Literary Smorgasbord: Sot Otter

Singer-songwriter, event organiser, Director of Create Youth Theatre, and the founder of Ullapool Community Choir – Sot Otter is all of these and more, but what lies beneath?

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 Hi Sot, The shows you produce for Create Youth Theatre have fantastic production values and are always sell-out events, bringing in audiences much wider than the friends and families of the young performers, but each show is staged only once. What are your thoughts about the ephemeral nature of these performances?


This is something we do get asked about quite often. The most important thing for us is that the students get the best possible experience, and I feel a one-off performance to a sold out theatre is the most exciting and rewarding. Also, some of our students are as young as 7 or 8 and the whole day of the show can be pretty tiring as well as exciting.  Especially when you factor in that some are travelling from pretty far-flung rural places to be part of Create.

Writing-wise, how do the shows evolve?

The initial concept is the hardest part. Once I have the idea then I always start with a very basic synopsis as a skeleton to work around. I find I have to be very disciplined in order to write something that has parts for over 30 students, where they all have something meaningful to contribute, and where the final production doesn’t last over an hour and a half! I also try to tailor my writing to the students we have, so that each young person gets the most they can out of their experience. That’s always my aim.
The songs come later and are woven into the play depending on the cast. If we have students who are very keen to sing, I try to take that into consideration too. We also try to consult the students for ideas and input along the way, so they feel a sense of ownership with their production.

Where did you grow up?

Dorchester in Dorset.

What were you like at school?

I went to an all girls secondary school, with an almost completely female staff. Lots of music and lots of hockey! I loved school, but always knew I was one of the ‘weird’ kids. Which I still am, thankfully.

Writing or performing – what came first?

Performing definitely. I was singing and performing with my sisters in a group from the age of 4. We performed together really regularly when we were growing up. We also wrote songs and comedy scripts together and recorded radio shows on a cassette recorder (where we were the presenters, the guests and the musicians.)  Just for our own entertainment. We also started our own youth drama group and put on productions to the public. Looking back I think we were really creative and driven although the quality was probably fairly dubious in places.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

This is going to sound cheesy. But when you have a student who is very shy, or might have issues with anxiety or just is struggling with being who they are at that point in their life, and you watch the amazing effect drama and singing can have on a person, and you’ve created this part in the production for them to work with their strengths and be sensitive to any issues they might have… That moment when they’re on stage being amazing.. Having fun. Every one of those moments is my best writing moment.

What are you working on now?

There’s quite a big list. Our next production with Create is on the 24th June – a steampunked version of Around the World in 80 Days. Our Community Choir is also part of that so I’m writing and arranging songs for them right now. The choir is also working on a set of songs to take to nursing homes as part of a little tour.
With my own music, I’m writing songs for our group, Dread Pirate Roberts to take to Belladrum again this year and I’m hoping to record a CD with Shrew (Myself and Anne Wood) this summer.

We hold a ‘Speakeasy’ event once a month now at the Ceilidh Place, Ullapool which has become a collective for musicians and poets to share their work.

The next phase for Create will be for myself and Debbie MacKay (who I team-teach with) to take some new workshops on the road to outreach rural schools and youth groups. Trying to reach those young folk who might not get access to the performing arts. So we are writing a series of workshops for that, which I’m really excited about.

Based on the themes of the Create shows over the past few years, I’ll hazard a wild guess that you like fantasy. If you could enter any of the worlds you have portrayed onstage, which would you choose and why?

I think one of the productions I enjoyed writing the most was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Bile in 2010. The students we had then were all Potter obsessed (including my own sons) so everything became Hogwarts related. So I think that would be perfect.

A few short questions to finish with.  Favourite books?

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. It always seems to be childrens’ authors. Roald Dahl. C S Lewis. Tolkien…

Food?

Gin. Is gin a food? Rhubarb gin then. That’s got a food in it.

Films?

Probably be one of the Ealing Comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets. Or the Anthony Asquith 1952 adaptation of The Importance of Being Ernest. Or Duck Soup.

Music?

Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, anything with nice harmonies.

Also Jason Molina who was introduced to me fairly recently by a Bird and has had a big influence on my current song writing. Especially for Shrew.

What are you reading right now?

My tax returns!

Thanks Sot. It’s been a pleasure.

You can find out more about Create Youth Theatre, Sot’s singing lessons and community workshops at her website. Sot’s music can be found on soundcloud. You can follow Sot on Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Debbie Mathews

I have interviewed an amazing range of writers on the Smorgasbord, but Debbie Mathews is a smorgasbord unto herself. Blogger, poet, author of short stories, childrens’ fiction, non fiction, and, appropriately for the Smorgasbord, cook books. if that’s not enough, Debbie is also a photographer, gardener and veg grower and is just completing her garden design course and RHS certificate.

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Hi Debbie, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the Smorgasbord. That’s some list of activities listed in your introduction, but what are you most passionate about?

I’m passionate about a number of things: writing of course – I’ve written from the age of 5 –  and cooking goes without saying, although I suppose that’s really a passion for eating! My interest in gardening started around growing my own food.  I’m 110% passionate about the natural world which translates itself into being a green proponent, and is probably where the photography fits in too.  I’m also passionate about justice.  Inequality of any kind gets my ire up. I campaigned with Amnesty, Oxfam and CND in my early teens.  Aged 40, I gave up my well-paid full-time job and re-trained to be an advocate for young people with learning disability.  I worked as an advocate for 13 years and continue to champion the rights of anyone who is marginalised or disadvantaged.  I think you could call that a passion. As well as being creative, writing can be a brilliant and powerful tool for justice.  A blog is a great place to air ones views.

Where did you grow up, and how does it compare to your present home on the north-east coast of Scotland?

