Three days in Austria

Two of my books are published in German by Aladin Verlag: BLOOD & INK and TITANIC: 24 STUNDEN BIS ZUM UNTERGANG. I just got back from a short tour of Austria, where I had been invited to talk about my 2015 book Blood & Ink, a book that is ever so close to my heart. As Austria’s new far-right government closes mosques and deports dozens of Turkish imams, now is a good time for frank, wide-ranging discussion of the issues surrounding political Islam. Blood & Ink is a useful springboard for such discussion because all of the characters in the novel are Muslim. No clash of civilizations here. No east versus west nonsense. Just two manifestations of Islam confronting each other within a remote, walled city.

In Vienna on Wednesday I was hosted by Büchereien Wien as part of their Lesofantenfest reading festival. It seemed fitting to be presenting Blood & Ink in Vienna because Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara was here himself not so long ago, talking about how solutions to ethnic and religious conflict might be found in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves.

On Thursday I took the train up into the mountains to Radstadt a pretty walled town surrounded by majestic peaks. I was the guest of BORG Radstadt, discussing Blood & Ink with students in years 8 and 9. Big readers, some of them, and a real pleasure to spend time with. It was warm and bright in the mountains – Bei uns wärmer als in Afrika, proclaimed the local newspaper headlines. Good for the blooming flowers, bad for those living in the mountains, where winter sports are so essential to the local economy.

On Thursday afternoon, the wonderful Peter Fuschelberger from Literaturhaus Salzburg took me to see his childhood haunts in Bischofshofen. A peaceful town known for its chocolate-box beauty and its dizzying ski jumps, Bischofshofen is one of the most important venues in the ski jumping World Cup. On the way up the mountain Peter told me about his sixteen-year-old nephew Florian, already an accomplished ski jumper. Seeing the jumps and hearing about Florian made me long to write a YA novel set in the world of ski jumping. There’s one already (GRAVITY by Juliann Rich) but I suspect there’s room for a second.

On Thursday afternoon I had a short tour of Salzberg, including the gardens of Schloss Mirabell featured in the Sound of Music. Then on Friday I did two talks at the Salzburg Literaturhaus. The young people at these two talks were especially forthcoming and we had worthwhile discussion not just about political Islam but also about empathy, research and cultural appropriation. When is it appreciation and when is it appropriation? Such a hot topic right now. The young people at these events really impressed me with their acuity and common sense.

Thank you to all the students who came to my readings in Austria, and to the fab teachers who accompanied them. Warm thanks also to Martina Adelsberger at Vienna Main Library and to Peter Fuschelberger of Literaturhaus Salzburg. Three days in Austria was not enough, and I look forward eagerly to returning.

A Dogon Story

When I lived in Burkina Faso I wrote dozens of stories, most of which have never seen the light of day. Here is one of them. It’s set in Mali’s Dogon Cliffs, properly known as the Bandiagara Escarpment. I rather like it, except for the phrase ‘home they went to sup’ which sets my teeth on edge.

Atiko was a Dogon boy. He lived with his grumpy gran at the foot of the Dogon Cliffs. Like other Dogon boys, Atiko enjoyed eating onion soup, playing the tamtam drums and chatting to Galemba the Talking Snake. Unlike other Dogon boys, Atiko was scared of heights.

One day, Atiko’s gran said, ‘I’m going up to the cliff-top, Atiko, to visit my onion-patch. I want you to come with me.’
‘I can’t,’ said Atiko. ‘I’m scared of heights.’
Gran glowered. ‘Your father loved to climb,’ she said, ‘your aunts and uncles, too. We’re Dogons on the Dogon Cliffs and climbing’s what we do.’
‘It’s not what I do,’ said Atiko. ‘I’ll just stay down here and chat with Galemba The Talking Snake.’

Gran sighed and took her mittens off, took off her woolly socks. She spat on her hands, she spat on her feet, she clambered up the rocks.

‘How’s she doing, Galemba?’ whispered Atiko. ‘Is she nearly there?’
‘Not yet,’ said Galemba.

On tiptoes like a mountain goat, Gran trod a narrow ledge. She had no time for vertigo when visiting her veg.

‘How’s she doing, Galemba?’ whispered Atiko. ‘Is she nearly there?’
‘Not yet,’ said Galemba.

On tiptoes like a desert djinn, Gran crept along the ledge. She suddenly slipped on an onion skin and fell over the edge.

