Author Q and A: Peter Bell

We are delighted to be part of The Train to Impossible Places blog tour and so pleased that Peter was able to answer our questions. The Train to Impossible Places was highly anticipated by the Worms and instantly cemented itself into Noah’s favourite books when he read it a few months back. It is a great story and, as Noah’s review implies, everything you could possibly want from a book – a thrilling fast-paced adventure with quirks that twist and reshape the fantasy genre. Read Noah’s review here. Now over to Peter…

What are you reading at the moment?

Orphan, Monster, Spy by Matt Killeen, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard – tense, brutal and moving. I really can’t wait to see what Matt does next. I’m also working my way through the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which are tremendous fun. He’s coming to Cardiff in November, and I want to be up to date before he gets here.

What are your favourite children’s books?

Too many to list here, but off the top of my head:

Pretty much the whole Roald Dahl cannon, especially The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved them when I was young, and my son is now a big fan too. He dressed as a Vermicious Knid for World Book Day last year!

The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy. Such a great and accessible fantasy series – the Harry Potter of its day. It’s so good to know it’s still going strong.

Murder Mystery is a genre that’s largely passed me by, but I’ve absolutely loved the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens. She re-purposes all the tropes so cleverly, while keeping the stories grounded in character. I look forward to reading the new one.

The Accidental Pirates books by Claire Fayers are everything fantasy adventure stories should be – inventive, exciting and funny. Her most recent books, Mirror Magic and Stormhound are equally good, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for an end to the Pirates trilogy one day.

And finally, anything with Diana Wynne Jones’s name on the cover!

Where and when do you write?

I mostly write in the mornings after dropping the kids off at school. I’ve got a small study at the back of the house, and I’ll get a few hours done there before lunch, with maybe another hour or so in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. My favourite mornings are the ones when Claire Fayers and I meet up at a local coffee shop and sit in silence for two and a half hours, typing away. They serve coffee in pint mugs, which endears the place to me greatly, and they’ve got to know us so well that they know our orders off by heart. 

We know that The Train To Impossible Places began as a bedtime story for your children. Is the finished version much different? What didn’t make the final cut?

Pretty much everything that was in the bedtime story ended up in the book, albeit in a much more polished form. The only thing that didn’t survive the jump was a flying visit to a supermarket, so the crew of the train could stock up on bananas. Every other change I made was adding material, rather than taking away – the whole sub plot of Captain Neoma, the observatory and Lord Meridian grew out of the editing process. The finished book is almost 15,000 words longer than my first draft.

How do you choose names for your characters?

I try to make their names reflect their nature or status in some way. So the Lady Crepuscula comes from the word “crepuscular”, which is an adjective describing anything to do with twilight. Her opposite number, Lord Meridian, takes his name from the point at which the sun is at its highest, suggesting enlightenment. He is a librarian, after all!

Some names, like Fletch and Wilmot, just came to me out of the blue and I’ve no idea why. But they stuck immediately.

We think the book has hints of The Magic Faraway Tree. What else has influenced the storyline?

Thank you for saying so! The Magic Faraway Tree books are the very first stories I remember from my childhood, and they’ve shaped all my reading ever since, so I guess it’s inevitable that there would be a dose of that in my writing.

I drew pretty heavily on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but only in terms of tone – I like to think that Suzy and the trolls would feel at home making deliveries to Ankh Morpork. Because each of the Impossible Places is different, I can effectively make each one a genre – or at least a collection of genre tropes – unto itself. So the Obsidian Tower has strong echoes of Tolkien, while the Topaz Narrows are every pirate adventure story you’ve ever read.

Are we right in thinking you’d love to write an episode of Doctor Who?

Let’s just say that if they ever ask me, I wouldn’t refuse.

How important is a sense of place to your writing? In particular, has living in Wales any influence on your writing?

