Summer posts

As usual, this blog is half-asleep, even though I’d planned a grand blog post to celebrate what is, today, my 10-year anniversary of arriving in the UK. Funnily enough, after Brexit, my anniversary enthusiasm declined a bit, and I never got round to it.

However, as the new academic year is just starting, let me  – literally in-between two supervisions – post a tiny update with some blog posts I’ve written over the summer on other platforms, mostly about (surprise!) children’s literature, some academic, some not so much:

As always, I’m much more active on my French blog. And as always, a lot has been happening on the French side. I can now announce, however, that my French YA book Les petites reines, which I’m apparently allowed to call a bestseller, and which has sold to the cinema, the theatre, and won a good bunch of major national awards in France (yeah, yeah, bragging is bad, don’t do it, etc.) – that novel, then, will come out in Britain in summer next year thanks to Pushkin Press; carefully, perhaps clumsily, and to no small degree creatively, translated by me.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, sausages, rural France, and friendship. It won’t have that cover in the UK.

More on that, including title and cover, closer to the date.

The Sesame Seade series, meanwhile, has crossed the Channel in the other direction: it will come out in French next year with publisher Rageot. I still don’t know what they’ll call Sesame! (not translating that one)

Next supervision about to start! Till next time…

 

An unearthly amount of voices, whispering: Creative Writing with Young and Even Younger Students

Last week, thirteen young teenagers and their English teacher took a coach from Hull to the University of York. What happened next will amaze you.

(How am I doing for buzzfeed-like academic blogging?)

What happened next for the students of Kelvin Hall was an afternoon of creative writing in the company of 2nd-year undergraduates, all enrolled in the Children and Literature module of the Education degree.

The group was composed of the most enthusiastic young storytellers and writers from Years 7-9 in the school – and the point was to get them to write, with the help of undergraduates who’d been taught for two terms about children’s literature in theory. This was an opportunity to interact in practice with actual young readers and producers of texts.

Each undergraduate was paired with one of the Kelvin Hall students (by some favourable twist of fate, they were in equal numbers) and the writing started…

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They looked optimistic at first. Maybe it sounded like it was going to be easy.

Close Encounters with the Third Years

It wasn’t. (They looked happier at the end, though, I promise. This is their concentration face.)

The event had been organised by Amanda Naylor, who lectures that module at York, and by Ryan Eskrett, who teaches the children at Kelvin Hall. Two other English in Education lecturers, Nick McGuinn and me (Clementine) were there to help set up some of the writing activities.

Me, clearly trying to compensate with my long necklace for the lack of dangling card necklacey thing

Me, Amanda and Ryan. Nick isn’t on the picture because he was taking it, but as I realise now, clearly the true reason was that he wasn’t wearing a long-necklacey-thing likethe rest of the gang.

We got them to write flash fiction, which, in case you don’t know, is like short stories, but shorter. Like, really much shorter, we’re talking a story that’s as long as… No, no, not that long. No, really, even shorter. Almost there… Yep. Exactly.

Flash fiction is a really interesting kind of text to write because it forces you to condense into a very small space all the central ingredients of an actual story: characterisation, narrative arc, atmosphere, distinctive style. It’s hard. Anyone can be a novelist, but you have to a pretty good writer to write flash fiction.

To get into the mood, we started with the famous 6-word-memoir: your life, in six words or less.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Now, to be fair, one would expect that the younger you are, the easier it is to pack your life into six words. Presumably, a two-second-old child could just write ‘Born,’ and that would be about it (though it would doubtlessly trigger some media interest). But the undergraduates and high school students had apparently got much more to say than Ryan (‘Marking. Eat. Sleep. More marking’, was, I think, his memoir) or than myself (‘Still not writing real literature, sorry’):

A cocktail of strange and boring.

Maturely developed peculiar sample of youth.

I love coffee, coffee is life

(Bit concerned that a young teen should be drinking so much coffee already, but at least it’s not whiskey, I guess.)

Then, for the remaining hour and a bit, the Kelvin Hall students and our second-years worked on an actual flash fiction story – less than a page, for some less than half a page.

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This picture is so picturesque I’m kind of worried about putting it online as it will doubtlessly be used by every university in the world in every single undergraduate handbook forever.

