Sunday, 4 November 2018

Candid Schott - Ben Schott is Brought to Book

Ben Schott is a man of many talents – he is a brand strategist, public speaker, photographer, journalist and author. He created a range of quirky, informative reference books (the first, Schott’s Original Miscellany, was published in 2002) that were an immediate success, and became bestsellers translated into 21 languages.

Jeeves and The King of Clubs is his first novel, in homage to his literary hero the late, great P G Wodehouse. It is a fresh tale of Jeeves and Wooster which involves - among other things - the secret corridors of Whitehall, espionage and what really goes on behind the closed doors of St James’s Clubs. It is fully approved by the Wodehouse Estate. 

Kim Vertue asks Ben Schott some questions for The Scrawl...  

Ben Schott
(author photo courtesy Hutchinson)

In the acknowledgements for your book, you describe what it was like to be given your first Wodehouse book, and the lasting impression it left. What was the first book you remember that really ‘hooked’ you, transported you, as a child? 

Almost certainly something by Roald Dahl, and quite probably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remain dazzled by Dahl’s ability to write like an adult for children, and to create so many diversely fantastical worlds that, decades later, remain fresh and vivid and real.

Did your decision to write fiction, after your success with the non-fiction Schott’s Almanacs, arise mainly from your admiration for P G Wodehouse? I note that your comments are quoted on some of the reprints of his books... 

I approached Jeeves and The King of Clubs not with a grand, personal vision, but as a deadly serious frivolity. My aim was to create a fabulous, literary 'Heath Robinson machine' – deploying all of the pulleys, levers, gears, cranks, and lengths of knotted rope offered by the Woodhouse oeuvre to create the finest, funniest, and most charming Jeeves and Wooster novel possible. In this endeavour, I was aided immeasurably by fifteen years of researching and writing Miscellanies, which goes to explain why there are a dozen pages of endnotes at the back of the novel. You can’t keep a Miscellanist down!

Which is your favourite P G Wodehouse book?

Ah… well, this is like being asked to pick a favourite nephew – especially in the Jeeves & Wooster cannon. Outside of that milieu, probably Psmith in the City, or one of the many golfing stories. Plum nails the irrepressible optimism (and baffled disappointment) of all duffer golfers, of which I am one.

Who are the authors - other than P G Wodehouse - that have inspired you, and what have you learned from them?

Where to begin?

I love the detail and structure of Virginia Woolf; the profane absurdism of Tom Sharp; the comic complexity of John Finnemore; the linguistic acrobatics of Tom Stoppard; the dark farce of Evelyn Waugh; the languid calm of Anthony Powell; the ear for dialogue of Victoria Wood (and Alan Bennett); and, well, I could go on. Indeed, there’s a scene in Jeeves & The King of Clubs inspired by Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa.

As a photographer, do you use visuals to inspire your writing process?

When planning Jeeves & The King of Clubs I did create a complex, multi-coloured fold-out schematic of the plot – detailing what would take place at every point of every day during the week in which the action occurs. Also, I doodle quite a bit when thinking.

Jeeves & the King of Clubs
by Ben Schott

Do you have a favourite treat or tipple while writing is under way? Perhaps a Jeeves restorative cocktail - just for research purposes? 

Coffee. Coffee. And, coffee. Did I mention coffee?

Also, when words are flowing, Champagne. And when words get sticky, Champagne.

What is your writing ritual and regimen? Do you have a daily routine, are you a ‘panster’ or ‘plotter’? Do you write by hand or by smartphone, etc? 

I tend to do my best writing in bed - with coffee - before the day has started. The lion's share of writing is done on a laptop, but I hand-write scenes I find particularly tricky. I use my phone to jot down ideas, words, or phrases when I am out and about, and something even dictate short passages as a voicemail to myself. I set myself no word-count targets, and am deeply suspicious of the 'daily routines of famous authors' infographics that populate the web.

What manner of research did you undertake for this homage to the late, great P G Wodehouse?

The central seam of my research was into the language of the period. I pored over dictionaries of historical slang, and trawled through the Oxford English Dictionary for words and phrases that captured the cadence and rhythm of the 1910s, ’20s, and early ’30s.

They key to Wodehouse, I believe, lies in the choice of every single word, and my aim was to evoke each character’s unique vocabulary and tone. There is, for example, a world of difference between Jeeves saying “Sir.” and “Sir?” – and when he utters an “Indeed, sir?” the floorboards should tremble a little. I also delved deep into the history of London’s Clubland, private banking, bespoke tailoring, auction houses, and transient gambling establishments. All feature in the book.

What message do you think the life, times and books of P G Wodehouse have for today? 

What the world needs now, is laughs, sweet laughs … to coin a lyric.

P G Wodehouse was given the Mark Twain Prize in 1936 ‘for having made an outstanding and lasting contribution to the happiness of the world’ – do you think the world needs more happiness in these exciting times? As someone who gives inspirational talks for business, can you offer us any reasons to be cheerful over the next few years?

I’m not sure anyone who has heard me speak would describe my presentations as “inspirational”, and I can think of few reasons to be cheerful now or in the near future. All the more reason, then, to escape at speed into the sunlit uplands of Wodehouse and Wooster.

What are your writing plans and ambitions for the future?

Plans? Ambitions? Oh, dear me no.

Thank you, Mr Ben Schott!

For more Ben Schott  news, updates and info check-out his 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

History, Hearsay and Heresy – an interview with Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham

Folklore Thursday has become a weekly highlight for well over 30,000 'followers' around the world. The twitter feed regularly breaks the internet - well not literally, but it does often hit the limit of 2,400 tweets per day, that is roughly a speed of 100 tweets per-hour… 

It all started back in 2015 and within a year it became one of the fastest growing hashtags, attracting the attention of the national press with articles in The Independent and on the BBC… It is a social media success story built on love, not money, by a small group of friends dedicated to the gathering, sharing and preserving of folklore from around the world. The Folklore Thursday webzine has grown into the hub of a global community and whilst its content may be great fun to browse, it has also become and invaluable repository of folklore wit and wisdom…

So, what is folklore and why are we still fascinating with it in our modern high-tech world? The stories we want to see and hear again and again, in best-selling novels and blockbuster movies, more often than not, have their roots in the traditional age-old tales re-told down the generations. Knowingly or inadvertently, most horror and fantasy writers are drawing upon folklore. Folklore begins as a way of preserving ideas and knowledge but, a little like Chinese whispers, often gets weirder and more interesting through the ages.

In this extended Brought to Book special for The Scrawl, Remy Dean, an occasional contributor to the Folklore Thursday webzine himself, talks to its co-founders, Dee Dee Chainey (above left) and Willow Winsham (right), both popular writers with academic backgrounds and an evident enduring enthusiasm for folklore…

Dee Dee is the author of A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, which was published by National Trust Books earlier this year, and Willow’s second book on the history of witches, England's Witchcraft Trials, is out now in paperback.

REMY: Hello Dee Dee and Willow! Can you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your backgrounds?

DEE DEE: Hi, great to talk to you today, I’m co-founder of the Twitter hashtag day, #FolkloreThursday, and the associated website, which we like to call an online magazine. I’m also a writer, mostly working on folklore projects.

Before my work in writing and folklore, I was actually a heritage education manager, working in schools, and also with charities and museums. One of my favourite projects was working with the Liverpool International Nordic Community, a local cultural heritage initiative which involved promoting Scandinavian heritage within Liverpool schools and the wider community, since a huge number of people from all over Scandinavia settled in the region as it was a port, and there’s a long history of Viking links too. The other was as outdoor education manager for a forest school – it was a lovely place, based on the Scandinavian nursery model, so we spent most of our days outside in the forest garden and woodlands looking at all kinds of heritage: tangible, cultural and natural. A good few years ago now, I injured my knee while walking and ended up with a long-term injury, which meant I couldn’t do any active, outdoor work for around two years. All things have an upside though, as this is what led me to refocus on writing – things usually work out in the end!

