Notes from the London Book Fair

 

I went on the Tuesday and Thursday this year using the SCBWI members three day ticket. Fellow SCBWI’s have been asking if the Fair is worth it and I would say, yes, if you are gearing up for submission, if you want to meet/hear/talk to well known authors and publishers and if you want to find out about new releases and the publishing world in general.

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Little Tiger stand, The Children’s Hub @LBF

There are agents and editors about but unless you know them or have pre-booked the 15 minute pitch slots, it’s unlikely you’ll get time with them. Their priority is selling rights and networking, not new authors. Having said that, I did manage to get 20 minutes with an editor I’ve been having an email conversation with about one of my stories. It is always good to put names to faces.

YA & MEG ROSOFF

Meg is one of my favourite authors and I found her in the Penn Literary Salon talking about writing and her new adult screwball comedy, Jonathan Unleashed. Meg has also just won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Prize for her YA novels and deservedly so, her characters are quirky and original, and she is superb at first person voice.

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Meg Rosoff: Winner of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Meg says she “writes on the edge of reality, where the strange might happen,” weaves into her stories the two big questions teens and young adults are preoccupied with. Will anybody love me? and What will I do with my life?

She says her stories reflect her “cape crusader personality”. She believes in “being good in an unconventional way,” and that life is not about finding happiness, “it’s about being useful and being loved.”

She spends a lot of her day thinking and a small part writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until her characters resonate.

Seminar Notes: The Power of Pictures: Working with Picture Book Creators in Primary Schools.

I stumbled upon this talk and I’m so glad I did!

This is a three year Arts Council funded project, from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where nine author illustrators have worked alongside teachers to help them understand the creative process that goes into writing picture books. The teachers use this experience to support the children in their classes to become better readers and writers. Author/illustrators taking part included Mini Grey, Nicola Davies, Alexis Deacon and Benji Davies.

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“Good picture books are complex”

Charlotte Hacking, the CLPE programme leader, demonstrated the complexity of the picture books chosen and how they communicate subtle layers of meaning through: body language, expression, line of vision, background, context, colour, page breaks, page turns, rhythms and rhymes, the contrast between words and pictures, and so on.

With a teacher or parent’s support, picture books not only entertain children, they encourage them to use their imagination, organise their thoughts and look for deeper meaning in stories. When children engage fully with a story it can help them learn life skills; one of the most important is EMPATHY.

The CLPE aren’t the only ones thinking like this. Agents/editors are currently seeking picture books that feature a life lesson, e.g. loss, worries, standing up for yourself, finding love, etc. Take a look at the latest SCBWI Slush pile challenge; this is exactly what Helen from Bell Lomax Moreton wants.

I asked the sales reps at some of the  children’s publisher stands: “What’s selling well in picture books at the moment – in the UK and aboard?”

And guess what! Books with a life lesson, stories that make children think, stories that evoke emotion and resonate with both children and adults do, and importantly, they must be humourous.

And bonus! They export well, especially in the Far East’s growing markets.

There was a lot of talk about picture books being relevant to ALL ages. Why do we frown on 7+ year old children reading picture books and push novels on them as soon as possible? Charlotte Hacking advocates breadth of reading for all ages: magazines, digital, comics, picture books and novels, because, “breadth of reading builds reading stamina for life.” 

Seminar: The Future of Children’s Publishing

In this later session, there was a warning and an opportunity. Children’s market are still growing, buoyed in part by adults buying children’s books (seeking what they loved as a child and recognizing the great new writing in this market) and super child readers (from affluent middleclass backgrounds) who are consuming more than their weight in books. Overall though, children of 6+ years are spending less time reading due to digital platforms (YouTube and Apps) becoming more accessible and more attractive. Ensuring diversity and breadth of appeal in children’s publishing is key and creative concepts, which can cross formats are a real opportunity.

INSPIRING AUTHORS

I also attended talks by crime author Peter James, children’s writer Judith Kerr, and watched a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel event called the Write Stuff where five brave authors pitched their novels to agents.

Listening to them talk, it was obvious that successful authors pour their life experiences and passions into their books. Peter James enjoys accompanying the police on raids and his real life tales are every bit as fascinating as his fictional ones.

