Little Acts of Kindness: Author Interview with Anne Booth

I first met Anne Booth at a conference run by Nosy Crow Books last year. We had a lot in common, including debut novels for young readers, and a publisher (O.U.P.). Anne’s first book of several out this year is Girl With A White Dog (Catnip Books, published 1st March) so I asked her about it, and about her writing process.

Here’s what the book is about: When Jessie’s gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, it’s the start of a downwards spiral of strange and worrying behaviour. But life at home is only half the problem. At school Jessie’s class is studying the Nazis’ rise to power and she’s learning some uncomfortable truths about the way people can treat those they see as different – and starts noticing worrying parallels around her. With one eye one the past and one on her ailing gran, Jessie starts to see a connection – something long-buried, troubling and somehow connected to another girl and another white dog…’

Girl With A Wg=hite Dog by Anne Both Catnip Books March 2014

J: I didn’t know anything about the Nazi policy targeting the pets belonging to Jewish families. This is a good theme for connecting with modern-day young readers. How early in your work on the book did you find out about this – was it a gift along the way, or the spark that started the whole thing off?

A: Lots of things happened at the same time and I’m not entirely sure what came first. I think it started with a book someone tweeted about and which I bought, Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson. I have two dogs of my own and I thought it looked great, so I treated myself to it. In it I read about a college for dogs in Nazi Germany. I thought this might be an interesting idea for a book. To find out more I did some research and came across the wonderful ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ by Boria Sax, and from there I read about the law saying that Jewish people were not allowed to have pets and how that felt for them. I started reading more social history books about Germany and growing up in the 1930s. I remembered my ‘A’ level History and wanted to work out more about what would make people accept Nazism. What I read really affected me. I read lots of social history and accounts of children growing up as members of the Hitler Youth, and I began to realise that if I had been born an Aryan German I might not have wanted to see how bad Nazism was either. I might have just wanted to go camping and singing and see myself as good and be happy to blame others for the problems in my country.

At the same time I was concerned at all the negative comments about immigrants and asylum seekers and disabled and unemployed people in our media. I couldn’t put on the TV or the radio without someone blaming one of those groups for being ‘scroungers’ or for wasting money. I found that very worrying, as the books I was reading were telling me the same things happened in Germany in the 1930s, and prepared the way for Nazism. I couldn’t remember ever having read a book putting that across, and thought I might have an idea for a children’s book.

There was also a lot in the media about Grimms’ Fairy tales and a report that a new fairytale had been found. I’d read about how the Nazis loved using fairytales to show themselves as the ‘goodies’ and others, like the Jews, as the ‘baddies’. I thought I might write a new fairytale about a child growing up in Nazi Germany. My original book started with the first paragraph of the very last chapter of ‘Girl with a White Dog’.

I started to write from the point of view of a little Nazi girl, but it was difficult to convey how attractive Nazism was for many in the Hitler Youth without seeming to condone or even promote it.

At the same time something else was happening in my life: my elderly mother was diagnosed with dementia and had a bad fall, ending up in hospital. There she kept talking about people marching down the corridors and was very distressed. I am glad to say that she stopped thinking this, but her reaction was so strong that I realised that for those days in hospital she was in a horrible nightmare I could not free her from. I read more about dementia, and came across stories of elderly people whose distress was found to be linked not with nightmares but with long-buried memories. I read about a man whose family were shocked to find that he lost his ability to speak English and could only speak Polish, the language of his childhood. When I read about elderly dementia patients in Germany talking about Hitler then I had the last bit of my story.

During all this time I read and re-read as many children’s novels about Nazi Germany and the Second World War as I could, just to make sure nobody else had approached it in the same way.

J: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A: As a child I wanted to save children and animals – I’m not sure how – but it seemed to be by either being a saintly nun or a saintly nun who was a doctor. You have to know that I was brought up in a very religious family. Then I realised I didn’t want to be a nun, and I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor or a vet. I went to university and studied English which was bliss. I got my first job in a bookshop, which was wonderful, and I’ve worked at loads of different jobs – including being a tour guide, an English language teacher, a lecturer, doing arts & crafts in an old people’s home, washing up in a café and being a project assistant for a charity. The one consistent thing is that I have always written – in diaries, letters, prayer journals and notebooks.

The first story I remember writing was an epic bible story I wrote at school when I was 5 about Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. I remember not being able to miss out any details, and drawing lots of pictures, and feeling very tired using my pencil but unable to stop! I still have the same feelings now when I write!

