Posts in Events

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days": Sharon Bolton visits Ramsbottom Library

Posted Monday 3 December 2018 by Ian Anstice in Author blogs, Events, Opinion

Sharon Bolton at RamsbottomIt was great to see a big author like Sharon Bolton come to a library like Ramsbottom for several reasons.  For one, the library is not huge unlike many that would normally see Sharon. Another is that the library is absolutely gorgeous, in a picturesque Lancashire town very reminiscent of the area described in her book “The Craftsman”. And, finally, of course, this was the culmination of the Great North West Read, a regional promotion that was instrumental in having such an author in the region in the first place.

But what was she like?

Well, the intelligence shines off her for a start. This is someone who would be fascinating no matter what she was talking about and this talk, which she must have delivered several times at least before, was no exception.

It started off spooky. Her parents lived in a church. They had quiet neighbours, people joked. But it got the young Sharon thinking that the best place to bury someone you have murdered would be in a graveyard. After all, there’s so many there already, another one may not be noticed.

Sacrifice BoltonHer first book to sell was “Sacrifice” and she was thrilled to get it not just in bookshops in this country but also internationally. It’s a thriller with a slightly supernatural twist. But not too supernatural, for she is a Gothic writer and thing with those is that, however it may appear, there’s no magic involved. Sharon sees magic as, vaguely, like cheating. It’s just human wickedness. But that should be scary enough.

“From the very first page I want my readers to be scared. If they're reading in bed, I want them to want check underneath them." she days.  You don't need gratuitous violence or ghosts to scare people, just hints and a good story will do it.

She then goes through her other books. Her next one was “Blood Harvest” which was rewritten from her very first big story idea which she never did get published, just with all the supernatural stuff taken out. There was a short trailer about the book which did, indeed, look very spooky.

Sharon used to live near where the Jack the Ripper murders took place so, Sharon being Sharon, this got her thinking. So she wrote a book partly inspired by the grisly Victorian events and produced “Now You See Me”. She did a ton of research for the book, including finding out that the lore around Jack is largely made up by detectives who worked on the case wanting to sell books. But one thing is clear: Jack was either very clever or very lucky, because he killed people in busy areas where it would have been easy for someone to have spotted him.

Bolton Now You See MeThe book started a series featuring a young female police constable – also a feature of The Craftsman – called Lacy Flint, trying to hunt down a killer while keeping her own dark past a secret. . Sharon thinks it's one of her best and may bring her back.

The author was born in Lancashire and lived there for her first eighteen years, being raised amongst all the local traditions of ghosts and the Pendle Witches. But the latter were real people.  Twelve men and women were executed for "murder by witchcraft", Mainly women. Sharon, being rational, discounts the magic aspect but also the criminal bit, saying at the very worst they were low level confidence tricksters.

What makes society turn on weakest, she asks. “"We don't hang people for witchcraft any more but there are still witch hunts".

So she knew she wanted to write about the area but, damn it, Jeanette Winterson got there first and, what is more, her book “Daylight Gate” was excellent. Sharon even read an extract of it approvingly, where it says "The North is a dark place ... Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.". She is constantly amused that Lancashire people don't feel indignant by that description, they feel proud.

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days, she says. And looking at that intelligence in her eyes, and from what I know of the intense sexism of the times, I’d say she’s probably right."

So now to Craftsman, where Florence is a senior police officer looking for closure over a murder decades before and wondering if she caught the right man. Foolishly, too, she has brought the son with her. "It's a book about me or a woman like me"

And then suddenly it was question time, which Sharon insisted on. She likes questions.

She says her characters are not always “nice”. They have dark sides and that Lacey evolves immensely over the series. Sharon is more interested in baddies

Why is Sharon no longer called SJ? Because men have got over not being comfortable reading women authors.  When she started, it was thought being female would put off men. Not any more. Especially as being there is social media, everyone knows she’s a woman anyway. Moreover, there are quite a few “SJ” authors so it was getting confusing. So ... Sharon.

Sharon Bolton witch huntWhy did she choose the Falklands as a setting for one of her books? She always thought islands are perfect for thrillers. But every Island in the UK has already been taken so she chose the Falklands, which are like the UK but decades ago. Also, she likes islands. And Pendle felt very island-like in the book.

Why has she not written about Salem? She’s interested but there’s more than enough material in England and Salem has been written about enough.  Also, the same thing happened there than in Pendle. Driven like in America often by mercenary reasons.

But I suspect that Sharon is not driven by mercenary reasons, although she notes that as a professional writer she does not have the luxury of simply not writing. I suspect she writes because she has to write. And they can’t be kept in but burst out of her. Like a demon. A very rational, scientifically explainable one.