WILLOW: Writing-wise, I’ve been scribbling down stories and things that caught my interest since I can remember; my first epic written at the age of five charting the adventures of Cat and Dog has been lost to time, which is probably for the best!

Later on, due to some really inspiring history teachers at school, I developed a passion for the subject, but never saw it as more than a hobby, despite taking two history courses at college. I was all set to start a Social Work degree but had a change of heart at the last moment – I took a year out to travel, then enrolled on a history degree programme and, academically, never looked back.

After uni, I worked with adults and children with autism and other special needs, but continued to write and research in my 'spare-time'. After leaving work when my daughter was born, I realized writing was what I really wanted to do, and have spent the best part of the last decade slowly but surely making that a reality!

REMY: What were the first books you can remember reading that really grabbed you and carried you along?

DEE DEE: I’d have to say a group of books: the Ladybird series of fairy tales. I remember reading those, and having them read to me, when I was really small. Two of my favourites were The Tinder Box and The Little Mermaid. I was fascinated by the hidden rooms under the tree in the first, and the ‘Daughters of Air’ in the latter. Strange, the things that grab you as a child and stay with you!

WILLOW: My first favourite reads as a child were the Ladybird fairy tale books, too! Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood... I had them read to me, over and over, and continued to read them when I could do so myself. The illustrations have stuck with me for years, and I’ve managed to track down some of the same editions to share with my own children.

REMY: Do you have an all-time favourite book, or one that you have re-read a few times?

WILLOW: Now that is a hard one! If I had to pick just one, it would probably have to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It’s the book I’ve read most out of any, and I’ve come back to it over and over again throughout the years. It’s my reading equivalent of comfort food! The message I took from it as a child was that girls and women should strive to be and do whatever they want and shouldn’t be held back by expectations – later on, discovering a little more of the struggles the author faced throughout her life, that central message became all the more poignant, and one I never forgot. I’m Looking forward to my daughter reading it when she’s ready, and the boys too!

DEE DEE: Yes, a really difficult one! A few that I’ve read as an adult come to mind, but I’d be hard pushed to choose just one, since they’re all so different. I seem to keep buying copies of Dolmens for the Dead, and I think Lefebvre’s The Production of Space is just incredible; I also love His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle...

My favourite as a child was The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – I was just entranced by the idea that you could pop your head up at the top of the tree and be in a different land each time. I think I’ve probably carried that idea with me through life, and maybe taken it a little too far – I’ve lived in so many places, and travelled around for such long periods, it does seem a little like living up at the top of the Faraway Tree sometimes! I think books do really change your way of thinking, and can really define so many things about a person and their life. You can learn so much about someone – their dreams and fears – from the books they read.

REMY: What recent books have you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

DEE DEE: That’s also really difficult! I tend to read different types of books at once, at different times of day. One I’ve just finished – my evening and weekend reading – was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, a novel set in Suffolk, just before the Second World War. It’s a tale of how a rural community deals with changing times, the gradual disappearance of traditional culture, and how folk culture can be appropriated by certain unsavoury ideologies. Really brilliant stuff. My morning reading is currently Shanon Sinn’s The Haunting of Vancouver Island. It’s a series of ghost stories, written from a research angle and looking at the historical perspective, but the thing I like most about it is how it gives an insight into such different landscapes and cultures from those in Britain, from First Nations history to the colonisation of British Columbia. It’s also surprisingly spiritual.

WILLOW: I’ve recently finished two books. The first was Swansong by Kerry Andrew. It follows a young woman, Polly, who is attempting to escape her demons by taking a trip to the highlands of Scotland. What she doesn’t count on however is becoming entangled in a web of myth, folklore and legend in an increasingly terrifying chain of events that unfolds around her. I won’t spoil the ending, but you won’t be disappointed – my only complaint is I lost a lot of sleep as I couldn’t bring myself to put it down several nights in a row!

On the non-fiction front was Ghosts of Wales by Mark Rees. It is a superb look at tales of ghosts and haunting from the Victorian archives, and Mark’s depth of research and knowledge, along with his passion for the subject, really shines through. Definitely one for anyone with an interest in things that go bump in the night!

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

DEE DEE: I love fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, but also Terry Pratchett – mostly for the magic in their writing, but also their skill with making the language twist and turn in such clever ways. My favourite non-fiction author has to be Aubrey Burl, as he delves into the world of archaeology, something which can be really dry if done badly, and he keeps it all so factual and sensible while still imbuing the world with such magic. So timeless.

In terms of what I’ve learnt from them, I’d say for sure that even facts can have feeling, and need to be put in a social, personal and emotional framework – that’s the only thing that makes writing unique. And to never be afraid to put yourself in your writing – to bend the rules and try new ways of doing things – that’s the only way to find your authentic voice and say something that matters.

WILLOW: Another tough one to call, but Enid Blyton definitely has to be on the list; I devoured many of her books as a child, and I think those instilled a love for adventure and the magical in writing – along with the importance of a good midnight feast!

More recently, Ben Aaronovitch is a firm favourite – as well as writing a cracking series filled with folkloric references, he is a master at peppering seemingly innocuous clues throughout his work that then turn out to be major plot points later on.

Green Man illustration by Joe McLaren
from A Treasury of British Folklore
by Dee Dee Chainey

REMY: Do you have writing rituals, or a tried and tested process?

DEE DEE: I write every day since it’s my day job, but I think the thing I’d have to say is constantly reminding myself that 70% of writing is in the editing, so the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. If you aim for perfection your writing is always stilted, and often never finished.

I tend to write things twice: a dry, factual version just to get down my ideas and the bits and pieces that need to go in – but always read your sources first, and then write; you can check the facts later. This way your writing is more natural, and you emphasise the bits that stuck with you, rather than merely rewriting your sources bit by bit!

Then I go back and rewrite it in a more ‘human’ way, and try to add-in how I really feel about the topic, which I hope brings a little more emotion and magic to my writing – I think it’s important to always try to write with honesty and passion. Who wants to read something that doesn’t really say anything about the world, or why your topic is worth writing or reading about?

WILLOW: One thing I have learned over the years is that waiting for the “right” moment to write really doesn’t work for me! Especially since becoming a mother I’ve really had to hone the ability to snatch any little moment that presents itself, for instance, while my toddler naps, and my big two are doing their maths work. I’ll often email ideas or rough paragraphs to myself on my phone when on the bus or the kids are at a class. I’m a firm believer in the throw words at the page approach. If you have something down – anything – you have something to work with and mould and tidy later. There is nothing more daunting than the blank page!

REMY: What motivates you to write?

WILLOW: It sounds utterly cliched but it’s true – I don’t think I could not write? If I had no way of recording them, I would just write the words in my head! Some people knit, or make cards, or paint – my creative outlet is - crafting words - which is lucky really, because I am utterly terrible at making anything with my hands!

There are days, obviously, when it’s harder to get those words down on the page than others. At those times, the satisfaction of seeing a piece of writing grow and take shape as it edges towards completion spurs me on – being able to fashion the words into something that is meaningful and enjoyable to other people is a lovely motivation when things are tough.

DEE DEE: Hmm, difficult! I’m one of those people who is always thinking a million things at once, I often say I have 8 different thought tracks running in my head at once (although I’ll admit at least track 8 is gibberish!) I tend to constantly analyse things, and make connections, while also thinking about some sort of myth or strange place I read about, with a whole track dedicated to cake and what I’m having for dinner. I’ve always told myself stories as I‘m walking, or even pottering round the house, whether it’s about the landscape I’m in, or just watching ideas lead on to the next like tree branches. It’s probably just a natural thing to put those down on paper, to capture them, and also to take some of the things out of my head – once I’ve written them down I can file them away to be used later and then forget about them. I actually have tens of Trello boards with different themes for snippets and ideas that I come across. It’s a great way of mapping the ideas, and physically dragging them round to make different patterns and connections. I used to use post-it notes, but I can’t always read my own handwriting! Did that even answer the question? I’ve probably jumped from track three to six without realising – it tends to happen a lot!

