My friend and fellow author Jon Appleton has a great interview series going at the moment on his blog. Called Book by Book, the series focuses on particular books–such as the first one you ever wrote, the one you wish you’d written, the one you know you’ll never write…and more! So far, Jon has interviewed Laurie Graham, Linda Newbery, Joanne Harris and Adele Geras. And now, it’s my turn to be interviewed!
Here’s an extract:
- What was the first book you wrote?
It depends which way you look at it! The very first ‘book’ I created was at the age of seven when I wrote and illustrated The Adventures of Princess Alicia, which I stapled up so you could turn the pages – sadly, no copies survive! Then, the next big milestone was the first book I actually completed as an adult (after several false starts with novels I started and then abandoned). This was a big historical novel called The Canadian, based on some of the history of my father’s side of the family, in 19th century Quebec, against a background of rebellion. I was around 23 or so. I sent it around everywhere but it got nowhere though I got some nice comments about it from publishers who nevertheless rejected it! That was the case also with The Witch from Crow River, another historical novel set in Quebec, this time in the 17th century (when my ancestors had arrived there from western France). I had not even been to Canada at the time and I think that might perhaps have shown.
Anyway, just a few years later, when I was 27 and had just had my second child (in fact just a week later), I picked up a short story I’d written back when I was 16, which was set on the far north coast of NSW (which I thought terribly exotic but had in fact visited!) and thought, I could turn this into a novel. I did – and the result was my first published novel, The House in the Rainforest, an adult novel set partly in the ‘90s (when it was published) and partly in the ‘70s (when I’d first gone to the north coast). It was not autobiographical, it was just the setting I knew well. While I was waiting to hear back from the University of Queensland Press (to whom I’d sent the novel – they took more than a year to get back to me!) I wrote a children’s novel, a timeslip story set partly in country NSW, partly in medieval France. That was Fire in the Sky, my first published children’s novel. It was published the same year as The House in the Rainforest.
You can read the whole interview here.
Today I’m very pleased to be part of a blog tour by writer and producer Caroline Beecham, whose debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen (Allen and Unwin), a most engaging historical novel about a most unusual restaurant, set against the background of World War Two, has just been published. In this interesting post, Caroline writes about one of the inspirations for her novel: and as a bonus to readers, provides a delicious recipe from the book!
|How working in restaurants inspired Maggie’s Kitchen
by Caroline Beecham
Maggie’s Kitchen’ follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in London during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that develop with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refuge. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep open their doors.
Real events inspired me to write ‘Maggie’s Kitchen’; I was intrigued by these British Restaurants that the Ministry of Food set up during the Second World War to help with the food shortages. I felt that there was a story there, but my first thoughts were that it would be too difficult; how would you approach writing about people living on rations and not getting enough to eat and make it appealing? It was my experience working in restaurants while I was growing up that gave me the answer; you become like a family, working as a team, building relationships with regulars, dealing with difficult personalities and daily dramas—even when its not wartime! You become part of a community and I realised that it was through this microcosm that Maggie’s story could take hold.
I still had to keep a check on the food descriptions though; it didn’t seem appropriate to give mouthwatering accounts of the food so I had to restrain myself there, and I hope that I got the balance right. The research for the book took a long time as I read other fiction and non-fiction books, trawled the National Archives in London and visited Islington where the novel is set. Working through the original Ministry of Food recipes was also time-consuming as they all had to be checked and I wanted to make them so that if anyone asked me I could say that I had tasted and tested them all. With the help of friends and family, they were all tried and some adjustments made; there is no powdered egg these days!
One of my favourites is the Crisp Coated Scotch Eggs recipe below. There was a requirement for fast food that could be eaten in a hurry, hot or cold, and the humble Scotch egg fitted the bill. The recipe is also appealing because it evokes the nostalgia of childhood. That’s one of the reasons that food can be so comforting; if it’s a dish we ate often as children then it can take us back. This theme of memory and food, and courage and food, is central to the book. The comforting nature of food is emphasized through Maggie directly nurturing Robbie with food, in the same way that she is able to offer comfort and food to the community through the restaurant.
