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The International Writers Magazine:

The Beverely Birch Interview
Aby Davis

Zadie Smith author of White Teeth once said in an interview ‘I write so I won’t sleep walk through my entire life’ , and it has stuck with me ever since. It is easy to find life a sleep walk, especially for students of creative writing such as myself. 9am starts are hated in my bedroom. Hazy eyed, scruffy haired with half a cereal bar inside me, stumbling onto the road, hitting my shins on the bike pedals and eventually turning up at a lecture....for third year Sports Science, is all part of my life’s crumpled tapestry.

So finding myself sitting in front of a woman with 43 books in her name and the power to make and break young writers dreams is rather humbling. Author of Rift, a mysterious tale of lost persons and hidden treasures, Beverly Birch is the one of the most prominent editors at Hodder Children’s books. Writers who have flourished under her company’s umbrella include author of the marvellous Skellig, David Almond and cute fairy writer Emma Thomson of the Felicity Wishes range. Publishing is a difficult world to understand from the outside. How difficult can it be to get a book published after all? J.K.Rowling did it and she makes millions! But talking to Ms Birch makes me soon realise there’s more to books than trains and coffee shops and a leaky biro.

What happened to J.K.Rowling ‘is a very peculiar story’ she says ‘and will never be repeated’.
Bad news for those hoping to make a quick buck, and even the Senior Commissioning Editor of Hodder is bereft to explain what made the world go Harry mad. I ask her about Rift, a book well received by adults and children alike. Set in Africa, four children and a journalist, Charley, go missing from a school camp based on Chomlaya Rocks. Charley’s sister Ella arrives to aid the tenacious Inspector Murothi in his investigation, and together with previously missing Joe (who has unhelpfully lost his memory) they start to piece together the puzzle. Ella knows Joe and his friends were looking for something, but what?

The Africa Beverly Birch writes of is real, vivid and beautiful. The archaeological aspect, she says, was born from genuine interest. Born in South Africa, she holds the continent close to her heart and describes strolling the landscape as a "mysterious sensation of walking across some kind of life." The conservation trusts she writes about in Rift are based on real organisations and she feels it’s important to offer this alternative view of Africa to British youngsters.

It would be easy for any child switching on the news to assume all that happens in Africa is based on corruption and violence. Birch insists she chose to include "characters who respond on a human level to each other’" to create a ‘humane’ image of the country in an alive and exciting way.

Personally, I am a sucker for a good story, and it was easy to forget that this writer I scribbled notes about was also a tough talking business woman. "You can’t sustain life as a writer" she says, and I am slammed back to reality again.

The scary fact she tells me, is that in a recent Society of Authors survey, 85% of writers earn less than the minimum wage. Jacqueline Wilson wrote 17 unsuccessful books before hitting a nerve with The story of Tracy Beaker in 1991, and Northern Lights was certainly not Philip Pullmans debut. To be a children’s writer, she says, you need to have a story, you need to "write the book you want to write! Don’t write for the market, write for the children....and enjoy it".

I went through the list in my head, check...check,check,check. But that ‘s not enough she says. "Whatever you write has a short life span, you’re writing for an impatient audience and you need to make sure it’s essential they finish the book." Birch is currently taking a seven week break from her publishing role to work on her next book. Despite this, she says, there are 7 stacks of manuscripts waiting for her in her office. One of them will have to be special to catch her eye, "be bold, and write a more visible book with an edge.....things have to happen.....the fault in a lot of manuscripts is that there are long stretches of speculative action as opposed to action itself."

There used to be a time when parents bought suitable books for their little ones, I, myself was raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and hated Little Women with a passion because my mum told me I should read it. But the times are changing, and the children born into a literary world of wizards, suitcase kids and Dust have never been more discerning. A brief meeting with a Real Grown Up with Real Books is enough to make any budding children’s writer chew her hair and snap all her pencils, but as Beverly Birch says "do it because you want to write!" Find the spark, the "heart of your story" and write it like you mean it. Children’s publishing pays less than adult’s, and if the money comes it could be fleeting, but it’s worth a shot. Birch quotes the much loved writer Anne Fine who said " people who write unsuccessfully think children are stupid rather than just small" and her novel Rift is proof she’s taken this idea to heart.

For writers seriously intending on making it, she suggests serious study time with children themselves. Have a tea party with your little sister, climb a tree with your cousin, find out what they like and why they like it. "The mix of magic and boarding schools was done before," she says of Harry Potter, but there’s obviously something special in his messy black hair and goofy circular glasses. Perhaps all that’s in the next best seller is an old story and a new box of pencils.
Aby Davis April 2008

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