Friday, 27 April 2012

Writing is Therapeutic but not Therapy?

We often pick up our pens to make sense of our worlds, but when you have fled your home country and survived torture- can writing be therapeutic, and if so, should it be classed as therapy?

Following on from our articles in the August and December issues of Words with Jam, LAILA SUMPTON looks at the different ways that English PEN, Freedom From Torture and The Baobab Centre use the power of writing for the rehabilitation of conflict and torture survivors.

English PEN campaign for the freedom to write and read, and their creative writing workshops provide a safe space for survivors of conflict to learn the craft of writing and tell their own stories when they are ready . PEN’s writers have run over 200 creative writing ‘workshops in the last year in prisons, detention centres, refugee centres and schools.

There is a balance being struck between creative writing being used as an art form and as a tool for rehabilitation. Philip Cowell the project manager of the program said that “creative writing is therapeutic, but creative writing is not delivered as therapy. The workshops help refugees define themselves and manage their trauma by defining it”. Joelle Taylor, the writer who led PEN’s creative writing course for twenty young refugees and helped them produce an anthology called “Brave New Words,” said they “turned every wound they had received into a poem.”

PEN has worked with numerous poets and each brings their own style and content to the workshops, which vary in levels of participation. Some writers will have their sessions completely planned out- but others like Nii Parkes encourage participants to guide the content. Writers are central to PEN, Phillip said “it is a charity run for and by writers, and writers are PEN’s greatest resource.”

But are writers qualified to help participants express such volatile emotions? With safeguards in place like ensuring writers have counselling or equivalent qualifications, are trained by PEN, and are supported by staff working at the refugee centres; writers are made aware of the boundaries of their role.

Marion Baraitser who runs biblio-therapy sessions for young people at The Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, has a different take on this, she was “shocked at how few qualifications practitioners have” saying that “writers have to try and fill in the gaps of their experience.” Marion felt that psychology and social work training were necessary for understanding participants and “learning how to control yourself as a facilitator- so that you know your limits.”

The Babobab Centre is a unique non-residential community centre for young people and children who are separated from their parents and are struggling with trauma. In Marion’s biblio-therapy sessions young people discuss a chosen piece of literature that relates to their own experience of conflict, abuse or torture. They think about themselves through a character, and re-narrate their own life story in a way that can gradually help them go from being a victim, to a survivor.

Marion makes sure that no upsetting literature is used, the emphasis is on identifying with the positive aspects of characters’ survival in stories so that young people can build up their sense of self-worth and confidence. Using printed literature is sometimes challenging for the young people, especially those who have English as their second language and come from an oral storytelling tradition. However, discovering that people from other cultures and times can experience similar feelings of loss and fear is something that the young people really value, and they often share literature from their home countries too.

Unlike in PEN’s workshops, written responses to the literature are not structured or edited- as it is the process of them relating to the literature that is key. Marion felt that using creative writing as form of therapy for child survivors of conflict and torture should not be encouraged; as they needed to slowly understand and deal with their experiences, before trying to be creative.

Freedom from Torture assist, protect and promote the rights of torture survivors in the UK and Sheila Hayman runs “Write to Life,” a creative writing project which helps adult participants explore their experiences of torture and the difficulties of living in exile. In the group sessions survivors share a meal and learn about creative writing through general and positive topics, they also share lyrics and stories from their home countries and present their written work when they are ready.

In the individual creative writing sessions Sheila and the workshop volunteers help the survivors shape their own stories, and when a part of their story is avoided or written without emotion, they help them revisit these emotions and complete the story. For Sheila the sessions are as much about creativity as they are about rehabilitation, and half of the participants are also supported by clinicians alongside these workshops.

Sheila told me about a former child soldier who was subjected to horrendous treatment including being forced to kill others and eat human flesh. He felt that the “Write to Life” sessions were particularly beneficial because he was able to move at a pace he felt comfortable with.

Some rehabilitation projects shield survivors from public events, but “Write to Life” members have used their work to raise awareness, and this is a major motivator for the group. The groups’ eighth anthology is called “Body Maps” and can be ordered from their website. The group will be working on a monthly basis with the Tate Britain to explore the new exhibition on “Migrations”, and an exhibition of “Write to Life’s” work will form part of Refugee Week in June.