For Maggie, the simple act of cooking is nurturing for her senses; even when she is trapped underground in the air raid shelter she is: ‘rubbing the sodden dirt between her fingertips, feeling the same cold coarse texture as if she were simply making breadcrumbs for shortbread or the topping for a fresh fruit crumble.’ And again, later on: ‘By the time she was at home in her kitchen and had taken the potatoes from her pockets and washed them, she was beginning to feel more settled, soothed by the restorative act of cooking.’ In a moment of self-doubt, when she is questioning her abilities, it takes Janek to remind her that: ‘In crisis we focus on what is real. What can be more real than providing people with their most basic need?’
450 g sausage meat
Preheat oven to 200°C/390°F. Hard-boil eggs and coat with sausage meat, moulding them into neat shapes. Dust with flour and roll in bread crumbs. Line a baking tray with baking paper and bake eggs until crispy. Serves 4.
More about the book:
Amid the heartbreak and danger of London in the Blitz of WWII, Maggie Johnson finds her courage in friendship and food.
They might all travel the same scarred and shattered streets on their way to work, but once they entered Maggie’s Kitchen, it was somehow as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
When the Ministry of Food urgently calls for the opening of British Restaurants to feed tired and hungry Londoners during World War II, Maggie Johnson is close to realising a long-held dream.
But after struggling through government red-tape and triumphantly opening its doors, Maggie’s Kitchen soon encounters a most unexpected problem. Her restaurant has become so popular with London’s exhausted workers, that Maggie simply can’t get enough supplies to keep up with demand for food, without breaking some of the rules.
With the support of locals, and the help of twelve-year-old Robbie, a street urchin, and Janek, a Polish refugee dreaming of returning to his native land, the resourceful Maggie evades the first threats of closure from the Ministry. As she fights to keep her beloved Kitchen open, Maggie also tries desperately to reunite Robbie with his missing father as well as manage her own family’s expectations. Until she can no longer ignore the unacknowledged hopes of her own heart, and the discovery that some secrets have the power to change everything.
More about Caroline Beecham:
Caroline Beecham grew up at the English seaside and relocated to Australia to continue her career as a writer and producer in film and television. She has worked on numerous productions including a documentary about Princess Diana lookalikes, a series about journeys to the ends of the earth, as well as a feature film about finding the end of the rainbow. Caroline decided on a new way of storytelling and studied the craft of novel writing at the Faber Academy in 2012. She has an MA in Film & Television and a MA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two sons by Sydney harbour. Maggie’s Kitchen is her first published adult novel.
The Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot, a series of short interviews with Australian writers of speculative fiction, has taken place five times in the past 11 years. This year, a team of eighteen interviewers have been emailing writers around the country and asking them intriguing questions. And I’m one of those interviewed writers, with my interviewer being Belle McQuattie. So here’s an extract from the interview: a question focussing on my PHD work:
You’re writing Ghost Squad as part of your creative writing PhD at the moment, has this affected how you have approached writing the book?
Yes, it has. I’m writing the novel at the same time as I’m researching material for its accompanying academic exegesis, which is on the very interesting speculative fiction sub-genre of afterlife fiction, specifically YA afterlife fiction (ie novels set in the afterlife). This means that not only am I reading a lot of really fabulous novels that I would not necessarily have come across otherwise, but as part of the cultural context of afterlife fiction, I’m taking in some very interesting background stuff, such as Victorian gothic and ghost stories, and screen-based narratives, especially TV series, which have the general theme of afterlife, or return from the dead: including Les Revenants(the French series, known as The Returned in English), the Australian Tv series The Glitch, Resurrection(US) and also the very successful earlier series, Lost. It’s fascinating stuff! Because of this, I’m coming up with all kinds of insights and ideas which are feeding back into the creative work as much as the academic work. And vie versa too–my work on the novel is feeding back into the academic study. As a synergy, it’s working really well.
You can read the whole interview here.
Today, I am absolutely delighted to present a great interview I did very recently with the multi-talented British author, Anthony Horowitz, starting with the creation of his current TV series, New Blood, and moving on to talk about his books and other projects. Known worldwide both for his book and screen writing, Anthony’s extensive creative credits include the Alex Rider best-selling spy series for young adults, the very successful long-running TV crime series, Foyle’s War, set in World War Two, penning the latest Bond novel as well as two Sherlock Holmes novels, many excellent books for young adults and younger readers including the Diamond Brothers series, the creation of gripping TV mini-series such as Collision and Injustice, plays such as the recent Dinner with Saddam, and the writing of many episodes of such classic TV series as Poirot and Midsomer Murders. In his ‘spare time’ Anthony also writes the occasional travel piece and newspaper article.
