Category Archives: People We Like

Living (rooms) through history

Following on from Becca’s brilliant blog yesterday about history’s personal stories (and great dressing up!), the museum I’ve chosen to blog about also has a somewhat domestic setting.

As much as I’m obsessed with personal stories through history, I’m also extremely nosy when it comes to houses (who isn’t?) and I’m a sucker for a historic house to wander round. Seeing through the keyholes of houses through history has always fascinated me. How did people live without electricity? What was a parlour used for? What would it have been like to have a bath in a tin in the kitchen? No central heating? Please! Domestic history, for me, is almost more interesting than the big events.

So imagine my delight, when a few years ago I realised I had a wonder of a museum that allowed me to indulge my obsession, right on my doorstep, and see front rooms through history of everyday people like us.

Exterior of the Geffrye Museum - photography Richard Davies

Exterior of the Geffrye Museum – photography Richard Davies

The Geffrye Museum is (perhaps) a little-known museum in London, mainly because, until recently, it wasn’t part of the tourist trail. It is in East London, just down from Dalston and I used to peer at the building from the bus on an almost daily basis, never having been in, but when I finally did, it instantly became one of my favourite places.

By entering the building from one end, you start your journey from the 1630s “hall”, transition though to various “parlours” up to 1790, then into the “drawing room” and finally into the “living room” up to 1998. You see how furniture, decoration, wallpaper, art and even entertainment has changed in our front rooms and how the space has gone from being formal and private to being relaxed and social, also referenced in the evolving of the name more towards the “lounge”.

When I first visited it was December, and I was delighted to find that they had set each room up as it would have been for Christmas – showing the first room where Christmas trees had become widespread, leading right up to the tinsel period. I remember being inspired by the 1965 room with paper chains, and promptly went home and adopted a similar look in my own living room.

Who remembers this look?

Who remembers this look?

What I love about this museum, is that it is showing normal lives, normal people, and how we are all, without realising it, part of history. The 60s room triggered memories of my own grandparents’ front room, of furniture that had then passed down to my parents, which in its time was the “height of fashion” – and then became part of my family history. And then, mirrored in a museum. How many other people had that table, that unit, that lampshade? How many other families shared the same memory of this particular “look” for their living room? It felt like a living museum, a shared history, telling a story through the most simple of things, the room in our houses that we now perhaps take most for granted.

I think it’s apt that I wrote this post last night, while staying with family and sitting in their living room (we are waiting to move into our own). With the TV on, a few us with feet up on the sofa, reading papers, being on phones and laptops. And I can’t help but think how many years until the living room setting I describe becomes part of history and we maybe adopt some other set up, or use for this familiar room. Who knows? And that’s why history and museums can be so exciting, as I’m already thinking, when will the Geffrye add a new room? What is the next living room marker deemed historic?

East London living room, circa 2013. (With cat included)

East London living room, circa 2013. (With cat included)

So, I urge you to make the trip East if you are in London and haven’t discovered this place yet. I hope you come away as inspired as I continue to be by this special little (totally free) museum about our very ordinary front rooms.

Here Comes Trouble (with Mummies)!

Jasen Booton’s group of voracious young readers have done it again! They put Fleur Hitchcock’s TROUBLE WITH MUMMIES under the microscope and have come up with this fantastic review:

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Bologna 2013: Thinking about design…

Spotted: This stunning Brazilian cover

Spotted: This stunning Brazilian cover

Bologna Book Fair is a wonderful showcase of beautiful design. From Pre-School and Board Books up to New Adult, the books here are presented to showcase the best work of their publishers.

There are classics like the Miffy books for babies and toddlers, rubbing shoulders with new and challenging jackets for young adults like Asylum by Madeleine Roux to be published by HarperCollins.

Classic iconic design

Classic iconic design

Asylum

Prepare to be lost in…

And along the way wonderful examples of design that mark out their publishers as brave and innovative.

The Big Picture list to be published by our sister company Templar was the talk of the fair with one French publisher telling me that it was one of only two things she had seen during the week that really excited her. Great praise from Gallimard.

