Saturday 5 September 2020

Evolution is Inevitable - an interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky attracted plenty of favourable attention with his 2008 debut novel, Empire in Black and Gold, the first in the Shadows of the Apt series. By then, he'd already been writing for about a decade and a half and this momentum continued to drive him on. He now has more than 40 published Fantasy and Science Fiction stories to his name - novels, novellas, anthologies. He won the 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award for his novel Children of Time, a story of humanity’s struggle for survival on a terraformed planet, and his latest novel Doors of Eden will be published in paperback by Pan Macmillan's Tor on 22 September 2020. 

The Lincolnshire born author studied Psychology and Zoology at Reading before working in law and developing a full-time writing career. He is a keen gamer and live action role playing, and also an amateur actor. He now lives in Leeds with his wife and son. In 2019 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Arts from the University of Lincoln.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of science fiction and fantasy, creator of worlds

Adrian found time to talk with Kim Vertue for The Scrawl about inspiration, speculation, evolution and the fall and rise of civilisation, among other things...

What was the first book you can remember reading that really hooked you and carried you off into its world?

Dianne Wynne Jones, Power of Three. Still a book I revisit. It not only provides a wholly immersive fantasy world in and of itself, but it then pulls not one but two switches of perspective on the reader. Absolutely blew my mind. The other contender is probably Pratchett’s Strata for very similar reasons, but I think I must have come to that a bit later. 

What ‘woke you up’ to the idea of being a writer?

Weirdly, it was Weiss & Hickman’s Dragonlance books. I’d been a keep for a while by then, and here was someone’s D&D campaign written up as a set of novels, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ And, of course, I was 18 and clueless and I absolutely couldn’t, but I kept cracking away at it and eventually I got there. 

What have been your favourite books or authors, and what did you learn from them?

Gene Wolfe and Mary Gentle, for their complexity of world and writing and the fantastical games they play with their readership. Peter S Beagle for his poetic prose and exquisite use of language.

What are your favourite stories from other media formats? 

The recency effect says I should mention Dark, which I’ve just finished and completely blew my mind. My favourite films are probably Arrival and Ex Machina, really intelligent science fiction put forward with an understated subtlety. For TV, I’m a big fan of Farscape, which I think was just about the perfect mix of heart and mind when it came to characters and writing. I loved Blacks Sails as well, for something more recent. For comics, I’m a big fan of Kieron Gillen and Paul Cornell, and I love both incarnations of Umbrella Academy.

We understand you role play. Would you say this was a major source of inspiration for you?

I absolutely do, and my first books, the Shadows of the Apt series, evolved directly from that. Gaming is definitely still an influence, but so is just about everything I come across. It all goes into the mill.

When developing your ideas, does world or story come first? Or do the characters? Does it vary? 

World first, always. My characters and plotlines arise organically from the worlds I want to write in. I always want to explore somewhere, and when I’ve worked the world up to a sufficient level of reality, the people, their concerns and their fracture points will arise organically out of the setting.

In Doors of Eden you have fun describing various ‘evolutions’ and how other civilisations may have developed. How did you dovetail research into speculation until if felt exactly right for your story? Do you consult ‘boffins’, for example?

When I’m writing what I’d consider ‘hard SF’ (for a given value of same) I do try and get the science as right as I can, which will often mean consulting actual boffins. The acknowledgement of Doors has quite a list of people who’ve helped me by informing beforehand or fact-checking after – same for Children of Ruin where I had all sorts of fun talking spaceship design with the experts. 

Do you ever have to resist spending too long on research?

Sometimes I have to abandon something when it turns out my limited understanding of the science was way off the mark. Children of Time was originally going to use time distortion from travelling at near-light speeds instead of the repeated wake-sleep pattern that Mason goes through, but it didn’t make logical sense, and I think what I ended up with is better.

You include LGBTQ and alien characters – this is a great tradition in SF, yet there is heightened sensitivity around interpreting another’s point of view which is linked to this creative freedom. Do you have a checklist or approach in developing these characters, to succeed in such a rounded way?

I don’t have a checklist per se. I try and work with what I’ve learned from people I know, and beyond that I just do my level best to step out of my place of relative privilege and empathise, and treat people like people. 

I’m not usually trying to write about that aspect of a character, because I suspect that’s where I would cross a line. But I do feel it’s a duty to write about a diverse cast, because the world is a diverse place, and also, it makes for a more interesting book that one that’s wall-to-wall people like the one I see in the mirror. 

As for the aliens – I love to write aliens. I love to make them complex and, ideally, present them from inside their own sensoriums and minds. 

Doors of Eden
also has a sense of hope around its ultimate scenario which makes for a satisfying read. How do you use plot and structure – do you know the ‘destination’ and work your way back, or run the scenarios so that they are a surprise to you as you go? 

I plot and plan heavily, and can’t really imagine trying to write any other way - although who knows, maybe one day I’ll do the other thing, though it feels like jumping out of a window and trying to knit a safety net on the way down!

Do you map out the outline scene by scene, and if so, does this take longer than writing the first draft?

I don’t always stick to the plan, and the midsection of any good story always has a certain amount of fluidity, but most of the time I have a good idea of where I’m going and that lets me build a lot of structure like foreshadowing in on the first pass, and usually gives me a first draft that is the right shape and doesn’t need serious tinkering.

Have you developed a writing regimen and routine, if so, could you describe it? For example, do you usually write in a study with a lovely view? Do you listen to certain music to evoke certain moods, and do you have a favourite food or drink to help you along? 

Right now, I write every day, mostly in the morning. I listen to a lot of music, mostly film and game soundtracks most of the time. I would normally get out of the house to write, but right now going to a coffee shop isn’t really an option, so I’ve got used to writing at home. 

How has your writing developed? Has feedback from fans and other media fed into this, as well as speculation on the ‘interesting times’ we are living through?  

I hope I’ve got better as I’ve gone on. I think my actual style is still being honed, and I can look over earlier work and see how I might do things differently now. I try not to be reactive to the way people perceive my work, but if I’m being honest it does have an impact, and I do try and take on board valid criticism – which is still a hard thing to do even after so many years in the game. 

Thank you, Adrian Tchaikovsky, hopeful SF seems something that we need more than ever! 

