Transcription of Oundle Lit Fest (March 2011) – Day 3 of 5 (Mark Billingham & Michael Robotham)

The twenty-second special episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 30th May 2011 and featured the third day of five as a volunteer at Oundle Literature Festival here in Northamptonshire, England. The content has never been released other than website links (on my website).

Arriving at Oundle late afternoon, I met up with, and chatted to, Oundle Literature Festival Chairman Nick Turnbull at his Oundle School Community Action office in the town centre, which formed the second part of special episode 12.

That evening in the picturesque venue of the Long Room opposite St Peter’s Church, I was fortunate enough to get to sit in the ‘green room’ to chat to Mark Billingham and Michael Robotham before the event started (having nipped to Tesco to buy Mark a bottle of beer) :). Covering a variety of topics including writing (as would be expected), I was in my element especially as Mark and I were already Facebook ‘friends’ and he’d said he’d been looking forward to meeting me (and me him, obviously).

When the official event started, introductions were made by Molly Bickerstaff before she asked Mark what happened to him in a hotel room in 1995. He explained that he’d been there with a colleague and had ordered room service. The door bell rang and three men in balaclavas burst in, tying them up, before taking their valuables including their credit cards (and pin numbers). The colleague got himself then Mark free, grabbed a fire extinguisher and they ran to reception where the staff were oblivious of what had happened so were equally frightened to see two men charging at them. A year later his first novel came out and said he knows fear and can do that well. Because of what happened to him, Mark said he wanted to give the victims in his novels a voice.

Australian Michael then said that he’d been working for the Mail on Sunday in the UK and one story was about a £4M betting scam. His editor had sent him across to Ireland to investigate quoting him as saying to “send the Australian” making Michael feel very expendable. He said he’d had a similar experience to Mark where some men in balaclavas had tied him up, taken him to the airport and told him to go home. When he phoned his editor, the editor had said to wait 20 minutes and return to investigate but understandably Michael had taken the first out of Ireland.

Molly then asked how they create their characters, and how they feel about them? Mark said that even though it’s realistic writers need to engage the reader with heightened realism – if too realistic it would be too boring (going home to their spouses etc). Michael added that it’s hard to operate within the rules and gave an example as court procedures – too boring; so trimmed. So they have to make it richer…

Michael explained that his main character is a clinical psychologist and that he, Michael, worked with a respected clinical psychologist and admire someone who can get inside people’s head. His character though is flawed; he has a sharp mind but weak body (suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s).

Mark then referred to Tom & Jerry scenes where they’re hit by an anvil and suffer an anvil-shaped dent, but in the next scene they’re fine, and said it is similar in some books; they’re too unrealistic. They have to stay anvil shaped. Also each book has to read independently as well as part of a series; it’s all about realistic characters, and they’re not always likeable. He also said that he’s received lots of feedback from readers asking questions about the characters, even being asked when they’ll get married.

Michael said that he’d been asked if a character had had a baby and the reader had been stunned when Michael said he didn’t know!

Molly turned the talk to villains.  Mark said evil has a religious connotation which he’s not comfortable with. He doesn’t think people are inherently evil/good but have elements of both.

Michael said that when he was a young journalist: murderer on the run would phone him in the early hours, tipping him off when he’s committed a crime. It turned out that the criminal was only a couple of years older than Michael; very normal looking; like an ordinary Joe. He’d expected him to look like a thug.

Mark then talked about true-life cases and how down to earth even some of the most prolific murderers had been. Michael mentioned that his wife said they’d lose dinner invitations because he wrote such dark books!

Molly asked Mark and Michael about their use of prologues. Mark replied that a book should always start with unanswered questions so the reader says “why, what, who” etc. then the rest of the book should answer them. Apparently his wife will continue reading a book that she doesn’t enjoy saying “it’s not going to beat me”! whereas Mark would be quite happy to abandon it.

Michael explained that he uses the prologue to entice and that you should subtract your age from 100 and that’s how much you give a book, which I liked.

Molly then turned the conversation to plot. Michael doesn’t plot and once even pulled out 30,000 words which weren’t working. He said he may use them again and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been wasted. And this is a conversation I’ve been involved in recently on one of the LinkedIn forums.

Organic and exciting he said and added that Jeffrey Deaver apparently writes c. 250 page outline so he knows what he’s doing. Michael loves not knowing and the characters surprise him so he figures the reader won’t know either. (me too)

Mark does some sketching but a character’s never surprised him, which I think is a little sad. He wants them to surprise the reader but they don’t him and said the writer is in charge which is true but I do go with the flow and am often enthralled by what comes out.

