Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Children's games

I'm off to Amsterdam tomorrow. I am at the last stages of writing my new book, The Mask, which is set in Amsterdam and I need to check on some details and make lots of notes about the specifics of the places I visit in the novel.

I was in Amsterdam last year when the Dutch translation of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship was awarded a Vlag & Wimpel. I had a feeling straight away that Amsterdam would make a great setting for a creepy novel and so it has turned out.

The Mask is the first chiller I've written that has a contemporary setting - although there is also a historical element to it. The plot revolves around a boy, Alex, who visits the city with his father and is haunted by the ghost of a girl who once lived in the hotel he is staying in - a girl who lived there when it was a merchant's house in the seventeenth century.

The title refers to the fact that the girl is never seen without the mask she wears and never leaves the house. In my novel - though not in reality - there is a strange painting of the girl wearing her mask in the Rijksmuseum. She is standing at the window looking out onto the moonlit canal where children are playing. When Alex happens across the mask in a market stall and puts it on, he sees this scene: he sees the canalside as it was back then - and sees too those mysterious children playing in the moonlight.

And they see him.

Images are often starting points for me with books and The Mask probably started with a detail from a painting by Breughel called Children's Games. As always with Breughel paintings, there are strange things happening all over the place and one of the strange things in this picture is the creepy mask that is visible in the window at the top left. I think I may have had a detail showing this in a school text book series called Voices. But I may not. It was a long time ago.

That masked face at the window has haunted me ever since I first saw it, forty years or so ago, and though the mask is not the mask in my book, and the period is not the same, this was the seed that developed, over time, into my current novel.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Mister Creecher goes to print

This afternoon I emailed the last two remaining fixes for the queries raised by Isabel Ford on the final edit on Mister Creecher. This is the rather lovely title page based on Mary Shelley's novel.

I talked to Isabel yesterday and we went through most things that remained from the previous round of editing. I'm starting to get some feedback now from those who have been given Mister Creecher to read in its uncorrected proof form.

I was asked (at Hay I think) whether I wrote more than one book at once and of course the answer is most definitely yes. I am often working on three books at once, in fact. So I have been doing the last tweaks to Mister Creecher, whilst writing The Mask, and also plotting the book (or rather books) that I will be working on next.

All three stages have their challenges. The final edit is always stressful. It is the final letting go of the manuscript. Moulding the shape of an entire novel is by turns, frustrating and enormously satisfying. But I love that feeling of standing in the middle of a novel and having it all swirl around me. That's when writing is a really fabulous profession - when you have your characters and you have your setting and you have the premise and all you have to do is write.

Settling on the next book is more problematic - especially the submission of a synopsis. You have to give yourself enough wiggle room in the synopsis to allow what you write to breath and develop and go where it has to, but also you just have the issue of coming up with something good - something as good as the last book.

Or preferably better.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A moated manor house

Being a location scout is definitely part of the process of writing for me. Wherever I go, I see places that I know will get filed away as possible locations for future stories. The book I'm writing at the moment - The Mask - was stimulated by a visit to Amsterdam last year. The location itself suggested the story and dictated many of the story elements.

On the way back from Wales we stopped off at Lower Brockhampton House on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire borders. What a beautiful place. We went for a walk in the grounds before visiting the house and we were its last visitors of the day. What a fantastic setting for a story. I will be amazed if I do not return here, even if it's only in my imagination - and in my writing.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Drawing from life

I have taken to carrying a sketchbook round me with me and drawing on the train. I used to carry a sketchbook with me wherever I went when I was younger. Now, it has become a writer's notebook that I always carry. I sit on trains caught between my competing desires to read a good book, write a good book and keep hold of my love of drawing.

I was an illustrator and cartoonist for about twenty years and much of my output was what I would call ideas-based. The illustrations were conceptual images designed to accompany a piece of journalism. The drier the piece, the more it would profit from having an image accompanying it.

