Thursday, 30 July 2009

Champagne and contracts

Big big day today…I signed my contract. I actually signed to the sound of popping champagne* corks – I was at my lovely agent’s office, and they had received a crate of champagne from a hugely successful author, thanking them for everything they’d done for his latest mega-best-selling book. So maybe it will bring me luck.

Anyway, here are eleven random things I love about my contract (champagne and wine was taken**, so I can only write in lists or tweets right now)

1. It is a contract! From a publisher! Who wants to publish my books! Etc etc etc
2. It gives capitals to all sorts of random words like Work and World and Author, which gives it a lovely eighteenth century flavour.
3 There’s a bit which talks about the publisher selling the book in English ‘throughout the World’ which makes me imagine them trundling on and off old fashioned sailing boats and into sleds, racing across the snow or onto camels in the desert; trying to hawk my book in exotic locations.
4 There are all these bits which look like maths questions…discounts…blah, blah…royalties…. which I don’t have to worry about because that is what my agent is for. Phew.
5 I am going to get fifteen free copies. Form a line, family and friends.
6 There’s an entertaining section which goes into all the ways this Agreement might be delivered: by hand, by first class post - on the second working day after posting (you’ll be lucky in London) - or ‘any other method’. Like…errr….helicopter? Dog?
7 The royalty seems to be a little bit higher for copies sold in the US. Buy Americans! Buy!
8 There’s a little section which suggests it might be sold door to door. I can't actually remember seeing any book sold in this way, but bring it on!
9 If I understand it correctly it could be translated into Braille free of charge.
10 The contract for Almost True talks about a due date, which cracked me up. And said date is two months later than I had thought. Thankfully.
11 If I die before completing Almost True, someone will do it for me, which is a big weight off my mind.

*I know – as every journalist should – that you write Champagne with a capital C, or you get angry letters from the Champagne growers’ lawyers. But it looks wrong. And they won’t read blogs will they? Anyway it was very nice.
** and my grasp on basic grammar has collapsed as a result

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Truth and Truthiness

Discovered a new word today - a glorious American one - truthiness. Coined by comedian Steve Colbert it means just saying what you believe to be true - never mind the facts.

This is fron The Colbert report 2005: "And that brings us to tonight's word: truthiness. "Now I'm sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster's, are gonna say, 'Hey, that's not a word.' Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart."

It's hysterically funny, deeply depressing and extremely familiar. Creeping truthiness is taking over from fact-based reporting in the media, blogs, books and especially in conversation. Look out for it and fight it!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Bookshops for Teenagers

I love bookshops, but not when I'm looking for YA books.
All too often books for teenagers are mixed in with general children's books. What self-respecting teenager is going to venture into a brightly-coloured zone with tiny chairs and Maisie posters, to browse a section marked 12 plus or somesuch?
So I hope this idea from Borders will catch on.
Grouping YA books, graphic novels and fantasy together in a separate space? How obvious is that?
Mind you, some people might argue that the whole concept of book shops is dying, what with the Kindle on its way. Hmm...hard to judge as here in Britain we are backward peasants waiting for the advent of the kindle, but I'd still guess there will be a role for bookshops. Surely people will still want to see what they're getting - even if they then buy electronically? Or not...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Don't Judge a Book..

