A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Gillian Philip and I used to be best friends at school (Aberdeen Grammar, if you want to know), but we lost touch when we went out into the world. Thirty years later, Gill is now a novelist for children and young adults, and I’m a university lecturer. I’m interested in the commercial side of how Gill works, since I research publishing history, and in the mechanics of Being An Author. We spent a couple of hours nattering on Skype to produce this interview, in which Gill tells all about working with pseudonyms.
VL: So how many books have you written? Under your own name, and under pseudonyms?
GP: OK… under my own name: Eleven. (Bad Faith, Crossing the Line, The Opposite of Amber, four Rebel Angels books, and four educational books: Life of the Party, Mind’s Eye, Sea Fever and Cyber Fever. Oh and Sealskin, unpublished yet, so that’s twelve. Under pseudonyms: four Darke Academy books (as Gabriella Poole), two books for the Survivors series so far (as Erin Hunter). I also used to use a pseudonym for short stories for women’s magazines, which was Helen Lincoln.
Darke Academy is about a peripatetic school that moves from city to city each term, because ‘where the Academy goes, death follows’. There’s a mysterious group of prefects who are in fact the hosts of ancient spirits – some malevolent, some good. Our heroine Cassie is a Scholarship girl who has no idea what she’s getting into, but of course is drawn against her will into the world of the Few.
Rebel Angels (my own series) is about warring clanns of the Scottish Sithe – faeries, but not the fluttery kind. They centre on one particular clann, led by Conal and Seth MacGregor, who are in conflict with the Faery Queen because of her desire to destroy the Veil between their world and ours. The series will have four books – Firebrand, Bloodstone, Wolfsbane and (to be published in 2014), a final book with the working title Icefall.
The Erin Hunter Survivors series is set a post-apocalyptic future where dogs have to learn to survive alone.
VL: And that was starting when?
GP: My first Gabriella Poole book came out in 2009. Bad Faith, the first under my own name, came out in 2008. My first short story was published in (I think) 1990.
VL: That’s a lot of writing time! Presumably full time once Bad Faith got accepted?
GP: Yes, full time – I’d pretty much decided to have a go at writing full time when I came back from living abroad, because I had to find a new job anyway. I think I gave it two years but I ended up giving myself longer than that!
VL: How did Gabriella Poole come about? What caused the publisher to snap it/her up? And, later, how did Bloomsbury and Harper Collins get in touch?
GP: Gabriella was the creation of Hothouse Fiction, a book packaging company. They had sketched out the idea and the characters before approaching me to tender for the job. The fact that I and Gabriella shared initials was a coincidence!
My agent, Sarah Molloy, approached Bloomsbury with Crossing The Line, and I think they accepted it in 2007 for publication in 2009 (I had to choose between Bloomsbury and Marion Lloyd books, which was hard, but a nice dilemma to have). I’d approached Strident Publishing myself in the meantime, with Bad Faith. Harper Collins were the existing publishers of the Erin Hunter books, which are created by a team of editors and writers.
Hodder accepted the Darke Academy series after book one was submitted – it had been turned down by several other publishers because they were already publishing similar titles. Ben Horslen, the main editor of the series, had had the idea just before the Twilight phenomenon exploded, so in some ways it was good timing, in some, bad!
VL: Re Hothouse, I’ve worked as an editor for a book packager, in travel guides, but I don’t know anything about fiction packagers. From the author’s point of view, how does writing for a packager work?
GP: The packager develops the concept in brainstorming sessions, sometimes using focus groups of readers to refine the idea. Most of them have an existing stable of writers, but they’ll approach new writers as well; they’ll ask several of them to submit sample chapters if they’re interested in the series. From those samples they’ll choose the writer whose ‘voice’ seems to them the best fit.
Thereafter they’ll set out a schedule, deadlines etc, and work out a chapter-by-chapter outline. The writer works from that – but there are often changes (sometimes quite substantial ones) as the characters develop and plot holes become apparent. When the first draft is ready (sometimes the writer sends the work in blocks, say three or four depending on book length, especially with the first book in a series – that way problems can be noticed and dealt with early), the editorial team goes over it. Then the writer completes a second draft (and a third if necessary).
I’ve also been involved in the plotting stage (I wrote the chapter-by-chapter outline for Darke Academy 4). There’s always plenty of opportunity for writer input – it’s not a matter of just writing what’s dictated by the outline, so that keeps things lively to say the least…
VL: As part of a consortium, do you try to keep the narrative voice in your books sounding close to that in other books within the series, by other authors? I’m wondering about syntax, vocabulary, tone, etc. Or do you actively write as different voices? Does it matter? Do the readers notice?
GP: There’s definitely an author ‘voice’ that you work to. I was the only Gabriella Poole, as things worked out, but the Darke Academy books have a very different tone and style to my own books, and that was something that developed with input from the team. Erin Hunter was a very well-established brand by the time I came along, and she has a very distinctive style and voice – one of the main concerns of the editorial team is to make sure that voice stays consistent across all three series – Survivors (dogs), Warriors (cats) and Seekers (bears). Some readers say they notice variations in tone; for most, it doesn’t bother them (the publishers are completely open about the fact that Erin is a team project).
