Characters: what’s not to like? (Or the Raskolnikov risk/does it matter if we like the bear best?)

"Medved mzoo" by User:Simm - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Medved mzoo” by User:Simm – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Characters can make novels a risky business. In my own writing they initiate, direct and determine the story, but does the reader have to like them? Moreover, if a reader’s dislike of a character can lead to disaffection from that story – or even a failure to finish the book – are there reasons to take the risk anyway, and are they good enough?

As a children’s author who has also written two novels for adults, I’m aware of different ‘rules’ when I switch audiences, many of which stem from perceived reader expectation. In stories for children the central character can be mean, big-headed, naughty or selfish but we know he or she can’t stay that way. So Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden is much more ‘horrid’ than Henry but it’s clear from the start that she simply needs to love and be loved; then love will transform her. The story was born to serve that purpose and effect that change. So even as Frances Hodgson Burnett substantiates the temper that might alienate, she ensures our sympathy in the first chapter and its title, There is No One Left. Thus she is signalling the outcome, and the momentum gathered by events relies on its anticipation. It’s a contract between writer and reader, generated by goodwill towards children and a belief in the positive role stories can play in their psychological development. Continue reading

On fronted adverbial openers… for a start!

VCOP displayIn schools around the country children are being misled. The habits they’re acquiring as writers may tick a whole row of boxes but in my opinion they distort the English language and crush youthful creativity. Let me add at once, however, that I do NOT blame the teachers. The stylistic tricks they’re obliged to teach children to turn are not, of course, their idea. After all, in today’s education system ideas are a luxury teachers are rarely allowed. No, these specifications have been identified and handed down from Mount Assessment by the all-knowing, all-powerful god of data. Like all pronouncements from above, these ‘skills’ must be demonstrated on paper if boxes are to be ticked as required – by schools forced to compete in the name of education. But authors like me, who believe more passionately than most in the joy, power and beauty of words, are dismayed by the results. That dreaded ‘system’ is training kids to write in a way that’s unnatural, stilted and excessive. It drains the light and colour, humanity and energy from the language and leaves behind a kind of elaborately decorated scaffolding where there could have been ripples on water or a bird in flight. The objectives and levelling criteria, along with the teaching tools designed to match, are misguided. They’re destructive of spirit and individuality, and as a visiting author I’m sometimes horrified by the damage they do. Continue reading

We are one and we are many


I was on the London Climate March yesterday and in spite of terrible weather, it was the most enjoyable demonstration of my adult life. Of course there’s always a deeply encouraging sense of solidarity after living at times with a desperate sense of crying in the wilderness. It’s rather like feeling isolated and vulnerable as a woman without any hair until you attend a conference with Alopecia UK and at once the crying makes way for laughter. Yesterday’s crucial expression of fear and hope as world leaders gather at COP21 – to decide whether they’re prepared to take action to ensure our survival on this earth – had the warm, generous spirit of a carnival. It was a riot but only of colour, and all around me I enjoyed the fruits of creativity. Even before the sea of people parted for Greenpeace to glide through, with a polar bear in an Arctic habitat on wheels and snow to fly through the rain and wind, the costumes made me smile. There was a hat sprouting wind turbines, a tree on wheels, a dragon, a few angels and a Dalek warning about the extinction of the human race. Continue reading

From Strictly to Middlemarch – in a few smooth moves?


Strictly puzzles my mother. Or rather, it’s my love for it that she can’t explain, because I was raised with Quakerish values incompatible with strutting one’s stuff in sequins. The implication is that as a serious Green who rejects competitive materialism I shouldn’t be indulging in anything so frivolous or excessive. Well, yes. But it’s fun. And there’s much in this show that’s positive in a cruel world. What do I enjoy most? Well, firstly the dancing. My husband Leslie Tate and I used to be regulars at Sadler’s Wells until we became too creaky for late nights in London, so we’ve seen some great and varied shows, some of them wildly original but all of them using highly-trained performers demonstrating skill and artistry. The Strictly professionals are fine dancers too, and in order to win votes they’re obliged to deliver new moves like Gleb’s for Unchained Melody and stylistic fusions like Kevin’s hip-hop Samba. But it’s the group dances at the start of the results show, and the duets that rescue lame pop performances, that Leslie and I look forward to most. Whether the genre is Busby Berkeley with synchronised swimming or a narrative of modern love stories, the professionals don’t disappoint. And as a bonus, they become characters in a kind of engaging drama.