The writers who facilitate these groups all work with great sensitivity and care, and one of the greatest challenges that their groups face is the uncertainty of their asylum statuses, with survivors sometimes being deported before the writing course had ended. Currently expressive and creative writing is not widely used for the rehabilitation of trauma sufferers, and according to Marion, “writers are viewed with suspicion by therapists, because their work has a therapeutic impact but the writers are not therapists.” However, when managed in a participatory way it can empower and inspire survivors and create a community of solidarity.

If you would like to read more, Words with Jam's original article on Write to Life can be found here and our article on Therapeutic Writing, here.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

An Alliance of the Real Innovators

“Hello. We’re here. We’re at the London Book Fair and we’re here to stay!”

Thus, in a room overlooking one of the great bastions of the traditional publishing industry, Orna Ross launched ALLIA - the Alliance of Independent Authors.

ALLIA has already kicked off meet-up groups in Florida, San Francisco, Japan and Dublin, and hopes to get one going in London following this launch. A key part of the Alliance is the sharing of information and they intend to have live on-line groups too, initially twice a month, as well as “real people on the end of a help line.” And everyone, please note: the online version of the ALLIA launch will take place on the 19th May at 13:00 EST!

The morning was structured round two panels. The first, chaired by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, was a selection of those providing the self-publishing tools: Tom Kephart from CreateSpace, Teresa Pereira from Blurb UK and Michael Tamblyn from Kobo. Amazon’s role in the self-publishing world is well known. They offer services such as CreateSpace for print books, Kindle Direct Publishing for Kindle ebooks and Amazon Author Central for book promotion.

Tom Kephart of CreateSpace began by asked the audience what they wanted from the Amazon offering. “UK based services,” came back the answer. “No more waiting three weeks for print books to be delivered from the US.” And “Electronic transfer of money.” Was there a Kindle ‘pixie dust’? A key to success? If there was one, it lay in metadata. Metadata allows Google, Twitter, blogs etc to work in concert and allows readers to discover your books.

Kobo had hoped to launch their self-publishing platform at the London Book Fair, Tamblyn said. It is currently in beta and will be rolled out this quarter, with plans to expand to a dozen new countries in 2012. They are also hoping to introduce Kobo Pulse, which will allow authors to write comments in the margins of their own texts, to create a dialogue with their readers. “When authors are given control and visibility, they do amazing things that the traditional publishers out there are just not doing.”
Tamblyn pointed out that Kobo are selling 16% of self-published books in South Africa and 14% in Africa and the Middle East, and some of this is because authors are free to set prices at a level that customers in these markets can afford.

Blurb began as a print on demand service that catered for artists, with tools aimed at beginners as well as experts. They aim to produce high quality books that “represent who you are.” Developing communities, among authors and between authors and readers, is important to them. In 2011, they released their ebook platform. Currently their ebooks are simply replicas of their print books, but they are looking at developing ebooks that are “enhanced without being over-complicated.”

Blurb has printers on every continent (though as the print facilities for Europe are based in the Netherlands, this can still mean a 7-10 day delay in receiving a book ordered in the UK).

Both Kobo and Blurb are open platforms that do not impose exclusivity deals.

The author panel, chaired by Sam Missingham of FutureBook, consisted of four authors with widely different experiences of self-publishing.

Linda Gillard was a well established, award-winning, mid-list author when she was dropped by her traditional publisher for ‘disappointing sales’. Her agent tried for two years to find her a new publisher, but she was repeatedly told that her new book was ‘unmarketable.’ However, she had a loyal fanbase who, when she finally admitted that she’d been dropped, persuaded her to self-publish. At one point last summer, she was selling 100 copies a day, and this ‘unmarketable’ book has now achieved almost 30k downloads overall.

“When I finally realised I was successful as an indie author and that I was going to go indie permanently, I felt elated. There was a real sense of creative freedom.”

Her key advice to authors was to not to think about making sales but about building new relationships with readers.

John Logan is a writer from the remote Highlands of Scotland, more at home on his farm than talking to London-based editors and agents. He self-published his first novel in 2011, after receiving ‘rave rejections’ from editor after editor who loved the book but couldn’t get it past their sales departments. He had 700 downloads in the first seven days.

His role models, he said, were “writers like Tomas di Lampadusa, who never published a word in their own lifetimes.”