Adrian Tchaikovsky was talking with Kim Vertue

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Friday 24 January 2020

In Yer Face! David Williams Talks Agitprop, Community Health and Crime in Cardiff

David Williams is a playwright, a founding member of The Red Button Theatre, author of several collections of poems. David has embraced the digital world and generously publishes much of his work-in-progress on-line, a brave move for any writer that allows his readers to share the creative journey and learn from this rare transparency of process. He has a built a reputation for potent, entertaining drama that does not shy away from politicising the everyday scenarios he often chooses as his focus... For the last few years, much of his work has been archived by the National Library of Wales.

Author David Williams
David Williams first talked to Remy Dean as part of IAWN2017, an on-line festival of independent authors in Wales. He has since ventured into the world of noir-nouveau, with a collection of short works featuring the hang-dog, not quite 'has-been', character Ken Frane, 'last of the Cardiff Docks Detectives', so the The Scrawl takes this opportunity for a catch-up with this prolific writer who refuses to be contained by any single genre, format or outlet...

Your poetry often veers into prose and vice versa, do you have a definition of 'poetry' for us, and is it the same thing as 'the poetic'?

First of all thank you, Remy, for taking the time to read my work. As a former English and Drama teacher I am ashamed to say that I don’t know the difference between poetry and prose. They are all just words to me that come out in whatever form or order they do and that is why on my Amazon author’s spotlight I say that my poetry is really 'a collection of angry words'.

To me, poetry is the shortened form, a precis or lyrical form of the long-winded. Perhaps my opinion of poetry and the poetic is best summed up in a poem wot I wrote, Poetry is Cool...

There are many overt political references in your writing, including the poem you just quoted. Are some of these the views of the character espousing them and not your own? 

Every character, play or short short story I write is me.

They are my political views. I don’t think I would be able to write them otherwise. The plays are agit-propaganda and ‘In Yer Face’. Not much room for subtlety in my work. I have never thought of the idea of fiction in poetry myself.

Most of my work, be it plays or poetry, is autobiographical in some way so not fiction at all. It has affected my world view and therefore I am sure it would offend some people if I was to say it to them. I leave it out in the digital realm for them should they wish to read it. In real life, I am not so much ‘in yer face’ as I appear on the page.  If I get flak, it is for my glibness and facetiousness - a trait honed to deal with authority and institutions.

Do you think writing in a bilingual setting has affected your themes and approach? I mean, as opposed to the simply being able to use two languages., and am thinking of your use of other dialects, such as the Afro-Caribbean-South-London language of Brickstown

Great question, and I think it must have done subconsciously.

I have an affinity with the oppressed and being a part of a linguistic minority, in a country that lends its name to one of the languages, gives you an empathy or understanding with others’ struggles - therefore, the gentrification of Brixton in Brickstown and the mental health conflict of the character in Freedom Come Freedom Go!

It was also in South East London that I was an English and Drama teacher and some of the patois and speak I must have picked up, but I am told by a former colleague that the Jamaican dialect does need correcting.

Do you think a writer has a social duty?

I think it is compulsory for why else are you writing? My succinct and ‘in yer face answer’ might offend a few because some might be doing it for elusive fame and fortune.

What is your connection with Red Button Theatre and what is the company’s connection with community health?

I set up Red Button Theatre at the University in 1994 as a vehicle for my own writing. I have wanted to work with it in a community health setting but have lacked the oomph to do this! We are there or rather I am there if people would like to work with us. My main interest is in Mental Health because after ruminating on the fact that I might not be ‘right in the head’, I was diagnosed with the writers and artists’ disease ‘Bipolar Disorder’ in 2005. This could be another reason why I have not extended the hand of friendship further out to the community.

You are quite active @Twitter and often tweet about mental health and related issues. It appears, whilst recognising it as a multi-faceted and complex problem, you also see a socio-political causation for many?

My opinion upon 'mental health' since I do tweet about it a lot is that it is a political problem. In my opinion 'mental health' is a problem of Capitalism and does not have to do with the Bio-Medical Chemical Imbalance in the Brain. We are all suffering way more than we need to be, even those who haven't been diagnosed, because the systems in place are not one to support us but ones designed to make us strive, compete against each other and to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The emphasis, in the UK at least, is that if you get back to work and pay your taxes, pay into the communal pot, then your mental health will improve... but people know, especially those who wish to express themselves creatively, that just any job is not the answer. It has to be a job where you can express yourself creatively and how many of those are out there? Not many!

That's why I am a supporter of Universal Basic Income. I think this would improve the mental health of thousands overnight, because at least people would know that they had a certain amount to budget and live on a month and be creative about it. As it is, our waking hours are set on how are we going to earn enough money to survive let alone be creative and how can we stay one step aloof from the hoops that the Department of Work and Pensions wish us to jump through.

I know many who are 'of a delicate disposition' in some way, or go through 'emotionally vulnerable periods' will avoid Twitter during those times as they feel it is 'toxic'. I wonder what your opinion is on that connection between social media and mental health... 

I must admit that I thrive on Twitter. Facebook is a bit to passive for me. I had to leave Instagram because I was getting too political in my posts. Agit-propaganda is the name of the game for me and if you can't do that in 140 or 260 characters then you need to up your game!

I can certainly understand how it can affect people who buy into its toxicity. I feel that now I am in a more stable place, that it is a choice whether to buy into the toxicity of social media or not. You could just post pictures of kittens and paintings as many do.

Your words find their way to their readers along many different paths. Your poetry, prose, plays and novels have been published traditionally, via the small press route, as e-books, piecemeal on social media platforms and through self-publishing. As a very active writer, do you think social media and digital self-publishing are good or bad things - for you personally and for literature in general?

Self-publishing is good for me because I don't do rejection. I have been rejected so many times that I decided, I have something to say, I have a message and I am going to say it. Of course standards slip and just because I think something is good enough it doesn't mean that it is. If it has passed my censor then I am ready to self-publish but the danger then is that unless you promote your self-published work zealously, then it just sits on the digital book shelf gathering the computer equivalent of dust.

Can you tell us a how your involvement with the PORT collection came about, recently published by Dunlin?

