Our chat with Ally…
I was a bit of a slow starter with reading at school, but once it finally clicked, I became a regular bookworm and loved creative writing too. When I go into schools now, I show the children my first ‘published’ work – a poem about fireworks, which the teacher liked so much she put it on the wall. Rather spookily, the first book I had published, Black Powder, is all about two children who get caught up in the infamous Gunpowder Plot – a satisfying synergy!
My first career as a professional communicator/marketer involved plenty of writing, though telling other people’s stories rather than my own. But then a redundancy gave me the chance to go back to ‘school’ and study for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. Afterwards, I finished the story I’d begun for my dissertation and went on to write another. This was the one my lovely publisher, Barry Cunningham at Chicken House Books picked up and which became Black Powder.
And then of course, there’s the whole business of sending your baby out into the world and waiting to see if an agent or publisher is going to see its potential as a published novel. My skin has definitely grown a few inches thicker since I first started submitting work. I got about fifteen or twenty rejections for my first story – a sci-fi futuristic tale for middle grade readers – but I did get two agents asking to see the whole thing too.
Although in the end this didn’t convert to an offer of representation, it gave me the encouragement I needed to keep on going with a new story. Black Powder was also rejected by a fair few agents until that moment – a happy blend of opportunity and serendipity – when Barry Cunningham read my ten word pitch for a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) competition and decided he’d like to read more and finally, publish it. Cue the fizz and fireworks!
One that sticks in my mind as a particular classic, for both good and bad reasons, is a trip into a school in North London that was part of my first book tour. Things began to go awry from the moment that we couldn’t find a parking place near the school. I ended up helping to wheel the boxes of books for the book signing for about half a mile along some very bumpy pavements while the bookseller – who was great fun – lugged his ginormous Victorian till along behind.
When we arrived at the school it was pandemonium. All the kids were kitted out in pink gear for a charity event – pink faces, pink hair, pink tutus – boys as well as girls. Four little girls were assigned to show me the way to the loo and while I was inside I could hear them chattering excitedly about me outside the door. When I came out again, they all bowed and got down on one knee crying ‘Ally Sherrick!’ at the top of their voices.
Half the time I had set aside for my presentation was taken over with book sales because a bunch of children had to leave half way through to go to a sporting event. And unfortunately they weren’t terribly quiet about it when the time came. So I had to deliver an hour’s presentation in about thirty minutes with a bout of shuffling, scraping and head turning half way through.
Then, to top things off, the school librarian asked me a killer of a question about the religious tensions in my story right at the end. This taught me early on that the best policy when doing school visits is to expect the unexpected, go with the flow and above all, smile.
As for now, while Aiken still has a very special place in my heart, I also really admire the writing of David Almond. If you forced me to pick one his stories, it would probably have to be Skellig for its strangeness, the beauty of the writing and the punch that it packs at the end.
Hmmm. Good question! Well, I’m not that au fait with child stars, but I’d love it if Sir Kenneth Branagh agreed to play Hauptsturmführer Kurt Adler, the leader of the crack squad of Nazi treasure hunters in my latest World War Two-set adventure, The Buried Crown.
How would I persuade him? By telling him he’s one of my favourite actors of all time (which he is) and that if he takes the role, he gets the chance – spoiler alert – to battle it out with a mythical Anglo-Saxon dragon at the end.