What's a writer to do if her publisher picks a cover for her book which misrepresents the main character? YA writer Justine Larbalastier has written a book called Liar, about Micah a compulsive liar caught up in a murder (it sounds like a great book, by the way and I can't wait to read it) Micah describes herself as black with very short hair. But the US cover shows a white girl with long hair. It's very striking, but completely wrong - either the publishers have deliverately misled potential readers because they think they won't buy a book about a black girl. or they wish to imply that Micah is a totally unreliable narrator in every detail - a suggestion which affects the way you read the book.
Justine, understandably, did not wish to come out in public and criticise her US publishers. But she has now gone on record saying that she opposed the cover, and hopes that now pre-publication reviewers have started to notice and comment it is not too late to change. She also notes that there is shocking prejudice in the publishing industry as a whole against putting black people on covers.
Cover art is enormously important both in attracting readers and handing them a set of expectations. Take the fabulous book by Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has deservedly won prizes by the barrel-load. The UK cover features a blood-red knife. It's eye-catching and memorable, but a lot of people assume it's a book about knife crime (I know this to be true because at least one editor compared When I Was Joe to The Knife of Never Letting Go, a comparison which made me swoon with joy until I realised it was just a lazy connection between two books assumed to be about stabbings) I also think it's a cover which many girl readers would not be drawn to. Now compare the US cover. It's much softer, eerie and totally different in feel - and the two moons underline that this book is sci fi. Both covers have their strengths - I prefer the US version - but how interesting to see such different approaches for the same book.
Justine's experience has made me appreciate my own publishers all the more. Frances Lincoln would never ever white-wash a cover - in fact it champions diversity in children's publishing. Its best seller is Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman - its success shows up prejudice against black people on covers for the racist piffle it is. Plus it's a company which cares passionately about art and images, publishing many glorious art books. My editor Maurice Lyon involved me right from the beginning in the cover design, pointing out that it's essential for an author to like the product she's selling, and he still listens patiently to my finickety comments on colour and tone. I hadn't realised how rare it was for an author to have such a big say.
Update - and Bloomsbury eventually changed track and created a new cover for Liar with a black ( Very white hands) girl's face. Seemed to take them no time at all and got a lot of publicity for the book.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Thanks to the very wonderful people at Chicklish who featured When I Was Joe today.

Enormously exciting, as you can imagine...Chicklish is a great site for books reviews aimed at teenage girls, and they feature all sorts of books, not just the pink sparkly ones - not that there's anything wrong with pink sparkles. In fact the only thing I can find to say against it at all is that my daughter saw so many books that she liked the look of on their site that it's going to cost me a fortune.

Crime Stats

This is what happens on a newspaper when crime statistics come out. The news editor asks the crime correspondent what the figures mean. Is crime up or down? Are policies working or not? Is this good news or bad news? And the crime correspondent sighs loudly, runs his hands through his hair and explains that it's not as simple as that, definitions change constantly, and that often crime stats look better because people don't bother to report crime, and the Home Office tinkers incessantly with the way crimes are reported.
The conversation generally ends with the words: 'Always remember that crime statistics can generally mean whatever you want them to.'
I know this because fifteen years ago I was working as a news editor for a national broadsheet. And judging by today's news things haven't changed much.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Strictly Outrageous

It’s always nice to be paid to rant, and this week I had my chance, sounding off in the Jewish Chronicle about the outrageous sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing. Here it is, for those who do not get the august organ of British Jewry.

Now of course this is not an entirely serious piece of journalism, but there is an important point lurking in the background. The BBC is trying to pull in younger viewers by having the very lovely Alesha Dixon as a judge. In doing so they are a) insulting all their loyal older female viewers and b) ignoring the needs of their female viewers young and old who are being offered as attractions 81- year-old Bruce Forsyth, 65-year-old Len Goodman and the entertaining but totally unfanciable Craig and Bruno and c) publically disrespecting age and experience in a woman.
It's also stupid because they can pull in all the younger viewers they want by picking young and attractive contestants, male and female. It's the one reality show that everyonewants to be on.
Even young viewers value judges who draw on years of expert knowledge. Part of the fun of Strictly is watching a dance, thinking it’s wonderful and then being told by Arlene and Len about all the wobbles that you missed completely.
It's so old-fashioned and predictable of the BBC to replace one woman with another. It reminds me of when I was looking for a job at the Glasgow Herald, to be told ‘Sorry, we’ve already got a girl reporter.’ That was 1990 and it was a shockingly out-dated attitude then. This is 2009, for heaven's sake.
The one person who can right this wrong is Alesha Dixon. I love Alesha. Not only is she beautiful, nice and hugely talented, but she also comes from my home town of Welwyn Garden City as does the lovely Lisa Snowden, thus giving WGC an entirely undeserved reputation as being a breeding ground for fabulous stars. Surely Alesha can see what a bad move it is to oust Arlene? This is her chance to strike a blow for women. Come on Alesha…do the right thing.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Crime of the Century

A really moving article in the Guardian's Family section today about Shaquille Smith's family, how they have responded to his murder in part through helping to create a piece of theatre - Crime of the Century, which is on at Chickenshed in Southgate tonight. What a shame it wasn 't in the paper a week ago to give people a chance to get tickets. It's going to the Edinburgh Festival though - I'm already wondering if I can get there. Anyway, huge respect to this family for the loving and imaginative way they celebrate their cruelly lost child.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Hackney sings ABC

This week I heard hundreds of kids from primary schools in Hackney singing together at the borough's annual youth music festival. It so happens that this year one of the songs chosen months ago was Michael Jackson's ABC. Whatever you think of the strange, sad, ruined boy-man that MJ became it was incredibly moving to listen to these beautiful children and remember the bouncing child star of the Jackson 5.

