Thursday, September 29, 2011

Marshmallow Skye: The Dreamy Cathy Cassidy

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a 'thing' for Cathy Cassidy (well, not that I'm fessing up to on the blog, anyway). But I do use the term 'dreamy' deliberately, because if there is one thing that Cathy does a lot of, it's daydream. She cites it as one of the best things about being a children's writer (see below), she claims it to be a crucial element of her writing success - and she advised all the children to do it at a buzzing author event held at King Alfred's in Wantage on Tuesday.

This was maybe not want the teachers wanted to hear. She imagined daydreaming being on the timetable, or a special daydreaming room where children would lounge around on sofas and beanbags, in surrounding of calm and plush carpets, with the teachers bringing smoothies and chocolate-chip cookies.

The response from the children was, overall, fairly positive.

Cathy came to Wantage as part of a staggering 2 or 3 event-per-day, 17-day tour as part of the launch of the second book in her Chocolate Box Girls series Marshmallow Skye. The hall was packed with nearly 300 students, and many had come dressed as their favourite character from one of Cathy's books.

Cathy took time to explain about her life as a writer (shed at bottom of garden, as well as a story 'teepee' which looked very cool) and how she came to write. The young Miss Cassidy bombarded the girl's magazine Jackie with 'hundreds' of short stories, so passionate did she want her stories to be published, and so it was perhaps natural that here was where she found herself in her first job.

(Cathy encouraged the children to publish their own school magazine. She also said, if there was already a school magazine, they could start up a rival. So there may be a media boom at King Alfred's over the next few weeks).

Having talked about her writing and her books, she read an extract from Marshmallow Skye. It is no surprise to us at Mostly Books why Cathy is so popular amongst her readers (which, for the Chocolate Box series, is broadly 9-13). The things she writes about are central to the life of her readers: friendships, feelings and quite simply the dilemmas of that simple-sounding phrase "fitting in".

Cathy warned children to 'never trust an author' as they were always on the lookout for shiny things to steal (in the form of story ideas), and then several of the bravest (and I thought this was *very* brave) children who had dressed up performed in a fashion show, across the stage, with the winners receiving some suitably fab chocolatey prizes...


There were some *very* big Cathy Cassidy fans in the audience, who were very excited to queue up afterwards to get books signed.

King Alfred's went to herculean efforts to put on a fabulously-organised event, and our thanks to Cathy for braving a schedule that saw her in Cardiff the day before, and Sheffield that evening!

Cathy also kindly offered to answer a few questions for the here goes:

Five questions with... Cathy Cassidy's Writing Life
1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on the third book in the Chocolate Box series called "Summer's Dream". It's due out next June, and is about Skye's twin sister Summer.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Well, I try to share as many tips as I can in the 'Writing Workshop' section of my website, so definitely take a look at that. But I guess my best tip is to write about what you care about. It shows, it really does. I write about feelings, that's what matters to me. But it could be anything: dragons, vampires, fast cars, anything - as long as it's something you really care about. If you try to write for a gap in the market, children are so sharp, and they are so open and direct, they will realise pretty quickly. Also, if I didn't write what I cared about, I'd have got bored long ago. I wouldn't be able to sustain it over several books.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The very worst thing is deadlines, and keeping to them. I think as you become a more successful author, there is more of an expectation to have books published on a faster timescale. I often think I would like a parallel 'me' writing away, whilst the other 'me' is doing all the other things! I'm currently on a 17-day tour, with sometimes two or three events per day, and by the end of the day there is very little energy left to write. On the one day off I had though, I was writing!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I write in a little shed in my garden, and in there I am surrounded by lots of nice things, things that only mean something to me, but which no-one else would give houseroom to! But the main thing for me is my laptop. Just before this tour, my laptop died. It was the middle of the night, I had a dreadful cold, and I had to drive the two hours to Glasgow, put my laptop in the Apple repair shop, get a replacement and start the tour.

I always have a notebook with me though, so that if anything comes to me I can jot it down. I guess the most important thing is just my head, for daydreaming. And luckily I always have my head with me!