It is a very particular type of work, very different from the skills needed to produce work for books. That's not to say that an illustrator cannot successfully do both - Chris Riddell is equally well-known in the worlds of newspapers and children's books - it is just to say that they are different. Apart from anything else, there is the difference in the allocation of time. A newspaper cartoon is usually the work of hours and has to be done that particular day and no other. It is about producing the best job you can on that day.

When I was at college I assumed I would become an illustrator of books. In fact the publishing work I have done forms a tiny fraction of my output as an illustrator. And somewhere along the way I became dissatisfied with my drawings - my observational drawings. Sketching became irritating and nothing more. I persuaded myself that drawing from life was irrelevant to the kind of visual artist I wanted to be. Now I'm less sure of that.

I am still dissatisfied with these drawings and I still wonder whether there is any real point to them, but I quite like the idea of seeing where they take me. And I also quite like the idea of sharing them. So there may be more.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Sir John Soane

I did my Pop Up Festival event today at the Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. I bumped into my old friend Will Hill on the train and we had a long talk about illustration and illustrators in the early eighties.

Thanks to Dylan for asking me to take part in the event and for the educational department at the museum for being to welcoming. Thanks to Natalie Hamilton for turning up from Bloomsbury and good to see Daniel Hahn there. Thanks too to the staff and students of City of London Academy, Islington.

It was a warm and sunny day in London and I arrived at the museum early so that I could have a look round and get some feel for how the children I would be working with could use the material that they were going to see.

I am ashamed to say that this was my first visit to Sir John Soane's amazing house and collection. Friends had raved about it when I lived in London, but when you live in a place there's always tomorrow isn't there? In the end I moved out to Norfolk having never been. Now I'm in Cambridge and a little closer to London, this will certainly not be my last visit.

Photographs of the interior make it seem much bigger than it is and also seem to suggest a museum - or something like the plaster cast galleries at the V&A. But it isn't like that at all. It is very much a house, crammed with stuff. The first rooms are fairly restrained, but as you move on, you find yourself almost edging sideways past cabinets and statues, plaster casts and columns. It is extraordinary. It is like climbing inside a display cabinet.

The museum is worth visiting for the Painting Room alone. I walked in there oblivious to the multi-layered nature of this tiny room and I feel as though it would spoil it to tell you too much about it save to say that it has Hogarth's Election series of paintings, plus all the original paintings for The Rake's Progress.

Anyway - after I had looked round I went to the room where I was going to be working. The children were Year 7 students. They took a little while to get going - it was hot and they'd just eaten lunch - but by the time we had finished, the room was a pretty lively place, buzzing with lots of very good ideas.

I talked a little about what I did and how I had come to do it. I spoke a little about fear and phobias and then read then The Black Ship from Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, the book that the school had been sent to tie in with this event. It is hard to read a creepy story at mid-day in a hot and sunny room, but I'm used to that. It is difficult to create the mood. A cabin on a becalmed sailing ship at night was not available, sadly.

Afterwards we talked a little about the museum - which the children had not yet seen - and I tried to get them to understand the idea that the house and its contents was like the imagination of Sir John Soane made visible to us. Walking round those rooms was like walking inside his head. Then we tried to write a creepy story using the idea of a school visit to the house.

It took a little bit of a shove to get them started but there was the making of a good story - a novel even! - by the time they left to look round the museum. The best notion was that of someone being sucked into one of the painting. The character would not just end up in the painting, but would be swapped with one of the children. This interloper would then be accepted into the midst of the group and would return with them to their school.

That idea could spark off all kinds of stories. Who was the person taken out of the painting. Why they there? Were they another victim of an evil force or were they some sort of evil force in themselves. What would they do now that they were out? And what would become of the person in the painting? Sadly we did not have time to go any further.

But I like to think they might have looked at those Hogarths a little more intently than they might have done before.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

And talking of Poe

Bloomsbury publish a rather fine edition of Edgar Allan Poe's stories - with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, no less. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The list of writers (including yours truly) who will happily concede a debt to Poe is endless and his influence is huge. He is a timeless writer who still manages to sound modern and who still has the capacity to shock. These stories are very, very strange indeed.

