Tuesday, 17 May 2011


At long last I finally have a Facebook author page. Please follow the link and 'like' it if you want to. There will be considerable overlap between this blog and the Facebook page but they should have their own distinct flavour - I hope.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Some more editions

Here is a batch of foreign editions that I haven't mentioned before (I don't think). From top to bottom, they are the Czech and Polish editions of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, the Turkish edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and the Swedish edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

That splash of red on the Swedish edition is nice, huh?

Friday, 13 May 2011

Nicky Schmidt interview

Blogger has been misbehaving, so I haven't had a chance to say that I have been interviewed by the lovely Nicky Schmidt for her website, Absolute Vanilla. It's about The Dead of Winter mainly, but also about writing in general - or at least my writing.

Please pop over and take a look, not just at the interview with me, but at all the other interesting stuff on her blog.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Cover story

I have spoken before about the tricky issue of covers for an author. We tend to be shown covers at a stage when the concept has already been decided on by a committee involving the mighty forces of marketing and sales. 'Marketing love it,' we are told. 'The sales department is very keen.' In effect the dress has already been bought, it is being worn and the taxi is waiting outside. The 'How does it look?' is not designed to kick-start a frank exchange of opinions.

This is made all the more difficult when the author has been to art school, as I have. It requires a diplomacy that I'm not sure I have always quite managed. I like to think that the times I have decided to speak up have been valid and produced positive changes, but I have also spoken up and been roundly squashed. Which is fair enough, of course. A knowledge of art and design does not make me right any more than a lack of it would make me wrong.

At the top of the posts are two covers for my book Jail-breaker Jack. It was published by Hodder and is sadly no longer available. It is a book I am very proud of. It was a response by Hodder to the boom in narrative non-fiction for adults, but children's booksellers seemed a little mystified by a non-fiction book that had the narrative drive of a novel. Also, it did not tie into any of the areas covered by the history syllabus for the given age range. Ten year-old British children know a little about Victorians, the Tudors and WWII but they know nothing about the early part of the 18th Century. It would have been better to write a novel - which is effectively what I did with my Tom Marlowe books, in which I used all the research I had done for Jail-breaker Jack.

The book is copiously - and I mean copiously - illustrated throughout by my good self. It was very early in my career and I was lucky to have a fantastic editor in Anne Clark (now at Piccadilly Press). She was just the right combination of exacting and encouraging. I learned a lot from Anne and we made a couple of really nice books together.

I had completely forgotten until I did a clear out of my office the other day, that I had originally done the cover too. The one at the top is the one I did, the other is the one they decided to go with in the end.

The cover Hodder chose is perfectly elegant in its way but I don't think it is a book that the age group we were aiming at was ever going to get very excited about. I don't think mine is great - but I certainly think - as I did at the time - that it has more appeal to a ten year-old. And - as well as being an art trained, I was also - a long, long time ago - a ten year-old boy.

I did two books at Hodder. The second was Witch Hunt, an exploration of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Though I had been told - a little preposterously - that one of the reasons my cover did not work is that marketing felt that covers with faces looking out did not go down well (!!), the second book (for which I did not even attempt to suggest a cover) featured an attractive girl (almost) looking out at us and seemed to be sold as fiction (I certainly found it in the fiction section in shops). I never once saw Jail-breaker Jack in a single shop.

But the horrible truth is that there seemed to be no appetite in children's books for narrative non-fiction and certainly no appetite among booksellers. Neither books sold. Would Jail-breaker Jack have sold with my cover on it? Maybe not. Probably not. But that's the problem with covers. We all agree they are important, but we can never know how important.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


I enjoyed the recent BBC television drama Exile, though the story of an embittered hack returning to his northern home to his sister and father did have some painful echoes. The photo above shows a rather atypically jolly moment.

My father did not have dementia as Jim Broadbent did in Exile and thankfully I am not as embittered as the John Simm character (or as screwed up, I hope), but there things I recognised - not in the specifics (my father did not beat me up, I should say here), but in the general flavour. I certainly relate to that sense of dislocation. I can relate too to the truth of daughters so often being lumbered with the lion's share of looking after aged and infirm parents. It was certainly true in my own sister's case. Her life - as in the case of the Olivia Colman character - was taken over by the needs of our parents. My life - and the life of my brother in France - was remarkably untouched by the needs of our parents.

I never felt a sense of belonging in Newcastle. I suppose I didn't belong. I wasn't born there like most of the people I knew. My family wasn't from there. When I moved there in the late 1960s there seemed a suspicion of anyone whose accent betrayed them as being south of Gateshead. Actually I'm being unfair - they were suspicious of anyone who came from south of the Tyne. Only months before I had been swimming in the Mediterranean. I hated it - Newcastle, not the Mediterranean. Not all the time, and not always violently - but I knew I would always leave.

As I said in a previous post, I think I do feel I am a northerner. It does not make complete sense: my mother spent her childhood in and around London and I lived in that city for over a decade (and I'm only forty-five minutes away from it now). I don't hold with any of the nonsense about the north being friendlier than the south. I don't attach any particular merit to the north. I simply feel an affinity to it that I do not feel to the south, much as I love many things about it. I am a huge fan of London. I think it is a fantastic city and it is a place that I feel very comfortable.

But a romantic (Romantic even) attachment to the north does not mean I do not feel a sense of rootlessness. My wife and I watched Up in the Air recently too. Again - I do not share the George Clooney character's jaded world view, thankfully, but I can readily relate to the scenes in which he returns home and expects to be part of a family he has ignored the rest of the time. And again - I don't ignore my family completely, but neither do I fully engage with it. My own family - my wife, my son - is a full time thing. But my other family - the family I grew up with - is something I step in and out of. Well, perhaps I am never truly 'out' of it. But then I could also say I was never truly 'in' either.

