Monday, 15 January 2018


The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis by Cornelius van Haarlem
The fall of Troy is one of the most important events in myth and history. Its causes and consequences ripple backwards and forwards through time and space. You could draw a line from pretty much any character in Greek myth and find a connection towards someone who had fought and died in that war.

I have always been interested in connections and causes: and in the following weeks I will be exploring the main events that led up to the Trojan War.

You could say, then, that it began with an apple. A golden apple, thrown down onto the grass during the wedding of the sea-goddess Thetis, and her mortal husband, Peleus. Thetis had not wanted to marry Peleus: but he had grappled with her as she changed forms, like Proteus, from snake to fire and back again; and so the gods were called, and the wedding celebrations began.

But in the bustle of preparations - one could not say, necessarily, that they were happy -  Peleus and Thetis  forgot to invite one god. The original wicked fairy, Eris, the goddess of strife, was passed over. The gods, careless, feasted and drank, and gods can feast and drink with the best of them. One guest - a young nymph, perhaps, yawning as she longed for her bed, unable to leave before her divine mistress decided it was time to go - picked up something pretty and golden that had rolled towards her feet.

It was an apple, gleaming and golden, and on it were inscribed the words: “To the most beautiful.”

Goddesses are not known for their modesty. Dignities will be stood upon, privileges invoked. The minor goddesses and nymphs bowed out of the way, as, flashing to the fore, the queen of the goddesses herself stood forwards. Two peacocks pecked at her feet; a diadem flashed upon her forehead; proud and haughty she did not even have to glance at her husband Zeus, the king of the gods, as she knew that he would give the apple to her.

But her husband hesitated. And what was this - Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in a dress embroidered with dolphins, long hair falling down her white arms, was looking as if she might have an interest in the matter. And even Athene - so dear to Zeus’s heart, having sprung out of his own head - was adjusting her helmet and looking at herself in the reflected sheen of her warrior’s shield. Concealed behind a nearby tree, Eris watched all, and laughed. She had picked the apple herself, and had inscribed those fatal words with her long fingernails. She lazily picked up a grape from a bunch held by an attendant, and strolled off, delighted with the conflict she had caused.

Zeus, looking at his wife, his daughter and the primal goddess of love, could not bear to be the judge. Choosing between these three mighty goddesses would bring untold strife to the calm mansions of Olympos. Zeus was not a god who enjoyed conflict, and, although he was not necessarily known for his tact, did tend to spend rather a lot of time mopping up after his own mistakes. Sighing - because he, after all, knew what was going to happen, even if nobody else did - he decreed that a mortal man would be found who would be arbiter; and he, Zeus, would wash his hands of it, and go back to enjoying his wine with Ganymede.

Laughter began again in the wedding, and the guests returned to their carousing, glad that the strife had been put off - for now. Peleus and Thetis were joined in marriage beneath the leaves of a broad oak; and the Fates, who were attendant in their white robes, spinning, whispered of the son that would be born to them: the mightiest warrior of all the Greeks: Achilles. The three goddesses retired; and plotted.

NEXT WEEK: The Judgement of Paris

THE ARROW OF APOLLO is a novel that takes place after the fall of Troy. Have a look at the funding page on Unbound here. 

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Other Book: A Ten Year Anniversary

Ten years ago yesterday, on the 7th January 2008, my first children’s novel was published by Bloomsbury. It was called The Other Book - a dark, strange tale of a magical tome and the bloodline of Merlin and his sorceress bride Vivien, set in a Sussex preparatory school - and it duly appeared on the shelves (and, largely, stayed there). Also first published in 2008 was a certain other children’s author, to whom I will return later.

I had been counting down the days, quite literally, marking them in my diary with fervent exclamations. On that day, I thought, my life would change; on that day I would become what so many wish, for reasons usually unclear, to become: a published author. I’m not entirely sure what I did expect - a bottle of champagne from my editor, perhaps; or a card, or even an email. But the day went on as days usually do, and no email, card, or champagne appeared. It was the first moment of reality. Your book enters the world, and, for the most part, the world shrugs and turns back to looking at cat videos.

In the ten years since, the things that have changed are, mostly, to do with the inescapable rhythms of life, and of earning a living. The things that I, and many other writers do, are manifold, necessary, often dull, and, crucially, take you away from the actual act of writing (itself, I am aware, a very privileged thing.) I wish, however, that I had known then, when my first book burst, in its gorgeous gold and red livery, into the world, what I know now (but then again, who doesn’t.) Would things have been different? Sometimes I like to think so; other times, I am not so sure. One thing, though, will never alter: at a dinner party, if asked that terrible question - “What do you do?” - if you reply that you are a writer, the first question will always be, “Have you written anything I’d have heard of?” My answer used to be self-deprecating; now it veers towards the sardonic.