If you haven't read his work - whatever age you are - grab a collection of his short stories and read The Tell-Tale Heart or Berenice or The Fall of the House of Usher and see why he is such an important writer.

Whenever I read him - and I reread him often - I am always reminded to up my game.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Edgar Allan Poe

I enjoyed this documentary about Poe and the women in his life. I watched it on iPlayer last night. I particularly liked the use of stock footage - though I wish I knew where it all came from. There was a clip of Michael Hordern walking past a graveyard from Whistle and I'll Come to You. There was also a clip from the German silent movie, The Student of Prague I think. But lots of fascinating stuff I couldn't place.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Pop up

I'm taking part in the Pop Up Festival next week. I'm doing an event based around Tales of Terror from the Black Ship with some school children at the John Soane's Museum in London.

More about that later. . .

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


I thought I ought to talk a little more about my spot at the Hay Literary Festival.

As I have already mentioned this was my first time at the festival. It is one that I have wanted to do for a long time and was always very jealous of other authors who had been invited. Once I knew my date we decided to make a week of it, as it was half term, and book a cottage in Wales.

It was a bit exhausting to drive all the way back to Hay on the Sunday having driven all the way to Lampeter the day before, but it was worth it to have a cottage so near to the coast. The festival had booked me into the lovely George House for the night and all I had to do was find it! I arrived at the performer's car park to be told it was full and would I mind parking in front of the portaloos? Not the most auspicious of starts!

Luckily it transpired that there was actually parking right outside my lovely B&B. I say it was a B&B, but actually the owners only do this during the festival. It must be fascinating actually - to have a random stream of authors passing through their beautiful house. I had breakfast with Linda Grant and her sister Michelle, as well as Peter Conradi - and great company they were too. We had real laugh.

My event went well. I had a bit of a chance to have a wander round the town, resisting the temptation to buy secondhand books, before getting changed and walking the half mile or so up to the festival site. I was sure that I was going to get soaked, but the rain held off apart from a few drops.

My very attentive minder showed me to the green room (where, as with all such places, everyone in the room seemed to be famous apart from me) and after a glass of water we strolled over to the Starlight Stage where I was to do my gig. She walked ahead of me holding a long-stemmed rose. I think I'm going to insist on that everywhere I go.

The Starlight Stage was perfect for me. It can be a bit tricky reading spooky stuff in the middle of the day, but this tent had a dark blue canopy studded with tiny star-like bulbs and so the ambience was just right.

We had a good-sized crowd and I talked a bit about what I write, how I write and the funny route I've taken to become a writer. I talked a little bit about fear and phobias. One girl told me that her father was scared of buttons - he'd better not read Coraline! Then did a reading from The Dead of Winter and read Skating - the additional story in the rejacketed Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

There were some time for questions at the end and there were lots of them. It is always nice when lots of hands shoot up at the end, desperate to ask their question. They were a really supportive and enthusiastic bunch and I felt very welcome at Hay. As I was leaving my minder said, 'You're entitled to some wine,' and I almost refuse, imagining a glass of wine, but she reappeared with a case of Cava. Now that's what I call treating your performers well! She even offered to carry it for me back to my digs (it wasn't exactly light and I refused, of course).

And it didn't end there. I kept bumping into members of my audience as I walked around the town and everyone said very kind things. I was really touched.

All in all, a very enjoyable experience.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Hay and beyond

I have just returned to Cambridge from a week in Wales. I had an event at the Hay Literary Festival and we decided to make a week of it. We stayed in a lovely barn conversion near Lampeter, which did mean a very long drive to and from Hay, but did mean we could get to the coast where - as you can see - we spotted dolphins. We also went to the fantastic red kite feeding session at Gigrin Farm near Rhayader. Absolutely amazing.

Thanks to all of you who came along to see me in Hay - especially those of you who stopped for a chat in the street. Thanks for all your supportive comments. And a big thanks to the organisers for inviting me and for my minder, Rhiannon (apologies if I've spelled your name wrong) for looking after me so well. Thanks too to my hosts, Malcolm and Shirley Smith, at the lovely George House where I stayed on the night of my event.