Saturday, 15 October 2011

A nose by any other name... By Jan Needle





I went to a charity folk festival last week (as Teresa May might say, I'm not making this up) but not, for once, to play slow Irish airs on my whistle. I donated my "services" as a children's author to help raise funds to save the Barlow Memorial Institute in the Lancashire village of Edgworth from the cuts. It's Cameron's Pig Society, innit?

Good fun it was, too - worth every penny that I didn't get. The assembled children were suitably shocked and delighted by the adventures of Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy, and some of their parents were suitably horrified by some of its content, as well as Roy Bentley' s wonderfully gruesome pictures. {Above and below you can see Carl Grose as Waggie in Kneehigh Theatre's lovely version. I'd have done captions, but computer says no, due to my technical incompetence, no doubt.}

Anyway, the Edgworth folk festival started with a specially written poem, and - inevitably - I was featured in it as a woman. Any kids' writers who dream of fame, let alone fortune, think on. Even after all these years, at least half of any audience I ever speak to expects me to be female.

My mum's fault, of course. She was a strong-minded lady, and knew for certain that she was pregnant with another girl to join my sister Valerie. When I turned out male, she simply called me James Albert, to go with Needle, to make me Jan. That's what she'd always called the bump. My dear departed friend Jan Mark and me used to amuse ourselves at joint gigs by playing on this confusion. Jan once told an organiser, pointing at me: "She's the one with the beard."

At school I was called Needle (Direct grant grammar school; they actually have girls there now, and female teachers!), in the sea scouts I was Pooch. When I became a reporter on the local paper they would not let me put Jan on the "business cards" they issued, I was J.A.Needle, Esq. (No, honestly, Teresa!) And when I started getting short stories published I could not use my name at all, because the paper had a lineage agreement. What I wrote belonged to them - fees and all - which I didn't like a lot. So I became J.W.Urquhart, and I didn't give a damn. As Harry Cohen paraphrased the Bard: "If I call mein tukhess bunch of wiolets, would she smell so sweet?"

I did a huge spread in a national daily once, with my name all over it, big. A few weeks later, at home in Portsmouth, my parents referred to this terrific story that they'd read - had I seen it? But I wrote it, I said - my name was on it. They denied it. When I'd rummaged through the papers on the piano (a file that made Colindale look anorexic) and showed them their little boy's name - in twenty four point! - they were still strangely unconvinced. "We would have seen it," they insisted, a shade illogically. Again, so much for fame.

Fast forward a few years, and I was writing children's novels. J.W.Urquhart was forgotten, Jan Needle had emerged. But my first two, Albeson and the Germans and My Mate Shofiq, were pretty rough and searing stuff for kiddie-lit, while my third, The Size Spies, was a ridiculous comedy. My favourite ever review was garnered by this book. A lady in one of the Sunday heavies wrote: "Mrs Needle has written two thoroughly unpleasant books. Now she is merely being silly."

Pam Royds, my publisher, had already gently warned me that if I ever wanted to earn a living as a writer I shouldn't give free rein to my butterfly mind, but I was too dim and arrogant to take much notice. What critics want, of course, is genre books from authors - or preferably the same book over and over again, with minor differences. Mine ranged wildly over worlds and ages - kids, historical, naval, tragical, comical pastoral, tragical-comi-- Oh dear, back to Shakespeare, sorry. It wasn't until I started writing big, dirty thrillers for HarperCollins that I was persuaded a name-change would be a good idea, and by then, unfortunately, it was too late. Frank Kippax, the new Jan Needle, was beginning to do very well indeed, and had also been commissioned to do a big block of episodes for The Bill, when I had a car crash and the light went out. I couldn't write a word for eight years or so.

Most of my recent children's books have been with Walker Books, and published by Pam Royds's equally delightful daughter Caz. Kippax was dead, so Needle it was again. Then I wrote a book about the British Army, which might have caused a fair amount of damage under my own name. So The Skinback Fusiliers was by Unknown Soldier, and exists as a Kindle and a real book. Like the others, though, I hope Unknown Soldier is no more.

So, with the electronic age, comes a new dawn. (Perhaps.) I'm in the process of writing new books for the cyberworld - cut out the middle man, I say! - and revising and/or rewriting the best of my traditionals for Matti Gardner to process for the modern age. I bet my mum and dad still wouldn't notice, though...


Wagstaffe will be out as an ebook soon, but in the meantime you can get him on Amazon.

Albeson and the Germans (86p)
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86960

My Mate Shofiq (86p)
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/86957

5 comments:

Katherine Roberts said...

Author names are so interesting, Jan. I have been wondering if I will need a new name when I publish my adult thrillers... I think I might!

Interestingly, I am just reading a proof copy of a highly-promoted blockbuster thirller by a "debut author", who turns out to be a major best-selling author writing under a new name. (One has to wonder WHY, if he/she's best selling aleady?)

But I rather like the idea of inventing different personas for different kinds of books. I used to write women's magazine fiction under another name, and found it helped me get into the mood.

Best one here, though, is "Mrs Needle..." I bet that made you laugh?

madwippitt said...

Hmm, food for thought ... there are names which are printed bigger than the book titles, and others who use different names for different genres ... and is it worth changing your name to re-kick start a career by appearing to be a new author ... like Katherine I've been thinking about a change too, now I'm dipping a toe back into the world of fiction ... So then there's the question of name selection ...

Dennis Hamley said...

I have sometimes thought of using a new writing name. 'Neil Sydenham' might do because it's a perfect anagram which came to me quite accidentally while I was thinking of something else entirely.

So, Jan, you too have had the great experience of being edited by two generations of the Royds family. Both brilliant editors, who between them have taught me so much. I met an ex-Deutsch person last week who told me that Pam appeared at a reunion of all the old staff recently, fit and well though getting a bit frailer. Caz was there too.

I've always thought of having my name bigwer than the title was a sign of having finally arrived. Sadly, it's never happened to me.

Good to have another Jan Mark anecdote. Do you know what happened to the mechanical beetle?

Jan Needle said...

you've got me there, guv. mechanical beetles don't twitch the memory circuit at all. although it's fair to say that jan and i were usually so far gone in alcohol when we spent time together that i only remember her name because it's the same as mine. as you know, she was a very serious minded person, but we used to rock her little house in oxford with gales of laughter. i occasionally lift a pint of the black stuff in her honour and memory, although i'm a bitter man myself (hint hint).

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