‘Atiko, help me! Help me! Help me! Atiko! Help me, Atiko!’

‘Gran over cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘Just listen to those wails! She’s clinging to the cliff face. She’s hanging by her nails.’
‘She’s going to fall off!’ cried Atiko. ‘Somebody, do something!’
‘Climb the cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘It’s time to be a man. Forget your fear and climb the cliff and save your grumpy gran.’
Atiko paled. ‘I’M SCARED OF HEIGHTS!’ he yelled.
‘Climb the cliff,’ Galemba said. ‘Don’t hesitate at all! Forget your fear and climb the cliff. Don’t let your granny fall!’

Atiko stood up. He wrapped Galemba round his neck.
‘Help me, Atiko!’ cried Gran.
Atiko kicked his flipflops off. He spat on his hands and feet.
‘Help me, Atiko!’ cried Gran.
Atiko scrambled up the cliff-face and along the narrow ledge. He arrived at the exact same spot where Gran had fallen off.
‘Don’t tread on the onion skin,’ Galemba warned.

Atiko didn’t tread on the onion skin. He knelt down and stretched his hand towards his dangling Gran.
‘Grab my hand,’ said Atiko.
‘I can’t reach it!’ wailed Gran.
Atiko lowered Galemba down towards his dangling gran. ‘Granny, grab Galemba’s neck!’
‘I can’t!’ wailed Gran. ‘I’M SCARED OF SNAKES!’
‘You’re JOKING!’ said Atiko.
‘I’m terrified of snakes,’ said Gran. ‘I fear their toothless grins. I fear their wicked, gleaming eyes and scabby, scaly skins.’

‘Grab me, Gran,’ Galemba said. ‘Forget my toothless grin. Forget your fear and grab my neck and let us haul you in.’

Granny grabbed the grinning snake. Her grandson hauled her up. He carried her down to the foot of the cliff and home they went to sup. From that day on, Atiko was never again scared of heights and Gran was never again scared of snakes. But Galemba the Talking Snake was so traumatized by the day’s events, he never spoke again.


Hilda and the Hidden People publishes today

I confess, I hadn’t heard of Hilda until this time last year. I first encountered her in the article Here Comes Hilda in the New Yorker. I was intrigued. Then I read HILDA AND THE TROLL and joined the ever-growing tribe of Hilda fans worldwide. Now I have the comics beside me as I write, an ‘Ancient Giants’ poster on the wall in front of me and Hilda herself for a desktop wallpaper.

Hilda was created in 2009 by Luke Pearson, when he was still at school. He drew a picture of a blue-haired girl wearing a beret, scarf, red top, blue skirt, and big red boots. She had a Scandinavian city behind her and was surrounded by all kinds of strange creatures.

That one picture led to five comics (published by Flying Eye Books), a Netflix animation (coming soon) and now an illustrated fiction series. That’s where I come in. I am grateful to Flying Eye Books for introducing me to Hilda, and even more grateful to them for the opportunity to join Team Hilda and write stories about her. She is a delightful character to write – warm, brave and boundlessly optimistic. The books themselves are TV tie-ins. They are based on plots from the Netflix series and illustrated by Seaerra Miller. Our hope is that the books will bring the irrepressible Hilda to a whole new audience.

On Thursday this week (6 September), we’re having a launch for HILDA AND THE HIDDEN PEOPLE at Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road. Come along at 6.30pm for an exclusive preview screening of Episodes 1 and 2 from the Netflix series, followed by a Q&A with me and Sam Arthur, co-founder of Nobrow and Flying Eye Books. The event itself is free, and of course copies of the book will be available afterwards for sale and signing (retail price £9.99).

Hilda and the Hidden People by Luke Pearson and Stephen Davies
cover artwork by Seaerra Miller

Update (7 September 2018)

The Hilda launch went really well last night. It was exciting to see some of the Netflix animation (up until last night I had only read the scripts) and to chat to lots of Hilda fans, almost all of whom have been following Hilda’s adventures for much longer than I have. I really liked the way Bella Ramsey voiced Hilda, and I loved the two woff-ride sequences!

Sam Arthur was unfortunately not able to be with us last night, but my daughter Liberty (8) stepped intrepidly into the role of interrogator. She asked me some lovely questions and also a couple of downright uncomfortable ones, including this zinger: Daddy, we have the Hilda comics and now the Hilda Netflix series, so why do we need YOUR books too?

