Chiquibul Needs You and Me

I first met Rafael Manzanero on a trek across the Devil’s Backbone in the Chiquibul Forest.  He’s Executive Director of Belize’s Friends for Conservation & Development, which has responsibility for the Chiquibul National Park, an area of more than 284,000 acres of tropical broadleaf forest, which Rafael and his team at FCD manage with single-minded dedication.  I met Rafael again a week ago in England, at London University’s Institute of the Americas, where he was explaining why the Chiquibul Forest needs our help.  

The Chiquibul Forest is part of the second largest rainforest in the world - the massive mesoamerican corridor.  Over the last few years, nearly half a million acres of that corridor has been lost to poaching, logging and farming activities, and in Chiquibul most of that emanates from across the border in neighbouring Guatemala.

I saw this for myself when I visited Belize back in 2008. On the border with Guatemala, I stood on a hilltop and saw a line running through the jungle, trees on one side, scrubland on the other. The trees were on the Belizean side, my guide told me. They were part of Chiquibul, but the scrubland was in Guatemala. ‘If you return in a year,’ he said, ‘the mahoganies, palms and ceibas that surround us now will all be gone and that scrubland will be here.’ 

Last week at the annual conference of the UK-Belize Association, Rafael Manzanero told a room full of academics, politicians and friends of Belize that conditions out in Chiquibul were critical.  Scarlet macaws were down to their last hundred breeding pairs, victims of the pet trade.  If poachers couldn’t get at their nests, said Rafael, they would remove whole trees.  Gold-panning was on the up in the region, as was drug trafficking.  The forest floor was being stripped of xate, much prized in the floristry industry. Mayan sites, including Caracol - one of the finest Mayan city sites in Central America - were being plundered.  The forest was yielding up everything from jaguars to firewood, seized by armed xatero gangs who came over the border from Guatemala and helped themselves.

Deep in the forest, in an area it would take the Belizean authorities days to reach, people from at least a dozen communities were moving in, extracting the resources illegally.  Drug trafficking was on the up, with drug cartels moving their operations to the Guatemalan border, utilizing Belize’s jungle cover to their own ends.  Farmers were taking over where the loggers left off, growing pumpkins in place of trees, as well as black beans and corn. In some cases they were even claiming they’d always lived on that land - that it belonged to Guatemala, not Belize.  

What’s happening in Chiquibul is territorial incursion by stealth. For years there have been disputes between tiny Belize and its massive neighbour, Guatemala, over the very existence of Belize, which stands in the way of Guatemala’s ambitions for a Caribbean coastline.  With over fourteen million people, Guatemala has a population some forty-two times larger than Belize.  A country that denies its neighbour’s right to exist is hardly likely to support its complaints about borders being breached.  The UK isn’t helping either, more interested in friendship with the richer and more powerful Guatemala, than speaking up in defence of the Belizean rainforest.

It’s entirely to Belize’s credit that it cares so much about conserving its natural resources. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world and, beneath Chiquibul, the Chiquibul Cave System contains the largest cavern known in the Western Hemisphere. Rafael describes Chiquibul as a spiritual place and it’s not hard to understand why. 

Below is a photograph of my first camp on my first night in Chiquibul. I was in Belize courtesy of an Arts Council grant, researching gap year volunteering. Exploring didn’t come naturally to me, rather I’d found myself driven half way across the world in pursuit of a story.  That first night I fully expected to lay awake, tossing and turning, uncomfortable in my hammock, in dread of what the jungle had in store for me. Yet the exact opposite turned out to be the case. Despite my exhaustion, I struggled not to sleep. Surrounded by the mighty trees of Chiquibul, sleep would have felt like sacrilege.

I’ll never forget the full moon shining into that clearing, or the diamonds of light all around me in the trees, every one a set of eyes, or the sound of howler monkeys in the distance, growing closer, finally calling to each other in the branches above my head.  Then, next day, I’ll never forget swimming in a crystal river as still as glass, while butterflies and brightly coloured birds flitted around me. Once you’ve trekked into a region where few people ever go and seen the rainforest in all its glory, your perspective on what matters in life can’t help but be changed.  