I grew up in South West London – about as far away from life on a farm on the north-east coast of Scotland as you can imagine. I was always an outdoor girl though.  We all were back then weren’t we?  We had tremendous freedom to roam about as kids, even though we lived on the edge of the big smoke.  We had a 100ft back garden which backed onto the rec (the local authority recreation ground) although we fronted a major road.  As you know, there are few mountains in greater London.  I used to cycle to Box Hill with a friend in the holidays (technically out of my allowable range) as well as Richmond Park (also not allowed).  We thought of Richmond and Richmond Park as the countryside!  Townies, eh?  In the summer my dad used to get us up early and we’d rattle down to the south coast.  I’ve always been happy by the sea.

What were you like at school?

Quiet.  I went to school relatively late due to having to wear calipers. I think my parents had to fight to get me into a ‘normal’ state school because of my various difficulties. I’d never really socialised with kids my own age. My mum was very poorly when I was young and spent a lot of time in hospital.  I think that had an impact on my stability as a little person out in the big-wide-world.

I didn’t mix much with girls.  I preferred to scuff about with the boys.  They seemed less complicated, and you didn’t have to talk too much with them, you could just do stuff.  An all-girls senior school was a bit of a shock, as you can imagine.  Most of my school reports from that time have reticent written on them.  Debbie has good ideas and is a capable student.  I wish she’d learn to speak up more.  She is very reticent in class.  I’m not sure my parents knew what it was, but it was clearly not good, so I always got told off for it.

When did you start writing?

As far back as I can remember.  My mum taught me to read and write before I went to school.  Initially books were my escape route, then writing.  I wrote poems and stories to start with, and letters.  Letters were a great discovery.  I had pen-pals from various places in the UK and abroad.  I also discovered you could write to MPs and councillors, and I harassed both my local council and the government about all sorts of things.  Aged 11, I got my first typewriter.  After that there was no holding me back.

Do you have any particular writing habits?

This is where I disclose the secrets about my special routines and impart great wisdom…… No, I don’t have any writing habits, I simply write.  I’m not being facetious.  Really. I write constantly.  It’s maddening.  Like all my fellow writers, I keep a pen and notepad with me at all times, and it gets used all the time. I always get ideas at inconvenient moments.  I’ve taken to making sure my phone is with me when I’m out walking or running, and I’ve learnt how to use the voice recorder so I can capture those ideas which would otherwise be lost by the time I got home.  I’m not much of a night owl, so I don’t tend to write in the evening, although I have often put the light back on, after settling down for the night, to write something in my notebook.  My writing habit is genuinely to write, write, write.  I’m very bad at keeping concentration on one thing, and worse at editing, so I’m a poor example for any writer!

What are your writing hopes and ambitions?

My ambition for this year is to complete my first novel.  I’m just over 35,000 words in, aiming for 50 – 60,000.  I keep diverting myself with other projects and really need to focus.  I also have a non-fiction project which has been on the go for five years.  I have actually finished the text now, although because of how disorganised I’ve been in compiling it, I’ll have to spend some serious time getting the referencing organised.  I’ve also challenged myself to be braver with my writing this year and am making myself read publicly – a personal loathing – and enter some competitions.  I’m not brave enough to tell you if I’ve already entered any…

 My hope is that I will find a way for people to read and engage with my writing; that I will somehow connect.

Who has inspired you?

Corny as it may be, my mum is a complete inspiration.  She is uneducated: she bought up her younger siblings and skipped school for the most part. She had a dreadful childhood. She has been ill since she was first pregnant and has had all manner of operations and health issues. She’s been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years. In spite of everything, she has always remained cheerful, giving and creative.

Her spelling and grammar are so atrocious that getting a letter from her requires painstaking deciphering; in spite of that – and sometimes because of it – her letters are funny and touching.  She is a life-time letter writer and has written hundreds of letters to friends, family and strangers across the UK and beyond.

At 60, she learned to swim, despite a phobia of water (she saw her brother drown when she was 11) and she started reading voraciously in her 70s.  A few months ago, aged 82, she learnt to crochet. She has a personal good grace, humility and tenacity it would be hard to emulate.

It is the ordinary- extraordinary people that inspire me the most, in life and in writing.  Malala Yousafzai, Naomi Kline, Charlotte Bronte (whom I share a birthday with); Safia Minney  – Founder and CEO of pioneering Fair Trade fashion label People Tree; Charlotte Danks – a 21 year old who has opened 25p Food Shops in Cornwall to help struggling families; Hope Gordon, my friends daughter, who had her leg amputated last year after a decade of pain and suffering, and who rows, swims, fund-raises, and last year completed the Dubai 92km Cycle Challenge having only ridden a bike once in the previous 14 years!

What has been your best writing moment so far?

This?! Nah. I don’t know.  That’s a really hard question. I won an award at school and got a £25 book token – that was really cool, but best writing moment?  No.   I’ve had a bits and bobs published over the years, but I think my best writing moment is to come!  Something that probably comes close is submitting a manuscript to Emergents last year and being told that my writing was good.  That nothing much needed changing.  That was a good writing moment.  It’s only been surpassed by the moment that I wrote on my blog that I’m a writer.  It’s the first time in nearly 40 plus years of writing that I’ve had the confidence to call myself that.

If you could strap yourself into a time machine and travel back through the years to meet your fifteen year old self, what advice would you give her?

Ha!  I’ve done this! Well, not really you understand – although it would be pretty damn cool wouldn’t it – it was a writing exercise for the Wee Writers Workshop that I’m part of.  The exercise was to write a letter to your younger self.  I put it in the fiction section of my blog as it was technically a creative writing exercise, although it’s pretty much all true.

