Well, I’m not in the habit talking to strangers on trains, but who could resist an opener like that? We talked about all sorts of things, though I never did find out why the man thought I was a writer. Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’ came up, as did Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. I can’t remember a more enjoyable train journey. At no point did I feel hit on or chatted up. When the man got up to leave, he said, ‘To tell the truth, I’ve had it with modern literature. It’s all either whimsical nostalgia about the past or doom and gloom about the future. What we need’s a bit more hope.’
Those words have stayed with me all my writing life. Anything on that occasion might have seemed imbued with significance but they really hit me like a message from on high. What a start to a life in publishing!
Three years ago, funded by the Arts Council and the Authors’ Foundation, I went out on a fact-finding trip to Belize. I’d long wanted to write a novel for young teenagers about the phenomenon of gap year volunteering as a modern rite of passage – a subject that appeared not to have been tackled. To this end, I trekked in the jungle, visited and stayed with the indigenous Kekchi-Mayan people and spent time meeting groups of young gap year volunteers working on conservation projects. I travelled the length and breadth of the country, enjoying its culture and lifestyle courtesy of the people of Belize - Garifuna, Mestizo, Creole, Mayan, Yank, Brit, Taiwanese and even German Mennonite, who all had the extraordinary knack of appearing to live in harmony.
Before I left Belize I interviewed a government official helping run the health programme in the south of the country. So many cultures, I said, so many languages and different ways of living and looking at the world – was there a single defining characteristic that spoke for all these people of Belize?
The answer I got was hope. Belizean people might be poor, but they were full of hope. ‘Whether for a better day, a better government or the chance to turn our fortunes round, it’s in our blood.’ That’s how that particular conversation ended up in ‘In the Trees’, my gap year novel which came out in Kindle earlier this year. ‘Like a river rich with gold, we run with hope. It’s deep down in our soil, like buried oil. It’s as much our national heritage as Belikin beer.’
It’s now twenty years since I started writing novels for young people. Twenty years since ‘Midnight Blue’ went on to win the Nestle Prize, beating, amongst others, Roald Dahl. How different the world was then. The computer upon which I hammered out my pages was one of those first flickering Amstrads, and when somebody handed me my first mobile phone I didn’t know what to do with it. Yet the story in ‘Midnight Blue’ – Bonnie's story of escaping the grasp of her evil Grandbag by means of a magical hot air balloon, only to find herself in a mirror-world which strangely reflects what she's left behind – is every bit as relevant today as it was back then.
That’s why it’s coming out again. A twentieth anniversary ebook edition. Not quite my first electronic book – ‘In the Trees’ has that honour – but the first I’ve published myself.
This is a whole new venture. Over the last weeks I’ve pounded the keyboard, groaned over the screen, formatted, unformatted, added, taken away, sworn I’d never get this right, asked myself why I was doing it and also asked why I hadn’t done it before. After all, I’d seen for a while the way that things were going. Publishing appeared to be in disarray, and so did the bookshops. Authors, good authors, were struggling to be heard. Never, it seemed, had the people without whom there’d be no books appeared so powerless.
And yet something new is happening, and the shortly to be published ebook edition of ‘Midnight Blue’ [I hope you like the cover, seen here for the first time] is a part of it. So, too, is my becoming a part of Authors Electric. I’m in unknown territory here; I’m branching out and taking a risk. But when I went out to the jungles of Belize I was taking a risk. When I wrote the first chapter of ‘Midnight Blue’, never knowing that I’d even get it published, I was taking a risk. Even when I wrote that first story, back in school at the age of nine, I was taking a risk.
It's all about hope.
Pauline Fisk is the author of eleven novels for children and young adults. More can be found about her books and writing life on her website, www.paulinefisk.co.uk, where she also blogs [here] and serializes the journal of her travels around Belize [here].