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Thinking of things to write about (with a photographer on your right and an undergraduate on your left; but no pressure)

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Pretty much what I’d like my life to be like: reclining on a comfortable chair while a nice young person types up my stories into a Word document.

At the end of the afternoon, each Kelvin Hall student had their own flash fiction story printed, and both groups seemed delighted with the experience. Amanda and Ryan’s idea of bringing high school and higher education students together was brilliant: original, fruitful, fun, and remarkably easy for the three of us as we just sat in the back of the class and talked about academisation while they worked.

Here’s a particularly spooky and atmospheric example of flash fiction, by Axel:

Thursday, 5th 1901.

Dear journal,

After investigating the manor in which my young brother, Marcus, vanished I found myself close to death (or worse). The manor which housed my loving sibling which is upon the Quaking Mountain that, I have uncovered, houses an insidious force. This hideous goliath resides within the terrain of the mountain which explains why it constantly shakes. This horrendously coloured colossus has a disturbing amount of extremities and an unearthly amount of voices, whispering.

I’ve learnt from the remains of my dearest brother and thousands of other small remains that this beast expels acidic vomit upon it’s hostages to devour its prey. The manifestation of pure malevolence calls itself ‘Eloth’. This crustacean-like being rasps horrific yet interesting conversations which echo through the cave, bouncing of the rocky walls. It’s dark in here but overtime my eyes have adjusted to this darkness. I can see the waxy remains of my brother staring back at me.

The creature is currently singing me a lullaby in its unknown language, in a way it is ethereal, I’m feeling the need to rest…

Disturbing amounts of extremities, horrific yet interesting conversations, acidic vomit: sounds uncannily like those parties after academic conference dinners. Interestingly, the students chose very many different genres to tell their stories, from diary entries to letters to tales to prose poetry. Flash fiction is very modulable, and the groups were extremely imaginative and open-minded in their choices.

This is just a little window on the kind of thing that goes on in universities, alongside all the life-saving, paradigm-shifting, Ted-talk-worthy things you hear about on the news. In-between all the big, muscular, über-funded customised random trolls – sorry – randomised controlled trials – there’s daily, small-scale, zero-budget events, involving local communities and real people – enthusiastic teachers and academics, motivated undergrads, keen children.

And while they won’t feature on The Conversation, they stick in individual memories and bring a little bit more good to the world. That afternoon in the computer lab of Alcuin College, University of York, thirteen new stories were born.

Thank you Amanda and Ryan for setting up the event, and Nick for the pictures! Thank you also to the children and their parents who have given their permission to be featured on the pictures in this blog post, and to Axel for the stories.

Publishing is not a charity

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, November 2015; original post has interesting comments.]

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a ‘quiet book’, as she called it, published in the UK – a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.

Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: “Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won’t be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don’t want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I’m a writer – if I don’t write, I die.”

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears – and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn’t franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we’re constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You’ve heard this as much as I have. “We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books”. Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It’s thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they’re indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think there’s enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children’s Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children’s literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I’ve talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don’t invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don’t mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won’t. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They’re ‘hot’ books. And they put their money and promotional push where the ‘hot’ book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers.

Well, in this context, it’s not exactly shocking that bestsellers should ‘fund’ the quiet books. It’s only fair, seeing as they’d had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those ‘hot’ books are just more funded and more pushed because that’s what a majority of people want, so that’s what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That’s another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: ‘Publishing isn’t a charity’. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don’t make money shouldn’t actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn’t just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It’s not like this initial openness to ‘failure’ would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one’s asking publishing to be non-profit, but it’s not true that it’s simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing ‘what sells’. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children’s publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it’s ‘not a charity’. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children’s publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children’s publishing in France. Being children’s publishers, ‘We have a social responsibility’, he said, ‘to talk about this to children’. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c’est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children’s literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It’s been top of the children’s bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow’s similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything’s better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one’s awareness of the social responsibility of being a children’s publisher. I’m not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.

Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.

 

Characters’ faces

The lovely Helen Fennell, in a blog post which you can find here, asks other readers if they actually ‘see’ characters’ faces precisely. She says, ‘faces seem to elude me for the most part, I imagine almost the “essence” of a person rather than any great detail’. She then goes on to wonder, ‘Do authors have a very clear idea of what their characters look like? Can they create an image in their head akin to a photo?’

