44 very tiny secrets...
19th Jul 20

44 very tiny secrets...

Betsy's parents are famous pianists, but Betsy finds playing the piano a struggle. Then she's given a solution - involving pumpkin seeds and a tiny secret - well, 44 tiny secrets... SYLVIA BISHOP tells us more!

Q: Can you tell us what 44 Tiny Secrets is about?

A: It's about a girl, Betsy Bow-Linnet, who wants to get good at the piano to make her parents happy, and the very unusual help she receives in the form of 44 African pygmy mice. It's also about being yourself, and the pain caused by secrets and misunderstandings.

Q: The novel involves a secret or two... could you keep secrets as a child?

Looking back, I always found it incredibly distressing to feel I had to keep secrets or act alone as a child. It makes sense to me that I would put that at the centre of the story.

Q: What would you like your young readers to take away from the story?

A: Everyone in the story grows and forgives each other when all the secrets are out in the light, but not without pain along the way.

I suppose that means I've implicitly argued in favour of honesty, hopefully with a dose of realism that this doesn't magically mean no one gets hurt. But again, I didn't set out to do that!

Q: How do you keep the story funny?

A: By including lots of silly characters and excess ferns and cream-cake feasts and 44 mice. But also, I think it is part of the job to present the difficulties of life as ultimately gently-mockable, bearable, surmountable.

Q: There is a lot about practicing the piano in the story - is this something you were forced to do as a child?

A: I learned to play the piano briefly because my older sisters were learning, but I was terrible. Luckily for me no one forced it and I soon gave it up.

I was later very serious about flute and tuba though, and went to a Saturday school for music where the expectations were very intense. It was one of the absolute best things I ever did, but it did also give me an insight into the frustrations of practising!

Q: How did you come to know so much about the inside of a piano?

A: Ha, I didn't before. There was a lot of googling, and also an appeal on my facebook for any knowledge of grand pianos that were sitting somewhere public I could go and snoop.

In the end I found one by accident, when I went for a course in mindfulness - and there it was, just sitting there. So it was a learning curve. And it was a learning curve I then imposed on poor Ashley, who had to illustrate those insides very precisely!

Q: What about African pygmy mice, which have an important role in the story - do they exist and have you met one?

A: Yes they do! I was just googling for the smallest mice. I have since met an African pygmy dormouse, which is not quite the same thing but still very cute. I would love to meet a true pygmy mouse!

Q: Betsy discovers she has quite a skill for training small creatures - have you ever managed to train a pet to do something interesting?

A: Alas, I had five cats and countless guinea pigs, none of which were highly trainable. One of the cats would pretend to stroke you if she wanted stroking herself, which was cute, but I can't claim credit for it.

But those pets suited me. Betsy's mice cause a lot of trouble. My pets just sat on my lap and squeaked or purred while I read a book.

Q: What did you think of Ashley King's illustrations when you first saw them?

A: Oh, they're brilliant! I've worked with him before so I wasn't surprised, but still, his work is stunning every time.

My favourite is when Betsy's on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and the only speck of green is the flower in her hair - after all the vibrant colour of the rest of the book, it makes her look so alone and afraid.

Q: Are you planning to write more about Betsy and her 44 Tiny Secrets?

A: Yes! I've written two more Betsy books which I can't wait to share - next, she's heading to the world of the Grandma she never met, the circus.

Right now I'm working on a couple of projects: my google history currently covers hot air balloons, puffer fish toxins and canal boats, so good luck to anyone trying to customise my adverts.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write, and how does your writing day go?

A: Before lockdown I used to work in a beautiful library, often with a good friend of mine.

I like to keep roughly office hours, doing bursts of 25 mins followed by a five min break, in blocks of two hours.

A good day would be a couple of those blocks on the most intense thinking/writing, and the third on background research or admin.

At the moment I'm staying at my parents during lockdown, which is lovely, and child Sylvia has taken over so I'm quite a bit lazier!

Q: What are your favourite escapes from your desk?

A: I try to make plans to be out in the evenings, as writing is a lonely business; I perform comedy sometimes, which takes me on enjoyably weird trips with my friends, and I make lots of coffee dates.

So in lockdown I'm having to learn some low-engagement relaxing solo activities, which I've never been very good at! I am being introduced to TV. I'm not very good at it yet. Send help.

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