Hilda the series launch Waterstones Tottenham Court Road
Libby asking the questions at the Hilda launch!

Many thanks to all who came, and to Waterstones Tottenham Court Road for hosting.

Starcrossed Lines

Dear Daisy
I wonder if Daddy has already told you
I wonder if Mummy has already told you
that we have seagulls nesting on our roof
that we have humans squatting below us
They have one baby chick
They have one cat without a tail
and he is getting very fat indeed
and one
all the crabs and other sea food his parents bring back for him
The man is noisy
he is also very noisy
when he plays Words with Friends
and wakes Grandad and I rather early each morning!
I’m losing!

5 stars – Fantastic fodder
1 star – Appalling – never again
We were starving and
stopped to get something
nothing in the Spar took our fancy
quick on the way home from work
the nearest Just Eat pizza shop couldn’t get any food to us for an hour
fish was mildly warm and greasy
so we decided to try our local chip shop
chips tasted like they had been re-cooked!
we were truly impressed by the quality of the offerings at Kenny’s
nasty tasting and
the Kenny in question
made me feel ill
is often to be seen sporting an interesting suit
also his attitude and customer service was appalling
when frequenting the local British Legion
I wouldn’t recommend Kenny’s
so we were slightly
as I witnessed him have a go at a member of the public
that he wasn’t wearing it behind the counter
for parking in the lay by
but hey, you can’t have everything

Members of the Parish Council received and noted advice
yeow! yeow! yeow!
from TDC’s Environmental Protection Manager David Eaton
keow! keow! keow!
confirming that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects seagulls
yeow! keow!
It is illegal to interfere with the nest or eggs of any wild bird
yeow! ha!
and in the event of a prosecution the maximum fine is £5000
keow! ha-ha!
and/or a six-month prison sentence
ha-ha! Klee-aw!
however, occupiers and other authorised people can apply for a general licence
that allows them to control seagulls to preserve public health or public safety

The Environmental Health Team also has powers to deal with residents
Waltrude Stone-Lee’s my name but you can call me Wally
that persistently feed or encourage seagulls
on alternate Saturdays I strut
to a location that creates a statutory nuisance
with a large bag of Kenny’s chips
and that warrants a community protection notice
scattered in the brim of my Reinhard Plank straw hat
If there is a specific individual that is causing a problem
along the Exe Valley Trail
those affected should contact the Council
fierce-eyed pink-legged lari argentati descend
so they can investigate
and gorge themselves atop my bonce
and decide what action is necessary
a few of them snag extra for their chicks

5 stars – Excellent service, great Tasting fish
1 star – Never again
Kenny cooks the fish to order
I recently moved back into the area
the batter is perfection and isn’t too greasy
and were (sic) trying out all the food places around
it doesn’t go soggy
Kenny was around when I last was here
and remains nice and crispy
so I decided to try it again
similarly with the chips, they are not too greasy
I order and (sic) normal burger and a large portion of cheesy chip (sic)
and you always get some of those lovely little crispy pieces in there too
and when I arrived home soon release (sic) that
Kenny has a sense of humour
the chips were not cook (sic) properly and
could offend the more delicate ones of society
the cheese on the chips was green and mouldy
but I find him to be amusing
I would not recommend or go here again (sick)

Dear Daisy
Grandad and I now realise
Scully and I now realise
that there are TWO baby chicks on our roof
those chips you gave us were NO GOOD
I’m not really surprised
I’m not really surprised
because they make enough noise for two or three!
because I’d give that Kenny two or three stars max!
one of them was too shy to have his photo taken
I’m too shy to write a Tripadvisor review
you can just about make out the top of his head in the bottom left
and looking on the bright side ma
the other posed rather nicely for us
that short-legged crab was rather nice
you can see how spotty they are when young
sure, I’m spotty now
but as they grow up they lose the spots
but when I grow up I’ll lose the spots
and become black and white
and become fine feathered and kind
like their parents
like my parents

Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin Island is a large Russian island in the North Pacific, just north of Japan. It is home to sea-lions, whales, brown bears and lots of fantastic readers and writers. I had the pleasure of visiting Sakhalin International School last week – two days of exploring followed by two days of creative writing workshops.

