Thursday, 19 February 2009

Emma Turnbull: Reading Mountaineer

Emma Turnbull, Literacy Officer at Scottish Arts Council pops in to blog about the mountain of reading she is currently doing for us as a member of the shortlisting panel for the 2009 Royal Mail Awards.

My living room is full of piles of book and bits of paper covered with scruffy scribbly notes, I haven’t been out after work for the last three weeks and I’ve started having crazy dreams because I’m reading non stop about magical, mythical and mystical happenings, far off lands, days gone-by and playground sagas of bullying, unrequited love and hair-dye gone wrong. It can only mean one thing: it must be the Royal Mail Awards!

I love being on the panel for the awards, I love the feeling of collecting the giant box of books and then getting home and arranging them all in piles wondering which ones I’ll love and which ones I will throw across the room in despair. I love the panel meeting in March where we all argue over which books should make it to the shortlists. The bits of scribbly scruffy paper are essential tools I need for the panel battle. It should be a nice civilised meeting where everyone comes to the same conclusion but it isn’t! No! It is all out war, polite war of course, the panel is made up of adults (and 4 kids who are probably the most civilised of all of us).

Since collecting the box-of-books I’ve been tearing through them every night and every spare minute I get-I’ve even stopped cycling to work so I can read on the bus. Reading so many children’s books in a compressed space of time definitely does funny things to your mind, you find yourself thinking about all kinds of stuff you wouldn’t normally: this year there have been a couple of ‘knights of old’ type books in the teen category so I’ve found myself thinking about that sort of world a lot. Last year I remember looking out at the sea thinking ‘where are all the galleons?’ yes, being a judge definitely unsettles your mind!

The books for the youngest age group are usually my favourite, I normally test them out on tots I babysit but this year I just had to force my boyfriend to listen to them instead, (‘But I’m watching Match of the Day’ ‘no but listen, there’s this kitten right, look it’s going to have some adventures’ etc etc) with the picture books you really need to know what they are going to sound like out-loud, sometimes it is completely different to the way something looks on the page.
So far I’ve read the picture books and the mid age range books, I had one clear favourite in the mid range, it was the sort of book you couldn’t wait to get back to. It was so good I was dipping into it at work in between meetings and at one point in the middle of a (very boring) meeting. I always get a bit nervous when I like a book too much though in case the other members of the panel hate it.

I’m reading the teen books now. Most of the time with the books it’s easy to remember back to when you were a certain age and think ‘I would have loved / hated this’ with the teen books most of them are much the same as books written for adults so it is much easier to judge. There is still about a month to go before the panel meeting, I have been saving some of the authors I know until the end as treats but there has been a lot of really great stuff already, some very nice surprises. There have been no absolute stinkers so far, I haven’t thrown a single book across the room and I also haven’t gone cross eyed yet! 40 down 10 to go.

Thank you Emma.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Keith Gray: Kebabs and the Bosphorus

To begin this week we welcome back our good friend Keith Gray, who is here to blog about his travels and how they are inspiring his work.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Istanbul by the Koç School, to take part in their book fair, and flew in late at night. A long taxi journey from Atatürk airport in the dark didn’t show me much of the city. I saw hints of history and palm trees.

I was also hungry. Did you know that Guinness tastes better in its birthplace of Dublin? Apparently so. I wondered if the same was true for kebabs. With the smattering of Turkish I’d learned on the plane I managed to get the taxi driver to recommend a small eatery close to my hotel. To my surprise he even came with me. We sat opposite each other at a rickety wooden table no bigger than a chessboard by the side of the street, still buzzing loud and lively this late at night. The plates and plates of skewered lamb and chicken and spicy meatballs piled up. We sniffed the glorious smells, grinned at each other, then stuffed our faces. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language, we were too busy gorging. And I’d argue that these kebabs were without doubt 100% better than the ones I’ve eaten on the way home from the pub back in Britain. But then this was the first time I’d eaten kebabs sober.

