On Saturday I'm going to be visiting the Oxford Literary Festival for the very first time. Ordinarily this would be enough to make me very excited at the prospect of getting to see and hear a whole host of fabulous authors, illustrators and literary types (this year's line-up features Alan Moore, Axel Scheffler, Christopher Priest, Claire Tomalin, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Josie Long to name just a few!). However, my excitement currently knows no bounds as I'm also going to be appearing at an event myself!
The event is entitled 'Dickens' Legacy' and I'll be appearing on a panel alongside Philip Pullman, J D Sharpe and Marion Dickens Lloyd to discuss the lasting influence of Charles Dickens' work, particularly on children's literature. I feel incredibly honoured to be invited to be part of this event and, I must admit, just a little nervous too! The venue for the event is the rather grand Sheldonian Theatre and looking at the panaromic pictures of this on the internet, I can't help wishing that I had some of Charles Dickens' theatrical skills to draw on when I step out on the stage.
So if you're anywhere near Oxford at 10am on Saturday 24th April, come along to the Sheldonian Theatre to see if I crack and start to enact the death of Little Nell live on stage! Tickets and further details about the event are available at the Festival Website.
This Saturday I’m heading to the Just So Festival for a weekend filled with pirate training, stone balancing, pillow fights, levitation, music, poetry, dens and daydreams, children’s authors and even Babar and the Gruffalo! And on Saturday night, at around twelve minutes to midnight, there will be the Twelve Minutes to Midnight feast! Come along to hear the electrifying adventures of Penelope Tredwell as she investigates a sinister mystery filled with spiders, madness and strange glimpses of the future and then stay for hot chocolate, marshmallows and even moustaches...
Being invited to fabulous events like the Just So festival is one of the unexpected benefits I’ve discovered to being a published author. Earlier this year, I took part in the marvellous Oxford Literary Festival where I was honoured to appear on the same stage as the children’s publisher Marion Lloyd, the children’s author JD Sharpe, and one of my literary heroes, Philip Pullman. Here's the four of us in front of the Sheldonian Theatre where our debate on the legacy of Charles Dickens took place, and where I let slip my confession that my first experience of Dickens's work was the Muppet Christmas Carol.
Perhaps in my next blog I'll be able to post up a picture where I'm hobnobbing with the Gruffalo!
Happy New Year everyone! Don't worry, I haven't succumbed to a bout of rampant egomania; the title of this blogpost is taken from an internet meme called the #NextBigThing that I've been invited to take part in. The charming Piers Torday who I met at the CWIG conference in Reading last year tagged me to take part in this back in December, but due to a flurry of last-minute deadlines and pre-Christmas preparations, I'm only now getting round to posting this up. Piers's debut novel The Last Wild which has been described by one reader as a 'sci-fi Roald Dahl' is one of my most eagerly-awaited reads of 2013 and you can find out more about it by reading Piers's #NextBigThing post here.
Anyway, here are my answers to the #NextBigThing questions:
When I finished writing Twelve Minutes to Midnight, I knew there were more stories I wanted to tell about Penelope, Alfie and Monty and even stranger mysteries for them to solve. Shadows of the Silver Screen is set at the dawn of the twentieth century: a time when the new-fangled world of moving pictures was taking its first steps from the fairground to the cinema screen, whilst spirit photographers and charlatans claimed to be able to photograph the dead. I've always loved haunted house stories and when I had the idea of a mysterious filmmaker approaching The Penny Dreadful to turn one of Montgomery Flinch's stories into a motion picture, I saw the chance to combine these two strands into a haunted house story with a twist...
What genre does your book fall under?
Mystery and adventure with a touch of the supernatural.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
I think I'd have to scour the country, holding a series of Harry Potter-style open auditions to cast the part of Penelope Tredwell, but I'd love to see Mark Gatiss play the part of Montgomery Flinch. I'm a huge fan of his work in Crooked House, The First Men in the Moon and the remarkable Sherlock, so if he wanted to adapt, produce and direct it too, he'd be more than welcome!