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
Difficult to say if there was a 'breakthrough' as such, although as soon as the books started to do well, that was very important. But really, it was from making my living as a journalist. My first proper job after leaving art college was on Jackie magazine, and although I started at the very bottom as office assistant, within two years I was fiction editor. This allowed me to discover just what kids like to read about, and how to write stories: how to hook a reader, how to edit stories, how to structure and illustrate them. All that knowledge was incredible. Once I left, I started with short stories (I still love to write short stories BTW - I have one coming out at Christmas) but gradually grew to write books. I love the space the longer format gives you to tell a story.

Monday, September 26, 2011

LGC: The Making of a Company

Mostly Books was very proud to be the bookseller at the launch of Richard Worswick's business memoir "LGC: The making of a company" on September 8th. The book - launched just around the corner from LGC's London headquarters - is Abingdon-based Richard's account of the privatisation in 1996 of the Laboratory of the Government Chemist.

Richard - backed by 3i Group - made a successful competitive bid to purchase what was then a DTI government agency. During 10 years as chief executive, and later as deputy chairman, Richard developed LGC into a highly successful international company and in 2003 was awarded UK Entrepreneur of the Year for Business Products and Services.

Mostly Books has been involved during the book's production, and is distributing the book.

With endorsements from a number of important figures in the story of British privatisation over recent years, the book provides both an insider's account and a highly successful case study of privatisation - a controversial area and one that still sparks intense debate.

Present at the launch was the current CEO of LGC, David Richardson.

Also present were Richard’s successor as Government Chemist, Dr John Marriott, and the current Government Chemist, Dr Derek Craston.
Richard was able to talk to past and present LGC employees, and sign copies of the book.

Mostly Books has copies in the shop now - or learn more about the book on the official website (

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A master class in dealing with the undead

If you ever felt you needed to be much better informed in how to deal with an unexpected rising from the undead, you could've been in no better place than Abingdon School on Wednesday September 14, in the company of children’s author, Charlie Higson.

There is a suspicion that all the children who are avid readers of his books were already several steps ahead and knew that zombies don’t like sunlight and in a tight spot the bit to go for is the brain.

In a whistle-stop tour of despatching the undead, Charlie gave enthusiastic demonstrations of beheading, and stakes through the heart (good against vampires), before describing how popular entertainment in the Victorian era involved electricity and trying to revive recently demised corpses. Vampires were also the stars of the Victorian stage as people flocked to pay to be terrified.

Charlie led an enthralled audience in two sessions to 600 pupils from 12 schools across Oxfordshire, through the long tradition of stories to scare yourself stupid – weaving strands that can be traced back to the romantic poets.

What might have been new to the audience is that scare-the-hell-out-of-you stories are now considered classics when originally all they were out to do was to shock you. He advised everyone to go and read Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’.

Charlie’s talk was also a romp through the origins of some classic literature – for example, did you know that the image of a modern vampire is very much based on ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet Lord Byron?

Now it all makes sense that they are beautiful, charismatic and swish about in capes and lordly robes.
Zombies are, however, a different matter. Zombies are dirty, smelly, shuffling about and grunting. Charlie writes about zombies, so zombies were very much the subject of the day – as was how you manage to get the correct level of terror, gore, body bits and flesh eating when your audience is children.

The premise of his horror action stories is that a disease has struck the planet and has killed everyone over the age of 14 – and those not killed outright have been turned into zombies. So all the children must fight for their survival while also trying not to get eaten.

Charlie Higson relishes the fact that with his ‘The Enemy’ series, he is taking on the sky-high challenge of making reading as compelling as watching television or playing computer games.

When he set out to write a new series for kids he went right back to the stories that really gripped him as a boy – setting himself the challenge to make a story that packed enough punch that children would remember it for life. And here are some suitable exercised fans from John Mason School:

His starting point was that if it’s not giving your children nightmares it’s not working, so there was much sympathy in the room for Charlie’s ten-year-old son. We heard of his sweat-drenched night terrors (although it was possibly his own fault for night after night telling his horror-writing father ‘oh that’s not scary’).

