Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007


Am beginning to feel like a travelling prophet of doom.

It began the very week that Exodus was published - my home city, Glasgow, which I had fictionally drowned in sea 100 years in the future, was engulfed in floodwaters. Orkney was the fictional model for Mara’s sinking island, Wing, and last winter my cousin Carol, who lives in Orkney, emailed me photos of its streets turned to rivers of sea. Last summer, I was no sooner off the train after speaking about Exodus and Zenith in middle England than the entire region was submerged in catastrophic floods. This month, as my publishers mapped out a promotional tour of East Anglia, the entire east coast was threatened by a tidal surge (yes, that's it above).

Just off the train from a few author talks in various places but no bad news as yet....

Off to Luxembourg next week, taking my 'Apocalyptic Powerpoint' to British Council school pupils (the slideshow has been going down very powerfully, and there is hope amid the apocalyptic images, I promise). Fortunately Luxembourg has no sea coast so I can’t see what damage I can possibly do there. I keep thinking of a film I saw as a child, starring Richard Burton, who dreams of disasters that come true. Maybe I should stay home quietly and write happy, pink, glittery tales.

But seriously, because obviously it is serious, I'm getting together an EARTHSPACE page ( It will grow as time goes on but it already has some fantastic links and inspirational info - and even eco-games - for anyone with an inclination to join the planet's gathering army of eco-warriors: the single necessary world war we really should all be joining up to fight.

On a much happier note, ZENITH (above) has been nominated for the 2008 Cilip Carnegie Medal. The Carnegie is awarded by the UK’s librarians to an outstanding novel for young readers. All five of my older books have now been nominated so I know not to hold my breath for the shortlist - it's just great to be chosen out of the 10,000 or so novels for young readers that are published in the UK each year.

The Carnegie Award is brilliant for readers and writers as many schools read and judge the books, 'shadowing' the official awards process - but even if you are not part of the shadowing process, the nominations list is a great guide to a good read out of this year’s crop of books.

As a Scot, I’m especially proud as the award is named after fellow Scot, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Pictured above, he looks a bit like Santa Claus, and maybe that's no coincidence. Carnegie rose from rags to being one of the richest men in the world after making his fortune in steel in the USA and his memory of using a library as a child made him vow 'if ever wealth came to me it should be used to establish free libraries.' And he did - he gifted almost 3000 of them in the UK and all across the world. Quite some Santa.

Wouldn't it be good to see much more of that bygone grace of 'giving back' in today's privileged and super-wealthy? The amazing legacy of philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie lives on.


Thursday, November 8, 2007


One of my books, SOUNDTRACK, is about a catastrophe that befalls Lagandall, a fictional village by the sea. A comet hangs in the sky over the sea, where the disaster happens, like a portent of doom. The uncanny fictional event mirrored a shocking real one that occurred off the coast of Scotland: the Antares disaster. The comet was real too. I would look out of my window and see the Hale-Bop comet flaring like a ghost or an angel above the rooftops as I wrote. And I discovered all kinds of superstitions and fears and fascinations trail in a comet's wake. In ancient times, when a comet appeared in the sky, the world held its breath and wondered what might follow.

So on this sparkling, cold and clear November night I will stand at the top of the hill where I live and search the skies for the exploding Comet Holmes: 'the strangest comet to burst onto the celestial scene in our lifetime'.

Wikipedia entry.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bouncer Bertagna (Writing Muse)

This should have been attached to last post but image wouldn't upload - for all you people who seem as interested in the rabbit as the new book!

The Ideal Writing Companion

As the leaves blaze and fall into knee-high piles outside my door, I am turning over a new leaf here: two posts in two days. Rebel & Co (see below) must surely be impressed. Am beginning to see why blogging is so very popular, especially among writers. What a great distraction from the thing you are supposed to be writing. Yet you can kid yourself you are still working - well, you are researching and writing, aren't you? You could easily spend hours every day looking up interesting Sparky Stuff to post, and barely write another thing. Much better than tidying out the wardrobe/ desk/ rabbit hutch to avoid the burn-out that seems to hit around page 157 of every book.

