Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Letters from Pompeii

illustration by M. Sasek
Today was my birthday and when the post arrived with a strange parcel I wondered which of my family members it could be from. It wasn't from one of them. It was from Celeste, who is first and foremost a fan of Michael Praed (who reads the abridged audiobooks) and then of the Roman Mysteries. The parcel contained a delightfully illustrated book written in 1952: Letters from Pompeii by Wihelmina Feemster Jashemski. I already have Wilhelmina's excellent Pompeian Herbal. She was one of the excavators of Pompeii, her specialist subject being ancient gardens and plants!

I love old books which are out of print and this one about Pompeii by an expert written for kids will be one that I treasure forever. My husband heard my cries of delight and came to see what I was so excited about.

I will be dipping into this treasure box, which once graced the library of Greenwood Hills Elementary School, and I will share any special nuggets of delight or gems of wisdom. Thank you, Celeste!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Boy Entrancers in Brighton

Richard and I went to Brighton for the weekend. For several reasons:

1. To go to the house-warming party of my former publicity manager, Rowan. She has excellent taste as is proved by the fact that I easily sired her to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Also, she plays trumpet and is a vegetarian.

2. To sign some books for my Spanish dealer (erm... you know what I mean!) so that he can bring autographed copies of my books to all my new fans in Barcelona. (Both of them.)

3. To be a punter at the Brighton Festival, which is always very well done and well worth a visit.

We were staying at the exciting Sea Spray boutique hotel which actually DID have a view of the sea. It is one of those hotels with themed bedrooms. I decided the Warhol and Dali Rooms sounded too surrealistic and the Boudoir Room a bit obvious, so I chose the Moroccan Room. It was quite well done with a saffron-coloured parachute hanging from the ceiling, and Moroccan lamps and cushions and a hookah and everything. But the effect was somewhat marred by the fact that this was a tall Victorian house with narrow stairs and semi-Nazi signs on everything that said things like DO NOT PUT ANYTHING DOWN THIS TOILET AS THE PLUMBER CALL-OUT FEE IS £70. Considering that this toilet was out in the corrider and not even in our own room, I thought the £85-a-night price tag a bit steep. But, hey! this is my birthday weekend so it was a splurge...

We arrived around 6.00 on Saturday evening and saw that we could catch one of the Brighton Festival literary events – a retelling of Ovid's Metamorphoses – before we went to Rowan and Ant's party.

At the Old Market I said to the person buying tickets, 'I see Garth Nix was here earlier. Is he still in Brighton? Because I met him once at a festival in Canada and he might remember me...' Here I trailed off lamely.

'He's staying at the Hotel Seattle,' she offered, 'but right now he's just next door in the bar!'

And so he was! He was very nice and pretended to remember me. My husband Richard is Garth Nix's greatest fan. (He spent one entire day of a recent holiday in Spain reading Lirael. When he finished it I breathed a sign of relief, thinking we could go out and see Spain, or something. But what did my husband do? He opened it up and started all over again!) So Richard stood wagging his tail and panting with happiness as his idol chatted with us. Garth Nix is one of the nicest and most humble authors I have ever met. And funny, too. He was promoting his latest book, Drowned Wednesday.

And BONUS! He was sitting with fellow kids' author Louise Rennison, who was promoting her latest book, ...Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers I have heard Louise speak before, at the Children's Book Group convention in Birmingham a year ago, and she is hilarious. On an impulse I bought her latest book, and got her to sign it. I'm glad I did because I loved it! She has a wonderful main character called Georgia Nicolson, who thinks only about boys and makeup and says stuff like 'it was vair, vair nice and thrice fabby.'

We went in to see the Ovid, which had specially good special effects, and then caught a taxi to Rowan and Ant's party. The party was vair, vair nice and thrice fabby.

The next morning the beating rain and howling wind woke me at 5.30am but by 9.00am – when we went down to breakfast – the sun had come out. Breakfast was great. Richard had an English cooked breakfast, I had the exact same thing but vegetarian. Brighton is one of the few places in England where you can get vegetarian options. No wonder Rowan loves it!

We wandered along the sea front, admiring the jade green sea dotted with whitecaps as we pulled our collars up. Then did a quick tour of Brighton's Aquarium, more for Richard than me as those things always make me feel sorry for fish that can swim hundreds of miles but are cooped up in a tiny tank.

