Saturday 22 December 2012

Book Review: The Great Unexpected

As well as writing my own books, I also write about other people's books occasionally.

Here's a review I wrote of The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech, which is published in today's edition of The Guardian.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

SF Said's Photography

Photography is my favourite hobby.  I love it because it doesn't involve words.  When you spend every day writing words, it's nice to get away from them sometimes!  And pictures can still tell a story.  Photography has helped me see so many strange and interesting things; things I would never have noticed otherwise.

I enjoy prowling around city streets at night with my camera, trying to see things from different points of view.  Sometimes I imagine them from a street cat's point of view, as if I was Varjak Paw, or one of his friends.  What would the city really look like to them?

This has led me into some strange places.  I can find myself staring for ages at puddles, or reflections of neon lights on a rainy pavement.  I spend whole evenings standing on precarious bridges over motorways, watching the light trails from traffic sparkling in the night.

I've even been down sewers to see what it really looks like there.  (And smells like.)  If you've read The Outlaw Varjak Paw, you might recognise this view:

I like to justify my photography by claiming that it's part of my research; it influences the way I imagine and describe scenes.  My new book, PHOENIX (coming in summer 2013), would definitely not be the same without it.  This book is not about Varjak Paw, or even cats; it's about people this time, and also aliens, because it's a science fiction epic set in outer space.  It begins with the stars singing to the main character.  I think that might look something like this:

By the way, if you like these photographs, some of them are published in a beautiful little book called London's Lost Rivers.  It's a guide to the hidden, secret rivers that flow underneath the city; rivers most people have never seen.  I didn't write any of the words... but there are 18 of my pictures in the book.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Writing Music: Varjak Paw

One of my readers recently asked if music ever inspired me while writing (thanks for the question, Jade!)  The answer is that music is absolutely crucial to me while writing, though different books have had  different soundtracks.  So I thought it might be fun to share some of my favourite writing music with you here.  (Of course, everyone sees and hears things differently, so I wouldn't expect anyone else to share my tastes in music!  This is just a bit of background, if you're interested...)

When I was writing Varjak Paw, I was almost always listening to The Cure.  Somehow their music seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for Varjak's adventures in the city.  Strangely enough, I didn't listen to Lovecats while writing, but it does seem  perfect for Varjak Paw, so I put it on a compilation tape for Dave McKean when he was doing the illustrations!

The album I listened to the most while writing Varjak was definitely The Head On The Door.  The track I would pick as the single most inspiring is A Night Like This.  Whenever it came on, I would always feel an extra surge of energy.  For me, it has exactly the feeling that I wanted to the book to have.

I still love that song; I listened to it a lot while writing Outlaw too, and even Phoenix.  But lots of other music came into the writing of those books, and I'll do some more posts in the future about them, if anyone would like to know more!

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Research: Catwatching

Another thing I'll be doing in this blog is sharing some of my research with you.  So here's a book that helped me write Varjak Paw: Catwatching, by Desmond Morris.

It was very important to me that the cats in Varjak should be as much like real cats as possible.  So I did a lot of research into cat behaviour and body language, and of all the books I read (there were many!), this one was the most helpful:

Morris really gives you a sense of what it must be like to be a cat, and to experience the world through a cat's senses - most of them much sharper than human senses.  For example, he tells us:

"Humans in the prime of life can hear noises up to about 20,000 cycles per second.  Dogs can manage up to about 35,000 to 40,000 cycles per second, so that they are able to detect sounds that we cannot.  Cats, on the other hand, can hear sounds up to an astonishing 100,000 cycles per second...  This acoustic ability explains why cats sometimes appear to have supernatural powers.  They hear and understand the ultrasonic sounds that precede a noisy activity and respond appropriately before we have even realized that something unusual is going to happen."

The book is packed with this kind of information; Morris answers almost every question you could have about cats, sometimes very surprisingly.  If you enjoyed Varjak Paw, I can highly recommend it!

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Inspirations: Watership Down

One thing I'll be doing in this blog is writing about my inspirations. 
So here's one of my first: Watership Down.

It was 1975.  I was 8 years old, and I lived in the middle of London.  I'd never seen a rabbit in real life.  So when my mum gave me an enormous 500 page book with a rabbit on the cover, I didn't know what to make of it.  "Trust me," she said.  "I've read it myself, and it's brilliant.  Read the first page.  If you don't like it, you can stop, but try one page and see for yourself…"

So I did.  And from that first page, I was plunged into the world of those rabbits.  And their world was so much darker and scarier than I'd imagined.  Because everything in it was bigger than them, and it was all out to get them.  Just to survive, those rabbits had to be so much braver and stronger than they ever thought they could be…

Sometimes it was terrifying, sometimes it was sad, sometimes it was funny – but at all times, it was completely compelling.  I could not stop reading that book, and as I read it, I remember thinking, "I will never forget this, as long as I live…"  And I haven't.  This is the very same copy of the book I read all those years ago (click on the picture to see it bigger, and you'll notice the price: 50p!)  It remains one of my most treasured possessions, with me through all the changes of my life.

Watership Down meant a lot to many other people too, because it became an instant classic, a bestseller across the world.  A few years later, there was an animated film.  It was different to the book, but I loved it anyway, for what it was. Then there was a picture book based on the film, full of stills, with little bits of text (and here it is, the very same copy.)  Again, it was different: not the book, not the film, but a whole new thing.  Richard Adams's story was so strong, it could work in all these different forms.

I got to interview Richard Adams many years later.  It was 2002.  I'd just finished writing Varjak Paw, but was still working as a journalist, and I was doing an article on Watership Down.  So I re-read it, for the first time since I was 8, and was even more amazed.  It seemed an even greater achievement, now I had some idea of what it must've taken.  And it was stunning to see how deeply that story had shaped my own imagination; how much of Varjak's origins I could see in it.

The interview was fascinating; I got to ask him all the questions I'd ever wanted to ask.  (You can read the article I wrote here.)  At the end of the interview, I told him how important his work had been to me, and how I'd now written a book of my own.  He said he wanted to read it, so I gave him a proof copy of Varjak Paw, thinking he was just being polite.  But then, incredibly, he wrote me the loveliest letter, telling me how much he enjoyed it; he actually used the word 'brilliant' about my book!  That was one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me.  It was like the end of a long, long journey.

Sunday 11 November 2012

SF Said's new blog

People sometimes ask me what I've been doing since I wrote The Outlaw Varjak Paw, all those years ago.

The short answer is that I've been writing a new book called PHOENIX.  This one's not about Varjak Paw; it's not even about cats.  It's about people this time, and also aliens, because it's an epic space adventure set across a whole Galaxy.  It took me nearly 7 years to finish it, but it was worth every minute, because I think it's the best thing I've written yet.  Dave McKean is working on the illustrations right now, and it'll be published next year.

I'm going to be telling you all about it in this blog, as well as giving you news on various Varjak Paw events, and sharing some of my interests and inspirations with you.  I'm looking forward to it!

In the meantime, here's one of the images I just showed to Dave. It's one I looked at a lot while writing PHOENIX. Click on the picture to see it large!