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Q&A with award winners Geraldine McCaughrean and Sydney Smith

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For our July Q&A we’ve been lucky enough to chat to two award winners! Geraldine McCaughrean recently won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for Where The World Ends and Sydney Smith was the recipient of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for his work illustrating Town Is By The Sea.

Where The World Ends, by Geraldine McCaughrean, winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal, published by Usborne

About the book:
Every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home. Surely nothing but the end of the world can explain why they’ve been abandoned – cold, starving and clinging to life, in the grip of a murderous ocean. How will they survive?

How did it feel winning the Carnegie Medal for the second time? Did it feel different from when you first won 30 years ago?
Very different indeed.  The publicity just happened within the world of books.  There were no newspaper articles or TV/radio interviews.  It helped to keep a book in print, but it did not make a huge difference to sales.  There was no prize money – so it came as a great surprise this time to find that there was – I was not expecting that! I don’t remember there being Shadowing either. If there was I certainly had no means of reading people’s thoughts on my book.

Now there are the extra bits – like the Amnesty prizes.  A lot of the earlier prize winners have died, in that time, too – Peter Dickinson, Jan Mark, Leon Garfield, Mal Peet…  The short-listed books have changed a lot, too, in the last 30 years.

Where The World Ends is a very unusual idea for a book but it’s based on true events. How did you come across such an interesting story?
I read about St Kilda – and many other islands in Judith Schalansky’s lovely book An Atlas of Remote Islands – and islands are very inviting to write about.  My daughter (who gave me the book) was keen to write a play set in St Kilda. When she got a sudden chance to go there, she came back full of how strange and beautiful it was, and told me all the anecdotes about its past. One told of a bunch of men and boys marooned on a sea stac one summer.  It was no more than two sentences – no names, no details.  I pounced on it – the perfect trellis to grow a story up.  With so little known, I couldn’t be told ‘You’ve got it all wrong: it wasn’t like that at all.’

Above all I had found myself thinking, “What did those boys think had happened? How did they feel?  How did they cope?”  So I wrote the book so as to find out.

If you were stranded on a remote Scottish island, what book would you most like to have with you?
Can I have three?  A book on survival.  Rose Tremaine’s Music and Silence and a HUGE empty notebook (with pencil) so that I could write a novel.

When researching the book, did you learn any unusual survival techniques and do you think you could now survive if you were alone in the wild?
Not for a moment.  I still have no idea how those boys actually did survive, other than the fact their day-to-day lives were so harsh that they could already cope with cold, weariness and filthy weather.  I’m so helpless and so devoted to comfort, warmth and regular food that I think I’d just curl up and die.

You are a prolific writer. Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of ideas? Or is the opposite the case and you have so many ideas you can’t get them all down on paper?
I’m definitely slowing up.  I used always to have the next book in mind when I am halfway through the one I was writing, but currently I don’t know what my next book will be about.  I have written another, since finishing Where the World Ends and I’ve enjoyed that so much (more than WTWEs, oddly) that I know I can’t ever give up this writing business.  Whether my books go on getting published is quite another matter.

You’ve talked about how young readers should be ‘bombarded with words like gamma rays‘ and ‘fed on them like alphabetti spaghetti‘. My favourite word as a child was ‘soporific’ after I came across it in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Did you have a favourite word that you can remember as a child?

My brother and sister (both older than I) used to come home with excitements like Obstipui! (Latin for “I stand amazed”) which seemed a whole lot better then ‘Wow!’ And “el grillo exclamo!” (a grasshopper! I exclaim). Both entered household use, along with such favourites as “Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon.” (Mum)  I suppose my favourite would have been “stallion” or “palamino” or possibly  “have at thee!” since I was very into horses and sword fighting (in my imagination, you understand).  I still like “balestra” – which is a forward leap and slamming down of the feet, in fencing, designed to startle the bejezus out of your opponent. But my favourite of all, of course, is ‘euphonious’ which not only sounds like a musical instrument and tastes sweet in the mouth but means ‘beautiful sounding’.