And then asks (in the Britishest way possible): ‘If it isn’t too impertinent a question, what do you imagine when characters from books take their place inside your head?’

caillebotterameur

One solution: hiding faces under huge hats.

This topic chimed with me because I, like Helen, never see detailed characters’ faces when I read – nor when I write. This is all the stranger as, firstly, I’m a very visual person, an amateur doodler and an avid reader of comics, and, secondly, I ‘see’ places and surroundings in a very precise way, however little they might be described.

Unlike Helen, I’m not very easily influenced by film adaptations (though when a book is heavily illustrated, I’m influenced by the drawings), so the Harry in my head isn’t in any way Daniel Radcliffe . However, he isn’t either a very different person with precise features; his face is just a blurry ovoid thing, with glasses and a scar and a ‘shock of jet-black hair’.

harryglassesI’m very sensitive to colour in my everyday life, and mildly synaesthetic (colour/ letters, /numbers and /sounds). Some characters are patches of colour rather than faces; this seems to be triggered by the writing style and atmosphere. Characters in novels by Colette, Beauvoir, Larbaud, Nabokov ’emit’ a lot of colours for me.

In my own books, I very rarely describe main characters. There’s strictly no physical description of Sesame Seade in any of the books, for instance. For me, she wasn’t much more than a mass of hair whooshing around on purple rollerskates. When we were ‘briefing’ Sarah Horne for the illustrations, my editor called me to ask what Sesame looked like, and I didn’t really have an answer.

Yet when Sarah sent the first illustration, I immediately ‘recognised’ her.  It was ‘as I’d imagined her to look like’, yet I hadn’t imagined her to look like anything specific.

Sarah's first drawing of Sesame

Sarah’s first drawing of Sesame

French philosopher Clément Rosset talks about those moments when we think that someone looks like someone else, and then are incapable of saying who; we resort to saying ‘he’s got one of those faces’. Or when we see on screen an actor playing a character from a book, and we scream, ‘that’s not what she looks like at all!’. And yet we don’t have in our head any precise idea of ‘what she looks like’.

Or, we see for the first time the face of a radio presenter, and it can’t be them, surely not! That’s not the face we assigned to that voice. But what was that face? Not much more than a blur – but we’re adamant that it’s not that one.

This is, Rosset says, moments which evidence the ‘existence’ of invisible visions; an intimate conviction that we are referring to something (a perception, a thought, an image) when we are in fact referring to nothing at all, or not much. This ‘thinking about nothing’ is much stronger than reality, because reality is unfavourably compared to it: Daniel Radcliffe is much less Harry Potter than the not-much in my mind.

In Rosset’s view, which is connected to his wider theory of reality and its double, the invisible is eminently superior because it is ours, infinitely malleable, and always future; reality, in its visibility, is solid and boring. It is ‘the thing that we dream of when it is far, and which disappoints when it is close’ (45).

Better look at things far away than at this repulsive husband.

Better look at things far away than at this disappointing husband. (Caillebotte again)

Rosset’s explanation, though, fails to explain why I, on the other hand, immediately ‘recognised’ Sarah Horne’s Sesame, and why I do sometimes (and I’m sure many of you do too) ‘recognise’ book characters in the form of the flesh-and-blood actors, with no or very little effort.

Helen is right to say that the ‘essence’ of the person (or character) is important. I ‘recognised’ the spirit of Sesame in Sarah’s drawing, and it’s precisely because I had no vision of her – because she was ‘invisible’ or ‘not-much’ in my mind – that the image was so cosily accommodated by my imagination.

What about when characters are heavily described? I’ve noticed that I tend to skip or not take into account physical descriptions. There are ideological problems, though, with this tendency. Infamously, the character of Rue in Hunger Games was at the centre of a racist storm in recent years when it emerged that she’d been Black the whole time. This was news to many readers, who had masterfully avoided the moments in the text where this was made clear. Rue had been by default white.

