Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Not posting, but writing

I'm working on my second novel so I won't be posting for a while (not even to MAT).

I don't know how long a while is, and I won't know until I get there, but the SOED says:

A period of time, considered with respect to its duration.

and, a little less obliquely:

The time spent (connoting trouble, effort or work) in doing something.

So that's what I'll be doing (not, please note, whiling away the time which implies that nothing will have been achieved by the time the whiling ends). And that's why I won't be posting for some while.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The White Tiger wins the Man Booker

Congratulations to Aravind Adiga whose first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker prize last night. Michael Portillo - chair of the 2008 judges - said it 'knocked his socks off'.

I haven't read it yet, so I've still got my socks on ... but I heard Adiga interviewed this morning on the Today programme (and yesterday, before the announcement), and he sounded wise and thoughtful. The White Tiger deals with one man's quest for freedom in modern India; Adiga works as a journalist in India, and he's almost finished his second novel ... . The White Tiger is the fourth first novel to win the Man Booker. The others were The Bone People, The God of Small Things and Vernon God Little.

I've just finished Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture which was shortlisted for the Man Booker (and which I hoped would win but obviously Portillo's socks remained on his feet when he read it). It is a beautiful, poetic vision of Ireland embodied by the two main characters: one female, presbyterian, Irish and one hundred years old; the other sixtyish, male, English (but he's lived in Ireland for years) and Catholic. I recommend it.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Troubadour Cafe

The Troubadour is, as they say on their website, a proper cafe. It's been around for years but it just gets better and better. It's in London, find out where here, and it's in Speaking of Love because, in the Sixties in London, it was the place for poets to read and perform their poetry. (It still is.) It's also where Bob Dylan and friends played in the Sixties. So where else could I possibly set Kit Marchwood's poetry readings but The Troubadour? It was the grooviest place I knew at the time, and I fell in love with the coffee pots on the shelves in the window.
Aren't they beautiful?

Like Iris in Speaking of Love, I hoped I was as trendy as the trendiest customers and, of course, I longed for a poet to fall in love with me. I gave that privilege to Iris (probably because it never happened to me … !) when Kit falls for her on the night she comes to hear him and then, until they leave London, they share his flat above The Troubadour.

If you live in London, or when you come here, do go to The Troubadour. You can even stay there if you rent The Garret above the cafe; you can eat wonderful food there; you can listen to poets and musicians in The Club and if you can't make it to The Troubadour for a while, you can whet your appetite by reading about it in Speaking of Love.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Man Booker Shortlist

So here they are:

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole

Two first novels have made the shortlist, Adiga's and Toltz's, which is wondeful. But I'm very sad that John Berger's book didn't make it.

My money - if I had any - is on Sebastian Barry to win.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

SW11 Literary Festival

I know I said I wasn't going to post for a while because I'm writing ... but I thought you might like to know that the SW11 (London) Literary Festival begins on Monday 8 September and ends on Monday 29 September.

Here's what Wandsworth Council - the organisers - say about it:

The SW11 Literary Festival 2008 is going to be one of the most exciting so far. Apart from a programme of excellent writers there are a number of creative writing workshops, from poetry to playwriting, to starting a novel. There is also an event devoted entirely to chocolate! The legendary Quiz is back, get a team together and turn up at the Latchmere Pub for a great evening of Literary fun.
Victoria Hislop and Will Self and Ruth Rendell will be appearing, among many others, including the wonderful storyteller Jan Blake who'll be running a storytelling workshop. And I'm going to do a Speaking of Love talk and reading on Wednesday 24 September @ 7pm at Battersea Library, Lavender Hill, SW11.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Writing, not Posting

I am writing or, more to the point, doing this before I write. I have laid the foundations and now I'm building the trellises and the supports around which the plants of my story will grow.

(image found here)

I still agree with John Fowles when he says that writing is an organic process. He wrote this, on pages 85 & 86 of my copy of The French Lieutenant's Woman:

You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons. ... Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world.

but living breathing organisms also need a purpose and a direction and, as they grow, they conceal, and can replace, the 'planned world' - the pergolas, around which they began their growth.