When The Other Book crept into view, I had no notion of the children’s book world: I was not on Twitter (embryonic, then); not in any children’s book groups or associations; I did not know any other children’s authors; I had not spent years building up a profile or engaging with other people in the industry. I did not know what it meant to publish a children’s book, or to be a children’s book author.

I had no idea of the “market”, or of the things that people do to sell books. I was, in other words, entirely unprepared. Looking back at my journal recently I was amazed to see that in 2008 I only gave a couple of talks - one to a library, where I sold no books; and one to a school who had booked me to talk to a group of three year olds. My book was, very firmly, for the 11+ bracket. Nothing I have done since has been more terrifying.

When I see debut authors appearing now, they often seem, to me at least, to have been trained, or to have had access to a kind of toolkit: they spring up, fully formed, giving talks, tweeting, blogging, and all the rest, with beautiful book following beautiful book annually. Even now I have no idea how these things work: what to say on Twitter, what to write about on this much-neglected blog. The only thing I ever wanted to do was write books - jagged, mysterious children’s books -  and to hope that those books found readers.

The publishing world moves to invisible currents. Since that first novel was published - to the kind of review that said “promising”, or “shows potential” - I have published five more, with three publishers. Each novel was a labour of love and hope, sweat and anxiety; each one bore on its shoulders the same weight and dreams; and each one did find some readers who loved it. None, however, has yet crossed the barrier into the general consciousness.

I have always received good reviews - one hopes that one grows better as a writer, after all. When I look at the first pages of The Other Book now, I wince: there are so many things wrong with it (I even sometimes use it as an example of how not to start a children’s book with my students.)

With The Liberators, in 2010, I touched some kind of nerve: the book was set after the financial crash, and saw a young boy battling a cult who wanted to bring chaos to the world. Readers enjoyed it; it was reprinted; for a few moments it seemed like it might have broken out into general view. I remember a friend joyfully texting me a picture of a pile of copies he’d seen in a bookshop in Vienna.

Whilst many enjoyed it, there were those who thought that its hero was too privileged, and his world of boarding schools, artists, bankers, civil servants and London townhouses too remote from the general reader. I have never understood this complaint, because what is fiction for if not to open a window onto a different life?  What is interesting about this is that I never heard this point made by children, who simply read, and absorbed, and were thrilled.

After The Liberators, a hiatus ensued. One thing that is not generally known about the publishing world is that writers are quite dependent on the people who actually work at the house: if your contact moves, then it can leave you stuck. My editor left Bloomsbury; a new one came along; and I, having no contract, and being inexperienced in the ways of the book world, decided not to take what now appears absolutely sensible editorial advice on a manuscript, and instead tried to sell it elsewhere. The result was a lost MS: “Cave”, set in a co-ed boarding school on a hill which is besieged by ecological terrorists. My agent thought it was great; my lay readers thought it was the best thing I’d written: publishers however were not so sure, and though I was called in for meetings, it was usually to say: “we’d love you to do something, but this isn’t quite it”, and the book was rejected everywhere.

What does a writer do when faced with rejection? Start again, of course, with the glimmer of a new, better book in your mind. I returned to the things I loved as a child, and particularly to the depths and weirdnesses of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps overly enthralled by them, I began work on another MS, which was to become The Broken King, published 4 years after The Liberators. It underwent many revisions, many false starts: it was intended to be the first part of a trilogy called “The Darkening Path”. I had ambitious plans. It would be cosmic, reaching through time and space and touching on the mysteries of the universe. Readers loved trilogies, didn’t they?

When The Broken King was published, I had not realised quite how arduous it would be to write parts two and three in, effectively, about six months each (whilst also dealing with what amounts to a full time job, and a growing family); I am still not sure that the sequels were the best that they could have been. And whilst the trilogy did find enthusiastic readers - the early reviews from children were superlative, and there were of course those who noted the echoes of Alan Garner - it did not touch the hearts of enough people. On occasion I receive messages from children who are obsessed with The Broken King: but, to coin a phrase, fine messages butter no parsnips.

Again, one returns to things one loved as a child: so The Double Axe was born, from the myth of the Minotaur. What if, I thought, the Minotaur had been a convenient fiction for other, darker purposes?   How would this story work from the point of view of one of Minos’s other children?