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Peter James, crime writer

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Judith Kerr, 93

Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was based on her childhood experiences as a jewish refugee narrowly escaping Nazi persecution. The winner of the Write Stuff pitched a book about the fallout of a relationship after a soldier arrived home from a conflict zone, psychologically damaged and irrevocably changed. Both the author and her husband have been deployed in the Middle East and it was a story she needed to tell.

This kind of passion is catching and inspiring and sells lots of books.

Lastly, here’s my pile of children’s publisher catalogues featuring current lists and what’s debuting spring and autumn this year!

I wonder what the gaps in the market are…..

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Ahoy! SCBWI conference low-down

 

My second conference with amazing SCBWI BI…

Started with some wise words from Natascha Biebow about evoking empathy not sympathy in our writing, and the importance of being in touch with our inner child.

(The amount of piratey costumes at the launch party suggests the inner child part isn’t a problem for most SCBWIs.)

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Me with the fearsome Sally Rowe

And continued amusingly, with Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve dressed up, as I’m not sure what, to talk about creating their three illustrated books for young readers, which sold out on the book stand in 30 seconds  afterwards.

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The unforgettable Sarah Mcintyre and Philip Reeve

I did manage to nab an Oliver and the Seawigs. Thank you for adding the extra sea monkey, Sarah.

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Then on to a Picture Book/Illustrated Fiction Industry Panel with publishers Hodder, Faber and Faber, Otter Barry Books, and agent Felicity Trew (Carolyn Sheldon.) They all stressed how important it is for picture books to appeal to supermarkets (promo slots) as well as international markets, otherwise they don’t make money. A good title is important for Internet sales and a series concept is more likely to attract publishers (particularly for illustrated young readers).

After lunch, the amazing Jonny Duddle, Pirate Cruncher extraordinaire took to the stage and demonstrated that sometimes life takes you in unplanned and unusual directions. But it’s all rather useful material for future books. Though, he did seem to be destined to be a pirate from the very beginning.

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Jonny worked on a real pirate ship for a year  – yes, that one there.

BTW you can learn pirate talk from handy websites like this one: http://the-pirate-ship.com/piratedictionary.html

Jonny thinks up stories and rhymes while out running/cycling in the welsh hills. I wonder if the Chilterns have the same magic air.

It was lovely to meet the SCBWI’s who have launched their books this year at the Mass Book Launch Party. Thank you for all those signed copies! My children feel very spoiled.

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Go SCBWIs!

On Sunday morning, publisher David Fickling got us all up and dancing to Pulp Fiction, and then he shouted money money money. Yes please, David, that would be a nice change.

Agents Julia Churchill (A.M Heath) and Penny Holroyde (Holroyde Cartey) gave a great session on everything an agent does (which is a lot more than I appreciated). Penny also shared a page of her golden notebook – subjects/genres publishers are short of at the moment. Yes, gold dust indeed. My lips are sealed. Book SCBWI events to find out about these tips!

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I had a one to one with an editor from Frances Lincoln and a crit session on a picture book that won’t behave, but now might, thanks to my critiquers insightful comments.

Lots of contacts, lots to follow up on and writing enthusiasm at warp speed 10.

Thank you SCBWI-BI Team.

Is the London Book Fair a worthwhile visit for budding authors?

My morning at Olympia started at 9:45 at Authors HQ, listening to Rebecca Swift from the Literary Consultancy, chairing a discussion with agents, Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group, and Iain Millar, co-found of Canelo Digital Publishing, on how they find new talent.

Some of their advice I have heard before but it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the high standards expected of manuscripts.

Juliet said: “Succinctly summarise what your novel is about in your covering letter. Tell us why your story is going to be attractive to publishers and readers. It’s amazing how many authors don’t do this.”

Iain said: “A lot of manuscripts are rejected because they start too early and don’t establish character, setting and conflict in the opening chapters skilfully.”

Juliet advised: “Send your first three chapters to 5-10 agents. If they ask for the full manuscript this does not mean they want to represent you and not all agents respond with comments, alas.” Though Juliet said she does send feedback if she reads a full manuscript.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar answering questions.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar, answering questions.

I then headed over to the Children’s Hub to listen to Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New children’s writing, and her publisher Samantha Selby-Smith and agent Louise Lamont from LBA. Laura’s novel, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse, is to be released in October. I was lucky enough to be given a free proof copy.

