Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Viva Las Vegas!

Okay, here's the money shot: the South Las Vegas Boulevard, aka the strip, with 'Paris' centre left.

That's where Lady Sedgwick and I were headed, for ALA 2014 and the evening when I would pick up the Printz Award, but we took the chance to have a little American road trip before that.

First up was Stockbridge, Massachusetts. A small and very pretty town in The Berkshires, and the reason for going - to pay homage to the American branch of the Sedgwick family, to whom I am VERY distantly related. The Stockbridge Sedgwicks were notable for some 'characters', including Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's muse back in the day, and Kyra these days. Even further back in the day, 'Judge' Theodore Sedgwick was quite a gentleman - he defended 'Mum Bet', then a slave, in her attempts to be freed in one of the first test cases for the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence's 'All men are created equal'. They won, she became Elizabeth Freeman, and came to work for Theodore. He must have thought pretty highly of her, because when he came to design the very unusual cemetery plot in Stockbridge, she found a place reserved for her.

It was this cemetery that we'd come to Stockbridge to see: it's unique; a circular cemetery; with a series of concentric rings radiating out from the Theodore's monument in the centre. 

There are generations of Sedgwicks here; the idea of the circularity being (rather amusingly) that on Judgement Day, as they arise from their tombs, Sedgwicks will only have other Sedgwicks to look at. Superb snobbery :-)

Also in the cemetery, another notable Sedgwick, and the one I am most proud of; Ellery Sedgwick, who was a magazine publisher, and just happened to be the first person to publish Ernest Hemingway, in Atlantic Monthly. I'm not claiming this took amazing insight; I suspect Papa would have made it as a writer anyway, but nonetheless, I'm very happy that he did, because I have always loved Hemingway's writing. Ellery's grave, like so many, is rather beautiful. 

Time to move on.

And our next destination was here, once upon a time a Kirkbride hospital, an extraordinary type of Lunatic Asylum built at the end of the 19th century across the States. This one, in Danvers, MA, is now an apartment block, many others have been razed to the ground or are derelict. A Kirkbride hospital is the basis for the 3rd quarter of my next book; The Ghosts of Heaven.

If it was hot in Massachusetts, it was nothing for where we were heading; the gentle 110F of Nevada.

Never mind the clouds, they soon disappeared, and left no rain behind, as a short trip out in the desert proved. We passed a couple on Vespas, which looked very incongruous indeed. 

And then it was time for the Printz Award evening itself, a small and cosy affair with 5 or 600 hundred of my closest friends ;-)

All dressed up with somewhere to go.

Here's half of the room, the row at the front being the INCREDIBLY INTELLIGENT members of the Printz Committee, i.e. the wise and kind people who decided that Midwinterblood should win this year.

There really wasn't time to be nervous; the way the Award works now is that Jennifer Lawson, chair of the judges, presented prizes to the Honor recipients (Sally Gardner, Rainbow Rowell, Clare Vanderpool and Susann Cokal) and within five minutes I was up to make my speech. And even then I couldn't really be nervous, when faced with a room full of very, very friendly and welcoming librarians, who I now love very deeply indeed.

The judges and the Printz recipients for 2014

Sunday, 15 June 2014

This interview with Julie Bartel at The Hub, YALSA was first published over here.

