Friday, 25 March 2011

Hidden book launch at the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town

Launching a ship involves smashing a bottle of champagne against the hull. This is usually accompanied by lots of cheering as the impressive feat of human engineering slides down the slipway into the sea. In all honesty, it would be difficult to apply the same technique to launch a book (though it might be fun to try). But a book, like a ship, takes a long time and a great deal of human effort to complete, so maybe there is mileage in the comparison.
However, the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town has a lot more literary ambience than your average shipyard. On Tuesday evening a good crowd gathered to squeeze between the aisles and cheer, as Miriam Halahmy metaphorically swung her bottle of champagne against the hull of the good ship Hidden (the first of the Hayling Cycle fleet) and launched it into the world. Given that the sea plays a crucial role in the story, perhaps you'll forgive the analogy, especially as Miriam herself said in the opening of her speech, "It's great to have you all here, to launch Hidden off the beach of Hayling Island. It's floating out to sea and it's got to make its own way now." 
Some of those gathered on the quayside: Bex Hill, Miriam, Christina Vinall, Nick Cross, Savita Kalhan, Caroline Green and some bald bloke in a seventies leather jacket.
If you don't know the background to Hidden, then check out my interview with Miriam. In it, she talks about her writing process and the inspiration she found on Hayling Island, as well as offering a sneak preview of the next two books in the series. Better still, grab yourself a copy, lay back in your hammock and settle down for an exciting voyage. 
OK, OK … I'll stop it now.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Fifteen minutes with Miriam Halahmy – Part Two

Hidden, the first book in the Hayling Cycle, by Miriam Halahmy, will be in book shops at the end of the month. For the first part of my interview with Miriam, click here – or read on for part two. 

8. Did you always imagine Hidden as part of a series? When you started, did you have all three books in your head? 
No, when I started Hidden, I think I was very much feeling my way in a new genre, writing for young adults, and I thought this would just be one book. But the trouble is, your characters have minds of their own, well mine do! A minor character in Hidden, the bad girl, Lindy, kept growing and growing until a whole new idea for a book about her emerged. The second book is called Illegal. But two books didn’t somehow feel the right arc and so Jess, a minor character in Illegal, becomes the main character in the third book, Stuffed, along with her boyfriend, Ryan. I have therefore written a cycle of three stand alone novels, with a shared landscape, where a minor character in the previous book becomes the major character in the next. 

9. Can you tell us more about Illegal and Stuffed? 
Illegal is Lindy’s story. Lindy helps Cousin Colin to run his cannabis farm, but then he forces her to push cocaine. Lindy is terrified that she will end up in prison like her older brothers. She must find a way to report Colin to the police without him knowing, otherwise he will kill her. She finds a friend in the mysterious Karl who is mute and drives her around the Island, underage, on his motorbike. 

Stuffed is Jess’ story and also Ryan’s. It is told in alternating first person voices. Both Jess and Ryan make a terrible discovery after they have started their relationship. Each keeps their secret from the other. Will their love survive the pressures they find themselves under? 

10. Which book in the series have you enjoyed writing the most and why? 
To be honest, the book I most enjoyed was the one I was working on – the work in progress, as authors like to say. But I also love redrafting and I really like working with my editor. So it has been a real pleasure to revisit each book and take a long slow look at it, taking the time to develop and enrich it to produce the best story possible.

11. What has been the hardest part of the journey? 

Getting past the gate keepers. Once I started writing my novels it felt like a tap had turned on. I wrote the first drafts quite quickly, in a matter of months. But for Hidden Alix’s voice was too passive. So I started again from the beginning, keeping the main storyline but turning her voice into a much more active, ironic, humorous voice. I really believed in my book and submitted quite soon after finishing it. But as most authors know, it is soooo hard to find an agent who really loves your work. Once you find the agent, then you have to find a publisher – more gatekeepers and more frustration. I coped at first by writing Illegal, while Hidden was being submitted. But I didn’t see the point of writing the third novel until I had my contract. It really is a long hard road to publication, but if you believe in your work then you will get there if you persevere.

12. Do you enjoy research? Any tips you could share? 
I love doing research and for Hidden the research involved lots of lovely visits to one of my favourites places. But it also meant that I had a chance to meet people and visit places I wouldn’t have thought about if I wasn’t writing the novel. For example, in Hidden, Alix’s grandpa tells of his experiences as a boy of fourteen in May 1940, sailing over to Dunkirk with his dad, to help rescue the stranded British army. To my delight, I discovered that five ‘little ships’ went to Dunkirk from Hayling and I was shown over one of them, Count Dracula, by one of the local sailors. I have a total passion for history and it was so exciting to find myself standing on the bridge of this plucky little boat. It really helped to bring that part of the book alive for me. 