According to Rafael, if all the xatero gangs were rounded up, there wouldn’t be enough space to jail them. Besides, many gang members were little more than children.  How to deal with a problem like that, especially when it’s poverty and desperation that in many cases are driving Guatemalans into the jungle? 

Back in 2008, a group of young British volunteers, many straight from school, trekked into Chiquibul, built themselves a camp and set to work in remote and difficult conditions to build a conservation post, creating a ranger presence to help keep Chiquibul intact. At the same time, a second group trekked along Chiquibul’s boundary with Guatemala, cutting a path to mark the edge of the Chiquibul National Park. In 2010, ‘In The Trees’, my novel about that project, written for the young adult market, was published by Faber & Faber and I set off around the UK, talking about my experiences in Belize and what was going on in Chiquibul in schools and libraries and at book festivals.  

Now, with the news that conditions in Chiquibul are worsening, I’m preparing to go out again on the speaking circuit. According to Rafael, Chiquibul needs more conservation posts. It needs more boots on the ground. It needs the support of its friends - and it needs to make new friends. 

‘The good news,’ said Rafael, ‘is that Chiquibul is a vibrant forest. Based on all we know, and all we feel, and all that we believe, it does have a future. Chiquibul is a gift from God to cherish.’

And cherish is what I intend to do.

If you know any group, school or organization that would be interested in hearing my talk about the people and rainforests of Belize, here’s my address. I’ll be taking bookings from the New Year onwards:

If you’d like to join FCD, and receive its newsletter, click the link. 












My Writing Life Part III - How I Came Into E-Publishing

In Part  I [scroll down a couple of posts] of this lengthy saga, I wrote about discovering I could write stories, getting my first book published and the experience that led up to it.   In Part II [not so far to scroll down] I wrote about writing Midnight Blue and winning the Smarties Book Prize.  Now I want to write about what happened after that.

I remember having supper not long after my win with Jenny Nimmo, a fellow Smarties winner – and Carnegie winner too – and her husband David Millward, with whom my family and I have spent many a happy New Year’s Eve.  I was inclined to brush off the Smarties, thinking it would soon be like yesterday’s news, quickly forgotten and quickly over. But not so, Jenny said. ‘lt’s your CV. It will remain with you forever,’ she said. And she’s been right.

Good agents can be the constant in an author’s life whilst editors come and go, especially in these days of international multi-whatever-you-want-to-call-it takeovers.  I’ve lost count of all the editors I’ve worked with over the years, but some of them stand out as truly brilliant and deserving of mention.  Sally Christie, then of Walker Books, stands out.  Working with her was a real pleasure.  So was working with Sarah Odedina, followed by Georgia Murray at Bloomsbury, and Anne McNeil, long ago now at Bodley Head.  I wish each and every one of them could have stayed put in their publishing house, and never moved or had babies or whatever they did, and that I could have stayed put with them. 

Julia Heydon-Wells of Faber & Faber was wonderful too.  I took her the idea for my gap year novel, ‘In The Trees’, and without even a hint of characters or storyline she saw the potential and said, ‘We’ll go with that.’  Without her and Fabers behind me, I never would have secured the Arts Council grant that enabled me to go out to Belize to research that book. And without that trip there would have been no book – so I have a lot to thank Julia for.   And indeed Laura, who brought the two of us together in the first place.   

I remember once attending a Jacqueline Wilson event, watching children going up row by row from the audience, rather like participants for Mass, in order to get her signature on their newly purchased books.  I’ve had a good relationship with all my publishers, but nobody has ever sold me like that. They’ve shown signs of appreciating my worth, which of course is always nice to know, but appreciation isn’t enough these days. What you want and need are the marketing boys and girls behind you – and I haven’t always had that, for all my books being called ‘lead titles’.