One of the things I love most about doing this interview series is getting a little sideways glimpse of the incredible people behind the books I love.  In order to figure out what questions I want to ask I read a lot of background material–blog posts, interviews, speeches, reviews and such–and I try and read a lot of their work, if I haven’t already.  The whole process is very indulgent, and often quite fun in and of itself.  And then I send off the interview and am further rewarded with lovely answers to my questions and often the additional treat of trading a handful of emails or whatnot in the process.  This is not a terrible gig, that’s for sure.
As usual, I’ve just inhaled half a dozen books, along with years of blog posts and interviews and all sort of other bits and pieces found online, and it’s truly been a strange and wonderful couple of weeks.  I’d read a handful of these books before, and sort of knew what I was getting into, but immersing myself in the language, the ideas, the characters and stories turned out to be a bit of a revelatory experience and one I’d highly recommend.  White Crow.  MidwinterbloodRevolver.  These books are not easy to shake, and I don’t really want to.  But honestly, the sideways glimpse I’ve been given of the man behind the words, patched together from correspondence and interviews and blog posts, is going to stick with me just as long; being familiar with his books didn’t really prepare me for just how generous and gracious and engaging he is, and I certainly wasn’t aware of his amazing ability to bend time, his excellent taste in music, or his passion for comics.
It’s been one year since the first One Thing Leads to Another post appeared on The Hub, and I feel remarkably honored to start year two, interview 13, with 2014 Michael L. Printz Award Winner Marcus Sedgwick.  Thank you so much, Marcus, for your willingness to share the painful details, for showing us what determination can accomplish, and for indulging my ’80s music obsession.

Always Something There to Remind Me

©Kate Christer
©Kate Christer
Please describe your teenage self.
Oh God, do I have to? Shy, quiet, introspective, shy, gawky, spotty, shy, timid, scared, shy, nervous and did I mention that I was shy..?
What did you want to be when you grew up?  Why?
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was a teenager. That worried me I think – I had no idea what life was about, what it could be about, what I wanted, what there even was to think about doing. I found the thought of the adult world very frightening, and still do, in many ways. I had no idea about how things work; things like jobs, money, insurance, mortgages, etc. etc. The adult world seemed so complicated but to be honest, I was just struggling with being a teenager to worry too much about the years to come. 
What were your high school years like? 
High school was pretty traumatic. I went to a type of English school called a Grammar School. These are typically old establishments – mine was founded in 1563 (and that’s by no means the oldest), and very often in the ’80s, when I was there, they were still stuck in the past. Violence came from not just the other boys (it was a single sex school) but from the masters too. And though being beaten up or hit with a hockey stick was bad, it was the psychological torture that was worse. The school seemed to almost condone such matters. We were told it was ‘character building,’ but it certainly didn’t work for a timid, shy (did I mention that already?), weak young boy. Sorry, this is turning into a therapy session! The whole thing was pretty rough with the exception of two teachers who made life tolerable, so my mental energies were pointed in the direction of home, where I was much, much happier. I am lucky to have come from a truly loving family.
What were some of your passions during that time?
As an older teenager, music began to be really important to me. I was a first generation Goth – I think because it felt more real to me than the commercial pap of the mainstream. Plus the music was great. And the look. My first ever gig wasn’t goth though, but The Smiths, and that probably was a major boost to me – it set me on a course of going to loads of concerts. I was also, and still am, very much into classical music – it was Mozart and Wagner back then. Wagner became Mahler as I grew older, and nowadays, it’s Richard Strauss, who I believe has composed the most sublime music of all time, with the possible exception of Chopin.  I did little sport as a teenager, but I read a lot. I was one of those teens who didn’t cause their parents any problems – I sat in my room, listening to music and reading – the most important book of my life then was the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. That certainly changed my life, and I have my Dad to thank for introducing them to me.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Oh, whoops, it looks like I did that already! See above… Which is not one specific incident, but rather the accumulated painful experiences of High School. It left me as a very worried individual, but there was the seed of something positive about me, and that thing was…
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
… determination. It’s almost the only quality of myself that I am proud of. I am very determined, so on the very day that I arrived at University, I decided that I couldn’t go on being so shy (did I talk about that? Maybe I haven’t spelled out exactly how painful, how disabling, my shyness was – it stopped me from doing almost anything, from answering the phone to making friends to speaking to girls etc. etc). On that day, as I arrived at University, I decided that I would pretend I wasn’t shy. No one knew me. I could reinvent myself. So I did. And after about three months went by, I realized I was no longer shy. I was normal – which is to say, shy sometimes, confident others, sad then happy then calm then excited. But no longer was I permanently disabled by shyness.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self?  Would your teen self have listened?
I would like to be able to give myself lots of advice. Like: stop worrying so much; it will be okay. You won’t be spotty forever. You’re not as ugly as you think you are. You will one day not only be able to talk to girls but will actually go out with them too. I would have listened, but I’m not sure I would have believed any of it. And if I had told myself that one day I would be able to give a presentation to several hundred people for an hour or so without feeling nervous, I would have been sure I was lying.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years?  Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone? 
It’s a shame that I was so timid. But it was me, and it was the way things were. I could have had more fun perhaps, but I think it does mean I won’t ever become too arrogant towards other people, because I know what it is to feel scared.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My Dad. He died when I was just 20, and apart from him, you can keep my teenage years. But I do miss not having to worry about money/jobs/cars/houses/insurance/mortgages, and all that other deeply dull stuff that adults have invented for themselves.

