Monday, 13 February 2017

Roger McGough

Last weeks' Bishop's Stortford Literature Festival culminated in an evening with Roger McGough. He's been the poet of my life, the soundtrack to my childhood with The Scaffold and Lily The Pink (I still have the vinyl 45 and illustrated sleeve somewhere), a Liverpool poet accompanying my heritage, he reminds me of my Liverpudlian father (who's also an lone Evertonian locally) and his wonderful work has been with me through my teaching, inspiring a new generation to wrangle with words.

Here's a little ditty in tribute to a lovely man and a great evening at our local festival:

Roger McGough

The patron saint of poetry
With white hair and a gold earring
In bowling shoes and moleskin jacket
His performance makes it so easy

Producing words to make you think
I remember
A-drink, a-drink, a drink
To Lily-the-Pink, the-Pink, the-Pink
Mother sang it to me
At the kitchen sink

Well over a thousand
Poetic adventures he's penned
All delightful, cheering and poignant
To the end

'What I hate about life is as soon as you get the hang of it you run out of time.'

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Joanne Harris - character

I've read five Joanne Harris books. Four novels - Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, Five quarters of the Orange and a collection of short stories, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. Maybe I wouldn't describe myself as a fan, (speaks of the fanatical) but I certainly have a fondness for her style, wit and opinion. Her new novel, Different Class, is different territory for me. The third book set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Malbry and described as a psychological thriller, Harris refers to these books as rainy day books, novels exploring the darker side of human nature.It seems I've been reading the sunshine books, but into each life a little rain must fall, so I'm happy to embark on something different from this author, and after her discussion of Different Class and its characters at the Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival, I feel well prepared.

With her asymmetric dark hair and in the midnight blue of her velvet Jacket, Joanne looks a little like a self assured pixie on stage. She has the grace of movement and speech (with a slight Yorkshire lilt) that makes her a captivating speaker. She also has the commanding air of an ex-teacher. She talks about her previous career as she introduces Different Class with a wry smile, 'I taught in a boys school and said I would never write about it, so this is the second book I've set in a boys school. It's a story about the past written in the dual narrative of teacher and past pupil, how the arrival of one person can disrupt a community and how the past never leaves you. My darker books use the theme of the outsider, what we show to people in different contexts.'
Her knowledge of character is intimate, as if she were talking about a well known close relative or friend. I ask does the character development come with the story or does it come first? 'I know the character's back story, what they would eat, how they travel, do they like dogs? Are they allergic to dogs? 90% of it doesn't make the page, but then I know how they will react in a different situation.' I think of my sketchy character cards for my current WIP and resolve to fill notebooks with character studies and pictures when I get home. 'The main character in Different Class is resistant to change and innovation. Some of the character is based on portraiture of staff I knew. I got fond of Straitley as I wrote in his voice, everything is seen through his eyes. I like writing in the first person, it allows me to inhabit the character.'

Students from the college probe her with further considered and interesting questions. How does she plan a novel? 'I start with two or three ideas, but don't plan ahead too much, it's a walk in the woods. If I see everything coming too clearly you don't get the surprise effect.' Was she happy with the film adaptation of Chocolat? ' I'm happy the film was made, but I don't feel as if it was my work, my job was done. Initially they wanted to set it in America, thank goodness it came back to Europe.' How important is the writer in today's society? ' They have always been important. The more you read, the more you understand where other people come from, develop that empathy. If we understand each other it's difficult to de-humanise other people. Art allows us to experience a human connection.'

Different Class is out in paperback now

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A light hearted evening of poetry and comedy with A.F.Harrold

There's a few of us SCBWI's who could take a leaf out of this man's book when it comes to performing and school visits. It's about presence and engagement, both of which the poet and author A.F.Harrold has in spades. The hair (curly, once red), the beard (long, with a shade of red) all lend him a Hagrid-esque quality. Bouncing on stage to promise an intimate and fun evening with his gruff, no-nonsense humour, there's a twinkle behind the round glasses, a glint in the eye that the evening could take an anarchic turn. It doesn't, although the promise is there.

'Some of you have brought grown-ups' he growls, prowling across the theatre, 'hands up who has brought an embarrassing parent?' Immediately getting about a third of the audience on side, so begins an hour of performance, poetry and song. A.F. Harrold is playful with the audience, encouraging participation like a well behaved stand-up comedian. He reads comic poems with pathos, 'p.14 for anyone following in the text' and two audience members were, he quotes from Things You Find in a Poet's Beard, illustrated by Chris Riddle;
I wish I'd known then
what I now know now-
that it's eggs from the chickens
and milk from the cow.