Words with Jam columnist, Dan Holloway “didn’t have a clue” about publishing when he first went on line in 2008. He encountered a great deal of snobbery and skepticism about self-publishing and decided it “must be worth exploring.” Having a background in the world of Art, he was disappointed that people didn’t talk about literature with the same degree of passion and controversy that they would talk about, say, Tracy Emin or Damian Hirst.

His approach to self-publishing was not about selling books or making money. He wanted to find a space where you could ask interesting questions and where there was a freedom to fail. “In the traditional publishing world today, you can’t even fail once.” He has written an interactive novel online and loved the immediacy of getting feedback “even as you write the book.”

Joni Rodgers, from The League of Extraordinary Authors, is a Texan author and fan of Amazon. “It’s like that big sandworm in Dune,” she says. “Sooner or later you realise, either it’s going to swallow you up, or you’re going to get up there and ride it!”

Rodgers straddles the worlds of traditional and self-publishing. Having published celebrity memoirs with one of the big publishing houses, “I’ve been to the puppet show and seen the strings.” But the publishing economy is tough at the moment, and they can’t afford to take risks. She sees self-publishing as “the high ground for creative risk takers and for the books that don’t fit into the pitch at the marketing meeting.”

Right now she is self-publishing a novel with Kindle Select about the relief effort in Houston that followed Hurrican Katrina – a book that had “too much sex and too much politics” to make it through that marketing meeting.

“I’m riding that sandworm, baby.”

There was some discusson of the pricing strategies used by the different authors. It was clear that there was often a ‘sweet spot’ at which a book would start to sell, but that point varied from country to country and book to book. People paid “less for an ebook than they would for a greetings card” but at the same time, the author could still be making more per sale than they would from a traditionally published book sold at full price.

All the authors agreed that it could be tough to get a review for a self-published book. But at the same time it was recognised that the mediators were changing. Book bloggers were becoming far more influencial than traditional print reviewers, and their attititude to self-publishing generally more responsive.

The strongest feeling, throughout the whole morning, was that here, among self-publishers, was where the real revolution in publishing was happening.

As Orna Ross said in her closing remarks, there have been certain pivotal moments in the story-teller’s art: from bard to scribe, from scribe to printing press. And now we are on the cusp of another massive shift.

I couldn’t help thinkingof all the Independent Booksellers I have interviewed in the past few months who, when asked about self-published books, grimaced slightly and sucked their teeth. There has to be potential, surely, for an alliance independent authors and independent booksellers – both of whom are capable of innovation that leaves vast, unwieldy corporations standing.

If anyone can make that happen, then perhaps ALLIA are the ones to do it.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Anthony Horowitz at the London Book Fair

It’s just as well Anthony Horowitz talks fast. The Literary CafĂ© is packed to bursting with his fans and when Lindsay Mackie of English PEN asks for questions from the audience, hands shoot up all over the place.

Horowitz begins by confirming that sad news that there will, indeed, be no more Alex Rider books. But there will be one more book from this universe. He is planning a novel showing the young life of the assassin Yassen Gregorovich, and taking him to the point, at the end of Stormbreaker, where he fails to pull the trigger to kill Alex.

Horowitz says that it took him, ‘about five seconds’ to decide to write the Sherlock Holmes sequel, Road of Silk, despite being well aware of other YA writers who had failed to make the transition to adult books.

He has started to question whether, now his own children are adults, he ought to still be writing for children. “Perhaps it’s time for my generation of writers to step out of the way and make room for a new wave.”

He is passionate about the stripping away of the schools library service, which he sees as an even bigger issue than the shutting of public libraries. And he speaks movingly about his work with young offenders in prison.

In response to Mackie’s skeptical query, he insists he really was given a skull for his thirteenth birthday. (“I’m not sure if it’s weirder that I asked for a skull or that my mother went out and bought one for me.”) It sits on his desk to remind him that his time is not infinite. The plan, he says, is that he will end up the same way, to make a pair of bookends.

He shows us the fountain pen and spiral-bound notebook in which he writes all his first drafts, before switching to a laptop for subsequent drafts, "and to become an instant expert in every make of German machine gun, or whatever." The sound of a pen scratching across the paper keeps him connected with writers of the past, he says, and he doesn't want "Bill Gates or anyone else coming between me and the creative process."