When the pergolas and the trellises are completed, I shall write.

So I won't be posting for some time.

I don't know how long.

But, for the moment, the MATs have flown.

(image found here)

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Booker Longlist

I'm a bit late ... it was announced on 29 July, here, but here they are:

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture
John Berger From A to X
Michelle de Kretser The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill Netherland
Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith Child 44
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole

My excuse for lateness is that I've been here:

and saw him:

by David Cerny in front of his
museum. (Although this statue of him isn't in front of his museum, it's in the Jewish quarter where he lived.)

And then we saw Mucha's glorious stained glass window:here.

However, back to the Booker point, and I find myself, like Simon at Stuck in a Book, not having read a single longlisted title. But I love the sound of Girl in a Blue Dress - particularly because it was published by Tindal Street Press, a small press, although I've just discovered that it's not published until 14 August, and I've heard Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture not only tipped to win, but highly praised.

And John Berger, if my memory isn't fooling me, gave at least half his 1972 Booker Prize winnings, for G, to the Black Panthers in protest at the Booker's sugar-trade funding. (The latest Berger I've read is Here is Where We Meet, which is quite wonderful. It is, at least in part - and again if my memory isn't deserting me - a fictional encounter with his dead mother who is, beautifully and heartbreakingly, more alive than he is and so teaches him how to live.)

Saturday, 26 July 2008


Sheri at One of the Best Things posted this (two quotes about writing and ideas).

Which inspired me to post, in a comment, Goethe's wonderful words:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
And then I thought I'd post them here too, for double inspiration.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Six Random Things ...

... I was tagged by A Work in Progress at the beginning of May (yes, that's the beginning of May) to do this meme which I've only just seen. My excuse is (and it's a good one) that I've been head-down in planning (yes, that is planning) my second novel so I haven't been reading many blogs or writing much on this blog.

That'll be the case for some time to come ... but for a bit of light relief from planning, here are six random things about me:

1 I write fiction. It is the thing I've always wanted to do and now that I'm doing it - even if it's going horribly wrong - I'm a much nicer person than I was when I desperately wanted to write and couldn't find the courage to begin. (The thing about writing that isn't talked about much is that you need a job that both pays you enough to live on and gives you enough time to write. I edit and proofread freelance and it more or less works.)

2 I love blue ... once upon sometime ago, when I was the Economist's first personnel manager, I had a blue office, even though the corporate colour was, and still is, red. I learned to edit and proofread at the Economist, thank you Economist.

3 I love How to Eat by Nigella Lawson (and, of course, Nigella Express). The thing is she's a wonderful cook AND a wonderful writer which is an irresistible combination.

4 I used to be jealous of the successes of other writers, but now that I know how long it takes to write a novel and how difficult it can be to get a novel out into the world, I find myself not only free of all jealousy, but full of admiration for other writers. There's a wonderful freedom in that.

5 My grandmother once told me that my handwriting is 'quite beautiful and utterly illegible'. (Interesting, for a writer, don't you think?)

6 I have fallen in love late in life and that is a gift beyond description (or expectation).

Here are the rules for this meme:
Link to the person who tagged you
Post the rules somewhere in your meme
Write the six random things
Tag six people in your post
Let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog
Let the tagger know your entry is posted

I haven't tagged anyone ... but if you'd like to do this meme do let me know that you've done it because I'd love to read your six random things.

Monday, 14 July 2008

BBC National Short Story Award: the winner

Congratulations to Clare Wigfall who's just won the BBC National Short Story Award 2008 for her story The Numbers from her collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing.

The shortlist is here; a couple of blogs about Clare Wigfall are here (and see the Faber website link from her name, above) and you can listen again to her story, The Numbers, here until Wednesday 16 July.

May she write many many more.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The BBC National Short Story Award

The shortlist is:

Richard Beard Guidelines for Measures to Cope with Disgraceful and Other Events
Jane Gardam The People on Privilege Hill
Erin Soros Surge
Adam Thorpe The Names
Clare Wigfall The Numbers

The stories are being read on Radio Four all this week, you can listen, or listen again, here, and the winning story and the story that runs up will be announced on 14 July on the Today programme, here.