Ella and Martin at Dunlin Press put out a call on Instagram for submissions about 'ports' and I thought that it might be a good opportunity to write about the real 'Cardiff Docks' before it became 'Cardiff Bay'. 

I had been writing about my detective character, Ken Frane, in its environs and I felt this was an opportunity to turn fiction into faction. I remembered Cardiff Docks from late 1987 on, before it became Cardiff Bay and associated Barrage in the mid-nineties. Thus 'When a Dock is Booming' was born, the last story in Port, an anthology published in November 2019.

Ah, Ken Frane! What marks Ken aside from other hang-dog detectives? Can you give us a quick summary of how the character came about? 

Challenging question Remy as yours always are! Who should want easy questions apart from politicians? Ken Frane 'hang dog detective' I love that description of him. 

I suppose what marks him out immediately is his age. He's 58, older perhaps than most of his predecessors and contemporaries. Past his best? I think not. He is a man of his 'filltir scwar' and that square mile being the old Cardiff Docks. 

He came about from my subconscious, from my days running a printing business across the road from the old Butetown Police Station. This was before the Cardiff Bay Barrage came into being. There was always something magical, something dangerous, something unsettling about the area. You had to treat the area and it's people with respect. 

Butetown had been punished by the Lynette White case and it was from the ashes of this that Ken Frane appeared many years later. I have to remember back  to being a teenager and reading Agatha Christie and enjoying the Ellery Queen mysteries on the television and very much enjoying playing the detective. 

So, what can people expect when they read a Ken Frane story?

A short sharp hit from a Ken Frane case. I have written two novellas and 11 short stories, so far. Some available on Lulu and the others on Amazon Kindle. They are pretty site-specific cases with adventures occurring in Barmouth, Hay on Wye, Rhuthun, Tregaron, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Eryri and Cardiff Market. At the moment they are more of a story than a mystery to be solved. I'm still working on the craft and exercising my crime fiction muscle. Ken Frane is a work in progress and by no means the finished article.   

Also, picking up on Cardiff Docks, now Bay, do you think the 'Genius Loci' of a place directly affects your writing in terms of subject and cadence? 

I didn't know that there was such a thing as 'Genius Loci' until I went to the Liverpool Everyman Theatre in 2014, where learnt about 'the spirit of place'. I was positively enthused after I heard that it was a 'thing' and also being taught about psycho-geography I thought, 'Eureka', I might even have shouted it out in class.

I immediately left after the class had finished as if pulled by an invisible energy to the Welsh Streets of Toxteth, walking through Prince's Park and past the Prince's Road Church, which was known as the 'Welsh Cathedral'. I'm not really sure why place and a sense of place affects me so much. Perhaps it affects everybody but they don't talk about it as much as me. Most of my writing begins with place and characters and story come later. Sometimes much later and sometimes never at all. Sometimes it remains just Place.

What is the view like from your usual writing place?

“I see the church, I see the people, Your folks and mine happy and smiling, And I can hear sweet voices singing, Ave Maria.” Oops! Those are the lyrics to The Wedding by Julie Rogers. My glibness has surfaced again. Apologies, Remy!

When in Caerdydd, the view is of  Anti-Social Housing, out the back, and when on sojourn in West Wales, the view is of a stunning beech tree.

You just mentioned Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, a couple of mystery writers you enjoyed in your formative years... Who have been your favourite writers since and what have you learned from them?

Charles Bukowski and John Tripp as the poets. I have learnt to ‘say it as it is’ from them. I'm very partial to the ‘In Yer Face’ playwrights of the 1990s and am hoping that this form of anarchic theatre will make a comeback.

When did you realise you were a writer?

When I couldn’t stop writing. when I couldn’t stop filling up notebooks. When I wrote my final play for the Theatre and Drama degree at the University of Glamorgan as a mature student at the age of 28.  I had always had pretensions as a younger person but really after my first degree and then after the MA in Playwriting at the University of Salford completed in 2014 I thought ‘yup this is me, a penniless writer’.

Do you have a writing ritual or regimen?

I don’t have a ritual or regimen. I am one of those rare-common creatures who waits for the muse to strike. To quote the old cliché, you are never ‘not writing’, at least in your head anyway, and fortunately when an idea or concept hits home I get it down. I should have a routine but I don’t and I think that is the difference between a successful and unsuccessful writer. The discipline... I'm in the latter category.

What are the similarities and differences between writing prose, plays and poetry?

The three are the same to me and there is a crossover. I write as I think, a stream of consciousness and if those words and thoughts fit neatly into one of the above definitions, then great, if not, even greater. As a human of this race I have been pushed into boxes that don’t fit me and don’t suit me and likewise my precious babies, my words, I don’t want them boxed into a definition.

What is your beverage of choice when writing?

I gave up the absinthe and balkan sobranie years ago, so now I will have a coffee when the muse strikes and follow it with copious amounts of Yorkshire Tea - Product Placement - throughout the day.

I like mine strong, no sugar, dash of milk... Thank you very much for chatting, David.

Diolch i chi!

David Williams was talking with Remy Dean

if you enjoyed this interview, you can...

find out more about Poetry, Plays and other Stuff by David Williams at his weblog 

and you can buy books by David Williams via his amazon author page 

...follow David Williams on Twitter for news, views and updates

PORT. an anthology from Dunlin Press
"More than places where ships load and unload, ports are points of departure and arrival, places where ‘here’ contacts ‘there’, and where known and unknown meet. The 274-page book includes specially commissioned writing from 38 contributors, and features 20 photographs and illustrations. Geographically, the anthology reaches all corners of the UK and beyond – from giant container ports to small fishing villages, while the breadth of writing and experience in the volume is as diverse as the ports themselves."

Monday 11 November 2019

Searching for Seaglass - an interview with Eloise Williams, Children's Laureate Wales

The Scrawl congratulates author Eloise Williams on being the first Children's Laureate for Wales as she takes up the new ambassadorial post which aims to engage and inspire the children of Wales through literature

Eloise Williams was born in Cardiff and grew up in Llantrisant and is proud of her Welsh working-class roots. She graduated with a BA (Hons) in Drama from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, then a Postgraduate Diploma in Acting from Guildford School of Acting. 