Intriguingly, he lets drop something that could keep the cryptographers among his fans busy for decades. His books are apparently littered with purely private jokes and puzzles – hidden names, anagrams, first letters of sentences that spell out something...

“I’m on my own working for ten hours a day – I have to have something to keep myself amused,” he says, before going off to tackle a lengthy line of autograph seekers.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Why I shall be supporting the Alliance of Independent Authors

By Dan Holloway

This Wednesday the Alliance of Independent Authors will launch at London Book Fair. Set up by bestselling author Orna Ross, this is an organisation designed to promote the interests of self-published authors in today’s changing publishing environment. And their first campaign is to get self-published authors a higher profile at literary festivals.

I am notoriously phobic towards organised anything, and have spent much of the past year being highly critical of many of my fellow indie authors, but this is a cause I am absolutely thrilled to get behind, and I couldn’t be more excited that I’ve been asked to be part of the author panel for the launch, which will take place from 10am on Wednesday 18th April in the Old Press Room at the London Book Fair (Earls Court). I do hope you’ll come and find out more.

One of the things I was asked in advance of the launch is why I became an indie. This is the answer I gave – prickly and idiosyncratic but one that Orna was more than happy to receive – and that is another reason why I’m so happy to be involved – this is an umbrella organisation that doesn’t require homogeneity – and surprising as it may seem for an indie community, that’s a rare thing!

Self-publishing was a very simple choice for me to take. Back in 2007 I decided I wanted to give writing for a wider audience a proper chance. Like most writers, I’ve always written and I have my share of drawers full of emo poetry and really angsty teenage novels, but at 35 it felt like the right time to give it a proper bash. I churned out a thriller set in Oxford, and set about fine tuning it with a view to getting an agent and then a publisher. To this end, I joined the writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy in 2008, where I soon discovered I preferred writing literary fiction to writing thrillers, and by mid 2008 I had churned out a second book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a literary work set in post-communist Hungary about a girl growing up and trying to find her place in a world where nothing is constant. I set about finding an agent for it, still rather wet behind the ears and not really knowing anything other than that “this was what you did.”

I had a lovely letter from the only agency I really wanted to work with (one that focused on international fiction) saying how excited they were by the book but they couldn’t sell it in the current climate. At about the same time I was learning more and more about the vibrant literary world that existed online, and I started to wonder why I’d ever looked for a publisher in the first place. I wasn’t interested in making “a big splash” as the agent had put it. I wrote because I had something I needed to say, in whatever form it needed saying – whereas publishers wanted to tell you how you should be saying it in order to get sales. I didn’t want sales. I didn’t even want readers overly much. I wanted to get what was in my head out of there in the form it wanted.
And I wanted to play with what was and wasn’t literature.

I’ve always loved art since a school trip to the Tate introduced me to Rothko. I’d spent hours at the infamous Turner Prize exhibition of 1999 and fallen head over heels in love with Tracey Emin’s work (and, it’s probably true to say, with her). Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is set largely in the art world, and references Emin’s works throughout. Art was very very exciting. My childhood and young adult heroes were artists – Rothko, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat, Emin and Lucas, the Wilson Twins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread. Art was heady, dangerous, talked about, argued about. It incited passion. And whilst I was aware of the storm over Satanic Verses, that was hardly the same as the reaction to Sensation, to Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley. Yes, YBA was full of marketing and slick and surface and phoneyism. But it was also dangerous, challenged the way people thought about art, about the world, about themselves and reality.

Literary culture just wasn’t like that. And aspiring writers just talked about how to get published. That wasn’t a conversation I was interested in. I wanted people to talk about literature like they did about art – I wanted to work with people who were doing wild things that would have people shaking their head and asking “but is it a book?” The whole world of getting published was, quite simply, a different conversation from the one I wanted to have.

