Q&A with Carnegie Winner, Geraldine McCaughrean
CILIP: Your first Carnegie Medal winner, A Pack of Lies (Oxford University Press) starts off with a great library scene – although libraries and librarians don’t come out of very well! Were you surprised that librarian judges liked it, and was it a stereotypical view?
Geraldine McCaughrean: Goodness! That’s a long time ago – not just the 30 years since I wrote it but, as I wrote, me remembering way back to my own 14-year-old self when the local library was indeed austere, shushy and lived up to the stereotypes. Even today, I feel MCC Berkshire might have been evicted. But that first chapter could explain why one judge at least plainly did not vote for the book.
Has the view changed? Oh yes. Now the public are just grateful to have a library, and librarians are looked on as Roland at Roncevaux, holding off the powers of darkness for as long as fate allows. Next time I depict a librarian, I’ll dress her in full armour and maybe give her a horse.
CILIP: As an author do you get the information you want from libraries about how your books are chosen and used? And how significant a role do public libraries play in the commercial success of authors?
Geraldine McCaughrean: No, I can’t say I know how my books are chosen. I can tell from PLR statements that the picture books see more trade than novels – but common sense would have told me that.
I remember how, shiny cheeked with pride, I tried offering a copy of my newly published adult book to my local library, ha! ha! It was not welcomed.
I suppose that if publishers study PLR figures, it may help them know who and what ‘sells’. But it might only tell them what they already know – that David Walliams and Philippa Gregory are pretty popular.
CILIP: Do you ever get any information from Amazon or other commercial organisations about the sales of your books, or the relationships between your books and their online clients?
Geraldine McCaughrean: When Where the World Ends won the Carnegie, my PR lady kept me informed, as we rushed hither and yon, of its progress up the ratings thingy, and the effect on sales in all the different categories. A thrilling kind of ego-trip. When I won the American Printz Award with The White Darkness, I could ‘watch’ the progress of dawn across the US from East coast to West, as librarians woke, read the news and placed orders. Weirdly amazing.
Who is doing the buying is easily worked out from the online reviews ... from which I can deduce that adults buy my books and give them to their kids (who often like them less than the adults did.)
CILIP: With reports that author earnings are falling, is there a role for libraries in finding/supporting local authors or should that be left to the publishing industry?
Geraldine McCaughrean: If you left it to the publishers, you’d die waiting.
Low-earning authors – these days frequently vilely termed ‘B-list’ authors - would certainly benefit from ‘events’. The less you sell, the less PR is lavished on you, and so your buying public shrinks: it’s a very vicious circle. There is an increasingly deep pool forming of very good authors who do excellent ”schtick” but whose books haven’t been sold hard enough. ...But this all feels very patronising and distasteful coming from someone who’s still keeping her head above water.
Chiefly I would like to bury Nielsen BookScan in a lead-lined coffin 100ft underground, because it is the cause of great suffering. An author ‘let go’ by his or her publisher is far worse off than any unpublished would-be author with no track record at all. They can be looked up on Nielsen and discounted, like some broken-winded racehorse... unless they write under a different name, like some ex-con donning a pseudonym. And why? Because the sales of their last book dipped?
My editor-guru once told me that an author’s best novel is rarely their first or second, but something around their fifth or sixth – for the very obvious reason that people get better as they go along. You have to nurture an author if they’re going to flower. Never judge a book by its cover. Never judge an author by their Nielsen statistics, only their next book.
CILIP: Could libraries and authors be more creative in presentations/events at libraries? In an interview with CILIP, Sir Nicholas Serota said: “One of the big changes in museums and galleries... has been that artists are much more engaged in how their work is presented... Writers have probably been less engaged in the development of libraries than they might be, but may be they haven’t been asked in the same terms.”
Do you agree?
Geraldine McCaughrean: I don’t find it easy to compare writers with artists (other than illustrators, naturally). Artists can paint – even sculpt - in libraries. Watching a writer write would be neither exciting, nor informative, nor conducive to good writing. I can think of authors who can wield a samurai sword, walk a tightrope or set a story to music. Some can extemporise – create site-specific story right there, in front of your eyes. (An audience and I have done it with the jelly fish downpour that struck Bath once.) I’ve taken a play into three Warwickshire libraries and, although rehearsing it on site was a bit fraught, it was well attended. That was the library’s initiative – a competition with the winner receiving funding to pay the actors.
I was also approached by Margate Theatre Royal about writing a book in praise of Margate, Past and Present, and its people. Copies of The Positively Final Performance were given to schoolchildren and they in turn created plays out of some of the incidents in the book. The library really got behind that.
I can envisage community writing working - where the clients contribute their experiences/ dreams/imaginary worlds/funny stories and an author knits them into story form.... (Personally, I need a great deal of preparation time to be spontaneous!) And I can well picture a future in which scenes or settings from a book will be created in hologram form and allow children to enter the Kingdom of the Emperor of Absurdia or a pet shop of Pullman daemons.... Libraries would be the ideal setting for that.
CILIP: Are there any interesting trends in children’s story telling over the last three decades? (In Where the World Ends the subject matter seems darker and more real than A Pack of Lies – so for example, have storylines become darker and more realistic?) If so, any idea why these trends may have occurred?
Geraldine McCaughrean: Oh EVERYTHING is darker and grimmer and more horrifying and sorrowful.... Generally, life persuades us of that as we age, and we look back on our youth as somewhere the sun always shone, even if you were heartbroken by the loss of Velveteen Rabbit or Mr Chips leaving the school or Bambi’s mother dying. Step back and it seems a VERY odd thing we are doing now – telling a whole generation that the world’s gone to hell in a handcart, and everybody dies in the end anyway, so mend that if you can, kiddoes.
There’s lots more fantasy – but still a lot of it grim and super-realistic.