After spending a decade working as an actress she found her writing muse and took up the pen, pursuing her MA in Creative and Media Writing, which she completed with Distinction at Swansea University. Her performance and writing skills make the perfect combination when working with children in schools and libraries.   

Her second novel, Gaslight, was awarded Young People’s Book of the Year 2017 by the Wales Arts Review. This year, her latest book, Seaglass, has been shortlisted for the Welsh Book Council's Tir na nOg Awards and the North East Book Awards...

Eloise Williams, author and Children's Laureate Wales

Eloise Williams talked with Remy Dean for The Scrawl about creativity, education and environment... about reading and writing books, and helping children to love words and find a voice to tell their own stories... 

The Children's Laureate for Wales is a new honour and involves a two-year commitment... So, as the inaugural Laureate, here is a question you are going to be asked often: what does the Children’s Laureate do? 

It’s a good question! I think it’s open to interpretation. I’m going to talk to young people about my love of reading, encourage them to read for pleasure themselves and also get them writing their own stories.

There’s definitely room for more authors in Wales and I want future generations to be enthusiastic about telling their stories in their own voices. I think there’s a bright future for literature in Wales if we can get young people involved.

I’m working with too many children who do not own a single book. We need to be fighting to get more books into schools. There are only 67% of schools in Wales with a designated library space. What message are we giving to young people with this?

Many children don’t know that they can access books for free from a library or that they can request a book. I’m trying to put this right – where libraries are still available. We need to campaign to keep our libraries open, especially in areas of deprivation.

I also believe there’s a real connection between a child meeting an author in ‘real life’ and them wanting to read. I’m hoping that my visits to schools and libraries will encourage them to build connections with other authors once my laureateship is over.

It is a very exciting time in education for Wales. I have been involved with a few projects now, as a Creative Agent and Practitioner for the Arts Council of Wales on their Creative Learning Through the Arts Initiative - sorry for that huge label - and this model is now being recognised globally as a new paradigm. I wonder what you think of the new Curriculum for Wales, which prioritises creative thinking, and if you feel it is relevant to what you will be doing?

Absolutely. I’ve been working as a Creative Practitioner for Arts Council Wales on their Creative Learning through the Arts initiative for the past three years too! I think creative thinking and learning is the way forward. I’ve seen pupils engage in a wide range of subjects which have been taught through the arts in a way which their teachers assure me they haven’t before.

My laureateship is also an opportunity to promote creative thinking. Reading for pleasure is in itself an important part of my message and has, of course, immeasurable benefits on wellbeing, self-knowledge, empathy and literacy. I also want young people to understand that what they are reading will make their imaginations grow in a way which will help them to think more creatively. I truly believe that education isn’t about what you know – it’s about how you think about what you know.

I think the Arts Council initiative really gets young people involved in their own learning and that’s an important element of what I want to convey too.

Gaslight (2017) was the second novel by Eloise Williams

What are your own best and worst memories of school?

I have lots of good memories of primary school and not many at all of secondary! I was (and still am) such a shy person. It is difficult to survive in a place where you are expected to stand up in front of groups of people and join in with group discussions consistently.

I think there’s even more of a sway towards forcing young people to be extrovert today than there was then, and I am gently reminding people that ‘quiet’ doesn’t mean ‘not engaged’ as I go along.
Luckily, I find it lots easier to talk in front of people now than I did when I was younger, but for me it came at a later age and I still have days where nerves get the better of me.

Ironically, the best part of secondary school for me was my drama lessons and performances where I got to hide behind someone else’s words by playing a character. I also enjoyed studying Shakespeare in English. Thankfully, the teachers wisely went for Macbeth and Othello so there was lots of blood, treachery, murder and witchcraft, which kept it interesting for us!

Not really a question, but an observation about the remit to keep every pupil in a class engaged at all times... If I had gone through school with a teacher trying to engage me every second, it would have been hell! 

I think some children need time to wander among their own thoughts and I learnt more that way than when I was actively ‘doing’ in class. This is especially the case, I think, when trying to engender ‘creativity’ within children. This may be the difference between being an intro and extro -vert. This is something the David Lynch Foundation has taken on, with pushing schools to introduce quiet meditation space into the timetable... and one good thing about reading is, with a book in front of you, you can look engaged whilst thinking your own thoughts, too!

Agreed! This is also true of when a teacher is reading aloud to the class, I think. Time to let your thoughts wander. If I wasn’t a daydreamer, I wouldn’t be a writer. I spent lots of my school time looking out of the window and imagining.

One thing about creativity, I find, is that one mode benefits from another – I write and paint and walk, as well as writing creatively, I write critically about film and media… do you do any other art or creative thing that feeds into your writing? 

Not at the moment! I don’t have time! I do walk a lot and that gives me lots of new ideas and creative energy. I also sing around the house and often accidentally out loud when I’m walking. My husband is an artist so you can sometimes find oil-paintings drying in the oven – I do intend to have a splodge one day.

…and whilst on creativity and writing, some say that long-hand involves different parts and processes in the brain, so, which do you favour and if you do use both long-hand and keyboard, at what stages to they dominate?

I start with long-hand. I make notes, maps, character outlines, write down interesting themes or words which I’d like to include in a story. When I have a fair idea of the world I’m trying to create. I switch to using a laptop. I can type more quickly than I can write, and my thoughts come in really quickly so it’s a more effective way to keep up. My stories take a lot of editing after I’ve completed a first draft and I’ll often go back to my handwritten notes to help me with that.

What age group do you think of as your typical readers, and what were you reading at their age?

I don’t think of an age group as my typical readers. Children’s books are for everyone!

When I was younger, I read lots of different authors. C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Tolkien to start with and then I quickly moved from there to Stephen King and Shirley Conran in my early teens. It was quite a leap. 

So, how do you deal with publishers and booksellers asking what grade or age-group a book is for?

I let the publisher deal with that. I didn’t even know what middle-grade meant when I started writing. I just wrote.

Now I try not to think about it. My main protagonist is usually around the 11-13 age and that’s where I place my stories, in that protagonist’s world. If that means the story is middle-grade then great. It doesn’t stop my Nan reading it, and she's 94.