Of course that was simplistic. But it remains the case that the most exciting discussions of words take place “in another place” and not in the world of publishing. I have also been saddened rather than heartened by much that has happened in self-publishing since the launch of the Kindle. Self-publishing is now (and fair play to everyone concerned) a place where people can set out their stall and hope, with a following wind, marketing acuity, and great writing, to make a decent crust. Which means its landscape is much like the landscape of mainstream publishing. And the conversations self-publishing writers have are, now, about how to market, how to format, what their sales figures are. It is a conversation that is increasingly squeezing me out the way regular publishing did. Or, rather, it is a conversation that regularly threatens to subsume me the way regular publishing did, and that would be my biggest single piece of advice to a self-publisher – remember why you’re doing it and don’t be a magpie. Don’t let sales or invitations or publicity distract you – unless they were the reason for self-publishing, in which case go for it.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Cumbria Libraries Titanic Creative Writing Competition

Cumbria Libraries in conjunction with Word Market South Cumbria Literary Festival

The Titanic Creative Writing Competition

Try your hand at writing a very short “short story”, based on the theme of The Titanic.

There is a £25 book token for the winner of each of our 3 age categories:
· Adult (19+)
· 12 – 18 years
· 11 years and under

Your short, short story - otherwise known as Flash Fiction - should have a minimum of 100 words and a maximum of 500 words.

All entries will be read and judged by author and poet, Maggie Norton.

The winning stories will be displayed in Cumbria’s larger libraries, and published on the Library Service website.

Closing Date for entries - Monday 21st May, 2012

Competition Guidelines
  • Entries are invited from anyone living or working in Cumbria, for original short stories of no more than 500 words on the theme of The Titanic. 
  • Your story must be unpublished and must not have been entered in any other competition 
  • You may submit only one entry. 
  • Your story must be in English and typed, or very clearly hand written. 
  • Entrants must agree to their winning story being displayed in libraries and published on the library service website, or in any other publication which Cumbria County Council considers appropriate. 
  • Entries may be handed in to your local library, or, emailed to
  • Please include your name, address, & phone number on your entry. (If you are 18 and under, also add your age so that your entry is put into the correct category for judging)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Phoenix Bright Eagle

This month’s podcast is the opening chapters of Phoenix Bright Eagle, a dark and complex retelling of a classic Russian fairytale by Alexandra Yudovich, read by the author.
You can listen to it at

Yudovich knew and loved this tale as a child and wanted to translate it. But when she first triedwriting it down in English, it soon became clear that a straight translation would not to work. Taken out of its native tongue, the story didn’t have the same feeling, the same poetry. So this retelling borrows from Western traditions and blends them seamlessly with the Russian. One traditional element, however, remains firmly centre stage. In Russian fairytales, the woman is no passive figure waiting to be rescued. Like Alenushka in this story, it is she who sets out on a quest; she who, more often than not, must save the prince.

Alexandra Yudovich is a former employee of Radio Free Europe. She now lives in San Francisco.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Conversation with Michael Morpurgo

by Gillian Hamer

Not ever having read a great deal of children’s fiction, Michael Morpurgo was not a writer I was familiar with until the recent explosive success of his novel, War Horse, both on stage and big screen. But upon researching his background, I’ve found myself drawn to his passion for his work and his staggering literary credentials.

It was during his first job as a primary school teacher, in his late twenties, that Michael discovered his talent for storytelling. Since then, he has gone on to become famous not only as an author, predominantly in children’s fiction, but also a poet, playwright and librettist. He was the third Children’s Laureate and has written in excess of 120 novels so far.

But it is his novel, War Horse – runner-up for the Whitbread Book Award in 1982, which finally catapulted Michael’s name into the spotlight.

War Horse has been adapted as a radio broadcast and as a successful stage play, premiering in South Bank, London, in October 2007, with the horses played by life-sized puppet horses. The show transferred to the West End in March 2009 and continues a successful run at the New London Theatre. And last year, the stage version premiered on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. And finally, to cap the extraordinary success of Joey and his owner, Albert, the story has been welcomed into the arms of Hollywood with a British-American film directed by Stephen Spielberg.

The synopsis of the book seems a relatively simple approach to the wartime-based story that Michael enjoys tackling:

At the outbreak of World War I, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. His rider, Captain Nicholls is killed while riding Joey. The horse is soon caught up in the war; death, disease and fate take him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself along in No man’s land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist in the British Army, he embarks on a dangerous mission to find the horse and bring him home to Devon.

So, what is it about this story of love and faith that has so captured the hearts and minds of people across the globe?

One person may well know the answer more than most. So, with that question, and more, this month we’re pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the author himself – Mr Michael Morpurgo.

How were you first approached about the theatre and cinema adaptations of War Horse? Which idea came first and what were your initial thoughts/fears?

