Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Interview #4: Alexandra J Pratt

"I love to tell stories that have never really been told much before."

So says Alexandra J Pratt, children's author of The Day The Island Exploded and Shipwrecked!, both tales of high adventure and derring-do.

Alexandra J Pratt
"I have such an interest  in obscure true life stories that I think should be better known and I find that more inspiring than fiction."

Alexandra's day job is as a journalist and her speciality is thoroughly researched non-fiction. She loves nothing more than being holed up in a library or the archive of the Royal Geographical Society with an archivist bringing her rare old documents, like a waiter producing vintage wines from an exclusive cellar.

What sets Alexandra apart as a writer is that she has chosen to write her stories for struggling young readers. "I am really interested in the subject of reluctant readers and books for them," she said, when I interviewed her. Research shows that boys are the most reluctant of readers but they are more likely to read an e-book, she told me.

"I don't make up any facts, but I write it so that it reads as easily as any fiction. I don't want it to be dry to read. But I am not one of those writers who blurs the line between fact and fiction. Everything is absolutely true."

The book inspired by her father-in-law's experiences
She says the idea for her first children's book, the Barrington Stoke-published The Day The Island Exploded, was a gift. It is set on an island in the Antarctic and involves her protagonist fleeing an exploding volcano... and it is based on something that really happened to her father-in-law.

"I love these stories - National Geographic is full of them - they never get told anywhere else afterwards. Yet each could be a book."

Her new book - which she has chosen to self-publish through her own e-book imprint Moriarty Press - is Shipwrecked! It is set in 1740 and tells the story of a British warship shipwrecked in Patagonia and follows the exploits of the real life midshipman Isaac Morris with lashings of mutiny, murder, starvation, slavery and imprisonment.

Sounds like something out of Robert Louis Stevenson, I suggested. Was he an influence?

Not specifically, she replied - she enjoyed the books of Arthur Ransome when she was young.

Shipwrecked! is published through Alexandra's e-book imprint Moriarty Press
"Isaac Morris wrote his own account of his life. I have drawn on his account plus corroborating accounts of other survivors."

Alexandra is no stranger to adventure herself. In 2002 Harper Collins Canada published her book Lost Lands Forgotten Stories - A Woman's Journey To The Heart Of Labrador, her account of her courageous canoe expedition in eastern Canada. Book aside, her exploits were so impressive she was presented with the Captain Scott Society Spirit of Adventure Award 2000 for her efforts.

She has clearly never been one to sit around waiting for the world to come knocking at her door. She published her first couple of books - guides to Cornwall - in her early 20s. As well as her books, she is a busy freelance journalist for magazines, specialising in travel features and articles for property periodicals.

Her e-book imprint, Moriarty Press, is an exciting project. She said:  "I'm passionate about books and reading. I love to write books that can open a door into that world for people who may have struggled in the past. By launching my latest book digitally, I'm hoping I can reach a whole new audience who may be tech-savvy, but book averse."

She said Shipwrecked! is the first in a series of non-fiction, true-life adventure stories with a reading age of 8, and an interest level of up to 14+.

This get-up-and-go spirit in herself is what she looks for in other people when she is searching for interesting stories to tell.

Of the people she has interviewed for a radio show she presents on a Devon station, she says: "I've interviewed an 18-year-old girl who was working in Madagascar and a lady in her 50s who went riding through the Rocky Mountains. It makes you realise that anyone can go out and do whatever they want. They've just got to make it happen."

Alexandra J Pratt definitely lives by her own philosophy.

Her website is here.

For more about her e-book imprint, Moriarty Press, click here.

Check out Amazon for her books.

* My thanks to Alexandra for speaking to me.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Michael Morpurgo in Buxton... with Joanna Lumley

Michael Morpurgo, centre in red shirt and sun hat, Joanna Lumley, right in floral outfit
I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Morpurgo at the Buxton Opera House on Monday morning.

He appeared as part of the Buxton Literature Festival and was joined on stage by Joanna Lumley, who asked Michael about his life and work while promoting a new biography of the author, War Child to War Horse, which features seven new stories - or 'babies' as he put it - specially written for it.

It was a charming event - Michael truly is a great storyteller, not just on the page, but in person too. The theatre - a beautiful piece of architecture by Frank Matcham - was absolutely jammed with Morpurgo fans. And every one sat in rapt silence, hanging on his every word.

The highlights:

Michael and his wife were able to set up their inspirational Farms for City Children charity thanks to a large fortune left by Claire Morpurgo's father, Allen Lane... the founder of Penguin Books.

Michael these days writes in longhand, on his bed, his knees drawn up in front of him - inspired by his hero Robert Louis Stevenson. Michael suffers from repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Michael set up the post of the Children's Laureate with the help of his friend and Devon neighbour, Ted Hughes - 'an imposing man', who could open doors to make things happen for the FfCC charity thanks to his reputation as a poetry great of the 20th century.