Mark said that writer’s block is rubbish and quoted the phrased I’ve heard before about plumbers not being able to work because they’ve got plumber’s block so it should be the same for writers. And I totally agree.

Michael quoted Stephen King as saying “dig and reveal” – see a bone, what will it be? Dog or dinosaur bone? Michael hopes it’s going to be a dinosaur.

Molly then asked how to avoid the clichés? Mark replied first saying that crime readers know it’s going to be crime so you have to make the readers care about the characters. Michael added that twists and turns are vital and it’s unrealistic when a character is in a dark warehouse with no reason… to which Mark said writers should try and avoid the parts that the readers will skip, which made the audience laugh.

Mark then said it’s all about economy and that every writer needs editing. Michael then gave Steig Larsson as an example as having too much content.

Molly asked how to write quick dialogue so readers don’t lose track. Michael said that good writers make it look easy (he writes longhand so the dialogue is sharper then types it up). Mark added that dialogue is a strength and should tell you everything about the character. You should know what you’re good at.

Molly said that as they’d both written about women, how do they do it? Michael explained that was a ghostwriter for 15 autobiographies (Geri Halliwell, Lulu amongst them) and initially he was worried as most of the readers would be women but has three women (his wife and two daughters) as his first readers.

Mark said that you have to write them and be able to write them, and that his favourite book to write was In ‘The Dark’ where main character was a heavily pregnant woman, although he admits that it was harder work.

Molly: how important are jokes in the books? Great mix of humour then dour and vice versa. Mark: life isn’t all dark – said he’d been out with the police and they joke because they’re nervous. Michael: agreed, it’s not because they’re insensitive, it’s their safety valve.

The audience was then invited to ask questions and the first was one that I was planning on asking; what Mark thought of David Morrisey’s TV portrayal of Tom Thorne. Mark said he had wanted him from the very beginning but that reader feedback said there were too many changes, but he was very pleased.

When Mark was asked whether he’d written the screenplay, he said he wasn’t but was involved in the making of the TV series.

The next question, directed at Michael, was about how he heard that his novel ‘Bleed for me’ had been shortlisted for the TV Book Club and what impact had it had.  He’d received a phone call from his publicist, and he was sure that it had made an impact, certainly in gaining awareness of him and his books.

Michael was then asked whether he is going to be easier on Joe? to which he said that Joe plays a small part in next book out and the one he’s writing now he has a bigger part. Someone then requested that Joe back with Julianne to which Michael laughed and said that he’d had mixed feedback on this and that he’d consider it.

The conversation then turned to how they were published. It turns out that they both submitted around 30,000 words and were both accepted. Mark admitting that he was ridiculously lucky especially, he said as British crime writer RJ Ellory had 28 unpublished novels before he was accepted. Michael said that he was known as ghostwriter so think that helped. Word then got out which resulted in a bidding war for his novel which then obviously put pressure on him for the other 2/3rds of the book. He even had no title for it, just a working title of ‘The Suspect’ which he felt  to be too much in the vein of John Grisham. Mark said had come up with shout line for his book: “he doesn’t want you dead, he doesn’t want you alive, he wants you somewhere in between”, which I really like.

When asked what the police think of his books Mark said how supportive they were and even assigned him a detective who put him in touch with others and he said that they can’t wait to tell you (official and unofficial juicy stuff), especially happy to talk about murder.

A member of the audience sitting near me asked Michael what made you give Joe Parkinson’s Disease? He said he had a two-book deal and had the idea for the second one of a religious mystery but the contract meant he had to write in a similar style. Hadn’t planned to use Joe again but loved the idea of healthy mind but crumbling body, quoting Stephen Hawking as example but then said that he loves Joe so much that he wishes he hadn’t done it to him now.

Mark was then asked whether his work shows up a dark side in him to which Michael said that he likes people look like their dogs which, as a dog-owner, made me smile. Mark said that it’s what he likes to read and that he likes closure (when the cases are solved) and he’s bored if there’s no action (bodies, car chases etc.). Michael added that there are even bodies in Shakespeare’s plays; so drama and conflict.

And really, that’s what it’s all about. Even in romance there has to be some element of drama and in every good story, a conflict.

Again, the book stall was a sell-out with me buying the last copy of Michael’s book. I’d already bought my collection (of six) of Mark’s books with me so I didn’t buy his latest, especially it was in hardback, which I’m not so keen on.