Here’s some of what I wrote to myself: I just wish you’d gained a bit more confidence earlier on; I wish you’d stopped trying to please your dad sooner– you knew in your heart of hearts it was futile – and got over your fear of failure.  Let me tell you this – It isn‘t a secret- you are going to fail.  You are not going to get through life only having succeeded.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

Hmm.  Another really hard question.  I mean, one person, out of all the millions of people… I’ll need to think about that one. I think all the famous game changers would be too scary, and possibly too boring.  I’d be tongue-tied.  So, much as I’d like to spend a day with Nelson Mandela or Shakespeare, I think it would be a waste of my time and theirs. Ooo!  I know!  I know!  Jean-Luc Picard.  Not Patrick Stewart, you understand, I’d be far too nervous, no, the fictional and fabby Jean-Luc Picard.  We would spend the day flitting at warp speed through the galaxy.  Well, our bit of the cosmos anyway.  I’ve always wanted to see the earth from space.  We would sip Earl Grey tea and talk about how the federation managed to get so many different species to collaborate.  We would beam down onto the moon and kick a ball about down there.  We’d could maybe take a trip in a shuttle around the planets.  I’d get him to introduce me to Chakotay…..no wait, getting carried away here; different captain!  Ah well.  It would be interesting anyway, and I hope we’d have some fun as well.

A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?

Nope.  I can’t do that one.  I don’t have a favourite book.  I’m fickle.  I have books I love at the time and perhaps never read again.  I have books I re-read, like Thomas Hardy, or Tolkien, usually on the train; although companionable, they’re not my favourites. I have books I would never get rid of – Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird – and others.   Recently I’ve enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  I like books that engage me – heart and brain – which could pretty much be anything.

Writer?

The sadly departed Iain Banks, and perhaps Nick Hornby, Anita Desai…No, can’t do that one either.

Meal?

Well a side-dish rather than a meal: potato dauphinoise.  Potatoes, garlic, cream.  What’s not to like?

Ha, that made me laugh. Cream is a no go area for me and I’m not a big fan of the spud, but that’s a whole other story. Back to the point – film?

Again, one is too hard!  The Graduate, Toy Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, The Kite Runner, Dead Poet’s Society, You’ve Got Mail.  I’ll stop there shall I?

Music?

This is impossible! Everyone says eclectic don’t they?  It’s true for me too. I listen to everything and anything.  I’m not a big classical or country fan, although there are exceptions.  I like traditional jazz – New Orleans and Dixie – and am in love with the saxophone: think the intro to Baker Street Or Lily Was Here by Dave Stuart and Candy Duffer.  I was a bit of a rock chick in my youth and still love a thrashing guitar and heavy drumbeat.  I saw U2 when they first toured as spotty yoofs and still adore them.  I love Van the Man, Coldplay, Nina Simone, Elvis Costello, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd (pre ‘Wall’), Avicii and The Stranglers.  Currently I’m listening to Travis, Jack Savoretti and Calvin Harris.

What are you reading right now?

That’s easier!  A History of the Rain by Niall Williams, Spectacles by Sue Perkins and Great Garden Designs by George Plumptre (which I found in my dentist’s on Tuesday!).

Thanks Debbie. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you Lorraine.  It’s been great fun answering your questions.  Thanks for asking me to join your lovely tasty Smorgasbord.

You can find out more about Debbie on her blog and follow her on Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Pauline Mackay

This week’s Smorgasbord guest is children’s author, Pauline Mackay. Pauline is passionate about languages, a statement ably illustrated by the fact that her hugely successful Wee MacNessie books are available in 12 bilingual editions.

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Hi Pauline, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. You are best known for your Wee MacNessie books. How did they come about?

Hi Lorraine. Thank you for inviting me to take part in your Literary Smorgasbord. Knowing how much I love languages, you can probably guess I’m already smiling.

Wee MacNessie is like a member of my family now, with four books in the series so far. He’s a baby version of the Loch Ness Monster who came into existence while I was living with relatives on their croft overlooking Loch Ness. My whole life has been linked to this world-famous stretch of water and the croft, where my Mum was brought up, so much of what appears in the illustrations is true to life there. I can’t, of course, guarantee that Wee MacNessie is a faithful representation of the Loch Ness Monster!

Your books are available in several languages, including Gaelic, Scots and Arabic. Was that always part of the plan?

The first book in the series is available in English and 12 bilingual editions: English with Arabic, Dutch, French, Scottish Gaelic, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Russian, Scots and Spanish.

When I started writing my first Wee MacNessie book, I knew I wanted a story which would work for native English speakers but also be accessible to children learning another language. I studied French at the University of Glasgow, taught English as a second language in Poland and learnt Polish while I was there behind the Iron Curtain, so I was well aware of the importance and difficulty of language-learning. By the time Wee MacNessie was born, I was already running a bookselling business which specialised in bilingual and Gaelic books for children, so I knew there was a market for such books and that many of the existing titles were too complicated for beginners.

I studied illustration at art school, and although I have never worked on children’s books, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between author and illustrator.  How do you find the illustrators for your books?

I’ve used 3 illustrators on my books so far. Shelley Buckner/Mackay was recommended by a marketing consultant; Dylan Gibson caught my attention on an online children’s publishing group and I met Brian Robertson at the Dornoch book festival years ago.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I deal with illustrators because I am also the publisher of my books. Authors would not normally deal directly with illustrators unless they were self-publishing.

How much discussion do you have with an illustrator before they begin work on one of your books?

Before they begin, the illustrators receive an initial brief which describes my vision of the layout of the book and general composition of each page. I always have a little film of the story playing in my head which I try to get down on paper. Having an illustrator who can capture that vision never fails to amaze and impress me. However, the brief is not set in stone and sometimes elements change as the book takes shape.  With bilingual books there is the added challenge of leaving enough clear space for two sets of text. 