REMY: What are you working on at the moment?

DEE DEE: Are we letting the cat out of the bag yet Willow? I’m assuming we’re not! What I can say is that we’re working on a project together at the moment, and we’re very excited about it, so watch this space!

WILLOW: As Dee says, we’re keeping quiet on our joint endeavour for a while longer!

DEE DEE: I’m also putting something together myself about folklore and landscape. Again, it’s too early to say too much, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, and I’m finally getting round to it!

REMY: Can you tell us about your involvement with Folklore Thursday and how that came about?

DEE DEE: I think it probably came about from Willow and I spending too much time thinking about folklore in all honesty! We were on Twitter, joking about running off to the Efteling fairy tale theme park. That got us thinking about how, while there were quite a few existing hashtags to share general tales and writing, there was no central place to share or find out about folklore. We just decided to create that place, as we knew a lot of people on Twitter were already passionate about it. We were surprised how much it took off, but pleased, obviously!

WILLOW: Founding #FolkloreThursday with Dee Dee was one of those happy accidents that you look back on years later and can’t imagine things being any different. As she’s already explained, the idea came about from an initial conversation, and since then the project has developed and thrived in a quite thrilling fashion. It still amazes me daily how many people take part and the huge show of enthusiasm and support the hashtag has received over the last three years – we are looking forward to hopefully many more to come!


You have written A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe for the National Trust – how did that come about?

I did! They actually emailed me, and asked if I knew anyone that might like to write it. I replied with: I would! Luckily, they didn’t see that as too churlish, and seemed quite happy with the idea, so the project went from there.

A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Cainey
(click image for preview or to purchase)

Why do you think people are so interested in folklore? …and becoming more interested, it seems!

I think folklore really taps in to something primal in all of us. We are often told stories from when we’re tiny, so I think hearing folk and fairy tales can be quite comforting in one sense. I also think the symbolism and tales really tap in to something that we all share, and teach us the social norms of our own cultures and humanity as a whole – it’s a way of learning the do’s and don’ts of life, and we all like a bit of drama with that!

There are also many other types of folklore too, like foodways and crafts, and I think people still love those. Often recipes are something that are passed through families, or are specific to a region or town. Because of that they really tie us to other people, and even bring back memories of ‘our gran’s pies’, or ‘granddad’s stew’, and when we cook them for ourselves it’s an opportunity to share that cooking with other people, and then share the food we’ve prepared (my favourite bit!) In essence, I think folklore gives us a sense of belonging: to a community, both local and global, but also a sense of place – it locates us in the world, and helps us negotiate our identity, as well as giving a sense of how to navigate the world.

What gave you the confidence to write as ‘an authority’ on the subject?

To be honest, I think for a lot of my younger days, I thought people were better skilled than me, better equipped, more prepared. One of the major things I’ve learned as I got older is that’s just nonsense!

We are all just as able as everyone else if we put our minds to doing something; that’s the only secret to confidence – choosing to have it! And I think that with that realisation also comes the awareness that since we’re all able, we all have a responsibility to contribute and give our voice to the conversation, in the areas where we have something to offer.

Heritage is something I’ve always been passionate about – I remember making labels for my ‘museum’ and charging people an entrance fee when I was about 6 years old, and I’ve been obsessed with it, in all its forms, since then. I studied archaeology at university, along with aspects of mythology, theology and cultural heritage, and ended up specialising in two things: how landscapes are linked with the creation of personal and social identities, and how heritage should be ‘presented’ and interpreted for the public –community education, to sum it up more simply. In essence, this is at the root of my approach to heritage in general, and probably why #FolkloreThursday came about, as it’s about trying to get people involved in their own cultural heritage, and share that with other people. Writing a book on the cultural heritage of Britain – from tales to traditions and beliefs – is really just putting down what I’ve always worked with on paper. The biggest challenge was actually trying to be comprehensive enough to make everyone feel included in the book, and find something relevant to them and the places they know with such a small word count!

It was also quite difficult to summarise some of the more complex mythologies and debates into something bite sized, without ignoring the fact that folklore morphs and changes over the centuries, and there’s often more than one version. I feel that, in the end, the book isn’t telling a story of Britain, it’s there to draw people in to their own story, and do something with the things within the pages – folklore is never static or done with, it’s a living thing, so the book should be seen in that way: as a resource and a starting point.

illustration by Joe McLaren from A Treasury of British Folklore

What is folklore?

Gosh, there’s a question! We’ve asked a lot of different people to write articles about this for us for, as there’s no one definition to rule them all, unfortunately. Many people interpret it differently, but it basically covers tales, beliefs, traditions and practices passed on from one person to another throughout a community. So that can mean fairy tales or folk tales, but also myths and legends – including sacred stories.

What folklore definitely doesn’t mean is that something isn’t true, or is just nonsense – calling a sacred story or religious text folklore is in no way taking away from its value, validity or sacred nature, it’s just saying it’s a shared belief that is passed on.

Folklore also covers things like folk art, traditional crafts, dress, and recipes, also urban legends, and even things like ghosts and internet memes. It’s so many things! I’d recommend taking a look at some of the articles on site written by some folklore academics like: Lyne S McNeillPaul Cowdell and Jeana Jorgensen 

Folk Horror is a genre that really seems to be taking hold again (after its 1970s heyday) what would you say are defining features of that genre and do you have any tips for what to read or watch to get an idea of what it’s all about?

I think when people talk about Folk Horror people automatically look to films and books, but I think there’s so much more than that now; it’s pervading so many areas of art, music, and there a whole new depth to it – it’s almost becoming an identity. There’s a huge conversation about what people are calling ‘the English Eerie’, and Robert MacFarlane wrote a great piece on this a few years ago. Melissa Harrison definitely needs another mention here.

Adam Scovell is the go-to guy for this, he’s the folk horror film expert, for sure, and has written the defining book: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Also Folk Horror Revival is a main hub, obviously – do check out Andy Paciorek. Thom Burgess creates amazing graphic novels, and you should definitely rate John Reppion and Leah Moore’s work as part of the genre, and John’s Spirits of Place project. David Southwell’s Hookland is just amazing, you can find a lot out about that from his Twitter account. And of course Paul Watson for photography and art. Hare and Tabor too. The music from the scene is quite amazing, like The Hare and the Moon, The Heartwood Institute and Revbjelde.

It’s very much linked to psychogeography, which some people prefer to call ‘landscape punk’ – check out Gary Budden and Influx Press, also Cat Vincent, and Gareth E. Rees.

I’ve probably missed out loads of names, and I’ll kick myself later! I’ll just end with saying that if you haven’t watched The Wicker Man, you haven’t lived!

I think rather than give you a quick definition I’ve just pointed you in different directions, haven’t I?

Plenty to be going on with - thank you!


You have written two books about witches can - Accused: British Witches Throughout History and England's Witchcraft Trials – can you tell us a little bit about how you approached the subject?

My interest in history has always stemmed from a fascination with the characters within – the details of their lives, whether dramatic or ordinary. As a reader, I cut my teeth on historical biographies and so I guess it only follows that would influence my approach in my own work. From the outset, where the witch trials were concerned, the lack of focus on the individuals became glaringly apparent – these deeply fascinating women and men were being shown in flashes to illustrate wider trends and themes in the history of the witch trials, but very rarely presented as central to the text. I wanted to turn that around, making the accused and the accusers themselves the focus of my books.

Why do you think people are interested in witches?

I think people are drawn to witches for a number of different reasons. The tragedy of so many of the cases holds an undeniable fascination, as does the dramatic nature of some of the better publicised trials. The lure of magic and mystery also draws people in. A lot of people also identify with the plight of those persecuted, I’ve had several people tell me they feel a connection with these cases in one way or another. I think, ultimately, once you strip away the glamour, what you have is ordinary people, living ordinary lives, caught up in situations and events beyond their control – that is going to speak to people and draw them to the subject.

