Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Monday, November 29, 2004

Sequins and Poltergeists

I’ve had the most wonderful fan letter from the States. It was from an 11-year-old girl and was typed on swirly turquoise-blue paper which was then decorated with sequins and shiny stickers, to make masks, lanterns etc. The content was pretty pleasing too! Much as I love the instantaneous nature of e-mails, you can’t beat a beautifully ornamented letter. (And I really don’t like smileys).

Everyone has had flu here – it’s like a plague house. So I was glad to escape to London for two days. First, to the World Book Day party at the Cafe Royal in Piccadilly, where I was guest of Bloomsbury, along with Celia Rees, Angie Sage, Cathy McPhail and Graham Marks. We all have books out in the spring and it was good to catch up.

The entertainment was “The Jimi Heneage Experience”, i.e. James Heneage, the MD of Ottakars and his colleagues, such as Wayne Winstone, the children’s buyer. And they were very good!

The next day to the AGM of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group at the Society of Authors, where Justin Somper talked to us about Showing Off Our Assets. He had done this at more length for the Scattered Authors Society in Oxford the Saturday before and I’ve picked up a lot of good self-promotional points – watch this space!

Both nights I stayed with Ann Jungman and after the CWIG event five rather raucous female writers and illustrators piled into a taxi to Muswell Hill and joined Ann for a Chinese meal opposite her flat. It was a sort of reunion for some of the old Northern Lights group that ran from 1995 – 2000: Jane Ray, Kate Petty, Ann and I, plus Fiona Dunbar and Ros Asquith. A merry evening.

When I got back there was a phone message from Kaye Umansky, who was another Northern Light, so it was all a little nostalgic.

I don’t really miss London, though – not even lovely Crouch End. For a start I’m always going there and secondly, I love living here. It’s a great house and all the three Stravaganza books have been written in my study here, so it’s obviously inspiring.

I didn’t file a blog last week. We had a most sleep-deprived weekend: first what appeared to be a break in, followed by having to stay up with the emergency locksmith till 2am. This subsequently seemed to have been a false alarm, but we now have the most secure garage in West Oxfordshire!

The next night the smoke alarm system went off at 3am and 5am. It’s a wonderful system: an electrical circuit, backed up by 5-hour rechargeable batteries! So we couldn’t stop them. (There was, of course, no fire). My youngest daughter and I jumped to the obvious conclusion – that we had a poltergeist – but husband favoured the “faulty alarm” theory.

So did the electrician who had installed them 4 years ago. He came round the next day and semi-detached them.

All week wonderful books have been arriving – The Craftsmen’s Handbook and Mediaeval Painting Techniques from Amazon and a three-volume work on pigments from the London Library, who also produced a book on art patronage by Franciscans in the late Middle Ages – this is relevant research too.

My husband says he now understands how I write a book. First there is a lot of faffing about, trying to get hold of the right references and sources, then a long quiet period of reading and note-making, finally I settle down and start to write steadily. And then there is a book. Amazing! It still amazes me – every time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Spices and Pigments

I spent last Saturday in Renaissance Italy. There was a dayschool in Oxford, covering Art, Politics, Trade and Philosophy. The first session was the most homesickness-inducing, with its slides of Florence and Venice.

We were a bit disgusted when the Director of Studies for the day pronounced Brunelleschi as “Brooneshelly” and the art historian said “Benedetto” Gozzoli, instead of Benozzo but that’s just the kind of Renaissance-bores we are.

One of the most fascinating insights came in an aside at the end: in the 13th and 14th centuries, Europeans used and enjoyed spices without knowing what they were. Literally, they did not know whether these items were animal, vegetable or mineral. It all helped to establish an aura of mystery around them and keep the prices up. Pepper was the most popular, followed by ginger.

What 14th-century Europeans thought is of particular interest to me at present, for the research I am doing on a mediaeval book for Bloomsbury. I particularly need to know about pigments and fresco-painting. There is a book on artistic techniques by Cennino Cennini and, amazingly, the Internet produced extracts in English. Listen to the colour names: azurite, porphyry, cinnabar, dragonsblood, orpiment, realgar, terre-verte...

Even more amazingly, you can get this “Libro dell’Arte” from Amazon, bundled in with a book on mediaeval painting techniques for fewer than fifteen of your earth pounds. Cennini was writing 120 years after the period I shall be fictionalising, but he talks about Giotto’s fresco technique. “I will give you the exact proportions of a man,” he says. “Those of a woman I will disregard, as she does not have any set proportion.”

Good news this week. Jacqueline Wilson has generously provided a cover quote for “Bravo, Grace!”, which will come out next March. Same month as City of Flowers, which will keep me busy with possible signings in Oxford, Exeter, Huddersfield and somewhere in Scotland.

And how we have needed good news. A school in Denmark has just sent to me and Rhiannon stories and poems inspired by Lines in the Sand. Will you do More Lines in the Sand?, asked their English teacher. There is certainly plenty of need for it, as the news of terrible atrocities on both sides comes from Iraq. Equal disgust for what happened to Margaret Hassan and the wounded man killed by US marines in the mosque in Fallujah.

