I was standing at a bus-stop a few days ago, and I started chatting with an old man waiting there too.

Somehow we got talking about the way that plants and animals are being genetically modified these days. And he looked at me and said, “Well it’s nothing new. I grew up on a little farm. And I’ve got four brothers and sisters. And whenever we had a chicken for lunch, all five of us wanted to eat a chicken leg. But, of course, there were only ever two legs to go round. So that meant three of us always missed out. But what happened was my mother managed this extraordinary thing. Somehow she cross-fertilized some hens, and she managed to breed a chicken with five legs!”

I looked at him, amazed! “A chicken with five legs?” I said.

He nodded. “It sounds like some sort of made-up story but it’s true. She bred this chicken that had five legs.”

“Well I’ve never hear of anything like that before!” I said back. “What did it taste like?”

The man looked at me and replied, “I can’t tell you. We never found out. The chicken ran so fast we never managed to catch it!”



My novel A WASTE OF GOOD PAPER came out a few days ago, published by Frances Lincoln Books and available here.

It was interesting writing it. I was meant to be working on something different, but was having a read of TRACY BEAKER by Jacqueline Wilson, and the idea for the novel suddenly arrived.

I scribbled out a rough plan. And it came pretty much fully-formed. There were some shifts along the way, but I was still working from the original two-page plan when I got to the last pages of the book.

If you can make any sense of this over-excited scrawling (click on the image to enlarge, though that probably still won’t help…) you’ll see that the story is in a diary format.

The diary entries are written by a boy at a special school for young people with behavioural difficulties. I’ve taught in that sort of school. And, once I started writing, all kinds of recollections and imagined incidents…dramatic, moving, unexpected, funny…flooded out on to the paper. I wrote the novel in ten weeks.

It’s a gritty book. There’s a fair bit of violence, some explicit images of drug-taking. It’s not always comfortable to read. But if I’d written it differently it wouldn’t be right. The work I’ve done with young people with behavioural difficulties has been uncomfortable a fair bit of the time.

It has also been work marked by a lot of laughter, and some breakthroughs, and moments of effort, courage and creativity that take you by surprise. I hoped to come out of the book with some of these positive things in there too. And I didn’t have to try very hard. They were all there, as soon as the characters came to life.

What’s pleased me about early responses to the novel (reviews here for example) is the warmth people feel for the book’s narrator, Jason. I didn’t know if that would happen. He loses control, acts violently and doesn’t seem especially sorry about it. But there is another side to him, that’s typical of a lot of young people with behavioural difficulties. In spite of the low horizons of their lives, the cut-off options and unfinished stories, some, like Jason, manage to hold on to a fierce sort of cleverness and humour. Things which deserve to be celebrated…not just numbed out of them.

The back of the book says it’s “A searingly honest, funny and totally brilliant debut novel”. You don’t have to believe that. It’s just what the publishers are saying! Have a read, if you can, and decide for yourself.




This strange and beautiful photo, taken by a photographer called Danilo Verpa, appeared in a Brazilian newspaper a few weeks ago.

There’s a kind of magic to things that catch you somewhere between believing them and not believing them. It’s an effect that reading a book can have, and other kinds of art too. You can get caught between belief and disbelief watching animated films or puppet theatre. What’s in front of you seems real, but then again you know that it’s not…

What does the photo show? Avenida São João, not very far from where I’m living in São Paulo. It’s a famous avenue leading to the city’s centre. As part of an urban festival called BaixoCentro, 200 litres of paint were poured across the road.

So this time what’s in front of you may seem unreal…but actually it’s not!


A poem by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. First published in Spanish in 1954, in his book Poemas y Antipoemas.



Write as you will In whatever style you like Too much blood has run under the bridge To go on believing That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition, of course: You have to improve on the blank page.


Translated into English by Miller Williams.



São Paulo (the biggest city in Brazil) is where my wife grew up, and it’s where we’re living at the moment.

It’s an explosive sort of place.

In 1870 it was a small town of 30,000 people. In 1900 the population had grown to 240,000. By 1950 it was home to 2 million. Twenty years later, 6 million. And today 20 million people live across the whole sprawling megacity.

Imagine seeing that as a sequence of photos taken from the sky! It would look like a bomb going off, as the city blasted its way outwards.

And São Paulo isn’t famous for being an inspiring place. It’s a hectic, grey, violent, smoky, money-minded sort of city…built using an awful lot of concrete and tarmac.