The prizes are severely financially worthwhile ... so hooray for the BBC, Prospect, the Arts Councils and the Book Trusts who've made it happen.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Storytellers ... on the road

Two storytellers, Peter Chand and Giles Abbott, have begun a storytelling journey from Avebury to London. Like itinerant monks, they will depend on the charity (or love as it has long been translated) of others for their welfare along the way, and in return they will tell stories.

Their storytelling journey will also raise money for the Parkinson's Disease Society, the MS Society and Chelsea Children's Hospital Schools.

Iris, in Speaking of Love, becomes an oral storyteller and oral stories inform the novel. I fell in love with oral stories as I was thinking about the novel that eventually became Speaking of Love and it seems to me that what these two storytellers are doing is reincarnating the ancient art of the troubadour. Catch them if you can, on the road.

PS: they're blogging about their journey as they travel too ... on their website.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Reader: Philip Pullman and The Storyteller's Responsibility

The Summer issue of The Reader is, as usual, full of wonderful things (I discovered The Reader over on dovegreyreader's blog a while ago, thank you dovegrey).

But the reason this issue (No. 30) is particularly wonderful to me is because of the essay by Philip Pullman called The Storyteller's Responsibility. It beautifully describes what it is that we storytellers think about - or should be thinking about - when we write.

Pullman writes about financial responsibilities: 'We should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it' in order to support our families; and the responsibility to, and for looking after, the language: 'We should acquire as many dictionaries as we have space for.'

He discusses clarity and emotional honesty and keeping a check on our own self-importance, but the responsibility that Pullman feels 'trumps every other' is:

the storyteller's responsibility to the story itself. ... When the story's just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing - we have to look after it ... to protect it while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.
He writes eloquently about how the writer doesn't know why a story wants to go in one direction and not another, just that that is true. The story is 'the boss' and 'this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service ... freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing.'

And on planning, my sometime difficulty, he writes these wonderful, and wonderfully clear, words:
Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won't be able to disguise any failure with the first - which is actually the most difficult, and the most important.
Wonderul summer reading. Thank you, The Reader.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Literary fathers

Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book has prompted this post, with his post today.

He asks who our favourite literary fathers are. I commented on his post, here, but I feel so strongly that Mr Bennet is the best literary father in my literary world that I've turned my comment there into a post here.

Mr Bennet is undoubtedly the best literary father, to me, for these reasons: when Lizzie Bennet turns down the obsequious Mr Collins's offer for her hand in marriage (a match that would keep the Bennet house in the family, that would save the Bennets from losing the roof over their heads when their father dies, but a match that Lizzie cannot make because she cannot love Mr Collins) Mr Bennet says:

'Well, Lizzie, from this day henceforth it seems you must be a stranger to one of your parents.' (He looks at her while she nervously awaits his decision. He keeps her waiting ... .) Then he says: 'Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins ... and I will never see you again if you do.'

Benjamin Whitrow as Mr Bennet in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Mr Bennet's deep love for his favourite daughter shines through these words, as does her subsequent relief, her slight surprise and then her gratitude and her laughter at what he has to say.

And Mr Bennet's amused, and sometimes not-so-amused tolerance of his desperate-to-marry-off-their-daughters wife (see here for some more of the wise and wonderful words Jane Austen gave him, adapted for various screenplays), his asking of the right questions of his daughters at crucial moments and his understanding of them (for instance, when Jane becomes engaged to Mr Bingley it is Mr Bennet who understands why they will never quarrel - because they can only see good in each other) - all these things make him the father of literary fathers, to me.

But I also feel this deeply because my own too-long-dead father loved Mr Bennet himself, and sometimes thought himself in a similar twentieth-century version of Mr Bennet's position because he had four daughters of his own and no sons.

Why don't you suggest your own favourite literary fathers, either in comments here, or where the idea began, over at Stuck in a Book, here.