In the middle of the song all the children started laughing - that's because one of the amazingly talented conductors leapt off the podium to do a moonwalk, then tripped up as she jumped back on...and managed to recover in time to cue the next section of the song.

Hackney's where my son goes to school - he was one of the singers - and he's had a great week thanks to the people who run the borough's schools . First he was picked to represent his school at the Personal Best competition, which brought together pupils from schools all over Hackney to compete in a mini Olympic games, trying out Olympic and Paralympic events. Everyone came home in fab purple T shirts proclaiming Hackney as the Olympic borough for 2012. And then came this fantastic music event, which involves a tremendous amount of planning, co-ordinating and rehearsal.

I enjoyed the concert for another reason altogether. My main character - sometimes called Joe, sometimes Ty - grows up in Hackney and was a pupil at a RC school there. So I was scanning the room for a boy who could be the young Ty, aged about 9, five years before my book begins. I found one at last - not singing a note, looking around for his friend, pulling a plaster on and off his arm and completely ignoring the teacher who was trying to encourage him to join in. It was like recognising a long lost friend - although I felt a little guilty about what I'd imagined would be in store for him.

I tried to post a video with this, but it didn't want to upload...sorry!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Precious Books

I’m generally quite a generous person - I like to think so anyway - but if I really love a book then I’m not very keen to lend it out. But then I own two particular books which are so rare and precious, and so impossible to replace that I even thought twice before allowing my daughter to borrow them to read in our house.
They are two novels by an author called Mara Kay, and they are called Masha and The Youngest Lady in Waiting. I discovered them at the Welwyn Garden City library when I was nine, and I took them out so often that my parents bought me Masha for my tenth birthday. I still remember the thrill of owning a proper big hard-cover book, and the thrill of knowing that I could read it whenever I wanted to. The Youngest Lady in Waiting I tracked down about ten years ago on a second hand book site on the internet. The label inside says Haverford Township Free Library, Havertown Pa. Poor people of Havertown and lucky me – copies now go for more than £300. A copy of Masha is only slightly cheaper. Together my books are probably worth more than £500. But that’s not why they’re so valuable to me.
Masha tells the story of a girl growing up in Russia in the early nineteenth century. Her father is dead, and her mother has no money to keep up the family estate and shy, awkward Masha is sent to the Smolni Institute for Girls in St Petersburg, an enlightenment institution set up by Catherine the Great. Masha will have to stay at school with no holidays for nine years. While she is there, her mother dies and the family estate is sold to cover debts. So poor Masha has no family and no future.
Re-reading it as an adult I’m surprised that my nine-year-old self fell in love so whole-heartedly with this melancholy tale. It’s not that I don’t love it now - I do, of course - but it’s slower and sadder than I remember. The period detail is fantastic - the fashions, the fabrics, the rotting manor house with its ghostly domovoy creaking in the attic. There are the usual joys of school stories – fighting and friendships, strict and silly teachers. Overall it offers the depiction of a complete world to enter and experience