You see, my first day was rainy,
but worse than that -
I drank chicken juice
with a soft-bolied pat.

(The New Farmer Learns)

The author is the writer of the Fizzelbert Stump series of novels for middle grade, about a boy who lives in a circus, longlisted Carnegie novel The Imaginary and poems for adults and children. He sings some poems in a soft baritone accompanied by a melancholy glockenspiel on a backing track, explains how he was involved in Guerilla (not gorilla) poet at Havant literary festival and was ejected from the local branch of Greggs before he could finish his performance about iced buns, 'I was just trying to bring art to the people.'
A.F.Harrold does bring us art, laughter, poetry and prose. It is a light hearted evening of poetry and comedy, a good example of how a performance should be. There are plenty queuing to buy books and have him sign them after.

Local Literary Festivals

It's said that writing is an isolated pursuit, the life of a writer a lonely one. It doesn't have to be so, as the network of support and opportunity provided by SCBWI proves. It's worth dipping into your local literary festival too, even if you're not up there on the stage promoting your latest work, there will be fellow writers and enthusiasts in the audience. Which is how I found myself representing SCBWI Eastern Region with the lovely Helen Moss at Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival.
Running for the past eight years under the capable stewardship of the school librarian, Rosie Pike, it gathers an eclectic mix of writers from all genres and places in accessible and illuminating talks. Helen and I had plenty of people to chat while we endorsed the power of SCBWI, and it was interesting to hear the experiences of other writers in the Talking Talent slot, a pick and mix of talent, background and age. Alice Audley worked as a journalist and now peruses her independent magazine blogosphere (@AliceAudley) Sara Hirsch is a former UK Slam Poetry champ (@sarsbars89) Hina Belitz a renowned employment lawyer and novel writer (@Hina_Belitz) and Lucy Saxon, of particular interest to SCBWI's, a successful author of YA fantasy novels, the Tellus series.(@Lucy_Saxon)

Lucy's journey is particularly pertinent. Diagnosed with ME at the age of 12, she found herself with a lot of time on her hands and pursued her interest in writing. Completing a novel age 16 in NaNoWrimo she found an agent who was interested and signed a three book deal with Bloomsbury.

So, with apologies to Paul Winspear (former editor of local paper and question master for the evening) who's questions I have nicked, here's a set of familiar investigations and discussion from the Talking Talent slot:

What Inspired you to Write?

The panel agreed its something they have always done, building on vivid imaginations, copying out words from books and writing stories.Hina mentioned the importance of an inspirational teacher, winning a competition taught her that people believed in her ability to write, Lucy cited her illness as a catalyst and the freedom of writing Harry Potter fan fiction.

What does it entail being a full time writer?

All agreed it wasn't what they expected, its hard work and there's a lot more admin for a start, but there was unanimous agreement on the need to lock oneself away for the creative process. Lucy still lives a t home with her parents and hides herself in her room to write. She won't leave the house unless she has to and can write 150,000 words in a month (I know, it's the energy of youth!) Hina is a full time lawyer and mother of two so has very little time, but also has to lock herself away, 'just one interruption and it's gone' She finds she works well in the Cambridge University Library. Sara works in a cafe surrounded by other people, other people doing things helps her focus, and she likes writing on trains.
Alice is used to journalistic pressures and deadlines, so can write fast and sharp at all times and is less precious about her words.

How do you feel about others being involved in your writing?

Lucy 'I love my editor, but she will send me long lists of things she doesn't like, which is soul crushing. I have to set it apart and come back with a more level eye. My books are always too long, I accept that now, but you can argue with your editor in fiction writing.'Hina is dazzled by feedback and the different perspectives on her own work, amazed by how many people there are involved in producing a book.

And the big question - Why do you write?

Lucy 'There's a lot going non in my head and I'd go slightly crazy if I didn't get it out.' Hina feels impelled to write. Sara loves performing 'I'm shy as a person, but performing is different, its something isn't it? I prefer to write the feeling than say it.' Alice feels she's 100% in tune with her brain when she'd writing.

All agree there's a lot of self-conciousness about being a writer. If you love writing, then you are a writer and if failure comes your way, you still write.

So fellow SCBWI's - Keep writing and get out there and investigate your local literature festival, with over 350 across the country, there'll be one near you.