We’re often asked by students and pupils ‘who we would cast’ as our book characters (presumably also because many people think that having one’s book adapted into a film would be a writer’s deepest joy, and it’s very hard to convince them otherwise). Recently I did a school visit in France for one of my teenage books, where the students had ‘cast’ famous actors and actresses in the roles of the main characters, and asked me whether I agreed. It was an interesting exercise but I didn’t feel I could help much.

ImpressionIn the book, there’s absolutely no physical description of the narrator. Her name isn’t even mentioned. The teenagers had tried to imagine what she might look like. They’d had a poll in the class, saying how many people ‘saw’ her as having ‘short hair, mid-length hair, long hair’; ‘blond hair, brown hair, black hair’; whether she was ‘short or tall’ (she was by default white). They asked me for the right answer, but of course, I didn’t know.

Back to the desktop

Hello again, after a rather long break. This summer, I had fake holidays (=conferences) and real holidays (= real holidays). After two months of June and July spent working quite intensely on my monograph (the final revisions of which I submitted at the end of July), I went to the International Bakhtin Conference in Stockholm at the end of July, disguised as a Bakhtin scholar (which I’m not). There, I was the discussant at a panel given by my colleagues Maria Nikolajeva, Eve Tandoi and Faye Dorcas Yung on Bakhtinian approaches to children’s literature.

Awful place for a conference.

Awful place for a conference.

The highlight of the conference (apart from a textbook example of mansplaining I had to endure from a charming middle-aged professor) was the re-enactment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s doctoral viva, in which Maria played one of the external examiners. All the genders were switched, so Bakhtin himself was played by a young female academic with absolutely spot-on facial expressions of weariness and annoyance at the objections s/he was receiving.

Can you imagine having your PhD viva re-enacted? Yeah, me neither. But then it certainly wouldn’t make such good drama. Despite Maria’s character’s insistence that ‘to refuse Comrade Bakhtin the title of Doctor would be ridiculous’, poor Mikhail only managed to get the equivalent of a Masters’, in part because of the non-political nature of his work. A female comrade from the audience (played by a male British Bakhtin scholar) had indeed bemoaned the shocking lack of references to Marx and to Lenin in the analysis of Rabelais.

The re-enactment

The re-enactment (with “Bakhtin” in the middle, and Prof N. in yellow)

Stockholm was staggeringly hot – pretty much 30 to 33 degrees the whole week. I actually fell asleep in an aftenoon talk, which had never happened to me before. But this meant that we got more than the usual side-tourism done – we even swam almost everyday in the beautiful bay, including on the Baltic Sea side which was petrifyingly cold.

I then went on actual holiday. When you’re an academic, talking to other academics, there’s a kind of understanding that if you’re going away somewhere nice, it’s probably for a conference. So if someone tells you, ‘I’m going to Hawaii tomorrow,’ the correct reply is, ‘What’s the conference going to be about?’. Not so in August, when I managed to spend a week in the tiny village in the North of France where we have a small holiday house, and then a full two weeks in Rome.

North

North

and South

and South

My Roman holiday wasn’t tourism-only, though, as I’d decided to spend every afternoon working on the first draft of my next French teenage novel, and thankfully managed it. I’d been working on it for over a year, but very on and off – contrary to my English work, in France I don’t get contracts before I write a book, which means no deadlines – so writing them is always very low on my to-do list, even though I enjoy it a lot. This new novel is, contrary to my first two (very grim) YA books, a comedy.

What now awaits me as I’m back in Cambridge is a daunting to-do list, both on the fiction side and on the academic side. I’ve got several ‘Revise and Resubmit’ or ‘Revise with major corrections’ articles to, well, revise and resubmit. I have to do the index for my monograph. I’ve been contracted for two more books in the Royal Babysitters series with Bloomsbury, which I need to write between now and April.

It's already in my house, making friends with its older sibling Sesame

The first one is already in my house, making friends with its older sibling Sesame

The first book, The Royal Babysitters, is coming out on September 11th and I’m going on a small promotion tour with a number of schools. I’m also doing a few festivals here and there, and going to Lake Leman next week for a big book fair, this time mostly for my French books.