Every Day I Write the Book

invisibleYour new book, She Is Not Invisible, is about coincidences and you’ve noted that you’ve had some “pretty weird ones happen” to you over the years.  Would you be willing to share some of the weird ones?  How did the idea of “coincidence”– rather than any particular coincidence in itself—come to fascinate you and what drew you to the idea of writing a whole book about it?
The weirdest thing that ever happened to me, by far, is the coincidence that happens to the writer, Jack Peak, in the book. The thing with the book on the train, the German lady etc. etc. This coincidence is so weird that most people don’t believe me when I tell them, and I have told very few people as a result. So I stopped telling people and decided to put it in the book instead, but actually my interest in coincidences goes back years before that – I didn’t want to write about one single coincidence because, for various reasons, coincidences are very hard to write about. On the one hand, they are what bad writers use to make their plots work. On the other, people aren’t interested in minor coincidences, and, as I found, they don’t believe the major ones. So I thought it would be better to tackle the subject sideways, through the eyes of a writer who is himself obsessed by the subject.
dark satanic millswhite crowCritics have highlighted various themes in your work—love, loss, and sacrifice, among them—but I’m particularly interested in the things you yourself have had to say about the power of “belief.”  You’vewritten that Dark Satanic Mills, the graphic novel you wrote with your brother, was heavily influenced by William Blake and that “our message, if we have one, is Blake’s: create your own system of belief, or be enslaved by another man’s.”  In other words, “believe what you want to believe, not what you are told to believe.” Your YA novel White Crow also deals explicitly with the ideas of belief and conscience, especially the consequences of questioning beliefs.  Could you talk about the power and consequences of belief and how you explore those ideas in your work and in your interaction with readers?
We live in interesting times, and they are times of change in terms of what belief means. The impression I get of the UK and the US is that to a greater or lesser extent, much of the nation is becoming less ‘religious’, while certain sections of it are finding more extreme versions of religion to believe in. The US may well be a little different from the UK, so I shouldn’t speak about what I don’t know about, but in the UK although we are still a nominally Christian country, report after report shows that most people are at most agnostic now, and go to church once a year for Christmas, out of habit, if at all.
But this does not mean that people have stopped needing to believe in things, and so I see many people turning to alternative forms of belief and worship. And all of those are fine by me as long as no one tries to force their beliefs on anyone else. That’s when the problems start. If you take a look at a book likeWhite Crow, its antihero, Ferelith, is obsessed with the matter of life after death, and yet she herself is not religious per se. I wanted to portray a young adult, who I see very often; someone who wants to believe in something, and yet is being offered nothing by the modern pop culture around them. We worship celebrities now, sports stars and film stars, and people with no talent but for making people gossip about them. I think there are lots of people, and among them many teenagers, who feel shortchanged by the vapidity of all of that, and would like something that speaks to them. That was what was at the heart of White Crow.
revolverswordhandIn a recent interview you explained that folk and fairy tales “are almost my favourite kind of story, and so, ever since I became a writer, I have always tried to find ways of working elements of folklore into my books. How? By using iconic images, words with deep resonance, patterns of storytelling and certain motifs which remind us, subconsciously at least, of those dark stories we all heard at a tender age.”  Could you talk a bit more about this?  What tales were you drawn to growing up and have they changed over the years?  Do you have any favorites?  Do you consciously look for ways to work elements into your stories or is it a more subtle process?  And finally, in the same interview you say, “if I can’t get away with writing new fairy tales, at least I can enjoy plundering our literary heritage to populate my books,” which leaves me wondering why you don’t think you can get away with writing a new fairy tale, and whether you might change your mind someday?