My biggest research tip : enjoy it, see it as fun, but don’t let your research dominate your story. Ultimately it is your characters and the twists and turns of their journey through your book which will hold the reader’s attention. Be accurate, but be minimal in the use of your research.  

13. If you could give one piece of advice to the Miriam who first sat down to write the Hayling Cycle, what would it be? 
Don’t rush, believe in your story and give it the time and space to unfold. I think I let my fingers run away with me on the laptop sometimes. Certainly I took much longer over the next two books. But I find the first-draft stage the most nerve-wracking. Once I have got to the end then I can relax, I know the arc of the story and the characters. The redrafting stage feels long and luxurious as I spend hours contemplating how to enrich the text and make my characters stand up and stand out on the page.

14. Which five books would you save if the house was on fire? 

1.The Secret Garden – it was my school prize when I was nine. I think I fell in love with Dickon. 

2.Little Women – my mother’s copy which her sisters gave her when she was little. 

3.Crime and Punishment – my favourite of all the great Russian writers which I read throughout my uni years. 

4.Death of a Naturalist – the first poetry collection by our greatest living poet, Seamus Heaney. He signed my copy two years ago when I met him and told him about his influence on my poetry. 

5.The Concise Oxford English Dictionary – something new on every page. 

15. What question do you wish I had asked you? 
Why dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate? Fry’s chocolate cream instead of Turkish Delight? Crikey! Couldn’t you ask me anything about chocolate?!?

Sorry Miriam, maybe a large bar of Bourneville will serve as an apology? 

Hidden will be out in paperback at the end of the month, published by Meadowside Books – available in all good book shops and online here.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Fifteen minutes with Miriam Halahmy – Part One

Hidden, the first book in the Hayling Cycle, by Miriam Halahmy, will be published on March 31st. Tackling the complex issues of immigration and human-rights law, Hidden is a coming-of-age novel dealing with courage, prejudice and the difficult choices faced by its fourteen year old protagonist, Alix. 
I caught up with Miriam at Edge Headquarters a few days ago and asked her a few questions about Hidden, and her writing life.

1. Hi, Miriam, what does a normal writing day consist of for you? 
I write best in the mornings for two to four hours, and usually complete a couple of thousand words. I will then probably edit some of this in the afternoon. I write something every day. 

2. Where do you write? 
I have a beautiful study which my husband built for me at the end of the house, over looking the garden. It is sunny and quiet, but I often walk up the road to Costa Coffee bar and write there. I have been writing in coffee bars since I was a student and really like the atmosphere, especially early in the morning. 

Miriam gets creative in a coffee bar
I leave the house before eight a.m. It is a brisk fifteen minute walk which gets the creative juices going. At that time of the morning the cafe is peaceful with the background hiss of steam and the music down low. I sit at the same table, with my regular Americano, hot milk on the side and within ten minutes I am in the fictional dream, typing away on my little laptop. 

Many people have followed my lead and have told me they now write in coffee bars!

3. Are you a discovery writer, or do you outline? What’s your writing process? 
I start in my head day dreaming – I let my thoughts go in tangents, ask questions, answer them, ask more questions. I start a notebook and write down anything that seems relevant, a snippet of dialogue, an eye colour, a piece of clothing, a fear. Once I feel ready to start my book I write quite quickly and I am very much a discovery writer. My characters tell me where to go next, who they will meet along the way, what they think of the problems up ahead and how they are going to cope. 

Or in her study at home
Sometimes I come up against a problem and can’t move forward. Those are the most difficult times, when I get the urge to abandon ship, go and load the washing machine or make dinner. But I have learnt the hard way, that those are in fact the most important times, when you have to glue yourself to your seat and work your way out of the hole. Otherwise you start the next day at the bottom instead of on top and ready to move forward. 

My method for overcoming the problem is to ask myself questions and make myself answer them, however silly and banal the questions and answers appear to be. It is the very act of writing which gets me writing again and quite soon I find I have freed myself up, climbed out of the hole and resumed the flow of the story. 