By chance, just after introducing Rabbit in the last post I found this on (another fantastic distraction-site) : a Pet Personality Quiz for Writers. Apparently, if you have a small animal as a 'writing companion':

'Nobody needs a pick-up line to get you to cuddle. Deep down, you want take the lead, but your playful nature hides this desire from the world. You tend to like to write longhand -- something about the paper that really turns you on. A little disciplined time and space for writing would help you to meet deadlines. While others are racing ahead, you’re content to eat the nuts and seeds in your trail mix.'

Absolutely no comment.

Neither would I dare comment on the accuracy of the profile of a writer who finds inspiration with an exotic bird, of the feathered kind, on their shoulder (

A rabbit is the perfect writing companion. He needs no walkies when you are lost in that hard-won mysterious 'zone' when the hours fly by and writing is a dream. Cast a few carrot chunks about the room and he will amuse himself quietly all afternoon by foraging in corners. Rabbits don't bark or twitter, just make sweet gruntings and look impossibly cute when they want something. They are the ultimate muse: when you read a bit of the book you are working on, they never look bored or less than impressed. And they are the best foot warmer in winter, as you sit at your desk.

What more could a writer want?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bunnies and Baby Goths

Rebel & Co, my Teen Advisory Board (aka my 13 year old daughter & friends; that's Rebel with the fringe, not the ears) keep me right on all things 'awesome' and 'eeew'. Well, they've decided I just don't cut it as a blogger. I need to do better. They are right. I will try to be more sparky, more often. Just write about Stuff, they say.

So I was thinking about Stuff to write about the other night as I stood with Rebel & Co, waiting for the mighty Avenged Sevenfold ( to take the stage and blast us all away at what was deemed The Best Gig In The Universe, Ever. It was a fantastic small gig of just 400 'best friends.' The great thing about having a teenager in the house is that you find out about all kinds of Stuff that would never be on your radar otherwise. (Though it can be bewildering trying to work out why the top you've pulled on that morning is suddenly 'eeew' when it didn't offend anyone last week...)

And so I came to be in a black-dark Goth cavern that was swarming with sweet little baby Goths, enjoying some screaming hi-energy punk-Goth-metal-with-soul, for the first time in many moons. I remember when I saw The Ramones, just along the road at the Apollo, I said, casually trying to impress Rebel & Co. And I did. 'You saw The Ramones? THE Ramones!' Uhuh. I basked in a fleeting moment of awesomeliness. Don't get so many of them these days. But then Rebel never took me to see Avenged Sevenfold when she was seven. If I want uncomplicated awe and devotion there's always Rabbit, and as you can see he is a pretty cute guy. (That's him with the ears.)

'I've just remembered. This is a historic site. You know who played a legendary last gig here?' Rebel's dad declared, as Rebel & Co emerged from the scary gothpit, gasping for Irn Bru, looking as if they'd survived a monsoon.

'Me', he said wistfully. 'My band. If it hadn't been for those, um, musical differences we could have had the world....'

But he's got Rebel instead, with his rock genes. She disappears back to the baby gothpit, eyeliner streaming beneath her Goth fringe (above) that I cut and dyed, as payment for her setting up Myspace pages for Mara and Fox - with Tuck, Pandora and others to follow, in time.

And that's really the Stuff that this blog is about. That Mara and Fox will be on Myspace soon. I'll post here and on the main website when we've got things up and running and I hope you'll drop in and befriend them.

Some news:

A definite spring release date (April) for EXODUS in the US.

ZENITH paperback is released in UK February, with a competition prize so amazing I wish I could win it myself. More on this soon. ZENITH will be Waterstone's Book of the Month for February.