The Youngest Lady in Waiting is the sequel to Masha and equally good. It’s set against the background of the 1825 Decembrists rebellion, and again the detail is wonderfully done. There are descriptions of the shabby country house of the poet Pushkin, of palaces and riots, and a visit to the failed revolutionaries in far off Siberia. Years later I read a book about the Decemberists - The Princess of Siberia by Christine Sutherland - and realised how much of Mara Kay’s books were based on real people and places. Masha’s great friend Sophie is clearly identifiable in Sutherland’s book as a real person.
So I would love to know more about this author, and how she researched her books, how she knew the world of nineteenth-century Russia so well, but there is nothing in either book to tell me much except that Mara Kay was born and educated in Europe but now (1971) lives on Long Island. There's little on the internet, just a few sites of fans like me, bemoaning the fact that these books are out of print and so hard to find.
It’s a complete mystery to me that these books aren’t modern classics. The reason they are so expensive is, I think, because many people remember them and loved them, but they do not seem to have ever been printed in paperback. I wish a publisher would reissue them.
I’m thinking about these books now because I’m about to break a habit of a lifetime and lend them to someone. Daphne is 11 years old and I’ve been lending her one by one my collection of Antonia Forest books - another great author inexplicably out of print. Daphne’s enjoyed Antonia Forest so much, and is so completely careful and trustworthy with my books that I was debating about whether I could go one step further and lend the Mara Kay books, because I am sure that she would love them. And then her mum told me where they are going on holiday this summer. St Petersburg! I’m so jealous - I've wanted to go since I was nine, but have never made it.
So Daphne is getting to borrow my precious books. And in return I’m going to want to hear all about the places that I’ve dreamt of for so long.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Spreek U Nederlands?

So, you lived in Amsterdam for eight years and you’re fluent in Dutch, ja? Er, nee - to use a very common Dutch phrase dat kan niet. It’s not possible. Everyone seemed to love speaking English. So much so that it’s actually very difficult to get anyone to help you practise your Dutch.
The only people who would help me practise were my local greengrocers, which is why I can tell you any fruit or vegetable in Dutch and can conduct impressive conversations about whether things will be ripe today or tomorrow. I could probably work in a Dutch greengrocer's shop. Everything else – forget it.
In eight years I came across only two people who would or could not speak English. One was collecting dog tax, the other was laying our new floor. Geen problem.
But today I had to phone the Dutch tax office to query a bill. ‘Goede morgen,’ I began, ‘Is it OK to speak English?’
‘No,’ came the reply. ‘The government will not allow us to speak in foreign languages. You will have to find a Dutch person to speak for you, or speak Dutch yourself.’
What? Nee…For the first time since I moved to the Netherlands in 1999 I was forced to hold a serious conversation in Dutch that did not feature dogs, floors or ripening mangos. Of course I fell to pieces completely. I could not even remember easy words like ‘bill’ - rekening - which I once used every day. As I stumbled through the conversation the Dutch tax man whispered useful words to me.
Mach ik Engels spreken en jouw Nederlands?’ I asked, which I hope meant I could speak English and he could talk Dutch. ‘Nee’ he replied, 'Dat kan niet.'
I imagined him sitting in a vast call centre office, with government spies scuttling around listening for illicit conversations in English. Eventually he transferred me. And I had to go through the same thing again. And again (nog een keer…it’s all coming back to me now) And eventually someone read me out a phone number for buitenland callers and I spoke to someone who wasn’t banned from speaking English who explained why I had a bill for 68 euros despite leaving Amsterdam two years ago.
So, what is this all about? Is the Dutch government bowing to pressure from ultra-right politicans like Geert Willders? I can remember immigration minister Rita Verdonk suggesting that it should be illegal to speak in a foreign language in public places - a suggestion that caused much merriment among expat wives. Is it a sign of the Netherlands becoming less cosmopolitan, more insular?
Looking on the internet I see that there’s been a campaign this year to persuade immigrants that they must learn Dutch. An ad has been produced showing 'obvious' foreigners - black, Chinese, head-scarfed - failing to make themselves understood to Dutch people who seem implacable in their refusal to even try and understand. Very unDutch in my experience. But then I never wore a headscarf.
In fact, given that the ad is in Dutch and therefore can only be understood by Dutch people it seems to be giving the message that the Dutch should be as unfriendly and unhelpful as possible to ethnic and religious minorities.
Banning tax officials from speaking foreign languages must be a way of coercing immigrants into integration. But will the Dutch try and help others learn their language? I’m not sure. I hope so.
When I was writing When I Was Joe, my pathetic failure to learn Dutch may have had something to do with creating a main character who loves languages and loves London because of all the different nationalities he can leanr from.
When I was in the incredibly fortunate position of having to choose between three fantastic agents who wanted to represent me I was drawn to Andrew Nurnberg Associates in part because they specialise in selling translation rights. I knew Joe would think that was really cool. And I did too.