I got to see the city proper on my journey to the school the following morning. Istanbul is a great pushing, shoving sprawl. My morning drive to the Koç School took over an hour yet I never managed to leave the high-rises behind. The motorway flies through the city, seeming to rise above its seven hills. And the steep slopes below are jungled with tall apartment buildings. In the middle of these modern blocks, poking up here, there and everywhere, are minarets like snorkels, trying to suck down a breath of heavenly air.

Crossing the Bosphorus was magical. I’d woken in Europe, now I was stepping across into Asia. The bridge carries you so high, skimming you over the river from one continent to the next. And I wish I had the words to describe the view... No wonder the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans have all wanted to live here. No wonder 17 million people live there now.

I wanted to talk to the students at the Koç School all about Istanbul, but of course they’d seen it all before. I wanted to talk about the breath-taking beauty of the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque - just how very incredible some of these sights are. But that must have felt like ancient talk to them too. Because they’d heard it all before, so many times. They wanted to talk about books.

Books?! Do people get time to read books when they live somewhere like Istanbul? Luckily, yes. Or I wouldn’t have been invited in the first place.

And now that I’ve been I can write about it too. I’m already working on an idea for an Istanbul adventure. Maybe my hero has to escape across the Bosphorus? At the end of a chapter they could be dangled off the bridge by the villain - real cliff-hanger stuff!

Although perhaps I need to do a bit more research first? Perhaps I should go back? Have another look around, do some more exploring? There’s so much more I want to see...

Writing’s not all about sitting at a desk.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Sharon Tregenza: Master of the Zoo-niverse

We had a special event with Tarantula Tide author Sharon Tregenza at Edinburgh Zoo last week, and we've asked her to tell us a bit about the experience:

There were screams and squeals today at the educational department of Edinburgh Zoo. Animal handler Daniel captivated children and staff of Carrick Knowe and Leslie Primary schools with close up and personal introductions to some of the zoo's most fascinating inmates.

I was asked along to give a talk and answer questions about my Kelpie's Award-winning children's book Tarantula Tide so I was obviously interested in one creature particularly, the tarantula, Elsa. Tarantula Tide is about the illegal smuggling of endangered species so I was glad to see that Daniel had some evidence of this terrible trade. He showed us a belt made from snake skin that someone had bought in Nigeria for a few dollars. Although the tourist was unaware that it was real snakeskin he was still fined over five hundred pounds when he tried to bring it home through the airport. A really grotesque handbag made from the skin, head and legs of an alligator made us all shudder. This was just one of a consignment of over two hundred bags - two hundred animals killed senselessly for profit.

After we were charmed by Dylan the armadillo, had reluctantly held cockroaches and stroked the bearded dragon and the pythons we got to the star of the show, Elsa. Although we weren't able to hold her we got a close look at this beautiful spider with the rose pink design on her back. What a thrill it was.

It was a great day for everyone and I'm grateful to The Scottish Book Trust and Floris books for arranging such a very special venue. Check out these creatures at Edinburgh Zoo if you get the chance - you won't regret it.

Oh and the screams and squeals? They came mostly from the adults.

You can listen to Chris Newton's excellent interview with Sharon Tregenza here, and you can see many more pictures from the day here.

Monday, 9 February 2009

35,000 Lost Worlds in boxes...

This week we asked guest blogger Anna Burkey from Unesco Edinburgh City of Literature Trust to tell us a bit about what she's been up to lately...

It’s been a busy start to the year for me – I’ve been concentrating on giving away thousands of free books, and it’s harder work than it sounds! This year, we’re giving away about 35,000 copies of The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle – he may be better known for Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle was a bit of an early sci-fi writer, and this is the book that inspired Jurassic Park.

This is the third year we’ve been giving away classic Scottish books, as part of our One Book – One Edinburgh reading campaign. By “we” I mainly mean me and my colleague Ali, but we also have about 50 other organisations helping us this year – though it’s mainly Ali and I that get to actually unload the vans full of free books, and distribute them around town. There’s been no need for the gym this month – shifting 35,000 books has been keeping my muscles working. You can get yours at Edinburgh libraries, while stocks last. You can see some behind-the-scenes pics of me unloading vans and handing out books on our website, or find us on Facebook.