A video of the visit can be seen here.

The library is a sensory time bomb: Patricia Dixon on her visits

Posted Wednesday 31 October 2018 by Patricia Dixon in Author blogs, Events

Libraries have played an important part in the lives of many of us. Here, crime-writer Patricia Dixon reflects on her memories of them.

"On November 6th, I will take part in Tameside Libraries Mini Crime-Fest and whilst I prepare for the event, my thoughts have travelled back in time to somewhere that holds a very special place in my heart.

Droylsden LibraryA ghost from the future, hiding in the shadows, I observe my five year-old self, holding the hand of my father as we visit Droylsden Library for the first time. It became a Saturday morning ritual, the eager five minute walk from home that always felt like five miles once I was loaded up with books. 

Now I am as a teenager, sitting at the polished wooden desk with my friends. The library served a dual purpose, a warm and a quiet place to do our homework and, if we were lucky, we might also meet boys.

Patricia Dixon library bookNext I am a fashion student, an odd looking girl with spiky-hair wearing home-made clothes, Dr Marten boots and far too much make-up, a pile of reference books aid the search for inspiration. My friend and I have a crazy plan to run away to London so scour the heavy telephone directories, hoping to find the address of Bob Geldof or at least his phone number.

Time has shifted and in this scene I have changed so much, a young mother with two small children, listening to story time.

The library is a sensory time bomb, the scent of books, the hum of voices, and the smooth lines of an art deco building with its square glass windows that stood the test of time. My ghostly self wishes the librarians still had the book stamp. I longed to have a go and can still hear the sound as it prints the date in ink. I smile, remembering how I often begged my mother to take back a late book and pay the 2p fine; such was the shame of forgetfulness.

The circle is almost complete so I return to the present, wondering if my five year old self, the teenager or the student would believe that one day their books would stand on the shelves of the local library. The name on the spine is different now, but inside their words litter the pages, in print, forever. And maybe two more ghostly visitors will pop by, my parents, who will see their daughter’s books on display and if they do, I hope it makes them proud".

Patricia DixonPatricia Dixon is speaking at Stalybridge Library on Tuesday 6 November 1.30pm to 3. She is the author of crime books "Over My Shoulder" and "They Don't Know" as well as a series of fiction based in France.

Transcription of an author event: Kate Atkinson at Bolton Central Library

Posted Tuesday 18 September 2018 by Ian Anstice in Events, Opinion

Bolton CentralA sunny, warm but windy day in Bolton. Outside, people were sat watching an talking on the steps but the town hall. Just round the back is the beautiful old Central Library with the newly refurbished combined museum just about to be opened on the asaturday after.

Bolton Libraries must have been delighted to get someone of the stature of Kate Atkinson. She’s been doing big bookshops and big cities otherwise in her tour, and been all over local and national radio and podcasts and book reviews. It turned out that she'd spent all that morning doing local radio interviews.

I can see why she came to Bolton though. It's a beautiful library and the auditorium can fit 150. In addition, tickets to attend were free and, not just that, but a free coffee and biscuit at the beginning. And it was clear people were using that money to saved to buy books. Choosing a seat at the back of the big semi-circular auditorium, I got chatting to a local bookseller who was looking on somewhat remorsefully at Waterstones doing a roaring trade in selling hardbacks.

Over 100 came for the difficult lunchtime weekday slot, never the best, in the beautiful meeting room at Bolton Central Library. Others had booked but not turned up (always a challenge with free events) but so many booked it didn't matter. The audience was what one would expect:  audience 90% female and largely retired. I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again.

"I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again."

Mel Kate Atkinson BoltonAfter a short intro from librarian Mel Graaf, which raised a laugh, it was over to Alison Barrow from Transworld who interviewed Kate Atkinson on her new book "Transcription" about espionage in the phoney war period at World War Two. "Sounds good doesn't it?" Said Kate in a happy voice which set the tone for what came after.

The author read a selection from the book. It was a Good audience, smiling and laughing at asides, such as observing that the lead character "is a pathological liar".

Then the questions came. Did Kate want to write a war story? No.

"I didn't want to write a war story but because I wanted to write this story, I had to. They don't know there's six years ahead of attrition. People are paranoid at the time which fits in well as the book is about paranoia and suspicion. MI5 are concentrating on mopping up the fifth column of Fascists, whose membership ran a very large gamut from the working class to the aristocracy.

She then apologised (no need) saying she’d be doing  local radio all morning and so if she repeated herself to let her know.