His son’s sacrifices are, however, benefiting legions of teenage boys and girls who are now craving their next fix of Higson-induced zombie terror. The latest – ‘The Fear’, is out today (Sep 15):

So should you be recommending all this horror to your children?

Charlie Higson is probably still best-known to adults for his comedy writing. His long apprenticeship as a writer, including writing for television, plus some early (really nasty) adult horror means his books are very well written.

He told the audience he had written six full-length novels as a teenage boy, long before he was to make his living as a writer. He takes a whole year to write one of his children’s books – from initial draft to polishing, looking at the plot, the action and meticulously upping the body count, or deleting a character. The result is a roller-coaster thriller, full of strong character (including strong girl characters) and a seamless, gripping story, full of unexpected jolts and great moments.

Remember – if they do mean your children have nightmares you can be reassured they are in the long tradition of classic storytelling.

Of course if you’ve got a younger one, or a more sensitive one, Charlie Higson made his name as a children’s writer with his ‘Young Bond’ series – all about James Bond at school. Again, suitable from age nine upwards, it is the quality of the writing which means these will certainly become classics and they are readable for children right through their teens.

We hope Charlie Higson won’t have to resort to rising from his grave to grab a little piece of immortality.

We have signed copies in stock – while they last!

Charlie performed heroically over the course of six hours, and a huge thank you to him and Abingdon School for hosting the event so well. Charlie also very generously conducted a number of interviews - Gaskella has a fantastic write-up of the event over on her book blog - but we also were able to get a glimpse into the writing life of Charlie Higson...

Five questions with . . . Charlie Higson's writing life
Charlie Higson is the author of the ‘Young Bond’ series and now into the third of ‘The Enemy’ trilogy about a world where everyone over the age of 14 has either been wiped out by a plague. Those adults who weren’t killed outright were turned into zombies and are now after all the children as a source of fresh food.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am about one-third of the way through the follow up to ‘The Fear’. Originally it was going to be three books and then my publisher, Puffin, said make it five and now we’re up to it being seven.

Writing an ongoing series means that even when you think you’ve finished a book and you might think it’s time to break open the champagne or book a long holiday, in fact the next day you have to start on the next one. You have to keep the momentum up, because kids finish a book and they want to get on with the next one and they grow up quickly.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
My father said when I was a teenager ‘get yourself a proper job you can always do your writing in evenings and weekends’. Of course, as I was a teenager I completely ignored him. In fact I’ve never had a proper job. I make a living writing – although technically I suppose I have followed his advice because I treat it like going to work and keep the words coming. So I suppose I must have taken something on board.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best thing is the feedback. Only yesterday I met a boy having his book signed who was about 14 and said ‘The Enemy’ was the first book he had ever finished. When you get feedback from parents, librarians, teachers saying how much kids want to read them and through reading them they then find out what fun reading is – that’s the best thing.

The worst thing is that I sort of always have to think about behaving myself and think I had better not say this or do that and that’s probably not my natural behaviour. When Anthony Horowitz started writing for children (when nobody paid very much attention to children’s writers) he often followed around Roald Dahl on school visits. Roald Dahl had a reputation of saying very inappropriate things and probably didn’t even like children very much. My adult novels are full of sex and violence, but as a children’s writer you have to be an ambassador. And news papers being what they are I know that if my trousers accidentally fell down it would be the end of my career.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I try not to be superstitious about it. If you say to yourself you can only write with a certain pen it can become a bit of an albatross. I would probably find it difficult to write without a computer – it does make life easier, but I can write almost anywhere, although it is easier at home.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
The success of ‘Loadsmoney’ on Saturday Live, which I wrote with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, meant we were accepted as established comedy writers. People asked us to do stuff. It opened lots of doors and meant publishers were more interested as well. Publishers want a writer they can market – it’s a business and they want to sell books. And I saw the possibility that I could make a living as a writer.