I’m also bracing for what is going to be a heavy year in terms of teaching. I’ve taken on many new lectures, including in the fields I’m now branching into – sociology and philosophy of childhood and education – and I will also be teaching Creative Writing courses (on children’s fiction) at the Institute of Continuing Education in Cambridge. I’ll also keep supervising, though probably not as much as the years before as my teaching load is too big already. I will probably miss it a bit, as I’ve been enjoying supervising undergraduates more and more, and was particularly spoiled last year with some very bright, very motivated students.

I hope you all had a nice summer too, and leave you with what was, to me, the most stupefying thing in Rome – and a reminder not to forget about sensuality and beauty while in the midst of frantic term-time…

Bernini

Bernini.

Royal Cover!

Hurrah! We’ve got a cover for The Royal Babysitters! and it’s as yellow as royal jelly, and as energetic as the story inside. I’m absolutely thrilled with it – look at that!

Royalbabysitters_CVRand the whole thing:

Royalbabysitters_CVR-page-001-1All thanks to the great Becka Moor and the Bloomsbury designers…

It’s got everything a good cover needs: a prince with ice-cream cones stuck behind his ears, a very large number of royal babies, a robot sea monster, a snake and a zeppelin piloted by a mad king. Therefore, I call it an extremely successful cover.

Since it’s been approximately a very long time since I told you about this series, here’s a reminder of the story:

In another world not quite at all like our own, though very like it in other respects, but mostly not, although a little bit, the King and Queen of Britland are going on their annual day of leave to the Independent Republic of Slough. As a result, they are in urgent need of a royal babysitter for their two three four numerous little princely toddlers. Coincidentally, Anna and Holly Burnbright are in urgent need of two thousand pounds to go on an intergalactic holiday they’ve seen advertised in the newspaper. Great summer job opportunity, no?

Uh oh, it’s also the day King Alaspooryorick of Daneland has chosen to invade Britland…

The Royal Babysitters is out in September and will be followed by The Royal Wedding-Crashers in April, when Anna, Holly and Prince Pepino will be off to Francia.

And yes, I promise, I’ll update this blog soon again. I’ve been revising my monograph. I might talk about that, because it’s so thrilling it’s almost worthy of its own Buzzfeed article.

Clem

Productivi-tips

Last week I wrote a blog post deploring the fact that I couldn’t write slowly. In response, two of my friends suggested I blogged about how to be ‘productive’. I’m a bit ambivalent, since, as hinted in that blog post, ‘productivity’ has a dark side. It can be efficiently generated by the cultivation of guilt, worry about the future and insecurity in children from a young age (I’m looking at you, French educational system), as well as by inordinately high standards.

So my immediate sarcastic response was: Tip number one: set yourself irrationally high goals, self-flagellate every time you don’t work enough to attain them, find people who are much better than you and mull over how superior they are, and for good measure, add the threat of never finding a job. Your productivity will rocket, I promise.

Well, let that be a disclaimer: even though this is a ‘tips’ blog post, there are issues with ‘tips’ about productivity, just like there are issues with ‘tips’ about losing weight, for instance.

But here are a few things that I do find genuinely useful in increasing productivity, that is to say, in my case, getting (preferably good) words on the page, whether academic or fictional, and making sure they get published (i.e. editing, revising, referencing, etc); and doing teaching-related work.

  • Switching off the Internet entirely

Just as I’m writing this, a little (1) pops up on my Facebook tab. I have to check what it is, because it could be someone tagging a picture of me drunkly lap-dancing in a bar. Let’s see. No, it’s fine, it’s just someone I friended in 2008 mass-inviting all his Facebook acquaintances to sponsor his half-marathon on a space hopper. I’m never going to sponsor him, but I still read the whole description and end up wikipediaing the charity he’s space-hopping for, which knits socks and scarves for yellow-bellied marmots. I suddenly remember I have a blog post to write, but now a little (1) has appeared on the Outlook tab…

Sorry, what? Oh yes – the Internet. Let’s not write that blog post online – too distracting. Write it in a Word document instead. Internet can stay open behind Word. Oh no it can’t, because some idiot at Microsoft thought it would be an excellent idea to make Word vaguely translucent at the top, which means I can still distinguish the little (1)s through a half-hearted vapour of pixels.

