Inspiration is one of my favourite words. It comes from the Latin word ‘spiritus’, meaning breath, which is where we get the words respire, expire and aspire. But it also means ‘soul’ – breath and soul are from the same root in Latin, Hebrew, Slavic, Chinese – there’s a whole list – hence the words spirit, spiritual, spirited.
The things that inspired me recently were certainly soulful things: Maya Angelou for one. She died this week having inspired so many with her wisdom, her writing, her ability to empower others, her strength to rise above the events in her early life and keep rising. I wish I’d known her, but I think one of her rare gifts was that she made the whole world feel as if they did know her. Through her work, through her words, through the energy she gave out and through footage we’ve seen of her, we feel her and are one with her. Her love and understanding, her compassion and empathy for humanity and her love of life infuse into my soul and somehow, she is as familiar to me as an aunt.
I was also inspired by a school – I visited Cassiobury Junior School in Watford this week and the feeling there was very special. The school itself has great facilities and grounds, but the teachers seemed happy, the children were happy and thriving, and there seemed to be the right balance of a relaxed learning environment and good management and organisation. I really enjoyed talking about being an author as part of their careers week and hope some of the Y3 children I spoke to feel inspired to be authors too when they grow up.
Lastly, I love the window in Pickled Pepper books in Crouch End – thank you so much to Urmi and Rachel for doing this. I didn’t even know they’d done it until my sister walked past, saw the window and sent me this photo. Independent bookshops back and promote authors in a way that online retailers can’t, and some of the big shops would never do unless you’re one of the five bestselling names that have been around for years, so go to them and buy your books, because you may pay a pound or two more but they’ll disappear if you don’t, and a bookshop is not only one of the most inspiring places you can spend an afternoon, you also take home in a bag (usually with a free bookmark) something that can inspire you for the rest of your life.
It’s been busy, silly busy, but at last things are slowing down a bit. Well, they’re not because I’m filling the tiny spaces in time with other things, as per usual, but at least I’m managing to get some writing done again.
Writing is so much fun. It’s like I’m let loose with my subconscious and anything can happen. Of course, there are parameters: I’m writing for 7-12 year olds and I need to remember that and not write about Kierkegaard, and I have a nebulous idea of where the story is going and what’s going to happen and I know in the back of my mind that I need to blinking well get on with it because the publisher is waiting, but otherwise, it’s like going to an inflatable play zone with my mind. I’m constantly amused and entertained (and sometimes worried about myself), and I love that.
I’ve also been doing some reading and researching and making connections between me, other people, the things around me in the world and the world of ideas and imagination that lie beyond, and it’s so fascinating, I’m having trouble sleeping. My brain is fizzing and foraging and going but what about THIS? And THAT? HAH! and my conscious mind is being an old-fashioned nanny and saying, ‘that’s quite enough now brain, settle down or I won’t take you for a stroll in your perambulator this eventide.’
Plus the sun is shining, which makes all the difference because it makes you feel like dancing with your daughter to Beyoncé (done) and making birthday cakes (going to do) because she’s turning 18 today and that’s just the maddest thing you’ve ever heard. But I must get back to writing or that book will never leave the inflatable play zone.
And now for something completely different…
This week, Emma Haughton invited me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour, which is not really a tour as sadly I don’t get to go anywhere. Instead it’s a kind of tag game where authors answer four questions on their blogs and then nominate three more authors to answers the same questions on their blogs. So here are my answers and they have nothing at all to do with my actual writing process, which is write a bit, get up, do something else, surf the Internet, write a bit more, get up and go and do something else, etc etc…
What am I working on at the moment?
