Thursday, 10 March 2011

Questions and Answers

London Met University - one of my favourite London buildings
 In the last week or so I've been doing more talking than writing -  at schools, a university and  - very sweetly -  the synagogue in Welwyn Garden City, the town where I grew up.
I did my first school visit about a year ago (to St Aubyn's School in Woodford -  thanks Becky for inviting me!) and I was incredibly nervous. I'd virtually written a speech beforehand, and I wasn't sure if anyone could hear what I had to say. Gradually it's become easier and easier, to the point where now I have to remember to do a little bit of preparation beforehand, and I can project my soft voice to fill a school hall (at least I think I can). I'm lucky because witness protection is a great subject to talk about, so I generally have lots of say. If I have an unruly class I tell them the stories of how I was nearly shot three times. That usually gets their attention.
At  Immanuel College and Highgate Wood School last week I was talking about my books and about being a writer. At London Metropolitan University, I talked to students on the Young Adult Fiction course about how I came to write When I Was Joe and about things that I've experienced that are particularly relevant to the YA genre. At WGC shul I spoke to a roomful of people -  many of whom had known me all my life -  about my career in journalism and how I came to write a book.
My favourite bit always comes when I've finished my introduction and whatever reading I'm doing and it's time to take questions -  the only time that's gone wrong was the school where every question was about the business side of publishing ('Who decides which books have a discount, Miss? Exactly how much money does the publisher get?'')
 I've had some great questions this week, some of which I couldn't answer. What would you have said?

From a pupil at Highgate Wood School: How does it feel knowing that people are seeing into your imagination?  I said that you just had to get over any embarrasment you felt, and it helped if people were reading your work as you went along. I wish I'd said that writing is like acting -  no one knows how much of yourself you are revealing.
And another pupil at Highgate Wood: Who has inspired you in your writing?  I wanted to say my children, but I didn't because one of them goes to that school and I was under strict orders not to embarrass her. So I erred and ummed and couldn't think of anyone.
From a pupil at Immanuel College: When do you find thinking time to plan your writing? I said  'I find that going for a walk or going to the gym are good times.' I thought: 'That's true! I must find time to go for a walk or go to the gym.'
Another pupil at Highgate Wood: 'Do you visit the places you write about?' Me: 'Err, I should but I never seem to have time (Thought bitterly about a talk Marcus Sedgwick gave at SCWBI conference where he described going to Sweden to research Revolver) So instead I write about places that I know. Then I told them how I'd transposed a park nearby, which they all knew, to Hackney in order to murder someone in it.
And also at Highgate Wood: 'What are the best and worst things about writing?' I said the best thing was getting emails and letters from people who enjoy your books, but then I was stuck for a worst thing -  I must have been having a particularly good day, because afterwards I thought of two...the lack of money at the beginning of one's career (and who knows, possibly throughout one's career) and rejection.
At London Met: Is there anything you haven't been able to write about?  This one threw me completely, and I'm still thinking about it. Are there things I've veered away from, without even realising it? Are there untouchable subjects? I said graphic sex scenes..but if I felt the need to go graphic, could I? I'm really not sure.
At Welwyn Garden City: Do you think you'll stay writing contemporary teen novels, or might you try different age groups, genres, styles?  How much pressure is there to create a brand and stick to it? Answer: I really don't know. In writing Lia's Guide I hope I've showI can do something a little bit different. I have a few ideas for my next project, and one is definitely not a contemporary voice. So I will have to see how things develop.
So many great questions that I can't remember thm all. But the nicest one of all was the lady at Welwyn Garden City who said 'Well it's not really a question but as your auntie, I just want to say that I'm very proud of you...'
Now that doesn't happen on your average school visit.


  1. What great questions! Who needs therapy with readers like that?

    P.S. Speaking as someone who's been your friend for 35 years (what???), I'm so proud of you too!

  2. Marvellous questions. If I ever have to do something like this I hope I can grab the audience in the same way.

  3. Kids alweays manage to come up with the most pertinant questions and astute observations don't they~!

  4. Some searching questions!

    This post is especially interesting for me. I've only ever visited primary schools with picture books, so the prospect of talking to teenagers (when my novel finally sees the light of day) is more than a little terrifying.

  5. Teenagers are great, they're usually so grateful to be doing something off-curriculum that they're a brilliant audience. One tip I had from Anthony McGowan, is to offer a free signed book to whoever asks the best question. I tried this for the first time at Highgate Wood and I got the best questions ever.

  6. The free book incentive is such a good idea, I'll remember that one! And it's a relief to see all the questions you get asked - my worst fear would be silence... Intriguing subject matter helps, I guess!

  7. I'm with your Auntie. Also, the surprise for me, as I've been following your career as an author, is that the actual writing seems to be only half of it. You also have to become somewhat of a celebrity in order to publicize the books. I had thought the publishers did all the PR - silly me.