After that we met my overseas bookfair guy, Gary, plus his partner and dog, and I signed some books in a tearoom.

Then another wander along the seafront, looking for somewhere to eat that night, and then back to the Old Market for Meg Rosoff, who was talking about her book, How I Live Now.

Meg was very interesting and one thing in particular struck me. She said that as a writer she struggles most with plots, but recently she discovered you can STEAL PLOTS FROM THE GREEK MYTHS! What have I been saying all along?? Huh? HUH??

After Meg Rosoff's talk, we had a drink in The Lanes in weak but brave sunshine and read our books. I was chuckling over Boy Entrancers. Georgia Nicolson's 'desire line' (to quote my mentor John Truby), is simple to snog boys. It's that simple. Georgia even has ratings for a snogfest scale. You can see them at 'her' site: www.georgianicolson.com*hee*

After our little taste of cafe life, we went to see Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott's new film. Every review I've read panned it, so my hopes were not high. But I thought it was wonderful! Ridley Scott remains one of my favourite directors. He got the most out of the his writers and actors (it was SO much better than Star Wars) and despite all the reviewers' snide comments, Orlando Bloom was great. The thing I love about Ridley Scott is that he is so deliciously visual. I especially love the effects he gets with light shinging through dust and smoke.

The film also had a great message: the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place on earth. It's in your heart.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Cherubs and Romans

Today I did a new kind of event: sharing the stage with another author!

Cherub series author Robert Muchamore and I spoke to 60 boys from Shrewsbury House School in the morning and 60 lively girls from Brentford School for Girls in the afternoon.

Robert and I both stood up and spoke for about ten minutes about how we got started writing, then fielded their questions, both of us answering whenever we could. They boys were especially well-prepared and had each read at least one of my books and at least one of Robert's books each!

In the break between sessions the Waterstone's staff gave us lunch: cheese, salad and vegetarian samosas. The lovely organizer Alex (right, with me and Robert) even did a Starbucks run to get me a mocha. It was great meeting Laura and Gerald who are both Buffy fans. Especially Gerald.

I had mentioned the archetypes in my talk to the boys and over lunch Gerald and I tried to match them up with the crew of Serenity:

The Hero: Mal
The Faithful Sidekick: Zoe
The Funny One: Wash
The Wild One: Jayne
The Mentor: Reverend Book?

Of course because it is Joss, the characters are much more than archetypes. Apparently he took aside the actor who plays Jayne and said 'You are really the hero of this story.' A good author knows that each character – like each of us – is the hero of his own story. I have great hopes for Serenity, out this October.

Joss, don't let me down the way George let me down last night with Revenge of the Sith...

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Mad Max in Barcelona

Last night was my last night in Barcelona, so I did the traditional thing to do on one's last night in Barcelona.

I watched Mad Max I and Mad Max II. (Thanks for loaning me the DVDs, Kirsten)

The first one was pretty weak as a story. Just a lot of violence and erm... violence. And as John Truby says, revenge is never a good desire line.

But the second one, subtitled The Road Warrior, was spot on. Not only did it hit the seven beats I'm always talking about but it also uses the four classic archetypes I've been telling kids about for the past few years.

The Hero: Mad Max
The Faithful Sidekick: His Dog
The Funny One: The Giro Captain
The Wild One: The Feral Kid

There is no mentor, though you could say Mad Max is the Feral Kid´s mentor and the talisman is the music box mechanism...

Now some people have suggested I based Lupus on the Feral Kid in Mad Max II. It´s reasonable to suggest it, but last night was the first time I've seen either of them!

One of the kids at a school here in Spain mentioned Tarzan when I was discussing the four basic archetypes. Brilliant!

The Hero: Tarzan
The Faithful Sidekick: Jane
The Funny One/Wild One: Cheetah (the chimp)

It even works with Sex and the City!

The Hero: Carrie
The Faithful Sidekick: Charlotte
The Funny One: Miranda
The Wild One: Samantha

Friday, May 13, 2005

Gaudi & Picasso

No point getting up early in Barcelona. Everything, and I mean everything is closed until 10.00.