Beyond the obvious, what does the illustrator bring to the project?

No matter how good the story, no matter how good the brief, the illustrator is the one who brings the book to life. Visually representing the author’s story is only part of their job. Every page is a treasure trove of potential stories. Also, and very importantly, a picture book has to appeal to two totally different audiences – the adult who is buying the book and the child. This is incredibly challenging for any illustrator, even an experienced one.

What were you like at school?

I worked very hard at school. This made absolutely no difference to my ability to do science!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Inverness and returned here with my son when my marriage broke down.

What books did you enjoy reading in your childhood?

I was obsessed with Enid Blyton books when I was young.

When did you start writing?

My Mum tells me my wonderful Primary 1/2 teacher liked my stories so it sounds like there was something going on even then. I also remember sitting at my Gran’s table watching the passing trains and writing stories, fuelled by raspberry ripple ice-cream. When I was a teenager I started writing songs because I wanted to be a singer. It wasn’t encouraging that my wee brother insisted on flushing the toilet to try and drown me out when I practised!

What is the Pauline Mackay writing method?

I don’t seem to be one of those incredibly disciplined writers who sits down at a certain time every day and produces at least 1000 words. Most of my stories are short, but the amount of time devoted to moulding them into picture books is enormous. I also spent a great deal of last year creating additional teachers’ resources in English, French, German and Spanish to complement my Wee MacNessie books.

What are you working on right now?

Kitty’s Scottish Safari is my latest picture book. This is a completely new project which I hope the public will find fun and educational. My little cat character, Kitty Purry, travels round Scotland with her family visiting animal statues and knitting something different for all of them. I visited the statues as part of my research and was fascinated by them, especially the penguins, the giraffes and the elephant. Brian’s illustrations are truly brilliant and we have a cheeky stowaway mouse for children to spot. There are five language versions but they are not bilingual – English, Gaelic, Scots, French and German.

If I’m guessing correctly, the penguins are from Dundee, the giraffes from Edinburgh, but I’m stumped on the elephant.
Well done on the penguins and giraffes!  The elephant is a recent addition to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. When I discovered it was made from old trains which were originally built in Glasgow and shipped to countries like India and Pakistan, I was hooked.
Please tell me Kitty Purry visited Greyfriars Bobby and the T-Rex at the Hunterian in Glasgow…
Greyfriars Bobby makes a brief appearance at the end but is not part of the main story. I was pretty sure I’d be in trouble if he didn’t feature somewhere in the book, so I like to think this is a neat solution and creates an interactive finale. As for the T-Rex, dinosaurs weren’t going to get a look-in this time after four Wee MacNessie books. However, I love the fact that this story gets people thinking about other animal statues and where they are located. Did you know there are rhinoceroses on the outskirts of Dumfries? 
 
I didn’t know about the Dumfries rhinos, but the stowaway mouse is a great idea. I loved little illustration in-jokes like that when I was a child, and then again as a parent.
Brian worked for Usborne so he loved the idea of this mouse too. It’s not hidden like those famous little yellow ducks but right from the beginning I laughed at the idea of a cheeky wee mouse hitching a free ride with the Purry family and turning up in all the pictures. It’s a toreador in one of the illustrations, so what’s the statue?

Hmmm – I’ll get back to you on that… What has been your best writing moment so far?

It’s almost impossible to pick one moment but the positive feedback from customers who have sent my books all over the world is particularly precious. One lady told me the Arabic version of Wee MacNessie had been a huge hit in a nursery in Beirut and that the children referred to him as The Scottish Monster.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

There is so much advice out there, I’m not sure I can add anything new. Being truly objective about your own work is impossible but I find that a little time away from your manuscript is a surprisingly powerful quality control tool.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar would look rather nice with my name on it!

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

I think a day spent in the company of multilingual Mary, Queen of Scots would be a revelation. Given her French husband’s mother was Catherine de Medici, she could probably reel off a few good mother-in-law from hell stories!

A few short questions to finish with. Favourite books?

Pride and Prejudice, The Tobacconist, Kidnapped.

Authors?

Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, C.J. Sansom, Matthew Pearl, Tracy Chevalier.

Children’s author/illustrator?

David Melling is very talented.

Meal?

My Dad’s cauliflower cheese takes a lot of beating.

Films?

Walk the Line; Chocolat; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, and Matilda.

Music?

André Rieu, Johnny Cash.

What are you reading right now?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (The Amazing Adventure of Translation) by David Bellos.

Thanks Pauline.

You can follow Pauline on Twitter and find out more about her books at Ablekids Press.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Helen Forbes

Did I ever mention how great XpoNorth is? And no, I’m not on commission, but that is where I met this week’s Smorgasbord guest, Helen Forbes. I was invited to read from Boyle’s Law at the XpoNorth launch event in 2015 and Helen was hosting the event on behalf of the Highland Literary Salon. We met again at a Lit Salon writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, and again when Barbara Henderson brought us together to get NessBookFest up and running and we’ve stayed in touch since.

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Hi Helen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.  Tell me about the evolution of the author, Helen Forbes.

I started writing over twenty years ago, when I had this idea for a Scottish story set in two timescales – 18th century and the present day.  I worked on it for years and ended up with a massive tome of fairly mediocre writing.  I was pretty much a closet writer at that time, but I came out and started going to writing groups, where I wrote some short stories and entered competitions.  With the odd success here and there, I was encouraged to keep writing, and to start some new projects.  I still tinkered with the tome from time to time, and it’s now two separate novels, which are much better written, but, as yet, unpublished.  Meanwhile, I wrote In the Shadow of the Hill, which was published in 2014, and I’ve since completed a sequel, Madness Lies, which is due to be published this year.  I’m almost finished a standalone, called And In That Place … 

When we first met, you had just brought out your crime thriller, In the Shadow of the Hill. How did the book come about?