I was first approached via my agent by the National Theatre. It was the director Tom Morris’ mother who originally discovered my book and urged him to read War Horse. I was sceptical at first. I wondered how on earth a convincing drama of the First World War could be made using life-size puppets of horses? For the film, it was Kathleen Kennedy, producer of films such as ET and Schindler’s List who came to see the National Theatre production of War Horse with her daughter on a visit to London. She was so entranced by the play that she immediately called Spielberg and suggested that War Horse might be worth a read for his next film and that he should come over and see the play too.

Did you ever have any concerns about how Joey’s story could effectively be told via confines of the theatre stage?

I did have fears initially, but I trusted Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott implicitly. They work-shopped the story with Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from Handspring and the rest of the team – designers, musicians, writers, to explore how it could be done. They came down to Devon where I live to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. There were some tense moments during the Previews when it was obvious that the play was too long, even clumsy in places, but in the end they got it together somehow. Press night was a triumph.

The settings in both Devon and France are important features in the novel. Obviously there are limitations in theatre, but how do you think the sense of place comes across in the film compared to your books?
I think the scenes in Devon and France are magnificent. The cinematography is breathtaking. Spielberg filmed much of the Devon story on Dartmoor, very close to the village of Iddesleigh which was the original setting for the Devon story in the book.

What do you feel are the main differences between the stage adaptation and the film? And what are particular advantages of both?

The film keeps closer to the story in the book, I would say, but both the stage adaptation and the film are true to the spirit of the story.  Both have great emotional intensity.

An obvious question about POV. In the book, the story is told in the ‘voice’ of Joey the horse. Clearly, this is not possible in the film, which chooses a naturalistic viewpoint. How do you feel this changes the nature of the story? And did you ever consider writing the story from an external point of view?

I did consider writing the story from an external point of view but I think that would have meant making a judgment about war and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell the story of suffering on all sides, universal suffering, through the eyes of a creature who is wholly innocent and yet caught up in the events. I also wanted to explore the bond between animals and humans as I have in my books many times. There is a particular connection that people feel to horses that I have witnessed through the relationship of my own daughter to her horse.

Many of your children’s stories are set in or on the fringes of War. Why are you drawn to that as a theme? And why do you consider it important to write on those themes for children?

I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren’t supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings were destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my handsome young uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him and through the grief my mother lived every day of her life.  I missed him and I’d never known him. War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it both because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war, the ‘pity of war’ as Wilfred Owen called it. Wars are still happening today and children see the effects of war and suffering all around them, on the tv, in newspapers and through the people they know. Knowing the sensitivities of children, we have to be careful not to traumatise them when writing about or telling them about such dreadful events as war and the consequences of war. But nonetheless, I think we have to talk straight about these issues and not talk down to children.

You’re such a prolific writer, what motivates you nowadays, and is there an additional spark when you write now, knowing your work could develop into so much more than just the original novel?

I know that I have been very very lucky to have a book turned into a play and not just any play, and then a film by one of the greatest film directors and storytellers of all time. My work has given me the opportunity to work with some of the greatest theatre directors including Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, but also Simon Reade, who adapted Private Peaceful and the Mozart Question for stage and radio, and is now producing a movie for Private Peaceful directed by Pat O’Connor. It certainly has given my writing another dimension. I feel more and more that my writing is bound up in performance in some way. I always speak my story down onto the page to hear how it sounds. When I am writing well I’m deep inside a story, living it as I write it and also feeling it deeply. This is when the story really begins to work. I hope that readers will become completely involved in my story as they are reading – in much the same way that people in the theatre suspend disbelief so that a puppet horse can become a living, breathing creature capable of cantering across fields and pulling a cannon.

You have done a great deal of work with illustrators, librettists, directors, puppeteers, not to mention directors – in your opinion what makes for the best kind of creative collaboration?

The best kind of creative collaboration is based on trust. I think in adaptation you have to trust and allow the experts to do what they do best, even if it isn’t always how you would want it to be done.
Have you ever written yourself into a character? And if so, is it therefore odd watching or hearing the role on stage or film or radio play?

I suppose I use myself a great deal in all my characters, the good, the bad and the ugly.  But while I am creating them I do detach myself as far as possible, so I can look upon them as if they are entirely not me, even though I know they are connected, if that makes sense.