Monday, 9 June 2008

South East London reading

I'll be talking about and reading from Speaking of Love tonight at Penge Library in south east London. It's part of The Blurb, Bromley's June festival of Books and Reading and it's free, but if you'd like to come you need to book. The event has been organised in association with Spread the Word's bookchat series ... because Speaking of Love came fifth (of 500) in Spread the Word's Books to Talk About competition earlier in the year.

It would be lovely to see you there ... .

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Rose Tremain wins Orange ... HURRAH!

One hundred years ago a great friend told me about Rose Tremain's short stories, and since then I haven't stopped reading her work. She's written at least two collections of short stories and ten novels and today, wonderful writer that she is, Rose Tremain has won the Orange Prize for Fiction with her tenth novel, The Road Home (a wonderful portrait of an eastern European immigrant and his struggles to settle here and, more importantly, to find that place that we all long to call home). Tremain's work has been shortlisted for the Booker and for the Orange before, but this is the first time it has won. I can't think why it hasn't happened before. Her work is brilliant and deserves all the awards.

I've read every novel she has written (she's been writing for more than thirty years), but if you haven't, I recommend Restoration, whose central character, Robert Merivel, physician, transforms himself from King Charles II's idiotic vet (and cuckold) into an empathetic and wise-before-his-time doctor at a Quaker asylum for the insane. This, as Merivel tells what has been revealed to him about the treatment of the insane, had me in tears:

'Madness may be born of many things but yet for all except those who are lunatic from their births there was a Time Before, a time when there was no madness in them ... madness is not a static thing but, just as all things in the world are changeful, so is madness and, like them, may change for the better or for the worse. But we do not ask what were the Footsteps of each case of madness ... and we should try with each one of those in our care to look back into past time and ask them to ... remember how it was to be in the Time Before and what thing or calamity came about to put them into the Sickening Time ... .' And now [out] poured all my ... cures by dancing, my suggestions for story-telling and the playing of music.
Or there's the wonderful Music and Silence set in King Christian IV of Denmark's court (1630) who lives in fear for his life and his country's ruin, and his wife's not-so-secret adultery. He comforts himself with music which is played by his Royal Orchestra in the freezing cellar at Rosenborg, while he listens in his cosy Vinterstue above. Music, he hopes, will create the sublime order he craves but Kirsten, his devious wife, detests music.Or you could try The Colour, which is set in the New Zealand Gold Rush of the mid-19th century (I never knew there was a New Zealand Gold Rush until I read The Colour) - to which Harriet and Joseph Baxter (and his mother) have fled from East Anglia to escape the consequences of something he did ... and to build a new life.
All Tremain's work is peopled with vivid and often strange characters, and will live long after you've read it in your head because of its glorious settings and, above all, its emotional and psychological honesty. She's written seven other novels that I haven't even mentioned, but read her work ... you won't be disappointed.

Here's a big HURRAH for Rose Tremain (and for the friend who told me about her all those years ago).

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Favourite authors, at a moment's notice ...

Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book tagged me for this meme, which began on Heather's site, Errant Thoughts. Thank you , Simon ... .

1. Who’s your all-time favourite author, and why?

John Fowles because his use of language is astonishing, glorious, erudite and because it teaches me, without patronising, and because he creates worlds that I never want to leave. Particularly The French Lieutenant's Woman

for its extraordinary story within the story, modern/Victorian novel, double-ending brilliance.

2. Who was your first favourite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favourites?

Lewis Carroll, for all the same reasons as John Fowles, and most particularly Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. 3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favourite authors, and why?

Marina Fiorato, see here for her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, just published in the UK. An absolute must-read for lovers of Venice, lovers of glass and its extraordinary nature and lovers of mystery and love. Lovers, really.

4. If someone asked you who your favourite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection?

John Fowles, Lewis Carroll, Maggie O'Farrell, Rose Tremain, Jeanette Winterson, Marina Fiorato.

And on a bit of reflection ... Niall Williams, Philip Larkin, George Eliot, the Brontes, Jean Rhys, Michael Ondaatje, Douglas Adams, Khaled Hosseini, Danny Schienmann, one William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamund Lehmann and so many more ... but if I listed them all this reflection would go on until tomorow.