When I started out, I was advised that good books will always sell and that if I wrote enough to fill shelves in bookshops children and young adults would keep on coming back for more.  Well, the world has changed since then.  Back in those days, prolific and popular authors were allowed to fill shelves - but not any more.

When I first visited Fabers, too, their Managing Director came in to meet me.  He wanted to assure me that that company was editorially led.  This of course was music to my ears.   The reality, however, is that with the best intentions in the world, and the highest concern for excellence, publishing houses nowadays are marketing led.  What fills the shelves aren’t the noble volumes of the best of the bunch, but the titles that are easiest to pigeon-hole and plug.

Over the years, the rights for a handful of titles have returned to me, and there have been some – like Midnight Blue – that I’ve been anxious to retrieve.  The buzz about e-publishing, and the knowledge that fellow authors were taking their back-lists and self-publishing inspired me to at least give it a go.  I’m not the world’s most technological bunny, but found myself able to follow Katherine Roberts’ excellent guide to e-publishing [just about].  To my astonishment, after days of tearing out my hair and pressing the wrong keys, I ended up with a book on Kindle which looked as published as anybody else’s – and wow, it had been put there by me. 

Then I heard via my agent about the online authors' collective, Authors Electric, which was just in the process of starting up.  Around the same time, they seem to have heard about me because Katherine Roberts, who was co-founder with Sue Price, got in touch to say she’d be interested in talking to me.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  The upshot, though, is that I spent a couple of years writing posts for Authors Electric and my association with them proved invaluable for developing a new online audience, not to say of learning a thing or two from fellow authors who knew far more about the e-world than me.  

My first e-book, ‘Midnight Blue’ was published just in time for the 21stAnniversary of its Smarties win.  My second e-book, ‘Telling The Sea’ [in which I attempted to prove that I wasn’t just a one-trick pony but could write a very different sort of story with not a hint of magic in sight], came out a year later.  Hopefully later this year, more of my back-list will come out too.  There’s still ‘The Candle House’, ‘Tyger Pool’ and ‘The Beast of Whixall Moss’ to come.  I don’t have the rights on any of my other books, though ‘In The Trees’ is now out as an e-book too, published by Fabers.

It’s completely wonderful to have the opportunity enabled by self e-publishing to reach out to a new generation of young readers. I’m enjoying it, and consider it to be a not only a worthwhile venture, but very much the way forward for the future of publishing. However, I’ve learnt that doing the publishing myself - having control over my own work, re-editing if necessary, finding appropriate covers and physically getting the books out there, not to say anything of marketing them afterwards and taking on the challenges of social media, is not as wonderful as I’d hoped.  I find myself torn between feeling guilty when I’m not doing more of it, and feeling guilty when I do. After all, what I really, really want to do with the last whatever years I’ve got on this earth - thirty if I’m extraordinarily lucky, tomorrow if I’m not – IS WRITE!!!!!

You can tell from this blog how much I love to write, and that for me writing’s all about sharing.  I love it that I’ve found this very special, intimate, personal way to reach out.  What I’m doing is heart to heart.  Me to you.  I wouldn’t go as far as to say soul to soul, but you know what I mean.

A few months ago I was stunned by the Wim Wenders film ‘Pina’ which I saw courtesy of the Shrewsbury Film Society.  Something as small as the turn of a head or the gesture of a wrist pulled out of each of Pina Bausch’s dancers something intimate about themselves.  For twenty or more years, she sat at her desk watching her company dancing, discovering through their gestures who they were, drawing out of them what she’d discovered and helping them to celebrate it in dance.  

And when I write, I hope to draw the person out of the reader in something like the same way - though doing it by means of story.  Sometimes these stories are fictions on my part.  Over the last year, they’ve been the stories of my home town [if you haven’t come across it, go to My Tonight From Shrewsbury and see what I mean].  I may not encounter my readers across my desk, face to face, but believe me I know they’re there, and every one of them matters to me and if what I write becomes even the most molecular part of what they are, or the way they see the world around them - what an extraordinary achievement for just a handful of words.