You’re obviously famous for pushing the boundaries of lead characters, using animals for example. What do you think are the key points needed to create a successful main protagonist, be it horse, dog or human, in children’s literature?

To become the character, animal or human, is the key.  I have to do what the puppeteers do in the play of War Horse. They become horse. I become every character I create, try to see the world as they do, live inside their skin.

Looking now to the phenomenal success of War Horse, how much involvement did you have in the theatre production?

I have tried to keep involved as much as I can and offer advice when they want it. I read the script and commented on the bits that I thought didn’t work so well originally. I always try and go and talk to the new cast – even went to New York. I tell them about the origin of the book and about Devon. The team from the National came down to Devon to see the landscape of the story, to watch horses working the land. I also suggested that they visit the Royal Horse Artillery Regiment, where soldiers still work with horses every day at their barracks in London St John’s Wood.

And same question with the film version. Did you get to work alongside Steven Spielberg and the amazing cast? Did you meet Joey?

I did meet him a few times and talked about the book and about the First World War. I visited the set with my wife Clare several times and we both got to have roles as extras in the film. You can spot us near the beginning of the film in one of the village scenes. I’ve got not very attractive side-burns but my wife looks gorgeous!

Aside from POV, how close did you hope the film adaptation would be to your novel – a mirror image or do you prefer some originality?

I prefer originality. A film or play that simply reproduces the novel rarely works.    There must be scope for the originality of a director, he or she cannot be constrained.

Do you feel your writing has changed at all now your novels are regularly made into films?

Not at all

Are there any other books to big screen adaptations you particularly rate in your chosen genre? And if so, why?

Lots.  King of the Cloud Forest, Elephant in the Garden, Running Wild, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea – others too.

As an author, how does it feel to pick up a newspaper and read that something you have created is now a huge Hollywood success, which as we write, is in contention for six Academy Awards and five BAFTAS? Does it ever feel a little unreal?

Yes, it feels a bit unreal at times, and there are moments that I know I have got lucky, very lucky indeed.  I just come home and sit down in front of my exercise book and become a writer again, or go for a muddy walk down by the river. I soon come down to earth again,

The story of the conception of the idea of War Horse is quite wonderful – a young boy who visited one of your city farms in Birmingham bonded with a horse. Do you think it’s possible that children could take some similar strength away from the book or the film?

I hope that both the book and the film convey the universal suffering of war that touches everyone. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of an innocent animal who sees the war from both sides. This was my greatest anxiety too about the book that, the reader, child or adult, would have to suspend disbelief instantly.  Get it wrong and it simply wouldn’t work. I had to believe not in the notion of course that horses could talk or write, but there could be real empathy between horse and man.

I had heard from accounts of veterans that I talked to in my village how attached the soldiers had become to their horses, how they confided in them talk to them as best friends when they went to see them in the horse lines. But never having witnessed this myself I could never quite believe it. I still thought it might be perhaps just an old soldier’s sentimental notion.  It was seeing the boy from Birmingham – Billy – who I had been told never uttered a word - talking so freely to our horse in his stable at night, that made me convinced that I had found the right way to tell my story.

What is the truth behind the story of the painting of ‘Joey’ that also inspired you?

The truth is that there was never a painting of ‘Joey’ in the village hall in Iddesleigh as is says in the opening of War Horse. I was inspired by a painting but it was of horses on the wire in the First World War. The painting of Joey hanging above the clock in the village hall was never true. But since the book and the film people have been coming to the village especially to see the painting of Joey so we have had one commissioned by the artist Ali Bannister and now it hangs in pride of place in the hall.

As a literary magazine, we recognise YA is a hugely popular genre at the moment, what words of wisdom or encouragement would you offer to new upcoming writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

All I can tell you are some of the guide lines that I have worked out for myself:

Live an interesting life.  Go places.  Meet people.   Keep your eyes and your ears and your heart open so that you drink in the world about you and fill up the well you will be drawing from when you write.  Read a lot and widely, learn from the masters. If you can, write just a little every day, telling down the most important thing that has happened to you that day, just a couple of lines, so that it’s there.   If you do it on a regular basis this helps you find your natural voice.

Finally, as an aside, you are on record as criticising library closures both in Devon where you now live and in your native Hertfordshire. But what kind of library service do you think can best serve communities these days? And do you have a view of the role of volunteers in providing library services?

