you and the way you read and the voices you adopt for characters, the strange bedroom twilight, the hush, the expectant, listening child, the pictures, the words: they all become more than their parts. They are ingredients in a recipe. It won't work for everyone every time, but when it does work, it is perhaps the most magical book experience of all - for reader and listener.

I never bored of Janet and Alan Ahlberg's Each Peach Pear Plum for instance. It remains, in my opinion, one of the cleverest children's books ever.

Of any kind.