Saturday, September 29, 2012

This week, the only way was Essex...

This week I had a rare treat: I went down to London - my birthplace! - for a school visit. I suppose that if Scotland becomes independent this will eventually count as "abroad." Certainly it felt like "abroad." It has been so cold in Perthshire recently that I have been writing my novel whilst wrapped in a sleeping bag. When I mentioned this to someone recently they told me that I shouldn't be surprised because Scotland is on the same latitude as Moscow. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but if it isn't, it jolly well ought to be.
In London, however, it was hot. Actually hot. I took off the two jackets I had piled on in Perthshire and did my best to soak up enough rays to last me until next spring.
The school visit was to Chigwell School in Essex, which meant a journey far further out on the eastern end of the Central line than I have ever been before. The school had arranged accommodation for me on the premises, and before I went down there I had been joking to my friends that I hoped it wouldn't be in the girls' dorm. Well, I had one of those imagine-my-surprise moments when it turned out that I really was sleeping in a dorm! Thankfully it wasn't full of pillow-fighting midnight-feast-eating schoolgirls; it was actually a former dorm, now no longer occupied by the students. It was in a very large, very old building which in common with many old houses has its share of unidentifiable creaks and groans. If this was not eerie enough, my friend the professor texted me to tell me that my goddaughter (her daughter) wished to remind me of the scene in The Devil's Backbone where the ghost of a boy appears to his schoolfellows in a boarding school. Thanks very much, Alex! I texted back to tell her mother to tell her that if I died of fright she need not expect to be remembered in my will...
The sessions with the students the next morning were great - a fantastically attentive audience and some very interesting questions. I used to talk a lot about the inspiration behind specific books, but as it is a bit much to expect everyone to have read all my books, I now tend to talk more about where I get my ideas. My first three books were very much inspired by the places and things I saw around me, but when we moved away from Germany I found myself in a new and unfamiliar environment and I started actually looking for creepy and sinister places as inspiration for future books. I went up church bell-towers and down sewers and catacombs. The photographs from the catacombs always go down well; there is pretty nearly always an audible gasp from someone when the slide of the skulls comes up! Afterwards I had time to answer questions and then sign copies of my books.
A very big thank you to Paul Fletcher, the Senior school Librarian at Chigwell, for organising the visit, and to all the students who listened so attentively and asked so many great questions. My favourite was whether I ever have an idea for a new book when I am halfway through writing one, and what do I do in that case? The answer is, yes, I do get ideas for future books whilst I am already working on other ones, and it nearly sends me distracted because I want to write all of them at once! I wish there were more hours in the week!
One final thing: during my talk I mentioned the Steinfeld Abbey stained glass, which inspired my second book, The Glass Demon. I had it in mind that if time permitted before I took my train back to Edinburgh I would go to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington to see the Steinfeld glass, and I'm pleased to say that I did have time for a very quick 45-minute visit to the museum. I've seen the glass before, when it was on display in the SchnĆ¼tgen Museum in Cologne in 2007, but I couldn't resist going to see it again. I'm going to blog about it later, but in the meantime: if you want to see (some of) the Steinfeld glass, it's in room 64 of the V&A, amongst the Mediaeval and Renaissance artefacts.

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