Lots of adaptations and productions of the books are in progress, and lots of green projects all over the country, which are using Exodus and Zenith to bring the facts to life. I'll put up details on a special GREEN PAGE. Coming soon...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Summer 2100

Mara grips her father's hand as they face the impossible truth. All the islands in the north are gone. Now it's too late for miracles. The entire network of islands has been swallowed by the sea. Along with most of Wing.
“We're out of time, Mara,” says her father.
Furious, Mara runs down to the edge of the waves, crashes into the sea and struggles to reach the old red phone box that stands on the humpbacked bridge. Up to her waist in water, she reaches an arm through a windowpane that's long emptied of glass and dials the old emergency number. Why, she doesn't know. Who she is calling, she doesn't know either. Who on Earth does she think might answer? The line is dead of course.
This can't happen, Mara sobs down the phoneline that's been dead for decades.
No one answers. They're all long gone.

Fox leans closer. ‘It was a hundred years ago, Mara. It’s history.’
‘But they knew. They could’ve done something but they didn’t. They knew. They didn’t think about the future, did they? They never thought about us.’

After this summer’s catastrophic floods in the UK and all across Asia, and Hurricane Dean now rampaging across the Caribbean and hurtling into Mexico, the event I’m doing at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival could not be more timely. On Sunday, I will be exploring visions of the future with two other authors. The debate is not just about Scotland, it’s about all our futures.

Floods have wrecked millions of lives, the storm is still rising... but people are beginning to talk about ‘climate change fatigue’? It’s true that if one more breezy celeb nags me to use low energy light bulbs, having been flown in and taxied to a TV studio where lights blaze day and night (just as they burn in empty offices in every city in the world) I feel I'll blow a fuse myself.

We need less nagging and a lot more vision and imagination. That’s what fiction, and the event, is all about. We’d love you to add your energy to the mix.

Apocalyptic Scotland: Julie Bertagna, Catherine Forde & James Jauncey
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square Gardens

Sun 26/08/2007 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Teens & adults

Join some of teen fiction's strongest voices on a journey to a new Scotland. Each has written distinctly different dystopian futures for the nation. In an age of uncertainty, political upheaval and environmental catastrophe, they look to the future to explore who we are and who we may yet become. A truly outstanding collaboration not to be missed.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It was ten years ago today...

Ten years ago today I did my first-ever author event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with another brand new writer. She, like me, was a trembling, whey-faced nervous wreck. 

'Hi, I'm Jo and I'm terrified,' she whispered, as we exchanged a sweaty-palmed handshake. I reassured her that she had met her match in the terrified stakes. Never, in my dreams of becoming an author, had I imagined I would end up onstage before a sea of faces - my idea of a nightmare. I'd only ever got as far as dreaming of a book with my name on it on a bookshop shelf. 

It was just a few weeks before Princess Diana died. The world didn't yet know but it was about to find, in that terrified rookie author that was Jo Rowling, a new Cinderella story to replace the one that was about to end so catastrophically. This was a Cinderella to suit the new millennium - one where Cinders didn't even need a prince; she could write her own happy-ever-after in an Edinburgh cafe with a baby buggy at her side.

Some months earlier, I’d been amazed to see book bins stacked with Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights, with dramatic posters, in bookshops. Back then, children's authors didn't get book bins. Or posters. Or a marketing budget, to be brutally honest. You were supposed to feel grateful to be published alongside the grown-ups. Things were about to change. Together, Potter and Pullman would transform this publishing backwater into a booming business that, nowadays, entices some of the biggest names in adult fiction to write a children's or 'crossover' novel. 

A couple of mavericks were behind the revolution. David Fickling was the pioneering editor who published Pullman’s His Dark Materials (a 1200-page epic inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost) at a time when most editor’s had decided that children and teenagers only read books that were short, snappy and not too demanding. The original print run for Northern Lights, the first of the trilogy, was just 500 copies and sales were not much higher until it won the Carnegie Medal in 1996. Fickling took that win as the green light to experiment, stealing marketing techniques from Goosebumps, the hugely successful 1990s children’s horror series. Never before had a vast literary epic for children been published with all the pizzazz of pulp fiction. The effect was sheer magic: sales went through the roof.