I’ve just remembered – duh! – that there are another two ghost books I’ve written, a propos your first question! – Rookery Island, a five-book series (fantasy adventure, 9-12) that has been sold to Pocket Jeunesse in France and (as Ravenstorm Island) to Orchard in the UK. I’ve written two of those already, but I don’t know yet what the pseudonym is.
VL: I remember the daughter-of-vet animal series syndicate (Guinea-Pig in the Garage, Tortoise in the Tortilla, Wombat in the Washing-Machine, etc), and they maintained a very coherent voice.
GP: Yes, Lucy Daniels! Still very popular I think – that too involved a lot of writers. I didn’t realise that was ghost-written till recently!
VL: Have you ideas about a new group-written series? What direction do you want to explore next, working with other writers? Have you plans to develop a new pseudonym line, or are Erin Hunter and Seth from Firebrand quite enough to be getting on with for now?
GP: At the moment I’m probably up to my limit as regards new projects [Oh GOD I’ve just remembered that I’ve also written two Beast Quests as Adam Blade!] I’d like to do more team writing in the future, though – I enjoy it, and there’s no doubt it’s a line of work that for the moment is a steady income stream, and that’s no small consideration, especially in the current climate. I don’t want to give the impression, though, that I only do it ‘for the money’ – I really enjoy the work, especially the fact that it’s a very different way of writing that exercises different ‘muscles’ – and I care about the characters. I wouldn’t do it if that wasn’t the case – I’ve passed on tendering for concepts that didn’t grab me.
In addition to the packaging work, I’m pretty preoccupied with developing another book of my own, too – working title Spitting Distance – so that’s another priority time-wise.
VL: OK, onto pseudonyms! You write under your own name and under pseudonyms: why? Had you more or less the same reasons or different reasons? Who decides that you’ll do this, you or your editor? Who chooses the final name, and decides its gender? Do you feel the pseudonyms taking on a life of their own, much as characters do? Do they have a say in how their books develop?
GP: For the Hothouse and Working Partners books – those are the two companies I work for – the pseudonym is decided by the editors, who own the concept. They need a pseudonym to identify the series, and of course it means they can employ several writers (especially when there are a lot of titles to be written, too many for one writer – Beast Quest being a case in point). It makes the series easily identifiable, and in practical terms, means the books are shelved together in bookshops. (An exception is something like Doctor Who, which is written by lots of different authors but obviously in that case, the identifying marker is the famous character). The pseudonym is carefully chosen to suit the subject, and I believe that’s another aspect that’s sometimes put to focus groups. So ‘Adam Blade’ is young and male and adventurous; ‘Erin Hunter’ has something of a Celtic flavour and ‘Hunter’ is particularly suited to animal fantasy.
I am very happy to write under the different pseudonyms – it’s a clear way of separating that writing from my own inside my own head. I suppose in a way I do find myself writing as a completely different person, even when my own ideas creep in. Though I may not actually feel that I become Adam or Erin, I can certainly feel them looking over my shoulder! They are, in a sense, characters, as much as the ones in the books (and heaven knows the book characters look over my shoulder, keeping an eye on me and what I’m doing to them…)
The pseudonyms are also a very good way of keeping the styles and the stories separate in my head. Adam isn’t Gabriella, and Gabriella isn’t Erin, so I never find one of them leaking into another’s story.
When I was writing short stories for magazines, the reason behind the pseudonym was entirely different – I always hoped to write novels, and I knew they’d be different altogether. So my short stories, while fun, weren’t my real vocation, and I knew I’d want to keep my real name for future work. Come to think of it, I suppose the reasoning isn’t that different – ‘Helen Lincoln’ was a different writer, if not a different person. (Her name came from my own middle name and my dad’s, so she wasn’t entirely unrelated to me…)
The only trouble I’ve ever had with alter egos is at book signings – I have to be careful not to sign myself ‘Gillian Hunter’ or ‘Gabriella Philip’…
VL: Moving back to how you use your own name: you write under the name you use in daily life and as part of a community: what are the advantages and disadvantages of that? Did you consider using your maiden name, for instance, or not using your own name at all?
GP: Hmm. Good question. I always wanted to write under my current name, so I decided against using my maiden name (Allsopp). I reckoned if I was happy to have a married name in everyday life, I should be happy to use it professionally, and I am. ‘Allsopp’ also seemed susceptible to misspellings – but then that’s a surprisingly big problem with ‘Philip’ as well (I can’t tell you how often I’ve been ‘Gillian Phillips’. Drives me nuts).
Having chosen to use my own name, though, I have been strongly advised to use different names for different genres. Perhaps unwisely, I resisted that; but while it may have been a disadvantage commercially, I am much happier on a personal level putting all my own work out under the same name. I’ve written dystopian fiction, historical fantasy and contemporary crime under the same name, and while the subject matter varies hugely, I think I bring the same attitude and voice to the stories – so despite any disadvantages, there are unifying factors, a sort of integrity. I’m happy with the decision, and I’ll live with it – and keep writing under that name in the hope that it’s my writing style and approach that will appeal. Anyway, the blurbs are there for a reason.