Yes, I love fairy tales, and folk tales of all kinds, from all cultures and all times. I think they have deep resonance for us, and I have always worked, both explicitly and more subconsciously, to incorporate their rhythms and tropes into my work. There are rich veins of story to be mined, and adapted and plundered! I loved Russian fairy tales as a kid, and Greek and Norse myth. I have read many more varieties of story now, from Sweden to England to North America, and they all have their own special quality and power.
The only reason I said I can’t get away with writing new ones is because I wouldn’t be able to find a publisher for them – publishers will tell you such things don’t sell, and they may be right, but I’d love to find out some time. The closest some people have come is to adapt old stories and recast them in modern clothes, as I did with Cassandra in The Foreshadowing in fact. And yet, in certain countries, eg Slovenia where I was recently, their most famous modern author wrote dozens of new fairy tales that are loved and revered.
dead daysmidwinterblood newNot only do you write and draw, you also play the drums and are clearly an avid music lover.  You’ve saidthat music has inspired many parts of your books, including the chapter titles in White Crow, and “much of the Book of Dead Days [which] was inspired by Schubert’s epic song cycle, Winterreise.”  The 2014 Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood includes “lines by Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin…tucked away in the text, but the most significant source for the book is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which is probably the piece that made me fall in love with classical music, as well as modern music. I first heard it at the age of around 14 and as the saying goes, it blew my tiny mind. More energy than the Sex Pistols, freakier than Hendrix…”  Could you describe your relationship with music over the years and how it colors or inspires your writing?  Do you have a sense of why particular songs or bands or musicians or composers resonate for you? And since it sounds like our late teen musical tastes overlap, I have to ask you about your goth days and those early concerts—any memorable moments you’d be willing to share?
Music is something I love almost more than I love words. It’s a close fight between the two. But rather than let it be a fight, I have tried to let music into my head to colour my imagination and to stir my thoughts. I love (almost) all forms of music. It is my belief that the very best of any genre is worth listening to, and as to what it is that resonates for me – it has to be something that is authentic. So I can’t listen to mass-produced chart pap, although I can listen very happily to great pop music if it has something in its heart that is true. I tend to like slightly more obscure pieces of music than the mainstream as a result, but that’s not deliberate – as I say, if a piece of pop music is great, I will happily listen to it as well as the weirdest thing on my iPhone.
I don’t understand why people delineate between the genres they listen to and the ones they don’t. Maybe it’s fear or ignorance that does that, but actually I think we live in much more enlightened and all-embracing times than when I was young. Because what makes two pieces of music similar is not if they are from the same country or genre or year and so on. It’s not even so much about the key signature or the notes or the melody. It’s about emotion, and feeling. So this is how a piece of music likeWinterreise by Schubert (some of the bleakest and most beautiful music ever written) can share something of the feel of a mournful ballad by Nick Cave. And it’s those emotions that music creates that are what we listen to it for, and that’s why it has a direct correlation to writing – we read to experience emotion too. So when I’m writing, I play the music that feels like what I am trying to put down on paper, whether that’s happiness or melancholy.
Yes, I was a first generation Goth, and I loved it – the music was intense and the lyrics were dark, and it actually (for all its pretentiousness ) meant something. I have great memories of gigs by Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy and so on. The first band I ever saw however, and still one of the best gigs of all time for me, was The Smiths, in their first year of success. It was a mind-changing evening.