A sense of place is always important, especially if your characters are travelling from place to place, as mine are. I want the reader to get excited about exploring these strange new worlds, so I always try and include a few details to help ground them. Trollville is probably the most fully-realised world in the book, as we spend quite a bit of time there (and we’ll see even more of it in the sequel!) Its post-industrial feel is definitely informed by my childhood in south Wales. It was everywhere – in the architecture and the street layouts, in the art and in the chimneys of the Llanwern Steelworks, which was still active at the time. And you never had to go far to meet a retired miner.

Our school caretaker was an old man who had gone down the pits at the age of 11. I remember one day he showed our class his missing fingers and recounted each of the accidents that had claimed them. He was the basis of the Old Guard – the retired Posties who spend their time comparing tales of daring and disaster.

The Train To Impossible Places is the first in a series, called A Cursed Delivery. What is the appeal in writing a number of books rather than a single story?

It’s a tremendous privilege to be given the chance to tell more stories with these characters. It’s allowed me to think of new directions to take them in, and new and interesting parts of the Impossible Places to explore. It’s also allowed me to become a full time professional writer for the first time in my life, which is a childhood dream come true.

The finished hardback is delightfully illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Should we judge your book by its cover and how important was it for you to have some internal illustration?

You should definitely judge the book by BOTH its covers, because they’re gorgeous. My favourite is the hidden cover underneath the dust jacket – my editors at Usborne presented me with a framed print of it at the launch party, and it’s now got pride of place in my study. 

Usborne made the decision very early on to include interior illustrations, and I was very happy to go along with the plan – I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want a few illustrations with their text if given the chance. And Flavia’s work is just gorgeous. I love her expressionist style, and she’s absolutely nailed the characters.

What question have we forgotten to ask you?

You haven’t asked me who the best Doctor Who is. And the correct answer is: all of them. Although Sylvester McCoy is the best of the best.

 

There have been some really excellent blog posts as part of this tour. Why not check out some of the other hosts?

#Lollies2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

Lollies 2018 Blog Tour: Joe Berger

The Pudding Problem by Joe Berger is nominated for the #Lollies2018 in the age 6-8 category. Kit (6), Nina (9) and Noah (11) have all read this hilarious graphic novel and enjoyed it very very much! They got caught up in the misadventures of Sam Lyttle, a boy who keeps getting into trouble though it has nothing to do with lying (honest)! The eponymous ‘Pudding’ is Sam’s cat – and the ingenious story of how Pudding came to be the family pet and get her name is worth the entry fee alone. Noah picked up on the subtle humour in the illustrations – sometimes it’s unmitigated ‘out there’ humour, which had Kit and Nina in fits of giggles and outbursts of belly-laughs, and sometimes it’s just in a ‘look’ or more understated reference in the brilliant drawings. There’s something in this book for everyone, adults included, so the age 6-8 tag is a bit misleading. Either way, all five worms loved The Pudding Problem and its follow-up The Stinky Truth. Here’s the book trailer from Joe’s website:

Joe Berger lives in Bristol with his wife, three daughters, cat and dog. He regularly collaborates with Pascal Wyse, as Berger & Wyse on a weekly cartoon published in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. He says “telling jokes in cartoon form remains one of my favourite things ever”. He has written two Lyttle Lies books and illustrated many more. We were delighted that he agreed to answer the Worms’ questions, so here are his answers…

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle vol 1 – it’s a grown-up book but I’d recommend it once you’re older. Also reading some comics, including Greatest Ever Marlys by Lynda Barry, which is brilliant.

Could you tell us how you got into writing and drawing?

When I was little my mum used to read fashion magazines like Vogue, and she would sometimes show me an illustration she liked and ask me to make her a version of it. So I learned a huge amount from copying other people’s drawings and techniques – it’s a brilliant way to learn, to unpick how drawings and paintings are made. From a young age I was also obsessed with comics, and always wanted to do my own comic strip. In 2002 my friend and I landed a job of doing a 4 panel comic in the Guardian newspaper – and co-writing that each week gave me the confidence to write children’s books, which was a long-held ambition. Although the 4 panel strip stopped in 2009, we continue to do a single panel cartoon in the Guardian every week – so far that’s nearly 900 cartoons!