I tag these five people to continue this meme, if they feel like it:

Verbivore (now Incurable Logophilia) - who's on holiday for a little while
Booknotes by Lisa
A Work in Progress
Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

and anyone else who'd like to join in ... .

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Foot Planning

In the poem called 'Words' for Lucy in Don't Let them Tell you How to Grieve, there are these lines:

one foot in front of the other
and don't forget to breathe

They are the last lines in a poem which is full of the words of comfort that people send to a grieving person, and they are so very apt. The poet says that they are the lines she clings to.

But I also think that, in happier circumstances, those words can be applied to the planning of a novel (or the planning of anything). So, today, I have begun writing the chronological stories of my two main characters, one foot in front of the other, breathing when I don't know where I'm going (but not diving off into a haven of frenzied research) ... and I shall continue, one foot in front of the other, until the end of the plan.

It sounds simple, I know. But the temptation to veer off the road into writing a full-blown scene, or into frenzied research (procrastination, so often) is gigantic.

Wish me luck, please.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Don't Let Them Tell You How To Grieve

I read about this extraordinarily beautiful, touching, poignant, funny, sad, life-affirming, illuminating, comforting and grief-understanding collection of poems by Gina Claye on dovegreyreader's blog at the end of April.

I ordered myself a couple of copies which arrived this morning.

I know we all talk about essential books, but this one is quintessential. Buy it for yourself, for those you love, for those you don't know well, for anyone who's grieving who you'd like to tell that they're not alone. Buy it from here or here or here, or anywhere, but please do buy it.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Lost in Translation ... ?

I found a clever little widget over at Bookersatz which translates your blog for you. It's called Altavista Babelfish Translator and you can see it over there on the right and down a bit.

But because the title of my blog includes a neologism the translations are hilarious.

In French MATs translate as NATTES (plaits or braids); in German MATs translate as MATTEN (enough or curds) and in Norwegian as FOOD (I found that by mistake - there isn't a Norwegian flag on the widget); in Chinese there are apparently no characters for Angela or blog and by the time I clicked on the Portuguese flag Bablefish had expired for the day.

Never mind, it's surely enough to confuse the French, the Germans and the Norwegians into thinking that I plait my hair instead of writing; that I have simply had enough of writing or that I resort to eating curds (or anything) instead of writing.

I wonder how this post will translate ... ?

Monday, 5 May 2008

Research, and fiction

It is an extraordinary thing (although obvious I'm sure to all except me) the way that research informs fiction and changes its direction.

Several years ago, when I was writing a series of Just-Soesque short stories for children, I spent hours in the Zoological Society's library because I wanted the anatomical details of the animals I was writing about to be accurate by the end of the story. I didn't want to mislead my young readers, even in a piece of fiction, because I knew, even then, that if a reader finds something implausible, or worse, just plain wrong, she loses faith with the whole story - even if it's fiction.

In my research I read that a group of camels, seen from a distance
looks like a group of ostrichesand immediately the story changed direction and got itself published in SPIDER (back issues with that story, Ostriches, or the birds nobody noticed, aren't available online).

I've just been transcribing tapes of an interview with a woman who knew my great-grandmother and the things she told me about the friendship between my great-grandfather and my step-great-grandfather have conjured scenes where once there was nothing but sheets of blank white paper ... .

Research is better than inspiration, any day.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Planning a novel ...

... is a strange and frustrating business, despite my colleague's beautiful vine and wire analogy.

My heart gives a little leap of excitement each time I think I've 'got it', only to find that what I thought I'd got won't work, because something else comes to light as a result of what I thought I'd got.

I would love to be able to look on this process as a puzzle: (image from the Crafty Puzzle Company), as I've heard Peter Matthiessen say that he does. I've also heard him say that while meditating - he practices Zen Buddhism - the answer to a plot puzzle sometimes comes to him, which is frustrating because he can't get up and write it down. But when he told his Zen Master this, the Master simply smiled and said, 'Well of course you must go and write it down.'