On my first day Dutch teacher Miriam drove me out to Nevelsk in the the west of the island, home to a fine colony of sea-lions. Before visiting Nevelsk, my only understanding of sea-lions came from the characters Fluke, Rudder and Gerald in the film Finding Dory. Turns out the Finding Dory sea-lions were excellent examples of the species. Framed in the viewfinder of Miriam’s zoom lens, the Nevelsk sea-lions barked, yelped and pushed each other off rocks with perfect slapstick timing.

The following day three of us hiked a few miles along the Japanese railway. It was built in the early twentieth century, when the southern half of Sakhalin Island was under Japanese control. The railway has long gone, save for a few sleepers, nails and girders, but the route of the railway makes an excellent hiking trail through beautiful fir forests. I am used to taking mosquito spray with me on international visits, but on this hike we had to take bear spray with us. What sort of bears do you have on the Island? I asked Miriam. ‘The sort that eats you,’ she replied darkly.

We took a short detour off the railway to see Sakhalin’s famous mud volcanoes: pools of cold mud that bubbled sporadically as methane rose through up out of fractures in the rocks beneath. An other-worldly sight that would make a great setting for fantasy fiction.

On Wednesday and Thursday I had full days working with the students in the school. One of the most enjoyable sessions was with the very youngest class – 6 and 7 year olds. We read my book ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD and I told them about some of the real places that inspired the settings for the story. Then I invited them to come up with a ‘journey story’ set on Sakhalin Island. Here is the poem that came out of that workshop – the settings and the rhymes are all theirs.

Snowflake the husky dog lived near the sea
She wiggled and jiggled and pulled herself free
“Oi!” cried her owner. “Snowflake! Come back!
Come pull my sled or you’ll get a big whack.”

Snowflake went north and she saw a big bear
It reared and it roared and she got a great scare
Snowflake went south to the vast rocky plain
She stepped on a fossil and howled out in pain.

Snowflake went west where the sea-lions bark
She ran by the sea and she saw a grey shark
Snowflake went east to the flat amber beach
She dashed and she zoomed and she heard a loud SCREEEEEEECH!

“Oh no!” cried Snowflake. “My owner is here
He’s fast and he’s mad and he’s coming quite near!”
Snowflake felt homesick. She missed her dear friends.
She went to her owner.
“I’m sorry!”

Hilda and the Hidden People is coming this September

I do find it hard keeping secrets, so it’s a great relief to finally be able to make this announcement. I have a new book out this September!

HILDA AND THE HIDDEN PEOPLE is a fully illustrated story starring Hilda, a blue-haired girl with a thirst for adventure and an uncanny talent for making friends with magical creatures. My book is based on the forthcoming Netflix series HILDA, which in turn is based on Luke Pearson’s popular comic book series. Over the last six months I have enjoyed getting to know this brave, kind-hearted girl and her friends. They’re wonderful characters to write, and I hope you’ll come to love them too. HILDA AND THE HIDDEN PEOPLE comes out in September and is published by Flying Eye.

cover artwork by Seaerra Miller

Virgil and the Truth about The Writer’s Muse

This month I was in Tunisia at the kind invitation of The Carthage Classical Academy. I was very impressed by the school, which somehow succeeds in combining a warm, friendly atmosphere with a rigorous classical education, including the study of Latin, logic and rhetoric. You would imagine that this deliciously old-fashioned approach might stifle creativity, but on the contrary the pupils there were buzzing with high concept story ideas such as ‘The Five Minute War’ and ‘Aliens on the Titanic’.

There was even time for tourism. The director of the school took me to Tunisia’s largest museum, the Bardo Museum. Built in a fifteenth century palace, the Bardo is home to eight thousand exhibits, including one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman mosaics. I don’t think I have ever said ‘Wow’ so many times in the space of one hour. We walked past a mosaic of Ulysses strapped to his mast as he listened to the song of the sirens. We saw a partially destroyed mosaic of Neptune’s face, whose lively face and glinting eye made up for his incompleteness. Last of all – and best by far – we stood before the Bardo’s most famous mosaic, Virgil and his Muses.

The Virgil mosaic was discovered in 1896 in a garden in Sousse, and is the only visual depiction of Virgil that we have. He looks forty-something with hollow cheeks and widow’s peak, gazing out of the picture into the middle distance. No, not gazing exactly, for there’s an intensity to his regard – the brightest tile in the whole mosaic is the twinkle in the corner of his left eye. He has the vim and vigour of any author near the start of an exciting new project.