Where and when do you work?

I work in my studio, which is a 20 minute walk from home, in the centre of Bristol. It’s a lovely room with lots of natural light, and room to play the VERY OCCASIONAL board game, which is my big hobby when I’m not making books and cartoons. I usually work 9-5 Monday to Friday, as I find keeping regular hours helps me organise my time. Many mornings I’ll spend an hour or so dreaming up cartoon ideas, and then switch to writing or book illustration later in the day.

Can you tell us about your methods?

All my work starts with drawing on paper. I usually do rough drawings in pencil, and then final drawing in brush pen and ink on a clean sheet of paper  which is just thin enough to see a bit of the rough drawing underneath. But for cartoons I like to draw straight in ink, and see where the drawing goes. It’s harder to be that spontaneous with drawing for children’s books because there are often a lot of changes to make.

What advice would you give to budding young illustrators?

Copy the stuff you love! I don’t mean trace it, that wouldn’t teach you much – but copying really makes you focus on how the artist/illustrator was able to achieve what they did. It’s an invaluable way to learn – and of course, your own style will start to seep in to those drawings, and you’ll naturally start to create your own work.

Is it difficult to do funny some days?

Yes it is! It can be very frustrating if you don’t feel like you’re in the right mood. See next answer . . .

Is being funny a serious business?

It is serious and silly in equal amounts. It’s serious in that you have to be able to be funny on demand, even if you don’t feel like it. For this reason, I carry a small notebook wherever I go, to note down any funny ideas. So then when I need to be funny but don’t feel like it, can look in my notebooks for inspiration. These are not really sketchbooks, though I have those too. I have a collection of about 40 old notebooks which I am always looking in for thoughts and ideas I might not have used yet. But I have to keep writing in new ones too!

How do you choose names for your characters?

Hmmm, that’s a good question – names for characters are so important. Sam in the Lyttle Lies books was originally called Joe, because the stories are loosely based on my misadventures as a boy. But I wanted to distance the character from me because other bits are totally made up. I have a friend called Sam, and Sam seems like a similar name to Joe – one syllable, 3 letters etc. So that’s how Sam was named. Pudding is called Pudding because of what happens in the story – I wish I could remember how or when I came up with that idea. But I can’t.

Which books, authors and illustrators inspire you?

I love Just William stories, and Petit Nicolas stories too, which are kind of a French version of Just William, with drawings by one of my favourite artists, Sempé. I find other cartoonists very inspiring too – Charles Shultz who made Peanuts (Snoopy and Charlie Brown) every day for 50 years – as well as other single panel cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Steed.

Ever been to Wales?

Yes, I love WALES! I live in Bristol, so not far from South Wales, and we go at least once a year. We often stay in a place called Capel y Fin in the black mountains, which is an area I love, near Abergavenny. There’s a hill there called The Tumper which we love to climb.

You’ve illustrated work for others – what’s been your favourite of these projects to work on?

Hmmm, it’s hard to pick favourites. One that stands out is the recent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series I worked on with Frank Cottrell Boyce – I grew up watching the film in the 1970s, so it was a real thrill to get to work on the three new books. I was worried about it because I’m not good at drawing cars, but it helped me get better I think.

Are you an animal person?

Yes I am. We have a cat called Spooky (she’s white like a ghost) and a dog called Sybil. Sybil is a Cairn terrier, and she’s quite naughty – she loves to race out into the garden and bark at birds (and hot air balloons), which gets us in trouble with the neighbours.

What’s the weirdest doodle in your doodle book?

There are so many to choose from. I’m going to open a notebook at random and see what I find, ready? Here goes . . .

Hmmm,  a roll-mop herring driving a car? That’s pretty weird.

Let me try again . . . ok, a robot punching a sandwich, saying “I love you, sandwich”. There’s two weird ones right there.

What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?