I wrote a short story about two young boys living next door to each other on an unidentified island, for the writing group I was going to in Fife, and they seemed to like it.  I then shared it at the Edinburgh Writers Club and someone said it would make a good novel – they’d be interested in finding out what happened to the two boys as they grew up.  I didn’t really think any more about it at the time, but after the short story was placed in a competition and later published, I began to work on turning it into a novel, which became In the Shadow of the Hill.

How would you describe your writing style?

I’m not sure how to answer that, but I was delighted when a reviewer of In the Shadow of the Hill said her style is smooth and sweet.  That’ll do for me.

Nice. What were you like at school?

Quiet and mousy!  I was the perfect pupil in primary school, but it all went wrong in secondary.  I didn’t really enjoy anything except English, and ended up leaving with only an English Higher.  I made up for it many years later, when I studied law as a mature student, and found that I actually enjoyed learning after all.  I guess I was ready for it by that time.

Who have been the main influences in your life?

I was lucky to have loving and supportive parents.  It really came home to me after working in social welfare law just how fortunate I’ve been.  No matter what happened, they were (and my mum still is) always there for me – so many people don’t have that safety net.  My late father was incredibly hard working, talented and intelligent, despite leaving school at a young age with no qualifications.  He began work as a messenger boy with a retail company and ended up managing the company in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  I couldn’t fail to be influenced by him and his belief that anyone could do anything they set their mind to.

I was a single parent for most of my daughter’s life, and she was and is a constant source of inspiration.  Even as a small child, she had an ingrained sense of social justice and fairness that would put many adults to shame.  As an adult, despite chronic ill-health, she’s continued to inspire me by becoming a talented artist and a wonderful mother.

What influenced you when you were growing up?

Books – I’ve always loved reading.  And music.

What is the Helen Forbes writing method?

I’ve tried various methods.  When I work with no plan and just keep writing, I have to delete vast numbers of words later on.  This happened with Madness Lies, when I felt under pressure to produce a second book, and just kept writing.  I then had to delete over 30,000 words of nonsense.  With And in that place … I tried very hard to make a detailed plan before starting, but my mind would just go blank.  So, I got started, with an idea of where I wanted to go, but without any real idea of how I was going to get there.  This time I was more rigorous in planning and checking as I went along, making sure that I wasn’t going down blind alleys.  That method seemed to work best for me.  I find it hard to let go of a book and have a tendency to keep on editing and tinkering, until I really have to let go.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

The launch in Waterstones of In the Shadow of the Hill.  I was a nervous wreck when I met the publisher at lunch that day.  I told him he had to stick to the questions we’d agreed as I’d clam up if there was anything unexpected.  I got to Waterstones and there was no one there, and I was delighted, until I looked up at the balcony area, and everyone was waiting.  All my friends and family were there, including two friends I hadn’t seen for years and some of them had travelled far to get there.  As soon as it started, the nerves were gone, and I had a fantastic night.  Afterwards, the publisher asked me if I’d been drinking (I hadn’t), as he said I bore no resemblance to the person he’d met earlier in the day!  There was one awkward moment, when I signed a copy of the book for my boss’s wife, and dedicated it to my boss and his secretary, rather than his wife.  We laughed, but I’m not convinced I’ve been forgiven.

What are you working on right now?

I’m at the end stage of a stand-alone domestic noir thriller set in Edinburgh and Lewis.  The main character, Lily Andersen, has been in my head for a long time.  This is probably the book I’ve enjoyed writing the most, although I’ve enjoyed them all.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Get started.  Join a writers’ group and go on retreats/writing courses.  The feedback and friendship of other writers is invaluable.  Expect rejection and learn how to deal with it – even the bestselling authors have had numerous rejections – it’s all very subjective.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young Helen Forbes?

You can do anything.  Listen to yourself and stop thinking everyone else has the answers.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

Neil Gunn’s The Grey Coast.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

David I of Scotland.  I’d love to write a novel about his reign in 12th century Scotland.  I’d spend the day at Edinburgh Castle bending his ear to make sure I got my facts right.

A few short questions to finish. Favourite books?

The Grey Coast, The Poisonwood Bible, Wuthering Heights, The History of Love, Good Times Bad Times.

Authors?

Neil Gunn, Niall Williams, Morris West, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Food?

Curry

Films?

The Crucible, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Music? 

Roddy Frame/Aztec Camera, Runrig, Eagles, The Jam.

What are you reading right now?

SG MacLean’s The Seeker

Good luck with your domestic noir thriller, Helen and thanks for appearing on the Smorgasbord.

You can find out more about Helen Forbes on her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Richmond Clements

Take a slice of ultracool modernism, add a dash of black poem blues, serve it up with a spicy side of neo noir, and you’ll have experienced a taste of the Literary Smorgasbord’s flavoursome writers. This week, there’s a new treat in store as I interview the Smorgasbord’s first graphic novelist, Richmond Clements.

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Hi Rich, apologies for the over-stretched metaphor in the introduction (I couldn’t help myself) and thanks for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.  You’re the first graphic novelist to appear and I’m really looking forward to the interview.

 Thank you for asking!

We’ll get the ball rolling with one of my favourites: Rich, what were you like at school?

 Probably an annoying little smart-mouthed arsehole, if adult me is anything to go by… Quiet, nerdy and walking the fine line between academic and being very very lazy.

Heh, pretty harsh on yourself, Rich.

I’m interested in the process of creating a graphic novel; how do you present your idea to an illustrator or publisher?