I’m writing a novel about a girl who wants to be an actor. It’s been a busy month of promotion for DREAM ON, AMBER so I haven’t got very far with it, and then every five minutes another idea pings into my head and I want to work on that instead. I probably have some kind of mental hyperactivity – my brain definitely works much faster than I can keep up with. I tell myself that when I get old and don’t have such a hectic life, I’ll write big, long, slow novels full of subtle detail and enormous breadth. But I’m probably lying to myself.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
This is a hard question to answer because a) I’ve only published one book, b) I have no idea if it is different and if so, how, and c) isn’t every writer’s work different, precisely because each writer is unique and the way he or she tackles themes, characters and language has his or her distinct mark on it? If you think that’s a rubbish answer and I should stop trying to be clever, then I’d say my work is different because it tackles race issues, fits lots of stuff into one small itty-bitty book, is multi-layered and profoundly deep, yet cool and absurd. And has made-up dads in it. Which I’m not sure anyone else has, but I could be wrong.
Why do I write what I do?
I can’t write big, long, slow novels YET (see above) and I get bored easily so I have to amuse and entertain myself, otherwise a thousand other activities will suddenly seem much more attractive than my novel. So whatever I write will have to be funny. It’ll also be deep because I’m a thinker (I studied philosophy), and a bit sad because life has a raw, transitory tenderness about it. The films and books I like best are the ones that move me: if they don’t, I find them pointless. And I’ll write about issues that bother me, people who fascinate me or ideas I think will help me or other people to understand life, the universe and the way things are or could be. I want the world to be a better place because my books are in it, which just goes to show what an idealistic hippie I am.
How does my writing process work?
I don’t plan much. Planning is probably a really great thing to do, though, so when I learn more about how to be a proper author, I’ll definitely plan better. What I’m doing now is going on an instinctive foray – I let my unconscious find its way into a story. I sat down to write this current book and had no idea who this character was or what she liked. So I unleased my Muse (I like tying my Muse up so she doesn’t escape), started writing and by the end of the first page, my protagonist had revealed herself. I sat back and thought, ‘Hah! She’s an actor! She loves acting. Who’d have guessed it?’
A few chapters in, when I only had this nebulous blobbie idea of what was going to happen, the publishers said, ‘Can you give us a synopsis?’ And I thought, Shoot. I actually have to think of where this is going. Which made me feel a) a bit cornered and b) a bit anxious, because if you write the synopsis of your novel before you write your novel, what’s the point of writing your novel? It’s like you’ve written it already so writing it gets boring. I gave them a synopsis to keep them happy but to keep my interest up as I go along, I might have to change it radically. Best not tell the publishers that, though.
Obviously, I have some idea of where I’m going but I like the freedom of being able to venture off if I feel like it (I travel in much the same way). I write and edit and write a bit more and edit some more, because if the beginning is wrong and annoys me, I can’t go on. Then I get to the middle and wonder why I didn’t study law or medicine, and then force myself to carry on, promising myself all kinds of things I won’t give myself if I get to the end. Then I get to the end, wonder where all the presents I’ve promised myself are, get moody when I don’t get them, then go back to the beginning and do the same thing again and again until I think the book is OK. I get really into it, a bit obsessively. I resent doing anything else once I’m writing. Even eating, cooking or walking the dog. I feel like shouting, I’M WRITING. LEAVE ME ALONE. Then I take a break and do things I’ve needed to do for ages, like buy food, say hello to my children, go to the bank.
And voila. A book is born. Pink and soft and crying, it arrives into the world and I wrap it in a fleece and give it a kiss. Or I see it for the bilge it is, chuck it in the bin and start again. Which, luckily, I didn’t do with any of my real babies.
It’s been busy busy busy since my last post. March just went pachooo and April is looking like it’ll do the same.
I’ve shared my ‘Inheritance Books’ on the 4 o’clock Show on Radio 4 Extra, which was so much fun, I want to do it again. I’ve been interviewed and appeared in The Jewish Chronicle; I’ve talked to Years 4, 5 and 6 at a school in Chelmsford and then to three schools in three different libraries in Haringey, each to 50 children, where we cooked up ideas for story writing.
Seeing as that wasn’t quite busy enough for me, I also gave a talk on Mindfulness for JOFA, and repeated it a week later.
Of course, what I’m really trying to do in between all that is write my next book but I’m not getting very far because every five minutes I either have to take someone somewhere, pick someone up, take someone for an appointment, fill in, scan and send forms, go to the bank, shop, cook, clean, fix and then of course there are BIG holidays coming up that require BIG amounts of time and effort. Oh, and I’ve got a new job starting at the end of April because I also have to feed my children.
