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Lockdown Children’s LitFest

This week I was delighted to take part in Catherine Millar’s brilliant Lockdown Children’s Litfest. You can listen to her live-streamed interview with me above – be warned, it’s a rather long one, but I really enjoyed Catherine’s thoughtful questions and taking part in such a wide-ranging chat.

Do check out the Facebook page for lots more intereviews with children’s authors and illustrators, and look out for more interviews coming each week.

The Midnight Peacock cover reveal! Plus an interview with illustrator Karl James Mountford

I am so thrilled to share with you the cover of the fourth book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series! Behold the loveliness that is The Midnight Peacock:

Midnight peacock back cover

As with The Painted Dragon, the cover art is the work of the super-talented Karl James Mountford who has also created the fabulous interior illustrations for the book. Karl worked with Egmont’s senior fiction designer Laura Bird on the book’s artwork.

I think I’ve probably said this for each new book in the series, but I really think this is my favourite cover yet. The combination of rich purple and silver foiling is so sumptuous, and it’s lovely to see Sinclair’s itself on the cover for the final book in the series, and to peep inside its windows once again!

What’s more, the cover perfectly captures the atmosphere of The Midnight Peacock, which is set at Christmas and is a wintery mystery – I love the silvery icicles, the swirling frost, and the hints of festive decorations we can glimpse in the windows. It also conveys all the opulent splendour of Mr Sinclair’s magnficent New Year’s Eve Ball, which has such an important part to play in this story.

You can find out a bit more about the book (as well as enjoying some more of Karl’s wonderful illustrations) on the back cover:

Midnight peacock back

I’m really fascinated by Karl’s creative process as an illustrator, and wanted to know more about how he creates artworks like those for Midnight Peacock – not to mention other books like The Uncommoners by Jennifer Bell, his peep-inside fairytale books or picture book The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth.

With this in mind, I asked Karl if I could interview him about his work, and about illustrating Midnight Peacock in particular. He was kind enough to agree and also to share some of his work-in-progress. Here’s what we talked about…

KW: Can you tell me a bit about  your creative process when illustrating a book? Where do you start? How do you go about creating a book cover, and what are the key things to think about?

KJM: It starts with the brief from the art director/designer from the publishing house. I tend to get a proof of the manuscript with chapters or text highlighted for reference and study. But the first thing I do is make my own list of all the illustrations needed for the project and make really rough tiny sketches before even researching. Book covers are my favourite type of illustration work, so I automatically want to do best by the author’s imagination. With the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I get sent a template of the design and I doodle on that to get the ball rolling. The key thing is to read, whether it’s the full story or character description and the brief. ‘The more you know’ as they say!

Can you talk about what tools you use – do you work digitally, or with paints etc?

I draw/sketch everything in my sketch books or loose paper to figure things out; once the design/illustrations have been given the ok, I then scan them into the computer and use photoshop to colour them up and fine-tune. I use a lot of textures like paint marks or scrap paper to make digital brushes.

What’s your workspace like?

At the minute, it’s a bit of a mess (I’m moving studios).

Who are your favourite children’s book illustrators?

Shaun Tan is without a doubt the best in my opinion. Maurice Sendak also, not just for his artwork but because he was honest in his storytelling for kids – it all gets a bit safe these days. And there is a huge number of current illustrators who are also incredible of course, but those two are my personal heroes.

Is there a children’s book you’d especially love to illustrate?

I’d love to illustrate His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, like a special edition type of deal, they are some of my favourite books. I’ve thought about this before – I’d make screen print covers with limited colour palettes.

What advice would you give someone interested in getting into book illustration?

Erm… it’s tough getting into book illustration, not an overnight thing for sure, so don’t worry about rejection – it’s just something that happens. I’d suggest you make work you love because you love it so. Start with your favourite books, redesign the cover, illustrate chapters etc, but do it because it interests you. And be a little tough on yourself, ask yourself ‘Does this look like something I want to pick up off the shelf?’ and above all – stick at it.