I never stopped reading children’s books alongside adult books. Long before I was married and had my own children I was buying and reading and enthusing over Shirley Hughes, for example. I went on to do an MA in Children’s Literature and I still didn’t try to write any. I think it was because I was in awe of them. I loved being a bookseller and recommending them but I did not write any children’s books until quite recently, helped by going on two Arvon Writing for Children courses. Instead I did an MA in Creative Writing in the evenings and wrote short stories and a novel for adults, and I do want to take those out and dust them off. I also really really love illustrations in children’s books and my big desire is to have enough confidence to have a go at illustrating, but I’m a bit shy about that.

J: Now, about your own writing methods – if you get stuck, is there any particular thing you do to get inspired again?

Walking into woods pic for Julia

A: I go for a walk with my dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with my family. I read some books I love. I watch a film I think might inspire me – I have a cup – many cups – of tea. I sit quietly and pray. I talk to my dogs!

Wriyer Anne Both's dog sleeping

 This must have been a particularly boring idea! 

I write – often in my prayer journal – about how I can’t write, and most times that does the trick as I find that there are still lots of feelings and ideas out there, so I draw diagrams and write lists and sometimes – when no one is there apart from the dogs – I walk around the house talking to myself!

I have very recently 

Anne Booth's yurt jumper

found that in moments of despair sitting with my jumper over my head is surprisingly calming. There is one jumper that is particularly good – it is like having a little portable tent or yurt! I may mass produce it and sell it to writers! 

J: I really like the idea of a portable, wearable yurt. Please put me down for one when you go into production!

Next question – have your own children helped in any way with your writing?

A: I do find talking to and listening to my children very helpful. They make me laugh and are such good storytellers about their days that they give me lots of inspiration. They have been brilliantly patient at listening to me reading out scenes set in school and telling me if they are realistic or not.

J: We are so used to sassy, smart-mouthed main characters in teen fiction. Jessie, your narrator, is relatively unsophisticated in both behaviour and vocabulary. Can you tell me about your decisions behind creating her as she is?

A: I think there is a lot of me in Jessie. I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager and I worried a lot. I did want to write about a teenager like that because I feel the way teenagers are portrayed in the media or in some fiction only shows one way of being a teenager – and there are as many different types of teenager as there are adults. I don’t drive, and if I catch the bus with school children you can hear and see so many different types of students – some sophisticated, some funny, some more innocent than others. I think it is only fair that we write about the less sassy ones too!

J: Jessie is a real ‘worrier’ – so was I as a child (still am!) How do you balance happy and sad stuff in a book for young readers?

A: I do believe in Goodness. I do worry about the bad things that happen in the world, and my own responsibility for them as a shared citizen of the planet, but I do have a religious faith in a God of Love, and I do actually believe (though I have to remind myself that I do) what I say in my own book – that we should not despair, and that little acts of kindness can transform things. So I hope I have left children with that message, and that they will feel empowered and hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the story. I hope that putting a puppy in helped!

J: What age group is this book aimed at? I can see it revolves around Year 9s (13-14 year olds) but it feels easy enough for younger children to read.

 A: I think it is for older Primary school upwards. I would like it to be read by children when they are studying Nazi Germany, and I know my children looked at Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, when they were still at Primary school, and again in Year 9.

J: Were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

A: Yes!

J : I won’t ask about ‘favourite books’, as I’m hopeless at deciding on favourites myself,  but were there any particular books that had a deep effect on you as child?

A: Anne of Green Gables. Paddington Bear. Just William. Jennings. Black Beauty. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. The Little Wooden Horse. Carbonel. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (wonderful!) Lots of Enid Blyton – particularly Mr Galliano’s Circus as I really wanted to be Jimmy Brown and tame lots of animals. What Katy Did. The Secret Garden. Books by Noel Streatfield. All the Narnia Books. The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley… I’m going to have to stop now but that is just a tiny tiny list and I know I will be so sad to have missed anything off. They made me cry and they made me laugh. Some of them – like Paddington – made me cry with laughter.

J: I have certain authors who I can rely on to inspire me in terms of style and content and the way they organise the story they are telling. Are there any writers who work for you in this way?

A: I know that Girl with a White Dog is nothing like this – but I have to say P.G. Wodehouse. I just love his comic timing. I would love to write some straight comedy.