Steven Spielberg did a fine job with his film version of War Horse, in Michael's opinion - although the Devon farming scenes were a tad Hollywood and not earthy enough.

Michael is good friends with Joanna Lumley, a patron of Farms for City Children, who happens to be married to Stephen Barlow... artistic director of the Buxton Festival until 2014.

Both Michael and Joanna met fans as they bought books outside the opera house in the glorious sunshine. Michael was unable to sign books due to his RSI, but pre-signed book plates were handed out to those who purchased tomes. Sadly, I didn't have time to join the long queue, as I had to get to work. But I did take a few photos (badly) before I left.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Interview #3: Bryony Pearce

It’s always fascinating to find a writer in the first flush of success, newly published, brimming with ideas and eager to talk about her work.

Enter Bryony Pearce.

She is a rising star of the young adult genre, thanks to her stunning debut, Angel’s Fury, which magically fuses a contemporary story with the Holocaust and the paranormal.

It was published by the mighty Egmont a year ago and has just won a Leeds Book Award. It was also longlisted for the Branford Boase award.

Bryony Pearce
She has great reviews and more books ripe for publication.

Impressive, indeed.

It’s hard to believe this is the same person who fifteen years ago as a Cambridge University student gave up her childhood dream of becoming a writer, believing she would never measure up to writing heroes such as Chaucer.

Thankfully she overcame her self-doubt and got back on her true path to become a writer, and a successful one at that.

I spoke to her on the phone last week. I was interested to hear how she writes her books.

She explained: “I start with a snapshot of a character. With Angel’s Fury I had a picture in my head of a girl who kept waking from a nightmare. I suffer from nightmares myself. It took me years to find her story. About ten years.”

She knows exactly where she’s going when she begins to put pen to paper, partly because it allows her to concentrate on things like allusion, naming of characters and foreshadowing, but also partly because she’s a full-time mum to two young children Maisie and Riley and her writing time has to be fitted into the moments in between.

“I’m a plotter. When I sit down I need to know exactly what I’m going to write. It’s interesting that with my first book (the as yet unpublished Windrunner’s Daughter) I plotted the first ten chapters and the final ten I pantsed it. The feedback I got was that the first half was great, the second not so great. So there’s a lesson there for me. I’m a plotter.”

Her debut novel, Angel's Fury
She has since completely rewritten the book several times, under the eye of two different agents, and she hopes there will be a time when Windrunner’s Daughter finds a publisher.

“I love the editing process, working with an editor to make it better each time,” she said.

She also loves research and the rich textures and layers of her stories is the result. But she likes to do her research as she goes along, allowing the story to flow where it needs to. She will stop when she needs to delve a little deeper into a topic. That way she doesn’t impede the act of writing.

When she was working on Angel’s Fury, to research a Nazi past life of a character, she went so far as to download a user manual for the rifle he would have used.

She also became fascinated by the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments of the 1960s which involved electrocuting his volunteers.

Bryony now uses this research as an educational tool during her school visits.

“I talk about how I write and I discuss the Milgram experiment and then I let the students ‘electrocute’ me.”

She said she trusts in the creative process and serendipitous events to guide her towards her story.

When the character of Cassie from Angel’s Fury was germinating in her mind, she was plagued with nightmares about a place that was clear in her mind, but she had no idea where it was or if it existed.

During a trip to Gibraltar a tour guide pointed out an RAF base, where she had lived for a time as a child (her father was in the Air Force) and she realised that this was the scene from her dream, even though she had no conscious memory of it.

On another holiday, this time to Bali, she learned about reincarnation and this became central to the story.

“I was always fascinated by mythology – particularly Nordic, Greek and Roman. It’s interesting how universal many of these stories are – every culture seems to have a flood myth or dragon myths.

“The more realistic a book is the more creepy the paranormal elements become.”

She must be thrilled by the Leeds Book Award.

“It was unexpected!” she said, adding that it meant so much because the shortlist was drawn up by librarians in Leeds and then voted on by young people.

Her audience, I suggested.

“Yes, that’s why it’s so important,” she said.

Bryony is a member of The Edge
Bryony is a member of The Edge, a group of YA authors who appear at festivals together and generally promote each other’s work. Several of The Edge are winners of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Undiscovered Voices competition (Bryony heartily recommends new writers entering this award).

They have an excellent website, well worth a read if you’re interested in the YA genre and writing in general.

So what’s next? Her agent, Juliet Mushens, is trying to find a publisher for her next novel, The Society, which sounds fantastic, about a girl who sees ghosts. When a restless spirit touches her, it leaves a mark and she must avenge their death.

And she’s currently working on a story about a teenage boy who can jump between dimensions, based on multi-universe theory and Homer’s Odyssey.

Yes, the future looks bright for Bryony Pearce. So glad she didn’t give up altogether on her dream of being a writer.

My thanks to Bryony for speaking to me. You can visit her website here.

Her SCBWI page is here.
The Edge can be found here.