Beautiful picture books coming soon from Big Picture Press

Beautiful picture books coming soon from Big Picture Press

Tara Books from India won the prestigious Bologna Prize – Best Publisher of the Year for Asia.  Up against stiff competition, notably Kalimat in UAE, they were triumphant because of their stunningly beautiful books and their international reputation built by the hugely talented Gita Wolf. Their books are available all over world and are consequently treasured by readers everywhere.

Beautiful Tara Books

Beautiful Tara Books

It is never too late to learn and after four days of looking at other people’s inspired and thoughtful designs you realize that we have to absorb ideas and influences from around the world. Not only from wonderful books but art, product design, shop signs, graffiti … The list can go on and on.

Bologna is a place which allows you to really open your eyes to different cultural approaches to visual representation. I know I am going to try to keep my eyes open.

Big or small, we’re all fangirls/fanboys at heart

NicoleHeadShotOur brilliant borrowed intern Nicole is leaving us today (sniffle), so we asked her to write one more blog about her experience with Hot Key and London.

My month in London is almost over and for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing my hardest not to look like a tourist anymore. I refuse to look at my tube map in public. Instead of waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green (because I still have no idea from which side I will be crushed if I cross on a red light), now, like a lemming, I follow the hordes when they storm the streets as soon as they deem it safe and hope there are enough people to the left and right of me that they get hit first if they overlooked a vehicle.

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I’ve even been brave enough to say “Yes, I do!” when asked if I would like some tea even though nobody ever specifies what kind of tea they’re actually going to get (I might have strategically placed some fruity infusion stuff at the office that probably doesn’t even count as real tea around these parts though before I said “yes” the first time).  And whenever I have no idea what people are actually saying to me…okay admittedly, I still stall and stare weirdly until my brain has caught up, which I’m pretty sure is neither very polite, nor does it make me look less like a tourist, but let’s move on.

Still, it took some time adjusting to the way things are, because a lot of things are just a little bit different here in England than they are in Germany. Not only do people drive on the wrong side of the street, even the little green guy in the pedestrian traffic lights is walking in the other direction. Rush hour is a whole different ballgame (I haven’t been this close to accidentally fondling someone on the train since I lived in New York, where…admittedly, that might not always have been as accidental as I said it was…) and I still don’t get why on earth one would have two separate faucets for hot and cold water (what if you want lukewarm??).

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But don’t get me wrong, when it comes to Hot Key, “different” is a good thing! For one, the probability of getting lost at the office here: preeeeeetty slim. At Carlsen, it’s a common sight to see new employees roaming the halls trying to look confident while actually having no idea how to get from A to B (Especially since we really enjoy switching offices in regular intervals. And because our stairwells are evil and never lead where you expect them to lead.).

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A few of the books I worked on projects for…

The phones ring a lot less here. Why? Because everybody’s so close by that you can actually go and talk to each other when you have a question. Having over 130 employees (and the aforementioned evil stairwells) at Carlsen, it’s often simply simpler to make a quick call than to venture to the other end of the building to realize the person you wanted to talk to isn’t even there (…or has moved to a different office).

When a manuscript comes in, everybody can read it and join the discussion about whether it fits the Hot Key lineup, no matter which department they’re from or what their position is. At Carlsen, we get several hundred unsolicited manuscripts a month, plus the ones our editors are actively pursuing. If everybody read everything AND had a say…let’s just say we’d probably never actually publish a book because we’d be too busy discussing them to ever get any actual work done.

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Hard at work, researching Victorian policing for THE QUIETNESS iBook.

Moreover, where everyone working at Carlsen has often more than a dozen regular meetings on their calendar each month, here at Hot Key there is one big production meeting once a week, where everybody sits together and discusses everything from new cover ideas to sales figures for every current and upcoming title. Which, admittedly, is a lot easier with 20 titles than it is with 5,000, though (not to mention the fact that we’d probably have a hard time fitting 130 people around a table).

And that’s basically the crux of it all: With 130 employees working on 700 new titles a year (plus a backlist of several thousand in-stock titles), you have to work a lot differently than you do with 20 people working on 50 titles, whether you want to or not.

