I'm really pleased to welcome author Susan Price onto my blog. Susan is a multi award winning author who will be telling us all about her latest book, The Drover's Dogs, which I've read and thoroughly enjoyed.
After reading it I couldn't wait to find out what inspired her to write it – and just how difficult was it to research.
Firstly though, I asked Susan to tell us all about her writing career, so far. Staring with the question every author gets asked: How did you get into writing? I was amazed by her answer!
How did you get into writing?
I was determined to be a writer from an early age. From the age of 14, I was reading very critically, with a view to improving my own writing. If I liked a piece of writing, I asked, ‘What is this writer doing, to make this so good – and how can I copy it?’ If I disliked a piece of writing, I asked myself why, so I could avoid the same mistakes. I was also writing, with the intent of getting published.
I was a winner of The Children’s Literary Competition at the age of 15 and again at 16. Encouraged by this, I finished my first book, The Devil’s Piper, and tried my luck. It was accepted by Faber and Faber. I was 16. My dad had to sign the contract because I was under-age.
I've seen a number of your books, and they range from picture books to adult adventures. Do you write for all ages?
Oh yes. I enjoy it. I’ve written everything from The Little Red Hen and Billy Goats Gruff — stories I love – for nursery age, to The Sterkarm Handshake which is decidedly for adults. And for all ages in between.
I lost count of my published books a long time ago. I generally say ‘about 63’ but that’s an estimate. I’ve written several picture book texts, such as How The Bear Lost His Tail and ‘The Runaway Chapati. I’ve re-issued Chapati as a self-published book, with illustrations by my brother Adam, and it’s selling very well.
For children aged about 7 and up, I wrote The Wolf’s Footprint. This was so popular in schools that when it went out of print, I got many, many emails from teachers asking where they could buy it. So I republished it myself, with new illustrations by my brother Andrew – and that, too, is selling very well. (It’s useful,being related to artists.)
For slightly older children there’s The Ghost Drum and the other books in that series, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance, which are also selling very well as indie-books.
I’ve written teen fiction, such as Foiling the Dragon and the Odin’s Voice trilogy – and some books, such as the Sterkarm series have ‘crossed over.’ They’re to be republished in June by Open Road and they seem to be treating them as adult books.
Q. Some of your books have won awards. Can you tell us a little about those titles?
My book, The Ghost Drum, a fantasy set in a time and place something like Czarist Russia, won the Carnegie Medal. It went out of print, so I re-issued it along with its companions, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance – and all are doing very well as self-published books.
My time-travel, sci-fi-historical-adventure-romance, The Sterkarm Handshake, won the Guardian Fiction Prize – ‘for children,’ actually, but that’s such a mouthful that people usually just say ‘The Guardian Prize.’
The book was written for teenagers rather than children, and its biggest readership, from the start, seemed to be adults – though I was at a school recently where the teacher ducked back into the room after the class I’d been speaking left. She said, “I just wanted to let you know that when I was fourteen, The Sterkarm Handshake was my favourite book!” So it was read by some teenagers.
The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss are to be republished later this year, in June, together with a new book in the series: A Sterkarm Tryst, by the e-publishers Open Road. I’ve seen the new covers they’ve had designed. They are gorgeous and definitely adult in tone.
I’ve picked up a few other awards too – The Norfolk Libraries Prize for The Wolf’s Footprint and the Indiana Libraries award for The Sterkarm Handshake, but the main ones are the Carnegie and the Guardian. And of course it's great to win awards, but my thinking is more like – okay, that was lovely, now what am I going to write next?
Q. Can you tell us the story behind your latest book, The Drover's Dogs?
Up until now, I’ve only self-published re-editions of books that had already been published conventionally. But my latest book, The Drover’s Dogs has never been published before – it’s my first original self-published book. I did offer it, through my agent, to various publishers and got lots of ‘rave rejections.’ The typical response said, ‘We loved it, but it’s too quiet for the modern market.’
I could have tried rewriting it, but I liked the story as it was. So I decided to publish it myself. It was one of those stories that was a long, long time growing – but then, once started, almost wrote itself with few problems.
It’s set in the early 19th Century, and tells of a Scots boy, Sandy, running away from life as a ‘bondager,’ which amounts to slavery. He feels betrayed by his family and is distrustful of people – but falls in with two drove dogs who are travelling the roads alone. Since he has nowhere in particular to go – except as far away from home as he can get, he decides to follow the dogs to wherever they are going. He follows them across Scotland, from East to West and they bring him to the sea and the fishing village, as it was then – of Oban.
All the time Sandy knows that when they reach the dogs’ home croft, he will have to part with them because the dogs have a home and family where they belong and Sandy doesn’t, although he longs for one.
