To celebrate the prize, I have interviewed Dave Shelton, winner of the Branford Boase Award for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat in 2013, and judge (with great taste) of the 2014 prize, which I won with Infinite Sky in case you had forgotten. He is also author of Thirteen Chairs and Good Dog Bad Dog.
Hi Dave! As you know, the Branford Boase shortlist is announced today. Mostly, we agreed easily on the shortlist, but there were a few books that split opinion. Did you enjoy the judging process?
I really did, yes. Admittedly a small part of that was a sizeable sense of relief that all the reading was over (I’m naturally a rather slow reader and we’d had, I think, 29 books to get through in the end – which was quite a challenge) but mostly it was just a joy to talk about books and writing in the very good company of my fellow judges. And we too agreed pretty easily on a shortlist. In fact I was almost disappointed that things went so smoothly – I kind of felt like there ought to be some heated arguments along the way, but the fact was there really was no need.
How easy do you think it is to judge books across different genres?
Oh it’s not difficult, it’s impossible, really, isn’t it? Which is ‘better’: this madcap comedy about a purple alien living in a council estate in Swindon, or this heart-rending story about living with a relative with dementia? This fruitcake or this sports car?* The best you can do is to try to judge each book’s success in achieving its own apparent ambitions. But in the end, to some extent, you just have to accept that these things are a bit arbitrary and the personal tastes of the judges are going to hold some sway, however fair and impartial they try to be.
How did winning the Branford Boase Award impact your career?
Yes. I’m sure it raised my profile a bit, and I suspect it helped sell quite a few more copies of the book (A Boy and a Bear in a Boat – available in all good book shops. Highly recommended). And it gave me the excuse to change my name by deed poll from ‘Dave Shelton’ to ‘Award-winning Dave Shelton’. So that was nice.
Do you think prizes and shortlists are particularly important to debut authors, or do you think the more experienced novelist requires them more?
I think it’s pretty tough for everyone these days and there’s maybe not much in it, but yes, it’s a bit more important for debut authors (well, for non-celebrity debut authors anyway). I would imagine that if you’re still going after getting half a dozen or so books out then you’ve hopefully achieved a bit of momentum and recognition and maybe shortlists and the like are a bit less important, but there are so many books coming out these days that anything that gives you a smidge of an advantage in being noticed is a bit of a godsend. Plus, we tend to be a touch on the insecure side so a little bit of reassurance that, yes, you did an okay job that time, is very welcome too.
Good Dog, Bad Dog and A Boy in a Bear in a Boat cater for slightly younger readers, while Thirteen Chairs would probably scare the bejesus out of seven year olds, which kind of books do you most enjoy writing?
I’ve not really decided yet. Thirteen Chairs felt like harder work than the other two (which were quite hard enough themselves, thank you very much) but I think that was because I tied myself up in knots a bit with the structure of it. So there was a lot of rewriting and editing and re-rewriting and re-editing that turned it, at times, into a bit of a slog. But I don’t think that was especially to do with the age range I was writing for, it was more just (as is so often the case) me being an idiot. I think, of the three, I enjoyed creating Good Dog, Bad Dog more, because it was originally made in three page episodes and published weekly in a comic. So there was a certain seat of the pants improvisation to it, with lots of odd, unforeseen little ideas getting thrown in along the way, and a bit of mad energy to it. But it may just be that it’s the one that I did longest ago so I’ve had more time to forget the bad bits. All my books have driven me at least a little bit mad along the way but I’m coming round to accepting that maybe that just comes with the territory.
Do you enjoy writing books? It seems like it would be more enjoyable when you are illustrating it too – is this the case?
Well, as I kind of implied in my last answer, I do find it hard work. And I do make great efforts to find excuses to do something else for rather too much of the time (thanks for sending me these questions by the way...) I keep fooling myself that the next book will be easier. And luckily I have a terrible memory so I can forget quite how bad the worst bits were last time round. Mostly I enjoy having written rather more than I enjoy writing (I think I may be stealing this line from Dorothy Parker or someone, but it’s no less true for its unoriginality). But ... but ... those occasional (all too rare) glorious days when it’s all going right and you write happily and the words just flow out as if by magic. Or some bit of plot just falls satisfyingly into place in a way you’d in no way planned for or expected. Or a character says something that makes you laugh... Those are the high points that keep you going. That and the increasingly alarming credit card statements.
When you are reading and enjoying another person’s book, do you think about how you would illustrate their world/characters?
Almost never. I’m sure I must have on some occasions but it’s very rare. I’m more likely to imagine someone else’s illustrations for something I’m reading. Or even to imagine someone else’s illustrations for something I’m writing (there’s a beautiful alternative version of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat that exists in my head with illustrations by my mate Tom Gauld, for instance).
How do you think UK YA compares with American?
I read too little of either to have an opinion. Though I would hope that the UK books make more use of the letter u.
Who are your favourite writers for young people? Your biggest influences, generally?
Again, I’ve read too little to have a hugely worthwhile opinion but I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of the late Mal Peet’s books. And, you know, if you ever finish anything else I might give it a passing glance... In terms of influences in general I think most of my biggest influences come from outside of children’s books. It’s occurred to me relatively recently that Radio 4 is probably the biggest single influence on my writing. Prior to the availability of on demand media I’d often have the radio on more or less for whole days while I was working (this is back when I was only illustrating – I pretty much need silence when I’m writing) and I think that kind of constant presence of a variety of voices can’t help but to seep in to your brain and have some effect. Other influences come from films and telly and comics, but the books that I feel have most affected my own style (such as it is) are probably ones written for adults that I read in my mid teens to my early twenties. I’m pretty sure there’s a tiny bit of Douglas Adams in there somewhere, possibly some PG Wodehouse, but all so mixed in with all the non-book influences that nobody else would see it but me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently somewhat behind with the writing of a comedy murder mystery set in a 1950s girls’ boarding school with a schoolgirl detective lead. Unfortunately, though there didn’t seem to be anything much like it when I first mentioned the idea to my publisher because I’m so slow, it seems like everyone is writing schoolgirl detective stories now (most prominently Robin Stevens is multiple books ahead of me with her Wells and Wong titles). But I’m hoping that my natural oddness will set my book apart from all the others. Either that or I’ll take so long to finish it that the bandwagon will have disappeared over the horizon and I’ll be seen as bravely trying to revive the genre. Anyway, I think it’s going to be quite good, and it’ll have lots of illustrations again, like A Boy and a Bear in a Boat did.
If you could be sailed across the sea by a benevolent talking animal, besides a bear, what would it be?
I’d have to say our dog, Barney. I could use his enormous ears as sails.
*Bad example. Obviously the cake is better.
*Bad example. Obviously the cake is better.