Let’s talk a bit about The Midnight Peacock! The book is set in winter: how did you get the wintry effects on the cover? I’ve heard that snow is particularly tricky in illustration – did you find this?

Yeah, snow can be tricky, especially when the colour palette is singular. I used light purples against darker ones with a textured ‘speckled’ brush, I went for a frosty look/feel on The Midnight Peacock because the typical trick for snow is to add it on the sills of windows but with this series the windows are key to front of the book and I didn’t want to lose the details of the action in the windows, covered by snow.


final character designs small

Final character designs for The Midnight Peacock


I love the way each window has its own cast of characters, and tells a story of its own – which window would you most like to eavesdrop beside?

I think the top left, the one with Lil on the moon. I’d have a few drinks and enjoy the party.

What was the most difficult aspect of this cover to get right? How do you test the effects of foiling?

The most difficult aspect of this cover was the design of the Sinclair’s building, since book one already featured the front of the department store (by illustrator extraordinaire Júlia Sardà). I didn’t want to just copy the existing design, so I used it as a template and changed a few details so it feels respectful to the original but it’s got my own stamp on it. I don’t actually test the foiling, the good folks at Egmont and Art Director/Designer Laura Bird are in charge of that. I do have to keep all the ‘foiled’ aspects on separate layers when illustrating the covers though.

roughs of cover plus colour testRoughs of The Midnight Peacock cover plus colour test


How much did the design change from your roughs to the final artwork?

Not much really, a few details and positioning of characters. I think the biggest change was on the back, as I’d drawn chimneys and windows in the bottom left-hand corner, but with the barcode added on, it would have looked a little off. So we replaced it with a brick wall to frame the existing covers.

How do you choose which scene to depict on a cover (front and back)?

With the Sinclair’s books, the team at Egmont send me a really detailed brief of what they think will work best for the overall cover.

final book designs smallFinal book designs for The Midnight Peacock


I love the incidental details – the poster for water on the wall of the building the gang are scaling, the lamppost, the trays of tiny canapés, the brooches and hatpins. How did you research the visual look of 1909 – are there any period sources you found particularly helpful for those details?

I used the brief’s details to research items of the time. I went to the library and got a few books out on ladies’ fashions of the 1900s; and some of the stuff I just googled, particularly the invitations and newspapers of the era.

At the end of The Painted Dragon, we see an illustration of Sophie and Lil for the first time, and in this book we see the whole gang – is it challenging depicting the main characters in a book? I love how the physical stance of each figure in that final image is so true to their character!

It can be difficult, as you want to do justice to the author’s imagination. But you can’t really pick the brain of the author in this type of work, which is a shame. I do get sent the manuscript of the books so I can research and read the story – it helps massively to read the book as you can really build an idea of the characters. Although I avoided the manuscript as much as possible this time, because I’m invested in the story and want to find out how it all ends as its reader rather than illustrator!

development of characters smallDevelopment of characters


It was a thrill to spot ‘KW’ on the spine of the books in the library – are there any other hidden details you could tell us about – or at least give us a clue as to what we might look for?

Yeah, in that one particular illustration, some of the books have spines with titles of the previous books’ creatures on them: a bird, moth and dragon. There is also an open sketch book with a drawing of the main character Sophie in it. I leave sentimental rubbish in all my work sometimes – for instance, the date on one of the newspapers is my Dad’s birthday. Just daft things like that.

details on small illustrations smallDetails on small illustrations


I also love the Indian pattern at the bottom of Miss Pennyfeather’s letter – it feels like just the kind of stationery a colonial lady would use. Was it based on a real-life artefact?

It was a last-minute decision on my part – the decorative part of the letter was already in place, but we had to rejig the lettering so it read in a certain way. I was flicking through the text-heavy illustrations and just thought it would be nice to add the elephant motif so it keeps your eyes interested. I researched ‘decorative writing paper’ – a lot of it back then was heavily decorated, especially if you were ‘well to do’.

These books involve lots of letters in different hand-writing, flyers and business cards – do you enjoy working out different typographical effects? Again, I love how each is done so exactly in the character of the letter’s author.