What one piece of advice do you have for our budding young writers out there?
Write first for yourself.  After that write for your friends’ entertainment – if they are willing to listen.  After that write as if for a stranger who might like the same kinds of books you like.  Don’t write-to-get published.  Then you will be trying to please everybody and anybody and you won’t manage it.  There are some good websites where you can write and other people will read and comment on your story.  You have to develop a thick skin, because now and then you get ‘flamed’ which is computer-speak for ‘insulted by an idiot with no manners’.  But when someone out there says, “Loved your chapter – what happens next?  Write more soon,” there’s no better feeling.

Go in for every competition possible.

Are you allowed to say what you’re working on next or is it top secret?
I’ve written about a devastating flood  – (and yes, I do wish I’d known earlier that Philip Pullman’s new trilogy was going to be about a devastating flood!)  While people upcountry are washed out of their homes and try to reach safety, others in the walled capital city are cut off with no way of knowing what’s going on – and that’s just how those in power want it…

It may never see the light of day, but it was fun, and the characters still have a hold on my affections.  Sometimes they just walk off without a backward glance.

Town Is By The Sea, written by Joanna Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith, winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, published by Walker

About the book:
While a young boy enjoys a summer’s day waking up to the sound of the sea, visiting his grandfather’s grave after lunch and coming home to a cosy dinner with his family, his thoughts constantly return to his father, who is digging for coal deep under the sea. Stunning illustrations show the striking contrast between a sparkling seaside day and the darkness underground where the miners dig.

Many congratulations on winning the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. How did it feel when they announced your name?
Thank you very much. I had been informed that I had won before the ceremony to ensure I had enough time to organize my schedule and catch a flight to London. During that time I was bursting with excitement but I couldn’t tell anyone so it didn’t feel real. Finally when I was sitting in the audience during the awards ceremony and they called my name, it was real. I’m not comfortable in the spotlight so as soon as it was real I felt terrified. “Hurray, it’s actually real!” and “Oh no. It’s actually real.”

When you first read the story, did you immediately picture how you were going to illustrate it?
Joanne Schwartz’ words have such a wonderful rhythm. That helped a lot when visualizing the illustrations. After completing the Rough draft, the basic pace and major decisions had been made but it didn’t feel quite right until I took a trip to Cape Breton and spent some time exploring the town of Glace Bay, the town in which the book was set.

Do you have a favourite spread or image from the book that you’re particularly proud of?
I suppose the spreads that show the ocean were the most rewarding to create. I have many different versions for each one because I knew they had to be just right. The illustration of the water shimmering seems to be a favorite of many readers but it almost didn’t make the cut. At the time I thought it was too easy of a choice to make and I was concentrating on making challenging decisions. But now I realize that it is important to surprise the audience with the choices you make but also throw them a bone and give them a pretty picture. Not every image has to be buried in intention and complicated choices.

When you were illustrating the book, what feeling did you most want to evoke?
I wanted to focus on the experiences that connect us. The experiences that we have that are quiet and personal. Many times they aren’t easily labelled as happy or sad. They are meditative moments we have by ourselves and are often never shared. They are beautifully complicated, and rarely on display, and not exclusive to children or adults. I believe that they connect us and help humanize each other.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an illustrator?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I used to draw comics a lot when I was younger. I would paint in high school and in University I was fascinated with older children’s illustration like Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardlsey, and Edmund Dulac. It was obvious to me at that point that I was better suited to children’s illustration than conceptual art.

What do you love most about your job?
I get to wear what I want, eat whenever I want and within reason, work where ever I want. When I work with the right people, I feel encouraged to take risks, take the work seriously and trust my intuition.

What one piece of advice do you have for any budding young illustrators out there?
Here is what I do sometimes. Ask yourself what a better version of you would do. Someone who takes bigger risks, someone who thinks harder and feels more deeply than you do. Someone who, if you saw their work, would drive you insane with jealousy. What does that art look like? Steal their idea.

Sometimes we don’t think we deserve to be better and we identify ourselves by our limitations. You can get around that by “pretending” to be better. But really you just are.

Is there one picture book that you think all children should own?
That is too difficult a question. There is no one children’s book that covers it all. I always feel better surrounded by books. They are inspiration through osmosis.

Are you allowed to say what you’re working on next or is it top secret?
I am working on my own story. It is called Small in the City. The few words in the story are spoken by the character you follow navigating the city. There are other important elements but I feel that they are best discovered while reading the book.

Follow Sydney on Twitter @sydneydraws.