Robot Monkeys, Space Rockets and Novel 5

I’m now deeply into illustrating The Great Space Race. So far, I have constructed a robot monkey at life-size, and am drawing plans for a moon rocket (at not quite life-size). I’d like to say ‘It’s not rocket science’ but it is… sort of.

The Great Space Race is being ‘set’ – in other words my final draft is being made into a book by the art director, Ben. This is the moment when the project begins to breathe and take on its final form. It’s looking really good so far, and Ben is doing a superb job of pushing me to the limits (again) as he did with the Guild Trilogy to create something extraordinary and ground breaking.

So… I need to build a space rocket for photographic purposes! My Dad has offered his services and wisdom for the construction. Great news, because I tend to bodge stuff together, but he is more thorough, and likes to do things properly.  He also has a most impressive track record of building models – huge working battleships mostly, but there have been life-sized locomotives for a drama production, and memorably, he once converted his car into a submarine for a parade. Also, if I started to build a rocket in my London flat, I’d probably be arrested under the current terrorism laws. (‘Honest officer, it’s not an actual real rocket!’). He lives in the country, so we should be safe enough there at the Mowll Space Centre. I’ve showed Dad some rough plans and I could see an immediate glint in his eye. He immediately identified the tricky bits. More on these once we’ve begun construction.

With Space Race in good shape, this is also the moment when I have to start to think about what I am going to write next.

I have been honing my ideas for novel 5 on and off for a few months, plotting and planning, and working up a story into something I hope will be a cracking read. I’ve had several different ideas for novels, but one seemed a clear winner in the end. I had to condense 40 pages of detailed notes into five page outline, and write 3 chapters, just so I could get the feel of it (notes are all very well, but once you start writing characters, they do tend to take on a life of their own, I find). The story will be something new, not connected to the Guild trilogy, or The Great Space Race.

I managed to get everything ready just in time for a very lovely breakfast meeting in Soho last week with my literary agent Clare. The good news is that she liked the idea very much – although not the title! – hence it still being known as novel 5. Dreaming up names for novels is like dreaming up names for bands… surprisingly hard work. I thought up Operation Red Jericho whilst going to work on a Number 15 bus – a proper old fashioned red Routemaster London bus. There are still a few of these left for the tourists, so perhaps I should buy a ticket and see what I can dream up.

Speaking at the Etonnants Voyageurs International Book and Film festival

It was a great privilege for me to be invited to speak last weekend at the St Malo ‘Etonnant Voyageurs’ festival, one of France’s premier cultural events for books and films. St Malo is on the stunning Brittany coastline, and has an old walled city surrounded by gorgeous sandy beaches. I was asked to do two talks, and lots of book signings – so it was non-stop but great fun.

The French certainly know how to do things in style. I was booked aboard the special ‘Train du Livre’ (Book Train) from Paris, a super fast TGV, which shot us across northern France at a frightening pace.

We arrived 3 hours later in the glorious sunshine, and were transferred to coaches with a police escort (the French really do take culture seriously). We were delivered at top speed to the opening ceremony where we were served with champagne and oysters. Excellent stuff.

Then to work, with an afternoon on the Flammarion stand doing book signings and meeting the public. Flammarion are my French publishers, and their team looked after me fantastically well, smoothing over the many terrible gaps in my understanding of their beautiful language.

Next up was a portrait shoot with the enthusiastic Parisian photographer, Aldo Sperber. He had me falling against walls, posing with a fishing net and standing under a skylight with my arms held high as if I were in the process of some sort of religious transfiguration. He seemed happiest with the fishing net shot. I wasn’t entirely sure it had much to do with writing, but hey! it was a fun half hour, and I do hope he managed to get all he needed.

I’d been invited to a cocktail party in the evening, where I fell into conversation with a fellow Brit who turned out to be none other than the very talented author Patrick Gale. I think this is what people imagine being a writer is all about – champagne and schmoozing. Alas, this is something of an illusion, but it does happen now and again (about twice a year if you’re lucky) and this was one of those rare occasions – the rest of the year is spent alone, schmoozing with a cup of tea and a word processor. Anyway, the room was filled with the great and the good of French cultural life, and there was a wonderful buzz of excitement. I left when the smoke machine fired into life and the disco began.

Day two:

After a morning of signings, I was due on stage in the afternoon for a half hour face-to-face interview with Anne Chevrel. As I waited outside, Hélène Wadowski, director of Children’s Books at Flammarion, gave me a newspaper article about the festival taken from the French national paper, ‘Le Monde’, in which I’d been given a name check. I took this to be a good omen. (You can read the online version HERE). In return, I gave Hélène my camera, and she very kindly took the pictures of me on stage during my talk – see below.

My interview on the ‘Magic’ stage was a triangular business, with my translator (also rather confusingly called Hélène but nothing to do with Flammarion) whispering in my ear as Anne asked the questions. It takes a few moments to work out who to look at when you are replying, but I got the hang of it and everything went well. As usual, the whole thing seemed over before it had begun.

Day 3:

I was back on stage at midday, this time taking part in a panel discussion with two other authors, Hervé Jubert, and Fabrice Colin. The title was ‘Ca gaze les sagas’… roughly ‘Wassup with Sagas’. The nice thing about panel discussions is that you have plenty of time to dream up an answer as the other two panelists are giving theirs. I had the same excellent translator as the day before, and it proved to be a most enjoyable 45mins.

My only regret was to miss Michael Palin (hero), who was speaking at the festival on the final day. I tried my best, but my timetable didn’t allow it, so it wasn’t to be. I took a taxi to the station to catch the first of three trains home.