Did you have a ‘mission’ when you set-out to write the books? (I’m assuming you may think that witches have been much maligned and misrepresented in some accounts.)

As a historian, the facts and getting it “right” are hugely important to me; striving for that, even if I don’t always achieve it, is at the centre of my work. As an extension of that, in these two books, I wanted to address the huge amount of sensationalism that has been written about witches and witch trials over the years. Such grossly over-inflated figures and claims really muddy the waters, doing the individuals involved a great disservice as they are obscured behind assumptions and exaggerations. I wanted add something to the steadily growing body of work out there that attempts to redress the balance.

I also had a personal curiosity to satisfy, to see if my concept for the books would work, to see if I could pull off writing a whole book, if I could pull it all together. I like to hope that I have been mostly successful in that aim, but only time will tell!

(click cover images for previews or to purchase)

What makes your two books different from each other?

Accused focuses on the stories of 11 different women who were accused of witchcraft across Britain’s history, from the 14th century through to the 20th. Each chapter acts as a telling of her story, not just the accusations made against her and the outcome, but also an exploration of her life as a whole. By extension, it allows comparisons and contrasts to be drawn across several centuries of British history, between beliefs in magic and witchcraft, and also society and communities as a whole.

England’s Witchcraft Trials looks at five of England’s major witch trials from the 16th and 17th centuries, the ones people are most likely to have heard of, such as the Pendle Witches and the atrocities committed under Matthew Hopkins. There’s still the biographical element though within each case, exploring the backgrounds of the main players. This books is, due to its subject matter, a study of a shorter period of time, looking more closely at the main period of witchcraft prosecution in England.

Is there a third witchy book on the way?

Personally, I’d love to do something with the growing collection of accounts of 19th century witchcraft accusations I’ve been amassing over the last couple of years. People tend to assume that all that stopped with the passing of the 1736 Witchcraft Act, but belief in witches and accusations went on well into the 20th century, and the material out there makes for fascinating yet harrowing reading. It’s definitely something I want to explore more in the near future.

Media – particularly movies – seem saturated with witchcraft and witches. Which witch flicks would you say have got it ‘right’, or closest to?

To be totally honest, I tend to avoid media portrayals of the subject! If I do watch, I look at a film or show for what it is – if its primary aim is entertainment, I try to go along for the ride, not sit and pick it apart – and if I can’t, I quickly switch off!

I’m also an utter wuss and easily freak myself out – I’m fine when I’m watching something, but that night is another matter. I still can’t look in a mirror after dark thanks to an episode of Supernatural – I’ve learned my lesson!

One exception however is The Witch. It was a really gripping movie that has stayed with me months later and is definitely on my re-watch list. It operated on so many different levels, taking the viewer on a journey through a blend of history, folklore and belief – one that I’m happy to break a habit for and sit and dissect!

Sounds a bit like a description of Folklore Thursday!

- Thank you, Dee Dee and Willow!

Huge thanks to you for inviting us!

Click logo above to visit the 

Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham were talking with Remy Dean

and you can read Remy's contributions to Folklore Thursday - HERE

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Profit and Punishment - an interview with Conor O’Clery

Conor O’Clery is a respected journalist who worked for the Irish Times for thirty years and was twice awarded Irish Journalist of the Year. He reported on the 9/11 attacks in New York which he witnessed from three blocks away. He is the author of a dozen books, some tackling complex aspects of political history.

He was a resident correspondent in Moscow for the last four years of the Soviet Union and has written a book centred around the very last day of the Soviet Union, Moscow December 25 1991. He married into a Russian-Armenian family and to write his latest book, The Shoemaker and His Daughter, he draws upon the personal history of his wife and her family as a unique perspective on 80 years of Russian History since Stalin, through the administrations of Kruschev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev to perestroika and Putin.

Conor O'Clery
(author photograph courtesy Transworld)

He talks to Kim Vertue for The Scrawl, about his process, and his writing life...

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

In general, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Voltaire, Graham Green, Hubert Butler – an Irish essayist of mid-20th century. I learned from the Grimm brothers a love of the forests and mysteries of European imagination, from Voltaire insights in the human condition, from Graham Greene the power of story-telling and from Butler the beauty of an elegantly-written essay on politics and conflict.

What motivates you as a writer?

I am basically a story-teller. I like telling people news and bringing news or historical events to life with anecdotes, detail and historical background, and bringing people to life with deft use of dialogue.

The type of books you write must demand a bit of a juggling act between research skills and writing in an accessible way. Do you have a preferred writing approach, ritual or regimen? Do you interview, transcribe, write long-hand, or is it all straight into a PC?

For this book I transcribed all interviews longhand into an interview book. Separately, I compiled a chronology. I also created a bulky file of downloads from the Internet. Moreover, I acquired about seventy-five books for background information, including books on social and political life in the Soviet Union, biographies of Soviet leaders, histories of the Russian, Chechen and Armenian peoples, a work on trial law in the USSR, and, believe it or not, I unearthed a book on the life of the Soviet Automobile, called Comrade Cars.

Did the desire to write The Shoemaker and His Daughter arise as a result of extensive family history research, or was it conceived as a way to tackle the story of Russia since Stalin, from the outset?

The idea came from Brian Langan, then of Transworld, who, along with his colleague Eoin McHugh, pitched it to me over coffee in 2016. They knew the outlines of the story from what I had written in my preface to Moscow, December 25, 1991, The Last Day of the Soviet Union (European edition published by Transworld). The concept was developed through family research and was envisaged from the start as a social history of the Soviet Union and Russia told through the experiences of Zhanna's family, and it became of course a comprehensive family memoir.

The research, and collation of this into cohesive structure, would have been a challenge. How did you tackle this?

I visited Krasnoyarsk and spoke extensively to family members, especially Marietta [Zhanna's mother]. I called Marietta regularly. For other descriptive material I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Romania, and I had already extensive experience of the old Soviet Union through living there for more than four years and visiting Grozny and Nagorno-Karabakh in the course of my reporting. Of course, I had my own experiences upon which to draw as a member of the family for the last 26 years and an occasional visitor to their home and dacha.

How did you balance this – with the hindsight of the historian, and as an eye-witness to the latter events in particular?

I compiled a family memoir first. Then I researched and expanded and enriched the telling by adding and interweaving the social and historical landscape into the text.

The great humanity of your father and mother in-law shines through, their personal integrity and family loyalty offers a beacon through the upheaval of recent history. One is also struck by how they embraced their new Siberian home, the taiga, and its austere beauty. The description of a meal shared at their dacha is particularly evocative. One has a sense of timeless things, like a feast shared and family events celebrated, are the constants that can overcome so much suffering. Is your wife and her family pleased at your portrait of their history? 

Yes, they are. Marietta was rather touched to have her family's story told, but I detected concern at the start about resurrecting the family secret - Stanislav's imprisonment [Stanislav Suvorov, the shoemaker and Zhanna's father]. She was relieved that my research established the injustice of his imprisonment. Indeed, the book rehabilitates Stanislav. Zhanna found it painful to recall some events, particularly pertaining to her husband Viktor's death, but she was committed - once the decision to go ahead with the book was made - that it should be a full and honest account.

Propaganda poster from the era of Stalin

Will it be translated into Russia and made available there? 

Not yet known. I hope so.

The personal hardship of so many Russians, and the story of the Armenians and Chechens in particular, are made vivid by this story. It seems the forced movement of peoples within Russia was one way Stalin sought to dilute national identities, yet these are still an important factor in understanding modern Russia. Currently Brexit is underway here in the UK following some baffling political decisions, while Lithuania Latvia and Estonia all embrace their EC membership. Clearly, there is still much focus of National borders and integrity within the melting pots of Europe, Asia, America. After writing this book do you have any opinions on how this may reach resolution so that ultimately more global concerns, such as climate change and food production, can be addressed in a way to help the future of humans and the world in general?

If the UK had a large and aggressive neighbour, as have Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there would be no question of separating from a protective entity like the EU or NATO. Conversely, a Christian country like Armenia has to look to Russia for last-course protection because of its isolation in an unfriendly Moslem world.