Lately, there’s an emphasis on relevance to the here and now with all its woes.
And there are the bans, of course – on appropriation and sexual stereotyping and the like. Lately I wake up thinking “that’s not what books used to do". They used to take you somewhere away from the blights of childhood: insignificance, shyness, homework, sisters, boredom – to adventures and marvellous places, heroics, friends, magic, The Past, fun, laughter and the inevitable happy ending. That’s a pretty wonderful gift to impart to anyone, after all. If we manage, in our earnestness, to convince children that the game’s already lost and that their elders have ruined the world, isn’t there’s a risk that, instead of invigorated them with a missionary zeal to save the world from all its ills and bring forth an age of smiling eco-brotherhood, we may just leave them cynical, Last-Days-hedonistic, scared, despairing, suicidal?
Teenagers are odd. They always were: marooned in an emotional minefield, smelling odd, thinking dirty, hating and loving things so much it hurts; frequently out of control, and agonizingly inarticulate, incomprehensible even to themselves... Some of them, I mean. Some of them. It was the best of times; more often the worst. Now in our efforts to catch the spirit of the age-group, are we rushing to serve them up platefuls of what we think they crave? Or are we just trying to get them to save the planet from war, plastic and slavery because we never have?
In the middle of the night, I ask myself: if I’d read most present-day (teen) fiction when I was a teen, what would it have done for me? I think the girl I was then would have given up on books and stuck with imagining.
So, I’m slightly inclined to eschew Miserable, for a while at least.
CILIP: You have won a number of prizes and been nominated many times. What role do competitions play in the industry and in getting books in front of audiences? Are they more important than they should be in the lives of authors?
Geraldine McCaughrean: Prizes are hugely important – for reasons good and bad.
Some authors (not least me) suffer self-doubt. Might this latest book of mine bomb? Be worthless? derisory? the last? A prize says, ‘We liked it. No, honest, we did. Look, here’s a medal to prove it. Write another one, won’t you?’ Phew! Affirmation. My baby behaved well in company – didn’t disgrace me - made itself agreeable. And the affirmation comes from children’s librarians. It is difficult to think of a group of people whose good opinion I value more, and whose year-round association with books makes them the arbiters of what constitutes a good children’s book.
Another reason – important, but a little scummy – is that the book will be stocked, will sell, will bring in some money; might be made into a film; might mean people recognize my name on a book. Perhaps my publisher might think of reprinting some out-of-print books if they can put "Double Carnegie Winner" on the covers!
But what good does that do my fellow authors? Not a lot. It narrows focus on to prize-winning books. It increases their coverage on Amazon to the detriment of those books two clicks farther on and just as good. It puts them in shop windows, thereby excluding others.... And ‘good’ is such a matter of taste when it comes to books, isn’t it? In any shortlist, all the books are likely to be worth reading. All of them can’t win, but not winning won’t make them any the less worth reading.
Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Shadowing is a true boon to children-who-read, though. It sets in front of them 6, 7, 8 titles they might never otherwise have picked up, so they’ll maybe discover a new author, a new genre, a broader spectrum of reading. It asks their opinion instead of telling them what to think of a book, which English Literature courses, working in the shadow of exams, are almost obliged to do. The Amnesty CILIP Honour (which applies different criteria to authors and illustrators already in the Carnegie Kate Greenaway shortlists) has added an extra element, too, challenging readers to make moral judgements about with the world around them and exercising their powers of empathy.
Prizes imply that books matter: they must do to command such excitement and hugs, bouquets and news coverage... Books aren’t just something your aunt gives you at Christmas because she doesn’t know your chest size or taste in music; not something for nannies and nerds because they can’t manage gaming, X-box, Snapchat, or don’t have any friends.
Oh, and they’re not written by dead people. Who knew? (I didn’t, when I first visited a library.)
CILIP: Are there any other issues you would like to highlight in relation to the publishing industry?
Geraldine McCaughrean: Not right now. Not after the press coverage of the Carnegie made me sound like a rabid hound biting the hands off those who feed me – even, extraordinarily, off those lovely CILIP people who had just given me a bunch of cash and a gold medal and fulfilled a 30-year-old hope. “Author slams Judges.” I ask you! So in case anyone out there read that and thought “ungrateful cow”, I would like to quote what I actually said:
One thing makes me happier than anything else today ... It’s the impression I get from the whole shortlist – that the gloomy prophecies haven’t come true. Research has been saying for years that ‘literary children’s books’ will soon be as extinct as the dinosaurs. But look! The Carnegie says that we’re still allowed to use interesting vocabulary and architectural sentences and parcel up our stories as stylishly as possible and not be banished for it.
Stac Lee off St Kilda, Credit: DJB / Stac Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0
CILIP: Where the World Ends is set in St Kilda and was based on a true story. Did you ever go there and how did you find and research the story?
Geraldine McCaughrean: I never went to St Kilda. My daughter did, and came home rhapsodic about its anecdotes, atmosphere and rugged beauty. I snaffled one of her anecdotes – a scrap of history blown down the centuries in the shape of two little sentences. And I started there. Many, many books have been published about Kilda and its history*. It is a Scottish obsession, prized like some national icon. So, the facts were easily come by. And Usborne, scrupulous to a fault, brought in ornithological and regional experts to vet my work. But there has been little written about the place in the way of fiction for young people. Whatever happened on that sea stac during the course of nine brutal months remains unrecorded and therefore as welcome to an author of fiction as a blank notebook and a pen.
*The Life and Death of St Kilda (Harperpress) – Tom Steel
The Truth about St Kilda – an Islander’s Memoir (Birlinn) - Donald John Gillies
Island on the edge of the world (Canongate) - Charles Maclean
Look out for nominations for the 2019 CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Awards
opening this September