Writing tips and rooftops – a book launch with Katherine Rundell

When Katherine Rundell was searching for an idea for her second children’s novel she felt cursed with second novel syndrome. So she turned to her own childhood and remembered her fascination with tightrope walking and the incredible bravery of people who take to the skies with only their own agility to keep them from falling.

Katherine Rundell was at Our Lady's Abingdon with 300 schoolchildren from across Abingdon to celebrate the launch of ‘Rooftoppers’ on Mar 7 and to talk about the high-wire act that writing can sometimes be.

She was brought up in Zimbabwe and so inspired by the feat of Philippe Petit walking between New York’s twin towers, she strung her own rope between two trees to try to teach herself to tightrope walk.

Her parents eventually sent her to circus school to try to stop her injuring herself.

In ‘Rooftoppers’, baby Sophie is rescued from a sinking ship and brought up by scholarly Charles in London. He concentrates on teaching her what he feels is important, which involves lots of books and music and very irregular meals.

The authorities are never far away and when it looks as though Charles’ eccentric upbringing will end in Sophie being taken to an orphanage, the pair, following a clue, head to Paris to try to find out if Sophie’s real mother really did die when the ship sank.

Now wanted by the police, but determined to still search for her mother, Sophie gets help from a bunch of children she meets living on the Paris rooftops. She starts a totally different adventure, joining the rooftoppers and learning to leap between buildings, catching birds to eat and only coming out after dark. She has to learn to tightrope and scale ancient buildings to keep up with them and keep a step away from anyone trying to catch them as together they follow the only clue they have – that Sophie’s mother played the cello.

It’s an exciting story, full of pace and adventure and Katherine was full of advice at the book launch of how to take an idea and turn it into a great book.

‘You need a good opening sentence and a grip on your reader – but you have to decide what sort of grip it is that you want to have. First ideas are never very good and you have to pound your brain to come up with something worth reading. Maybe your fourth idea is the one no-one has ever had before. The secret of good writing is writing the things that come into only your head – to be a little bit different is the one thing you need to be a writer. But now people pay me for the things that I make up which seems like a lovely miracle.’

Katherine has drawn on her own unique life for inspiration to come up with her stories and eccentric characters.

Although set in a different place and a different time there are similarities between ‘Rooftoppers’ and with Katherine’s first book ‘The Girl Savage’. Her first book she wrote in a month, and based it mostly on her own wild childhood growing up in Africa.

In the story Wilhelmina (Will) is sent from Africa to an English boarding school, where she discovers that all the skills and knowledge that served her so well in Africa are useless in her new environment, so runs away and finds she can live quite happily for in London Zoo, while seeing if she can find the bravery to return to her restrictive school environment.

They are both great stories about being yourself, not fitting in, as well as out-and-out adventure tales, full of eccentric twists, imaginative word play and a theme of believing the impossible and not letting go of your dreams.

Her second book took two-and-a-half years to write, which she admits, was down to fear of being judged by the 9,000 people who’d bought her first book.

‘All the bravery you think you have for jumping out of trees, then I realised I was a coward afraid to fail in front of people. It was like those 9,000 people were in the room with me when I tried to write. But you just have to tell your wolves you are coming from them and just do it. And each word written means the next word will be better, in the same way that if you are a swimmer you need your twenty slow laps to make you able to do one really fast one.’

But she does admit to sometimes having to tie herself to her chair to make herself write.

For her inspiration, like in her first book, she turned again to ways to escape when you feel you don’t fit in.

At 21 she was by far the youngest fellow of All Souls in Oxford and felt she was the only person there who was looking for adventure. She would often imagine someone might be having an adventure up on the vast rooftops and thought rooftops would be a good place to live if you didn't want to be seen.

Her personal dream has always to be an explorer and go to the South Pole, like Scott, and has high hopes she might still get to go there one day.

But in the meantime she still has a yearning to improve her tightrope walking skills and keeps a tightrope set up in her office so she can put in her daily practice. ‘I am trying to learn to do it in high heels which is more difficult than it sounds.’

It was a heartfelt and revealing talk about the pleasures and perils of being a writer, but we couldn't resist asking Katherine just a few more questions before the event finished...

Five questions with...Katherine Rundell's Writing Life

1. What are you working on at the moment?

An adult murder mystery and a sequel to Rooftoppers and a doctorate on John Donne.

2. What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?

I don’t think I have been given many writing tips, but the one I remember is to get to the end so you can start again at the beginning.

3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

Children are better readers than adults, they are more imaginative and they remember what they have read. The worst thing is deadlines.

4. Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

I have a special book that I write in. I write always with a cup of tea and black chocolate.

5. What was your biggest breakthrough?

The first time you get published is the biggest. That and getting Philip Pullman to promote the book was lovely.

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