Did you recognize any parallels between the history of Russia and that of Ireland?

Both countries had for centuries a peasantry ruled by a small elite, and had revolutions at roughly the same time, but Ireland opted for the democratic structures inherited from Britain, rather than communism. There are some striking social similarities between the two. People in both countries know their poets. Also both have a fondness for alcohol, story-telling and anecdotes.

What Irish tradition or attitude do you feel you have exported to Russia?

I’ll assume that the 'you' in your question refers to Ireland. Well, there are Irish bars in every Russian city - several in Krasnoyarsk - which have conveyed a rather faux Irish drinking tradition and there are St. Patrick's Day parades in Petersburg and Moscow…

What is your favourite, essentially Russian, food that you may crave?

Pancakes with caviar.

What is the most positive thing you have learned from your research and knowledge of political history?

I learned that sometimes, in the words of a centuries-old Irish ballad, The Man from God Knows Where, that "the wrong does cease and the right does prevail". These words ran through my head when I was reporting on the successful efforts of the suppressed East Timorese to end a cruel Indonesian occupation.

In general, the most positive thing I have learned is the resilience and the basic decency of the vast majority of people in the world.

Finally, what ‘in-a-nut-shell’ could you offer young journalists or historians beginning their careers?

Get out of the office.

Meet people rather than communicate by telephone.

Go to events, rather than monitoring news on other media.

Never assume anything- it is one of the great sins of journalism.

If reporting abroad pay people the basic courtesy of trying to speak their language.

Never miss a deadline.

Most of all make your writing interesting - detail and colour are everything.

Thank you, Conor O’Clery.

Conor O’Clery was talking with KimVertue

is published 23 August 2018 (hardback) by Doubleday Ireland.

The Shoemaker and His Daughter
by Conor O'Clery

This is the story of an ordinary family who bear witness to extraordinary times as the slow demise of communism and the chaotic embrace of capitalism batters and shapes their lives. A powerful tale of this secretive world, spanning more than eighty years of Soviet and Russian history. Husband to the shoemaker’s daughter, Zhanna, Conor provides a beautiful insight into the hardships of life during this time, the compelling tale of some exceptional women, and the remarkable relationships of the Suvorov family.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

An Epiphany - starring Hollie Overton as herself

Ten years ago, Hollie Overton’s acting career was just gathering momentum when she had a profound change-of-heart and decided to chuck it in and direct her creative energies into becoming a writer instead. A gamble that paid off with television writing jobs for series including Cold Case, The  Client List and Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments.

Last year, her debut novel, Baby Doll became a Sunday Times bestseller and was selected as a Richard & Judy Book Club summer read. Now, her second novel, The Walls, is already climbing the charts.

Hollie Overton
(author photo courtesy Random House

Both of her novels to date draw upon her unique childhood experiences to lend realism and compassion to her depictions of violence and complicated family dynamics. Baby Doll, described as ‘a gripping and tense psychological thriller’, features a relationship between twins and Hollie is an identical twin herself. The Walls tells the story of a single mother who happens to be a Death Row press agent for the Texas Department of Corrections as she grapples with temptation to murder her abusive boyfriend using her knowledge of the criminal justice system and guidance from a death row inmate. Hollie’s father was a member of the notorious Overton gang in Austin, Texas, and spent several years in prison for manslaughter, so she was raised by her single mother.

In this exclusive Scrawl interview, Hollie Overton talks with Remy Dean and shares some of her experience of writing for television and talks about how she made a brave decision that paid off and led her to becoming such a successful novelist.

Are you an actress who writes or a writer who acts?

There was a time when I would have said that I was an actress who writes but over the last six years that has changed. Now I’m a writer who used to act. I have no desire to perform anymore. Sometimes admitting that surprises even me. Acting consumed so much of my life - from the time I was ten until my late twenties. If I wasn’t trying to get an audition, taking classes, or performing, I was obsessively thinking about what else I could do to further my career.

For a while, I tried writing and acting, but the more writing opportunities that came my way, the less acting mattered.

Was there a particular moment, or series of events, that changed your outlook?

I remember getting an audition for a TV show and being surrounded by dozens of actresses in the waiting room. I had this sudden epiphany--“I don’t want to do this anymore.” That was the last audition I went on and since that time I’ve focused fully on writing. I almost couldn’t believe it was that easy to walk away from but it was.

Perhaps if I had been more successful I would feel differently about it, but I truly believe I wasn’t quite good enough. I got into rooms, got auditions for great projects but could never get to that next stage where I was booking roles. I have zero regrets though.

Did the actress skillset feed into being a writer?

Studying acting taught me so much about the writing process. I learned how to analyse text, the specificity required in creating a character, the collaboration involved in bringing a creative work to life. Acting was my first love, and ignited my passion for storytelling. I’m forever grateful for those experiences.

Would you say that portraying a character as an actress and creating a character as a writer have anything in common?

I studied Meisner, an acting technique that is all about getting out of your head, so you can behave instinctively to your surrounding environment. Despite all my training, I was never truly about to let go and be “in the moment.”  I found it impossible to escape all the superficial thoughts that filled my head. LA is a harsh place where youth and beauty is held to an almost impossible standard. It’s difficult not to compare yourself to others. As an actor, instead of embracing the role I was playing, all these thoughts would cloud my brain; am I too fat, too tall, too pale, too redheaded?

There were moments in acting class, and occasionally on auditions or during performances, that I could silence that voice, but it was always a struggle. I’m not sure why but the process for creating a character when I was writing always felt more organic, sometimes even effortless.

The Walls by Hollie Overton

So, are characters usually your starting point?

Before I begin a writing project, I always start with a main character. Then I ask myself what their emotional wound is and what core relationship matters most and I build the story from there. I think it’s because I’m working from such a deep emotional place that has nothing to do with those superficial aspects so I’m really able to silence that inner critic.

Because you are so regularly involved with television and writing for screen, do you consider your novels to be screenplays in waiting?

I don’t consider my novels as an extension of my screenwriting. As a matter of fact, it’s important that I keep them separate. When I first started writing Baby Doll, I was in a creative funk and frustrated by my TV career. I wanted to do something that was just for me and not for the marketplace. I wasn’t even sure what I was writing. I called it my “project” and worked on in bits and pieces in between screenwriting gigs.

When I sold my first book, I was beyond excited because it seemed like such an impossible achievement. Having worked in Hollywood, I’ve seen how difficult it is to get something produced, even if it is a well-received book. I told myself from the start that I’m would focus only on what I could control—writing a great book. Of course I’d love to see my books on TV or film but that’s not why I write them. I simply love the process and then seeing my books in print.

To what extent is your writing process emotional/intuitive vs. calculated/intellectual?

I’m without question an emotional and intuitive writer. I’m mostly self-taught, though I have taken several classes to learn structure and hone my own process but most of what I know I learned from doing with lots of trial and error along the way.

I used to have doubts about the type of writer I was and the type of writer I “should” be. I grew up reading all the greats. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Jane Austen and every time I thought about becoming a writer, especially a novelist, I’d talk myself out of it. If I wasn’t going to be able to write like the masters, then maybe I shouldn’t write. Once I let go of the expectations and pre-conceived notions and followed my heart, I started writing the stories that mattered to me. That’s when everything changed and I discovered what I was meant to be doing.

One of my favourite writers, Graham Masterton says he runs his stories as a film in his head and writes down what he sees and hears… When writing a novel are you acting-out all the scenes in your head first?

I’ve never thought about my process like that.  The way I work is very loose and less rigid than when I’m writing scripts. I’m a huge proponent of outlining screenplays or teleplays, but when I’m a writing book, I write from character and the story finds its way. I don’t suggest other writers attempt that because it can be tricky but so far it’s worked for me.

Once I’ve started a book, I spend a lot of time building each scene/chapter, trying to find the arc and the rhythm so that it’s exciting and entertaining and making sure the characters are tested in a way that’s real and grounded.