I suppose the short, glib answer is: it depends.

For example, my first graphic novel (GN), Turning Tiger, started off years before I wrote it. I had this image in my head – riffing on an iconic Winnie the Pooh image by E.A. Shepherd – of Piglet and Pooh walking away, their back to the viewer – only my mind had a young girl and a giant robot. This hung about my head for years and years and then one day something clicked, and I figured out what the link between the girl and the robot was – and the book just unfurled, in almost the entire plot, from there.

Other times, I’ve had an idea for a book – Pirates of the Lost World for example – and thought that I’d really love to work with artist Conor Boyle. So I pitched it to Conor, and happily, he felt the same.

Other than the way you approached Conor, how else do you go about finding an artist to work with, and how much influence do you have on the style used?

 Sometimes you’ll strike up a friendship with an artist and you’ll find yourself in synch and will work together easily. But a great deal of the time, it depends on the publisher – some publishers will match you up with an artist – sometimes you’ll not even know the artist until it’s in print.

I’ve been pretty lucky though, in that in almost all my projects, the artist and I have pitched the project as a team. On the occasions where I haven’t picked the artist, it’s been from a publisher who knows me and has selected an artist they know I’ve already worked with and have a good relationship with.

As for influence on the style – that’s an excellent question. Sometimes I’ll go after an artist because I like their style, and vice-versa . For example, the story I co-created for Strip magazine, Black Dragon, with artist Nick Dyer: Nick excels in drawing kinetic action scenes, so every time he drew something amazing, I felt pushed to create an action scene even bigger for him to get his teeth into.

Besides your own, what are your favourite graphic novels?

 It changes from time to time, but if I had to pick one, it would be From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Forget the atrocious movie adaption. While the book is, on the surface, a Jack the Ripper story, it is more of a treatise on the 20th Century and the birth of tabloid journalism.

I’m not a big fan of superhero books, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman is simply exquisite. Superman is a more complex and interesting character than most people give him credit for, and in this book, Morrison unpicks and examines just what makes him ‘Super’… and it’s not the fact he has unlimited strength and can fly.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

 Probably when I got the comps of my first GN, Turning Tiger. If you think New Book Smell is good, it’s even better when it’s the smell of a book you wrote.

What are you working on right now?

 Now that is a big question. I’m the kind of writer who works on half a dozen or more things at once. The two main things at the moment are writing a script for a computer game – it’s the first one I’ve worked on, but it’s a very interesting process – and a GN project with artist Paul Bolger, which we’ve been developing for a while. Most of the script is nailed down, so we just need to find some time for Paul to start drawing.

I’m also writing for and helping to edit a GN inspired by the Pearl Jam album No Code.

Hopefully, we’ll see my choose-your-own-adventure book Napoleon Stone and the Army of Set later in the year. This is based in the Unseen Shadows universe, created by writer Barry Nugent. I also have a GN in the same universe – The Chimera Factor – which is being drawn at the moment by the brilliant artist Peter Woods.

And there’s the ongoing work of publishing our regular comics at FutureQuake Press.

That sounds like an amazing amount of work. I’m not sure where the being very, very lazy fits in.

What advice would you give to the young Richmond Clements?

 Persist.

Any advice for aspiring graphic novelists?

 Well, to start with, it’s the same advice you’d give to any writer: write.

But I’d also say that you should get out to conventions and meet other creators and publishers. My first graphic novel was pitched at 4am in a hotel bar at a convention, for example.

There’s also a huge small press community out there. You can find a book there and get your work published. You’ll not be paid, or you’ll be paid very little, but you’ll garner some experience. And sometimes you’ll get noticed. I’m co-editor and publisher of the range of comics at FutureQuake Press. There, we’re had loads of writers and artists who have went on to fortune and glory and a successful career. Folks like Michael Carroll, Al Ewing, Cullen Bunn and more were published by us before they went on to bigger and better things.

In fact, John Wagner (co-creator of Judge Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra) saw the work of artist Dan Cornwell in one of our books and picked him for his new comic Rok of the Reds.

Another thing you can do is an obvious route: make your own comics. No, really. All you need is paper, a photocopier and a stapler. What’s that? You can’t draw? Well, that’s where the afore mentioned conventions come in – go to one and meet artists. Make your comics and give them away, or get yourself a table and sell them – either way, though, you’ll get your name out there!

A few quick questions to finish with. 

Okay, but these will have more than one answer…

Favourite book?

Use of Weapons, The Wasp Factory, Weaveworld, The Dark Tower series.

Author?

Iain Banks, Stephen King, Harry Harrison, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft

Food?

Pretty much anything apart from mushrooms and shellfish (I don’t want to eat anything that looks like phlegm).

Thanks for the image, Rich. Film?

Jaws, The Wicker Man, Star Wars, Room, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, The Big Lebowski…and so on…

Music?

I probably draw more inspiration from music and musicians than I do from other writers.

Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Kate Bush. Brian Fallon, John Grant, Courtney Barnett, Drive-by Truckers, David Bowie, Chris Cornell, Pearl Jam…

Game?


Computer games: Red Dead Redemption, Overwatch, Lego Star Wars. Board Games: Mansions of Madness, X-Wing, Zombies!!!

Thanks for taking part in the Literary Smorgasbord, Rich, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

 Thank you for having me!

To find out more, follow Rich on Twitter.

Photograph of Richard Clements by Ewan Birse.

 LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Barbara Henderson

This week’s guest on the Smorgasbord is children’s fiction author, Barbara Henderson. I first met Barbara at the XpoNorth creative industries festival in Inverness in 2016 when she was in the process of pulling together a group of people interested in setting up a book festival in the city.  Five short months later, fuelled largely by Barbara’s enthusiasm and dedication, the first NessBookFest was launched. In between the two festivals, her first novel, Fir For Luck, was published.

