Saturday, 27 August 2016

Angie Sage & The Magnificent Seven

Blur or Oasis?

Harry or Septimus? 

Both seem to have their equally fervent and loyal fan-bases, but there is, of course, plenty of overlap in their readership. The Septimus Heap books have enough darke doom and peril to veer towards the gothic aspects of Harry Potter, yet enough wacky weirdness to steer them along the borders of Gormenghast grotesque. Even the Dickensian character names, evoke Peake’s world - Titus Groan could, believably, live down the street from the Heaps - no relation to Uriah?  

The main arc follows the story of a boy growing up and finding out that he has unusual magical talents and then embarking on special training as apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand. Along the way, he befriends a dog, a message rat, a boggart, a boat that was once a dragon, and a dragon who was once a stone… and there are witches and ghosts, and quake ooze brownies… well, enough said – this is Fantasy. 

As a rule, the Septimus Heap series manages to avoid many of the usual Fantasy genre pitfalls. It does not often get bogged down in merely describing the made-up world we are drawn into – if there are secret passages in the castle walls, then those secret passages will have a narrative role to play. If a character wears shoes made from purple python skin, then this detail will help to reveal relations between characters and establish a back-story. No gore or gratuitous cruelty, but a peppering of peril and suspense. We are not made to revel in nastiness, although the villains are rather nasty – and there are moments of genuine ‘horror’, but usually tempered with a light touch of humour to follow. It is probably the humour, and unbridled imagination, that elevates these books above much of the current fantasy fair foisted upon young adults.

Angie Sage, creator of Septimus Heap
Angie Sage has been writing the world of Septimus Heap for over twelve years and the series comprises of seven (that is 7) Septimus Heap novels. Plus a trilogy of sequel stories, the Todhunter Moon books. Oh, and two companion volumes - one of short stories and the other is a sort of ‘guide book’… So that is a dozen in as many years! Plus! The Araminta Spook series, for younger readers.

Araminta Spook a fun and spooky series of books...
Angie Sage talked to Remy Dean about her writing, suitably starting off with some Septimus questions:

They say there are only seven basic plots – and that Shakespeare already did them all. Fittingly, there were seven books in the Septimus sequence, but now there is an eighth in The Darke Toad, and in a way the story continues with the Todhunter Moon books. How do you hope to keep your ideas fresh and avoid repetition?

What I love about writing a series is that with each book I get to know the characters a little better. Also I can build on the things that have happened in previous books so I hope I’m able to write more complex situations and characters too. I’m not sure how it works, but that seems to be enough to keep ideas fresh and interesting. I don’t do a lot of plotting – apart from a few way points plus the ending - as I find it best to get ideas from the characters and the situations they are in. I think that keeps things interesting too.

Did you know you were going to write so many related stories in such an epic trajectory? …and did you have a planned-out arc for all the books? If so, how similar or different are the final results to that planned arc?

I was planning on writing a trilogy! But the world just kind of grew and so many interesting people began to arrive in it. So why leave? I didn’t have an arc planned at all, I felt it was a bit like life really. It was just going to happen and I’d do my best to make it interesting.

What location research did you find necessary? I ask because it seems the Badlands may have been inspired by where I live – in Blaenau Ffestiniog! Have you ever visited?

I did draw quite a lot from where I was living at the time I wrote Magyk – near a creek in Cornwall. So that is definitely where the Marram Marshes come from, especially the muddy bits at the end of the creek when the tide goes out. Also the little channels that are left. I did take a canoe along them and managed to get stuck and thought at the time how great it would be if they actual went somewhere exciting.

The Castle was an amalgamation of all the castles I’ve visited and made into the kind of place I would like to live. Quite a bit of wish-fulfillment there, I think.

And yes, the Badlands are indeed all those slate quarries around Blaenau Ffestiniog! I went there years and years ago as a kid and it has stayed with me. I actually loved the place and thought it was so atmospheric.

…and the characters that inhabit these environments, where do they come from?

People … I am really not sure where they come from. I don’t consciously base them on anyone I know. They just arrive, usually complete with their names, which is very convenient.

Which character has the most Angie Sage in them?

Well … I suspect I am a peculiar mixture of Marcia, Septimus and Beetle. If you’re going for only one, then it has to be Marcia. Of course.

Was DomDaniel originally named ‘Daniel Doom’ in the first draft?

I got the name DomDaniel from the wonderful Roget’s Thesaurus. I looked up synonyms for ‘Hell’ and there it was. I do like the idea of Daniel Doom though.