The worst lie is too long to put here, but it might end up in a book one day :-/ But I stopped lying when I was about 12, so nothing too bad since. It’s a habit I learned to break, because it takes a lot of energy to stick to your story in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, and anyway you always end up getting in trouble twice – once for the thing you covered up by lying, and once for lying about it. It takes less energy, but more bravery, to tell the truth. In my case it also took a large box of Smarties, offered to me as an incentive to own up.

What’s next for Joe Berger?

I don’t know If I’ll get to write more Lyttle Lies books, but I want to tell more stories with cartoons, so I’m working on a couple of ideas. At the same time I’m still drawing my cartoons, and hope to find more places that are willing to publish them.

 

 

Thank you to Joe for answering the worms’ questions. We’re really grateful for the time he gave us and are thrilled with his answers. You can vote for the Pudding Problem in the #Lollies2018 here. You can follow Joe on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to the #Lollies2018 team for inviting us to be part of the Blog Tour again. Check out the other posts:

The Clockwork Crow

The Clockwork Crow

Catherine Fisher

Firefly Press

Catherine Fisher is an author of great talent who’s skillful writing draws praise for its ability to entrance the reader with its atmospheric prose. Often mysterious, sometimes dark, continually gripping, the publication of a new Catherine Fisher novel is always something to look forward to. Since hearing of the book deal last year, and revealing the cover to The Clockwork Crow in May, we have been guessing what lay beyond the gorgeous colours of the jacket.

We’re pleased to say it doesn’t disappoint! Whilst The Clockwork Crow is lighter than Catherine’s other books – it’s aimed at the blossoming 9-12 MG market – it is no less thrilling. It’s actually a perfect introduction to our national treasure for this age group. Noah (aged 11) loved the book and is already seeking out other books to devour. He calls it a “banger” – borrowed from the description of a fresh new song, unbelievably awesome and destined to become a popular, well-loved hit.

The story follows Seren, an orphan girl dreaming of a beautiful home and a loving, happy family. As she waits in the train station a nervous stranger asks her to guard a mysterious package. He doesn’t return and Seren feels compelled to take the package with her to Plas y Fran, the large manor house belonging to her new guardians, Captain Jones and Lady Mair. However, when she arrives, the grand house is shrouded in mystery – all furniture covered, minimal (and seemingly unfriendly) staff, and no sign of the loving family she was hoping for. A cold, bare residence brings her back down to earth with a bump and her dreams are shattered. The young boy she had wanted to befriend and play with has gone, and in time Seren learns that Tomos has been missing for a year and a day and the house is in mourning.

With the aid of the eponymous talking, walking, humorously irritable Clockwork Crow (who very nearly steals the show), Seren sets out to solve the mystery and put things right. In doing so, we learn that she is a determined and gutsy heroine, not afraid to stand up to the grown-ups, nor afraid to put her own security and future happiness at risk.

The world described by Catherine is beautifully wintry – filled with snow and stars, it sparkles like an ice-capped marvel. Featuring a cast of endearing characters, it reminded me of a wonderfully warm and entertaining Christmas period drama for all the family. Drawing on Welsh folklore, the story is magical and fantastic and such a great read. It’s got to be one of THE books of 2018.

Whilst reading and digesting, one constantly feels that this is a book that entertains and inspires in bucketloads.

We’re delighted that Catherine Fisher has revealed there will be a follow-up to The Clockwork Crow. We’re also thrilled that she recently answered the Worms’ questions in a Q and A.

 

Thank you to Firefly Press for the copy of Clockwork Crow, given in exchange for this review. Note that the cover has been designed by Anne Glenn. If you’d like to visit Catherine Fisher’s website, click here. If you want to follow her on Twitter, click here. If you want to buy The Clockwork Crow from Firefly, click here. That’s enough clicking.

 

Author Q and A: Catherine Fisher

The Clockwork Crow is Catherine Fisher’s latest novel – a beautifully crafted enchanted wintry tale for children. Catherine is an acclaimed author and poet of over 30 books and we are delighted that she took the time to answer our questions.