What is your earliest memory of reading a book that really drew you in and transported you into its world?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the book which had the biggest effect on me as a child. The idea that there could be another world through a portal as ordinary as a wardrobe completely blew my mind. It had an effect on me which has lasted for about forty years.

My husband recently pointed out to me that every holiday I want to go on consists of large forests and snowy landscapes. There’s a reason for that.

Can you tell us about a few of your favourite writers and what you have learned from them?

There are so many writers who are favourites and have influenced me.

Everything I’ve read has taught me something. Maya Angelou taught me to be honest. Stephen King’s book On Writing taught me to get on with it.

The children’s writers who have influenced me are too long to list I’m delighted to say. Hundreds of them.

Becoming the first Children’s Laureate for Wales is quite an accolade and I should think feels like quite a responsibility! How has this new commitment affected your attitude to writing and your follow-up books for children? 

It is a wonderful and brilliant thing. I am thrilled to have been selected and yes, it does feel like a responsibility. However, I’m not letting it change the way I write, or the stories I tell.

I’m always influenced by the young people I work with so that might have an effect on future stories, but I’m not consciously going to change anything at all.

I think there’s a real danger with writing to follow the trend but by the time you get there the trend will have moved on. I’m going to carry on writing the stories which speak to me and ask me to tell them.

Has talking directly to young people sparked a story for you?

Yes, but I’m not telling you what it is because it’s in the long-hand note stage and I don’t want to kill the spark!

Can you recall when you first 'woke-up' to being a writer?

I didn’t really give it much thought until I was in my thirties. I’ve always worked creatively and had been an actor and theatre practitioner for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until I was feeling stunted creatively and looking for a new outlet that I thought about writing.

I enrolled on the MA in Creative and Media Writing at Swansea University to give it a go and eventually graduated with Distinction. It wasn’t an easy time and I received a warning at one point to tell me I was in danger of being asked to leave the course because I was missing too many workshops – I had to work to find the money to fund my studies and live at the same time – but it was worth it in the end.

It gave me some of the confidence to believe I could make a go of it. The confidence is still a rollercoaster. Highs and lows all over the place. I lose it weekly!

I’ve noticed a lot of MA assignments specify they must ‘not be written for children’. What was the attitude to those writing for children on the MA course? 

Writing for children wasn’t covered by the MA course at that time. I don’t know if it is now. I didn’t start writing for children until I’d finished the course, so I have no training as such in how to do it, I simply wanted a challenge.

There wasn’t an attitude towards people writing for children as nobody - as far as I know - was doing it. There is though, I think generally, an attitude that writing for children is somehow easier. I often getting people telling me how they’d like to write a ‘nice little book’ like I have. I wish them luck! I think it’s much harder to write for children than for adults for many reasons.

Do you have a writing ritual or regimen? 

No. I wish I did because it might make me more reliable.

If I’m working at home, I get up and write. Then I go to bed. That’s it!

I’ve tried rituals to make me feel more like a writer. They don’t. They just help with procrastination.

Is there a favourite tipple or treat when writing?

Tea to the point of heart palpitations. Then water.

If you have a usual space where you write, can you describe what you can see from there?

I write wherever I am, but I do have a writing room with a view of a Lebanon cedar tree and a sea glimpse.

It’s a messy space and I share it with my dog, Watson Jones. He can see the occasional squirrel passing by which always causes chaos and eventual earache.


Your website shows pictures of you and Watson enjoying the local sea shores and landscape of Pembrokeshire, how do you think environment affects how you write or what you write about?

I am hugely inspired by my surroundings. For some of my books I’ve used them specifically. In Seaglass, for example, I walked the local area a lot before starting on the story and made lists of all the details using my senses to bring the landscape to life. The landscape really is almost a character in that story.

For Elen’s Island, I stayed on Caldey Island for three nights to get a good feel for the place and also visited Skomer several times.

Gaslight was slightly different because it’s set in the Victorian era, but I spent lots of time living in Cardiff, so I know it well and revisited many of the places I included in the story.

My next book is in an imaginary Welsh valley so that was a different experience again. Still heavily inspired by place though. It includes the Sgwyd yr Eira waterfall and takes its names and inspiration from the South Wales Valleys.

How do you decide and settle into the story to write next, do you have too many ideas crowding your creativity, or is it a matter of waiting and listening carefully to the muse? 

Thankfully, I have lots of ideas for stories. Perhaps too many. Settling on a specific story is so much more difficult than coming up with ideas for me.

Do you consult your editors, or your muse, to decide a priority?

When I first started writing I just let the muse decide but now I ask my agent. She gives me a good indication of whether she thinks the story has ‘legs’. Having said that, if I felt passionately enough about a story, I’d write it anyway.

What, if any, do you think are the duties or responsibilities of a writer, in general, and one that writes for children and young adults, in particular?

Write the best story you can, as creatively and truthfully as you can. That’s the key, I think. If you are working with an editor and a publisher, they will let you know if you’ve gone wrong.

I think there’s a definite danger of writing in a patronising way when creating stories for children. My advice on that is don't! 

What next from Eloise Williams that we should be looking out for?

Wilde comes out with Firefly Press in May 2020. It’s about a girl who is afraid of being who she truly is. Wilde is desperate to be normal and fit in at her new school. But in the middle of a fierce heatwave, when a school play wakes up the old, local legends of a witch called Winter. When ‘The Witch’ starts leaving other pupils frightening messages, can Wilde find the truth and break the curse? Or will she always be the outcast? All she knows is that being different can be dangerous!

Thank you, Eloise Williams, our Children's Laureate!

Eloise Williams was talking with Remy Dean

if you enjoyed this interview, you can... 

for news and updates, see the official Eloise Williams website 

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books by Eloise Williams are published in Wales by Firefly

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Tuesday 22 October 2019

Living in a Land of Legends - an interview with Andrew Jenkin

Andrew Jenkin is a professional artist, illustrator and author. His pictures have been exhibited internationally, and in 2012 he was was shortlisted for Artist of the Year, by Artist & Illustrators magazine. 