When everything was tidied away, lights turned off and the building locked up, Mark, Michael, committee member Leigh and I headed towards the pub to kill time before their train. As I’d not been directly invited I didn’t want to outstay my welcome so bade them goodnight and went to my car parked nearby, to drive home a very happy person.

So, that’s what happened on day 3 out of 5 – links to the transcriptions of the other days will put listed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast when they’re posted.

Transcription of BWT podcast: Oundle Lit Fest (March 2011) – Day 2 of 5

The eighteenth special episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 9th May 2011 and featured the second day of five as a volunteer at Oundle Literature Festival here in Northamptonshire, England. The content has never been released other than website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com).

Thursday 17th March: Sarah McIntyre, Children’s Illustrator & author

Introduced by Committee Member Leigh Giurlando, she explained that Sarah’s London studio, based in London, was a former police station which Sarah renamed The Fleece Station after her love of drawing sheep. Sarah initially talked about her children’s book ‘You can’t eat a princess’, featuring Princess Spaghetti, which she read out to the wonderfully enthusiastic audience of Years R, 1 and 2 (5-7 year olds) alongside projected stills of the book. Every few seconds she’d ask the audience questions and each time dozens of hands went up in the air. Looking around the room, all eyes were on Sarah in her colourful pink dress, furry bolero and jewelled headdress, especially captivated when she imitated voices of the characters including aliens, monsters, Princess Spaghetti and her father King Cupcake.

Sarah explained that she has been drawing since she was a toddler and professionally since she was the same age as the children she was speaking to, carting the pictures around her neighbourhood selling some for 10c. Other slides included early sketches of Princess Spaghetti and her father (which looked nothing like the finished characters). The rear inside cover of the book has about a dozen of nameless aliens so the next few minutes were spent with the children naming them with suggestions including Giggly, Jemima Cupcake, Greedy and Mr Five Eyes.

Sarah then drew an alien on a flip chart starting with a basic semi-circular body shape and three feet, each with three toes. Next she asked for a number of eyes and ended up with nine; one close to the body and eight on long stalks. With help from the children, she gave it a huge open mouth with five triangular teeth then added long lashes to the eyes. Giving it fish breath (delightfully depicted by a curly line with a fish at the end of it) and then seven arms, one holding his favourite food: poo ice cream. A long stripy curled up nose then followed just before another arm held a pen flavoured hot dog, topped by delicious blue mud. He was then given seven spiked hairy ears, pink pointy punky hair and a large pink moustache. Finally two of the children added some facial hair and suggestions from the children lead him to being named ‘Silly Bogey Rudra’. A poo tree was then added to the picture.

Pencils and pre-printed sheets with the original body shape were then distributed to each child who took to drawing their own alien with help from their teachers the festival volunteers. I was on pencil duty until everyone had them so I joined in providing limb suggestions.

Sarah then moved on to drawing a spaceship which she did again with initial suggestions from the children, allowing time for the children to draw their own on the reverse of their sheets while she continued hers.

Mentioned briefly at the start, Sarah’s other books include ‘Morris and the Mankiest Monster’ and ‘Vern and Lettuce’, and all three were available for sale at the Oundle Bookshop stand.

Once the spaceships were drawn, it was time for a Q&A session:

She was first asked whether she enjoys drawing, to which she asked the children whether they had enjoyed drawing your ship? (a resounding yes) and replied “Well, that’s the fun I have all day”. Next Sarah was asked whether she draws flowers and she showed us a mouldy flower she’d drawn in one of her books. She was then asked what it’s like to be an author? She said, “it’s really fun – I get to go places like this and I get to work with other authors, she then mentioned that one of her friends draws for the Beano but then said that sometimes it’s hard work.

To the question of what her drawings look like, Sarah explained that the initial drawings often look quite different to the finished version, as we had seen earlier with the Princess and King pictures. She was asked how much did she have to pay?

First of all I had to pay for printing, ink etc but then when you get successful people pay you. The final question was ‘How do you make the front cover?’ to which Sarah explained that she sometimes has to paint (ink and watercolour) the cover two or three times, although she said the ‘You can’t eat a princess’ book was right first time.

After the book-signing the children were then escorted back to their coaches and I was incredibly impressed at how organised they were, walking hand-in-hand, in pairs, out of the Great Hall in small, but uniformed, regiments.