It’s also important to find those unexpected moments, the twists and turns that keep readers turning the pages. It’s usually when I’m writing dialogue that I employ Mr. Masterton’s technique, reading out loud the dialogue, doing my best to ensure that each character sounds as unique and specific as possible.

I was scanning your your IMDB credits… could you explain what the difference is between ‘staff writer for’ and ‘written by’ …and all the different writing jobs you do?

Staff writer is basically an entry-level position. When you’re a staff writer, you receive a salary, but you don’t get paid when you write your episode - which is a significant amount of money. You do receive residuals each time an episode you wrote airs.

When it says ‘written by’ that means I wrote a specific episode but was a story editor on the complete season.

The other rungs on the TV Writer ladder are: Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Executive Producer - Showrunner.

To clarify, my credits state that I was a story editor for TV but that was on a previous show. Story Editor is a title given by the Writers Guild of America to help classify your pay structure and job requirements. I’m currently a Co-Producer. What that means is I have slightly more responsibilities than as a story editor.

Whether you’re a Story Editor or a Producer, you’re still in the writer’s room pitching ideas and writing episodes. The higher up the ranks you go, the more responsibilities you’re given.

Dominic Sherwood, Anna Hopkins and Katherine McNamara in
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (picture courtesy Disney ABC)

One of the main obstacles for the writing process is the ‘internal editor’, which some can find crippling at times… How do you deal with that when there are so many 'external editors' involved? 

In TV, time is precious so you don’t have the luxury of worrying about your internal editor. You have to make decisions and move on because in a few weeks you’re breaking, writing and prepping the next episode.

The nice thing about the process of TV writing is that it’s collaborative. You may have a wild idea that doesn’t quite work and someone else will have the perfect fix and vice versa. There’s often a consensus from the room about what works. Or the showrunner has a very clear vision. That usually helps eliminate the internal editor. If you’re in a room that really supports each writer, it also gives you the courage to pitch wild and inventive things and see what lands. Sometimes those are the ideas that work best.

When it comes to the actual process of writing an episode versus writing a book, it’s the same - sitting down by yourself and typing away until you have a finished product.

The benefit of writing for TV is that you’re not doing it alone. You’ve got a team of writers working to build the story, scene by scene, everyone with the common goal of creating the best show possible.

The downside is that because there are so many people working to create an episode of television, there are times when that an episode morphs into something that’s not aligned with your personal vision. You have to remind yourself ‘this isn’t your show.’ Your job is to support the showrunner and creator’s vision.  That means you have to accept letting go of an idea you love or implementing an idea you might hate.

Writing a book is of a much more solitary endeavour and it can be a bit daunting knowing that you have to craft three hundred plus pages by yourself. Writing novels requires a deep level of trust and belief in yourself and the story you want to tell. There are no actors or directors to blame if the final product isn’t well received. It’s all you. For better or worse.

I’m never sure how writing by consensus works! All the re-drafting, editing – can you give us more of an idea about the process?

Writers gather in a room and the showrunner presents their vision for the season or episode. The writing staff “breaks” each episode, pitching our best ideas scene by scene until a story takes shape. Some shows are very hierarchical, in which you’re level dictates how often you speak or how much weight your ideas might have. I’ve been lucky that most of the rooms I’ve been in were very democratic. Everyone had a voice and the best idea won.

At this point, a writer is assigned and sent off to write an outline. The showrunner and studio or network executives, all weigh in with notes. It’s your job to revise as many times as necessary and then you’re “off to script.” Those three words send joy and terror into the hearts of TV writers everywhere!

You’re supposed to have two weeks to write an episode but I’ve done drafts in four or five days. Once a script is done, you turn it in and go through another round of notes. Sometimes the entire staff will weigh in on a draft, other times it’s only the showrunner.

After the script has been given approval by the network or studio, it’s sent to production. Script changes continue throughout that pre-production process. Sometimes the script is too long and you have to make cuts. Other times you can’t get a location or an actor isn’t available and you have to make more changes. This process continues right up until you shooting begins.

Once you’re on set, the changes are usually minimal but you’re always making tweaks. Actors might have an issue with a scene or the director will have a different vision or the studio or network has a problem that wasn’t ironed out so you’re on set tweaking the script on the fly. It’s simultaneously a very stressful and exhilarating process.

What is the best route for a writer to get their script in front of a story editor?

The one difference between selling a novel and getting a TV writing job is that access to decision makers is much easier in publishing. I’m not saying it’s easy. Just easier. Anyone with an Internet connection and a great book can be discovered if their book is good.

You can cold query agents and editors, track them down on Twitter and see what types of manuscripts they’re looking for. But in TV, there’s a much bigger gate to climb over to even get your work read. It’s not simply about writing the best script, it’s about finding someone to champion your work.
Most TV writers, myself included, work for other people. We simply don’t have the power to hire a writer onto a show.  It’s a very complicated process in which the showrunner, network and studios must all agree on whom to hire for a writing staff. To even get a showrunner or studio meeting, you usually need an agent or a manager or know someone with connections.

For anyone hoping to land a TV writing job, writing a TV pilot that gets attention is the first step. Then you have to find representation. A great way to do that and something that really helped me when I started was entering writing contests. There are a lot of scams out there so you must do your homework but there are some exceptional contests and fellowships that will get you noticed.

Which one worked for you?

I was in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop and that got me my first manager and agent and my first TV job. There’s also the route of working in a TV writers office as an assistant and getting to know writers and having them recommend you to their agents. There’s no one path. If you talked to a hundred TV writers, they would likely all have different stories about breaking in, but all of them would probably say hustle and a positive attitude are crucial.

How would you feel when your fiction gets optioned and other writers are hired to ‘adapt it’?

I’ve loved seeing writers like Gillian Flynn and Emma Donogue adapting their own work and I’m eager to follow in their footsteps.  I’ve had several offers since Baby Doll came out, none that have come to fruition. I have been very clear though that I either get first crack at adapting my books, or it won't happen. I’m perfectly content with letting the books live on as just books.

Could you consider the following two quotes that Oscar Wilde wrote and comment on your thoughts, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” yet he also said, "An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty."

I adore these quotes though I’m more inclined to agree with Mr. Wilde’s first statement. I write crime thrillers so the basic stories are obviously fictional but the characters and their relationships are loosely inspired by my own. I didn’t start out saying, “these books are going to reflect my life and my family,” but that’s how things unfolded.

Baby Doll - Hollie Overton's debut bestseller

You say your first novel Baby Doll has a lot of your personal experience interwoven with the plot and writing was a kind of therapy… so, is your second book The Walls continuing therapy and self-examination?

There are so many small character moments that worked their way into Baby Doll and The Walls. I remember my husband hadn’t read The Walls and he was listening to the audiobook and he almost had to pull over he was so surprised by a familiar scene I’d put in.  He called it “surreal.”

I also like to focus on relationships that are important to me because I find it deepens my work. In Baby Doll, it’s the twin sisters, which was born from my relationship with my twin. In The Walls, it’s the parent-child dynamic, inspired by my own relationship with my mother. I often wonder as I continue writing books if that will change. Will I find other sources of inspiration? Only time will tell. Right now I’m trusting my process and going with what works.

You have been open about your stressful and troubled childhood and say you took refuge in writing at an early age. When did you wake up to being a writer?

My childhood was definitely turbulent but I had a wonderful mother who nurtured my creative talents. She bought me a journal when I was seven and it became my refuge. I’d write about my daily activities and thoughts. I filled up dozens of journals over the years.

At ten, I started doing theatre, and that form of storytelling fuelled me, but I never stopped journaling which turned into writing short stories and evolved from there.  I used to say I was an actress and writing was my therapy. What surprised me most was that when I became a professional writer, I felt a profound sense of loss. I no longer had my creative refuge because writing was now a career. I eventually had to find other outlets like yoga and running to calm my mind and keep me centered.