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Hi Barbara, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Your debut novel, Fir For Luck, is set during the Highland Clearances. How did you research the book?

 A combination. I stumbled across the ruins of Ceannabeinne, the village where my book is set, on holiday in 2013 and took photos of all the display signs. That was the basic outline of events. I had to twist it into the plot, of course. That meant filling in gaps by researching history websites, taking a whole carload of books out of my local library, visiting museums, returning to the places I portray and just sitting there, breathing in and out, as a 19th century character would have done, hearing, seeing and smelling what they did. In the end, I was cheeky and asked a local historian to read the manuscript for me. He did, gave me lots of feedback, and I knew then that I could submit the manuscript without any hidden clangers.

Did you come across anything interesting that you couldn’t include?

Probably too many things to mention. I found some very cool ghost-story type accounts featuring a couple of my minor characters which were based on real people. Sadly, the dates didn’t work, so I couldn’t include them in Fir for Luck. But I’m bound to weave them into a storytelling session at some point.

 On your website, you say that you are most proud of your stories for children. What did you enjoy reading when you were growing up?

I was a horse-mad kid, so I loved Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. Lindgren was a staple in my house, as were the inevitable triple-helpings of Enid Blyton.

I confess to a childhood passion for Enid Blyton, her Famous Five books in particular. It was probably something to do with the alluring combo of adventure and cake.

What were you like at school?

I was reasonably academic, and bookish. Not so sporty, and definitely not the cool kid. I was the irritating one who had her hand up while the teacher was still speaking (and not always with the right answer). I had a small group of friends, but I’m still in touch with them today.

What is the Barbara Henderson writing method?

Procrastination is my number 1 enemy. I trick myself by going to Velocity, a local café. Somehow, if I am paying for coffee, it focuses the mind and I ‘earn’ it by making a bit of progress. I can then return home and carry on, but by then I’m in the zone already.

No method, sadly, just doing it. I do, however, often leave the last sentence of a writing session unfinished so that it’s easier to come back. I also read everything aloud before I show it to a living soul.

What are you working on right now?

 I have finished the first draft of my next novel, a Victorian boy-on-the-run story, featuring Punch & Judy showmen, a huge fire and a murder. I am now at the editing stage and have a deadline to submit in a couple of weeks. I find deadlines absolutely necessary, even if self-imposed. My main challenge at the moment is to find a decent title. I’m a bit lukewarm about everything I have come up with so far.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Completely depends. A few months, once I have the story straight in my head, but it may take several drafts. There is one manuscript which was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize in 2013. It didn’t win, but I may revise it in the future, meaning that it would have taken me six years to write. It’s hard to pin down.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

Hands down the launch of Fir for Luck in Inverness in September 2016. Waterstones was packed, we sold every single one of 80 odd books (even my own copy), and I signed books for the first time in my life. It also hit the Amazon No1 in its category and was the tenth best-selling kids’ book in the whole of Waterstones that day. That was a good day!

A great day, and very well deserved.

Now that you have experienced a some literary success, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Join a crit group. A proper one, where people will tell you the truth about what works and what doesn’t in your writing. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; a brilliant investment!

Also: the only way to guarantee that it’s never going to happen for you is giving up trying. Keep going, submitting widely, always. It just takes one to make it through.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

I was very fond of The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff. Very original and evocative. And Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I find Tudor times fascinating.

 Good call. Wolf Hall is a literary masterpiece, and leads us neatly on to the next question.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

Jesus? Martin Luther King? I have a Christian faith, so the combination of courage and sense of justice and activism and love really appeals. I’d go for a long walk along the coast and quiz them all day.

A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?

 I flit. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro left an indelible mark though.

Author?

Kazuo Ishiguro and C.S.Lewis

Meal?

I’m a ricey and spicy kind of girl. I love Thai Curry.

Film?

Awakenings and Dead Poets’ Society

Music?

Anything by Emily Smith; she’s a genius. And Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. Never fails to make me cry.

What are you reading right now?

To be Continued by James Robertson

Great interview, Barbara. Thanks for taking part. Where can readers find out more about you?

Thank you, Lorraine. I’m on Twitter @scattyscribbler, Facebook,  and you can find my website at barbarahenderson.co.uk

 LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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The Attitude Smorgasbord: Sarah Norquoy

From May to December 2015, I delved into the lives of 21 writers, finding out what made them tick, who would play them in a film of their lives and what advice they would give to their young selves. Now the Smorgasbord is back, rebooted and raring to go, with a fresh batch of writers lined up for the next seven weeks.

First up is Sarah Norquoy. I met Sarah in 2016 when I was invited to Stromness in Orkney, to give a talk at an Emergents workshop. I was working on the final draft of Boiling Point, and Sarah was experiencing extraordinary success with her blog, Norq from Ork.

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Hi Sarah, Norq from Ork, has been incredibly successful. Why do you think it has struck such a chord with readers?

Thank you very much! I think it’s because I write about every day things in a simple and  funny way. People can identify with what I’m saying and as you say, it strikes a chord.  I didn’t set out to write that way, it was just the voice that emerged.   That said, I also write about very touching and moving aspects of life which people seem to appreciate too.  The posts that do the best are the ones where you’re tapping into an emotion that people can completely identify with, even if it’s something as mundane as loading a dish washer or cutting the grass.  Also people enjoy seeing the scenery of Orkney which I often share. I have nicknames for family and friends which seems to be a real hit as well.  I’ve always nicknamed my husband Orkney Beef and that dates back years to when I was completely nuts about him and he didn’t know I existed, so I just continued with the name.  Then I thought up names for my children and people started to ask what their name would be or suggesting one for themselves.  The whole blog is generally a bit of light relief, people know what they are going to get and they seem to like it.