J: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’m waiting impatiently for a delivery of a secondhand copy of The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield, one of my favourite childhood books. I am just about to start a book called Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson. I am reading non-fiction books for inspiration for some ideas I have – Playing at Home – The House in Contemporary Art by Gill Perry, Bonzo’s War – Animals under fire 1939-1945 and Imaginary Animals by Boria Sax. I am also dipping into lots of books about Lindisfarne or ‘Holy Island’ as I am very drawn to writing about it but am not sure what form the story will take yet.

J: You’ve got other books coming out this year. Can you tell us about them?

A: Lucy’s Secret Reindeer is for 5-8 year olds and is a magical Christmas story about a little girl who looks after a poorly reindeer for Santa. It’s being published by O.U.P. and has a beautiful cover and will have lots of lovely black and white illustrations inside by Sophy Williams. This will be out in October but is available for pre-order already!

I have two picture books coming out with Nosy Crow which will be gorgeous (I have seen the sketches for the first book’s illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw) but I am not sure when the first one will be out.

J: Tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing?

A: Tea!

J: And, finally, your Writerly Snack of Choice?

A: Chocolate. But I really must cut down…

Thanks to Anne for taking the time to reveal the secrets of her writing process, and for such great pictures.

‘Let the back of your head do the work.’ Interview with YA author Nikki Sheehan.

My first guest author to be interviewed here is Nikki Sheehan, whose debut novel for 11-14 year olds, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is out this week.

Here’s what it’s about: ‘Joseph is an ordinary boy in a world that’s losing the plot. Paranoia about the dangers of imaginary people have reached fever pitch and now Joseph’s association with Klaris has put him in the firing line. To save himself, Joseph turns detective, delving into the heart of family life and uncovering some painful home truths.’

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan OUP paperback

J:  Sorry, I know you will be asked this a lot, but I am really interested – where did the idea for this story spring from?

N: The idea came, as ideas often do for me, from a misheard fragment of conversation. In this case I had wandered into the kitchen, probably in search of coffee or marmite on toast, and someone on the radio appeared to say, ‘They killed his imaginary friend.’ Actually I had got it completely wrong, it was a conversation about football of fossils or something, but by then I was already thinking what if…

J:  Klaris gets into people’s heads and they don’t have much control over her. In my experience, imaginary friends are more often ‘friends of convenience’ – they were the one who scribbled on the bath, or who required their own helping of ice cream (“Oh, look, now it’s melted. I’ll just have to eat it, then.”) Have you had personal experience of imaginary friends? If so, what were they like?

N: Ha! Yes, they are particularly useful for such circumstances. I did have imaginary friends, three of them. Twins called Henny and Toddy (who only existed to bump me, as the youngest, up the family food chain) and a very alpha female older girl, Alfreece, who was big beautiful and very bossy, and an object of adulation for me while my own big sister was at school.

J: Alfreece is such a great name. You’ll have to use it in another book!

Can you tell me what the route was from – ‘ping!’ – first idea to actually getting published?

N: I wrote the book over about a year while working as a journalist and doing all the washing and cooking and arguing that having three kids entails. Then I printed it out and put it, literally, in a drawer. A few months later a good friend asked me to go with her to an event at the Brighton Festival where an agent and a publisher were doing a ‘publishing bootcamp.’ I really liked the agent, Julia Churchill, and so I took the plunge and sent her my first three chapters as soon as I got home. As we all know it’s impossible, if not harder, to get an agent, so I was stunned when she emailed me the next day asking for the whole book. She read it while she was on holiday, then asked to meet. After some revisions and polishing Julia sent Klaris out into the world where it was picked up by Clare Whitston at OUP and the rest is history.

J:  Did your own children read the book as it was being written? If so, did they make any contribution to how it turned out?

N: My elder two children both read the book, and my son Eddie who was about 12 at the time was particularly helpful, rereading various drafts and telling me when I’d got it wrong and showing me, from the expression on his face, when I’d got it right.

J:  Hmm, what’s his percentage??

I know this is your debut children’s novel. What does it feel like to see your story turned into a real book? And appearing in real bookshops??

N: The book started to appear about a month before the official publication date, but the moment it felt real was when I went into a Waterstones last week and found it on the shelf next to Darren Shan. I thought, play it cool, and walk past, but obviously I didn’t. Instead I stroked it a bit, then asked the sales person if I could sign it (fortunately I think they’re used to this sort of behaviour from over-excited authors). Then I took a photo and posted it on Twitter.

J: Oh, I’ve done much the same. The bookseller was very kind, but I had to wait until there was no one else at the counter in case I sounded a complete twit!