OK, you can get juice and a chocolate croissant and eat it in the Placa de Reial but they won´t even have cleaned up last night's rubbish by 8.00am. Barcelona is definitely not the city for early birds like me.

I wandered around the empty streets until 10.00, then bought a Barcelona card at an Information Kiosk. The Barcelona card gives you free travel all around the city and discounts on entry to all museums, sometimes 100% discount. I bought one for two days. At only 20 euros it was a bargain.

Then onto the metro to a stop called Lesseps which looked pretty close to Gaudi's famous Parc Guell on the map. It wasn´t and that park is up a rather steep hill. At least I burned off the chocolate croissant. My fellow-writer Robert Muchamore told me I had to visit Parc Guell. He said it was one of his favourite places in the world. It was amazing, but also depressing in a strange way. All the beauty of Gaudi´s organic shapes, fairytale houses, broken tile mosaics, slanting columns and what do the Spaniards do with it? They spray graffiti on it and leave their empty rubbish lying around. It is such a shame. Also, it was crowded at 11.00 am on a sunny Friday. Very crowded.

I used my Barcelona card to get a bus down to Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) Gaudi's piece de resistance, the great cathedral he spent his last years working on. I got off the bus and was looking at my map working my way towards where I thought it should be. Suddenly I looked up and there it was, at the end of a long street called Avenguda de Gaudi. Absolutely breathtaking. I sat at a cafe and sipped a bitter Kas and read my guide book, then went in.

The cathedral is stunning. It is essentially a building site and has no roof but in a strange way this makes it all the more impressive. They are still working on it, building four or five more towers to compliment the eight existing ones. Down in the basement, in the museum, you can look through a glass window to the workshop and actually see the architects and builders going over blueprints and handling white plaster models of the towers. Amazing.

The controversial western facade, with its depiction of the last hours of Jesus's life, the passion, was amazing, too. So many images to look at and touch and meditate on. Very bleak and very powerful. This has got to be my favourite cathedral in the world. I can´t wait until it´s finished.

After that I took the metro back to the stop nearest my flat, Liceu. I had my felafel at 3.00 and a nap like a proper resident of Barcelona.

I surfaced at 4.45 and wandered down Carre Ferran which I now realize is the decumanus maximus of Roman Barcino. And the Placa Jaume was the forum. I even found four huge marble columns that formed the facade of the Temple of Rome and Augustus. They are well hidden behind the cathedral. If you keep going down the street several metres above the decumanus maximus it becomes Av. de la Princesa and if you are lucky you might find the Picasso Museum.

It is a very odd collection in five beautiful converted townhouses. It has a lot of Picasso´s early work, especially from when he was 14 to 19 years old. Then a few works from his twenties, up to 1917. (Picasso was born in 1881).

Then there is nothing until 1957! So we skip forty years.

But stepping into the later rooms is like entering another universe. A great one!

I usually hate pigeons but there is a whole room of pigeons from the dovecote of Picasso´s villa in Cannes. The next room is full of his wonderful interpretations of Velasquez´s Las Meninas. What struck me with huge force was how much he was enjoying himself in all these big bright paintings. They are full of colour, confidence and most of all a wicked humour.

In one of his interpretations of Velasquez's masterpiece he has made the infanta scowl by giving her a V above the two dots for her eyes and the dot for her mouth. And the dog in the picture appears to be squatting to do his business. Very clever. Very funny. I do love Picasso.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Stinky Barcelona!

Done it, Miss!

That's what all the little year 2 kids used to say when I used to teach art and asked them to draw a circle. They would wave their papers in the air and cry 'Done it, Miss!' I feel like shouting that now.

I've finally done my last event at a Spanish International School. And survived. What's more, I´m still standing!

My last Spanish school (which shall remain nameless) was great, except for some of the 9th graders who skipped my talk to go smoke behind the bushes. Their loss. I wish the three or four girls who had come hadn´t bothered. They sauntered in late, tossing their glossy hair and chewing metaphorical gum of boredom. They kept the 8th graders waiting nearly a quarter of an hour.

It is very frustrating to give so much of yourself and get scorned. I am pretty sure my days of doing these events are numbered. Also, how many times can you describe how Romans went to the toilet and keep it fresh?

But my morning event in costume went well. It´s the first time I've done my talk al fresco. Thanks to a beautiful day and a good PA system we pulled it off.