The first book that he has both written and illustrated was The Curse of the Lambton Worm, about dragon folklore in the North-East of England. An exhibition of the original illustrations from the book toured venues in the North-East  and  he was invited by the Akron Fossils & Science Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, to exhibit his illustrations and research from the book. He has also illustrated two books about Honley, the West Yorkshire village where he grew up, and has recently illustrated Tapestry, a children’s fairy-tale written by Richard King. 
His latest book, The Legends and History of Castle Hill, Huddersfield, also deals with the folklore and history of a particular place.

Andrew is also enthusiastic about teaching art and hosts regular watercolour classes in North Wales, and monthly workshops in West Yorkshire. Before moving to Wales in 2010, he was Head Tutor and Studio Manager at North Light Gallery Art School in Huddersfield.

Andrew talked to Remy Dean about words and pictures, curses and Camelot...

Andrew Jenkin, author and artist
Tell us a little about your previous book, The Curse of the Lambton Worm. How and why did that come about?

I attended a series of workshops with a government-funded organisation called CIDA (Creative Industries Development Agency – I don’t think they exist anymore). They were really enthusiastic about artists getting their work into galleries, and gave me a ‘just do it’ mentality.

I had previously worked with an art gallery in Washington (near Sunderland) which was situated yards from where the events of the legend of the Lambton Worm were supposed to have taken place. It was a legend I had known since childhood, so I enjoyed researching its background. An exhibition of my illustrations connected with the legend was given the green light, and this in turn led to the book.

The Curse of the Lambton Worm by Andrew Jenkin
Your latest book is also concerned with folklore. Tell us about that and how is it similar or different?

The new book, The Legends & History of Castle Hill, Huddersfield, explores the stories which surround an old hillfort near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, which is where I grew up.

It is similar to the Lambton Worm book in that it seeks to find some truth or explanation for some very strange legends – in other words, how did these stories start? It draws on literature, landscape features and history to piece together the puzzles and provide an explanation.

It is different because it goes through almost every era, right back to the Neolithic, and is a hotchpotch of different legends. The Lambton Worm book was connected to landscape features, such as Worm Hill and Lambton Castle, but concentrated on only one legend - probably medieval.

You’re a professional artist and provide illustrations for your books – what, if any, are the links between these two creative formats – the visual and the textual?

I usually have an overall idea for the illustrations, or perhaps one really striking image, which will help with the tone and mood of the text.

I always have to get the text right first, because I work mainly in watercolours, so once I’m committed to an image, there’s no changing it and no going back!

Illustrating in watercolour is completely the opposite to writing, which benefits from revision and refinement – if a watercolour is re-worked or altered, it loses its original vitality, so you only get one chance with the paint.

Do you find that the artist’s eye and way of looking helps to capture a sense of place in writing?

As an artist, I probably think too logically about the image in front of me, or the image in my head if it’s an illustration – what is the composition, where are the lights and darks, what are the colours?

As a writer, I would be thinking much more about atmosphere and mood before putting pen to paper. Having said that, most of my writing is fairly factual, so the logic starts to filter back in once I’ve started.

What is your writing process like? 

I usually work out a rough outline first, then every few days I scribble something onto a scrap of paper, Once the pile of scraps is big enough, it all gets transferred onto my computer, and the hard work commences - a slow process of building the text, then going through draft after draft until it’s right. Some sentences come straight away, but some can be re-written a dozen times before I’m happy with it.

What time of day suits you best?

Evening work suits me best, mainly due to daytime commitments, but also I find that the later it gets, the more ‘free’ my thinking and writing becomes.

What is it about the subjects of your books that interested and inspired you to write about them?

I have always been interested in history and legends; I have a degree in History and Ancient History, and I suppose I’m still studying.

There is a pub near Sunderland called the Lambton Worm, which I visited as a boy. I was fascinated by the pub-sign, which depicted a knight clad in spiked armour, with a serpent-dragon coiled around him. I am still fascinated by it.

I grew up in one of the villages beneath Castle Hill, so I saw it every day for the best part of twenty years. I remember reading an old Council pamphlet about the legends, which seemed oddly out-of-place in an industrial town in West Yorkshire, and really sparked my interest. The new book is my own version of that pamphlet.

I guess it’s the idea that there is much more to life than what we see around us, we are surrounded by the spirit of our ancestors and our own imaginations – it’s not just a hill, it’s the hill where such-and-such happened. It makes life much more interesting!

Colourful Camelot illustration for Andrew Jenkin's new book
How aware of your audience are you when writing and who would be your ‘typical reader’?

I am aiming to write books for my ten-year-old self – the boy who was fascinated by the Lambton Worm pub-sign, and who read the Castle Hill pamphlet in disbelief.

However dry the history, and, on occasions, cynical the explanations, I would always be very careful not to kill the original excitement and weirdness of the legends.

Do you have a favourite book of all time, or one that you have re-read or return to often?

In my mid-twenties I read Handbook for the Urban Warrior by Barefoot Doctor (aka Stephen Russell), and it completely changed my whole outlook on life. The book is a very modern and accessible introduction to ancient Eastern mysticism and Taoism. I re-read this book, and others by the same author, on a regular basis, and always refer back to them when I have any kind of problem.

Who have been your favourite authors and artists – what have you learned from them?

Favourite artists would definitely include the Pre-Raphaelites, from the painstakingly detailed technical side of what they were doing - although I wouldn’t have the patience! ...and also for their subject matter. I also love the pen-and-ink illustrations of Arthur Rackham, again for technical brilliance and subject matter.

These artists took years perfecting their art, and their high levels of skill and craftsmanship shine through the work.

I don’t have one particular favourite author, but would probably choose an ‘old classic’ over a contemporary writer - apologies to all contemporary writers!

I’m still stumbling through The Mabinogion, which I’ve been reading on-and-off for several years now (since moving to Wales in 2010 in fact!) and still have a long way to go. I love legends, but these are a bit heavy!

If you could time-travel, what historic personage would you like to meet and what question would you ask them?

It would have to be King Arthur, or whoever was most closely linked with this half-historical, half-legendary figure.

I’m not sure exactly what I’d say to him - “Do you exist?” - but that’s a period of history which I would love to learn more about. Unfortunately we probably never will, because for those two hundred years, circa 400-600 AD, everybody was too busy fighting or fleeing to write anything down.