The Septimus Heap story is epic Fantasy
I have been reading quite a bit of Fantasy for children and YA recently (as father of an eleven-year-old) and find that there is often what seems to be needless horror, cruelty and gory gruesomeness. Do you have any thoughts on such content? Because, in your own writing, you achieve suspense without resorting to such techniques, relying on the horror being recounted by a character – which then adds an emotional dimension – or laced with humour, occasionally bordering on slapstick…

I had no idea how hard-core some of the new stuff could be until I shared an event with another author and read her book. I was really shocked by the content and actually had to stop reading. I know I’m a bit squeamish about violence and cruelty but this seemed to revel in the nastiness. So yes, I know what you mean. And I think it is a great shame. Because I feel there is a danger that young readers can become hardened to these things and lose their emotional response to real suffering.

I’ve had some criticism for diluting the nasty stuff in Septimus with humour because it takes the edge off it. But it does mean that you can create a greater shock with the occasional nasty incident: like Marcellus cutting off Merrin’s thumb. Sometimes less is more…

Do you think there is a difference between fantasy written by men and women?

I’m not sure as I honestly don’t read fantasy! I love writing about different worlds but what really interests me is the people who live in them. But is that because I’m a woman? Hmm …

Did you even consider gendered pseudonyms - such as 'Andy Sage'? 

It didn’t occur to me at the time but now I do wish I had just stuck to initials. I think some boys are put off reading something by a female writer. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I have plans for a YA/adult trilogy and I intend to be just A.A. Sage for that.

When is your best writing time? 

I write best first thing in the morning before the day starts to get complicated.

Do you listen to music as you write?

Unfortunately, I find music distracting, much as I would love to listen to it.

Do you write long-hand and then key it in?

I just can’t think in longhand and I only began to write when I got my first computer. Once I’ve started on a book properly I make a schedule with a word count target for every day. If I don’t do that then it just doesn’t get done. I try to write 1000 words a day and write straight onto my laptop.

How conscious of targeting your audience are you during the writing stages?

I’m not really conscious of it when I am actually writing, but there are things—sex and violence basically—that I won’t write about as the books do need to be suitable for nine years upwards. However, I’m quite happy to put in stuff that maybe will be a little over the heads of the younger readers, but will be appreciated by older ones. There has to be something for the grown-ups too! And many fans who re-read the series in their late teens tell me they see so much more in it when they are older, which I’m really pleased about.

Are you allowed to say anything more about possible screen adaptations of the books?

We sold the film rights to Septimus Heap to Warner Brothers it must be about seven years ago now. There was quite a lot of development work at the time but then it just got dropped. And that’s about it, sad to say. I think it happens to a lot of books. I do think that such a complex world is pretty difficult to make into a film, however, I am convinced that it would be a brilliant TV series. The Septimus Heap box set is something I would love to see. However, all that rests with Warner Brothers…

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

I think that has to be Titus Groan by Mervin Peake. It was the weirdest world I had ever come across. The world was so immersive and the characters were compelling too.

Sir Christopher Lee as Flay in the BBC adaptation of Gorermenghast (2000)
- click picture above to read the exclusive Scrawl interview with him -
What were you reading when you were the age of your readership?

It was a long time ago now so these are going to seem rather ancient.

When I was age of my younger readers it was E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Gouge, Rosemary Sutcliffe. And yes, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven too. Also anything by Arthur Conan Doyle. And lots of myths and legends: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Greek and Roman...

There wasn’t so much aimed at young teens then, so I pretty much went straight onto grown-up stuff. I read a real mixture of everything: John Wyndham, Alistair McLean, Dostoevsky, Evelyn Waugh, the lot.

When did you think, ‘not only am I a reader, I am going to be a writer’?

There was never a moment really. It just crept up on me. But I now realise I have always read books with half on eye on how they were written. And did used to wonder if it was something I could ever do.

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

I read mainly literary and historical fiction, - I never read fantasy - but sometimes good sci-fi. Favourite authors at the moment would include, Rose Tremain, Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson.

However, I am like a goldfish when it comes to books - apart from a few favourites - I find I’ve forgotten them five minutes later. I guess that comes of reading too many, too fast. This makes it hard to say exactly what I’ve learnt from whom, but I think I’ve just soaked up stuff over the years…Overall, the most important thing I’ve learnt for my writing is that it is the characters who tell the story.

After a long and successful writing career, do you have any tips or in-a-nut-shell words of wisdom you can share with aspiring writers of fantasy?