So how can I take time out for publicity and marketing, when what I need time for is to write the next thing, whatever that may be?  And, if I don’t take time out for publicity and marketing, in the end who’ll have anything new written by me?

It’s a balancing act - one that all us writers are engaged upon.  We're circus performers really, swinging from our trapezes, leaping through hoops of fire, walking the hire wire, hoping it’ll hold us up.  Hoping for wings and the illusion of flight.

When I first started out as a young writer, I was much impressed by a Graham Greene quote.  He likened the first novel to a short, sharp sprint.  You throw all you’ve got into it, he said.  But a literary career is more like a marathon.  You have to pace yourself.  You write differently.  And you keep on writing.  That’s what marathons are all about.  Staying in for the long haul.

And that's what I'm trying to do. When I look at myself, what I see is one big jumble of books and ideas, lessons learned and mistakes made, every step of the way accompanied by words.  Somewhere in a box I still have my terrible teenage diaries – volumes of them.  I have my first attempts at poetry.  I have my first nine year-old story, an Enid Blytonesque adventure called ‘Bobby and the Monkey’.   I can remember writing it.  I can remember standing, three years old, at the garden wall telling stories to the big children in the house next door.

So what’s next, I ask myself?  My Tonight From Shrewsbury has been all-consuming this year, and I've taken up tapestry weaving after a gap of many years and have a joint exhibition coming up in Nuneaton in June 2014. Then there's the novel that I've been so busy this year that I haven't done more than make a few notes. But I've been thinking about it, and the notes might look a bit thin – but they won’t be for long. 



My Writing Life Part II - How I Won The Smarties Book Prize

In my first post [down, if you're scrolling] I wrote about the sweet success of having a first book published after a writing life extending back to the age of nine, and in my third post [scroll up] I brought the story up through a further eleven novels, and what they taught me, to the present day.  In this post, however, I'm writing about the fifteen year gap I took from writing after the publication of that first book, and how I came to write 'Midnight Blue'.   

During those years, as befit a child of the sixties, I did the hippie thing, moved to the countryside from the city, grew vegetables [not very well], baked bread in a solid fuel stove, collected cats and dogs – and five children.  I also taught myself to weave, and made cloth, wall-hangings and rugs.

Then suddenly I found myself heading for my forties, the mother of five children under the age of eleven, including a new baby. And despite all my busyness, an overwhelming sense of emptiness settled like fog upon my life.  Who was I really?  Was I the person I seemed to be, or someone else? Where was I going?  Where was the person I used to be? That little girl once called Pauline Fisk who had so longed to be a writer when she grew up – where was she?

For more than a decade, Dave and I had lived in a cottage in a village on the Shropshire flank of the Long Mountain.  Our house overlooked the Norman tower of its parish church. We had a huge garden and good sized rooms, but there weren’t many of them, our windows were tiny, our ceilings low and it was easy to feel cramped.  Bringing up three children in that cottage felt like a crush.  Four and I was panicking.  Five, and we had children sleeping on window-sills.  I kid you not.  When you’re married to an architect, you have to prepare yourself for lateral thinking. Architects don’t solve problems like anybody else.     

At the front of our house was a tiny study with a huge open fireplace, which we’d pile into on winter nights because it was so warm.  Dave came up with the idea of a swing-bed on the wall, which we could sleep in, freeing up a bedroom for a couple of the kids. He built it out of a massive old door, with a mattress tucked behind it, hinged up against the wall by daytime and pulled down by night.  It didn’t look particularly inviting, and was hard to climb up into, but it turned out to be a bit of a nest.  In fact I learned to love that bed. The only time I didn’t use it was when Idris was born. 

Even so, he was born in that room – the fourth of my children and the first to come into the world by acupuncture home delivery. And my fifth child, Grace, was in that room as well, sleeping in a moses basket when it suddenly hit me that I had to start writing again.

