Reaching Authors

When I was little, I adored The Famous Five. I wrote a letter to Enid Blyton to tell her so. This was quite a big deal. I can’t remember if I actually found some sort of address or if I just sent it to “Enid Blyton, England” in the certain knowledge that she was so famous it was bound to find her but I wrote her a fan letter.

I gushed about how much I loved The Famous Five and how wonderful she was. I took time and wrote very neatly in my best writing and sent it off, shaking with excitement because I was writing to a real author and of course she would reply and I would treasure it for the rest of my life.

She never wrote back.

Of course, the fact that she’d been dead for about 20 years may have been some sort of excuse, but still. Anyway, although my love of her books remained and I went on to devour more for years, especially the St Clare’s series, I didn’t try to connect with any more authors. Maybe some little part of me decided that she hadn’t written back because authors just don’t do that – they are mystical creatures who must be kept on pedestals. I kind of equated authors with pop stars; in fact they were even more amazing because I wasn’t really ever into pop music but books were my best friends. I think my parents did try and tell me that Enid Blyton was dead but by then the damage was done; I was SCARRED for life (well, ok that might be a slight exaggeration. But only slight *sniff*).

Anyway, I was thinking about it all the other day. I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of a fantastic book, which I’ll be reviewing soon (if you’re interested, it was Bloodstone by Gillian Philip, the sequel to Firebrand which I reviewed on here last year as well as interviewing Seth MacGregor, the main character). There were frequent occasions when I picked up my phone and tweeted a message to Gillian to say how much I’d enjoyed a particular part. I didn’t even think about it until one really heartstopping moment after which I sent her a private message telling her how that one passage had made me feel. Then out of nowhere I remembered my Enid Blyton debacle and the contrast really struck me.

It was nothing to send an author a quick message, not just about how much I liked her work overall, but about one particular passage of one particular book. And Gillian messaged me back. This was nothing unusual, we frequently chat on Twitter but that in itself is quite amazing when you stop to think about it. I think it is amazing, actually, on many levels. As an aspiring author myself now, I dream about fan mail, who doesn’t? And things like Twitter and Facebook Pages and this blog make it so much easier to get that fan mail and feedback quickly. I reckon if I get published feedback like this will keep me motivated and and reassured that people are enjoying my writing (hopefully anyway…). And for the reader, especially younger readers perhaps, that sense of authors being mystical beings who must be worshipped from afar might be broken down as they can reach them way more easily than I could. It’s another little endorsement for the Wonders of the Internet and a reminder that we are very lucky to have the technology that we do.

I do wonder what Enid Blyton would have made of it. Would she have been on Twitter? Not likely, from some of the things I’ve heard. Maybe she is an author best admired from afar, I don’t know. But it’d be great fun to think of what her twitter name would be. @gingerbeer maybe?


As a writer, I think your journey starts right back at the very beginning when you first string letters together and realise they make words. In other words, when you begin to read. Throughout my life I’ve loved reading and rereading and I’ve been influenced to different degrees by the various authors that I’ve read. It’s not that I try to emulate their work (although I sometimes do) or that I want to write in that genre (although I sometimes do!) but that I learn something from each of them. That could be how they write dialogue, the kind of characters they create, the settings and atmospheres they evoke or just a lightness of touch that says so much in so few words and makes me think “Wow, that was good. How do I do that?”

Here’s my personal top eight influences, in no particular order. What are yours?

