A Monster Calls….

Siobhan Dowd was an incredible writer.

Selling her books during my previous life at Random House was a real highlight.

Seeing her lauded by Waterstones as one of their 25 authors for the future was a real honour, despite the irony of the accolade. She had been fighting cancer for some time, and it wasn’t a battle she would win.

In the space of a couple of years she published four brilliant novels;

A Swift Pure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, Bog Child and Solace of the Road.

All of them were wonderful, all of them inspired me to write.

I remember her telling me about her idea for a sequel to The London Eye Mystery, set in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It always devastated me that she never got to tell this story, or the others that would follow.

Last year though, there was news of a final Siobhan book. Well kind of.

Walker had commissioned Patrick Ness to write a novel based on one of her untold stories.

It was exciting news, although you had to wonder just what kind of book it would be. Would Mr Ness try and ape her writing style? Was this some weird take on what adult publishers were doing with the Bond franchise?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to read it.

Yesterday I got the chance to, and I’m incredibly glad I did.

“A Monster Calls” is many things.

It’s wonderful for starters, as well as being important, lyrical, challenging, moving….I could go on and risk sycophancy, and for once it would be worth it.

The storyline mirrors an element of Siobhan’s life, in that it deals with a battle against cancer, but its central character isn’t mum, who fights throughout against the disease. Its hero is her son Conor, who has to witness her decline, as well as fend off bullies at school, and re-build relationships with an estranged father and a strict grandmother.

Oh, and there’s the monster who comes calling too. The monster in the shape of a yew tree, who will tell Conor stories, but expects to hear his truth in return.

So, Percy Jackson it isn’t….

It’s unlike anything I’ve read in a while. It’s hugely brave, and that’s another thing I love about it.

I read an advance proof copy, which only included a handful of Jim Kay’s illustrations, so when the HB arrives fully integrated with these wonderful pictures?

Well it’s going to be special. A book you look at long after reading it.

Walker books are great at that. They proved it with Jandy Nelson’s “Sky is Everywhere” last year.

“A Monster Calls” isn’t an easy read. How could it be given its subject matter?

But despite this I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one day, in airports, on planes, and as the inevitable, crashing ending loomed, on a bus towards home.

I had to feign several yawns, pretending that the tears were just my eyes watering from tiredness.

It’s not a long book, 200 pages or so, but there isn’t a wasted word. It’s like reading David Almond at his very best.

There isn’t a lot else to say. Well, there is, but I reckon I’ve bigged it up enough. There’s a danger to over-hyping books, making other people expect too much.

I just think it deserves to be read by a huge audience.

It’s Siobhan’s story, at least its starting point is, and I’m sure knowing her added to the poignancy.

But make no mistake, this is Patrick Ness’s book. And what a book it is.

It deserves to win every award out there. I hope it does.

It’s up there with “Skellig”, “The Outsiders” and “The Book Thief”, and that’s where it will stay for me. I can’t give it higher praise than that.

Chin-up, you miserable…..

People who work in publishing should be banned from having books released.

Especially idiots who work in sales….  Well, me basically.

It makes you cynical you see, stops you enjoying the process of being published.

Knowledge means power?

Not in this case, it’s just made me worry and navel gaze.

I’ve been trying hard not to think about the sales of the book, not to start poring over Bookscan figures every Tuesday, or even worse, systematically checking Amazon rankings on an hourly (well, half-hourly basis), but it’s a hard habit to break. I’ve been doing it for years, about books I’ve loved and worked on, but had no creative input into.

So to step back when it’s something I wrote? Well, it’s proving a challenge.

What’s important is picking the many positives out of the last few months. The reviews on Amazon (especially the ones not written by relatives or mates…), being reviewed by the Sunday Times for goodness sake, interviews in The Big Issue and The Sun. The good folks at Puffin have got more PR for ‘Billy’ than I would’ve thought possible, and for that I’m really grateful.

The other upside has been the events. I’ve absolutely LOVED them. Doesn’t matter if it’s talking to 30 or 300 students, years 7,8,9 or 10, every one of them has been an absolute buzz. Alright, it’s been limited to a couple a month, but I should think myself lucky that work have freed me up to do them in the first place.

The other thing that’s stopped me being so maudlin and self-absorbed are the messages I’ve had from people who’ve read the book. Teachers who work with kids like Billy, but more importantly from kids themselves. After all, I did write it for a young adult audience. Bizarrely, it’s easy to forget that.