This is one of the strangest episodes in my life. I was seated in my favourite armchair by the fire, with an empty armchair opposite me and Baby Grace in the moses basket on the floor. Suddenly a strange man appeared before my eyes.  He literally came into existence in the armchair opposite me. I can’t remember his face, but I remember that he wore a white shirt, and that blood was pouring down it from a gaping wound.  Before I could say or do anything, he fell out of the chair, collapsing onto the floor - and died.  Before giving up the ghost, his last words were, ‘If you don’t write my story, nobody will ever know who killed me, or why.’

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have an imagination.   Sometimes that imagination is a problem, sometimes it’s my friend.  On this occasion it was my conscience, pricking me to life.  Ever since my first book of short stories had been published, I’d been burying myself in other things.  Something had been wrong with that book, but I’d been too young and inexperienced to know what it was. The result of this was that a crushing fear of failure stood in the way of my writing any more. For one glorious moment I’d been on the verge of a literary career, but then I’d got cold feet. It was so much easier to say you know I could have been a writer if I wanted than to take the plunge and really go for it, only to find that I didn’t have what it took.

What was wrong with that first book, I now realize, was its lofty, highly-unnatural tone, pitched half way between Tolkien and the King James Bible - this being what I reckoned a book had to sound like if its author was to be accepted as a ‘proper writer’. I had yet to learn to trust in me, in my own voice.  The most important lesson an author can learn. And yet even all these years later, when I did start writing again, shocked into action by the man with the bloody shirt, I still wasn’t using my own voice.

For the next few years, I wrote articles, radio plays, short stories and poems, all in the house style of who ever I was trying to pitch to.  That, I was told, was the way to make money as a writer.  And sometimes I did, but more often than not I didn’t.  And then, in a sudden, completely unexpected ‘what the hell’ moment, I gave up on trying to do it that way, and started doing it my own.  I made a conscious decision to write in my own voice, and only write what I wanted, never mind the money, or the pitching or anything else.  I didn’t have to sound like Tolkien to be a proper writer, or Ray Bradbury or Raymond Chandler or anybody else whose books I liked.  I had – note that word had - to sound like me.

Finally I had got it.  The penny had dropped.  Why then I’ve no idea, but life’s like that sometimes.  Things just come. And that’s when I started writing ‘Midnight Blue’.   What did I want to write above everything else?  Novels for children and young adults [though they weren’t called young adults back then].  What did I want to write about?  Magic hot air balloons.

Years before, back in the Brick Barns days, which I wrote about last month, I’d written a story, ‘Ben the Balloon Man’, about a magic hot air balloon piloted by a sky gypsy. Now I read a book called ‘The Flight of Condor I’, by adventurer Jim Woodman , who along with the English balloonist Julian Nott, had attempted to prove, out in the deserts of Nazca, that the Inca had the technology and skill to fly balloons a thousand years ago.

Jim Woodman is now dead, but Julian Nott has gone on to greater things.  He’s the balloonist who’s broken all the records and been the one to do new things first. Nowadays he’s to be found working for NASA, putting balloons around Saturn. However, he says the Condor I flight was the stand-out ballooning event in his life. I’m proud to say that he has the artwork for the new ebook version of ‘Midnight Blue hanging in his office in California.  If you visit his website, you can find the Nazca link, and see that ‘Midnight Blue’ gets a mention.

But having ideas is one thing, executing them another – especially if you have five children.  With a toddler still not old enough for school, and four other fairly young children in a variety of different schools, it was a hard time to start on a novel. Every day I’d get up at 5.00am and write for two hours before the children awoke.  This has since become a life’s habit [I’m writing this at a quarter to five]. I’ve talked about this before, I know, but there’s something special about that first hour between sleep and wakefulness.  The writing I do then is like the cream on top of the milk. There may not be much of it, but little and often is still how I like to work.  That way the writing never goes cold on me.  The ideas keep coming and I keep getting them down.   