I’ve been having a lot of fun arranging dinosaur-themed events across the city. We launched the campaign at Dynamic Earth with the help of a giant pterodactyl (made by local artist Rhian Russell), and have events at Edinburgh Zoo, the Botanic Gardens and in Holyrood Park. There’s also a Forensics Week, inspired by Sherlock, at the Royal College of Surgeons, and an evening with Arthur Conan Doyle himself – he’s back in town to celebrate his 150th birthday.

It’s also been good fun working this year on The Lost Book – an animation project that is being run by our friends Helen and Adam (also known as animation company Binary Fable.) They’ve got a good blog going at, but they are getting a bit nervous now – they’ve aired the first animated episode online, but they don’t have a script for the next 5 episodes – it’s up to people to blog ideas, and then they’ll use those suggestions to write the rest of the story. I also keep getting sidetracked by voting in their blog for poll questions like ‘Watson the dog – boy or a girl?’

We’ve got a big question of our own to answer though – what should we get everyone to read next year? People have been telling us that they love the One Book – One Edinburgh campaign, but we’re a bit stuck as to what book we should choose next year. Any ideas?

Monday, 2 February 2009

Nicola Morgan Walks The Dog

Nicola Morgan drops in to tell us about the life of a full-time writer, how she copes with doing "nothing" and her latest novel, Deathwatch.

I suppose you think that since I’m a full-time writer, I must spend most of my time writing. Or even maybe half my time, at least. If only!
Do the maths - (don’t worry, I’ll do it for you) - say I’m writing a novel of 60,000 words; and say I write about 1000 words an hour; and say I wrote from 9 – 5 with an hour for lunch, Monday to Friday. I’d finish the novel in a bit more than ….…. eight and a half days. Whereas it really takes me months.

So, WHAT am I playing at the rest of the time? That’s a lot of time to be a “full-time writer” and not be writing. So, you might like to know what’s really going on when my husband thinks I’m working: writing other things (like my blogs, or ideas for a new book, or newspaper articles or reviews); checking or redrafting what I thought I’d finished writing - my publisher has people who do lots of checking and every time they do it they have to send it back to me to check their checking; doing school or festival events , with loads of travelling; boring stuff like ordering printer cartridges or going to the post office; work emails; REALLY ANNOYING things like dealing with my computer when it goes wrong; nice things like answering emails or letters from you; reading - very important for a writer, but a pleasure too, of course. Promotion is a big part too - so I’ll soon be busy promoting Deathwatch.

But even all that doesn’t take up most of the time. There are two more things, which are the biggest parts of my writing life. THINKING and DOING NOTHING. I can’t think of ideas or what happens next in my stories if I’m sitting at my computer, or sitting anywhere. And I can’t exactly write walking around, can I? Wouldn’t want to fall into the canal. But I discovered that there are three things that make ideas come: 1. Walking (that’s where the dog comes in) 2. Cooking (my favourite hobby and I can do it without thinking so it frees my brain for ideas) 3. Ironing (please don’t tell my family this as I pretend I hate it).

What about the appalling DOING NOTHING? Surely I should feel really guilty about it? After all, if someone does nothing at work or goes out for long lunches, they get into trouble. But when you’re doing nothing you actually are doing something - you’re thinking, dreaming, planning, making space for important ideas to come. For a writer, thinking is definitely the most important part of our lives, and we need to make plenty of time for it.
Actually, thinking time is important for everyone. Don’t fill your lives so full that you have no time to dream and wonder and let your thoughts free-wheel. But for me, it’s work too. So, if you see me doing nothing, please don’t worry: I’m WORKING.

Well, that’s my excuse.

Nicola Morgan’s next novel, Deathwatch, is published in June 2009
Author website:
Author blog:
Blog for writers:
Facebook Group: “Nicola Morgan’s Readers”

In Other News...
Publishing houses across London shut their doors today as the capital crumbled under the weight of 3inches of snow. Our friendly publicist friends had to make do with answering emails from the warmth of their duvets whilst supping on hot chocolate...some people have all the luck!

Congratulations to Neil Gaiman (who we did an event with in October) for winning the Newberry Medal in America for his amazing novel The Graveyard Book. The Newberry is the biggest accolade in American children's books!