Two tales of the old West

The Bath Children's Festival played host to two very different authors who tell tales of the Wild West: meet Caroline Lawrence and Geraldine McCaughrean

While Francesca Simon was packing out the main room of the Guildhall at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, authors Caroline Lawrence (pictured) and Geraldine McCaughrean were talking about all things Wild West to a somewhat smaller audience.

The event presented two very different authors: Lawrence came across as controlled, disciplined, who values heavy research (and films) and seeks to escape to other detailed locations through her writing, which includes The Roman Mysteries and now The Western Mysteries, beginning with The Case of the Deadly Desperados. “I want a book that will transport me to another world,” she said. To get her books written she has to work hard, in silence – she even has a computer programme called Freedom that stops her being able to surf the internet for a time to remove distractions.

The multi-award-winning McCaughrean – author of Western books like Pull Out All the Stops! and Stop the Train, as well as Peter Pan in Scarlet – meanwhile, is an easy, freewheeling writer who can work anywhere, doesn’t plan her books out in advance, likes working to (classical) music and is driven by an interest in character. “I like stepping out of myself and into someone else’s skin,” she explained.

Both authors share some interesting foibles. McCaughrean actually cannot help but write – she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy in her younger years, which turned into hypergraphia, meaning she feels compelled to write. Lawrence said that she suffers from poor social skills, misreading people’s feelings and failing to remember even significant details about them – this she exaggerated in the figure of P.K. Pinkerton in Deadly Desperados.

Both concurred that they write for themselves rather than for an audience – “Turns out I just have a child’s mentality,” joked Lawrence. “A writer writes like that because of who they are, not because of what they do,” agreed McCaughrean. She added, perhaps controversially in the world of young adult fiction, “I can’t abide issues books that are about how hard it is to be a kid.”

And, of course, both authors share a love of the old West. For Lawrence it is Virginia City in Nevada in 1862 that serves as her setting – the year that a young Mark Twain arrived in town; Twain also looms large in McCaughrean’s Pull Out All the Stops!, which tells tale of a theatre troop on a paddle steamer. It’s a time rich in atmosphere, and while some children may not get all the references in their books – McCaughrean even urged adults to read her novel because they would understand the jokes and the Shakespeare quotes – there’s no doubting the respect those in the audience held for these two skills writers.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence is out now from Orion Children’s Books, while Pull Out All the Stops! by Geraldine McCaughrean is out now from Oxford University Press

For more information on Bath Children's Festival of Literature, see