Just Can’t Get Enough

This question comes from Laini Taylor:  “Hi Marcus! Reading about your process, I was struck by two things in particular: your notebooks and your maps. I keep notebooks too, and refer to them often for the same reason you do. I like the way you put it, about making connections between things lurking in your unconscious. That’s it exactly! Are your notebooks a catch-all for stray thoughts, or organized by project? Is there a method to it? And can you explain your maps, and at what point in the writing process you make them, and how you use them? This is fascinating to me, since I feel the need to visualize my structure, but have never tried anything like this. Thank you Marcus, and belated congratulations on the Printz Medal!
Thanks Laini, lovely question.  (And thanks for the congratulations – very kind of you!)
Yes, I have some method to the madness in my notebooks, and that is this: I work in them from the front and the back simultaneously – in the front I put ideas/thoughts/notes for the book or project that I am currently working on, and in the back I put ideas for future books. However, these two things are sometimes not clear, and therefore page by page there may be an utter mess of what idea belongs to what project. This is deliberate, however, because I like my ideas to cross pollinate in the notebooks, because sometimes when they do, you come up with things you’d never ever though of. So the notebook fills up as I do my research.
I agree with you entirely that a book has a shape! I love that idea and sometimes it’s not even something you can put into words but it does seem to help make the whole business of writing a book a little bit easier. The maps may have started as small doodles in the notebook, but at some point towards the end of the thinking/research stage, I will start to experiment on large sheets of paper with a map for the book itself. They are in pencil. They change. I may reject two or three until I find the right form. Some are almost purely geographical maps, some are more esoteric. (I blogged about the maps here.)  I have to find the right structure for each book, so each map is different, but when I have (most) of it as I want it, I will finally sit down, chapter one, line one, and begin to write…
Marcus has contributed a question for the next author in the series, E. Lockhart.  Watch for an interview with her coming soon!

Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South-east of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge, England, and a remote house in the French Alps.  Alongside a 16 year career in publishing he established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Michael L. Printz Award for 2014, for his novel Midwinterblood.  His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor.
Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and teaches creative writing at the Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and other graphic novels with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards.  His first title for adults, A Love Like Blood, was published in March 2014 in the UK; US publication will follow in early 2014.  His most recent YA novel, She Is Not Invisible, was published in April 2014.
You can find Marcus at his website and blog, on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading iZombie Vol. 4 by Chris Roberson & Michael Allred and Saga Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


This interview first appeared on the fantastically disrespectful Hostile Questions site, over here.
Posted by: Daniel Kraus

It’s just a couple weeks before Marcus Sedgwick accepts the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. It’s a pretty sweet deal: your books get these neat foil dealies and you get to take home a glass — well, I don’t know what to call it. It’s a thing. A glass thing. Perhaps they should rename the award to The Glass Thing?
Anyhoo, what did Mr. Sedgwick do to deserve such unusual glassware? He wrote a historical-novel-in-reverse called Midwinterblood. I know, it sounds brilliant, but I have a theory. The Youth Media Awards are always announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, so isn’t it possible that Mr. Sedgwick wrote this book for the sole purpose that the title would worm its way into the minds of Midwinter-ing Printz  Committee members so that they rubber-stamped it like glassy-eyed Manchurian Candidates? Isn’t it possible we are all victims to a massive conspiracy by a foreign interloper? That’s right, Sedgwick isn’t even American.
And to think, he almost got away with it. The clever little bastard.

The best picture we had on file.
       The best picture we had on file.
Just who do you think you are?
I think I’m a 46-year-old British writer with a liking for red wine and the films of Stanley Kubrick amongst other things, but somehow I also think I’m a 17-year-old dude who plays bass in a garage punk band. There is no evidence for this whatsoever, any more than there is that I have always felt like I’m about 72, even when I was 12. I hope I’m not getting any weird looks now – I believe we all have this feeling; who else might I have been? Who else could I be? Isn’t that one of the reasons we like to read? So we can become a thousand-year-old telepathic go-go dancing cat living in another galaxy? If no one has written this book yet, please could they?
In summary, I have no idea who I am; I’m certainly not the person I often find myself describing when invited to speak about being a writer. It’s odd that other people always seem to know exactly who you are. Or think they do.

