Following Your Inner Compass: Q & A with author Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostAndrew Norriss’s brilliant new Middle Grade (9-12+) book, Jessica’s Ghost, is out now and I highly recommend it. We are fortunate enough to have Andrew visiting the hearthfire today to answer a few questions about this book and his interesting writing career (did you know his other writing includes sitcom The Brittas Empire and kids’ TV series Bernard’s Watch?).

Jessica’s Ghost tackles a weighty subject (depression and suicide) for young readers; where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s not an idea I consciously chose. I would not have dared. I was trying, as an experiment, to write a story without all my usual pre-planning, so I began with the idea of a ghost (with no idea why she was a ghost) and just started tapping away. I was halfway through the first draft before I realised she had killed herself (it’s curious how this was never really up for debate) and was thoroughly alarmed. This is not my usual territory, and I was not at all sure I had the ability to make my story remotely convincing.

That does sound alarming! Francis is a great character. How do you create a character like that? Did he arrive, fully-formed, or did you have to work out what would make him different?

Arriving fully formed just about sums it up. Again, to my surprise. I know nothing about clothes, design or fashion and there was a lot of hasty searching in books and on the web for good phrases and words that might make it look as if I did. What I did know, however, is that passions like these can appear at a remarkably early age, so I imagined Francis finding back numbers of Vogue when he was four, and demanding a sewing machine for his eighth birthday. And just a few weeks back I found an article in the paper about a famous designer who had done exactly that.

What would you say to someone who says children’s books shouldn’t raise difficult issues directly?

I have some sympathy with this but, like so many things in life, you can’t make a hard and fast rule about what can and cannot be put in books. Even in Narnia, war kills friends and mothers have cancer. Maybe it’s not so much the subject that matters so much as how it’s treated. And most important of all, of course, whether it’s a good story.

Yes, didactic ‘issues-driven’ books don’t really work for any age group, adults included – story is definitely the most important thing. Jessica’s Ghost is, first and foremost, a good read and I think that’s how you can ‘get away with’ raising these issues with this age group.

You have written in a range of media and genres in your career; how much is that a conscious choice?

After deciding that I was going to take the writing thing seriously, the first piece I wrote was a situation comedy for television and, to my astonishment, managed to sell it. I wrote sitcoms for 10 years, with my friend Richard Fegen and then, as mysteriously as the urge had arisen, it simply disappeared, and I found myself writing other things instead. Like books for young people.

I don’t know why this happened, but I have come to realise that there is an inner compass in all of us, telling us which star we have to follow – like Francis wanting to design clothes – and it is a foolish person who, for the sake of money or fame or to please their parents, tries to go in a different direction. We really have about as much choice about where this inner compass will take us as we do in choosing which direction is north. To a quite remarkable extent we go where we have to go…

Do you have a fixed writing routine? (e.g. number of words per day, set hours for writing etc)

I never went for the idea of a set number of words, but I always found a time limit very useful. I usually made sure it was not too long as well. Four hours was a good day…

What advice would you give to young writers?

The best advice I ever found on writing was given by Robert Heinlein (science fiction writer). He said there were only three rules to follow for a successful career in writing. Number one was to write something (he reckoned that was where 99% of would be writers fell down). Number two was to send it off to a publisher. And number three was to keep on doing numbers one and two… Made sense to me!

Thank you, Andrew – such interesting answers. If this has whetted your appetite for a quirky MG read that offers depth without ever feeling heavy, I can definitely recommend Jessica’s Ghost.

North of Nowhere Blog Tour: A Place of Inspiration

Today is a very exciting day here at the Hearthfire: Liz Kessler is here to talk about her setting for North of Nowhere (which by the way is a fabulous story of families, mystery, magic and the sea – my review’s here). So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Liz.

About seven years ago, I went on holiday in the Scottish highlands. Whilst there, I visited various tiny towns and attractions along the coast. One of these was a small town called Pennan, the setting for one of my favourite films, Local Hero. But just a little way along the coast from this town that has now become a tourist attraction, there was another, smaller village. Little more than a row of houses standing silently, yards from the water’s edge, this one is not on most people’s tourist destination maps. And yet it was the one that stayed with me.

Crovie (pronounced ‘crivvy’) was once a busy fishing town. A storm in 1953, however, put an end to that. The storm washed away many of the houses and forced the residents to flee. Today, the houses that remain are mostly holiday lets – I guess, for those who really want to get away from it all. There is certainly not a lot to do here.

Crovie
But as I walked along the tiny ridge between the houses and the sea, what struck me was the intensity of the silence, the feeling of history trapped here, the creepy atmosphere that seemed to fill every inch of the place. It was the atmosphere that got inside me, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write a book that featured this place or somewhere like it – and most certainly this atmosphere.

It was about five years later that I began to write the story.

 
Many of my books are inspired by a place and, if possible, I always try to go to the place itself in the early stages writing the book. As I had now moved to Cornwall, the prospect of a visit to the Scottish highlands – and the fifteen-hour drive that this would involve – was, I confess, not the most enticing thought in the world.

So I began to look at other possibilities. Were there any other similar towns a
little nearer? That was when I discovered Hallsands.

Hallsands has a similar history to Crovie – only worse. A small but thriving fishing town in Devon, the village was all but destroyed in a storm about 100 years ago. Almost every house was destroyed. Miraculously, there were no casualties from the storm – but every inhabitant had to start a new life elsewhere.

It didn’t take me long to pack a bag and book a trip to Hallsands.

Hallsands

A few nights in a nearby apartment; a few conversations with the right people to allow us over the fence and through the gate that blocked off the land as it is now too unstable to allow public access; a few pages of scribbled notes as I wandered around soaking up the atmosphere of this incredible place; a few hundred photos…All of this led to a head buzzing with ideas and inspiration.

For me, there is nothing quite like going to the place that has inspired a book.

It’s not just about what you can read in a book or on the internet. It’s about standing in the place itself and feeling its history – almost hearing and seeing the events that took place where you are standing – this is what gets my creative juices flowing. This is what really excites and inspires me.

And so, seven years on from the original moment of inspiration, North of Nowhere is written and out in the shops, and this feels like a very exciting point of an amazing journey.

I hope that I have managed to do justice to the places and the people that inspired this book. And I hope that, if you happen to read it, you will feel at least an inkling of the atmosphere and drama that I have tried to convey.

Thank you for having me as a guest on this blog, and for giving me the opportunity to relive the feeling of inspiration that I had when this book began to form in my mind.

The path down to Hallsands
Thank you, Liz – what a fab post! The sea is such a great place for stories. Where I grew up, on the East Anglian coast, Dunwich is the focus of ‘washed into the sea’ stories, having been diminishing for centuries – at least half a dozen churches and monastery buildings, for example, are ‘out there’ in the sea somewhere, the tower of the last having fallen in 1922.

NORTH OF NOWHERE by Liz Kessler was published by Orion Children’s Books on 24 January in hardback at £9.99.