I chuckled when Laura confessed she had only written the first five thousand words required to enter the first stage of the competition. When she was shortlisted, Scholastic asked if she had the full manuscript (which was expected!), she said yes, and then wrote her novel in three weeks. “It was the most stressful three weeks of my life. I wouldn’t recommend lying to your publisher,” she joked.

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaohs Curse

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse

I had time to look at all the publisher stands in the Children’s section before heading to the next talk. My objective was to: collect trade catalogues, handy for idea creation (and spotting what has already been done), publisher styles and market trends; and also to discover new or relatively new publishers, who are expanding their lists and accept unsolicited manuscripts. I found a few!

I located the Pen Literary Salon just in time to hear Anthony Browne talk about his long career illustrating and writing picture books. He was my favourite speaker of the day – articulate, wise and creative.

He takes ideas from his childhood, from familiar objects, other artwork, toys and games. He twists and changes them into something else and plays with point of view.

"Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited." Anthony Browne

“Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.” Anthony Browne

“There should be different layers in picture books. The child doesn’t have to know what everything is or what everything means. Conversations between children and adults are generated by the story and illustrations. Parents sometimes move children on to quickly from picture books, thinking they are for young children and therefore babyish.”

Anthony believes the picture book is for any age. “We live in a visual world of moving images, there is only a few seconds to appreciate an image before it is gone. Picture books in contrast are like works of art; they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.”

After lunch, I did a quick reccy of the larger publishers stands, which sprawl across the grand hall, collecting more trade catalogues. I also checked out the self-publishing stands. There’s a lot of info available and at least one talk a day.

Olympia's Grand Hall.

Olympia’s Grand Hall

Then I headed back to Author HQ to hear some very brave authors pitch their books live to a panel of agents and publishers. They had one minute to introduce themselves and two minutes to pitch their book before being critiqued. The panel had pre-read one chapter.

It was interesting to watch people’s style, hear about their background and watch mistakes. The biggest takeout from the panel was a warning about marketability. “Where does your book fit,” they kept asking, a couple of authors received the more depressing news, “I like the writing but I can’t sell it.”

This it at odds with the advice often given, “right what you love” – the caveat clearly is, as long as it is marketable.

There is definitely a lot more going on for authors this year at LBF. I’ve got a stack of information about the market and a few publishing leads.

Yes, indeed, it’s definitely worth the ticket.

(SCBWI members are eligible for a half price flexi ticket)

Good Picture Book Advice from Pippa Goodhart – Keep it short!

I jumped at the chance to meet Pippa Goodhart and listen to her words of wisdom at the recent SCBWI Author Masterclass on Writing Picture Books in London. My children love her book You Choose; it’s so well thumbed it’s fallen apart! You Choose is a concept book with just 220 words. The words are mostly page titles or captions around Nick Sharratt’s catalogue-style illustrations. In the Q&A session I asked Pippa how she pitched You Choose to publishers. “It wasn’t easy,” she replied. “The concept was rejected by nine publishers. If you believe in your idea you have to be persistent.” The book went on to become a bestseller.

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The number of words in picture books was a recurrent theme during the workshop. Publishers want manuscripts from zero to five hundred words; less is definitely more. Newbies like me tend to overwrite, and I admit, sometimes I only think about the pictures once I have drafted the story.
Pippa explained the story is in both the pictures and the words, and sometimes in the gaps in between such as a page turn or a change of pace. Thinking about how the child participates in the story is very important.

Pippa showed us some favourite picture books of hers, This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown and Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne. Writers, she advised, should think about a story in pictures and let the pictures do the ‘showing,’ reducing text to a minimum. There can be considerable power in no words at all. It feels rather brave as a writer to leave a page blank with just an illustration note, but many of the best writer/illustrator picture books do just that to create impact. Pippa also recommended rough sketching the twelve double page spreads to help visualize the book.

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All workshop attendees had the chance to request a short one to one with Pippa to discuss their own works in progress – or to workshop them briefly in the class. Pippa critiqued my story Ming’s Dragon. The basic idea was fine, but it needed a complete rewrite. The story was too long and the character motivation and story message weren’t crystal clear. I plan my longer novels and the short stories I write for magazines, but with picture books there’s a tendency to think, ‘It’s only four hundred words. Why do I need to plan?’ Pippa explained a picture book should have one, maybe two clear themes. Character, motivation, plot and emotion all have their place, as in any story. Concept, pictures and words must work together intuitively to resonate with young audiences. Idea evaluation and story planning is essential.