But it is an inspiration to me. I’ve done a lot of interesting writing here. (And by that I mean things that have taken me by surprise.)

So what is the inspiration?

Two kinds.

There are the things that I, personally, love. Relationships with family and friends (and the Brazilian warmth and easiness that comes with them.) São Paulo’s cultural life which (as one of the great artistic hubs of South America) is forever abuzz and springing surprises. Capoeira lessons with one of Brazil’s respected old masters. Warm weather most of the year round. The magical stretch of forest and coast between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which is easy to get to and an antidote to the city smog.

All those things feed into my writing. But something else goes on too.

I grew up in Surrey, in England. A quiet corner of the world. And the contrast between there and here is so total that I’m a long way from home in many more ways than one.

And I think that helps.

Being a bit bewildered, out-of-your-depth and questioning is a good place for any artist to find themselves. And so, perhaps is being in a place where you are a bit bewildering and a source of questions to others (as I know I am to Brazilians!)

I sometimes write about São Paulo, but most of the time I’m writing about back where I’m from. And, in a strange way, being far from it means you can see it well. (The British author Rudyard Kipling once asked, “What do they know of England, who only England know?”)

Being cut off from the everyday routines, ties and responsibilities of where you’re from frees things up. Life is more of an adventure and (to use a word that doesn’t actually exist) storyful.

So, part of the inspiration of São Paulo isn’t even to do with what it’s like. It’s to do with being away from what is familiar, safe, convenient.

They say fairy tales teach 3 things: be brave, be honest and marry far from home. At least I managed one of them!


Three quotations about FAILURE

“Error can often be fertile, but perfection is only sterile.” British historian, A.J.P. Taylor.

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, in his novel ‘Murphy’.

“We know we’re going to fail. But that’s all right…just lower your standards!” U.S. poet, William Stafford.


Writing secrets – SPACE

It’s not easy to find space for yourself. Over the years I’ve done my writing in the bedroom, in a corner of the living room, in a glorified broom cupboard…

So I’m thankful to have a special, big studio to work in at the moment. It’s up on top of the house where I’m living, with my family, in Brazil.

Though we’re not so far from the centre of São Paulo – one of the world’s most frantic and noisy mega-cities – it’s quiet a lot of the time. I look out on rooftops and trees.

I have two desks: an ordinary one with a computer on it, and a bigger, longer one where I write by hand. (And I spend as much time at the desk without the computer as I can.)

There are also shelves for my books and the scribbled writing notes that I gather like some demented squirrel. And several comfortable chairs.

I’ve even got a little cooker so I can make some tea.

If you want to write, I’d say that one of the things that can help is getting (begging, borrowing, stealing) a bit of space for yourself.

Space to organise your ideas. Space to do more than one thing at once. Space to let a bit of light and air in. Space to play loud music or speak bits of dialogue in funny voices, without having to worry who’s listening. Space to spread out you work (and, if you need to, your self.)

At least some of the above that matter to you most.

And if none is possible then almost as helpful may be to have some space to look out on.

There’s something right about writers looking at a bit of horizon, a hill in the distance, some sky. Even if it’s the neighbour’s wall, it may help. After all, staring out the window is one of the most underrated activities of our times…



Some of the things I tried to say in my last post – ONCE UPON A TIME – are brilliantly touched on in this animated film about reading and writing, made by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore .

And, now I’m pointing towards YouTube, here’s another animation, which isn’t anything at all to do with reading and writing: KJFG no 5 . But it’s a wild little film. (Because life isn’t all flying books!)


Once upon a time. East of the sun and west of the moon. Not very far from here but, then again, not very near. Once in the middle of a night that never was and never will be. Back in the days when pigs had bushy tails, apples grew underground and birds made their nests in old men’s beards. Right at the beginning of long ago. There was, there was not, and yet somehow there was…

Beginnings are important. Above are some different ways of starting a story that I like and have used.

They’re not mine though. I didn’t make any of them up. They’ve been used to begin stories for years and years and years. Storytellers have passed them down to me. And here I am, passing them on.

That’s how it is with lots of the ingredients that go into writing and telling stories. Characters, events, jokes, story shapes, bits of dialogue, dramatic moments, beginnings, endings. Much of what I write is put together out of bits and pieces of story that have already been used, and used again.

And it’s good news for writers. Work has already been done for us. Listen and read, and your own stories grow a bit like the seeds of other stories you know.

I always think writers and gardeners have a lot in common!

The British author, Alan Garner, put it this way: “Though we may be the lantern bearers, we are not the lanterns.”