I believe that good libraries and good school libraries in particular are vital, but more importantly the librarians who work in them and enthuse about books and stories, are essential. We all know that reading can transform people and change lives, and libraries play a vital role, especially for those children who don’t have books at home.

Images Copyright Richard Canon.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Canadian Libraries: A Tale of Two Authorities

by Catriona Troth, The Library Cat

From the outside, it looks exactly the same as when I used to cycle there from home as a child. A little white, weatherboarded house, surrounded by a picket fence. Like houses up and down this quiet street in the oldest part of the village, Thornhill Village Library still bears the small plaque telling passers-by who lived there in 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. The board swinging like a pub sign outside bears the same logo of a spreading tree.

Inside, though, it’s been doing some growing. Beyond the two roomsthat I remember, there’s a children’s library I brought my own children to, ten years ago. And now it seems to have sprouted another room beyond that. High-ceilinged and lit with tall windows that let in the warm, spring sunshine, this rooms is lined with non-fiction books. In the middle is a large island of computer desks and off to one side, a cluster of sofas and chairs just begging for someone to curl up for a good read.

The front of the library, the bit I remember from my childhood, is given over to largely paperback fiction. The spines sport large letters on squares of coloured paper. The colour indicates the genre of the book and the letter gives the first letter of the author’s surname, making it easy to find what you are looking for and, I imagine, to file things. Canadian titles are marked with a red maple leaf.

The children’s section has a double ring of shelves, with a rocking chair in the middle that looks perfect for storytime. There are little wooden stools, a doll’s house and some soft toys. On the back wall are photographs of pets belonging to the young library users. I spot a pig and a donkey in amongst the dogs and cats and rabbits.

The book I eventually settle down to read, on another of the comfy chairs scattered about, is Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile. This is the story of a woman who, at various points in her life, encounters a mysterious mobile library whose ever-expanding shelves hold a copy of every book she has ever read. It seems oddly appropriate in these surroundings – a library I return to every decade or so, which always seems to have grown a bit since last time I saw it and which holds so many memories of my own explorations in reading.
Librarians on the Picket Lines

Thornhill Village Library has survived its own turbulent times. When I was in high school, they build a large central library just two kilometres away. The little village library was considered redundant and threatened with closure. But the locals had other ideas and fought to keep it going. It survived as a paperback library, thrived and then expanded once more. It is now open seven days a week, including two evenings. As much as can be said of anything these days, its future seems secure.

The same cannot be said of libraries a few miles to the south, in the Greater Toronto area.

A year ago, with the support of a massive public campaign spearheaded by Margaret Atwood, Toronto librarians won a battle with City authorities to prevent the closure of branches. But any triumph they may have felt has been temporary. Mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother (dubbed ‘the twin Fordmayors by Atwood) have come back with swingeing budget cuts and new terms of employment that would remove job security from large numbers of library staff.

The librarians responded by going on strike, closing every branch in the Greater Toronto Area from Sunday 18th March. For ten days they maintained a picket line in Nathan Philips Square, outside City Hall, walking in a good humoured circle around a band of musicians singing protest songs and periodically break into a chant. (‘Libraries work because – WE DO!’) One week into the strike, on Sunday afternoon, they held a read-in at the main Toronto Reference Library, inviting the public to ‘come and read a Canadian book.’ They were supported by the Writers’ Union of Canada, and writers including Susan Swan and Douglas Gibson joined in.

It was quite hard to guage how much public support they had this time round. The newspaper coverage was mixed, ranging from those who believe that the librarians action proved they ‘were only in it for the money all along’ to those who thought their quiet, dignified protest was perfectly pitched to disconcert the mayor and his brother.

Margaret Atwood was out of town when the strike began, working on a new book. But she emailed the Globe and Mail, voicing her support for librarians, as well as encouraging her Twitter followers to attend the weekend read-in. “People support libraries but sometimes they don’t understand that is takes people to make them run,” she said.

After ten days, the union concluded a deal with the Library Board that involved some compromise on both sides. But Toronto’s libraries reopened on 30th March with their workers in a better position than those in unions who had to deal directly with the City Council. Toronto still loves its libraries, even if the ‘Twin Fordmayors’ still don’t get it.