I admit that I am less frustrated with Hope Remains (working title for the novel that was, once, a biography of my great-grandmother) than I was at this stage with Speaking of Love because I know, having got there once before, that the puzzle will resolve itself eventually (or, I will resolve it). But I am impatient to write before I've done enough planning even though I know, from bitter experience, that to write too soon means writing for miles down the wrong road.

What I need is a plausible connection between Jennie, my twenty-first century protagonist, and Noel, my own (fictionalised) Edwardian great-grandmother beyond the Titanic (possible title there ...). It must be something that Jennie would, plausibly, not have known. I thought I had it last night but this morning the sun is shining brilliantly through the holes. With any luck the sun will shine on a watertight solution tomorrow ... .

Thursday, 24 April 2008

As easy as 123

Norm at normblog has tagged me for this ... and because I've never been tagged before (I'm so easily flattered) and because my nearest book was not what I usually read but what I absolutely need (for research for my next novel) I thought I'd give it a go:

1. Pick up the nearest book
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you

Nearest book: The Edwardians: the Remaking of British Society by Paul Thompson. The sixth, seventh and eighth sentences on page 123 are:

There was the annual Sunday school outing. In summer they could go walking, and pick up apples. But for these English country children there was nothing equivalent to the storytelling, music and dancing which still flourished, as we saw in Peter Henry's story, both in family and community in the north.
I've tagged - if they want to be tagged: Stuck-in-a-Book, BooksPlease, Cornflower, A Work in Progress and Random Jottings.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Telling ourselves into being

I found this:

We tell ourselves into being, don't we?... I think that is one of the great reasons for stories. I mean, we are the storytelling animal, there is no other creature on earth that tells itself stories in order to understand who it is. This is what we do, we've always done it, whether they are religious stories or personal stories, or tall stories, or lies, or useful stories, we live by telling each other and telling ourselves the stories of ourselves.
It's from an interview with Salman Rushdie by Matthew d'Ancona at The Spectator. But I didn't find it there, I found it here, at normblog. Rushdie says precisely what I believe about why we tell (or write) stories ... what possible other reason could there be? This is it.

Thank you Norm, at normblog.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

To plan or not to plan a novel?

That is the question.

A writing colleague and I were talking the other day about whether we should or shouldn't plan our novels. I said I felt as I'd heard Rose Tremain say she'd felt: that if she plans, the subsequent writing bores her and if the writing bores her, it will surely bore readers ... .
But I also knew as I spoke that there was a deeper resistance to planning in me and it is this: planning is the rockface, not the romance. Planning is the dangerous hard work from which I might fall off and injure myself (ie, the piece will prove itself to be nothing but piss and wind) and I am afraid that planning will destroy the romance of the words themselves. However I also know that if I write off in any old direction it takes twice (or thrice) as long and I get despondent. My colleague said: Novels and stories should come from deep places, from the soul, should be inspired, ie, romantic, but it's difficult to square that with planning, let alone keeping an eye on the marketplace. (Hurrah, I said to myself .) But she also said: 'But I am coming round to the idea of putting a structure in place, just a little something, for the inspiration to hold onto. It's a bit like letting a climbing flower grow feely but putting a wire in front of it and saying, "This way, I want you here".'I think her analogy brilliant. She is right. I also came up with one of my own: I need the bedrock of planning to provide a solid base for the romance (the soul) of what I write. Serendipitiously I found this, here, when idly searching for 'bedrock and soul':'The substrate here is woodsy humus and soul pockets over bedrock ... ' which says it all, really, even if unintentionally. But I shall leave the last word on planning to one of my favourite writers in my favourite book:

John Fowles wrote this, on pages 85 & 86 of my copy of The French Lieutenant's Woman:
You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons. ... Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Cornflower Book Group

The Cornflower Book Group is discussing Speaking of Love, so if you'd like to join in the discussion, hop on over there, here.I'd like to hear what you think does work as well as what you think doesn't work, and if you've got any questions ask me them there, in the comments, and I'll reply there too.