Bertie got in touch and told me;

‘I am 13 and have just finished reading Being Billy. I though it was amazing! You are a really good writer. Like Jaqueline Wilson says you write starkly but sensitivly. True there is a balance of both, it’s perfect.’

I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to get Bertie’s note, my first!

It was bizarre, but great to send him a note back, answering his questions.

His email certainly pulled me up a bit lively, and put things into perspective.

Alright the sales could be better, but I know better than most how difficult it is to make a book stick, to get the sales that the tiny majority of novels enjoy. What’s the point of being published if you’re not going to wring every drop of enjoyment out of it?

So I’m going to do exactly that. Or I’m going to try. Starting with the Amazon rankings. I haven’t checked this morning, and I haven’t got the shakes yet……

Need something to read?

If you fancy having a read of ‘Being Billy’, or have a friend who might, then this is the post to read…

I’m giving away 3 signed copies (dedicated if you like). All you have to do is drop me an email at phil@philearle.com – no catch, I promise. Although if you like it, you might be so kind as to spread the word…and if you think it’s crap, well…ssssshhhhh!

I’m happy to post anywhere in the UK, so get in touch if you’re interested…

cheers, Phil

Better late than Never…

I know, I know, this is old news, but I’m just rubbish at this blogging thing. I do mean to do it more, but I’m struggling to keep up with work and writing, oh and sleeping a the mo…but anyway, here they are, some photos from my launch party.

100 people, 1 room, two speeches, 20 bottles of white, 80 beers and 12 bottles of red…oh and 90 book sales…bloomin marvellous from start to finish…thank-you.

Making a song and dance of it….

There’s a lot of pressure on authors, kids authors in particular, to be performers. It often isn’t good enough for new talent to be deft storytellers, what’s as important, is whether they can entertain 30, 60, 120 or more kids live and in person. It’s enough to give established authors, never mind debut ones, a serious case of the jitters.

Last week was my turn, but I’ve got to be honest, I’d been really looking forward to it. Obviously I love writing, you wouldn’t sit in a room for months on end, ignoring the lure of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ if you didn’t, but I knew I’d enjoy the touring as much as the creating bit.

The aspect I love most about my job is talking about books, and to be honest there’s not enough time spent doing that, so to be allowed and encouraged to stand there and talk about my own book? Well, count me in. I’m completely up for it.

The good folks at Puffin had set me up with a couple of days of school events last week, all in South East London, and I had the best time.

Tuesday meant a morning spent at the Walworth Academy, talking to two groups of 60 year 9 students. It was the first time I’d done the event for an audience that age, and it’s fair to say I had to work a little harder to tease questions or observations out of them. No-one wants to look an idiot in front of 59 others…me included. What worked best in these sessions, was undoubtedly reading passages from the book, so I gave them 2 passages, one that showed how Billy viewed his life in care, and one from later in the book, where he starts to use his aggression in a more positive light. I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to see 60 pairs of eyes fixed on you as you read. It’s a special feeling, and certainly an addictive one.

If Tuesdays sessions taught me anything, it’s that you cant have too much material. With the year 9’s feeling hesitant about asking questions, I devised a further piece about the process of being published, what an agent does, what a first draft looks like, how the cover came together. Thankfully though, I didnt need it in thursday’s sessions.

First up was the Bridge Academy in Shoreditch, and a fabulous theatre space where I spoke to 120 years 7 and 8 students. The difference in response was marked, they asked questions from word go, even those sat right at the back, and the next fifty minutes screamed by, leaving me to sign a flurry of books and timetables (!) at the end. Loved it. every single second of it.

After a brief interlude and a lunch time curry (spoilt rotten!), we were onto the Bishop Challoner school near Wapping, and 80 year 9 pupils, all boys. There’s something great about speaking to single sex groups, especially boys, and whoever said lads that age have no emotional intelligence hasn’t got a clue. The students I was lucky enough to meet engaged brilliantly, firing questions that were often challenging to answer…

And well, that was it for the week. But what a brilliant, challenging and hugely fulfilling few days it was. And now? Well it’s up to me. I have several more events lined up, and invites back to the schools I visited last week (so gratifying). It’s great that work are giving me some time off to get stuck in. It’s an opportunity I’m not going to pass up……