We suspect he’s near the start, because the parchment on his lap contains the eighth verse of the Aeneid: Muse, recount to me the reasons, What so wounded the divinity [that she forced a loyal man through so many hardships…] Virgil has paused in his writing, presumably waiting for muse or muses to recount to him some reasons. Luckily for him, two Muses are standing right there on either side of him.

The inscription in the Bardo museum has misidentified these muses as Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Polymnia (muse of pantomime), but the one with the scroll and the toned biceps is much more similar to classical portrayals of Clio (muse of history) than Calliope, whilst the one holding the tragic mask is Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Whatever their specialist subjects, the two muses are inclining towards Virgil and intent on helping him out. Melpomene is clutching her cheek, so either she is overwhelmed by the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas or she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there.

It is fitting that this mosaic of Virgil should be on display so near to the ancient port of Carthage, because of the important role in the Aeneid played by Queen Dido of Carthage. In Book 4, the passionate love affair of Dido and Aeneas is interrupted by a message from Jupiter, reminding Aeneas of his destiny to found a city in Italy. Aeneas sets sail from Carthage and Dido stabs herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword. During her death throes she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and her own, basically predicting the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. “Rise up from my bones, avenging spirit!” she cries, which would have made early readers of the Aeneid think of that most fearsome of all Rome’s enemies, Hannibal himself.

In case his Roman readers missed the allusion, Virgil makes it even more explicit in Book 10 of the Aeneid. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says:

The time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome.

I stood for a long time looking at the Bardo’s mosaic of Virgil and his Muses. This idea of muses hovering at the writer’s shoulder is as insistent as it is ancient. One of the first questions I fielded at the Carthage Classical Academy (like any writer at any school visit) was ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I need to think of a satisfying answer to this question, because I currently find myself roving from the flippant (‘from the ideas shop on the high street’) to the prosaic (‘you need to develop story antennae and be constantly on the lookout for inspiration’) to the honest-but-useless (‘I don’t know’).

For my money, the best modern conception of the writer’s muse is the following paragraph from Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft. It’s just the right mixture of the prosaic and the ephemeral, and it makes me laugh every time I read it.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.

When I learned to touch-type in my late twenties, that was the paragraph I used as my ipsum lorem filler text. I must have typed it out hundreds of times. I love his portrayal of a fundamentally antisocial muse that possesses cigars and bowling trophies instead of scrolls or flutes or tragic masks.

Is the capricious, part-time muse of Stephen King incompatible with the intent and softly sighing muses from that Virgil mosaic? By no means. Virgil’s Aeneid did not come to him at night in a flash of divine inspiration – he was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write it. And that commission was not a ‘Write me something beautiful’ sort of commission but rather a ‘Write me some decent propaganda that will unite the empire and Make Rome Great Again’ sort of commission. In accepting the emperor’s bidding, Virgil was already committed to a certain amount of grunt work, no doubt with a deadline to focus his mind.

Muse, recount to me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive this man tum tumty tum…and even if you don’t recount a word I’ll write it anyway cos that’s what writers do.

For more on Dido conjuring Hannibal, see here.

For more on the nine Muses of classical mythology, see here.

And for more pics of my time in Carthage, see here:

Happy New Year

cornwallWe had a good break in a cottage in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, over the holidays. I spent much of it asleep in front of a woodburning stove, occasionally waking up to play Ticket To Ride with the girls or to read a few more pages of the Rub of Time, a delicious collection of essays by Martin Amis.

Also on my bedside table Being Read pile is The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, which my sister Debbie gave me for Christmas. It’s one of those books like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas where pretty much anything you say about it constitutes a spoiler, so I’ll refrain, except to say it’s clever and thoroughly engrossing. Thanks Debs!

Back to work, now, and another year of writing and school visits awaits. I’m currently doing rewrites on my YA novel about a rebellious chess prodigy. I have a list of possible titles for it, but none of the candidates thus far are screaming CHOOSE ME! Tricky things, titles. Often the very last thing to fall into place.

Next week I start outlining Book 2 of an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not allowed to say anything about that project yet but will no doubt shout about it from the rooftops come September, when Book 1 is published.

School visits: I do have one day still available in World Book Week – Wednesday 28 February. Let me know if your school is interested in a visit that day – see here for details.

A very happy new year to anyone reading this. Hope it’s a good one for us all.