Friday, 11 April 2008

I have been Normed


It is a wonderful thing that normblog does, this norming thing of a Friday. The similarities and the differences between, for instance, why a person would tell a lie (often to save a life) and which songs and poems people love - when they can only choose one - make interesting and sometimes hilarious reading. You can find all the bloggers norm has normed here - and Norm himself has been blogging about all kinds of things since before 2003, can you believe it?

He has normed himself here; he has normed Geoffrey Chaucer (hilarious) here; and he has normed the three bloggers who I named as my favourite three: here, here and here. He's even normed Saddam Hussein here (probably funnier when he was alive, but still I giggled).

Thank you Norm for making blogging such a linked and sometimes hilariously unexpected experience.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Convergence of the Twain

It is strange what research throws up when you let yourself follow a curving line, isn't it? (I know, it could be called a MAT, but I don't think it counts.)

I was looking for information about icebergs, when this caught my eye and so I veered off course towards it. Hardy wrote it in 1912, that ill-fated year for an apparently unsinkable ship and her passengers:

The Convergence of the Twain
by Thomas Hardy

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her,
stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid,
and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque,
slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless,
all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...

... Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her - so gaily great -
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history

Or sign that they were bent
by paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said 'Now!'
And each one hears,
And consummation comes,
and jars two hemispheres.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

In the blink of an eye

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do to his friends) wrote a whole book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by the arduous process of one blink for each letter. In French it's called La Scaphandre et le Papillon. (I tried to upload a video clip of the film - which the boyf and I saw last night - but utterly failed: technology impossible to grasp.)

I love the word scaphandre and, with the help of my (English) dictionary I make the direct English translation manboat (or boatman) from the Greek andro (man) and scaphe (boat).

But, heavens, I MAT by dreaming and procrastinating and putting off writing by going for a walk and making cups of tea (herbal, natch) and wandering round my house and answering and sending emails and and and ... and so many of these MATs are physical. Then, eventually, I sit down and type or handwrite sentences that have been building themselves in my head while I did everything else except write them down. How simple (and taken-for-granted) is that?

Bauby blinked his way from letter to letter to make the sentences that eventually made his book. He prepared the sentences early in the morning so that when Claude Mendibil arrived, and began reciting from a list of letters, he could blink when she reached the right letter and then again and then again until she said a word back to him. And so on and on and on. What extraordinary courage, tenacity, clarity, imagination and sheer human spirit. 'The blink of an eye' took Bauby months.

Go and see the film ... or, if you've missed it - we nearly did - buy the book. Bauby's beautiful, moving story of courage in the face of impossible odds, deserves our unblinking attention.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Writing yourself well

I've just read, over at the wonderful Stuck in a Book, that he's just about to read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. He has a treat in store.

And that reminded me that Perkins Gilman also wrote about why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. You can read the full article here, but here's an extract:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown. ... I went ... to a noted specialist ... [who prescribed] the rest cure [and when that worked, very quickly he] sent me home ... [saying] "never to touch pen, brush or pencil again" as long as I lived.

... I came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin ... [but with help] I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and [began writing once more] ... and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. ... But ... many years later I was told that ... [he] had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

She wrote herself well, and she had the satisfaction of discovering that the 'specialist's' treatment changed as a result of what she wrote.

Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto appears in Speaking of Love because he 'wrote himself well' when he wrote it (he thought he'd never write again after a drunken performance of his first and a vile review but, with Dr Dahl's help - a wise psychiatrist this time - he got back on the horse).

I know that I am a miserable old bag if I'm not writing, or at least dreaming about a new piece of work. The alchemy is in the doing.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Prinknash (pr Prinnidge)

I am going here
where these Benedictine monks live

The reason I am going is that this was my great-grandmother's childhood home (she of the biography I was going to write, now of the novel that I am about to begin).