Q. It's a fascinating story, Sue. But where did the idea come from and what inspired you to write it?
I got the initial idea almost 20 years ago, when I read Haldane’s ‘Drove Roads of Scotland.’ In the footnotes it’s mentioned that when the drovers reached the cattle markets in the Lowlands, they sent their dogs home, and the dogs made their own way back to their Highland or island crofts.
This took my imagination. I loved the idea of the dogs fending for themselves and trotting along by fell and dale, crossing rivers and lochs. I tried several times to find a story for the dogs, but it never came to life until my Scots partner told me about the Scottish ‘bondagers.’ These were agricultural workers who were ‘bound’ to a farmer for a term, usually a year. Most of them were women, but boys were bound too. It was hard, hard work, in all weathers, seven days a week. Some farmers were fair, but others treated their bondagers very badly.
Q. How difficult was it to research the subject?
The internet has made research so much easier! I read Haldane’s book on the drove roads, and chose the one to Mull as the most likely. I used the internet and images to make myself a sort of pictorial route map – which, combined with my own memories of walking in Scotland, helped me imagine myself in Sandy’s world.
The best part of the research was going to Scotland with my partner and following much of the drove route (albeit, often in a car.) We found the old ferry crossing at Teychreggan, which is now a rather out of the way and posh hotel, and we stood at the edge of the deep dark loch – Loch Awe, where Sandy spends his silver threepenny bit.
Instead of following the modern road to Oban, we took the old road across the mountains – not a trip for the faint-hearted motorist, as the road is barely wide enough for one car, and has blind bends and inclines all the way. It gave me a wonderful sense of how tiny Sandy must have felt as the mountains leaned over him.
We saw the bay of Oban and the islands of the Hebrides as Sandy would have first seen them, from the top of the hills encircling the town; and we wandered from one end of the town to the other, trying to work out where the cattle would have been swum across from the island of Kerrara.
We crossed to Mull – one of our favourite journeys. The modern ferry puts in at Tobermory, but we had to find Grass Point, which was the old ferry point, on the island’s east coast. It’s well off the beaten track now, at the end of another scary road, and the old ferry house has become a place for tourists to stay.
Q. How long did The Drover's Dogs take to actually write?
Once I had the idea of Sandy running away and joining up with the dogs, it wrote itself fairly quickly and smoothly, in about a year.
Q. Did you encounter any problems when writing this book?
I knew as I wrote it that it was a ‘quiet’ book and I toyed with various ways of making it more ‘exciting’ with Sandy being pursued, or meeting ne’er-do-wells on the road. But it didn’t work out. For one thing, my research suggested that the farmer would be unlikely to pursue Sandy. There was no national police force in Scotland at that time, and it would have meant the farmer spending a great deal of his own time and effort – and neglecting his farm, in order to try and track Sandy down.
Also, the story didn’t want to be that kind of story. Every time I tried to take it in the direction of exciting chases and thrills, it simply ground to a halt and working on it was like trying to wade through knee deep mud. As soon as I let it go back to a simple tale of boy following dogs across the Scottish landscape, off it went again, as fast as a dog can trot.
So I worked with the story and let it be what it wanted to be; but this is why it was rejected by the big publishers: for being ‘too quiet.’ Yet the feedback I’ve had from those who have read it has been very positive. I can only hope that, as an indie-book, it finds its audience. If it’s ‘too quiet’ – well, not everyone wants to read ‘noisy’ books all the time!
Q. And finally, Sue, what are you working on now?
For a while now I’ve been working on the new book in the Sterkarm series, A Sterkarm Tryst, and then I’ve been revising the two other books, The Sterkarm Handshake and A Sterkarm Kiss. And I’m trying to get several out of print books out as POD paperbacks.
I’m taking a bit of break right at the moment, while I wait for final edits on the Sterkarm books to come back at me. After that, I do have a book up on the stocks. It’s more adult than anything I’ve done, I think, and I don’t know if I can finish it. The working title is Bad Girl.”
Sue, Thank you so much for being on my blog. Good luck with all the future writing, and I really hope that The Drover's Dogs is a great success.
If you would like to buy any of Susan Price's fantastic books, here are some links. Or discover more at her website: http://www.susanpriceauthor.com
The Drover’s Dogs – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Drovers-Dogs-Susan-Price/dp/1523900644/
The Wolf’s Footprint – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolfs-Footprint-Two-Susan-Price/dp/0992820499/
The Runaway Chapati, illustrated by Adam Price – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Runaway-Chapatti-Susan-Price/dp/1515329666/
How The Bear Lost His Tail – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Oxford-Reading-Tree-Traditional-Tales/dp/0198339585/
Ghost Drum – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Drum-Book-World-Sequence/dp/0992820421/
Ghost Song – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Song-World-Sequence/dp/099282043X/
Ghost Dance – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Dance-Czars-Black-Sequence/dp/0992820448/