Once more, there were ambitious plans: for an interlinked series of up to ten novels, each revisiting a particular myth. Several large publishers were interested in the concept; but there was no firm offer, and in the end, I settled for a one book deal with a small publisher. They wanted to get the book out before the final part of The Darkening Path,  so I had a rather absurd situation in which people were expecting the end of a series, and in fact were reading the beginning of another. (Even now, my Wikipedia entry records The Double Axe, erroneously, as part of The Darkening Path trilogy.)

The book - which I considered my best, the sharpest, the most stylish, the one that, at last perhaps, was really beginning to know what it was doing, the one that received the kindest reviews, from readers, reviewers, and other children’s authors - was published, was briefly lifted by some generous praise; and then drifted, lost on the bewildering currents of fashion.

So many factors influence a children’s book’s reception: do librarians like it? Does it fit into a curriculum? Can it get onto a table in Waterstones? And sometimes all those factors need to come together for a book to fly: and most of the time, they don’t.

I’m now onto my seventh full length work of fiction, which, for various complex reasons, and a combination of happy chance and dogged industry, I have decided to crowdfund with Unbound. The Arrow of Apollo is now, after two months, 40 per cent funded, and with it I hope to bring an enjoyment of myth and classics into schools, as well as providing an epic and exciting story. You can see more about it here.

I have learnt much over the past ten years. Festivals, talks, school visits, are the life-blood of the children’s author, although there have been as many humiliations as triumphs. At a windy, cold children’s festival in a tent full of hay bales, about to start a reading, I overheard a lady in the front row say to her daughter: “That man’s going to read us some nice Roald Dahl!” I hated to disabuse her. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to speak to 7 adults and a dog, and not had my travel expenses reimbursed. Nobody bought a book (not even the dog.) I was due to give a creative writing workshop in a library in East London: after waiting for ten minutes, the only other person in the room was  an old lady who wanted somewhere warm to sit where she could eat her peanuts.

Does all of this help to sell books? The jury, as they say, is still out.

I have learned that good reviews do not sell a children’s book. I have learned that publishers have many other books to deal with apart from your own, and many pressures on their time, and a budget that is often directed to something else, and that there is only a small window during which your book will be promoted (if it is even promoted at all). I have learned that disappointment is embedded into writing fiction: I have spoken to authors whom I consider wildly successful, who have won prizes and had film deals and have sold half a million copies or more: they shake their heads, purse their lips, and say their careers are hanging on a thread. What hope then for those of us hanging on by even more slender threads?

Of the other children’s authors who were first published in 2008, the one I referred to at the beginning of this article was a certain unknown called David Walliams, whose books now don’t just corner the market: they swamp it. Celebrities are everywhere in children’s book writing, and the message that sends worries me. Must writing now become part of your “brand”, like launching a scent or a line of underwear? Why bother continuing with the manuscript you’re plugging away with, when you know it won’t receive a tenth of the publicity or attention that some C list comedian or supermodel’s ghost-written debut will?

Well. The only thing that one can do - the only thing that I will do - is to keep writing: keep rethinking, revising, reworking. I don’t think I will ever be able to prevent myself from writing. I will always feel fond of The Other Book, despite its many faults; and those faults are partly what make me want to continue. Recently, a student I taught at Royal Holloway stopped me in the corridor: he remembered me from a visit I'd made to his school (my old prep, Dorset House): he'd become obsessed with the book, and mentioned a scene where the hero, Edward, lays the body of a dead raven onto a the tombstone of a knight. The student's connection to my writing touched me deeply: that image had been the genesis of the book, and to know that it had found its resonances in someone else's mind was thrilling.

I will never want to give up the joy of composition; the delirious rush when a hodge-podge of ideas comes together into a whole, like flecks of paint onto a canvas: the music of words on the page. The perfect book is always in the back of my mind, dappled in shadow, its brief glimpses beautiful and unattainable, as furtive and shy as a unicorn. I hope that one day, I will manage to find it.

Or rather, I should say: I hope that I wil never find it: as surely, once it had been written, there would be no point in writing any more.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Arrow of Apollo hits 40 %

Great news - The Arrow of Apollo, which I am raising funds for on Unbound, has now reached 40 % funded. Thank you so much to everyone who's contributed so far. Onwards and upwards!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Interview with Holly Black for Books for Keeps

I've interviewed Holly Black about her new book, Cruel Prince, for Books for Keeps. Read it here.