VL: In practical terms, how does the multiplicity of names work with getting your royalties? Do your contracts formally redirect all monies for pseudonym X back to GP? How does it work when you receive one-off cheques for personal appearances etc?
GP: My contracts are all with ‘Gillian Philip’, regardless of the pseudonym, so that doesn’t complicate matters at all. The contracts will stipulate something like ‘under the author name X’ or ‘author name to be decided by The Owner’, but they are signed by Gillian Philip, who is referred to as The Author, so it’s pretty simple.
For personal appearances, school visits and so on, I’ll either invoice directly, under my own name, or, if an event is under the auspices of the Scottish Book Trust Live Literature Fund, it’s all done formally and very efficiently with forms that a school fills in, and which I then submit to the SBT. It’s a GREAT system 🙂 – especially since I’m not brilliant at keeping up with paperwork…
VL: If you were to go to a school by special request as Adam Blade, how would you explain to the children that this writer who looks like their mum is actually Adam Blade? What issues come into play other than the obvious clothes? Could you get them discussing identity, and whether a male name means a certain sort of look, behaviour, response from them as readers? I don’t mean to get all gender-political here, but I’m interested in how children of the age-groups you write for as a ghost-writer respond to the author in person.
I don’t think the existence of team writing is a huge secret, though, and it would be a great thing to discuss with children – after all, they’re familiar with the concept (as much as they think about the background machinery, so to speak) through television shows. Certainly a huge majority of the Erin Hunter fans know that several writers and editors are involved, and it doesn’t bother them a jot. The first question I asked at every event on the US tour was how many of them knew about the arrangement, and I’d say virtually every child knew even when their parents didn’t! But the gender aspect is a different story.
I do like the idea of discussing the gender thing with kids. If a female can write as a male, why should any boy worry about reading a book by or about girls? (As an aside, one of the things I really like about Beast Quest is hero Tom’s strong and independent female sidekick. Elenna’s no romantic interest – what seven-to-nine year old boy would want that?! – but she’s saved Tom’s butt many a time.)
Now, I know a lot of boys do read books by female authors, or featuring female characters – but a good many don’t, and I suspect that’s not so much by inclination as it’s due to what’s expected of them by librarians, teachers, even publishers. There’s recently been a mini-Twitterstorm on my feed about a library that has set up a ‘Boys Only’ section – neatly ghettoising both the boys, and the girls who are ‘banished’ to the rest of the space. I happen to know (ahem) that a certain girl at my school more than thirty years ago was keen on Biggles. [That would be, er, me. Ed.] I know plenty of boys now who love The Hunger Games – female author, female protagonist. How many of them would actually quite like to read Louise Rennison too – boys like a laugh as much as the next girl – but wouldn’t be seen dead with the covers? It’s a real shame.
Conversely, there was a bit of a fuss on the Erin Hunter fan forums when I was first outed as the new Erin Hunter – some fans thought I was male, and that was a real problem for them. I couldn’t help wondering why.
I’m not saying it’s a universal problem, because I know boys are very enthusiastic about female writers like Catherine MacPhail and Keren David, who write engaging, sympathetic male characters. Personally speaking, I LOVE writing as a male character – preferably in first person – indeed, more so than as a female one. But people (usually adults!) do still express surprise at that. Though funnily enough, not one of the boys at my kids’ primary school expressed any shock when I told them I was writing a Beast Quest…
Yes, it would be interesting to talk to children about team writing and how it works – but it would also, I think, do nothing but good to encourage the thought that writing is all about imagination. Actually, in an ideal world, life is all about imagination. If you can think yourself into another body, another gender, another skin, another mindset, it can do nothing but good (even if it’s the mindset of the bad guy). Showing children that it’s not just possible, it’s fascinating – that would be really worthwhile (and fun).
Maybe the younger you are, the easier it is, anyway. Children on the whole don’t have any problem imagining the inner life of a dragon or a cat; why shouldn’t a boy imagine the inner life of a girl, or vice versa? Since their minds are so open when they’re young, anything that can stop the process of closing them has to be worthwhile.
VL: Last one! Do you have any concrete plans, or wild ideas for a new thing you want to try? Plays? Film scripts?
GP: Cripes and crikey! Well, although I have a fairly full schedule with ghosting work, and I’m keen to get into Spitting Distance as well as the fourth and final Rebel Angels book… I do have occasional wild hankerings to write episodes of favourite television series, like Doctor Who or Merlin. But those are very specialist skills. In my fantasy world I’d be writing an episode of Sherlock, but I’m just not good enough at elaborately cunning plotting for that one!
Gillian Philip can be found at her website, taking dictation from people who don’t exist.
Kate podcasts weekly about books that she really, really likes, on ww.reallylikethisbook.com.
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'