Where do you get off?
Well now, that would be telling. I seriously don’t think I should talk about that here, on the Booklist blog. I mean, this is a classy place, right? But I could perhaps mention other forms of mind-altering behavior, such as writing. Because this is an interview about writing, isn’t it? It isn’t? Oh. Well, anyway, I don’t do drugs because that whole thing is incredibly boring. And people talking about it is even more boring.
If you take even a few minutes to look around, it rapidly becomes obvious that the whole world is a spectacularly strange mind-bump anyway. And as a writer you get to pick and choose the freakiest drugs in the candy store. And then, rather than ending up as a burned-out, bankrupt bore with ruined health, you get to turn these things into stories, for which there’s even the slim possibility you might get paid. So that’s how I get off. But I’m not letting on where.

midwinterbloodWhat’s the big idea?
The big idea is linked to the above. It seems that the world falls into two kinds of people; those who think the world falls into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. And of those that do, the world falls into two kinds of people; those who seemed interested in the universe into which they have been deposited, and those who don’t look further than their toenails. As a writer, you are always being asked what’s the most important trait to have, and BEING INTERESTED in the world is right up there with good typing skills and a sassy agent. It’s probably the most depressing thing in the world when you meet someone who simply has no desire to look around, to understand himself or herself, or anyone else for that matter, or, in the loosest sense of the word, to explore. Note, these kinds of people tend not to be readers. That’s a generalization of course, but the world falls into two kind of people; those that… Oh yeah. Sorry.

What is your problem, man?
How long have we got? Do you want a list? I could draw you a picture if that makes things clearer, or maybe I could do a matrix diagram, like those that the incredibly-intelligent and not-at-all-patronizing people who work in advertising use to work out how to sell us stupid people rubbish stuff we don’t need. Matrix diagrams (potential for unlimited harm..!?) are dumb because they try to make the world simple. The world isn’t simple, it’s very complicated, but that’s not my big problem. My problem is that many people seem to think the world can be simplified; black/white, good/bad, Coke/new Coke, when the truth is way more complex than that. It would be like trying to classify everyone in the world as falling into two types of people; those that… Oh, yeah. Right. Sorry.
My other big problem seems to be using the phrases ‘seem to’ or ‘seems to’ because I haven’t got the nerve to say what I actually think.

Haven’t you done enough?
Yes and no. I’ve probably done too much of some things. I guess you know what I’m talking about. But I haven’t done enough of the things that really matter to me, and writing is one of those. The very best part about being a writer is the time when you are putting words next to each other, trying to find an interesting and original and good way of doing that. When it’s going well, it feels very, very nice. I don’t get to have that experience anywhere near often enough – and actually I don’t think it would be possible to. So in the meantime I will go on, trying to ‘fail better’ as Samuel Beckett put it. But I’ll stop doing the other stuff. Thanks for pointing it out.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nabokov on coincidence

Since it's the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov, here's a little quote from this great writer. 

"A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish - but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence."

I didn't know this quote by Nabokov when I wrote She Is Not Invisible. I wish I had because it sums up perfectly the way some people have tied themselves in knots trying to explain and find meaning in the phenomenon. And it makes me smile. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who is it 'for'?

This post first appeared on Waterstones.com 

I’ve written about thirty books, of which all but one, A Love Like Blood, is ‘for children’. Or so I’m told, and so I am led to believe by the fact that it’s the imprint of a children’s publisher that appears on the spine of all of them, apart from this new title. But is it all that straightforward? What makes a book for children, and another for adults? And indeed, what does that innocent preposition ‘for’ even mean?

The world of children’s books has changed over the years. It used to be pretty obvious what was a children’s book and what was an adult novel. That was the case when I was a teenager at least, and I should probably specify that in this train of thought I am speaking about the reading that teenagers choose. Perhaps we can all agree that not many adults are picking up Horrid Henry’s latest outing. Perhaps.

