Friday, 12 July 2013

We sat down for a chat...with Dave Shelton and David Fickling

Double Daves win the Branford Boase Award 2013 for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat!

The Branford Boase is an exceptional award in children’s literature as it promotes debut children’s authors and highlights the guiding role of the editor’s hand in crafting the published text. This year, author Dave Shelton and editor David Fickling won it for the unusual and charming A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. I asked them a bit about working together on editing, covers, reading aloud and the future. Funny and mutually affectionate, it’s a bit of a boy and a bear story, delightfully told in their own words.....

M: When reading a novel, I imagine most readers don't consider the editing processes that shaped it into its final published form. What sorts of advice or tips did either of you garner from the other on this particular editing adventure?

Dave Shelton wins the Branford Boase Award 2013
Dave Shelton
Dave Shelton:
David is a very subtle, hands off editor. So there weren't many easily identifiable tips or pieces of advice, so far as I recall. About the only one I remember was to concentrate on 'the concrete', i.e. to portray the setting and action of the story through solid description, to make the reader inhabit the world of the story by making the actual things in the story seem real to them, to give them heft and weight and solidity. I'm probably explaining this rather badly. But I took his point and removed several bits of pretty phrasemaking that actually didn't mean very much if you stopped to think about them for more than a second. Mostly David only ever made gentle suggestions, and he was always at pains to stress that I was free to act upon them or ignore them as I saw fit. I suspect he got his way in almost every instance though. And that's because he's clever and he's usually right.

M: Having won the BBA three times, what magic wand are you waving, David?

David Fickling:
There’s no magic wand.  Winning three BBA’s may be just luck, but if it isn’t luck it is that I am a ‘potato print’ type publisher, by which I mean I read it! I Iike it! I publish it! That’s important. To be decisive. If you really like something and you ‘know’ (as in no one could dissuade you) it’s good, then, if you are a publisher, it’s important to get on and do something about it and not to dither too much. In the case of Dave Shelton I already knew he wrote wonderfully well from his brilliant comic strip Good Dog Bad Dog. (Read it immediately if you haven’t already). I didn’t really have to do any research to see if other people like it too.  I knew they would.  So when Dave said he would like to write something else I was keen from the off.  When I first read it I liked it immediately. From then on it was just a case of can I say anything at all that will help him make it exactly what he wants it to be, as good as it can be.  I don’t think I gave him any tips. 

M: A few of us have said we think A Boy and a Bear in a Boat would work beautifully as a 'read aloud' story with younger children. Was reading aloud ever part of the editing process?

Editor David Fickling wins the Branford Boase Award for the third time
David Fickling
David Fickling:
Ha! I think the sound words make, aloud or in your head, the rhythm of them, is hugely connected to how good we think the writing is. You can’t really judge a poem without reciting it yourself.   But I don’t remember Dave or I reading to each other.

Dave Shelton:
I don't recall reading aloud being part of the editing process as such, but I think we both talked about whether or not it did read aloud well. And it was a conscious aim that it ought to. I think I mostly succeeded in making it a relatively easy ride for parents reading aloud. Although a comics friend of mine, Glyn Dillon, told me he was press ganged into reading and rereading it to his son and by the end he rather regretted the early decision to give the bear a low, growly voice because by the third time through it had done terrible damage to his throat.

M: The hardback cover: it's been talked about, it's won awards. Tell us some more.

Dave Shelton:
The cover is entirely me, save for the blurb text and the placement of publisher's logo, barcode and suchlike. This is not to diminish the role of Ness Wood, who designed the book as a whole and did a fantastic job. But the cover is very much mine. It was very far from the first design I'd proposed. There had been dozens of thumbnail ideas discarded without showing them to David, and at least half a dozen more substantial proposed designs that he did see (and suggested were not quite right) before I came up with an early version of the eventual design. The problem had partly been that I'd been second guessing what I thought David (and everyone else at David Fickling Books, and at the sales and marketing departments at Random House) might want rather than just doing what I wanted. Once I did that I very quickly came up with something that I liked very much but that I only showed to David out of interest, not with any serious expectation of it ever becoming the actual cover. Then he almost immediately okayed it, much to my amazement.

This is, as I understand it, a virtually unheard of level of control for any author to have over his or her book cover, let alone somebody as unestablished as I am.

Hardback cover for A Boy and A Bear in a Boat by Dave SheltonNow, obviously, most authors aren't also illustrators or designers, so you wouldn't expect them to create their own designs but I do find it surprising how little say even very well known and successful authors seem to have in how their books are presented to the world. Some of my favourite authors' books almost always have terrible covers. I wonder if they don't know, or if they don't care, or if they care very much but have given up trying to argue.
But I want them to argue. I want them to be saying 'you are NOT going out dressed like that! Now wipe off that filthy foil type and make yourself presentable!' Although, in fairness, I don't actually object to a bit of garish trashiness as much as I do to the really dull ones that are just a bit of type bunged over a stock photo that make no statement at all about the book they ought to be representing, as if the main intention is not to attract the kind of reader who might enjoy this particular book, but instead to avoid putting anybody off (even the readers who would definitely hate it).
I think a good cover should say something about the book. And that's why I'm proud of the hardback cover for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat: it's odd, and seemingly rather low on content, but closer observation rewards the curious reader. At least that's the hope.

David Fickling:
I love the cover and it is entirely down to Dave.  It makes me smile every time I look at it. We publishers often judge too quickly. Luckily we waited for this cover to arrive.  I don’t know if that is unusual, but I just loathe a cover going out on a book when it is not right. That doesn’t mean I know what the cover should be. I couldn’t make a cover to save my life.  So for me it really isn’t a problem waiting for the right one to come along.  If you’re going home, no point in taking a bus that doesn’t go that way, might as well wait. Waiting can be both tedious and nerve wracking. Has the last bus gone?  Should I have got on the one that at least drops me two miles from my house? 

M: Looking to the future and an imminently independent David Fickling Books, what can we expect?
Without giving too much away David Fickling said: “They are going to be good. I’m crossing my fingers that one of them will be by Dave Shelton.” Luckily for him, the other Dave hopes “to be continuing to contribute to DFB's output for as long as they'll have me.” Good news all round then.
A Dave and a David in a boat....?
Here's my review of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat.
Here's an earlier interview with Dave Shelton.

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