Books of the Year: 2017

I have written elsewhere about my children's books of the year, and have been reviewing more children's books than usual this year; most of my reading has been to do with the children's literature course I've been teaching, and I have enjoyed revisiting Lewis Carroll, J M Barrie, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, J K Rowling and others, and developing and tracing connections between them.

Here, then, are my three fiction choices for 2017:

Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe

A compelling, sensitive novel about the disappearance of a schoolgirl. Both intelligent, emotionally charged and gripping, Thorpe surely ranks as one of our best novelists. 

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Though it is difficult to turn the marbled horrors of Greek Tragedy into fiction, Toibin makes a good stab at it with this, in which Euripidean uncertainty treats the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes, with shades of the Troubles in the background.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's light touch imbues these icy, strange stories with new life, smooth and wry.

A book I managed to finish this year (all 1,000 pages or so of it) was Robert Tombs's magnificent The English and their History: a book which anyone with an interest in history or the way things have unfolded should read, all told in lucid, flowing prose. I've also been enjoying the Penguin Monarchs series, with a lively biography of Queen Victoria by Jane Ridley, and Tom Holland's evocative account of Athelstan. I look forward to more of these this year. 

I also recommend Bruno Bettelheim's study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, which has provided meat for much debate; and Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts, a book I have been meaning to read for years, and which I finished on New Year's eve, sitting before a fire, and about to set out on a journey.

Those of you who pay attention to my Books of the Year will remember that I have been reading Pepys for about ten years: I am still reading Pepys, though I have now got beyond the Great Fire. It's an excellent companion in the small hours: not much can be wrong with a world in which Pepys can be pleased with buying a new coat, or eating a particularly fine pie.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Arrow of Apollo at 30 %

Good news: The Arrow of Apollo is now 30 % funded on Unbound. Have a look at the pledge page here.

Lewis Carroll & J M Barrie

This year I've had the pleasure of teaching the Children's Literature Course at Royal Holloway. It's a wide-ranging course, beginning with ideas about what children's literature might be; taking in Rousseau, the Romantic Child and the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, through Lewis Carroll, school stories, J M Barrie, and onwards to the phenomenon of Harry Potter, among many other texts.

One thing that struck me in my research was this: that there was no hint of suspicion about the sexual proclivities of either Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) or J M Barrie. The default position, which I have discovered in many conversations with friends and acquaintances, is that "there must have been something odd" about their interest in children. But was there?

Charles Dodgson was certainly an odd man:  but he was also a Don at Christ Church, and therefore had to be celibate. The children whom he befriended remained on good terms with him throughout their adult lives. Some point to the destroyed pages of Dodgson's diaries, which may well refer to the reason that Alice Liddell's mother gave for refusing his offer of marriage to Alice; but the general opinion seems to be that Mrs Liddell thought that Dodgson wasn't quite good enough for Alice. (She also, it seems, refused Prince Leopold - because she knew Queen Victoria wouldn't approve. Off with her head, indeed.) People point to the photographs he took of girls (there is only one that, at a stretch, can, with modern eyes, seem sexual): yet scholarship has firmly placed these into the artistic context of the time, showing the influence of other photographers on Dodgson, who was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished amateurs of the day. Why is it then that people want to cast this eccentric, intelligent, talented, harmless man as someone with sexual interest in the subjects about which he wrote so lovingly? (That's not even talking about drugs: many of the people I spoke to were convinced he must have been off his head. The only thing that Dodgson was interested in was making sure the wine cellar at Christ Church was full.)

The same is true of J M Barrie. In one conversation, I mentioned that Nico Llewellyn-Davies, the last surviving of the brothers for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, was interviewed toward the end of his life. Here is what he said:

“All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy — had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware.”

He also said:  "Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest, and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was an innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan."

The response to this was that another brother, Peter, had killed himself. But there were many reasons for Peter's suicide: he was ill; he was an alcoholic; he was worried that he had passed on a hereditary disease to his children. The idea that his suicide was a reaction to historic abuse by Barrie seems, well, a little stretched.

My research into these subjects has not been extensive, I will admit; limited to the texts themselves, and a dozen or so biographical and critical sources. But innocence is the quality that attaches itself to both Dodgson and Barrie. They were complicated men, it is true. Barrie was probably asexual. But should that mean that they are judged by the present, by arbitrary standards?

When reading these texts, let them speak for themselves; let the lives of the authors speak for themselves. Sometimes innocence and childish, or child-like pleasures are simply what they are: and sometimes innocence can also come from an adult mind.