Solution: turn it off altogether with Cold Turkey (SelfControl for Mac users). I couldn’t have written anything in the past two years without Cold Turkey. It didn’t even get a mention in my thesis acknowledgements, because I preferred to pretend that real humans such as my supervisor, friends and family were more responsible for its completion, which is a lie, however much I love them.

coldturkeyThose pieces of software only block the websites you want them to block, which means you can still use JStor and Project Muse, where procrastination opportunities are few (until you start typing up your own name to see what comes up and this does).

  • Pomodoroing through multiple projects

I do this when I work on very many projects that are all at different stages of development, because that’s when I’m most at risk of using the exciting ones as excuses to procrastinate on the others. The Pomodoro technique basically states that you should set yourself short spans of time for work, interspersed with breaks. Strictly speaking, it’s supposed to be 20 minutes, but that’s too short to do anything constructive in academic or fiction writing.

I make myself work generally for an hour or an hour and a half on many projects everyday, strictly interrupting the one I’m doing when time’s up (yes, even in the middle of a sentence) to start work on the next one (or take a break).

The pictures in this  post are beginning to make this look like a recipe blog

The pictures in this post are beginning to make this look like a recipe blog

Breaks can be used to check and reply to email, though it’s much better if you can actually force yourself not do anything at all.

I use the Pomodoro technique only when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of different projects. It’s also much easier during student holidays, when there aren’t too many meetings, supervisions and essays to mark.

The good thing about this technique is that you never work long enough to get bored of the projects. If anything, it makes you frustrated when you have to stop – which means that the next day, you’re happy to find that piece of work again.

  •  Taking on more work, or setting earlier deadlines.

I find that productivity augments, rather than declines, when I’ve got more to do. This is, in part because although I can (on good days) focus intensely on writing or research for up to six or seven hours, it’s extremely rare when I can have that focus for one project. Paradoxically, taking on more projects and making sure you’ve always got one or two deadlines soonish makes me achieve more and feel happier.

  • Keeping a strict and very subdivided to-do list.

I list everything, even things like ‘reply to X’s email’ if I know it will take me more than 3 minutes to compose. If I have 20 undergrad essays to mark, I’ll list the names of all 20 people and cross them out as I go along. Purely psychological, of course, but those manageable tasks give the impression of being productive, which leads to actually being productive.

I also have 4+ separate to-do lists corresponding to different domains (fiction, admin, research, teaching, etc.), which avoids clutter. My to-do lists are on (virtual) post-it notes on my desktop, like (virtually) everyone else I know.

  • Doing either work or leisure activities

Wait but Why says it perfectly: there are two types of good weeks: days when you achieve something that ‘improves your future or that of others’ (even in small ways), and weeks of pleasure, leisure and enjoyment. Both at the same time makes for an ‘ideal’ week, which is rare.

And in-between, there’s a wearisome kind of activity, where you know you’re not actually having any fun, but you’re not doing anything particularly valuable either. This is the case, for instance, if you spend most of a day half-heartedly writing a few sentences, checking email, marking half an essay, checking the news, reading half a paper, checking the weather, etc. It’s tiring and makes you feel gross, while both real work and real leisure makes you invigorated and happy.

Real leisure: walking around the Cambridge Botanic Gardens

Real leisure: walking around the Cambridge Botanic Gardens

  • Picking the right times for small projects or admin tasks

It’s tempting to get small tasks or long tasks that don’t take much brainpower out of the way (i.e. filling in forms, doing tax returns etc.). But then you just end up wasting valuable energy, and possibly spending too much time on them out of a semi-conscious desire to procrastinate work on important stuff. Again, I find it useful to time those important but boring activities strictly, and stick them at moments of the day when you know you won’t be very switched-on anyway.

  • Using up as much available time as possible.

It’s hard to focus on anything when you know you’ve got to leave in 10 or 20 minutes, but with some tasks it’s entirely possible. I wrote most of this blog post in chunks of 5 or 10 minutes. I have a number of tasks on my to-do list that I know I can do in instalments, quickly dipping in and out when needed.

  • Sacrifice some things.

For instance, this blog and my French one. I don’t care (much) if I don’t have the time to deliver the weekly Wednesday post.

I’d be curious to hear what you do to increase productivity, and/or take issue with such blog posts as this one on ideological grounds.