I’ve known Anthony for many years, since the publication of the first Alex Rider book in 2000, when I interviewed him for a magazine article, and we subsequently became friends. Over the years, we’ve frequently corresponded and caught up in person when possible, in London when I happen to be there or Sydney, when he happens to be there.
And over the years, we’ve exchanged not only personal news, but frank and wide-ranging views about books, the writing life, and the publishing industry. Anthony always has interesting things to say: lively and thoughtful, he also has wide cultural references and a generous clarity. And his discussion of his own work, as you’ll see in this interview, is equally interesting, giving an insight into the imaginative passion and deft skill that are behind his extraordinary success as a writer.
Anthony, your current TV series, New Blood, has been airing on ABC TV here in Australia, after having been broadcast in Britain by the BBC. It’s had excellent reviews both from media outlets and individual viewers. Are you pleased with how it’s gone so far?
Broadly speaking, the response to New Blood has been fantastic. I set out to write a show that would break away from the dark, violent world of Scandi-noir and just give people an hour of TV that was enjoyable and entertaining – and I think we largely succeeded. That said, we haven’t yet heard if there will be a second series so I’m forced to reserve judgement…at least for a while.
How did you come up with the idea for the series?
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the so-called Y generation, the young people who, for the first time in history, may be worse off, with fewer opportunities than their parents. In London, in particular, there are real challenges. Getting a house. Getting a full-time job. Paying off tuition fees. This was my starting point. At the same time, I was thinking about ways to shake up the crime/police procedural genre. I was tired of middle-aged men with drink/marriage problems. I had this idea for an opening shot. A body is found in the street. A car pulls up. A grizzled detective gets out…but the camera slides past him and finds the young cop who’s standing in the rain, trying to keep the crowd under control. My show would be about that cop. It also occurred to me that all crime shows take place in one department. It might be vice, drugs, MI6…whatever. But what would happen if you had two departments – the police and the Serious Fraud Office? From that point, I began to think of a bromance – two young investigators who don’t know each other but who form a team, working outside the rules. This may all sound a little vague but I’m describing my thought process as best I can!
New Blood breaks refreshingly new ground in its portrayal of the two main characters, Rash and Stefan, young Londoners respectively of Iranian and Polish backgrounds. What I loved particularly, as someone who also grew up with a similar kind of double cultural world, is the fact both Rash and Stefan are comfortable with who they are, yet are also aware of other people’s misperceptions. They navigate their different worlds with a familiar yet never complacent ease, with certain things about their family/cultural backgrounds subtly brought out, yet never stereotyped. How did you go about creating these characters to make them feel so immediately authentic? And what part did finding the right actors for the roles–the excellent pair of Ben Tavossoli and Mark Strepan–have in that creation?
Thank you for this observation. Yes, I love the fact that London, more than almost any city in the world, is completely relaxed about its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic make-up. I knew from the start that my two main characters would be Eastern European and Iranian. It just struck me as fresh and modern. Rash was based on my son’s flat-mate who is himself Iranian and long before I started writing, I talked to him about his background and his experience of life in the UK. He actually appears as an extra in the fourth episode! We did our best to avoid the obvious stereotypes with both characters. Most young Londoners are just that. They’re young and they’re Londoners before you start layering in religion, politics, sexuality or whatever. As to casting, I always knew that the show would stand or fall by our choice of the two actors and I was very insistent that we shouldn’t cheat, that we should find the real thing….which we did! It was essential that the two actors should have a real chemistry. We cast Mark first…he has Polish blood and matched the character exactly. Then, when Ben came along (most of the parts he’d been offered until we came along were “young terrorist”!) we saw that the two fitted together perfectly. They became great friends almost at once and that friendship has continued throughout the filming and beyond. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with their performances and if I have one hope it’s that they’ll become the stars they deserve to be.
You have a stellar career as a writer both for screen and books. Do you have a preference for either form? Or does it depend on the story?