Of course, even back in those dim distant days of teenagehood, there were strange books that threatened to make things more confusing; Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies are the ones that are most often touted as hovering somewhere in a liminal space between the worlds of the teenager and the adult, but there were always other books that appealed to the young adult as much as the more mature version of the human being: Camus’ Outsider, the science-fiction of Heinlein, the horror of Poe, the epics of Tolkein. Publishers, being canny people, have over the last few decades been instrumental in defining a new area of the bookshop – the notion of the YA novel was born, with those at the forefront being writers like S.E. Hinton, like Alan Garner (I defy many adults to fully appreciate Red Shift on first reading), or Robert Cormier, who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to find in a book ‘for’ children. There were many others. So now we live in a complex grey area of what’s-for-who, and I can say that at least four of my books have been widely perceived to be as appropriate for adults as young adults. When John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let The Right One In) read Revolver for example, he told me he couldn’t see why it wasn’t published as an adult novel. To confuse things even further, some of the foreign editions of my books have been published as adult books.

And yet, despite this, I can see that A Love Like Blood is the first of my books that is ‘for’ adults. Why?

To unpick this, it’s necessary to understand what motivates a writer. I’ve spoken to many writers about this, and with a totally unscientific guess, I would say 99% of them don’t write a book for anyone other than themselves. This can sound a bit arrogant at first, but if you think about it, it’s quite the reverse. What would be arrogant would be to assume that you, the writer, knows best. That you know what a 40 year old male commuter in Berlin would like to read on their Kindle, or a 16 year old girl in Rio, or a 65 year old pensioner in Penzance. No. That’s not how you write. You write the book that you yourself would like to discover. Nothing else is going to make you sit at your laptop for 8 hours a day for months on end until the thing is finished. That’s the only honest and true way to do it – to write something that excites and moves you, and then, when it’s published, you can hope that someone else might be excited by it too.

Looking at it from the other side, the reader doesn’t by and large choose a book because they think it’s ‘for’ them. Of course, things might put a certain reader off reading a certain book, but all the reader is looking for is a book that grips them. That’s why, as a teenager, I was reading Arthur C. Clarke alongside Hemingway, and why any adult now is as free to choose The Hunger Games and Twilight as Martin Amis’s latest, an author I mention for his contention that he would only ever write a book for children if he had a serious brain injury (Faulks on Fiction, BBC 2011). And we know adults are reading these apparently teenage books because the sales figures could not possibly be as high if they were only being sold to teens. Although, Amis went on to reinforce the very point I make above when he added that ‘the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me’. Quite.

Like the White Queen, I also believe in the possibility of thinking six impossible things before breakfast, and here’s just one: at the same time that I am writing the book purely for me, I am also aware that it has a publisher waiting for it, and beyond that, a logo that will be printed on the spine and an area in which it will be placed in the bookshop. So, once I had the concept of A Love Like Blood, I knew no children’s publisher would publish it. For one thing it’s just too unpleasant, for another, I wanted to delve more fully into psychological depths which would be deemed uninteresting to the young adult reader. Who knows? Has everyone forgotten what the landscape of their teenage mind was like? These questions are not mine to ponder, however. It’s only up to me to write the best book I can. And do I care who it’s ‘for’? Ultimately, no, I don’t. All I hope for is that someone will like it, that people will buy it, and I for one am glad to be selling books to adults as well as their younger selves.

MS 15/3/14

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Where I Work

(This post first appeared on Mulholland's tumblr)

A few years ago I moved back to Cambridge: when I saw this shed in the garden of one of the houses I was viewing, I put an offer in on the spot. Like most writers, I’ve had to work in all sorts of inappropriate spaces, and, like most writers, always craved the perfect place to work.

My shed is near perfect. It’s a little on the small side, but that just means I have to tidy up from time to time, which is no bad thing.

Here’s what it looks like on the inside (just after a tidy up)

The stuff on the walls is never just random – they’re all things to do with books, most usually, they’re inspiration for books I’m writing or have just finished writing.