Follow her on Twitter at @BryonyPearce.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Interview #2: Laura Crean

Laura Crean is a very inspiring person.

She has survived a difficult marriage and battled with depression to at last find her vocation as a children’s author.

Laura Crean
 “My writing has given me a focus and I find it very therapeutic, as is my drawing and painting,” she told when I spoke to her on the phone.

“I am a single mum of three daughters and that is the most important thing to me: my children,” she said with pride.

When you talk to Laura you realise how true this is. Her daughters – Ellenor, Shannon and Alice – inspire her work and they are her first audience. She loves nothing more than sitting down with them and reading her tales together.

She is incredibly productive. She has recently published The Realm of the Purple Dragon, the first of a planned series of novels set in the same fantasy world.

This first book is dedicated to her eldest daughter, Ellenor, the main character in the book. It is Laura’s intention to dedicate a novel to each of her daughters, with each becoming the protagonist in her own story.

Laura has taken the increasingly popular route of publishing the book herself, through on-demand publisher

She says she sent her work to mainstream publishers and agents years ago, received the standard rejection letters, picked herself up and decided to go it alone.

She took inspiration from the illustrious G P Taylor, author of Shadowmancer and the Mariah Mundi novels, who self-published his first book before Faber and Faber signed him up.

“I thought at the end of the day I want my books out there. I would like to sell as many books as I can, obviously, but it’s a swamped market out there and it’s hard.

Laura's novel, the first in a planned series
“Lulu is something that’s been really good for me. It’s instant gratification to have my book in print.

“I’m doing it for my kids. Of course it would be fantastic to sell lots of books. But I am mainly a mum at home having a bit of fun.”

Laura originally wanted to be a teacher but says she didn’t get high enough grades. Instead she trained to be a nursery nurse and she has also worked as a nanny.

“I guess this led me towards writing for children. We had to make little books as part of the course.

“But I have always written poetry and stories since I was a little girl. I’ve just started to bring them out now.”

Laura’s favourite authors are Enid Blyton, C S Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien and the Rupert Bear annuals.

This latter influence is definitely evident in her illustrations (take a look at her website and you’ll see what I mean).

Interestingly, Laura’s mum is an artist, proficient in oils and watercolours.

“I discovered painting only a few years ago when my marriage was breaking up and I discovered I could paint. I love it and I have been painting ever since.”

For Laura, storytelling and painting are a source of escape for her, as well as a way of connecting with her children.

“I have struggled with my identity as a single mum and being in a fantasy world really has helped me,” she said.

Inspiring words indeed.

Thanks to Laura for speaking to me.

Here's a link to her book on Amazon.
And a link to her Lulu page.
And her Facebook page.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Writers who DID give up the day job

My daughter spent some book vouchers at the weekend and one of the titles she bought was Roddy Doyle’s new children’s book, Greyhound of a Girl, interestingly a ghost story.

The book my daughter bought
I’ve not read it, but once she’s finished, I’ll borrow it.

Doyle’s earlier stories for younger readers, The Rover Adventures, are very funny, scatalogical, and break the fourth wall (if such a thing is possible in a book) in ways that would have made fellow Irish comic fantasists Flann O’Brien and Spike Milligan proud.

Of course, Doyle’s best known for his classic grown-up novels set in Barrytown, notably The Commitments.

The versatile Roddy Doyle
But when he became a parent, writing something for his children was a natural step.

It got me thinking about other writers established in different genres who have dipped their nibs into children’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell Boyce's first children's book
Frank Cottrell Boyce began as a scriptwriter on TV soaps like Brookside and Coronation Street, moving into film with the screenplays for Welcome to Sarajevo and 24-Hour Party People.
Then he wrote a script for director Danny Boyle. It was called Millions and featured two young brothers.

The story was crying out to be a children’s book. So Frank wrote it. It won him the Carnegie Medal and took the screenwriter on a very successful and unexpected detour, turning him into a bona fide children’s author.

Mr Cottrell Boyce himself
More children’s books have followed and recently he was asked by the Ian Fleming estate to write a sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Things are certainly very rosy for Frank at the moment.

Colin Bateman quit his job as a journalist on a local weekly newspaper in Northern Ireland when his crime novels started to take off. Always prolific, Colin soon found that he wanted to write books for children too, deploying his talent for punning titles, such as Reservoir Pups.

Another crime writer, Carl Hiaasen (also an award-winning crusading newspaper columnist who keeps the wrongdoers of Florida on their toes) has done the same as Bateman, spinning his distinctive style of hard-boiled humour for a younger audience. Hoot! is his best known children's book.

Unexpected tale of Mr Dahl
But perhaps the greatest example, of course, is Roald Dahl. Before he published James And The Giant Peach, he was best known as the author of wonderfully sly, black and sophisticated tales of the unexpected published mostly in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post.

It’s debatable whether Dahl would still be remembered now if that was all he had published.

Writing a children’s book was the shrewdest move he made.