Kate used the National Archives to research story. It turns out that MI5 make periodical releases to NA when they're no longer sensitive and, seventy years after the events, they've recently released who one of the key characters in the book - Jack King = actually was, including transcriptions of his conversations. He infiltrated  fascist circles and was known socially to them. It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed.

"It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed."

There was some fun for a minute as the microphones were swapped due to a few people not being able to hear and the comment that "Kate is a writer, not a sound technician".

So, how much was made up? The plot and the characters are fictional but the background facts are facts. “ I then forget what I've made up: I can't remember what is real and what is not, which is quite appropriate"

There’s a lot about identity and deception in the book. You never find out with some people who they are. It's a book about ambivalence but not enough that readers throw down the book in disgust.

“If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored” say Kate. “One things come out of another, always. I'm the early days I though one had to plan novels but the second I start typing it changes completely. It's only then that I understand what I'm writing. I like to have structure, a clear skeleton then you put the flesh on. I can't write without a title. I need to know that, how it begins and how it ends. And almost without fail I do get where I want to go at the end of writing.”

"If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored”

I don't have the fear of a blank page because if you have the title then you don't have a blank page. The title bears little relation to the actual story but my thoughts unconsciously congregate around the title. I want to write a book with that title and when I finish it, I realise why I called it that.

For example, the book “Started Early Took My Dog”. Well, that means, the protagonist had to have a dog and an unlikely liking for Emily Dickinson, where the quote comes from originally. Therefore the book almost starts to write itself. On the subject of canines “Every book has a dog in it but I don't actually have a dog, of which more later.” One audience got very excited about what dog Kate should get. “A dog would be very important to dog owners and so should appear more in stories.

Characters in Transcription are quite isolated. This is deliberate. In the war, people left family, especially young women. Not isolated ... But liberated. Starting anew. Most of them had a whale of a time socially. Start of a huge shift of attitude about women.

"She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”

Individual characters are a big thing with Kate. Is she had to pick a favourite, then it'd be Teddy from Life after Life. Or Gloria in A God In Ruins. Or all of the dogs, especially Lilly in this current book. She went on to say that some characters just stayed with her. She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”.

She used to be offended when everyone thought Museum was autobiographical. “No, I'm a writer. But now I think that all of it came from my head so it must all be me, one way or another. Especially if you live inside a head of the character, you can see the similarity. But I'm not putting across a message or as a sounding board for my own opinions. “

“I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets. If I had my time again, I'd do something secret, Mi5 or GCHQ ... And be in charge of things. “

"I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets"

When would you travel back in time was asked. To the war as it was a time of heightened living,  was the answer. But only with a guarantee that I would come back. Imagine going back to Shakespeare’s time? No, there'd be no tea or good lighting or laundry.

kate questionAfter 50 minutes, the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions. And of course one of the first was about how Kate writes. She writes mostly chronologically. She reads the beginning every day as that makes her remember why she’s writing that book.

Some book ideas last forever with no book actually happening. She’s  been planning a book on the Antarctic for years and years. Kate is (a very young looking) 66 and frets some of her ideas will never get around to being written. Maybe if she lives to 150 and then get it all done.

“If I gather enough thoughts then I write it. The next two books I'm planning are relatively recent ideas. One is an exhibition I saw, one is an idea that just came to e. I've been putting together a book of short stories forever. Writing the book you want to write is the gift you give yourself.”

"Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky questions:  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie"

Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky question?  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie. Because they're more intelligent than me, or my best bet in that direction.”

Did you always want to write? “No. I was a reader. I was an only child so started reading at three. Did a degree and doctorate at English, and then failed at it. I was bereft. I treated academic writing as a creative thing. Then I started writing creatively almost immediately. I got rid of all the biographical crud in shoot stories. First story I ever wrote won a women's magazine award, which gave me permission to do more. Studying gave me the time to read so much. A winding reading base is the basis of writing.”

kate Atkinson queueWhat are your favourite writers? She was most influenced by her reading when she was a child. Real classics like Lewis Carroll and Nesbit. There was not this vast library of children's books then like there are now.

And now for I think what may be news to many. Her next one will be a Jackson Brodie one. Not sure she should have said that by the look of her publicist.

And, then, all too soon, it was time for book signing. 35 books were sold at £20 per time. Not too shabby. Kate showed tremendous patience signing so many books, laughing and thanking everyone.