It’s one of my favourite things about this job, I’m not just illustrating it but designing things too. I actually hand-wrote a lot of the letters with a fountain pen/ calligraphy set…it took forever but I think/hope it adds an authencity to it. It’s pretty hard to write out of your regular handwriting style continuously, so for some of the letters I used a font.

lettering and design smallLettering and design


What have you enjoyed most about illustrating the Sinclair’s Mysteries? Do you have a favourite character to illustrate or a favourite illustration?

I’ve enjoyed reading the stories a lot, it makes it really special to illustrate once you’ve read it. I think I enjoyed the mix of illustrating and designing. My favourite character…I think it might be Billy…or Lil.

Finally, thank you for your illustration of quite the most lavish teatime spread – which cake is your favourite, and shall we split one?

Oh, I think we should! It’s gonna sound lame but I really like carrot cake at the minute.

Thank you so much Karl for a totally fascinating insight into the process of creating your amazing artwork! Find out lots more about Karl and his work on his website here.

The Midnight Peacock is published on 5 October and you can pre-order a copy now from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon.





Interview with Sally Gardner: Winner of the 2013 Carnegie Medal



This interview was first published on the Book Trust website

Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Medal. I talked to her about winning this prestigious prize.

‘I really was amazingly surprised that it was published at all,’ confesses author Sally Gardner, of her Carnegie-winning book Maggot Moon. ‘I thought I had gone over the bar with it.’

Maggot Moon is certainly a powerful and unusual story: the tale of unlikely young hero Standish, who stands up to a sinister dictatorship whilst around him, his friends and family ‘disappear’. Dark, chilling and hard-hitting, the Carnegie judges described it as ‘a powerful depiction of an utterly convincing and frightening dystopia… a real tour de force, without a hint of sentimentality.’

Since it’s publication last autumn as one of the first titles from new children’s publisher Hot Key Books, Maggot Moon has been a phenomenal success, receiving widespread acclaim from reviewers, and scooping the children’s category of the Costa Book Awards. Yet Gardner is still taken aback by the book’s runaway success. ‘I really can’t believe it,’ she says, of joining a list of previous Carnegie winners that includes such greats as Noel Streatfeild, Arthur Ransome and CS Lewis. ‘I’m so thrilled. I always feel very insecure [as a writer] and this is the biggest endorsement you could have. It’s such a strong shortlist too: I looked at it, and I thought “that’s it, then – I won’t win.” I’m still slightly in shock.’

Gardner is not perhaps someone who grew up aspiring to win one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes. She attended numerous schools as a child, and was branded as ‘unteachable’ before eventually being diagnosed at the age of 12 as being severely dyslexic. Today, Gardner is an avid spokesperson for dyslexia, which she sees as a gift, not a learning disability.  Both her dyslexia and her background in visual arts – at 18 she won a scholarship to St. Martin’s Central School of Art – have profoundly influenced her writing: ‘When I see a story, I see it all in images. It’s usually wordless. Only when I start writing do I give it that layer,’ she explains.

After her time at St Martin’s, where she received a First Class degree, she went on to become a successful theatre designer and then an opera costume designer. Her time in theatre was particularly instructive: ‘It was the most stunning university to go to,’ she explains. ‘There’s nothing like seeing a play die, or seeing an audience get bored. I worked up north at Newcastle and I did a lot with a company called Stagecoach who took shows off to mining communities, where they’d never seen theatre before. If you had a bad show, you didn’t make it past bingo. I think lots more writers should see that happen: it makes you understand when you’re doing well with a story, and when you’re going to lose people.’

Gardner published her first book in 1993, beginning an impressive career as both writer and illustrator. Her first full-length novel, I, Coriander won the Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award in 2005, and her next novel, The Red Necklace, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.  This year, she is unusual in having not one, but two books in the running for the Carnegie Medal – her young adult novel The Double Shadow also made the longlist.