There’s something very warm about Strictly. Every year the contestants talk about the family they become, the encouragement they give each other and the close friendships that can develop between teacher and pupil. And yes, I know dance can lead to dangerous intimacy between those not free to Tango, but as a romantic I do enjoy it when I believe someone may be falling in love with his or her partner (I won’t say who in this series, but I will say that I’ve been proved right in the past). Even Craig’s apparently mean criticism of the weak celebrities’ performances, such as calling the valiantly committed Jeremy Vine ‘a stork struck by lightning’, is only a kind of panto, with judge and contestant getting on famously backstage and in the bar. It’s a far cry from X-Factor’s demolition of the wannabe Whitney or Adele who is told she can’t sing or is too ugly to be allowed to do so. Contestants like our Jeremy simply jump at the challenge of learning something new and the chance to be a part of a bright, exciting experience. And like teachers ourselves we celebrate their progress, which in some cases amounts to transformation.

It’s not deep and some celebs struggle – understandably, on live TV – to find new insights or fresh vocabulary to explain their feelings about the dance-off or the difficulties of the jive. Clichés abound. But in this household we find Claudia at her craziest, ad-libbing best funnier than most stand-ups, and the show generates memorable moments not unlike the Blue Peter elephant – usually involving Bruno. The question here is how, you may ask, I intend to link the BBC’s flagship light entertainment show to writing….

With typically imaginative ingenuity, Leslie used to incorporate the Strictly judges into his talks on what makes a great novel, because they look for different things: Bruno for passion, Craig for daring originality and Len for technique that’s faithful to tradition. Now we have Darcey, who values what she represents – grace and poise. Leslie’s proposition was that the greatest novels, like the best choreography and performance, incorporate all of this and more. But perhaps it’s easier to identify particular authors who fit each element than anyone who scores a ten from each perspective. But I could attempt to argue that George Eliot’s Middlemarch achieves it all. Open the book at any page for evidence of Darcey’s beautifully elegant lines. See F. R. Leavis for an analysis of its greatness within the context of Len’s literary canon. My case for Craig’s inventiveness and a hint of Bruno’s full-blooded sensuality may be harder to make but I’ll begin with the latter, citing Dorothea’s awakening through art in Italy and the intensity of her consuming feelings for Ladislaw when she thinks he’s dallying with Rosamond. George (Marian Evans) was herself a passionate woman and while she idealises her heroine (arguably the more virtuous self she herself aimed, as a girl, to become) she gives her flesh and blood and emotions that are hard to control as well as goodness. This brings me to the demands of Craig, which constitute in writing terms a distinctive, vivid voice that’s new – and in Middlemarch in particular my favourite author meets them. Her asides to the reader, her philosophising passages on society and human nature may not be to twenty-first century taste but in her writing she is fully herself, all heart and intellect and sharp wisdom. And as for daring ambition, she constructs a microcosm of middle-England peopled by characters of many classes and attitudes, connecting them with a plot that surprises (Bulstrode) and moves us. It’s a virtuoso performance. I doubt whether any novel could ever earn the perfect score, but as Len would say, if Middlemarch doesn’t make the final, I’ll… pickle my walnuts?

My kind of improvised expressive dancing - to raise money for Alopecia UK over four hours non-stop.
My kind of improvised expressive dancing – to raise money for Alopecia UK over four hours non-stop. Pic by Anita Epstein. The Strictly dance I’d love to do at sixty next birthday is the Rumba… slowly.