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Later in the afternoon, Pippa set a group creative writing exercise to rework an old fairytale. This was fun, writing is such a solitary occupation it’s great to bounce ideas around with other writers. SCBWIs are a creative bunch; there were some impressive narratives and near meter-perfect rhymes, all generated in under an hour.

And yes, they were all appropriately short!

Hilary Mantel – Queen of detail

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“Be specific,” is advice I have heard from more than one writing tutor over the last five years. Last April, I watched Hilary Mantel read an extract from Bring up the Bodies, the middle book from her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, at the Oxford Literary Festival. I was struck by her exquisite use of detail and the symbolism it evoked, doubly impressive since the details of day-to-day Tudor life are nearly 500 years old. I have read many historical novels over the years. The turbulent Tudor period is a favourite era for authors and I’d felt my interest long satiated until I read Wolf Hall. There are so many lessons in Hilary Mantel’s writing, but above all I am inspired by her use of symbolism, metaphor and detail, which are woven seamlessly into character and plot. The world of Thomas Cromwell comes flying out of the past so vividly the man could be in the same room.

Here’s a summary of the discussion about the detail in the books and some of the other questions and answers posed.

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Hilary reads an extract from Bring Up the Bodies, a scene where Thomas Cromwell observes the Seymour women fussing over Jane’s hood. The old French style hood has been discarded, Anne Boleyn has fallen from the King’s favour and the old Spanish style hood is to return, headed, literally, by Jane, the next queen in waiting. Mantel has paid attention to the rich details of dress to illustrate the mood. Everything has become highly charged. Fashion makes a statement about the family’s position and what is at stake. “She needed to feel the clothes on her back, feel the pain of the costume and the scaffolding of position,” says Mantel.

Did she plan a trilogy? “In my innocence, I thought one book about Thomas Cromwell was enough. It was always called Wolf Hall. As I began the segment about Thomas More’s death, I realised it was the climax of the book. Then I thought, I’d write only one more. You never get wise!”

Wolf Hall spans thirteen years and Bring Up the Bodies spans only 9 months. In the second book the plot gallops. “I wanted the reader to be rinsed with horror and transfixed in the moment Anne Boleyn is beheaded. That is the climax of the book, so I had to stop again, only then did I realise it was a trilogy.”

Mantel is asked to think about the first and last lines in each book. “Do these lines come to you in a shot?”  – “I’ve been thinking about this novel, this man for over twenty years. Thomas Cromwell. I wasn’t ready to write his story earlier. I kept expecting someone else to discover him.”  Wolf Hall starts with Cromwell in the gutter. ‘So now get up,’ his father says after beating him. Mantel focuses closely on the boot and the stitching, it is told through Cromwell’s eyes like a film unscrolling in the present tense. Wolf Hall ends, as the King and Cromwell are about to go off on a pilgrimage to the West Country. Cromwell writes the schedule and plans a visit to the Seymour’s. “September, five days, Wolf Hall, ” it ends.

At the beginning of Bring Up The Bodies, Cromwell is looking up at the falcons they have set hunting – “his children are falling from the sky,” (as the falcons swop down on their prey.) It sets the agenda, the underlying predatory theme in the book. The book ends after the fall of Anne Boleyn in the summer of 1536, when Cromwell has exacted his revenge on those that aided the fall of his mentor Wolsey. The Mirror and the Light is the final book. It starts on the scaffold and ends there with Cromwell lying on the ground in a pool of blood, just as he did at the beginning of Wolf Hall. His story has come full circle.

If we know the ending how come it still feels so tense, so gripping? “We fantasise we can step in and change history, make it more fair. The reader is drawn in as a participant not just a passive consumer,” she says.

How does she view the Trilogy now? “You must make each book in a trilogy stand up independently but also tie in together.” Links and recapitulation arenecessary she says and she uses image and metaphor cleverly to do this.