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
What if the camera could capture more than just memories of the past - would you dare to watch the shadows of the silver screen?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took me about a year to finish the first draft of Shadows of the Silver Screen. Moving house in the middle of writing and having to scribble away in an unfinished office whilst builders, plumbers and electricians knocked the house down around my ears probably didn't help my productivity!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
One of the highlights of 2012 for me was appearing on stage alongside Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival. Although I wouldn't dare to compare my books to Phililp Pullman's, several reviewers of Twelve Minutes to Midnight said that it would appeal to fans of his Sally Lockhart series which was a comparison I was delighted by.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I think every book I write takes inspiration in some way from the stories I have read and seen. Shadows of the Silver Screen has its roots entwined with classic ghost stories such asThe Ash Tree by M.R. James and The Turn of the Screwby Henry James.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
If you want to find out what happened to the man who invented cinema but who history forgot, you should read Shadows of the Silver Screen.
Who are you passing the baton to for next week's Next Big Thing?
Nearly two years ago now, when my debut novel was published and I had my first ever book signing, I blogged about how I had bunked off school aged fourteen to see Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean sign copies of their debut graphic novel, Violent Cases, on what I imagine was Neil Gaiman's first ever signing tour. If you want to, you can read the blog post here.
This summer Neil Gaiman published his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and embarked on what he announced would be his final book signing tour. And this Wednesday Neil Gaiman will be in conversation with Philip Pullman at the Oxford Playhouse, with both authors signing books at the end of the evening. And I've got a ticket.
Needless to say, I'm rather excited. One of the highlights of my brief authorial career to date was when I appeared alongside Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival last year at an event to talk about the influence of Charles Dickens's work on children's fiction. Although I was too nervous to say more than a handful of words to him backstage before the event, on stage he showed a real generosity of spirit to myself and Jasmine Richards, the other debut author on the panel, and after the event, he very kindly signed my copy of Lyra's Oxford with best wishes for Penelope Tredwell and Twelve Minutes to Midnight! I'm currently halfway through his wonderful retellings of Grimm's folk tales and reading each story is like discovering a fresh stream in an ancient forest, his pellucid prose illuminating these familiar and half-forgotten tales in so many fascinating ways.
But before I began reading this, I was immersed in the pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and, to be honest, I think I'm still recovering from this. Halfway through the first chapter, I almost put the book down and didn't think that I was going to be able to read it to the end. Not because it is a bad book, far from it; but to borrow the words of a fellow Mancunian, it was too close to home and too near the bone...
The first book of Neil Gaiman's I ever read was Violent Cases, a story where the adult narrator looks back on events from his childhood, recalling through a haze of distance and memory, a confusing world where adults lied and cruelty seems a common currency. When I read this as a teenager, the story sang to me, even though I probably didn't fully understand every detail of the tale contained in its pages. Fast forward twenty-five years and I'm reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a story where the unnamed adult narrator returns to his old hometown for the funeral of his father, and, from there, drives to find the ocean at the end of the lane and begins to recall exactly what happened to him when he was a boy. But unlike the narrator of Violent Cases, the narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane recounts the events of his youth with a crystal-clear clarity: the loneliness and the unhappiness, the refuge he found in the books he read, and above all, the darkness. As I turned the pages I felt as though I was reading the book through two pairs of eyes: the eyes of my adult self, and the boy I once was. But as Lettie Hempstock says in the pages of the story "The truth is there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."
I won't say anymore about this remarkable novel, but if you haven't read it, I'd strongly urge you to do so. And on Wednesday evening I'm looking forward to seeing Neil Gaiman in conversation with Philip Pullman, and I hope that I get the chance to say thank you.
On Wednesday evening I went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Neil Gaiman in conversation with Philip Pullman. It was a wonderful event and you can listen to nearly the whole thing in this Waterstones podcast (although sadly this doesn’t include Neil Gaiman’s hilarious reading of an extract from his forthcoming children’s book Fortunately, The Milk which rounded off the evening).
The two authors spoke about imagination and creation, dreams and stories, the books that shaped them as children and the wonders of The Library. As I sat there on the back row of the balcony listening to them talk, it reminded me what an absolute privilege it is to be a children’s author. To have the chance to sow a single seed in the shape of a story which might then take root in the mind of a reader. I thought about the forests that both Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman have seen spring from the stories that they have told, and the inspiration they have given to countless other imaginations in turn.