I love all my writing equally. I think that it’s impossible to write well without passion. That said, of all the writing I have done, I probably value my YA books – Alex Rider in particular – the most. Why? Because reading, a love of books can change your life. I meet so many adults now who grew up with Alex that I feel very proud to have been a small part of their lives.
Your most recent book for adults was Trigger Mortis, a new James Bond adventure, and before that, you penned two new Sherlock Holmes adventures, The House of Silk and Moriarty. What’s it like, writing new adventures for such classic characters? How do you keep true to the Sherlockian or Bond corpus whilst staying true to your own identity as a writer? And which of those characters did you most enjoy recreating?
I only wrote the two Holmes novels and the Bond novel because I so love the originals. These are what influenced me when I was in my teens. I loved writing all three books (see question 4). You ask how I keep my own identity but actually I don’t. I see it as an act of literary ventriloquism. Essentially I have to be invisible, I have to hide inside the world of the original creators, obeying the rules, doing nothing that will annoy/upset their worldwide fans. At the same time, I have to raise my game. How can I possibly write as well as Fleming or Doyle? I probably found Sherlock Holmes the easier of the two characters because he’s more distant: the world of the late 19th century is much more easily defined than the cold war. Bond comes with certain challenges…marrying some of the attitudes and values of his world with modern sensibilities. But I began all three books with nothing but admiration of the original authors and a determination to serve them as well as I could. It was a wonderful experience, spending six or seven months living with their brilliant creations.
You’ve recently finished writing a new crime novel, Magpie Murders. Can you tell me something about it? When is it out?
Magpie Murders is my next adult novel, being published by Orion in October. It’s both a whodunnit and an exploration into whodunnits – in particular, the relationship between the detective, the author and the reader. It’s partly inspired by Conan Doyle’s very mixed feelings about Sherlock Holmes! The book is in two parts. The first is set in the very Agatha Christie landscape of an English village in the 1950s where a detective called Atticus Pünd, a survivor of the concentration camps, investigates the murder of a local landowner. ..Sir Magnus Pye. The second part takes place in London in the present day and concerns an editor, Susan Ryeland, who is forced to investigate the death of one of her authors when the final pages of his latest manuscript go missing. The fun of the book comes when those two worlds collide…and there are not just one but two very twisty mysteries to be solved. I’m very pleased that nobody has managed to guess the ending yet! I think it’s the most cunning book I’ve yet written.
Your Alex Rider series of spy novels for young readers have been big bestsellers, but the series was deemed to have ended with Scorpia Rising (with Russian Roulette being a spin-off). So I was excited and intrigued to hear that you are in the middle of writing a new Alex Rider adventure. What decided you to take up Alex’s story again? And how does it feel, being back in his world?
Last year my publisher asked me to pull together all the Alex Rider short stories for a collection. They’d been published in newspapers and magazines and elsewhere. So I started work – but then two things happened. I realised that some of the early stories weren’t good enough. And there also weren’t enough of them. So – just for fun, really – I wrote a new story, Alex in Afghanistan…and suddenly I discovered that I loved writing about Alex and that I had missed him. I really was quite surprised. For what it’s worth, I think Alex in Afghanistan is the best story I’ve written. It’s only 15,000 words but it’s full of action and surprises. I wrote two more new stories and in doing do, I unlocked something and realised that, contrary to what I’d always said, there was an eleventh novel inside me. Well, I’m 40,000 words in and I think it’s going very well. It starts in San Francisco (where Scorpia Rising ended) and then moves to Egypt, the South of France and the UK. My publishers won’t allow me to say any more!
As well as being a wonderful fiction writer in all those genres, you are a great traveller and sometimes write about those travels in newspaper pieces. What kinds of things do you concentrate on when trying to distill the essence of a travel experience in the few words of a newspaper column?
Again, thank you for these kind words. I write travel pieces for an English newspaper largely for fun (the money goes to charity) and also to keep myself on my toes. I’m no expert and I try to avoid being negative. It’s really just a record of my feelings, hopefully written in an entertaining way. When I read a great book, my first instinct is to shout about it, to get people to share it. I suppose the same goes for the places that I’m fortunate enough to visit.
Facebook author page.