Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Barry Hutchison on writing The Unclaimed Girl

Award-winning author Barry Hutchison recently took part in our Elsewhere new writing project. You can read his stunning Elsewhere piece, The Unclaimed Girl, on our website.
We’re delighted to welcome Barry as guest-blogger for the day. Read on to find out how he approached the Elsewhere brief, and brought The Unclaimed Girl to life…

Fittingly, I had just moved house when I got the call asking me to take part in the ‘Elsewhere’ project.

I’d relocated my family from the Highlands of Scotland to a town just outside Edinburgh, and was feeling a bit like a fish out of water. I knew no-one, had no idea where anything was, and I was starting to wonder if we’d made completely the wrong decision.

So, when I was asked to take part, I knew I could put at least some of that to use. I just wasn’t quite sure how.

I went through a number of ideas, trying to pick one that excited me. My son had just started a new school, and I saw a potential story there. A new kid, making friends, getting to know new teachers...

There was potential there, but it felt too small, somehow. The short story format lends itself well to smaller, more intimate tales, but I wanted a stronger concept. I was already nervous. My first book was only published in February 2010, and I was being asked to contribute to a collection featuring some major international writing talent. A story about the first day at a new school wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed something bigger.

What if it was a new school in a new country? That was bigger. Suddenly you’re not just looking at a new school building, you’re potentially looking at an entirely different culture.

But, no. It still felt too “normal”, and normal isn’t something I’ve ever been particularly interested in. I scrapped the whole thing and tried coming up with some new ideas. My INVISIBLE FIENDS series features some pretty full-on horror, so there was a possibility of doing something in that genre, but something about that starting a new school idea kept dragging me back to it.

So, what if... What if...?

What if the character wasn’t just starting a new school, but they were staring a new school in the afterlife? What if they didn’t just have to adjust to new classmates, but they had to adjust to the fact they were dead?

I felt a buzz of excitement. The idea was definitely “bigger”, and it was certainly less “normal” than the plain old first day at school idea. I knew then that I’d found my story. A girl starting a new school in the afterlife – what could be more Elsewhere than that?

But, during the course of writing the story, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. Her prognosis was grim, and suddenly my thoughts on the afterlife became less abstract and more concrete.

Without planning it, the story changed. It was no longer about a girl starting a new school in the afterlife, it was about how it would feel to suddenly find yourself there, with no idea where “there” actually was. It was about coming to terms with death, when the death in question was your own.

I’m happy to report that since I wrote the story, my mum’s health has improved dramatically, much to everyone’s surprise. It appears that, despite all expectations, she wasn’t ready to make the train journey Imelda Brown makes in the story. Imelda is tough and stubborn – a survivor. My mum, it seems, is even more so.

Overall, I’m happy with the way THE UNCLAIMED GIRL turned out. I enjoy stories that imply a life for the characters beyond the tale’s boundaries, and I’m 100% sure that Imelda has a whole after-lifetime of adventures ahead of her there in the City of the Dead. Perhaps, one day, I’ll check up and see how’s she’s doing. I suspect, like my mum, she’ll be doing just fine!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Marcus Sedgwick talks about his Twitter Q&A

We spoke with Marcus Sedgwick after today's exhilarating Twitter Q&A. He talks a little bit about the experience and also tells us about his Elsewhere story, 'Archipelago'.


Marcus also discusses a few of his favourite questions from the Q&A. Here's the five he picked as the best. Each wins a signed copy of his 2011 Carnegie Medal shortlisted White Crow.

Transcript of Twitter Q&A with Marcus Sedgwick

Here's the Twitter transcript of our Q&A with Marcus Sedgwick on Saturday 2nd April.

Twitter Q&A today at 1200BST

Hi all. Just to remind you of today's splendid Twitter Q&A with award winning author Marcus Sedgwick. Today's event is all about celebrating the finale of our 'Elsewhere' new writing commissions - read Marcus's chilling contribution 'Archipelago'.

Tweet your questions for Marcus by adding the #askmarcus hashtag to your tweets. The best five questions will win a copy of Marcus's 2011 Carnegie Medal nominated White Crows. So - the countdown begins and get tweeting those fantastic questions. And don't forget the hashtag!

If you don't do Twitter, we've added a widget to the right which will display constant updates from today's Q&A. And, of course, many thanks to the Scottish Government Festivals Expo Fund for supporting this #ElsewhereStories project.

Friday, 1 April 2011

More from our Elsewhere authors

We spoke with Jackie Kay over the telephone to ask her about how she approached the challenge of writing about Elsewhere. She thought about picking a foreign place but nowhere seemed to be quite foreign enough. So she decided on death - it was certainly somewhere she had never been - and invented a place based on stages of bereavement and dying called "Elsewhere". Jackie wanted to have the opportunity to talk about death positively - and come up with fresh ideas about taboos concerning suicide. [Update] And now 'Kindred' is available to read!


Elizabeth Laird and David Almond talked about their Elsewhere stories last summer at their event in Charlotte Square. Elizabeth's story 'Red Wolves in the Mist' is about the wolves of Ethiopia who live in the high alpine regions. It was an area that was as about as far away as she could think of and she chose to write a non-fiction piece about one night with two British vets in that harsh African landscape. David's story 'Paper Boat, Paper Bird' came from an experience he had in Japan a few years ago where his daughter was given an origami bird on a bus. The memory of being given that bird lingered with him and he was delighted to explore it for this new writing commission.

Joan Lingard decided to write about a very vivid encounter she had with the idea of Elsewhere when she visited the Soviet Union for the very first time in 1989. Like Elizabeth Laird, she chose to write a non-fiction piece. 'Other Times, Other Places' intentionally keeps the name of the country hidden from the reader. Everything Joan experienced seemed to refer to other places and other times, infused with the sense of oppression from the Soviet Union. In many senses the country she visited does not exist anymore - and this is partly a feature of it being distanced by time but also reflects the political upheavals which all the countries of the former Soviet Union experienced.