Next, are you in the Love Editing or the Hate Editing camp?

N: A bit of both. I’ve just had some edit notes on my next top secret project and I find it daunting at first. But once I start and it begins to fall into place and look nice and shiny I find it very satisfying.

J:  You’re in the Love Editing camp, then, really. I recognise that cold sweat feeling as you read your editor’s notes, so like getting your school report and then quickly adjusting to the horror of it!

Have you done other sorts of writing, and if so, is writing for children a different process in any way?

N: I’ve always written for a living. My first job was as a subtitler, then as a copywriter, journalist and editor. But children’s fiction is a completely different process. In fact I feel like I’m using a different, unconscious part of my brain. Hilary Mantel likened it to being a medium, and I definitely experience it in the same way. If it feels too conscious it usually means it’s not working and I should go off and do something else instead.

J:  I wonder if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost ? There are lots of comments about writing in it which felt very true.

Do you know lots of other writers or is this a totally new world for you?

N: I was in a local writing group, then, about the time I got my agent I joined Twitter and met a lot of other people going through the same things. It’s been invaluable, both in terms of practical support and friendship, but also as a semi-valid way of wasting time when I should be writing.

J:  Ha! We met on Twitter. It’s a great writers’ resource for therapy and jokes, isn’t it? And daft picture of kittens, of course.

Moving on – what do you write in, on, and over? e.g. jimjams, i-pad, kitchen table…

N: It depends. The last book I wrote was written completely from my bed on a little netbook. Yes, often in my jimjams.

J:  Now I’m envisaging Barbara Cartland… I hope that’s jimjams and full pancake makeup, mascara and false lashes.

Next question – tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing? (I know it’s there.)

N: Lots of coffee in the morning, then I have to switch to redbush tea in the afternoons or I start shaking.

J: Writerly snack of choice?

N: Grapes, Wotsits and Marmite or stilton on toast.

J: You are definitely a savoury person! 

What is your typical displacement activity when you ought to be writing? Or are you going to say you are totally disciplined and never indulge this way?

N: Twitter is my displacement activity of choice. I prefer to write on my netbook because the internet connection is a bit dodgy so I don’t get too tempted. Also Hoovering, particularly when I get cold from sitting still too long.

J: Frozen Arse Syndrome –  know it well.  I have written in scarf, hat and fingerless gloves. Indoors. 

Next, if/when you get stuck in your writing, is there any one thing you do to get the imagination going again?

N: I have two big dogs, and walking them is vital in my process. In fact a very important element of Klaris came to me as a real eureka moment while walking my dogs. The other thing that often works is taking a long bath, or having a nap. I often get ideas in that space just before I wake up. They’re usually rubbish ideas, but not always. When I was very stuck on my Klaris edits my agent told me to let the back of my head do the work, which was great advice. For me, at least, trying not to force something always works better.

J: I felt that Annie and Henry, the dogs in Who Framed KLaris Cliff?, were really authentic dog characters. Now I see where this come from. And that’s a brilliant phrase of your agent’s. I am going to have to steal it. 

So – were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

N: Yes, always. I spent all my pocket money on books. I still do.

J:  Were there any books that had a deep effect on you as child? And which writers particularly inspire you?

N: As a child I really loved the slightly creepy period books with extraordinary, but not fantasy events, such as A Little Princess and Tom’s Midnight Garden. So many authors inspire me, but at the moment I’m particularly into Sally Gardner.

J: How much of your reading is children’s fiction?

N: Over half of my reading matter is YA or MG.

J:  What are you reading right now?

N: I usually have a few books on the go, so at the moment I’m reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, and a wonderful debut MG by Emma Carroll, Frost Hollow Hall. Funnily enough it reminds me of all the spooky stuff I loved as a kid.

J:  What next? And how long do we have to wait?

N: Well, as well as all the launch madness I’m doing edits on the next project. I can’t say too much but I LOVE it, and I hope everyone else will too.

J:  Looking forward to it. Thank you for revealing the dark secrets of your writing process!

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is published on 6th February 2014 by OUP.

nikki sheehan author

Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist. She went to a convent school in   Cambridge where she was taught by nuns. Her writing was first published when she was seven and   her teacher submitted a poem she had written to a magazine. She always loved English, but has a degree in linguistics. After university Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then studied psychology, retrained as a journalist, and wrote features for parenting magazines and the national press. She now writes mainly about property and is co-founder of an award-winning, slightly subversive, property blog. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, and an ever-fluctuating numbers of hamsters.