Death: the biggest theme of all?

candle card

Postcard image by Paula Fairlie O.S.B

I’d like to think it’s number two, after romantic love. But given the prevalence of crime fiction and dark, corpse-strewn fantasy, I’m not sure I could make a case. At the other end of our timeline, birth is bigger outside the novel than within it; it rarely translates onto the page with the same emotional force or compelling physicality. That’s with the exception perhaps, in Anna Karenina, of Levin’s profoundly honest observation of Kitty’s pregnancy, labour and delivery – which is plagued throughout by fear, in any case, that death may steal the scene. And in The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels it does, with the most fiercely detailed portrait of a miscarriage (and I had three) I’ve ever read. Death is the biggest drama we know, and of course Shakespeare worked it to the max with few key characters surviving to the final curtain. In EastEnders now, affairs and secrets aren’t enough and murder most foul has become obligatory to keep the ratings healthy. But at the same time, in real life we find it hard to be direct about the commonplace tragedies we face when someone we love ‘passes on’ or is ‘lost’. There’s a big difference, of course, between death as a crime to be solved and that very ordinary painful experience we share in bereavement. Poetry rarely touches on the first but habitually explores the second. In the kind of novels I like to write, whether for adults, children or teens, authentically routine death is often there – a shock, a waiting game, a bruise to be healed, a bond that can’t be severed. And even here and now, I notice the vocabulary it seems to require, because of its power over us. Continue reading

Coming your way? Author on tour!

Sue 2With my author husband, Leslie Tate, I’m experiencing something new. We’re on tour! A year ago, when GORILLA DREAMS came out for children, illustrator Mary Casserley and I signed at a few Waterstone’s stores, but this time the tour is rather more extensive (into 2016) and varied, and it’s a novel for grown-ups I’m launching, like my other half of #authorsinlove. This is the Purple Tour and so far, with the fourth event tonight, it’s been a five-day whirlwind. But let’s be clear. Forget U2 and their private plane, or even an imaginary band of ambitious part-timers sleeping in a van on autobahns (with associated wild behaviour). Think intimate, passionate and (overlooking the odd verbal flourish from Leslie) civilised. Remember small is beautiful. Continue reading

Woman: body and soul

better Huff Post mag pic

Image: Huffington Post, censored!

Now that I’m spending more of my life waiting in hospitals, I always have my Kindle with me. But sometimes I’ve found myself drawn to the magazines I never buy. I’m a woman after all so I must be the audience the editorial team have in mind?? I may not have hair but I like clothes to be colourful, imaginative fun; I admire actors and musicians if their talent contributes to my life; I enjoy eating. But I don’t live just to consume or to make an appearance in the world. And any boy flicking through pages like these would grow up assuming that females are helplessly materialistic and insecure, and pitifully self-absorbed. Continue reading

Music: the only proof?

adagioQ What’s the connection between: Barber’s Adagio, Tavener and Bach, Onward Christian Soldiers and Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, OK Computer, Stayin’ Alive and In the Bleak Midwinter?

A: They’re all mentioned in my adult novel FLASHBACK AND PURPLE – where of course, every one of these pieces is personal. But in a sense the music that defines the novel appears near the end, because the book is set in 2013, which felt at the time as if it would always be the year Mandela died. So my book tour events may begin with the very moving tribute to Madiba by the Soweto Choir in a South African supermarket, where shoppers are surprised, stilled and uplifted by soaring song. Some stories are generational sagas stretching over decades but my novel begins in October and ends at Christmas. My themes are time, change and connections. For my central characters, lives are unexpectedly redirected and redefined over this short autumn period, and the open ending asks readers to imagine what a new year will mean for each of them. Continue reading

Camera-shy in the Age of the Selfie

Mikaela whitePhotos are everywhere. More than ever they document our movements. They illustrate ideas and make points. We’re all photographers now, but does being at ease with the selfie, however impromptu, convict us of vanity or suggest healthy self-acceptance? Is the individual who never posts such a photo a heroic non-conformist existing on a higher plane, or secretly engaged in a struggle with her physical identity? It seems to me there are rules, or limits, even outside the Passport Office regulations which require the subject to look humourless if not dangerous. On Facebook we have to be seen to be having FUN, but there’s a difference between the ‘night out’ photo – with friends, red eyes and wide mouths – and the solo nightclub pose (with pout) by daylight. That difference may apply both in the intention of the model and in the response of the viewer, scrolling down in pyjamas, who won’t know that intention for sure but may ascribe one anyway. We live in a highly competitive society and had I been born into the selfie generation this habit would not have enhanced my self-image. Once I reached about seven or eight, I began to HATE photos, attempting to hide at the back of any group if there was no escape. Once developed these photographs, however occasional and whatever the cause of the celebration, were not something I wanted to see or be seen. Continue reading

