Firstly, I’m writing a reply to these questions on 1st April. So perhaps you may feel inclined to doubt my sincerity. On the other hand, since I’m writing after 12 midday, by traditional April Fool Rules I would be the fool were I to speak of Swiss Spaghetti Harvests and such. And would I ever… ? :)
As so often I come in from left field on the blog topic. I seem ever to be the outsider, the not-belonging, the spy unable to come in from the cold. Poor me. But I grow melodramatic.
Alas, as a poet and picture book writer I have scarcely any characters. I ransacked my attic thoroughly and found barely a few pale reflections of characters so can hardly address the issue of whether I might be ‘loyal’ to them. How can one be loyal to a frog who does little but leap and entice others into irresponsible choreography on the precarious brink of a pond (Down By The Cool Of The Pool, the verse picture book, of which Frog is the central protagonist, an anonymous trickster known only by his species name).
Very occasionally I’ve strayed into narrative areas, daringly, even, in prose! Often these are pre-existing narratives, fairy or folk tales whose characters’ movements and motives should not be played with too freely if one is not to offend the ancestry of storytellers who have passed down the sacred narrative thread to me. One should not tie too many (if any) knots in that thread lest the storytelling ancestry transform to a horde of Furies who prey on one’s already fleeing sanity.
Of course, sometimes I’ve created characters, say, like Mrs Bhattacharya, who help to drive a humorous narrative verse to its destination. But they tend to be vestigial, rudimentary, ghosts or whispers of characters with very little presentation of personality to grasp at. They may have long and complex histories that a novelist might conjure or conjecture, but of such things I am rarely tempted to speculate. It is almost like asking of a football player, in the middle of an intricate pattern of moves mid-game, “May we ask, was his a happy childhood? What are his religious beliefs? What does he see when he turns out the light…? etc”
So you may wonder what qualifies me, apart from Matilda’s permission, to be here on a blogspot ostensibly writing about loyalty to characters when I have so little experience of creating them. Listen? Do you hear it? Read the rest of this entry »
Some few writers in the children’s book world become relative celebrities. At least by name if not by visual recognition. This can either be by achieving mammoth sales (Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Donaldson) or by putting oneself in the public eye, being on radio and being a good talker, performer and good on one’s feet (Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo, Ian McMillan). Since I first wrote this article it could be said that Morpurgo has just jumped categories through the mammoth success of his novel, play and now film ‘War Horse’.
Other writers do modestly well, achieving good enough sales and revenues from their published work to keep their writing careers afloat. They tend not to be known by name outside of the children’s book world, but some of their books do well enough to be in many homes, libraries and schools. One or two of those books may be better known (by cover and title) than they themselves (the writers &/or illustrators) are. I would say I come into this category. I can’t speak for others but my friend Jeanne Willis might also be in this echelon. Sure, we win a few prizes and get reviewed in top journals now and then. But we tend not to be seen or heard on the media and tend to have lives focused on our work only. Many of our neighbours may not know what we do, for instance. Why should they?
Some writers, while they may get published and even win a prize or competition, or do one or two popular books, will struggle to stay in print, struggle to continue to be published and may have to resort to other forms of work. Either something right outside of book world (gardening, part-time teaching, being a househusband or housewife with a working partner etc). Or they will do ‘the circuit’.
Author days in schools, writing workshops, residencies, book festivals and such. Sure, even the celebs do some of these, but to this band (the ‘strugglers’) the work is essential for their income. It’s part of a package with their published work and a necessary part too. Many poets have to take this course due to the very modest sales that poetry books attract. I’d be in this category, as a poet, were it not for the relative success of my verse picture books, which earn me my main bread & butter.
Around these facts are often issues of acknowledgement and recognition for writers. Questions such as “How am I doing?” ”Is my work acknowledged?” ”What status do I actually have?” arise and can plague, baffle, confuse one. Sometimes there is a glowing review citing all one’s virtues. Sometimes someone in Books for Keeps is being really snitty and reductive about a book one was really pleased to bring through. Sometimes something one feels proud of seems to be met (if met at all…) by a strange, vacuous silence. Is there anybody there? Did anyone notice? Did the book ever circulate in any form? Was there a conspiracy?
It can be really hard as a writer, at times, to get a clear sense of how one’s work is going down, of what status (if any) it has in the culture. The one thing that IS fairly reliable is that if one’s books continue to sell well enough they tend to stay in print and the publisher(s) of those works tend to ask for more. But this fact can be very discrepant from the popular and media perception of one’s work or one’s name.
Of course, as a writer, I have learned, or am learning, that it is best not to worry too much about this kind of thing. Better to pull in one’s horns and get on with the business of writing. Poems, picture books, narratives. Dream them up and work them through. That’s the biz.
But it is hard in a culture very much focused on celebrity, status, wealth and fame not to wonder about such things, or even not to be troubled as to whether or not one is being neglected, sidelined, short-changed by society. These can be problematic, intrusive worries for the lone writer. They are distractions, not good for one’s writing, one’s equilibrium. So they need to be dealt with so they don’t cause trouble for one.
Am I alone in my thoughts about this? Or is this something many other writers and illustrators have views on out there?
Tony Mitton is an award-winning poet, whose gently mesmerising, often humorous poetry is irresistible to both children and adults alike. He is an extremely versatile author, writing story poems and shorter verse with skill and wit. His books includeThe Storyteller’s SecretsandThe Tale of Tales,though keep an eye on Tony’s website for more news ofWayland.
I was very taken by the blog written recently on this site by Margo Lanagan, author of The Brides of Rollrock Island. I shall have to read the novel in due course. All things Selkie have intrigued and attracted me since the 80’s when I first encountered the Selkie Tales from the northern coasts of Scotland.
My first taste may have come from a picture book version of The Selkie Bride by Warwick Hutton, illustrator. But around this time I also stumbled across a children’s television version done as a voiceover with stills, the voice being supplied wistfully and poignantly by the actor Tom Conti. I had to know more. It is strange how at times in one’s life relevant things crop up when topical. For shortly afterwards I came across a book published by Canongate, called Tales of the Seal People, by Duncan Williamson. Duncan Williamson was a Scots Traveller in origin. These people used to live in boats that travelled up and down the northwest coast of Scotland, sometimes coming inland to make rough shelters to sleep in. Their life was hardy and their economy was survivalist. They took seasonal work and otherwise lived off the land and sea, it would seem. They had a powerful and vibrant culture of storytelling and one of the main strands of this was the tales about the selkie folk, beings who were part seal part human in form, having the ability to remove their outer seal skins to reveal a human shape that could comfortably manage a life on land.
A significant factor often exploited by the stories is that if the sealskin is hidden the selkie being cannot return to the sea. And in some of the tales lonely fishermen use this to gain themselves a bride, a wife, a partner. Which in turn means that the children of such a union are half-castes, part selkie and part human.
The Williamson versions are in fact transcripts, written down by his younger American wife at the time. Williamson, it is said, could neither read nor write, so his stories were all memorised in traditional storytelling style. And the versions in the Canongate volume have a curious, informal, lilting feel to them, mainly the result of this fact, I am sure.
For a while I was obsessed by these stories. They were unlike anything I’d ever encountered in folktales. I dreamed about them, thought about them and had to write about them. Read the rest of this entry »