High up on the wall are a couple of guardians – ‘V’ from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, one of my favourite films, and Edgar the raven, both of whom make me smile every time I walk into my shed. That’s more important than in sounds, and links to the word that Edgar’s standing on. That one word – PLAY – is the single most important thing I’ve learned in the 15 years I’ve been a published author. I’ve thought a lot about writing in that time, I’ve had moments of block, I’ve had many fears and worries and concerns about how to best do the art. The importance of play, and I mean play in a focussed yet relaxed, serious and yet fun way, cannot be denied: it underlies the best work I do, I think.

Underneath that are a few spirals; I’ve just finished the second draft of a new YA novel called The Ghosts of Heaven – it’s a slightly complex quartet of novellas, each of which has the motif of the spiral underlying the text.

Beneath the spirals we come to a series of rough art by my friend Thomas Taylor. I’ve started to write graphic novels in the last year or so – and these are images from a forthcoming project: Scarlett Hart. It won’t be out for a while though. I finished a first draft in the autumn; a second draft is due and then Thomas has the gargantuan task of producing almost 200 pages of full colour art. That will take him a year or so to do. And then publication will be a year after that – comics take MUCH more work than many people give them credit for. Personally, I’ve found it a wonderful challenge to learn how to write for comics – to set up plot, character, backstory, atmosphere etc etc and yet to have so few words to do work with (95% of what you ‘write’ as the author of a graphic novel disappears into the images) is a huge task. Then, add to that, that you have to hit a page count more or less exactly (due to the cost of production of comics) and you have a major set of hills to climb. But I like a challenge.


On the left of the desk here are a few books I’ve been using to research my next novel for Mulholland – I’m deep in that process of hunting out things that I know will be useful, or hope will be, and connected to that, I guess, are the red notebooks at the back of the desk. I’m on book 10 at the moment, since 2000, and the previous 9 I keep close at hand as you never know when browsing through old ideas might finally make a connection to something that’s been lurking in your unconscious for a while. Connections are as much the stuff of a writer’s art as the imagination.

Next to the books are the edits for a short story I was recently asked to write – that will be what I work on later this week. I love writing short stories – they’re a chance to let your hair down, try something new, and experiment with style. Something which can feed back into longer work in the future, perhaps.

I tend to change the view on my screen saver, and find something central to what I am writing about at the time – this is a building that will appear in this second Mulholland title. I won’t say where it is but it’s more sinister than it might first appear. Me view is pretty limited  - a hint of my neighbours’ garden – but that’s a good thing – it’s interesting enough to stimulate day dreaming (a friend in my opinion, not an enemy), but not so interesting that you end up not doing what you should be doing.

Over to the right, although I’ve finished work on it long ago (the book is about to be published) is the cover of my first novel for Mulholland – A Love Like Blood. Covers are so important. I know that’s obvious but what might be less obvious is the nerves with which you open an email with the subject line “cover of your book”. Whenever we get to the moment of designing the book cover, I live in fear, and the hope that your publisher will come up with something you love. Fortunately, this time, I loved the cover from the first design. A little tweaking and it was done. If you get sent a dodgy first attempt, you know you might be in for months of wrangling. But if you have to, you have to, because covers are the first and primary thing that sells your book once it’s out in the world. Something that some authors might not like to admit, but which, having worked in sales, in publishing for many years, I know to be true. Above the book jacket is a photo of the Italian village where the book opens – a weird and wonderful hilltop place called Sextantio by the Romans.

And finally, here’s another important tool for me. Along with notebooks themselves, maps of one form or another have always been key to how I organise a book. So I use large sheets of paper, on which I write in pencil (because it changes all the time) and on these maps I sketch out a novel’s structure, themes character notes, and so on. Every book has a different kind of map, because every book needs to be written in a different way. Understanding that and not being scared of it is very important, and is again something I am still learning about. This map is the first go at one for the second book I’ll write for Mulholland. At the moment it doesn’t even have a working title, the characters don’t have names, the plot is still forming. It’s simultaneously one of the scariest and most exciting periods in a writer’s work cycle.