A Vintage evening: book previewing in Manchester

Posted Wednesday 28 March 2018 by Ian Anstice in Events, Opinion

Vintage inviteOne of the serious perks of being the co-ordinator of Time To Read (well, apart from working from home with my dog, Gusto, sleeping on my lap while I’m typing) is being invited to book launches and there was a particularly good one put on by Vintage this week which I want to tell you about.

The Vintage 2018 preview event took place in the wonderful Waterstones at Deansgate in Manchester on a mild Monday evening.  It turns out that the bookshop has a secret events room behind double doors by the Costa on the top floor.

So what happens? Well, you walk in and there’s free drinks (wine and juice) as well as free nibbles (the best Marks and Spencers can offer) and six authors waiting around for the event to start. This is a great time to speak to them, as they’ve not formally been introduced yet and people are a bit stand-offish. I chickened out of talking to Irvine Welsh and instead spoke to the very friendly Abir Mukherjee, who’s an old hand at such things and politely underestimated my age, and Damian Le Bas and his wife, who were fascinating.

Then the event properly started and we all took our seats to listen to the speakers and to people form the publishers. The first speaker described who was there, including not only a sprinkling of us librarians, but also staff from Waterstones, independent bookshops and book bloggers. The publishers then summarised their favourite forthcoming books from other authors, including two which caught my eye – Star of the North by DB John, due out in May, about child abductions carried out by North Korea and the new one by Yuval Noah Harari, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”.  If you’ve not read any Harari, well, start now … but don’t miss this one. The man is a genius.

Irvine WelshOK, now on to the speakers. Irvine Welsh, the megastar in the room, was first on and literally set his stopwatch at the start to make sure he did not speak too long. He was there to speak about his “third real Trainspotters” book Dead Men’s Trousers.  This is a “twisted redemption” for his characters.

Then we had Damian Le Bas whose Stopping Places is about his journey to places in the UK which Damian Le Bashad links to Travellers. I checked with him and he’s also fine with the terms Gypsies and Romany, although the fact I had to do this showed how touchy the subject still is, even in 2018. And, yes, some people do use the socially unacceptable term “pikey” but I bet none of them knew that they do so because it comes from the old word “turnpike”, which is a road-toll. He’s full of fascinating information like that and has a real flair for description, as his reading of his trip to Appleby Fair in Cumbria demonstrated. Did you know that you can so carefully control a coin toss that heads can come up nine times out of ten?

Diana EvansDiana Evans came nest with Ordinary People, a novel about black British middle class people from the day Obama was elected to the death of Michael Jackson in the same year. Themes like parenthood and middle age are touched on as is, of course, race, which she made clear was “not just a black person’s problem. Again there’s some good turns of phrase like the description of "Obama walking out victorious on to the bulletproof stage".  I love fact as well that the book has a playlist.

Andrew MacMillanPoetry is a notoriously hard sell but Andrew McMillan, now based in Manchester, gives it his best shot. Like his previous book, Physical is very graphic and eyewateringly personal, with lightning-quick turns of phrase that shock almost as much as the meteorological phenomenon itself. It’s about a homosexual adolescence but is basically also about awkwardness and the pains of growing up generally.

Christie WatsonThe next speaker grabbed the attention of everyone from the start. The story of a child dying in your arms from burns and the smell of her hair as it is washed is going  to stay with me for a long time. Such is the work of Christie Watson, whose book “The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story is, for my money, going to be – or damn well should be – the bestselling book here.  She’s a nurse in the NHS and talks about kindness as well as life and death. She is an absolutely riveting speaker and can move  from gruesome morbidity to humour in a minute. I think the time has come for this as it’s not misery fiction – it’s kindness non-fiction – and from a nurse, not a doctor or a midwife. I did video snaps of the other authors but I forgot to do it with Christie, she was that good.  There was a 14-way auction for the rights to this book and I can see why.

Abir MukherjeeAh, but then we had the infinitely likeable Abir Mukherjee –whose “Smoke and Ashes” is the third in a detective series based in 1920s India. It’s a good backdrop for thrillers and he does it well, with the latest being about the shameful medical tests done on Indian troops at the time, mixed in with preparations for the arrival of Prince Edward (the future Edward VIII) in Calcutta. I’ve not come across his work before but I’m going to jolly well read some now.

Abir then proved very popular in the next stage of the evening, which was a social get-together with the authors, although poor Irvine Welsh – who I suspect was too famous to be socially talked to – had to stand around for a bit while people just came up to him to autograph his new book. Oooh, did I mention there were piles of free copies of the books to just pick up? That’s rather good isn’t it? Or it would have been if I had not been so intent on speaking to people I forgot to get them until it was too late. Such are the problems of such a good evening. Here’s looking forward to the next one.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

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