Maggot Moon definitely has a relationship with The Double Shadow,’ Gardner explains. ‘I had done so much research into the history [of World War II] when I was writing The Double Shadow, and I became really fascinated by what happened in the Battle of Britain. Really, what saved London was not so much the unbearable bravery of its people, which is undeniable, but that the wind changed and Goering didn’t send over the last of the bomber boys – much to Hitler’s utter, utter fury. There’s no doubt in my mind – though I’m sure other people would disagree, because it’s one of those great arguments you can have as a historian – that London could have been a Dresden, but we were saved by the wind changing. The question I really wanted to ask is: if it hadn’t changed, if Goering did send over those bombers, would we finally have given up? And if we had capitulated, would we have been as bad as other countries? My sense of it was yes, we would have been.’

When Gardner first started writing Maggot Moon, it was more closely related to the events of World War II, but she later decided to make it deliberately less specific and more open-ended. ‘I realised that all these wars are universal stories of struggle. It sounds really pompous – and I don’t want to be pompous – but I wanted it to be a story about any conflict, in any part of the world.’

Asked about why she thinks this book has captured so many readers, Gardner suggests that it’s hero Standish that is really the key: ‘I think it’s Standish’s voice that makes it stand out. It’s really like how I think, so I thought it might not be up anyone else’s street. I just wrote him as he came – I never thought he was dyslexic, I just thought he saw the world like I see the world. I think it’s about using very simple language to convey, underneath, very complex ideas. It has a sort of lullaby quality, like a nursery rhyme. The language stays light and simple, but actually what he’s saying is dark and profoundly difficult.’ Gardner adds: ‘there’s this thing that happens sometimes with books – they hit the moment. And I think I’ve just been immensely lucky to have hit the moment with Maggot Moon.’

Although the book has frequently been described as a dystopia, Gardner herself doesn’t see it as such. ‘I see it as a sort of “what if?” history,’ she explains. ‘I see it as a question. But it does have what a lot of dystopias have at their heart – fairy story. It’s about going into the dark, dark wood. It doesn’t have a happy ever after.’

For Gardner, the book is ultimately about making readers think: ‘I wanted it to be a story about how we must be vigilant, and ask questions, and not accept lies… A kid at a school asked me if there’s a message in the book, and I said: “NO! There’s absolutely no message at all!” You can smell messages a mile off. I don’t want the book to give you a message: I want you to do the thinking.’

Asking provocative questions is central to Gardner’s conception of what young adult writing should be. ‘For me, with YA, the “Y” stands for “why are you doing this?” and the “A” is for “attempted answer. Adults often think they know the answers, but with young adults, it’s about asking the questions, and looking for different possibilities.’

At the announcement event at the National History Museum, Gardner gave a passionate and inspiring speech about the importance of such opportunities to ask questions and think imaginatively within education. She explains: ‘I’d like to see us not testing children into failure. I’m sick to death of it. Our greatest resource is the imagination of our young people, and we seem to crush it before it even begins to flower. I find that so heartbreaking. I believe teachers and librarians should be free to instill a life-long love of learning without being policed by an outdated curriculum.’

Gardner is hugely enthusiastic about the role of the Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme in providing such opportunities for imagination and debate amongst young readers. The scheme sees children in schools all over the country read the shortlisted books, following the judging process. ‘It’s amazing – utterly gobsmacking,’ she says. ‘My book is like Marmite, which I love – some of the reviews say “I loathe this book! It’s stupid…” or others “I love this book!”

She admits that she was at first worried that many of the children said they were confused by the story, but ultimately came to feel that provoking discussion could only be a positive outcome. ‘A boy came up to me and said “I’ve been arguing with my friend about the end – I think there should be a sequel, but he says there can’t be, because they’re dead,”’ she relates with relish. ‘”And I don’t think they are, and I want to know which of us is right. You could put an end to this argument because you wrote the book.” I said: “I can’t put an end to your argument. It’s up to you to work out what happened, not me to tell you.” And he went: “Oh Miss! We’re going to be going round forever, then!”’