‘Midnight Blue’ was about the countryside around me, the Devil's Chair, the Stiperstones, the Long Mountain and the Rea Valley that lies between those hills, driving them apart.  It was also a huge success.  Nothing prepared me for this.  After the book was published, I went down to London for some reception – I can’t remember what. Everybody at my publishers seemed to think my being invited was a big deal, but a big deal for me was the fact that I had a novel in print.  When I arrived at the reception, I was completely unprepared for what happened next.  People kept coming up and wanting to meet me, and congratulating me. I didn’t know that I was on the Whitbread Children’s shortlist, because it had only just come out.  Then it turned out I was on the Smarties shortlist too. Nobody had ever heard of me, and I was up against big names for these prizes, and everybody wanted to give this unknown author from nowhere a bit of a once-over.

The award ceremony for the Smarties was at the Barbican in London.  I took Dave and two of my daughters along for moral support.  Nobody else had children with them - though, as this was a children’s award, I couldn’t see why not.  The place was packed with publishing people who obviously all each other [everybody seemed to know everybody else, except me].  The big names stood in the midst of their entourages.  Roald Dahl wasn’t there because he was in hospital, but I remember Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice fame, and his shock of white hair, and Gene Kemp was there, and lots of other authors too but, looking back, they’re all a bit of a blur.    

I do remember Susan Hill though, who as head of the judges came to tell me how much she loved my book.  Someone else said it was the book that everyone was talking about. Someone else mentioned the words annus mirabilis.  Even so, it seemed to me that my chances of winning were fairly remote.  As an unknown author from a fairly unknown publishing house, I hadn’t even given an acceptance speech a moment’s thought. I was just happy to be included in the event. 

When ‘Midnight Blue’ was called out, the words seemed to come from a million miles away.  I remember stepping forward to receive congratulations for winning my category award and it being a struggle to get my head round beating Roald Dahl. But then, after all the other congratulations for other categories, the name ‘Midnight Blue’ was called again. There were gasps all round the Barbican. I stood there feeling sick.  I had won the Smarties Gold Award.

I don’t remember what I said, except that it ended with a Bob Dylan quote and somewhere in the middle of it all I said something about my children and Dave never having matching socks. Afterwards I was interviewed , filmed and photographed.  Then there was lunch with my agent and publishers, my daughters going on about the cost of it all and who was going to pay  [a common theme in our house].  Then it was off to Liberty’s - a triumphal trip that saw me sitting atop a pile of Persian rugs in my posh [charity shop] frock, pulling them back one by one deciding which to spend my prize money on.

It was a big cash prize.  I have that Persian carpet to this day.  I also have the Parker Centennial fountain pen, all £250 pounds worth of it, that I bought the following day. I remember reading somewhere about JK Rowling’s first indulgent purchase being an aquamarine ring.  Well, my indulgence was a fountain pen. For years I’d been eyeing it - and now it was mine. And I’m telling you, writing with it feels as good now as it ever did.

So there you have it, Part II of how I became an e-book writer - Me and ‘Midnight Blue’.  We didn’t win the Whitbread, but it was still an amazing year.  Jenny Nimmo, who lived nearby, said from her experience of winning Smarties Gold too, that nothing in my life would ever be the same. And she was right.

So what did I do next?  By this time, ‘Midnight Blue’ was being translated and read around the world. My publishers thought a sequel would be a great idea, but I had ideas of my own. So many authors who succeed with a first book discover they have nothing else in them.  I was determined to prove that I wasn’t one of those.  I knew I was still an apprentice writer and had a long way to go. And I wasn’t going to learn anything, I reckoned, by regurgitating ‘Midnight Blue’.

In my next post in this series [scroll up] I’ll tell you about the long apprenticeship that has been my writing life since, and that lasts to this day. Part III of my writing life is about finding my way into e-publishing [scroll up even more]. In the meantime, in celebration of the 21st anniversary of its Smarties win, ‘Midnight Blue’ has been published for Kindle.  If you’d like to read it, here’s the link