The best news has to be that today, just today, I heard that Amber has been sold to France!
Rêve, Amber, Rêve.
Vive La France, that’s all I can say. So now it’ll be in German, Turkish, Italian and French, and possibly Dutch too (Alsjeblieft koop mijn boek, Nederland). I’m not sure if that means ‘Please buy my book, Holland’ but that’s what it’s meant to say. I’m still holding out for the USA but I’m very happy with progress so far.
Let’s hope April is a tiny weeny bit less busy so I can write.
Who am I kidding?
My book is out in the big wide world. Look! It is! Really! I’ve seen it.
I haven’t seen it everywhere, mind. Which makes me want to slip copies into random places and see what happens. Like the coffee shop in the House of Lords, on the table at the G8 Summit, into the pocket of one of Madonna’s children, or to Barak Obama (who grew up without a dad so he’d get it). But I’ve refrained. Mainly because I can’t get near any of those people or places, not out of any sense of decorum.
Last week, was World Book Day so I visited Campsbourne School to meet and talk to both of the Year 4 classes and met lovely authors, Helen Piercy and Conrad Mason while I was there. It was great fun: no one did any school work and all the teachers and students were dressed up. One boy had a particularly interesting costume. ‘He’s dressed as a carrier bag,’ his friend told me. And sure enough, he had a carrier bag around his middle. I felt perfectly comfortable after meeting him to talk about my weird life and about story writing. I was a bit scared that Thing 1 and Thing 2 would chase me around the classroom and the deadly-looking doctor would try to cut out my liver but I got out of there alive.
I had a family party to celebrate my book coming out, and that was SOOO NICE. The sun even shone. And I have a date for Radio 4! Thursday 27th March at 4pm – listen to the 4 o’clock show. I’ll be on it! HOW COOL IS THAT?
This week, I’m working on my next book. This means I have hundreds of pieces of paper all around me with scribbles on them as I decide what’s going to happen, and to whom, and where, and why. Maybe if I just glue them all together, no one will notice and I’ll just go ta daaaaaaahh! My new book! And then go on holiday for a few months to somewhere warm.
Oh me, oh my. Finally, finally, this week has finally arrived. And it’s arrived with a bang, a wallop, a whoop and an eek.
A bang because the week started with a trip to the BBC to record ‘Inheritance Books’ for the 4 o’Clock Show on Radio 4, and that was GREAT. I loved it. Despite being so nervous I nearly squeezed the tops of my fingers off (that was my strategy for keeping calm and focusing while I did the recording. My poor fingers.) I was tickled by the whole buzz of being in there and now I want to be a radio presenter or permanent studio guest (hint hint BBC) and am now thinking of devious ways of making that come true…
A wallop because it’s WORLD BOOK DAY on Thursday, so this week is all about books books books. If you somehow missed that, you need a wallop around the head with a big book to WAKE UP. THWACK.
That’s better. Now wash your face and go and buy a book. Preferably mine.
A whoop because Dream on, Amber made it into National Geographic Kids magazine NGK0414whatsup.v5 which might not seem very whoopy to you, but it is to me. It’s whoop whoop whoop whoop whoop whoop whoop WHOOP, if you must know. ESPECIALLY because it’s National Geographic Magazine because I LOVE that mag and I’m a world traveller and explorer so it’s made me so happy to feature in it.
And an eek because there are three Polish painters, all called Martin (actually it’s more like Marzchzkyjzynn, which can’t pronounce so they make it easy for me) making chaos in my house – the furniture from three rooms is in the middle of the dining room, covered with dust sheets; it smells of paint and silicone sealer. I can’t even get a glass of water and I really don’t need this right now when I have all my family coming on Sunday to eat and drink and some are even sleeping here from America and Italy. I’m breathing deeply and trying not to freak out.
It’s not working.