She has as unusual way of addressing Cromwell. The book is written in third person, mostly in a free indirect style, though she does zoom in and out to give focus and perspective. She tags internal or external dialogue rarely and this has generated some criticism from readers. When she does introduce Cromwell, particularly in Bring Up the Bodies she uses, ‘he Cromwell,’ where she feels there is ambiguity. “It’s always better to over estimate the reader than underestimate them and spoon feed them,” she says.  She found that, “He Cromwell,” in Bring Up the Bodies became a self-definition. As the story goes on, Cromwell becomes a bigger person in his own eyes and in others eyes too.

To get to know Thomas Cromwell, Mantel had to at first pretended she knew nothing about him. She went back to sources before the black legend was conceived. His public work is documented but his private life is off the record.  Elton most famously wrote about him as a Machiavellian mystery hissing in the wings. But Mantel thought Cromwell should take centre stage, and went about developing a plausible representation of him. George Cavendish, a dramatist, recorded Wolsey and Cromwell talking. She discovered the Lisle letters, which span eleven years of Cromwell’s time in government. She says “the business of politics is intensely personal and by necessity often off the record. Letters are very important – gold dust for the novelist. There was much to draw out of the tiny personal day-to-day incidents in the letters. Cromwell’s contemporaries say he is eloquent and engaged. I thought of him as the plum in the Christmas pie that needs to be dug out.” She’s enjoyed changing the public perception of him.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are being adapted by The Royal Shakespeare Company into two productions, to be staged later in 2013. The two, two hour plays have a restricted cast, which is a challenge given the enormous cast list at the front of Mantel’s books.

There is also a TV adaptation in the works. The BBC and HBO script is being written by Peter Staughan. Mantel has worked closely with Staughan, Thomas More has been a particularly difficult character to adapt as Mantel has written him a master of ambiguity and silence. “More doesn’t say much so we are going to tell it from character, how the actors use their bodies will be critical.“

“There has to be compromises between history and drama,” she says, “but history should never be distorted for the sake of drama.’ She views the plays and TV Mini series as new works.

 Bring up the Bodies is Hilary Mantel’s 13th book. She has also written short stories, radio drama and thousands of words of literary journalism.

 The Mirror and the Light is expected to be released in 2014, “if I’m allowed to get on with it, “Mantel says wryly.

Philip Pullman – On writing

Philip Pullman

 

I confess I bought the ticket to see Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival by accident. I meant to buy Hilary Mantel, but me being me, got confused about dates, clicked on the wrong button and lo an behold a “congratulations you have a front row ticket to see Philip Pullman” message pinged into my email – huh!  

So a month later,  I sat in the front row at the Smithsonian with two hundred Pullman fans (who would have been horrified to discover that one amongst them hadn’t read even one Philip Pullman book!)  Perhaps it was serendipity, my daughter was about to turn eight and had just started to read her first chapter books and I’d just started a Curtis Brown Creative, Write a Children’s Novel course. My knowledge of middle grade fiction was sketchy, based solely on what I’d read at that age – Enid Blyton and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series. I had no idea how amazing contemporary writing is for this age group.

What captivates children’s imagination is hard to pin down but Philip Pullman knows how to do it. There is nothing light or slight about his stories, they are both magical and mature in their themes. I have enjoyed Northern Lights and The Firework Makers Daughter as much as my daughter.

So here is what Philip Pullman had to say about dust, daemons and writing for children.

When did you decide that writing for children was what you wanted to do? “I taught in an upper school and I`d been writing stories and songs since I was very small. I read the Odyssey and the Iliad to the class, which was also my apprenticeship in story telling. I wrote plays for the school and many of my younger fiction novels evolved from those early play scripts.”

Do you have a concept theme or idea and then think this story suits it or do you start writing a story and let it come out as you write? “Always the story first, it comes alive as I write. I go back and make adjustments to the opening and other chapters of course, many times.”

 Do you revise a lot? “Yes a great deal. My process is to write by hand three pages a day.”

 When did you decide to become a full-time writer? “When I could make enough money! Which wasn’t until after Northern Lights was published.” He thought it would sell 5,000 copies like his other books. Little did he know!

 You have an interest in the Victorian Era, evident in the Sally Lockhart quartet of books. “I like this era because there is enough stuff around from the 19th century to get a feeling of what it was like. It’s close enough in time to know how they speak and it was a great era for reading – pamphlets, newspapers, penny dreadfuls and the novel.” The Sally Lockhart series is reminiscent of the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins with a gripping plot and atmospheric setting. The New Cut Gang, set in 1890’s Lambeth, has a Dickensian influence.

