International Writers Magazine:
Beverely Birch Interview
Zadie Smith author
of White Teeth once said in an interview I write so I wont
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 lifes 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 Childrens
books. Writers who have flourished under her companys 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 theres
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. Charleys
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?
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 its 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
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 cant 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 childrens writer, she says,
you need to have a story, you need to "write the book you want
to write! Dont write for the market, write for the children....and
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, youre writing for an impatient audience and you need to
make sure its 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 childrens 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. Childrens publishing pays less than adults,
and if the money comes it could be fleeting, but its 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 shes 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 theres obviously something special
in his messy black hair and goofy circular glasses. Perhaps all thats
in the next best seller is an old story and a new box of pencils.
Davis April 2008
Interviewing Jon Courtney Grimwood
LifeStyles and Opinions
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