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One last cup of tea and tiny cakes with the Hot Key Books and Red Lemon Press staff…

However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything in common! The printer NEVER works. There are the same emails about dirty dishes in the kitchen. When our server or our internet fails, we’re all just running around like chickens with our heads cut off. And there’s a seemingly endless supplies of snacks in the kitchen. But much more importantly, we all come to the office every day because we’re enthusiastic about writing and because we want to publish the best stories and the best authors out there. We want to inspire, excite and entertain the little and the not so little ones. Basically, we are all a bunch of geeky fangirls and fanboys ourselves, championing the tales we love and getting them out there for others to enjoy. And ultimately, that is the only thing that really matters.

Music to Our Ears: An Interview with The Bookshop Band

Do you ever read a book and think, wow, there should really be a theme song for this novel? Well, wonder no more, The Bookshop Band is here! This trio are making music out of great books — and doing it beautifully. But how do you boil down a 600 page novel into a three-minute song? We asked Ben Please, one of the members of The Bookshop Band, to give us a little insight into their process.

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The Bookshop Band, being attacked by all the books who want to be featured in their songs.

OK, this is a big question, but could you tell us a little about the process of translating books into songs?
Most of the books we write songs inspired by are handed to us by our local bookshop, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath. With the book, we get given the date on which the author will be coming in to talk. Armed with this deadline and the text, we then share the book round so we can read it, in time for a writing session a day or two before the event (and sometimes on the event day itself!). The session I imagine is a little like a book group, but where the output is a song or two. There is no set formula for how the book inspires the song – it could be the overall narrative, but more often than not it is an element; a character, a scene, a moment, a colour, a feeling etc… anything that we feel has resonated with us enough to inspire us to write a song. We find there is always something in a book that will stir a strong enough emotion in us to write a song.

What is the hardest thing about writing musical narrative?
I’m not sure our songs could be called a musical narrative in themselves. The inspiration certainly comes from the narrative and language of a book, but the songs take all sorts of shapes – mainly due to the huge spectrum of types of books that they come from, and the many ways in which a book can inspire you to write a song. But the hardest thing for us about the process is probably just trying to read the books in time – we’re all very slow readers! Once you’ve read the book, there’s inspiration for countless songs really, depending on the reader, so we find the actual songwriting exciting. Not easy, but it has it’s own momentum then, so you just let the songwriting process carry you through.

What is your favourite book-to-song translation that you’ve done so far?
One of the songs where we did take the narrative of the whole book and try and fit it to song was Mark Hodder’s steam punk novel ‘Burton and Swinburne and the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack’. We actually wrote three songs on this book. It’s a really great yarn, in Victorian style, except in this book, Queen Victoria has been accidentally shot and so it’s Albertian times now. All three songs came out like a musical, and one was called ‘The Ballad of Edward Oxford and Spring Heeled Jack‘. Really good fun to sing, especially as we wrote it for one of Mr Bs book customers to play at their Steam-Punk inspired Jubilee tea party.

What book would you love to translate into song?
We’d love to do some more children’s books. We all have fond memories of our first books, and they are always so visual. We’ve started being asked to come and do what we do in school assemblies and it’d be great to do some dedicated children / teen fiction stories. If i had to pick one right now it’d be Ferdinand the Bull, by Muno Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.

Do you start singing songs in your head while you read now?
Ha! Sometimes. Mostly not till after, as it’s nice just to read the book and just get lost in it, but sometimes they might spring up. When I was reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry I started humming the tune that we used in our song ‘How Not To Woo A Woman’.

What does the future look like for The Bookshop Band?
We’re just about to go into the studio to record the next two or three albums – we have 31 new songs to record, on top of the first four albums we did in our first year. (It’s all those deadlines from Mr Bs that makes us write so much). And then, from April, we’ll be off touring the UK and beyond. We actually start in Paris at Shakespeare and Co, and then go to Ireland for a ten day tour there, and then it’s off round all corners of the UK for the rest of the year. You can keep track at www.thebookshopband.co.uk (I’ll be adding the dates up there in the next couple of weeks).

Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
Writing songs in The Bookshop Band has been a revelation for us as songwriters. We have all spent, and continue to spend, time in bands writing songs, where there are no deadlines or constraints, and songwriting can take forever. I used to constantly double guess everything I did, wondering if it was any good or not. In The Bookshop Band, there is no time to worry about that. No time to second guess. No time to wonder if we could have written something better. You get an idea, you run with it, you finish the song and then perform it at 7pm that day, and then that is done. It’s out in the world and you can write another one. And far from being stressful, the process has always been really stress free, and dare I say it, fun.

Small things making it big (and gin!)

As a small company committed to producing only books we’re completely passionate about, it’s natural that we have a tendency to look out for other little guys around town.

There is something really special about discovering other ‘passion products’ – things that are built up by people who really care about what goes in, what comes out and the consumer experience. Recently, a few of us have had brilliant experiences with other companies who are doing really special things on a small scale but making a big impact!

Roaming around the backstreets of Hammersmith on a cold January night we could hardly believe that somewhere buried amongst the rows of neatly kept Victorian family homes with their straight hedges and polished letter boxes we would find a gin distillery. But indeed, knocking on the door of a seemingly tiny garage we were welcomed in to the tardis-like home of Sipsmith.

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I would very much like to give you a detailed run down of the history of gin, the ideas behind the project and the process by which a license was found and gin began to be produced. Unfortunately on being welcomed in, I was handed a gin and tonic that was exquisite in taste and high in proof, and I’m somewhat sketchy on the details. This much I can tell you – Sipsmith are the first company to receive a license to distil gin in London for over 200 years, and their ‘copper’ (the beautiful contraption named Prudence that distils the alcohol) is the only one like it in the world.

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Most impressive however were the people behind the project, and their passion for making beautiful things. At Sipsmith each batch is made by hand, with real ingredients and botanics – it is the only gin in the world made using the traditional ‘one-shot’ method rather than a concentrate. The result is an artisan product, one that takes time, energy and passion to create and as a result tastes all the better for it. Each glass was astonishing and the scents of almonds, chocolate, cherry and marzipan that wafted from the Sloe gin were quite wonderful. I am now determined to find a bottle to call my own! (and it is my birthday so… hint hint guys…).

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I was not the sole recipient of this incredible tour – I was also joined by my friend Natasha, the owner of a bespoke food business called Animal Vegetable Mineral. Coincidentally AVM are producing some very exciting treats to go with our SAVAGES mailing… but I won’t reveal the gory details. Natasha has made edible hair, bacon sandwiches, pineapple clouds and edible Antique prints. This is not run of the mill.

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When I told Amy O about my new found passion for the little guys she told me I had to check out Picco Salumi, a family run business dedicated to producing amazing salumi from the best British free range meats. When Amy last swung by she ended up sharing a plate of cheese, bread and meat with lots of local folk and even staying for dinner! It’s so reassuring that places like this still exist when every day a new Tesco’s or Starbucks sprouts from the ground like Bindweed.

Big companies are all very well – they churn out products that have been filtered, cleaned, filtered again, vacuum packed and sprayed down with disinfectant. They are clean, uniform, reliable…. And totally void of character, quirkiness, passion or love. Finding lovely people putting their souls into something special will make that thing all the better. It will be full of heart and love. It will probably make you live longer and grow taller (no scientific evidence on that one just yet….). Go into an indie bookshop and you will find someone who can rifle through towering piles of novels to pull out one just right for you. Log on to Amazon and a whirring machine somewhere in Switzerland can tell you that you definitely need fifteen different types of toaster even though you got one last week and you only accidentally searched for it….

Have you found any hidden gems? Any passion projects that are producing really beautiful things? Does anyone want to send me a bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin?

Book a gin tour here (@SipsmithSam)

Buy Salumi here (@piccosalumi)

Check out AVM curiosities here (@TashaMarks)

Buy HKB books here! (@hotkeybooks)

Storytelling in the graphic form, or why writing comics is the bomb

AdamChristopherHeadshotToday’s blog is a special guest post from Adam Christopher, a novelist and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winning editor. Adam is the author of EMPIRE STATE, SEVEN WONDERS and THE AGE ATOMIC. When not writing Adam can be found drinking tea and obsessing over comics and The Cure. You can follow him on Twitter here. We asked him to tell us a bit about what it’s like to tell a story through words AND pictures. You can read his response below and get an EXCLUSIVE, first-look at the art from his forthcoming graphic novel, THE SENTINEL.