The subject: happiness in school










When, in my previous life as a primary school teacher, I met parents a few weeks into the school year, I’d begin each consultation with a question and a hope: “Is he/she happy?” Happiness is essential to learning, and for many years as a teacher I was ridiculously contented in my work. Children can be challenging in many ways, but they’re curious and enthusiastic individuals, wonderfully open to ideas and experiences. When I began teaching back in 1978, my job was simply to share with them my knowledge, expertise and passion – as I saw fit, in the light of four years of study and practice, recognising their different needs and all the while learning myself through experience. I remember, for example, deciding to spend half a term exploring FIRE, and the excitement I felt as I began a growing spidergram of ideas across time, continents and disciplines. What would yours look like: 1666, volcanoes, cave men, Stravinsky’s Firebird, the local Fire Brigade, autumn leaves, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a candle clock? This approach wouldn’t suit every teacher but it made my role enormously creative, and my head teacher was happy as long as the children were learning and developing – happily.

Everything in school has changed, again and again, and each initiative and requirement has further eroded creative freedom. New buzzwords make way each year for newer terminology and long before I stopped teaching it was getting in the way. I recall the anxiety of a student observing my Y4 poetry lesson and pointing out, “You didn’t say what the objective is.” “Ah,” I said, “it’s for them to enjoy poetry – reading it and writing it.” And they did. When required to complete feedback forms, my classes always named Literacy among their favourite lessons – just as in the next-door classroom, they loved P.E. best and learned sporting skills I couldn’t offer. If as adults we think about the best teacher we ever had, it’s the one who made learning fun because he or she had such fun teaching us.

Am I a dinosaur groaning from my swamp at the enlightenment of progress? I don’t think so. I may not keep up with each new method or acronym, but since I gave up teaching in 08 I’ve visited 500 schools as an author and listened to thousands of teachers. And I have the feeling that in many staff rooms, the idea of weekly Happiness lessons will be received with something like exasperation. Not because teachers don’t value happiness, but because successive governments have spent the last twenty years undermining the very wellbeing these lessons would aim to nurture. In fact an obsession with ‘achievement’ as measured by highly competitive data has created the stress cited by Lord Darzi. Teachers are exhausted and demoralised by it and children, even in Key Stage One, sometimes feel it. Continue reading

Written in Britain: beyond patriotism

Edith CavellThe memorial to Edith Cavell (“Patriotism is not enough”) at St. Martin’s Place, London UK, by sculptor Sir George Frampton, R.A., P.R.B.S.

Someone asked on Facebook, “Why is it bad to love your country?” It made me think about my belief that patriotism can be a deeply negative force in a big, damaged world. Like religion – a particular way to love God (and I write as a religious person) – a love of country can motivate racism and war. For me, the only love worth living embraces, not divides. On a diverse planet we’re in trouble if we can’t respect difference and learn from others, recognising the importance of understanding through knowledge and connection, rather than judging or opposing those who don’t share our beliefs or life experience. As a reader and author, I love the English language and every great writer who has used it, skilfully and creatively, to shed light on our humanity: from Shakespeare to George Eliot, Ted Hughes and the wonderful Carole Shields (who was Canadian). I cherish the British countryside, holidaying in the UK – but for environmental reasons because flying adds so much carbon to the atmosphere. I was taught my nation’s history (not all of it uplifting) so I’ve dramatized the familiar in three of my four historical novels. And yes, I tend to write about my home country in the contemporary books, not just because I’ve been immersed in it for fifty-nine years, but because as I no longer fly, I can’t go abroad in order to recreate a country on the page. START, a novel about climate crisis, had to depend on research, and photographs I aimed to translate with multi-sensory imagination. Continue reading

Not very FAQ

Sue at Loreto

Thank you to the students at Astley Cooper School in Hemel Hempstead for surprising me with these interesting questions.