Archaeological evidence is helping to provide some clues, and it may be that some future as-yet-uninvented method of investigation brings more answers…

If he’s ruled out as a fictional character, then I’ll go for a round table discussion - sorry - with Ambrosius Aurelianus, Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa.

I would like to sit in on that! 

Thank you, Andrew.

Andrew Jenkin was talking with Remy Dean

For more about the art of Andrew Jenkin, 

...and here is more about The Lambton Worm book

Friday 21 June 2019

High Hopes for the Hopeless - an interview with Tom Brown

Where and what is Hopeless, Maine

So far, it has manifested as a webcomic, a paperback and interactive weblog, before becoming a series of luscious graphic novels and is still growing, currently in the process of being developed as a roleplaying game, a tarot deck, a cuddly ‘spoonwalker’… It has become a many-tentacled beautiful beast and grown into forms that creators Tom and Nimue Brown had not envisaged when they first created the island as a refuge in imagination and settled there to live... 

Tom and Nimue Brown in the middle of Hopeless, Maine

Comic creator, Tom Brown kindly gives Remy Dean a guided tour of the island and chats about steampunk, demons, poetry and pictures. 

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine.

REMY: I know you have been asked this before, but here at Scrawl we are interested in process, so how does the creative collaboration between you and Nimue generally work out? 

TOM: “Well, there’s perhaps less ‘generally’ for us than there is for most for a start. We started out on opposite sides of the Atlantic which put some restrictions on how we could work together. At that point it was Nimue doing the writing and me doing the art, pretty much across the board.

“We would have ‘What if?’ and ‘What even is this?’ conversations a lot. Now, as we work at the same table, things have evolved - and continue to change. Nimue now hand-colours the pages, and though the script for the series has been written for years, we still tinker with each volume as we work on it, and there is the question of what do we do with the chapter covers and two page spreads. They’re always present and used to tell another story, augmenting or filling-in detail to provide information that is not in the scripted pages.

“It's back and forth, really, and though the script is already written, things evolve. For example, I needed some eye candy for a background on a two-page spread, and I drew a giant decaying Victorian industrial site. We then wondered what this was, and how it fit into the history of the island. Nimue ‘discovered’ that this was the abandoned Great Oceanic Gnii refinery.”

OK, for the uninitiated, can you explain what Gnii are?

“Gnii are tentacled creatures native to the island. They lash themselves to bits of stone, often gravestone, and put a lit candle on top to fill their gossamer balloon and float in the skies over the island. Great Oceanic Gnii are their behemoth cousins which no longer visit the island as they have no wish to be pressed for their oil!”

Sometimes, there is a lot going on, visually, in the backgrounds… Do words disappear from the script as the pictures take over telling the stories, so you find you can then strip back the text? 

“Not often, no. Nimue has a very tight writing style and usually the only things edited out of the script are scenes - which though lovely - are not necessary to the plot, or don't move things forward.

“Nimue's original scripts are like scripts for a radio play with little setting information in them, as she relied on me mostly at that point, for the visual ideas. Now that we’re working together in the same place, we sit down and work out the thumbnail drawings for the pages and figure out settings and visual details as we go.”

Hopeless, Maine Book Two: Sinners

Many writers use visual stimulus to spark story ideas - are there images that come to you, including those from within imagination, that then just have to be worked into the story? 

“Yes! Easiest example of that - aside from the time that I did the cover before Nimue had even started the script. Erm... is coming to the UK and seeing teasels for the first time. It became obvious that they belonged on the island, where they became teaselheads... Buildings, landscapes, people, graveyards, that we find interesting or moving usually end up getting into the story, in one way or another.”

The dialogue has a really lovely, sparse rhythm to it and unlike many comics, the characters seem to establish their own distinct voices very quickly. Do you act out the speech and develop the characters in a kind of roleplay ‘rehearsal’ or are they lifted from other sources, like real people or favourite characters in TV shows?

“The truth is that these are people who live in our heads, and Nimue just ‘hears’ them and writes it down. The sparse rhythm may be partly explained by Nimue's interest in flash fiction. She also studies people and thinks a lot about language-use and… pretty much everything. In this way, she’s really working all of the time. Even when asleep!

Is there a typical ‘routine’ to writing days?

“The short answer is, no. We are easily bored creatures and are constantly finding new ways of working.”

Where do you generally write and draw?

“All of the actual ‘work’ happens here, in the flat.”

Do you go on research visits, or do you ever seek out certain environments in which to write?

“We walk for pleasure, and transport, and we frequently do long walks on weekends - 12 to 20 miles… This gives us plenty of input and inspiration, as well as a chance to discuss things as they come up.”

How was the narrow-boat as a studio?

“Bloody awful!

“It was damp, there was no reliable internet, electricity had to come from wind, solar, or running the engine - which I had to do while scanning pages - the boat moved constantly and violently when a large plastic boat came by. I was using watercolours at that point, because computer colouring used too much electricity. When the boat was shoved about, the brush would slip and I would mutter ‘alright, those can be crows, then’.”

OK, so why Maine? 

“Much of the inspiration for the setting comes from my growing up and spending most of my life in Maine, and I have stored up enough from that to keep me going for some time.

“I absorbed the folklore, history, landscape and sense of the place on a deep level, consciously and unconsciously. There is a sort of literary tradition of strange tales set in New England and that was the water that I wanted to swim in.

“I spent much of my life walking the woods, coast and graveyards of Maine - and decorated my home with gravestone rubbings. The setting is really a central character in Hopeless, Maine. Nimue came to visit me there before I moved to marry her, and she was able to see some of the charm and strangeness of the place.”

Artwork for the forthcoming Hopeless Maine Role-playing Game,
the pencils and coloured stages of production... click image for more info

You get the H P Lovecraft comparison quite a bit, which I see as a good thing, but I’m feeling resonances with other media too – and you have name-dropped Clive Barker. You are now dabbling in transmedia storytelling with some music and purely prose stories on the way. Who have been your favourite creatives and what have you learnt from them? 