Do your family ever get annoyed with you for writing about them?

They have never yet, but I’m very careful about what I write. If I’m unsure I will always ask permission first and if anyone doesn’t want to be involved then of course I would honour that. Usually  they love it and encourage me in what I’m doing. I have a regular feature called My Week in Pictures and  I discovered that my daughter and her boyfriend often try to get featured in it.

Where did you grow up, and how did it differ from life on Orkney?

I grew up in Sutton Coldfield on the outskirts of Birmingham, but I’ve lived in other places too and moved up to Orkney after 12 years in Cambridge.  It is COMPLETELY different from Orkney in every way.  We only saw the sea once a year on our family holiday and I always dreamed of living by the sea.  Now I can see it from my sitting room, kitchen and dining room window and I never tire of it.  I still have to pinch myself sometimes.

How did your blog evolve?

I’ve often been told how entertaining I am on things like Facebook and Twitter and many friends suggested I take it to a wider audience and write more. I’ve always enjoyed writing and often said I want to write a book, so the blog was merely a discipline to make me write on a regular basis. It quickly gained momentum and people enjoyed it and started signing up to read and follow up.  I’ve loved it and am really pleased I took the plunge.

How did you feel about putting yourself, and your family, out there?

I’m careful about what I share and if someone doesn’t want to be involved then I would honour that completely.  There’s much of my life that I’ve shared but there’s also much of my life that I haven’t. It’s a risk sometimes and I’m quite a sensitive soul so if someone said they hated me I think I’d cry!  Thankfully that hasn’t happened and I hope it never does.

 Have you ever regretted a post, or wished you’d pushed one a little further?

I haven’t regretted any but I have certainly felt like I’ve taken a risk with some and thankfully they have paid off.  It’s not so much the funny stuff as the personal accounts like for example talking about the death of my brother.  There are still a lot of things I want to explore like talking more about my life as a single parent.  They were difficult days and I would like to think that sharing some of my experiences could help someone else who may be going through it. Sometimes I wish I was braver with my writing as I’m quite risk averse, but maybe I’ll get there yet.

 Have you ever written, or considered writing, any kind of fiction or poetry?

 I’ve written some short stories. I entered my first one in the George Mackay Brown Fellowship completion and won a prize, and I’ve had a short piece published in Living Orkney magazine.  There’s book which is in the process of being written but it lives in my head a lot of the time..… I’m always, always, always writing in my head. The problem is that dreaded four letter word T*ME to get it all written down into something ready to send away. Gah…. 

Who inspires you?

I’ll try to stop this tipping into a load of gushing tripe but in all honesty it’s everyday people. The elderly who have lived through wars, rationing  and tremendous hardship with stories to tell, people who show kindness, friends who have stood by me through thick and thin. People who have overcome adversity and keep going.  My husband inspires me, and sometimes, I’m just inspired when I look in the  mirror and remember I raised two kids on my own with a mountain of difficulties to overcome. It’s taken me a long time to say that.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

Seeing my piece published in a magazine was thrilling, winning a prize in the competition mentioned earlier, being messaged by someone saying they love my work and how much did I charge.  But most of the time it’s getting an email or message from someone saying how a blog has touched them in some way or made them laugh. Being stopped by someone and told my blog really boosts their day, or made them smile or even cry. I’m always so touched that people want to make contact. A couple of posts I’ve written have had 900 views in a day.  That was astounding but I don’t know why some go like that and others don’t.

What are your ambitions, writing wise?

I want to be published.  The half written book I want to finish and publish, and I wold love to publish the blog in the form of a book too.  The ultimate dream for me would be to walk into a book shop and see my book there and know a complete stranger chose to buy it.

Do you have any particular writing habits?

Not really, I tend to write the blog in the evening but I’m always  jotting down ideas in note books or on my phone so I don’t forget it.  I observe people and make mental notes and jot them down.  Someday all these jottings will be worth a fortune I’m sure of it.

Who would play Norq From Ork in the film of your life?

Dawn French. I think she could do the funny parts of me perfectly and the the really difficult parts of my life sensitively. I asked her on Twitter once but she didn’t reply so I guess I’m going to have to think again.

A few short questions to finish with. 

Okay,  but I’m rubbish at narrowing these down to one so I may have to give you a few answers for each question.  What you gonna do, fire me?

Heh, heh. I guess not. Favourite books? 

The Outrun, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Rebecca, We Need to talk about Kevin, Stuart: A Life Backwards (warned you)

Author?

Not often I stick to one author but that said I know I’ve read all of Jonathan Tropper’s books. 

Meal?

Chinese noodles and crispy seaweed.  Also, your money’s safe with me but not your chocolate. 

I’ll keep that in mind next time we meet. Film? 

I loved The Help also loved A Brief History of Time.  Don’t make me choose. *sobs*

Music?

Quite an eclectic range. Right now I’m listening to Norah Jones in the car but another day it could be bangin’ tunes at full blast.

What are you reading right now?

3096 Days.  The story of Natascha Kampusch and how she survived 8 years being held in a dungeon after being kidnapped aged 10  She finally escaped at 18 and her coping strategies to stay alive and sane, and her ability to write so eloquently about her experience, is remarkable.  Now she really is inspiring. 

Thanks Sarah. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for asking me. It’s been an interesting experience. 

 Where can readers find out more about you?

My blog is Norq From Ork where you can subscribe, I also have a Facebook page called Norq from Ork.  You can tweet me on @SarahKNorquoy  and my Instagram is NorqfromOrk.  Take a look and say hi. 

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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