4. Do you use a notebook? Can you share with us the last thing you wrote? 
I have been writing in notebooks since childhood. I have a cupboard full of them. I prefer quite small cheap notebooks and I am very fussy about lines – they can’t be too wide or too narrow. I don’t mind plain paper. I hate that paper with woodchip in it which comes from Nepal. It’s very trendy, but useless for writing on. I have different notebooks for different purposes. I always have a journal on the go, I have been keeping journals since I was a child. But I don’t write something everyday, only when I feel like it. However, whenever I travel I keep a meticulous journal, as so many new and exciting things happen when you travel. 

I always start a new notebook for each new novel and only use it for those notes. But I usually have a general notebook on the go for everything else which needs recording. The last thing I wrote was a note to myself to finish these questions! (Good answer! - Ed) 

5. Where did the inspiration for Hidden come from? 
I was walking on the beach one day on Hayling Island and I thought: What if a couple of teenagers saw an illegal immigrant thrown into the sea from a boat and they rescued him? What would they do? That was it – the story was born and eventually became, Hidden, the first in my cycle of three novels set on the Island. 

Inspiration on Hayling Island beach
It’s always a mystery where the first idea for a story or a poem comes from, I think. But I had been writing about asylum seekers; I have worked with asylum seekers and I had been writing short fiction for young people. I think a lot of things came together and ignited my idea that day. 

6. Location obviously plays an important part in the Hayling Cycle, what came first, the location or the story?
I had begun to think that Hayling would be a great place to set a story for young people. There are so many mysterious corners to the island, there are all the possibilities of a setting by the sea and although it is a place I love, it’s not that well known, so it was like writing on a fresh sheet. I think all of this came together that day on the beach when I had my inciting idea. 

7. Setting a story in a real place that you know very well, must present it’s own problems. Or did you find it easy to create a sense of Hayling for your readers? 
My parents moved to Hayling as I went to uni. So I have spent a lot of time on the island, but not actually lived there. My parents left the island before they died, but my husband shares my love of Hayling and so we visit several times a year for long weekends, week-long holidays in a flat on the beach, and quite often, just for the day. I have visited the Island literally hundreds and hundreds of times since my student days. 

I found it very natural to use the setting of Hayling in my books, it was a gift really, knowing parts of the island so well and having a real love for the place. Like Alix in my book, I prefer the island in winter when there are very few visitors and the beaches can be quite deserted. I like the winter light on the island too, it’s quite pure and translucent, particularly in the early mornings on the beach. That’s why Hidden is set in winter. 

Miriam beside a pill box on Hayling Island
However, there were problems as the landscape did not always fit the story I wanted to tell. For example, Hayling had quite a few pill boxes on the southern beaches at one time, to protect England from invasion during World War Two. Several of them have disappeared, including the one I used to sit on near the Lifeboat station. So I just put it back as I needed it as a landmark in my story. I also had to learn a great deal about the tides to make sure there was enough water at the times they kept falling in the sea. The water completely drains around the Island every day and leaves just mud flats and no water in many places.

Click here for the second part of Miriam's interview, when she gives us a sneak preview of the second two books in the Hayling Cycle and let's us into a guilty secret … 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Anthony Horowitz – Literacy: State of the Nation lecture

On Wednesday evening the National Literacy Trust held a fundraising event in memory of its founder, Sir Simon Hornby. During the lecture it was announced that the trust has received a 100% cut in government funding and will have to run a £1million fundraising campaign to ensure their work can continue.

An independent charity, the NLT is dedicated to transforming lives through literacy. 
"We believe that society will only be fair when everyone has the literacy skills they need to communicate, to fulfil their potential and to contribute more to society. We campaign to improve public understanding of the vital importance of literacy, as well as delivering projects and working in partnership to reach those most in need of support."

As part of the evening, children's author Anthony Horowitz delivered a Literacy: State of the Nation lecture. 

Anthony Horowitz
Not afraid to be provocative, Horowitz started off by suggesting that we can sometimes "slip all too easily into certain false and over-comfortable assumptions about literacy, literature and reading." He went on to describe many events he has attended where the speaker finds themselves preaching to the converted and asked "How do we take the argument to the wider world? How do we draw in the non-readers?" While acknowledging the positive aspects of the upcoming World Book Day, Horowitz does question how effective initiatives like this are in promoting reading, especially to those without an existing book habit. He suggests that teachers, school librarians and local independent bookshops form a 'golden triangle' when it comes to helping children improve their literacy and reading, and that this is where we need to focus our attention.

I won't attempt to summarise the entire lecture here, as a full transcript and audio recording are available on the National Literacy Trust website. Well worth a visit.