Having won the Carnegie Medal, what is next for Sally Gardner? ‘I’ve got another book coming out in November with Orion, called Tinder,’ she tells me. ‘It’si’m based on the Hans Christian Andersen Tinder Box story, but it’s young adult. It’s being illustrated by David Roberts, with wonderful, dark drawings. I’m also doing two more books in the Wings and Co series and I’m going to do another book for Hot Key – I’m keeping quiet about it at the moment, but I’m very excited about it. It isn’t anything like Maggot Moon, but then hopefully I’ve never done a repeat of something I’ve done before. I always want to create something new.’

Interview with Levi Pinfold: Winner of the 2013 Kate Greenaway Medal


This interview was first published on the Book Trust website

Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. I spoke to Levi about how it feels to win this prestigious prize.

‘I’m feeling great!’ Even though we’re only talking on the phone, it’s impossible to miss the fact that Levi Pinfold has a beaming smile on his face. He’s been named the 2013 winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, which recognises excellence in illustration, for his second picture book Black Dog,  joining a list of winning illustrators that include Sir Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Shirley Hughes and Anthony Browne, to name but a few.

‘It’s a real honour,’ Pinfold tells me. ‘It’s a hugely personal thing for me. I worked for a very long year on Black Dog and it was very hard work – but very rewarding. It’s just amazing for someone to tell me that it’s good. It’s a real honour to be listed alongside all those fantastic illustrators… it’s really quite humbling.’

Pinfold takes a characteristically modest attitude to his book, which the judges identified as a ‘true modern classic’ that ‘will be read and enjoyed by generations to come.’ ‘I usually tend to downplay my work a little bit,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve looked at it for so long, but I hope maybe the judges could see the commitment that I put into it, and how hard I think about things…. You do put a lot of your personal feelings into books – subconsciously, it just trickles in there.’

Black Dog, which Pinfold wrote and illustrated, is story of a little girl called Small Hope who faces fear head-on in the form of a monstrous giant black dog – but she soon realises that it isn’t quite as frightening as everyone else seems to think.  Pinfold explains: ‘I wanted to write a ghost story: a spooky story for kids, with a gothic element. I was sitting in the library, reading a book about the spectral hounds of England, and I found this legend of the black dog, which is a recurrent myth in different counties of England, although in different areas it’s called different things. Usually it was this horrible thing that appears on the moors, and if you see it, something terrible will happen to you. Then I discovered one in Somerset that’s just called the “Gurt Dog” and the description was “he is a nice dog”. I thought that was quite a funny idea, and then I thought “what if he’s just been misunderstood in these other places? Maybe he’s just a lonely dog, wandering around.”’ His next book will also put a new spin on traditional legends. ‘I’m working on a book which should be out next year, which is about vegetables! It sounds very simple, but it’s actually about the Green Man myth, putting a little twist on the legend, and using those symbols in a new way.’

It is Pinfold’s distinctive illustrations which really set Black Dog apart – the Greenaway judges described as a ‘visual treat, full of mood and atmosphere’. Talking about his approach to illustration, he explains: ‘I take a long-term view of illustration and painting. I like to look at very old stuff as well as the most contemporary work. I’m hugely influenced by people like Brueghel as well as people like Shaun Tan and Anthony Browne – I have a very wide sphere of influence’. Thinking about why his style differs from that of many other contemporary picture book creators, he ponders: ‘I think perhaps the other thing is that I spend a lot of time locked up painting, so I don’t spend a lot of time going out and meeting other illustrators, so I don’t tend to get influenced by them. I just love painting and I love children’s books.’

Creating the beautiful, richly-detailed spreads in his picture books is something of a labour of love for Pinfold. ‘My process of creating illustrations is quite lengthy,’ he explains. ‘As for a lot of illustrators, it tends to begin in sketch form, then you produce a fairly detailed rough for your publisher. After that, what I do is I paint the illustration by hand. In Black Dog I used tempera – a kind of old-fashioned paint where you mix egg yolk with pigment. You layer up your painting over weeks. I don’t get bored… when I’m painting, when I’m exploring that world that I’m creating, that’s the moment when I think “this is what I’m meant to be doing”. I’m looking through the piece of paper, looking into it, and that’s what I enjoy.’ Thinking about this for a moment, he adds:  ‘It’s a nightmare for my publisher, I imagine – I’m busy “exploring the interior space” and they just want a book!’