And the news that “dove” Colin Powell will be replaced by the more hawkish Dr. Rice does not cheer; Powell was a dove only comparatively but even comparative doveliness would be welcome.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Your friendly neighbourhood author

An e-mail this morning asked if I could come and read Amazing Grace to Kindergarten chilkdren at a school in Virginia in the next few weeks. Now this teacher had contacted me through my website, so had ample opportunity to discover I did not live on her side of the pond. But even if I did, I might have been in California, or Alaska or Washington, so why assume I could drop in on her class in VA? That would really have worked only if I lived round the corner.

Maybe that's what we writers do - give the impression of living round the corner from the reader. I should be flattered really and not be such an old grouch. But I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my American public. Dial (my US publishers) were so anxious that Grace should appear an American girl, or perhaps that they had orignated the books, that they Americanised not only spellings and expressions but even settings to an extent. That has made the storybooks hard to write, since Grace is aged around ten/eleven in them and would obviously be on the verge of going to secondary school here. Not so in the US, where the school switch is at 13.

When the second storybook was published in the States (Encore, Grace!), a reviewer said (I quote from memory) "Why does Ms Hoffman choose to set her book in the US and then include English expressions?" I still seethe about that, as you can tell, since I emphatically did NOT choose to set any book about Grace in the US and the least my American editors could have done, with all their many linguistic tinkerings, was to have saved me from such a dreadful calumny.

Well, the third Grace storybook (Bravo, Grace!) will be distributed in America by Publishers' Group West, in its English edition from Frances Lincoln, with all its English expressions, like "mobile phones" intact. Let's just see how the reviewers like them apples! BG has just arrived in bound proof, with a shiny purple cover, the first time Grace has made it into bound proofs. It will be a collectors' item (ho! ho!).

I had another e-mail today, from a delightful Dutch parent, who had read the Dutch edition of "My Grandma has Black Hair" to her children, The book ends: "My grandma is married to my Grandpa, but that's another story!", with a lovely picture (by Joanna Burroughes) of a denim-clad, bearded middle-aged hippy. They had searched in vain for a copy of the book about grandpa, but I'll have to tell them it was never published! It was a victim of one of the many editorial changeovers at Methuen and was turned down. (one of the very few items in my bottom drawer - a notional "drawer" only: really a box among the twenty-five or so that make up my archive and clutter up the office here).

The cover of City of Flowers appeared in yet another e-mail today - very handsome in dark red marbling, with the familiar silver cut-out in the shape of a perfume bottle with a fleur-de-lys stopper this time. I am very lucky in my Bloomsbury covers.

Have been trying to book next year's Italian holiday in Umbria, to help with research for my mediaeval book set between Gubbio and Assisi, but you absolutely can't get to Italy by Motorail any more and the house we wanted has been withdrawn from the brochure. So back to the drawing board after hours of Internet research. It looks like fly-drive after all. Tried to tell husband this would all be easier - and a great saving - if we had a second home in Italy. He looked very unconvinced.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Cyberfans and the Queen of Sheba

I love having e-mail contact with my fans through my two websites and a fan forum. I answer all e-mails and get about two or three new Stravaganza fans a day. But sometimes the requests are really strange.

I’ve had years of people wanting help with their research projects and book reports and getting published and others wanting signed books for charity auctions etc., so I’m used to that. And there was that weird one from the US earlier this year, asking for a pair of my old shoes.

But in the last few days there have been requests for free copies of all three Strvaganza novels to be sent to Canada (two sets), an activity a teacher in the US might use with her children on Amazing Grace, a list of “fun things” that a Swedish student might tell her class about me, how to get into publishing both fiction and non-fiction, how to stop oneself getting bored while writing a book, how to get hold of a copy of Nancy No-size (have none of these guys heard of Amazon/abe books/Alibris?) and what did I think of the ending of Green Wing.

On the fan forum we recently had a boy, writing all in capitals, demanding that there should be “more death” in the Stravaganza novels. I hope City of Flowers will satisfy him!

I love them all, of course, and lots are regular correspondents, telling me about their holidays, happinesses and sadnesses in a most trusting way. But I do wonder what it must be like to be JK and get thousands of such communications a day.

You’d have to have a standard letter, wouldn’t you? And a signature stamp? And I’d really hate to have to do that. I wonder how Jacky Wilson copes. But she is much more dedicated than most. I know one very famous children’s book author who never answers any letters. And several of my correspondents have said I was the first author ever to reply to them. And one who had got a reply said the other author was quite mean to her.

How hard it is. I hope I wasn’t mean to the two Canadian girls in telling them how to order a book from its ISBN.

On the other hand, it is from the fans that I have learned that the new short story is up on the Stravaganza website and the cover of City of Flowers, which I have not yet approved, is up on the Bloomsbury site. They also alert me to other useful things, like the release date of the LOTR complete boxed set of DVDs in the extended version.

On non-Stravaganza books, I have received the first piece of artwork for Kings and Queens of the Bible (after a six month wait). It is the Queen of Sheba arriving to visit King Solomon. A lovely crowded scene, dominated by a foregrounded camel with the queen on top.

I think camels have the most wonderful faces – lugubrious but with such flirtatious eyelashes. But the only time I ever tried to ride one was when I was researching “Seven Wonders of the World” in Egypt. I was absolutely terrified the moment it started to rise to its feet (You mount while they are sitting down). And I looked nothing like as composed as the Queen of Sheba.