Find your own world! And, I guess, don’t read the competition. And if you do, don’t worry about it. Everyone has their own story to tell.

Thank you very much, Angie Sage!

Thank you – for some subtle and thought provoking questions.

Angie Sage was talking with Remy Dean.

For more news, up-dates and info, check out the official Angie Sage website

Monday, 22 August 2016

P J Roscoe - Brought to Book

What was the first book you can remember reading that really grabbed you and carried you along?

Probably the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. I was about seven and my older brother, by two years, had the whole series and I remember watching him reading them and re-reading them once he’d finished. So I picked one up and never looked back! It brought us closer together as children as we’d act out the stories – I was always George! I loved how the mystery unfolded and of course, the baddies were always caught!

Do you have a favourite book, or one that you have re-read a few times?

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabalden. I have read this book at least ten times over twenty years! It has everything I love – Scotland, Highlanders, magic, standing stones and a good love story. Now they have made it into a series called Outlander on television. This is the first in the series. The first three are fantastic, but sadly, it’s gone on too long now and the story moved to America, which lost my interest. So, in my head, the characters moved to America and that was that!

P J Roscoe - looking to the past for the future...
What was the most recent book you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

An Unhallowed Grave by Kate Ellis. I met her at a book evening. I’d never read a murder mystery before but I love watching Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple, so I gave it a go. It was very similar to watching Midsomer Murders, except reading the story instead of watching it! Very easy to ‘see’ the characters playing out the scenes and although I guessed the ending, it was still a good book.

Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

Barbara Erskine has always been a favourite, along with Diana Gabalden for fictional books, but mainly I read non-fiction as I haven’t had the time to read novels, so dipping into informative books or spiritual magazines have become the norm.

Lovely frocks! The television adaptation of Diana Gabalden's Outlander series
I’m not sure I learned anything from the authors, though a review of Echoes, by a local bookshop gave me the biggest compliment by saying, ‘This book is perfect for Barbara Erskine fans!’ So, perhaps on a sub-conscious level I picked up something?

Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried and tested process?

No! I don’t really have that luxury. I have a child with special needs, so I can only write when she is at school. She goes in her taxi, I walk the dog, grab a large coffee and get to work for a few hours, quick lunch, then back at it, until half hour before child comes home to prepare myself to change from writer back to Mum!

I don’t aim to write a particular amount per day - Monday to Friday - and I keep weekends free, unless editing and there’s a time limit. Along with writing and researching, I’m answering e-mails, getting out there in social media land, interviews and general stuff.

Did you ponder the ‘first name or initials’ decision and was the choice of P J to avoid gender prejudices? 

It was always going to be P J Roscoe. When I first began, I considered being elusive and mysterious and no one ever knowing who I was! I liked the idea of my readers never knowing if I was male or female, but that quickly fell by the roadside as I did interviews and pictures were needed! I use Paula J Roscoe for my faerie books to distinguish between my adult, supernatural thrillers that have sex and violence, and those aimed at young readers.

You have written two books for ‘grown-ups’ and one for younger children… how does your approach and/or frame of mind differ when writing for these different audiences? 

I’m not sure anything changes. I wrote Echoes many years ago, before my daughter was born, then it was placed in a drawer for years until I finally pulled it out again.

Adventure of Faerie Folk, volume one
I wrote 15 faerie stories for my daughter when she was young, and they will now become the Adventures of Faerie Folk series, over time. I wanted to teach children morals and to live in harmony with each other.

I write whatever comes to mind at the time. I have so many short stories resting in a file, waiting to decide what to do with them! I have two books out in Autumn 2016 and another in 2017, and I’m researching the prequel to Echoes, titled When Roses Fall.

I sit, I write, and see what comes out. My head is full of ideas for stories for young and old, so never had writer’s block, I just can’t type fast enough!

What would you like to have learnt about writing and publishing earlier in your career?

Everything! I knew nothing when I started and would feel utterly broken on receiving a rejection for Echoes, but once I wrote historical articles for a magazine and every one was published, I was elated, but paid very poorly! I did a distance writing course that gave me a chance to try every type of writing – poetry, journalism, fiction, et cetera, but it became obvious very quickly, fiction and history/supernatural was my forte. Writing for women’s magazines was definitely not!

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time, money and energy on terrible book covers. My first one for Echoes was my attempt at being clever! It was a simple abstract image, which was important to the story, black on a white background. I wanted readers to judge the book, not the cover - which, once they read the story, it would mean something – it didn’t work! Except in competitions, where they judged the story and it won three awards in two years.