I have a vision of a family - a large extended family - eating at a long table outside under the shade of vine leaves, babes in their mother's arms, youngsters eating short pasta while the older ones laugh and joke with grandparents. It's a kind of preposterously jovial Italian family dinner from the 1950s. Where it comes from I don't know - but could not be further from my own family experience. Perhaps I have concocted it simply to be disappointed by my own family's inability to match it.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Big guns

Much as it offended my liberal principles later, when I was an art school rebel, it was kind of cool having a dad who fired very big guns when I was a kid. This is a picture of my father at Napier Battery in Gibraltar where we lived in the mid 1960s.

By a strange coincidence, given where my father ended his days, this 100 ton monster of a gun was manufactured by Armstrong of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1879. Nicknamed The Rockbuster could send a 2,000 lb shell up to eight miles.

My father (that's him on the left, with his hand on the gun) was also stationed in Gibraltar during WWII, sailing there on a troopship in 1943. He was, as always, on anti-aircraft duty and some of the guns were set up on Napier Battery for that purpose, though they were never actually fired in anger.

What must it have been like, I wonder, for this Middlesbrough boy to end up here, at the tip of Spain, within sight of Africa? It was strange enough for me twenty years later when I arrived there. I still remember the flight (a much more exclusive form of transport then) and the sensory confusion and excitement when we left the plane. My father's journey there was longer and more uncomfortable, but that probably only served to make the place even more exotic.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Family tales

My father was a good storyteller. That's to say, he knew what made a good story. He was not always as well-tuned to the needs of his listener and often - very often - told the same story again and again, as though for the first time. He was not, perhaps, the best at gauging the interest of his audience. But he knew what a good story needed. He understood the construction. I don't remember him reading me stories when I was a child, but I do remember him telling them.

Inevitably many of his stories were about his wartime experiences or about his military service, although, strangely, I don't remember him talking much about the war until he was much older. Perhaps he always told the stories and I just did not listen. Occasionally, my father would speak about his childhood, but not often. He lost his mother as a boy and his father remarried. My father felt himself to be an unwelcome appendage to the new family they created. It must have been hard for him.

I remember my father telling me that he used to ride a fix wheeled racing bike around the North Yorkshire countryside - though I have no idea how often this took place. He also sang in a choir festival in St Mary's Church on the clifftop at Whitby. I remember him telling me that on his first day at work at the steelworks, when he was fourteen, the men passed round cigarettes at tea break and he, wanting to fit in, took one as it went by. That was it, he was a smoke from then on, finally quitting when I was in my teens. My mother's childhood was a place she never wished to revisit and one of the few times she became angry with me was when I tried, in later life, to get her to talk about it.

We made our own stories of course, my brothers, my sister and me. My son loves to hear stories about my childhood - particularly anything in which I did something wrong or reckless. We become frozen in our roles of father, mother, child, sibling. He enjoys imagining me as a child. I wonder if he will ever be able to imagine me as a man, separate from my identity as his father. It's something I still struggle to do with my own father: to see him as someone in his own right, free of his bond to me.

These family stories take on the qualities of myth after a while, and indeed they often do involve a bit of fiction, intentional or otherwise. They are a series of Chinese whispers sent through the generations: endlessly retold and refined and redrafted. Home truths and untruths. Someone will embellish, another will mishear or get the wrong end of the stick. Lies will be told too, let's be honest.

Interwoven between the birth certificates and photograph albums and all the other documents of our lives, are the stories we tell and hear: stories about triumph and failure, illness, adventure, births and deaths, comedy, tragedy. These tales are told through the prism of parental pride or sibling rivalry, of course. They are both true and not quite true. They reveal and they conceal.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Speaking and listening

The past few months haven't been just about blood tests and funerals, though it feels that way. I have been going through the proofs of Mister Creecher ready for its publication later in the year and continuing with my writing of the first draft of The Mask, my new book about a haunting in Amsterdam. And of course, I am looking beyond that to my next books with Bloomsbury.

I have a book coming out with Pearson too. It is a return to historical fiction for me - a book set in Roman Britain - around AD180. It is called Blood Oath and I went to London a couple of weeks ago to do a filmed Q&A session as part of the accompanying teachers resource material. I was filmed in front of a green screen, so heaven only knows what will pop up behind me on the finished thing! I should be getting advance copies soonish - the book is out in June.

I did the FCBG (Federation of Children's Book Groups) Conference with my Bloomsbury stable- (kennel?) mate Jon Mayhew a few weeks ago, down in Sussex at Worth Abbey. The journey gave me a chance to finally finish the excellent Mortlock. I got the train from St Pancras - a really fascinating route right through the centre of London and over the Thames. As we approached Three Bridges station, where I was to get off, the train passed though a steep cutting and headed towards a tunnel. It was precisely the tunnel I had in mind for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. It was slightly unnerving. David Almond was the main speaker and we followed on behind, in conversation with Daniel Hahn.

I've never met David Almond - and didn't meet him here, but I know his work obviously. It was interesting to hear him speak, as it is to hear any other authors talk about their work and what journey they took to becoming a writer.

I also did Cambridge's Wordfest this year, the first time I've been asked. It was certainly nice to do an event in the town where I live, although ironically, I had to dash back from the FCBG conference to do my gig at the Central Library. It was a really nice event and nice to be doing it in out wonderful new library when libraries are under such threat in this country.