  • Jane Austen – Whatever you think about romantic novels, and hers are among the very best, there’s no denying that Jane Austen was a master at writing about concerns both peculiar to her time and universal. She’s also the queen of quick, witty prose and sharp observations; and her characters are memorable and human, with weaknesses and frailties that we can relate to. I bow in awe.
  • Georgette Heyer – Fabulous, evocative and detailed portrayals of Regency life, and by gum she can write a funny scene that has me laughing my socks off every time I read it. This is the kind of historical I want to write – a good story, a happy ending and funny, sympathetic characters that are both hindered and helped by the Society in which they live.
  • Eva Ibbotson – I love every one of her books that I’ve read. They appeal to adults and young adults and the language is really beautiful.
  • Edith Nesbit – One of my completely favourite childhood authors. I loved her storylines, the mix of magic and everyday life. I think the Psammead is one of the best magical creatures ever, I would love to come up with something like that. She taught me that magic and fantasy interweave with our world to produce the most wonderful stories. And who doesn’t cry at the end of The Railway Children?
  • Dr Seuss – the wacky and wonderful words he comes up with and the brilliant, often convoluted rhyming. A staple of my childhood, who I’m introducing to my kids. He teaches you to play with language and though I’m not as brave as he is in just making words up, I’d love to be. There are no rules with Dr Seuss but through him you learn about rhyme and rhythm and poetry. It’s wonderful.
  • Lord Tennyson – If only for The Lady of Shalott. My mum read this to me when I was tiny and apparently I loved it and would listen to it over and over. Up until a couple of years ago this disappeared completely from my life then I started re-reading it. I’m fairly convinced it’s responsible in some subliminal way for my love of historical romantic heroines, or as I used to call them, “Ladies in long dresses’.
  • C S Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia are among my favourite books of all time, never mind childhood. Again, it’s the mix of fantasy and real life – throwing ordinary children into magical situations that I would love to try and do really well. Until then, I can totally lose myself in his land. Apparently Tolkien disliked the Narnia stories because Lewis had a real hodge-podge of fantasy elements, throwing in creatures and stories from a huge variety of mythic traditions instead of painstakingly creating a world with its own rules and creatures. I, on the other hand, really like this about Lewis’ work. If ever there was a clear example of how allowing yourself to be influence by your reading can produce amazing results, Lewis is it. He’s also a brilliant Christian writer – Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce are wonderful books.
  • Terry Pratchett – So prolific! I love a book that makes me laugh out loud and his do, time and again. I also have to say, although I prefer his earlier work, I am hugely inspired by how he has dealt with his illness and found a way to work around it to keep writing.

There are so many more. I take a little away from every book I read – for better or worse! And one day, maybe someone will have me on a similar list of their own.

I Have a Dream…

Do you know what I would really like? What would be amazing and brilliant and fantastic and… ok, ok I’ll get on with it.

A North East Writing Festival. Yes, I know there’s one in York in March, but hear me out, please?

I’m not in the poorest bracket of people in the country, in many ways I’m very lucky. But we’re a one-salary household with two small children, and I just do not have the money to go to something as wonderful as York Festival of Writing. I wanted to, but that’s the way the cookie (or stale bread crust, cue the violins) crumbles. And York is probably my closest option – something like Oxford or Get Writing in Hertfordshire are out of the question; even if the conference / workshop fees were in my range, the cost of actually getting there would make it simply impossible. That’s only going to get worse, since fuel prices are creeping – no, not creeping, soaring up.

The thing is, I always knew that. I always knew that there were wonderful conferences and events where you had the option of workshops and meeting authors and suchlike, and I always assumed that they cost what to our family is a small fortune. I’m not totally unreasonable, I completely agree that anyone agreeing to lead the workshops etc needs to be paid and needs to have their expenses covered. But last year I got a shock. I was on Twitter (I know, what a shocking revelation) and I happened to notice Nicola Morgan tweet that one of her workshops in the Edinburgh Book Festival still had some spaces (btw if you don’t follow Nicola on Twitter or at her blog, do. Incredibly useful.). Out of daftness I clicked through to see how much it was and nearly fell off my seat – I can’t remember the price but it was something like £5. £5?! For a workshop with a prolific and talented author? And as I looked through the Festival programme all the workshops seemed to be the same sort of price. That’s it, I was off…until I saw that the travel and accommodation put it back out of reach. I couldn’t afford the train and the National Express times meant I would have to stay in Edinburgh overnight.

So imagine my excitement when I heard about the York Festival! I assumed it was the same sort of idea, but, y’know, in York. Sadly for me, it’s not; it’s the sort of thing I would have imagined before seeing the Edinburgh events. And I do not for one minute think it’s not worth every penny – believe me, if I had the money I’d have been booked as soon as the tickets went on sale. Every event looks amazing, nearly every facilitator is someone I’d be over the moon to meet, and one day, one day, I will go. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t, and I assume there’s a canny few who are in the same boat. Excuse the colloquialism, I’m getting to the North East bit now…

My dream, then, is to have a North East Festival of Writing, or Books, or Literature – however you want to describe it. Along the same lines as Edinburgh – individual workshops. The thing is, there are loads of talented writers around here but we are a relatively deprived part of the UK and we are a relatively neglected part of the UK. Here’s my, er, manifesto:

The NE Festival would be:

  • accessible: venues in Newcastle City Centre; perhaps also in Durham or Teesside. But Newcastle has such good transport links it is the most feasible.
  • varied: I envisage events with authors, publishers and agents, covering submissions, writing tips, Q&A, book signings, critiques…
  • sociable: alongside the individual events I’d have picnic lunches for participants (giving the speakers some rest time!) and extra dinners on Friday and Saturday night
  • affordable: my rough idea would be a blanket charge to cover entry to 3 days of events and two social dinners (“networking opportunities”!) BUT because that would be a substantial fee, I’d also charge a small amount per individual event – maybe up to £10 – and per social, so you could kind of mix and match your own Festival based on your budget. And people bringing a picnic lunch, for example, would keep costs down too.
  • locally-biased: I wouldn’t include accommodation in the overall fee. This would mean that a)prices were kept down as much as possible and b)more local writers were encourage to come. Although if any hotels wanted to do a deal and discount prices for attendees I wouldn’t say no…
  • fair: I’d cover all fees and expenses of the attending speakers. Well, not me personally. You know what I mean.

Now obviously, it’s a HUGE ask. I really do think it would be worthwhile though – I think a lot of writers from the North East would jump at the chance to go to such a Festival; or, of course, from anywhere in the country – you’d just have to sort yourselves out with a bed for the night. Ooh, or we could make it the Glastonbury of writing, and have people camp out, with a big marquee for events… *mind off on another track*

Ahem. Anyway, I’m off to research charitable trusts for the Arts to see if I can persuade anyone to fund this brainwave. Wouldn’t it be good, though? What would you put in, if you were organising the line-up? Any thoughts? But the first person to say it’ll never happen gets a rotten tomato thrown at them. A girl can dream…

Beggar at the Feast

So, to continue my current love affair with Les Miserables, I’m borrowing the title of a song for this blog post although the link is extremely tenuous. Towards the end, the villainous Thénardiers gatecrash the wedding of Marius and Cosette and enjoy the experience of being at a posh do.

Ain’t it a laugh? Ain’t it a treat?

Hobnobbing here among the elite?

…Here’s me breaking bread with the upper crust!

I love Twitter. One of the reasons I do is the way you can ‘meet’ so many different people, from all sorts of backgrounds. When I first joined (and still to an extent) one of the big things was to follow Stephen Fry. Throughout the day you could get to know little bits of how a real celebrity spent his day and how he felt about random topics; now, he has so many followers it’s highly unlikely you’d get a reply from him, but many celebrities are using Twitter and do interact. If you follow the lovely Maria Duffy, you can read her blog for Hello! magazine in which she interviews celebrities on that exact topic. Now, pay attention, as it’s my chance to drop a few names. I’ve had replies from Paula Abdul and Hugh Bonneville, Steve Balsamo (who plays Jesus on the most recent recording of Jesus Christ Superstar – now that was a jawdropper. How many people have had private messages from Jesus?!) and some literary celebs like Katie Fforde and Joanne Harris. Once I tweeted about a rejection that particularly stung, and got a lovely encouraging message from Katie Fforde. The next day we were in Waterstones and I spent about ten minutes showing my husband the shelf full of Katie’s books and repeating the tweet I’d received. A couple of days ago I was thrilled to be followed by Joanne Harris and have had a few exchanges with her, especially about Les Miserables. To be honest, this to me is like being the beggar at a feast full of A-list movie stars.

I’m also very happy to have frequent chats with Real Authors. When I say chats, I usually mean trading friendly insults. One of my favourite books is by Gillian Philip, and I love chatting to her, both on Twitter and facebook. You know what though? It’s good for me. Especially Twitter – I’m learning to communicate concisely and (hopefully) wittily with intelligent, witty people, some famous, some not. My confidence is developing by leaps and bounds as a result. Someone said to me the other day that I don’t come across as shy online – I think perhaps a year ago I would have done. I would never have had the confidence to suggest to Joanne Harris that I insult her (I mean, come on! The woman has written a book that’s a Johnny Depp film, for crying out loud) or argue with a Carnegie Medal-shortlisted author about the banking crisis or ask the author of one of my all-time favourite books how her new hamster is settling in. And I’m learning that Real Authors are, like, y’know, normal people with regular lives and highs and lows. And they don’t have two heads. Who knew?

I’ve blogged before about some of the amazingly good friends I’ve made on Twitter – you know who you are, Jane, Nettie, Ciara, et al. But this is an aspect of Twitter that has taken me totally by surprise and I love it. And maybe one day, some complete unknown will be blogging (or whatever, I’m sure technology will have moved on somewhat by then!) about how they’ve had a message from a Real Author, Rebecca Brown.