I wish I was better at marketing and getting my books out there – which is happening, but slowly. I just don’t always have the time to twitter seven times a day and stuff!

What motivates you to write?

My head. If I don’t write, my head is going to explode – I’m fairly positive on that! I have so many stories waiting to come out. I love my imagination and I love telling stories. When I write, I am truly happy as I delve into another world, meet new characters and share their adventure – I guess that motivates me, along with the hope that one day soon, I will live off the proceeds of sales and take the pressure off my darling husband who constantly supports me in my dream job.

Thank you, P J Roscoe!

Thank you, Remy for interviewing me. Many blessings.

For her next book, a novella titled, Diary of Margery Blake, Roscoe is moving away from paranormal thrillers, she explained, “It’s life seen through the secret diary of a young 19th century bride. Married off to a man she barely knows, she learns that ‘husband’ is merely another title for owner, beater, brute and bully as she endures his rights to her body in order to produce an heir. It was a strange experience, almost as if I was possessed by the energy of this woman – the novella wrote itself more or less. If I ever find out that a Margery Blake really lived, then there’s your supernatural element!”

You can already purchase Diary of Margery Blake from Amazon, ahead of its launch on 17 September 2016, at Wrexham Waterstones, 11:30-14:00.

Back in the paranormal time-slip genre, Between Worlds is due out December 2016, through Crimson Cloak publishing and Ingrams, and her previously self-published novel, Echoes, has just been picked up by Doce Blant Publishing, and is expected to be re-launched before the year is out.

For more news and info, check out the official P J Roscoe website...

 P J Roscoe was talking with Remy Dean

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Real Wild Child – an interview with the adventurous Abi Elphinstone

Abi Elphistone writes children’s fiction which draws strongly upon the Brothers Grimm, shamanic and folklore traditions, and reflects her love of nature. This imagery, mixed with rugged outdoor adventure, could become a cult to those middle-grade readers with whom it strikes a chord! 

Her debut novel, The Dreamsnatcher, tells the story of the gypsy child Moll and the wild cat, Gryff, who befriends her as they take on the dark magic of the Dream Snatcher and finally discover the truth of what happened to her parents. The interplay between the young characters and the adults around them gives a softer grounding to the epic journey undertaken.  

Abi Elphinstone & The Dreamsnatcher
Kim Vertue asks Abi Elphistone a few questions...

At a recent ‘Freedom to Think’ event, you talked about how you set about writing a story and what has inspired you throughout your life, particularly your childhood in Scotland where you spent much time, “running wild across highland glens.” 

The ‘Freedom to Think’ initiative seems to encourage adults, and institutions such as schools, to allow our busy youngsters more ‘downtime’ to day-dream, and generally muck about, in order to foster creative thinking. This something that is reflected in your own up-bringing - can you remember some of the freedoms you were allowed as a child that fostered your imagination?

I didn’t grow up with parents who pushed for me to be in the top sets or who insisted on extra tuition in the holidays to improve my spelling and vocabulary. Instead my parents gave me space. They let me scramble across the Scottish moors, build dens in the woods and jump into icy rivers. I think that out of this freedom I learnt to imagine. And I realise now that the wild woodland world in my first book, The Dreamsnatcher, is almost an extension of my childhood - minus the tree ghouls …and witch-doctors. The time I had back then to ‘be bored’ and to daydream was when I ‘created’.

Are there any particular stories you were told or were read to you when very young that inspired your love of stories? 

I loved reading fairytales as a child – and I still do now. In fact, before I write any book, I read a fairytale. I find them the most powerful, and magical, form of storytelling. The language is often simple but the themes are complex and they provide invaluable motifs to draw on. My parents used to read to me every night - Brothers Grimm fairytales, the Narnia books and the Roald Dahl books, mostly.

You have also talked about how stories are not only found in the form of texts. Were pictures, or music often your way into stories?

Definitely pictures. I’m dyslexic so I’m a visual learner. I draw maps of scenes before I write them and I often turn to photography books - especially the Planet Earth ones - if I’m stuck on describing a scene.

Did you tell stories back to others or to yourself when you were young, perhaps to counteract boredom if the weather was too bad for outdoor play, or when in bed waiting for sleep? 

I did a lot of dressing-up as a child and together with my siblings, we wrote and performed plays in the garden. We also wrote newspapers and tried to sell them to our parents… Most days, I had a narrative playing out in my head – especially when I walked over the moors or built a den in the woods – but often that’s where the stories stayed. It was only in my twenties that I started writing my stories down.