Thursday 17th March: Literature quiz

I arrived back at the Great Hall after spending three hours wandering around the town (including a trip to Oxfam where I bought a notebook and DVD) and found that the hall was filled with tables in preparation for the evening’s literature quiz. Events Manager & Committee Member Simon Price, some of the other volunteers, and I then covered them with tablecloths while Community Events & Committee Member Paula Prince covered the main top table with a variety of wrapping paper, shoe boxes and other oddities. With a few minutes to spare before people arrived for the quiz, I was able to chat to Paula which was recorded as the first half of special episode no. 12, released on 22nd March.

As I was there in the capacity of paying member of the public, Paula wouldn’t let me in on any of the secrets (rightly so) and I’m glad she didn’t as not knowing made it all the more hilarious when she gave us the instruction to make her a present and wrap it in the shoe boxes. Two of my team mates were artists so made her a fantastic pair of biscuit and wool earrings, beautifully wrapped in a bowed box. In between the tasks we had rounds of questions on a variety of themes, during one of which we could play a joker. We decided to play it on the children’s round which turned out to be our strongest and I learned the next day that although we’d not won (the team who had, had won the previous year) we had in fact come second.

So, that’s what happened on day 2 out of 5 – links to the transcriptions of the other days will put listed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast when they’re posted.

Transcription of BWT podcast special ep.12: Oundle Lit Fest (March 2011) – Day 1 of 5

The twelfth special episode of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast was released on 22nd March 2011 and featured the first day of five as a volunteer at Oundle Literature Festival here in Northamptonshire, England. The content has never been released other than website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com).

Running from Saturday 12th to Sunday 20th March, I attended the Oundle Literature Festival from the Wednesday until the Sunday evening. Welcomed warmly from the start, I pitched in and undertook a variety of tasks from putting out chairs to helping children draw spaceships, from selling quiz sheets to buying Mark Billingham a bottle of beer (one of my highlights!).

Wednesday 16th March 1.30pm: Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock Holmes)

Having been to the Oundle Literature Festival the previous year, as a member of the public, I had no trouble finding the Great Hall where the first event of the day was due to take place; with fiction author Andrew Lane. I arrived early while Andrew was setting up so had the opportunity of chatting to him before the children arrived when I helped direct them to their carefully chalked areas, lead by Kid Lit Committee Member Helen Shair.

Andrew introduced his talk by providing the path he had taken to writing from Dr Who books and Wallace & Gromit to the Young Sherlock Holmes books that were being promoted at the Festival.  A life-long fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, Andrew had previously included Sherlock in the Dr Who books and talked about him and his capabilities (chemist, violinist, actor, boxer, fencer). Explaining that Doyle had written him over a 30-year period he’d had to adapt the stories as cars, planes and telephones were introduced for authenticity. After Doyle’s death other authors adopted the character incorporating him into their stories so he featured in science fiction, horror and even appeared with Batman & Robin and Tom & Jerry! Andrew mentioned Sherlock’s brother Mycroft who was incredibly intelligent but far lazier than Sherlock, so much so that if people (say, the police) wanted his help they would have to go to him! Andrew then introduced his three Young Sherlock Holmes books, explaining that the first was set in the UK, the second in the US and the third (due out in June 2011) set in Russia, then showed slides of other depictions of young Sherlocks and comedy adult variations including Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, and John Cleese & Willie Rushton. With a hall full of over 300 school children and accompanying adults, Andrew held their attention (and mine) all the way through so it wasn’t surprising that the Q&A session produced a forest of hands. Andrew was first asked why he had written Sherlock Holmes as a teenager to which he answered that it hadn’t been done before and he’d been intrigued as to what could have made Sherlock the complicated character that he’d grown up to be, Andrew explaining that he plans to write a series of 9 books, all in close liaison with Sir Arthur’s Estate. The second question asked why Andrew had become a writer? Andrew had read a story by Terry Nation in a particular issue of Radio Times celebrating the 10th anniversary of Dr Who and was so gripped that he’d not wanted to do anything else, especially since he had a very encouraging English teacher at school, although it had not made him want to study English at University favouring the sciences instead and said how logical Sir Arthur’s writing is. Andrew then revealed that his next book is going to be set in Edinburgh and will feature bodysnatching but in a realistic way rather than relying on zombies etc. Talking about his writing, Andrew was then asked how easy it was to describe a young Sherlock Holmes to which he explained that it was on the surface, his external attributes, but internally was much more difficult for instances when he was scared or vulnerable as it would pave the way for his adult complexities. The next question focussed on Andrew’s favourite aspects of Holmes to which he replied that he loves the fact that he jumps from one thing to another; his ability to analyse people from their outward appearance then explain the steps behind his conclusions. When asked if there was anyone cleverer than Sherlock, Andrew quoted Stephen Hawking but said that the great power of fiction is that you can make anyone anything. To the next question, Andrew said that, alongside his day job and book promotions, he writes about 1,000 words a day which he said equates to about 4-6 months for a 70,000-word novel so can write 2 books a year.

