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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.’

Lazy Sunday

Books and coffee

After a very busy few weeks, what could be nicer than a lazy Sunday to put my feet up, eat chocolate biscuits and catch up on some reading? Here are a few of the books I’ve been enjoying recently:

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff’s latest novel comes out in September, coinciding with the release of the film of her first book How I Live Now, which I’m just a tiny bit excited about. This is the story of twelve-year-old Mila, who notices things that other people don’t, and who finds herself accompanying her father on a strange journey through New York State in search of an old friend who has mysteriously disappeared. I love Mila’s narrative voice and this beautifully understated novel is Rosoff at her best. (It doesn’t hurt that it also features a really brilliant dog.)

The Poison Boy by Fletcher Moss

It’s not hard to see why Fletcher Moss won the Times/Chicken House fiction competition with this unusual children’s adventure story. Dalton Fly is a poison boy, whose job is to taste the food and drink of Highlions’ rich and powerful to identify any traces of poison planted by their enemies. But when a job goes wrong, Dalton is in danger, and soon finds himself joining with some unlikely allies to tangle with the city’s complex, unstable politics and warring factions. There’s plenty of action and suspense on offer but what I liked best was the richly imaginative and distinctive world that Moss has created.(As an aside, I also can’t help but like the fact that as his pen name  – at least I assume it’s a pen name –  he’s chosen the name of a park in Didsbury, Manchester, where I spent a lot of time running around as a child.)

After Iris by Natasha Farrant

There’s something reminiscent of Hilary McKay’s much-loved Casson family stories about this gentle, tender-hearted tale, told through a combination of diary entries and transcripts of videos shot by narrator Bluebell Gadsby on the camera she has been given for her thirteenth birthday. A moving and funny story about an eccentric family, this is an utterly delightful summer read: when I was twelve or thirteen, I would have adored it. This one comes out next month.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

I thought I was sick of YA dystopia until I read this – or rather until I heard Yancey talking to Lucy Mangan about it at an event at Penguin HQ, which I went along to earlier this week. This quote which Yancey cited, from Stephen Hawking, particularly intrigued me, especially as I’d just been reading Ghost Hawk (see below): ‘If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.’ I’m not usually quick to pick up an alien-invasion story, but I was genuinely gripped by this, and especially liked central character Cassie’s brilliantly sarcastic voice.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

This haunting debut novel, which is published next month, could not be much more different from The 5th Wave if it tried. Set in 1890s Malaysia, it’s the story of seventeen-year-old Li Lan, whose life with her father is dramatically altered when he returns home with an unexpected proposition. The wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son – the only problem is, he’s dead. Haunted by her would-be suitor, Li Lan is drawn into the Chinese afterlife – a strange world of paper funeral offerings, confusing bureaucracy and dangerous spirits with agendas of their own. A wonderfully atmospheric, magical, mystical young adult romance.

Follow Me Down by Tanya Byrne

I really enjoyed Byrne’s first book, the acclaimed Heart Shaped Bruise, but Follow Me Down is, if possible, even more compelling. A thriller set in an English boarding school (and so getting top marks from me straight away – my early obsessions with Malory Towers, St Clare’s and the Chalet School mean I can never resist a school story), it has a great central character in sophisticated New York emigré Adamma. Byrne is incredibly sharp-eyed about the complex ups and downs of adolescent friendships and relationships: I would have loved this when I was a teenager, and in fact it reminded me slightly of the kind of suspenseful novel I aspired to write in my early twenties (like this sort of thing, for example).

A few that aren’t in the picture (because I’ve already forced them onto other people and demanded that they read them immediately):

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell.

I adored this book: a delightful flit across the rooftops of Paris, in search of an elusive cello melody. Wistfully old-fashioned, with just the right amount of whimsy, Katherine Rundell’s second novel is a real charmer: I wish I had written it.

Railsea by China Mieville

One of the best books I’ve read this year, Railsea proves just how masterful China Mieville’s writing can be. At once a Marxist fable, an entertaining parody of Moby Dick, and a classic children’s adventure story, Mieville cites writers as diverse as Joan Aiken, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Spike Milligan as his inspirations for this brilliantly inventive fantasy. It’s difficult to do justice to it in a review so I will simply say: read it.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

A kind of companion volume to Wein’s acclaimed  Code Name Verity, this powerful Second World War novel tells the story of Rose, a young American Air Transport Auxiliary pilot and amateur poet. Captured by the Nazis and sent to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, she finds hope in horrific circumstances through her friendships with her fellow prisoners, and through her poetry. I’m a fairly hard-hearted reader: unless it’s Beth dying in Good Wives or Captain Jim crossing the bar in Anne’s House of Dreams, it’s rare for a book to make me cry, but this story of hope and triumph over adversity was one of the exceptions.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence were some of my most beloved children’s books, perhaps especially the first three: Over Sea Under Stone, The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch. Cooper’s latest novel is a complete departure from this tradition, but equally wonderful: a haunting, beautifully-written story of a young Native American, Little Hawk, and his relationship with John, the son of one of the early white settlers in America. This book strikes a marked contrast with the constant stream of action-packed, fast-paced children’s adventure stories that so often land on my desk, and is all the more powerful for it: I found it fascinating and enormously moving.

Next on my reading list? Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Molly Ringwald’s short stories, and Joan Aiken’s Felix trilogy which I’ve never read before but have recently come back into print thanks to Red Fox.

What have you read recently? Let me know any recommendations in the comments…

And the Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2013-2015 is…

Malorie Blackman at the announcement

Huge congratulations to the fantastic Malorie Blackman who has just been appointed as the eighth Waterstones Children’s Laureate. As you might know, I’m lucky enough to project manage the Children’s Laureate, so the last few weeks have been very busy ones for me, and I’m especially relieved I don’t have to keep the new Laureate’s identity a secret any longer!

Here’s a few of my favourite Laureate-related things from the last few days:

It was a delight to work with the brilliant Curved House on this fun animated film which we showed at the announcement event. Hopefully it captures how excited we all were about Malorie’s appointment!

The fab Sarah McIntyre drew this picture of our new sci-fi and comics-loving Laureate in action which you can also download as a poster over on her website !

Sarah McIntyre illustration of Malorie Blackman


Some children from the Guardian Children’s Books website interviewed Malorie on the day of the announcement

The Telegraph’s Martin Chilton wrote a great article about why Malorie makes the perfect Laureate and I also loved this piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free by Bim Adewunmi . Also check out young book blogger Little M’s blog about her experience of attending the event – and there’s more over at the blog she shares with mum M, We Sat Down.

It was also fascinating getting an insight into the making of the Laureate medal from jeweller Charmian Harris, who has been making them ever since the appointment of the first Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake. (I had no idea that the original design was inspired by a label founder Ted Hughes designed for his bottles of Poet Laureate sherry!) Take a look behind the scenes in Charmian’s studio

Find out more about the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate at

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.’