I started writing when I was 23, alongside a teaching job. I used to finish my GCSE marking at 9pm then I’d switch to writing until 11 p.m. But it wasn’t until I was 29 and on my fourth book that I got my first book deal with Simon & Schuster.

When you first began to read books independently, which was the first book, or books, that really grabbed you and took you on a journey?  

The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy were the first chapter books that got me hooked on independent reading. I think it was the superb world building of Miss Cackle’s Academy For Witches – I wanted to be a part of it – and the fact that the heroine, Mildred Hubble, wasn’t the prettiest or the cleverest girl in the class but she was still the heroine of the story. And from there I read all the Just William books then I moved on to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.

Do you have an all-time favourite book or writer, one you have returned to, re-read or has somehow contributed to who you are?

One of my favourite books of all time is Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights. Lyra Belacqua taught me to be brave as a child and I think that image of her riding an armoured polar bear over the Arctic ice plains is one of the most memorable moments in any children’s book. That and Lucy Pevensie pushing open the wardrobe door. I also adored David Almond’s Skellig and Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder – the prose in both books is beautifully lyrical. And I love the tension and detail in Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books.

Which is the most recent book you have discovered, read and really enjoyed?

Probably The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. The language is beautiful, the heroine is fierce and there are wolves – one of my favourite animals.

On your website you have a ‘playlist’ of some of the music you were listening to whilst writing The Dreamsnatcher – we also spotted the Leonard Cohen reference, ‘there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’…

Yes, I love that Leonard Cohen lyric! I also pinched some of Trent Reznor’s lyrics by way of Johnny Cash’s version of his song, Hurt, for The Shadow Keeper ending. I don’t usually listen to music when I write but if I’m working on a climactic scene I often put on the Narnia battle music or the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack!

In your ‘Freedom to Think’ talk, you described your approach to writing and it was somewhat different to the other writers sharing the stage. You seem to place an emphasis on ‘adventures’ as part of your creative process. Can you tell us a little bit about how travel and primary experience inspire your writing?

I grew up in the wilds of Scotland. Some days I’d go searching for golden eagles up the glen with my Dad and we’d spot them in their eyries on the highest crags. Other days the eagles didn’t show and we’d just stand in the middle of the moors, surrounded by the stags and the cairns and the mighty lochs, and I remember marvelling at it all, at the sheer wilderness spread out before me. And I think the sense of wonder I experienced back then at those remote and almost forgotten places made me want to write wild, outdoor adventures years later – and with that has come some very exciting book research trips…

Abi Elphinstone on an Icelandic advemture
I’ve lived with the Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia, and watched killer whales dive in the Arctic, for upcoming stories… I’ve abseiled into jungle caves for The Shadow Keeper and I’ve spent time with a wonderful Romany gypsy who taught me how to carve catapults from ash and sculpt bows from yew for The Dreamsnatcher. I find that book research adventures not only provide me with invaluable details for my stories but they also remind me of the sense of wonder at the heart of our world.

Did you enjoy the experience of discussing your writing method in front of an audience?

It was such a treat to speak alongside Jonathan Stroud at the Oxford Literature Festival – I adore his books – and I think his 'Freedom To Think' campaign is fantastic. Hopefully I’ll be teaming up with Jonathan for some more events in the future.

Do you follow a tried and trusted writing regimen, or is it always evolving?

Every day varies and I often have school visits (I did 97 of those last year and am doing over 150 this year!) so on those days I write on buses and trains to my events. But when I have a day to write at home, I get up at 6:15 a.m. and write in my shed in the garden until it’s time for bed. I usually break for twenty minutes or so for lunch but otherwise I just get stuck in. I lose all sense of time when I’m in my shed!

What advice, or ‘words-of-wisdom’, can you share with aspiring writers?

I had 96 rejections from literary agents on the three books I wrote before my debut was published, so I’d urge aspiring writers to keep trying, keep honing their craft, even in the face of repeated rejection.

So, what next from Abi Elphinstone?

I have a short story coming out this November, called The Snow Dragon, then the third book in The Dreamsnatcher series comes out in February. After that, I’m writing an Arctic book – possibly a standalone – and at the moment all I know is that there will be a girl called Eska, a golden eagle called Balapan and an ice fortress ruled by an evil composer. After that, I’ve got plans for another series: remote settings, fierce kids and wild animals.

Thank you, Abi Elphinstone!

Abi Elphinstone was talking with Kim Vertue