Pinfold is not a newcomer to winning accolades for his work: Black Dog has already been awarded the Children’s Book Award in the AOI Illustration Awards 2013. His first picture book The Django won a Booktrust Early Years Award for Best Emerging Illustrator in 2010 and in the following year he was selected as one of ten Booktrust Best New Illustrators.  ‘It can be tremendously difficult when you’re starting out as an illustrator and trying to make a mark, and it really helped with awareness of my work, and the relationship with my publisher,’ he reflects. ‘Plus I got to meet the other illustrators – it’s great to see them doing stuff now. Winning those two awards was incredible for me. It’s been a wild ride ever since.’

Pinfold is using his Kate Greenaway Medal win as an opportunity to celebrate libraries and librarians across the country. ‘I’m honoured that my work has been recognised by CILIP on behalf of librarians, for whom I have nothing but respect. I am always amazed at the passion for reading, looking and understanding that libraries inspire in everyone. The availability of a whole universe of knowledge and inspiration in one place is something highly underrated, as is the importance of encouraging minds, young and old, on the pathway to discovery. I think we all have a lot to learn from libraries.’

Julie Mayhew interview: Piecing together the jigsaw

mayhew-julie-cropThis interview was originally published on the Book Trust website

I talked  to the multi-talented Julie Mayhew – actress, writer of plays and short stories, and now novelist  – about her debut book for young adults, Red Ink

‘Novels are like jigsaw puzzles. You have all these bits and pieces, and they suddenly start joining together, and you can’t work out where it all came from.’

I’ve come to meet Julie Mayhew at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted, where in just a short time she’ll be celebrating the launch of her first novel, Red Ink, with a crowd of friends, fellow authors and publishing folk – not to mention a bit of Greek music and dancing and a melon-flavoured cocktail or two.

This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with Mayhew’s book – the story of 15-year-old Melon Fouraki, who has been raised on her mother’s magical stories of her halcyon childhood in Crete. When her mother is suddenly run down by a London bus, Melon is left suddenly alone in the world. Struggling to cope with her loss, Melon begins to confront her own childhood memories, and her quest to discover the truth takes her back to Crete, where she soon realises that the cherished family myths may not be all that she has been led to believe.

Challenging, uncompromising, and already attracting praise from critics, there’s no doubt Red Ink is a distinctly different young adult novel, so I’m keen to know how the idea came about.  Mayhew explains: ‘The first spark for Red Ink came when I was in Crete. There was a truck in front of us with melons piled in a pyramid. There was no tarpaulin, and we were driving behind for ages thinking: “how aren’t those melons falling?”

‘Then, I was doing a writing course, and the teacher made us do this exercise where you wrote in a spiral. He told us to write down the first word that came into our heads, and weirdly, I wrote “melon” – I don’t know whether it was connected. I wrote the scene where Melon is trying on bras in M&S and her mum is having a cigarette in the changing room, and it became the second piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

‘I didn’t do anything with it for ages. The real spur was having my first son, and it made me think again about what it is to be a parent. You always think your own mum and dad are perfect: they do no wrong and almost they aren’t human. Then when you have your own children, you realise parents are utterly flawed and can make horrendous mistakes. That was what I was interested in – looking at that from both sides.  Melon thinks her mum is just a nightmare, but actually Maria is doing her best in a bad situation, although it’s sometimes a bit misjudged.’

Central to Red Ink is ‘The Story’ – Melon’s mother’s semi-magical, mythological tales of the Fourakis family in Crete: ‘I’m really fascinated by the stories in families that get told time and time again. Details get changed, or slightly exaggerated. But does it matter if we tell the truth? I’m fascinated by that: is it even possible to tell the truth, or can you only tell your truth, your version?