Born in Newport, she graduated from the University of Wales and has worked in education, archaeology and broadcasting. She has been shortlisted for numerous prizes and awards including the Smarties Prize (The Conjuror’s Game), the Whitbread Prize (The Oracle) and the Tir-na-nOg Award (The Candle Man / Corbenic).

What are you reading at the moment?

I always read a few books at once. At the moment it’s an odd mixture – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel,  The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien, and Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography!

Could you tell us how you got into writing?

I was about 11, and started with poems, at first in school and then at home. I had a whole notebook full of them. I only decided to write a novel when I was about 19 or 20.

Where and when do you write?

I try to write every morning between 9 and 1. I have room with a desk looking onto the garden, and that’s my usual place, though the good thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Sometimes the names just come,like Seren in the Clockwork Crow, or Finn and Claudia in Incarceron. Other times I have to make a list and choose. I’m always looking at names on TV programmes or in books for ideas. I have a names page in a notebook with a few saved up for future books, if I can find the characters to suit them.  

Which books and authors have inspired you in your career?

Alan Garner’s fantasies, Tolkien, Robert Holdstock’s weird tales, Arthur Machen, who I have always found a great writer. Also a million fairy tales and myths and legends,Norse and Welsh and Irish and Greek.  In terms of poetry, Keats,Yeats, David Jones and George Mackay Brown.

A lot of your writing is set in Wales. How important is a sense of place to your books? 

In some books like Darkhenge or Crown of Acorns, very important because the story rises out of the landscape and history of that place. In Corbenic I used real places in Wales to set a very strange tale. I think Wales is an amazing place and full of untold stories.

The Tir na n-Og Award celebrates books with authentic Welsh backgrounds. You won the award in 1995 and have been nominated twice more. How does it feel to be recognised with literary awards?

It’s always a great honour and encouragement. But I know that many, many really good books are overlooked, so I try not to get down if I am not nominated. It doesn’t mean the book is any less good.

The book is published with Firefly Press, an independent Welsh publisher who we love. How did this come about?

I have been aware of Firefly since they started and they are doing such a great job for Welsh children’s fiction. I wanted to write a Christmas book and suggested the idea to Penny Thomas, who was very keen to publish it. I was very happy to write it for them.

What inspired The Clockwork Crow?

Christmas, the idea of a Crow you could put together from pieces, lots of snow and ice. I wrote the book last winter and as I was working it kept on snowing outside my window, so I think the snowglobe has a real magic!

Was it difficult / fun / strange to give a voice to the Crow?

Not difficult but great fun. He had to be tetchy and bossy and yet quite likeable underneath. And vain,of course.

The Clockwork Crow is a tale “of snow and stars”. Are you a fan of wintry weather?

I have memories of when I was very small and there were really bitterly cold winters when everything froze. I love snow and the dark starry skies, and Northern, arctic stories. The Snow Queen is one of my favourite books.

The new book is written for 9-12 year olds (though Daddy Worm really really enjoyed it!). You also have poetry and YA writing on the go. How do you approach writing for different age groups?

Each is different and arrives differently. Poetry is much more intense and every word has to be tested. Young Adult and children’s books differ in the age of the hero/ine and the complexity of the story.  

Noah (aged 11) has just finished The Clockwork Crow tonight. He’s not read anything else by you. Which books of yours would you suggest he reads next?

I hope he enjoyed it! Maybe a book called The Glass Tower; Three doors to the Otherworld, which contains 3 of my early stories. Or even The Relic Master, the first of a set. Or maybe The Obsidian Mirror.

Is it fair to ask you to name the favourite book you’ve written?

Corbenic. I’m not sure why but I like that character and his story a lot.

What’s next for Catherine Fisher?

I have a new poetry book out with Seren Books in April called The Bramble King, which I am very excited about. And I am working on the sequel to the Clockwork Crow, so look out for more of Seren, Tomos and the Crow.

 

Many many thanks to Catherine for answering our questions and thanks to Firefly Press for organising. You can learn more about Catherine by visiting her website. To order The Clockwork Crow, visit Firefly’s website.