 When it comes to your greatest work, His Dark Materials, you’ve gone back to Paradise Lost and reworked Milton. “I first encountered Milton in 6th form English. It wasn’t until I was a quarter of a way into Northern Lights that I realised this is the story in this book, the theme.”

 How much of the whole sequence did you have when writing Northern Lights did you know it was going to be that long? “I didn’t know the mass of story was going to turn into a thousand pages. It was easier to publish three books than one. One novel in three volumes.”

 You have expanded slightly with Lyra’s Oxford. “The publishers thought it would be good to have a map of Lyra’s Oxford. It contains picture and photographs.” Once upon a Time in the North was written for his son. He wanted to know how Iorek Byrnison, the Ice bear and Lee Scoresby, the aeronaut met. It’s set 20 years before Lyra was born.

 Dust is one of the phenomena in Dark Materials and Daemons is the other. Did you imagine these from the start? Dust yes, daemons not at first. When I first wrote about Lyra she didn’t have a daemon. She was in the same situation, trapped in a room and it wasn’t working, until one afternoon I got to about the 15th of 16th attempt writing this chapter and I found myself writing Lyra and her daemon and it took me by surprise. It doesn’t often happen, so I wrote the next sentence to see how it worked out and then the paragraph and it worked because Lyra had someone to talk to and someone to respond and to and argue with. It was much more dynamic. So everyone had a daemon and they changed shape, but the rest of the chapter still didn’t work. I realised why it was. The children’s daemon could change shape but the adults couldn’t. The story is about the loss of innocence.”

 What about the removal of the daemon from the owner? “That works in the story, you are horribly shocked. I built up the belief they can’t be separated. Someone that does it on purpose must be a villain.”

 How easy do you find it to conjure up people, beings or objects? “I read a lot of nonfiction, biography and travel. We are blessed with museums and I’ve visited many while teaching or parenting, they have played a great part in my imagination. The alethiometre, which Lyra learns how to read, is based on the beautiful instruments in the Museum of Science. It has a series of symbols, which are taken from the iconography of the art in the renaissance. With the Amber Spyglass. She needs a special glass to see something she can’t see normally. In The Subtle Knife, there needs to be someway to move between worlds and Lyra needed a key.”

 How happy are you with the adaptations in theatre and film? “The theatre productions have been stunning. With film, sometimes films disappoint us; if we see the film first we can never get the face of the actor out of our head when reading the book. I knew when Northern Lights was published there might be film interest and I found myself talking to producers and indulging in fantasy casting. The only bit of fantasy casting that came true was Nicole Kidman, who did it marvelously well. The cast was terrific. The performances they gave were uniformly good. I thought it was a great pity the film ended before the book did, I think they became a little bit afraid of the implication of the film. There had to be a part two and three. Now there would have to be a new cast as Dakota Richards has grown up and Daniel Craig is too expensive. I would like to see it as a long TV version across twenty or more episodes. I don’t know if anyone would do it.”

Do you think writing is a moral art and if you do, do you find it inspiring or a challenge? We are moral beings, yes, we are, but I don’t serve up stories with a moral, I let it happen. You will inevitably put in a story what you feel to be true, morally ethically, politically. You can’t get away from it.

 The church features prominently in your book, is it a vehicle for your beliefs or criticism of the  institution? “What I have always criticised is religion once it gets a grip on political power, and can dictate how we live, dress, what we eat and how we behave and what we can say. Then religion gets more arrogant and dangerous.”

 How has Oxford inspired you? Oxford is a strange place. You can go down a street you might have walked down a hundred times and there will be a door open and behind it a beautiful garden which you never expected. Or you can suddenly come across a window at your feet. It’s not difficult to image it changes overnight and I have a fantasy about gargoyles from New College who go off together fishing in the river.

 What’s next? “And finally, The Book of Dust. My work on this has been interrupted over the past couple of years, but the book is growing slowly and before long I shall take it up again full-time. What can I tell you about it? Nothing, except that it’s by far the most important thing I’m doing, and I intend to do it as well as I possibly can.”

The Book of Dust, a combined prelude and sequel to Northern Lights and will be released the back-end of 2015.