“I'm glad you mention the music crossover. One of our early fellow travellers has been Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys - one of our favourite bands of all time-ever! I feel that we have sort of evolved together from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Walter has even written and recorded a Hopeless, Maine song - which will have to be part of the soundtrack if there is ever any sort of film treatment of the story. Walter has also done a drawing of Sal which appeared in The Gathering. We take a lot of inspiration from them! Also, Barry Dodd's crew who produced Maine-set web-series Ragged Isle. Which has been compared to Twin Peaks.

“There has been a fair amount of creative DNA swapping between us and mutual support.

“Hiyao Miyazaki has had a serious impact on us. Also, the folklore of the UK, and folk music in general are very much part of Nimue's creative life - and mine. Finding the Steampunk community has certainly influenced us in all sorts of ways and given us another place where we can be ourselves in community. I could make a nearly endless list of other comics and other sorts of creators we admire. Edward Gorey is probably a grandfather of tradition for us.”

To me it doesn’t seem a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie books – bear with me here – I’m thinking the historical backdrop, and the darker side of things… Their little homestead is beset with troubles and disasters, plagues of locusts, diseases that leave lasting damage… and similarly, it seems there is a sort of real historical backdrop to Hopeless that places it within a sort of American idea of the past.

“Absolutely. I have already mentioned my immersion in New England history and culture, and Nimue has read and studied Hawthorne. I wanted to do some sort of thing in that tradition, but updated. Also, as way of looking at human experience in general.

“Immersion for me, and reading victorian literature for Nimue. We do go poking around into New England folklore still from time to time, just because it's fascinating stuff!”

Welcome to... Hopeless, Maine

So, how have your interests in folklore and magic fed into the stories – do you strive to be true to the research, or is it all simply made up? I think I spotted allusions to witch-bottles and witch-balls? But what of the ‘creatures’ and ‘demons’?

“Well, we are both Druids, and so, have a wealth of information to borrow from. We have a lot of Wiccan friends and Nimue works for a Pagan publishing house. No shortage of magical thought in our environment! The creatures and demons are largely made up but are the sort of things that we think would be out there in this setting. The sort of things you might see out of the corner of your eye, if you will.

“Well spotted on the witch balls! I'm just strangely fascinated by bottles for no readily apparent reason."

Do you have a Hopeless Maine bible?

“No. Though as there is now a Hopeless, Maine RPG, Travels in Hopeless by Keith Healing. There has been some discussion of whether or not there might need to be something along those lines in the future. This also gives me a chance to talk about the fact that we have opened up the island to other creatives and have a growing creative tribe.

“On our website, the Hopeless, Vendetta, there are regular columns, art and all manner of offerings from people who have come to play in our rather strange playground. Nimue's father Martin Pearson brings us regular Tales from the Squid and Teapot – the Hopeless, Maine “local”, and another series of tales by Keith Errington is soon to be collected into an illustrated prose book that will, hopefully, be the first in a series of such things.

“There have been stories on the Vendetta which have been inspired by other tales and inventions by other authors on the site, to the point where some of them contain only things that we had no hand in whatsoever!”

Dead dogs don't die...

How did the visual style come about – is this just what looks cool to you, or is there a conscious Dark Kawaii approach?

“I had already drawn all of the first book of Hopeless, Maine, and then I discovered Manga. I knew I needed some of that style in the visual mix. Face stylisation especially, but other elements as well. It was a very conscious decision. Also, Blade of The Immortal was a revelation because it showed that finished comics work could be in pencil.

“Otherwise, I just sort of wander off on my own, or rather now, we wander on our own, as Nimue has become part of the art team and hand-colours all of the pages and has an equal – at least – part in the visual storytelling decisions. I see new things literally every day that influence current and future art for Hopeless, Maine.”

I’m a hardcore horror aficionado, an old goth, and it really appealed to me, but my 14-year-old daughter also enjoyed the comics – her other favourite comic universe being My Little Pony… Who do you think of as your typical reader whilst you are creating?

“People, and others - we like to be inclusive!

“We're mostly making the sort of thing we would want to read. I think it's dangerous to imagine an audience too clearly. You may end up doing some sort of box-ticker that has no real life of its own that way. We do think of some of our friends while doing certain scenes and put in things that we think will please them, but only if it's fun.”

I feel that the poetic often lies outside words, and I have often found truly poetic moments in films and in music that do not have any dialogue or lyric – but I maintain they derive from a form of writing. In Hopeless Maine, there are definitely poetic moments, but I feel they are not solely in the images or the words… do you know what I’m talking about? I’m on a quest to explore what ‘the poetic’ is and would like to hear any thoughts you have on this.

“What an utterly gorgeous comment-question! That is pretty much exactly what we are setting out to achieve. Poetry, is, among other things, a way of getting across something that is more than is, or can be, contained in words. The whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, a distillation of life, dreams, and experience. We are very interested in the numinous, it's the well that we draw from, and if some of that comes though, that is serious success for us.”

Hopeless Maine Book Three: Victims

Volume 3, Victims is imminent, so without giving too much away, what else can we expect to come out of Hopeless Maine in the near future? Such as those transmedia spin-offs…

“The Hopeless, Maine RPG is now in print. We may do a kickstarter for a deluxe edition this year. The series of illustrated prose, I mentioned above, including two Novellas from Nimue, a Tarot deck is nearly complete. I'm the bottleneck here. Apologies to Laura Perry who has created something really amazing and so very much in the spirit of the setting.

“Our next Small Strange Book For People - tiny books which can be sent as cards if people desire, will be “How To Find Hopeless, Maine” by Meredith Debonnaire, which I will decorate with singing snails and similar strangeness.

“We are hoping that the Hopeless, Maine music scene will continue to grow. It is very likely that there will be a HM themed album from Madeline Harwood next year, which will join Utterly Hopeless by Johnny Benson, the Hopeless, Maine song from Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys and the Hopeless, Maine track Professor Elemental wrote and performed. It's on his Nervous EP. The Role Play game continues to grow with scenarios and other extra tentacles. I'm sure there will be more than this. We seem to be in rather a fertile period, just now."

Thank you, Tom Brown, for your time and a lovely chat! 
Hopeless, Manie is my kinda place...

“Thank you! This has been rather a lot of fun!”

Tom Brown was talking to Remy Dean

if you enjoyed this interview, you can...

Hopeless Maine is published by Sloth Comics

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