Alongside the hardback editions of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman that I had in my bag, I had a copy of my novel Twelve Minutes to Midnight with a dedication to Neil Gaiman written inside. I had last seen him twenty-five years ago, when I had bunked off school aged fourteen to see him at a book signing alongside Dave McKean at a comic book shop in Manchester. That was the moment that made me believe it was even possible to become an author, and Neil Gaiman’s books took pride of place on the shelves of the library of my childhood; the fuel that has fed my imagination as a writer ever since.
My position at the very back row of the balcony turned out to be a golden ticket as it took me to almost the front of the queue for the signing that took place after the event. As Neil signed my books, I explained that I'd last seen him at a signing in Manchester twenty-five years earlier and he amazed me by remembering the blogpost I had written about this, where I also had tried to express my feelings about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I finally had the chance to thank him in person and he very kindly thanked me in turn for my gift of Twelve Minutes to Midnight, saying he was looking forward to reading this. When he opens the novel he'll see the following dedication inside:
“Thank you for helping to plant a seed twenty-five years ago. It grew into this book.”
Many thanks to Charlotte Morris and Leen Van Broeck for allowing me to include their photographs of the event here.
The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was inspired by quantum physics, specifically the Many Worlds Interpretation of parallel universes. This concept is brilliantly explained at the 2 minutes 45 seconds mark in the above video by MinutePhysics. (Check out the MinutePhysicsYouTube channel for more ace explanations of physics-related topics from filmmaker Henry Reich.)
The idea of parallel worlds is a staple of children’s fiction from the world of Narnia to the multiverse explored in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I recently created a list of my Top 10 parallel universes in fiction for the Guardian Children’s Books website and you can find this here. As I say in the article, what’s beautiful to me about the idea of parallel worlds is the fact that science suggests that they might actually exist. As storytellers we no longer have to climb through the wardrobe to take our readers into parallel universes, but can use science to show how these worlds could be real.
Both science and fiction help us to make sense of the world, with all its wonder and possibilities as well as its inevitable pain. Scientists such as Professor Brian Cox have used their expertise to popularize science using TV and radio programmes to help audiences in their millions understand more about the incredible Universe we live in. Professor Cox has been quoted as saying, "Science is too important not to be part of popular culture" and I believe children’s books have a role to play here too.
It was important to me that all the scientific concepts mentioned in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright are real and accurately described, so I had the manuscript checked and approved by a friend who's a Professor of Particle Physics and also works at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I hope this scientific authenticity might encourage a reluctant reader or someone who’s maybe stuck in the non-fiction section to pick up a novel for the first time.
Other children’s writers have used science as a jumping off point to create exciting plots and wondrous stories. In his high-octane Itch series, Simon Mayo tells the story of Itchingham Lofte, an ordinary 14-year-old boy whose quest to collect all the elements in the periodic table pitches him into perilous adventures. Collaborating with her father, the famous physicist Stephen Hawking, Lucy Hawking has authored several books including George and the Big Bang, using fiction to explore theories about the birth of the Universe. And in this article in The Guardian, the author Tim Lott writes about the inspiration that can be found in science and how this helped to inspire his novel How to Be Invisible.
Science explores the big questions about life, the universe and everything – the same questions that can underpin the very best fiction. Why are we here? What makes us human? What comes next? Science can help to create a real sense of wonder. A gift for storytellers.
To celebrate the publication of The Many Worlds of Albie Bright on the 14 January. I’m running a Twitter giveaway to win a signed copy of the book. All you’ve got to do is #ScienceUpABook in a tweet. This can be a picture book, a children’s or YA novel, a classic text or even a comic book – all you’ve got to do is add some science to the title! Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:
The Rationally-Explained Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton #ScienceUpABook #AlbieBright
Pipette Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren #ScienceUpABook #AlbieBright
Tabby McTat meets Schrödinger's cat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler #ScienceUpABook #AlbieBright
The Ragged Trousered Paleontologists by Robert Tressell
Hubble by Non Pratt #ScienceUpABook #AlbieBright
Don’t forget you need to include the hashtags #ScienceUpABook and #AlbieBright in your tweets for a chance of winning a signed copy of the book. The winner will be chosen at 11am on 12/01/16. Good luck!