The librarian and I had a lovely lunch in a nearby leafy square, serenaded by the whine of motorscooters and the cooing of pigeons. We stopped for ice cream for dessert before the afternoon sessions.

Anyway, I got through it and was back in Las Ramblas by 5.30.

I had my usual felafel from Maoz Felafel on Ferran, then rushed to the Museu d'Història de la Ciutat and went underground to see the Roman city which lies beneath the modern one.

It is fascinating. The Roman city was founded during the reign of Augustus and it was called Barcino.

Among the ruins they have excavated and left visible are the remains of a fullonica, (a dye-shop and cleaners), and a fish-sauce factory. I am telling you: that part of Barcino would have smelled extremely nasty!

They used urine to bleach cloth, and the garum or fish-sauce factories were so smelly they were often well outside of town.

Ewww! Stinky Barcelona!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Tibidabo & the Saint of Beekeepers

What a difference a good sleep makes! Last night I had a monk's dinner of felafel with pineapple for dessert and no alcohol. I slept like a baby right through until 6.45am. Late for me!

For the last few mornings I have emerged from my narrow doorway into the narrow medieval street (always dark) just before 8.00. Two women in reflective vests are always hosing down the street with water at this time. I can usually catch a taxi on Las Ramblas and I did that today at around 8.00. Oak House is up near Tibidabo and this morning the traffic was appalling. It took us forty five minutes and the driver was ranting and gesticulating the whole time. He was disappointed that I was relaxed about it but it was a beautiful sunny morning and I´d given myself plenty of time.

My organizer wasn't there but a brilliant technical guy named Tico had set up the state-of-the-art auditorium with a laptop connected to a big screen, and two working mikes. I also had a stage and desk. Another pleasant surprise was how well-behaved the pupils were, even though they were 99% Spanish. I was also impressed by the building, which is a beautiful converted villa with pines, acacias, olives, (everything but oak) and also mosaics and towers and fountains.

I did my introductory talk twice for an hour and a quarter which is stretching it for English pupils, not to mention Spanish kids. But we pulled it off.

Then I gave my First Lines and Writing Tips talk, and after lunch (at 2.20!)I gave my Writing Tips and Hero´s Journey talk to years 5 and 6. The kids were very bright and enthusiastic. Like the kids at St Pauls, they waved cheerfully at me whenever I passed by.

Oak House is not far from the school where I'll be tomorrow, so I went over there after I'd finished, dropped off my things and asked the way to Tibidabo, which was in sight. Tibidabo is Latin, of course. It comes from the passage in the gospels where Satan tempts Jesus. Satan takes Jesus up on a high mountain and says 'I will give you (tibi dabo) all these if you worship me...'

A nice teacher drove me up there but the teleferique was closed so I couldn't go right up to the monastery. I had a coke in a scenic bar with a breezy view over Barcelona, then caught a bus and metro down to Plaza Catalunya, which is the heart of Barcelona and only two blocks from my flat.

One of the kids at Oak House had mentioned he bought some of my books at the biggest department store in Barcelona, El Corte Ingles, so I went up to the 7th floor and found copies of all except the first book.

Then I wandered back towards my little flat via Zara, a women's clothing store which is much cheaper here than in London. I bought a silk shirt and succumbed to candy-striped socks. Then back to the flat to drop off shopping, then out again to my felafel place. It's called Moaz Felafel on Carre de Ferran near the Placa Reial and you can buy a felafel salad with a free drink for only 3.80 euros, which is brilliant! It was v. tasty.

I went back to the flat to wolf it down and while I was reading my Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide I noticed that today, May 11th, is a special festival day. It is Dia de Sant Ponce, patron saint of beekeepers and herbalists! 'Stalls along Carrer Hospital sell herbs, honey and candied fruit...' says the guide. Frantically I scanned the map to find Carrer Hospital. There it was! Just across Las Ramblas! I swallowed the last of my felafel, grabbed my camera and went out just as the bells were ringing 8.00pm. Thankfully the stalls were still out, dozens of them lining a fascinating street with a strong Middle Eastern flavour in a district which is called Raval. I bought some eucalyptus caramel, licorice strips and honeycomb. Took lots of great photos, too.