What is the first book that you recall reading that really wrapped you up in its world and carried you off - to a place of refuge?

I was an avid reader growing up but I was fourteen when I read Pat Conroy’s Beach Music and it affected me in such a deep and profound way. It’s a sweeping love story that travels across the globe, from the Deep South to Italy, detailing the characters stories from the Vietnam War to the concentration camps during World War II. What made Beach Music stand out, were the brilliant characters. They’re real and funny and flawed, and practically leap off the page.

I remember absolutely adoring that book and wondering why it wasn’t a bigger hit. It was only later when I read the reviews and saw the book was Pat Conroy’s least successful which surprised me because I loved it so much.  I don’t care what critics or anyone says. It made me feel more than any book I had ever read, and whenever I need an emotional kick-start, I reread it.

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

I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. I read The Winter of Our Discontent at eighteen. It was a very bleak time in my life; a time when a family financial crisis derailed my college plans. I was questioning all the choices I’d made.  It’s a very bleak book but in some ways that fuelled me. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those people that allowed life to break me. I was going to be a fighter.

On a craft level, it’s hard to list just one writer as an influence. I grew up reading lots of “important’ novelists but I was just as invested in more popular contemporary fiction. Mary Higgins Clark was a huge influence. She wrote about women in dangerous situations and always made me truly invest in their journey and root for them.  In some ways I don’t think she gets enough credit for all she did for the genre.

I also loved R L Stine’s young adult novels. I remember arguing with my sister over who got to read the latest book. He was the master at cliff-hangers and twists. I also loved Stephen King because he’s Stephen King, the master of both story and character.

I was a huge fan of John Grisham and I read The Client and Pelican Brief half-a-dozen times. When I first started writing books, I didn’t know what type of writer I would become but thinking about the books I loved to read, it makes sense that I chose crime dramas.

What's your favourite treat or tipple?

There’s an ice cream shop in LA called 'Salt and Straw' that makes the best salted caramel ice cream you’ve ever had. There’s also a seafood restaurant right outside my hometown in Texas called 'Kings Inn'. They have fried catfish, avocado salad and tartar sauce that are simply the best in the world. It’s worth going back for that meal alone.

What can we look forward to next from Hollie Overton?

I’m currently revising my third novel, The Runaway, which will be out early next year. I just finished writing for a TV show called Tell Me A Story for CBS All-Access that will air later this year. I’m also developing a TV pilot that explores a brutal ‘murder for hire’ in Texas, and an unlikely killer.

Thank you very much, Hollie, for taking the time to consider these questions and sharing some of your varied and valuable writing experience.

Hollie Overton was talking with Remy Dean

For more info and news, check out the official Hollie Overton website

Hollie Overton is the author of The Walls
out now in paperback (published by Arrow, £6.99)

Monday, 16 July 2018

From Wigan to Grandville - an interview with Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot is one of the most widely recognised and respected practitioners of graphic storytelling. His long career has produced a hugely varied, always relevant, body of work that spans many genres from superhero fantasy to documentary realism. His subjects cover machine-gun toting badgers, imaginary giant rats, civil engineering, history, social geography and biography.

Since the mid-1980s he has steadily accrued a string of top accolades. In 2009, Talbot was the first graphic storyteller to be given an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by the University of Sunderland, and in 2012 was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by Northumbria University. That same year, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, a clever graphic memoir he co-created with Mary Talbot, won the Costa Biography Award. This year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Bryan Talbot being signed into the Royal Society of Literature,
...using Lord Byron's pen! (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Just take a look at his body of work and the vast scope of some of his more ambitious tomes and you will know that Bryan Talbot is a busy man! So, The Scrawl is hugely honoured that he took the time to talk with Remy Dean, about anthropomorphising animals, the collaborative process, the development of the comic industry and whether Rupert the Bear is terrifying or not…

I was part-educated at Wigan College of Mining and Technology. During the mid-late 1980s, I found the ‘scene’ there a very rich and creative one. It was one of my student friends who introduced me to Hellblazer, which was when I first remember being conscious of the name Bryan Talbot as an artist, though I had also been reading 2000AD, to which he also made an important contribution. 

Bryan Talbot was born and raised in Wigan and also went through art college there. Soon after his graduation from Preston’s Harris College in the mid-70s, Talbot had started publishing his own indie comic, Brainstorm Comix, in which his character, Luther Arkwright made his debut. Later, a long-form edition of the epic Adventures of Luther Arkwright was published as a single volume and this is generally recognised as being the template for what we now consider to be a Graphic Novel. The Graphic Novel, or GN, is an extended form of storytelling using the comic strip format, tending to be more literate in tone and often tackling more ambitious concepts and serious themes. Talbot now has the deserved reputation of being the ‘Father of the British GN’ and is certainly one of the form's more prominent proponents. 

Years after I too had graduated, I visited an old college friend from Wigan and saw they had a big poster of artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat – I think this was one of the first comics, along with what was coming out of the New York counter-culture, that I came across that really tackled serious social and political issues like child abuse and homelessness, whilst ultimately remaining an uplifting read. 

How did The Tale of One Bad Rat come about and what was the motivation? Was it simply a good story, an issue you felt strongly about, or was it a conscious effort to push the envelope of what a GN could do?

I never set out to write a book about child abuse. It came out of a desire to do a graphic novel using the Lake District as a setting. I know the place very well, and partly grew up there. It was in my mind for several years and I began to read books on the area and its history. I researched the Lake District poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge but a graphic novel idea never crystallised.

While visiting Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top, the thought struck me that here was a woman who told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, a direct correlation with comics. So, I started to research Potter. I'd never read her books when young and started by reading her complete oeuvre, then books about her. I must have read about 13 biographies before I realised that her life wouldn't make a very interesting basis for a graphic novel. If you saw the movie Miss Potter, you'll understand what I mean. They only managed to make that vaguely interesting by inventing events and simply making things up.

Shattering the silence... The sublime landscapes of the Lake District feature
prominently in Bryan Talbot's ground-breaking GN, The Tale of One Bad Rat
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)

So, I'd reached another dead end. Then, one day I saw a teenage girl begging on a platform in London's Tottenham Court Road Tube station. She was being hassled by a huge, bearded Jesus freak, who was trying to persuade her to go with him to a hostel or somewhere. She looked so embarrassed. Thinking about her later, she brought to mind descriptions of Beatrix Potter who, at age 16, was said to be "painfully shy." As you know, that became the first scene in the book and I grew the story from there.

Can you talk us through a bit of how this process of 'growing' that story went?

I thought, "What if this girl has a psychic or synchronistic connection with Beatrix Potter and she follows Potter's footsteps to the Lake District?' As I plotted it, I asked myself why she left home. "Because her father was abusing her," was the reply. It was as glib as that. It's a fact that many kids do run away to escape abuse and many end up in London. Personally, I knew nothing of the subject, so I began to research it, buying books and visiting the library. What was amazing was the number of people who came forward, from friends I've known for years to people I met at conventions, to talk to me about the abuse they'd suffered as soon as they discovered I was researching it. It quickly dawned on me that it was far too important to marginalise, to simply have as a reason for her to leave home. It needed to be what the book was all about.

Just one page from the meticulously designed dynamic layouts
that pepper the hugely entertaining Grandville graphic novels...
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Please tell us about the anthropomorphised characters in Grandville – I had first assumed they were under the influence of Wind in the Willows, perhaps the work of Beatrix Potter… but then I made the connection with Parisian cartoonist J.J Grandville. I am wondering what creative path led you to the characters for Grandville and why they have held your attention for so long…

My graphic novels are usually the result of years of consideration, some taking longer than others. I think, research and make notes, slowly developing the concept until I’m happy with it. The first volume of Grandville was the complete opposite. Directly after finishing Alice in Sunderland, I was tidying away the pile of reference books I’d been using and picked up a book I’d had for decades. It was a book about JJ Granville, the pen name of Jean Ignace Isadore GĂ©rard, who was a big influence on John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books.