Writing the book called for a return to Crete to research the island and its traditions, although Mayhew acknowledges that this process had its pitfalls: ‘I wanted to put in lots of things that I had found out, but I ended up editing it a lot, because I realised I had forgotten to tell the story: the book was becoming a postcard from me about my trip to Greece. But there were some lovely things I found out about, like the root stock tree which is half lemons and half oranges. I even read a book about melon farming, so the descriptions of the bugs that attack the melons are accurate.’

Ultimately though, research was only part of the picture. ‘I embellished lots of things. For a while I got wrapped up in the truth, but then I realised that “The Story” could be a kind of fairy-tale, and that was much more liberating.’

Mayhew readily admits that she had not originally envisaged Red Ink as being aimed at young adults, although it has a 15-year-old narrator. ‘I saw it as an adult book when I was writing it, but I can see that it crosses over…  It’s interesting what makes a book “young adult” and what makes it “adult”. When I was a teenager, I actually read a lot of adult books because when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be talked down to. I read Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High too, but it was all very light and fluffy – if you wanted anything with grit or substance, you had to look elsewhere. I read a lot of Stephen King, and found all the dark, psychological stuff fascinating. I read Margaret Atwood as well – she had a really strong sense of what it was to be a woman that wasn’t just about chasing boys.’

Deciding that the book would be for young adults, however, did not limit the story, which deals with some difficult subjects and is shot through with black comedy. ‘I wrote about whatever I felt needed to happen. It does go to dark places, but it’s not written in a very direct way and it’s dealt with lyrically – you could almost pass over it and not know it’s happened at all. I’m not trying to shock.’

She thinks that her next book, Mother Tongue, will be for adults, although she admits that ‘my publisher is trying to persuade me that it might be “new adult”’. Like Red Ink, the book has a young female narrator and sets out to explore the limits of truth and fiction, but it is also primarily about language. ‘The main character can speak three languages by the end of the book, and it’s about how when you can’t express things in your language, they don’t really exist, because if you don’t talk about things, it’s almost as if they don’t exist anymore.’

Whilst Red Ink draws on Greek traditions, Mother Tongue has an 18-year-old Russian girl at its centre:

Red Ink had to be set in Greece, because Greece is all about myths and the islands have a fairy-tale quality. History goes back forever there.  This book is about not speaking about things, and I was interested in the idea that in Russia you could get in trouble for saying the wrong thing or for speaking when you shouldn’t. There’s a lack of expression, a cold front that I don’t think is really coldness: it’s just a cultural difference – you don’t go round grinning at strangers there. That fitted the story, which is all about keeping things in.’

Writing this novel has required a very different kind of research:  ‘I’ve got books and books of Russian idioms, and I’ve also been collecting untranslatable words – phrases for things like “being happy about beauty” that we don’t have a word for in English. There are lots of Russian words that are completely untranslatable. My character is also fascinated by proverbs, especially Yiddish proverbs. I’ve been trying to teach myself Russian too, but it’s hard – I’ve just about taught myself the numbers one to ten, but the Cyrillic alphabet is so difficult.’

Mayhew is very definitely a writer of many talents: having originally trained as a journalist, she went on to work as an actor, and to write critically-acclaimed plays, radio dramas and short stories before writing Red Ink. However, it’s clear that these different elements of her work are closely interconnected: ‘I became a journalist realising I wanted to write, but it didn’t feel quite right. Then I was acting and that didn’t feel quite right either. I realised that it’s quite nice being someone else, but when you’re acting, you don’t get to choose who you are. When you’re writing, you can choose to go and be someone else – it’s all consuming. At the moment, in my head I’m an 18-year-old Russian girl. You find yourself acting the part. ’ Her experience of writing plays and short stories also feeds into her novels. ‘I like each chapter to be a “scene” – you can see it happen and there’s a resolution. Each one is a self-contained story.’

Asked about the advice she would give to aspiring writers, Mayhew is very clear: ‘You only get better if you keep doing it. You become a more astute writer as you go. You can procrastinate so much, but in the end you just have to do it. I’m guilty of it myself, but I know if you just do it – even if you write rubbish – it’s good compost for something else to grow from. You go back to it later, and it’s got something in it, even if it’s just a little nugget – the first piece of the jigsaw.’