Fair warning about what follows: I am no expert. In fact, I’m a total novice. An enthusiastic amateur, you might say.

I’m a writer, and a novelist first and foremost. I’ve got two books out with at least another three coming by 2014 from two different publishers. Novels are my job, and it’s a job I love.

But I also love comics. Comic books flip a switch somewhere in my brain that other types of writing don’t. Comics are, as they say, where it is at. But while I feel like I’ve been practicing for years and years in my head, writing comics is a totally new thing for me.

And I’m having the most fun ever.

Writing comics is a fascinating exercise. Although I’ve written the odd short story and novella, I find novels to be my preferred format – you can really get stuck into a story when you have 100,000 words to play with. Novels (and shorts and everything in between) are, most of the time, solo efforts, not counting all the editorial work that comes when you’ve got the book mostly done, which is a real team effort.

Of course, the beauty of prose fiction is that once you hand it over to the reader, what they see in their heads is totally different to what you, the writer, envisaged. And that’s the whole point. That’s why books are magical – there’s that direct person-to-person telepathy between writer and reader, as Stephen King once described it – but for everyone who reads the work, a completely new and different interpretation of the story and characters and plot and setting is created.

Comics are completely different, obviously. The combination of text and pictures works on different parts of the brain at the same time. They’re different to read, and they’re also very different to write.

When I wrote the first episode of The Sentinel, my forthcoming comic debut from VS Comics, I knew the comic script format like the back of my hand, having tinkered with various attempts in the past, more as practice than anything else, and I had worked out a detailed outline. But as I wrote, I just kept packing in the dialogue and exposition – I couldn’t help it, I’m a novelist! So the characters did a lot, and said a lot, and then usually said it again in a different way while also explaining what was going on. Again.

That first draft was long. Too long. I showed it to a friend of mine who has a long and glittering career in comics, and he kept glancing sideways at me with one eyebrow raised. Fortunately – as with my novels – I’m working with a great editor, Ned Hartley, who helped pare down the script and reminded me of the golden rule of comic writing: trust the artist.

Once I realized that I wasn’t in this alone, writing the script was an experience transformed. Comics show the reader the story in pictures and dialogue, and actually the art tells more of the story than you might realize, something that – comic fanatic as I am – didn’t really get a handle on until I started writing my own script.

See? Novice here, told you so.

So I trusted the artist – the wonderful Nadine Ashworth – and together we’ve crafted this thing, a story in words and pictures, my written script transformed into a living, breathing world filled with the characters I had imagined. As every page arrived, there was more to delight and, most importantly, surprise me. The telepathy here is going between the writer and the artist, and no matter what I put in the script or how much detail I use to describe a panel, the artist will come back with their take on it, inevitably different to what I saw in my own head when I wrote it.

The actual process is multistep. Here’s a rundown, using some panels from the first episode of The Sentinel.

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From my script, Nadine did a series of page thumbnails – while I indicated the number of panels per page, the actual page layout is up to the artist (unless there is a particular need for a specific layout), laying out the panels.

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Meanwhile, a couple of test panels were drawn, where the artist designed the characters and tried out the colour palette.

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Once everyone was happy, the page pencils were done (although Nadine works entirely digitally), followed by inks, followed by colour, each step checked in case any changes need to be made. Dialogue balloons and captions are added later by the letterer, once all the art is complete.

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And that’s it. Repeat for every page, every episode. The first run of The Sentinel is four six-page episodes, which, for a pulpy Prohibition-era urban fantasy featuring a dead detective, a cult that worships the New York subway system, and an evil force returning from Ancient Egypt, suits the story very well.

And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun, the most I’ve had writing. And I love writing novels, don’t get me wrong. But comics. Man, comics are it, baby.

I have much to learn and a long road to travel, but this is just the beginning.

The Sentinel, by Adam Christopher, with art by Nadine Ashworth, letters by Mike Stock, and edited by Ned Hartley, will debut in VS Comics #4, April 2013.