So yes – on THURSDAY, THIS THURSDAY, THIS VERY ONE Dream on, Amber is being published, but all those lovely people who pre-ordered it have received it already through the post. And they’re not the only ones: a group of very cool readers from the LOVE READING website have written reviews, which you can read here and I thank them for their lovely comments. Even the one who said my book was boring because at least she said it in a nice way. Getting reviews from real readers makes me so happy (hint hint). Yes, that means you.
It’s WORLD BOOK WEEK! How cool is that?
Nearly there! Nearly!
Look at me, counting down and getting all excited and everything but it’s just dawned on me that I have no idea what’s actually going to happen the day DREAM ON, AMBER comes out. It might not be very exciting. It might even be a bit of an anti-climax. It’ll be a Thursday, two weeks today (!!) and it’s WORLD BOOK DAY, which is such an amazing coincidence, it surely can’t be a coincidence. I wonder if Chicken House did that on purpose. I must ask.
For most people it’ll be a regular school day in March. To make sure it’s not just another boring old day, I’m planning a few surprises:
1) I’ll book a marching band so I’ll wake up to trumpet blasts and people stomping around my bed wearing red uniforms with shiny buttons on.
2) A truckload of fireworks will go off as I get up, even though it’ll be morning and you won’t be able to see them. If I can’t get fireworks, something loud and zappy will do, like a 21 gun salute.
3) A thousand red balloons will simultaneously be let off around my house and The Red Arrows will spell ‘Dream on, Amber’ in the sky.
4) I’ll dress in gorgeous new clothes that I’ll buy beforehand – no wait, I’ll be GIVEN beforehand, and I’ll wear for the first time that day. Along with new boots (also gifts). And I’ll feel great.
5) The Queen will send me a letter of congratulations. And David Cameron.
6) I’ll come downstairs and eat smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, cooked by Jamie Oliver, who might find my kitchen a bit small. And he’ll buy a copy of Amber for EACH of his daughters, and all of their friends.
7) There’ll be street parties and it’ll be a national holiday. And the sun will shine but properly, with heat behind it.
8) All the books will sell out and we’ll have to print thousands more. And have parties while we’re waiting.
I hope someone is making a note of all this. You only have two weeks, designers, to send me those new clothes.
It’s been a busy week. Writing a book is only one part of the process: the stay-at-home-alone-with-a-laptop-and drink-tea part. But then you have to get out there and promote it, meet people, get on trains with a bag of your books and sell your services. You feel a bit like a door-to-door salesperson selling Encyclopaedia Brittanica or double glazing, which is not my dream job. But it’s my book, and I believe in it. So out I went.
Last week, I went to Pickled Pepper Books in Crouch End and organised an event for Father’s Day, which falls during the Crouch End Festival this year. Doing a reading and interactive event on Father’s Day fits well with Dream on, Amber because what do children with no fathers do on Father’s Day? How do they feel? I think that’s worth exploring.
This week, I visited the beautiful Tales on Moon Lane bookshop to introduce myself and organise an event for October half term. I also bought some good books, one called ‘Saffy’s Angel’ by Hilary McKay I especially recommend. I love the parts where Caddy is driving and Rose gets involved (near the end: I can’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil it) and the Casson family is so familiar to me, coming from a family of not very organised artists.
Then I meandered down the road to Dulwich Books, where I said another hello and bought another book. I felt ashamed that I buy my books from Amazon, because there are beautiful independent bookshops that organise literature weeks and all kinds of community events, have readings, liaise with schools, promote authors and their books, have reading groups, and the people who work in them are so knowledgeable: they can recommend and advise on all kinds of things. ‘Have you got any books on…?’ I asked. ‘Yes, there’s this one about…and this one that’s more…’ Basically, BOOKSHOPS RULE. I am 100% in support of them and want to buy all my books from them from now on. And I think YOU should too.
The rest of the week, I sent emails, organised events in schools, spoke to librarians and thought of people I could add to the already quite extensive mailing list who would like or benefit from my book. Then I got tired and lay in bed reading. Which is another good part of being a writer. You can lie in bed and read and when the little voice in your head tells you to go out and about again, you can shout, ‘I’M RESEARCHING!’ and turn another page.