P.S. Richard just sent me this passage from one of our favourite historical writers, Patrick O'Brian. It´s from Master and Commander and it's at the beginning of the sequence about the capture of the Cacafuego. I asked him to look it up because I remember Stephen mentions Tibidabo. (Stephen and Jack are on board the ship looking towards Barcelona.)

'To the left of the smoke, southwards, that is the hill of Montjuic, with the great castle; and the projection to the right is Barceloneta.' said Stephen. 'And rising there beyond the city you can make out Tibidabo: I saw my first red-footed falcon there when I was a boy. Then continuing the line from Tibidabo through the cathedral to the sea, there is the Moll de Santa Creu, with the great mercantile port; and to the left of it the basin where the king’s ships and the gunboats lie.'

'Many gunboats?' asked Jack.

Monday, May 09, 2005

American School of Barcelona

Sitting at Happy Talk internet cafe about a stones throw from my little apartment in Barcelona´s gothic quarter.

I had a long day today but a good one. The librarians at the American School of Barcelona did a great job organizing everything and my event went really well.

I arrived at the school around 8.15 by taxi to find Helen and Susan taping a huge sign to the front gates. It was done as a mosaic and read ASB WELCOMES CAROLINE LAWRENCE. I felt like a real celeb!

I spoke to about 200 kids from 2nd to 7th grade dressed up as a Roman with my powerpoint slide show. As usual, my sponge-on-a-stick routine got them gasping and laughing. It never fails. Have sponge-stick will travel...

Then I quickly changed back into street clothes to speak to grades 8, 9 and 10. (I would have lost all respect dressed as a Roman matron.)I gave them my writing tips talk which went down well as lots of the boys are huge Star Wars fans.

Then a break before several more workshops down in the library to different age groups.

What was amazing was that a fan from Ontario Canada saw from my EVENTS Diary that I was going to be in Barcelona the same time as she would be here with her family. Jessica and her parents contacted the American School who very kindly said she could come in and attend one of my talks. So she did! And now her parents are taking me out to dinner.

The weather has cooled down a bit and there is a light cloud cover. I´m hoping for warm bright weather one of my talks will be outside. Tomorrow at one of the British Schools here, St Pauls, and on Wednesday I´m at another British school: Oak House.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Madrid vs Bilbao

What a difference Bilbao is from Madrid!

My Spanair plane took off from hot dry Madrid around 7.00pm and 30 minutes later it was banking over mist-swathed green mountains on a rainy evening.

Bilbao is in the Basque region and doesnt feel Spainish at all. It is green, lush, mountainous with half-timbered houses you might expect to find in Bavaria or maybe Northern Italy.

Elvira, the Brooklyn-born librarian of the American School of Bilbao, met me at the airport. Although shes been here thirty years and has been married to a Spaniard almost as long, her accent is still unmistakably New York. She drove me through the rain to a town north of Bilbao called Getxo, pronounced Getcho. I was going to be staying with a family for two nights. We found their apartment house in a posh area of this pretty, rain-washed suburb. Edurne and Juan Bosco are both psychologists and their nine year old daughter Maria is a fan of my books.

They welcomed me into their smart, modern apartment. Their cultured neighbours from upstairs were there, too, because they speak excellent English. After a glass of red wine, some cheese and the inevitable jamon serrano we ate dinner. Edurne had prepared tortilla patates, which is a kind of egg flan with potato. Im not usually keen on egg but it was delicious. She served it with two salads and mini baskets of bread. We had strawberries for dessert.

They had prepared a little guest room for me with four lilies (chosen by Maria) in a glass vase.

Im still fighting a cold, so it was great to get into the tiny clean bed and let the sound of the rain lull me to sleep.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

May in Spain 3

Having a lunchtime break at the American School in Madrid. The kids here are bright and cheerful and seemed to enjoy my assembly in costume. We had the powerpoint working so that was good, too.

The room we were going to use for one of the workshops wasn't going to work so we changed plans and moved 150 3rd - 5th graders into the library.

When I was a teacher my old fake Latin motto was 'flexibilitas in omnibus'. There is no such word as flexibilitas but it works for me.

The weather here is still nice: a bit overcast and sultry. Apparently it is raining in Bilbao.

I'll find out soon enough. I'm flying there this evening.