Once the event had finished, books signed and everyone had left, I headed to ‘The Coffee Tavern’, one of four coffee shops in the town. Having been recommended to me by one of my writers, I could see why as it felt like a traditional village café with a friendly atmosphere and I was more than happy to stay there until six o’clock when I returned to the Festival.

Wednesday 16th March 7.30pm: Nigel Warburton (Philosophy Bites)

Set in the Great Hall’s other ground floor room, chairs were set out in the evening for the tickets sold plus a few spare but it soon became apparent that more chairs would be needed and by the time the talk started, the room was packed to (almost) bursting; a sign of Nigel’s popularity. Not surprising, since we learned in the introduction that his podcast has had over 9 million downloads (3 million since the festival’s brochures had been printed) and Nigel was currently 81 in the Twitterati tables. Nigel started his talk but discussing current news items and his views on them. Comparing the recent Japanese earthquake to one which took place in Lisbon, Portugal in the 18th century. This lead on to the question as to whether God exists, Nigel stating that he is an atheist, which raised an audience-led debate. Nigel then set a couple of dilemmas, the first of which was: if someone was on a train track with a train bearing down on them on one side of the points, and six people on the other side, who would you save? What if the six people were criminals and the one an innocent child? The audience, in the majority, went for the ‘greater good’. Nigel then moved on to talk about free speech before quoting John Stuart Mill’s ‘Dead dogma’ argument of the 19th century, Nigel explaining that views need to be challenged before going on to explain that philosophy is a particular way of thinking; that it challenges questions about reality – getting right what the world is; about thinking critically and not accepting on trust.

The Question and Answer session started with Nigel being asked how philosophy has changed his attitude to his life? He told us a true story about his wife having left her mobile on a taxi and the taxi-driver had rung the number marked ‘home’. Nigel then arranged to meet him in Brompton, Greater London and when he later rung the taxi driver to meet him, it turned out that they were already in exactly the same spot at the same time. He was then asked whether philosophers ever have a direct answer to which Nigel quoted Carl Marx and said that it was a case of asking the right questions, although he admitted that not all would be answered in a lifetime. The discussions then turned to good vs evil and nature vs man. A member of the audience asked how much bad do we need to experience to appreciate the good, to which Nigel compared it to a small black mark on a white canvas before recounting an incident in Australia where a thief had stolen a car with a child it in. He’d abandoned the car in a rural area on a very hot day and it wasn’t until he was under significant pressure that he told of the location (and the child was saved). It was agreed by most that it was right for the thief to be coerced in order to save the child. Nigel then lightened the mood by cracking a budget-related joke where a maths teacher asks for a table, paper and a wastepaper bin; the philosopher then beats that simple request by saying that he wouldn’t need the bin.

As with all the author talks at the Festival, the Oundle Bookshop had books for sale, with some even selling out, and Nigel too had a long queue of people wishing him to sign books for them.  I had a quick chat with him, talking blogs mainly, and it was him saying that he has 1,000 hits a day to his (I’m 1/7th of the way there :)) that inspired me to start mine.

So, that’s what happened on day 1 out of 5 – links to the transcriptions of the other days will put listed on https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast when they’re posted.

Latest podcast – Review of my time spent at Oundle Literature Festival (day 1)

Special episode 16 is now available; the first day I spent at last month’s literature festival at Oundle, Northamptonshire, England. At just under 10 minutes, the episode features Young Sherlock Holmes author Andy Lane (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Lane) who gave a talk on his writing at the lunch time session then the evening featured ‘Philosophy Bites’ author Nigel Warburton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Warburton).

Days 2-5 will be recorded at future special episodes along with my interview with western / crime writer and fellow Litopian Jack Martin (http://jackmartinwesterns.webs.com and http://tainted-archive.blogspot.com). You may be also be interested in special episode 12 which featured my interviews with Oundle Committee Members Paula Prince and (Chairman) Nick Turnbull.

Links to the podcasts can be found on my website (http://morgenbailey.com) and the ‘Where to find me’ menu of this blog.