As you know, his brilliant cartoons, satirising French social mores, fashions and attitudes, used animals to convey character. I had a sudden flash of inspiration: “Grandville” could be the nickname for Paris in a story set in an alternative reality populated by anthropomorphic characters in which Paris is the biggest city in the world.

I’m a big fan of crime fiction and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. The idea to write a detective story, in a Belle Epoque steampunk fantasy setting, really grabbed my imagination. Also, I’d never done an anthropomorphic comic before, so jumped at the challenge.

How do you approach such an ambitious undertaking?

With this book, after spending a week thinking about it, while working on the artwork for my experimental graphic novel Metronome, I scribbled down the plot in ten minutes and typed the whole script over the next five or six days. The characters arrived fully-formed and even delivered their own lines. It was like taking dictation. For all my previous comics, I made meticulous thumbnail sketches of each page before starting the scripts. This time, I didn’t need them, as I could vividly visualise each page, something I’ve done ever since. Creating a graphic novel is a very long slog, and anything that can save time is a bonus.

Animal action and crime capers in Bryan Talbot's Grandville
 (picture © courtesy Bryan Talbot)
Some of your graphic novels are huge undertakings – how do you go about planning something with the scope and breadth of Alice in Sunderland, for example, which is so rich in facts and history? 

I spend a lot of time on the structure, which has to be rock-solid before I type a single word. The first Grandville was an exception. I know that many prose writers, such as Stephen King or Ian Rankin, create as they write, the story growing out the initial concept, developing it as they go along. You can’t really do that with a comic. You can’t get half way through drawing a graphic novel, then suddenly realise that, to take a silly example, your protagonist should have been two feet taller and you have to re-draw eight month’s worth of work.

Even after spending two or three years researching Alice in Sunderland and making copious notes, I still had to spend six weeks working full-time on the plot structure, going through draft after draft until it was as perfect as I could get it. With this 320-page book that used dream logic and what had to seem, on the surface, to be stream of consciousness storytelling, a solid structure was vitally important.

Alice in Sunderland: the inventiveness and diversity
of Bryan Talbot's visual storytelling is showcased in
this hugely ambitious cross-cultural history-spanning
'biography' of this typically remarkable Northern city.

Writers often talk about differences between approaching short-form fiction and the novel – do you have such distinction based on the length of a work?

I don’t tend to write short strips but, when I do, the process is no different.

 You are an all-round comics creator, how do your ideas generally develop – through sketches and drawings, through prose, through story... Which came first the word or the image?

They come at the same time. It’s not as if I’m writing a script and then I have to imagine how to stage and draw it.

Alice in SunderlandThe Tale of One Bad Rat with its runaway from the North, in London… Do you think being ‘a northerner’ has influenced your outlook in any way?

I don’t really know. I know I have a low tolerance for pretension, but that’s probably due to coming from a working-class background, rather than being Northern. I did make my early characters Northern, such as Chester P Hackenbush and Frank Fazakerly.

Do you have a creative ritual or regimen?

I get up around 9 a.m, start working around 10 and work till 9 p.m, with a break for lunch and another for a brisk four-mile walk, seven days a week. My creative process, which you can probably imagine from my description of how the last two books came about, all depends upon what stage I’m at in the development of a book – whether working on ideas, writing, pencilling, inking or colouring.

Can you describe the place where you do most of your creative work, outside of your own head, that is?

If you mean my studio, it’s in a large ground floor room with a bay window. There are lots of bookshelves, books in piles on the floor, a plan chest full of artwork, a drawing board, a computer area with 2 Macs, printer scanner and Wacom tablet, a large Victorian roll-top desk and a big aspidistra. The place is cluttered with a variety of junk that I’ve often used as props.

What can you see from there?

If I’m at the drawing board, in the bay, I can look out onto our front garden: trees, lawn, flowers. Mary’s a keen gardener. I enjoy watching the birds that we put food out for and have a bird identification book handy.

Do you have a favourite treat or tipple?

Wine. As a treat, I do enjoy a full English fry-up once every month or two. Usually we eat very healthily!

You regularly collaborate with other artists and writers – which is very usual for comics creators. But you also are an auteur – writing, drawing, colouring, as a solo venture, and more recently you have been collaborating closely with Mary Talbot. 

The graphic memoir of  Mary Talbot draws on parallels
between her troubled relationship with her own father, a James Joyce scholar,
and Joyce with his daughter Lucia... Winner of the 2012 Costa Biography Award.
Can you tell us a little bit about your motivations, both for working alone and for working with others and how that process generally works out creatively?

I always prefer to draw my own stories. It’s satisfying and also easier, as I know exactly what the writer intends! Though, I must say, as a writer, I’m often a complete bastard to myself as artist, giving myself scenes that I know will look good, but that will be hell to draw. Crowd scenes, for example. They take ages. Commercial comics are a production line, with an editor who commissions a writer, gives the script to a penciller, who’s then inked, coloured and lettered by different people. There is often zero collaboration between the writer and artists, apart from any script instructions.

The books I draw for Mary work very differently and the collaboration is extremely close. We discuss the books as she’s researching and writing them. We both have input on all aspects. I recommend script and plot changes and sometimes even supply extra dialogue, and Mary comments on the art as I’m working on it.

You have been involved in British comics for some time - articles often refer to you as a 'veteran' or the 'father' of the British GN... How has the scene changed? It seems to have gained respect during your tenure, and your contribution to this shift in perception has been recognised by numerous accolades including your honorary doctorates and the recent Royal Society of Literature Fellowship...

The big change has been the decline in sales of monthly and weekly comics, and the dramatic rise, in the number, range and quality of graphic novels. Also the rapid growth in the percentage of women creators, which has shot from hardly any about 40 years ago to what I now guess is 50%. Graphic novels are no longer confined to the specialist comic store niche market and are now sold in regular bookshops and every respectable literature festival now has a sizable graphic novel component.

When did you ‘wake up’ to being a writer/creator?

I’ve been writing and drawing my own comics since I was eight.

Casting your mind back, what was the first book you can remember that really grabbed you, immersed you in its world and carried you off?

The Rupert the Bear annuals, when I was five.

…and did they scare and 'scar you for life' as they did Ramsey Campbell?

Not at all. I know the story he means, he told me all about it once!

For me, it was an escape from the grimy, smoky Wigan of the 1950s where I grew up, the idyllic country setting and fantastic adventures... probably why I fell in love with the Lake District when my folks bought a caravan there and we started going up every chance we had.

In my research I came across a mention that you had done some concept art for a screen adaptation of a story by Campbell?

Yes, coincidentally enough, that was set in the Lakes. It was only a short film, about 30 minutes long I seem to remember, directed by Jon Sorenson, a cinematographer who’d worked on Bladerunner, among other things. I don’t think it was ever shown on TV.

Do you have an all-time favourite book or one that you regularly return to?

I’ve had books like that, but they changed over the years as my tastes have developed. I do find myself going back to Aldous Huxley once every few years.

What’s out there right now that you would recommend?

Hannah Berry’s Livestock.  Salman Rushdie’s Shame... it’s been out for many years, but I only read it recently.

I would expect there has been some interest in screen adaptations of your work, I mean a Graphic Novel is practically a storyboard already...

I’ve sold the film option on Luther Arkwright a few times, but nothing’s ever come of it. At the moment, Euston Films is trying to get a TV series based on Grandville off the ground, ditto with a small UK production company and Bad Rat. I’ve been here before, though, and am not holding my breath. These things more at a glacial pace and often fall through.

What is coming up from Bryan Talbot that we should look out for?

I’m currently drawing Mary’s fourth graphic novel, Rain.

Thank you, Bryan Talbot!


for more information, news and updates: 

of particular interest, and well worth spending some time with, are
The Grandville Annotations
in which Bryan Talbot is very generous with information about
the influences and ideas behind the epic story and artwork 
- it is like a director's commentary you may come across on a
collectors' edition DVD for a classic film, only free and online!

and follow his approved fan-page twitter

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