Why do you always wear red?

Firstly, if this was a court of law and that was a crime I’d plead that I don’t absolutely always. But yes, it’s true that even if I wear black I’ll add red or multi-coloured accessories. It’s also true that I didn’t wear as much red before I lost my hair. I think subconsciously it’s a bold (as opposed to bald) statement, a show of confidence. As a colour red is exciting too and I do find writing thrilling. Red is powerful, like stories.

How do you feel when someone criticises your work?

I’m glad to say it rarely happens. My writing has been praised by Michael Morpurgo and Beverley Knight, a professor at the University of the West Indies, teachers, psychologists, artists, musicians and librarians, and a few other writers too. But yes, negative comments hurt – deeply, because writing is very personal even when nothing in the story has ever happened to me. I’ve learned, though, that you can’t please everyone. We have different tastes and enthusiasms and that’s part of what makes us all unique individuals. As a writer I need self-belief but I also need to be very analytical about my own work. Being self-critical helps me improve.

How would you describe your writing in three words?

Deep, powerful and inventive – I hope! That’s more of a goal than a description.

What is the earliest memory you have of writing?

When I was in Year 2 or 3 my teacher set us a task: to write a story over a few weeks, trying to fill a notebook rather than a page. It was a competition with a prize and I was determined to win. I can’t remember what my story was about but I do remember drawing horses in the illustrations although my teacher may not have known what they were! I won, and it confirmed for me that writing was what I do best as well as what I love best.

What do you enjoy most about writing your novels?

1. The excitement of having a good idea before I begin. 2. Getting to know my characters. 3. The joy when the story rolls out as if I’m not controlling it, just recording it. 4. Thinking of original imagery that really works or rereading a sentence that has power or music. 5. Laughing out loud or crying at something I’ve written. 6. The triumph of writing the last sentence and being happy with the whole. 7. The thrill of holding a new book in my hand once it’s published. 8. Hearing that someone loved it.

Do you prefer writing for children (as you only have two adult novels and 21 for kids or teens)?

I don’t prefer it but it’s very different. My second adult novel, out in October, is about 90,000 words long so that’s quite a commitment. Writing for young children is fun; I can be playful and make myself laugh. Adults are a very critical audience, and often limit themselves to whatever kind of story they’ve decided is for them, but children are more open to trying different genres. I began a third, real-world adult novel just after finishing a primary age fantasy and I like that variety.

Which book most inspired you to become a writer?

As a child, THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a teacher, WHY THE WHALES CAME by Morpurgo. As a reader, the work of George Eliot and Carole Shields. And I wrote POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCES, where the action takes place over 12 hours, because I so admire MRS DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf.

Did Alopecia ruin your life?

Fifteen years ago I might have said yes. Now I call it a problem that became a gift. People find it tough because although it’s not an illness it undermines self-esteem. As a young woman I felt less feminine and attractive because we expect females to present in a certain way and society judges by appearance. It was also a shock. I had a new identity and for many years I felt I must keep my bald self a secret so I wore wigs and hoped I fooled the world. This meant I was living in fear of discovery. But things began to change when I used my experience in a story – THE WATERHOUSE GIRL – and when it was finally published I felt confident and happy enough to go bareheaded. As Ambassador for Alopecia UK I can support people young and old who are struggling as I used to, and my two alopecia books (there’s a sequel now, CRAZY DAISE) make a difference to the lives of people with hair loss because they don’t feel alone any more when they meet Daisy. These novels also teach readers with hair that it’s not easy to be different but it’s OK and we all deserve respect and understanding. That’s the power of stories! Any experience that’s difficult can make us braver and stronger and now I wouldn’t take any miracle cure even if there was one, because I don’t need hair to be happy, or to be me. All we need is love!

Peoples Book Prize