From bear to bookseller's best

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

Keith gray was the best tree climber in Humberston County Junior School, Cleethorpes. But his plans to become a professional tree climber were thwarted by a lack of jobs in that field. So over the next 20 years, he toyed with different vocations.

He started a business and finance HND, only to be kicked out when he got 0 per cent for his accountancy exam. He flipped pizzas, drove haulage trucks, tried gardening and even spent a summer dressed as a teddy bear call Billy-Bob at Cleethorpes's not-so-famous Pleasure Island theme park. But deep down, ever since he read The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall in his first year at secondary school, he had wanted to be a writer.

In 2000, Mr Gray left his motley collection of careers behind and moved to Edinburgh to become a full-time writer. Since then he has visited hundreds of schools, talking about creative writing, trying to motivate a generation of children and young people not only to read books, but also to try writing them. At the beginning of this year, he became the first writer-in-residence at the Scottish Book Trust.

"I have always loved Edinburgh. I'd visited the Book Festival many times and when Random House signed me up, I decided to move," says Mr Gray, who, this month, is rushing to finish his 15th book, with a working title Hoodlum.

His most recent, Ostrich Boys, is about a couple of friends who kidnap the ashes of their dead friend, Ross, and head to Ross in Dumfries and Galloway to lay him to rest. It has been his most successful yet. Random UK has sold the rights on to America and it is to be made into an audio book.

"It was Random's most requested book at Bologna (the biggest bookseller exhibition in Europe)," says Mr Gray, who wrote three books before any were published. "It is such a struggle to get published. I could wallpaper my room with rejection letters. JK Rowling was rejected 12 times before she got her publishing deal. You just have to be really stubborn and keep going."

Since becoming writer-in-residence, Mr Gray has been visiting fewer schools. Instead, he has recorded a series of podcasts for the SBT website that aim to inspire and encourage young people to write their own stories. "It was the brainchild of Anna Gibbons, children's programme manager. Many young people are more used to computers and game consoles than they are to books, so she came up with the idea of making books and information about books available to them in a different way," he says. "It sort of snowballed from there."

Mr Gray has recorded five podcasts covering ideas and inspiration; characters; plot; setting; and redrafting and competitions. The podcasts can be accessed at home, but are also short enough to be useful in class to inspire a creative-writing module.

"English teachers have a hard job," he says, echoing research done by Richard Andrews, professor of English at the Institute of Education in London: "It's not like maths where two and two make four. Creative writing is so subjective, how do you mark it? English teachers are not creative writers the way maths teachers are mathematicians. They are literary critics."

Mr Gray hopes his ventures into schools, which have included continuing professional development sessions, and the more recent podcasts and written materials on the SBT website, will help teachers inspire their classes. He also points to the short stories he has commissioned from established teen authors as part of his residency at SBT.

"By going for short stories, we hope to create reading materials that young people will not be intimidated by. For a lot, opening a book is a barrier, so we went for more accessible materials," he explains.

So far, Anthony McGowan, Ally Kennan, Julie Bertagna and Marcus Sedgwick have contributed original stories. A final author is due, but Mr Gray won't divulge who it is. The SBT is also running a short story competition to encourage young people and Mr Gray hopes teachers will cajole their pupils into entering.

"It was my English and history teachers who encouraged me. Mrs Robinson read my short stories and pulled them together to be part of my course work for my GCSE, while my history teacher, Mr Roberts, and I used to swap stories and discuss them over break," he says. "They gave me support that went way beyond the curriculum."


Children must be aged 12-16 to enter

Submitted stories must be their own work and 1,000-2,500 words in length

Stories must be emailed in a Word document to

Deadline is December 12

All entries must include the pupil's name, class teacher'slibrarian's name and email address, as well as the name, address and telephone number of the school or library.


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