At the same time, Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury (then a small, struggling children’s publisher) paid peanuts for a novel that had been turned down by nine other publishers, all of whom thought Harry Potter too old-fashioned to appeal to the ‘Playstation generation’. But they were also into Dungeons and Dragons, the magical narratives of interactive computer fantasy, and still read Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories and mysteries, alongside Goosebumps’ pulp horror and contemporary fiction. Like Fickling, Cunningham saw a gap in the market and dared to be different.

Bloomsbury’s genius was in publishing Harry Potter in the style of a 1950s children’s classic, setting it apart from the ‘garish or gritty’ trend - and then to use Rowling’s personal ‘Cinderella story’ in their marketing campaign. So, while children were passing copies of Harry Potter around the playground, their parents were reading about his creator’s rags to riches tale in their newspaper. Something remarkable happened: a children’s book simultaneously hit the radar with children and adults around the world.

The phenomenal successes of Rowling and Pullman exploded all the rules about what young fiction can be - and how much money it can make. While publishers (naturally) began to search for the next big windfall, writers began to open the doors on their imaginations and create the rich and challenging fiction they now saw that young readers were ready for.

Yet, until a few years ago, it was still a battle to publish something that wasn’t reassuringly like something else. To write my book Exodus, I had to overcome publisher nervousness because there just wasn’t anything else like it on the market. Climate change had yet to hit the front pages, so my futuristic vision of a drowning world was deemed too far-fetched to have much appeal. It was only once Exodus became such a success that I got the go-ahead to write the sequels, Zenith and now Aurora -although I would have written them anyway, just for myself, because the story haunts me too much. (More than anyone else, I need to find out what happens to Mara and Fox!)

Now, a battalion of writers is creating rich and sophisticated novels for an increasingly ‘crossover’ readership of young and not-so-young readers. A lot of people have jumped on the ‘kidlit’ bandwagon, and some of it is stale and over-hyped - but never before have young readers had so many good and exciting books to explore. The very best combine great storytelling and characters with imaginative daring and, like all good fiction, raise powerful questions about the world.

Like Harry, young fiction has finally come of age.

(I was going to end with the story of Jo Rowling and myself being held hostage by a gigantic blue M n M - no, I don't know why - but on second thoughts, maybe not. One of those things you end up doing as a newbie author, just because a press pack tells you to. And then learn not to, EVER again....)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

First Spark

I'd been set against writing a blog. Everyone seemed to be doing one. And the most interesting things I'll ever have to say are, I hope, to be found in my books. I'm sure you don't want to know what I'm thinking of having for dinner or exactly why I've got myself in knots over a particular character in chapter 8. Or how many words I did (or didn't) write today.

Even the name put me off. Blog. It just doesn't sound like the kind of place you'd want to spend time in. I'd thought about a Spark Gap, the title of my first book. Then I read about Anna Wintour (editor-diva of Vogue and the inspiration for ice-crone Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada) instructing her minions (in Miranda-like tones) to find another name, NOW please, because she just cannot bear that horrible, graceless word 'blog'. It's probably the one and only time in my life I'll ever share a thought with Anna Wintour.

A Spark Gap sounded good: a space in the ether where odd sparks of news and thoughts could fly back and forth. And since I've been getting so many emails full of questions about the books, I realised it was just contrary not to create one. So I changed my mind.

I might be the most infrequent and unreliable poster - or should that be sparker? Life is very busy. But I'll do my best.

I've had so many fantastic emails with lots of questions since Zenith was published last month, so for anyone else who is wondering, the answer is YES. There is another book after Zenith and I'm working hard on it now. There shouldn't really have been a third - I was determined not to write a trilogy. Everyone seems to be doing one. But the story was too fascinating to let me stop. It was haunting my imagination, waking me up at night. There is a very good reason (to do with 'story arcs' and how stories work) why an epic tale like mine probably works best in three parts. So I changed my mind - not least because if I'd published it all as one book you'd need a wheelbarrow to cart it around in, which, as Anna or Miranda would tell you, is not a great look.

So the story will continue in....


Unless I change my mind.


PS - one or two of you seem to think that Mara has a nice, tidy, happy-ever-after ending in Zenith? Like the pic at the top of this post? Are you absolutely sure about that?