It's called Prinknash (pr Prinnidge) and I'm going to meet the Abbot who will show me round the house before it reverts to a closed monastic community and the Abbey they built in 1972 becomes an old people's home. (The monastic community is shrinking, hence the changes.) When I get there I shall also remeet a woman I met as a result of my Scottish research ... a woman who is the daughter of my great-grandmother's second husband's (do keep up) chauffeur. A woman who was so full of wonderful memories of my great-grandmother and the Scottish life they led.

You could, of course, say that this visit is a MAT. You could say that all research is MATing. But just as I went to Kilmalieu to get a sense of the place where my great-grandmother lived after the Titanic sank, so I want to go to Prinknash to get a sense of the place where she lived as a child, and from where she was married. That's how I justify it anyway ... .

Thursday, 20 March 2008


A friend of mine, a wonderful artist who works in all kinds of media (mediums?) told me about the Jerwood Moving image award winners.

I highly recommend Johnny Kelly's (which is called PROCRASTINATION). It'll take you about 5 minutes to watch and it's the perfect MAT.

So perfect that I've just watched it twice ... .

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Old work, new work

While staring through the window and dreaming about my new novel (and doing some planning) I find images from my first novel stealing into my mind. I ask myself if that's because I'm afraid of stepping into the new or afraid of letting go of the old? I also find weaknesses in the first.

Just now, in this wonderful book by David Bayles & Ted Orland:
I found this:

New work is supposed to replace old work. If it does so by making the old work inadequate, insufficient and incomplete - well, that's life. (Frank Lloyd Wright advised young architects to plant ivy all around their early buildings, suggesting that in time it would grow to cover their 'youthful indiscretions'.) Old work tells you what you were paying attention to then; new work comments on the old by pointing out what you were not previously paying attention to.

How to make me feel better in just a few words.
This is Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House. You can find out more here.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Cornflower Book Group

Yesterday, at the Cornflower Book Group, Speaking of Love came out of the hat to be read next. It's the fifth volume to be read by Cornflower Book Group members and discussion will begin from 12 April on Cornflower's blog.

I'm looking forward to finding out what the Cornflower Book Group members feel and think about Speaking of Love (including the parts that didn't appeal, didn't work or that they just didn't like) because, particularly if they say why, it'll be grist to the next novel's' mill. I'll also answer questions on the blog when the discussion gets going.

Hope to meet you there.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Monet and painting, MATing and writing

Today MATing translates as 'writing this before I begin to stare through the window'. Sometimes it takes much staring before I can write.

This story knows what I mean:

One day Monet was sitting on the bench in his garden at Giverny staring at the waterlily pond. His neighbour walked by, poked his nose over the hedge and said, 'Bonjour Monsieur Monet, I see you are not working today. There are many things I'd like to talk to you about.' And he opened the gate and walked in. But Monet didn't look at him, nor did he speak to him, and after a while the neighbour left in a huff.

The next day Monet's neighbour poked his nose over the hedge and quickly ducked back down again because Monet was at his easel, painting, by the waterlily pond. But Monet called out, 'It's all right, Monsieur le Voisin, come in. I'm not working today. Now, what was it you wanted to talk about?'

Friday, 7 March 2008

Cover story ... and fab reports

In October I asked people to tell me the short story that Speaking of Love's paperback cover told them. I promised a copy of the paperback to the writer of the story that most appealed to me (see original post here) ... and the one that most appealed to me was Richard Gray's.

It's in the post, Richard.

Also, the wonderful Mark Thornton at Mostly Books blogged yesterday about the event that Eliza Graham and I did at Mostly Books on Monday 3 March. He's got YouTube videos of us reading and all ... how do you do that Mark? And Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book also blogged about the Mostly Books event, here. Fab reports both ... thank you.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Congratulations to ...

... Jonathan Trigell and Boy A on becoming THE Book to Talk About, 2008. (Press release here.) And thank you to everyone who voted for Speaking of Love. It has been a privilege for the book to be on the shortlist.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

It's a little bit funny ...

... this feeling inside.

The rest of Elton John's song doesn't apply, but today is a day when it's difficult to concentrate because I'm feeling a bit funny inside and I'm not even trying to MAT: a MAT is being forced upon me because ...

... in 24 hours' time the author and the publisher of THE Book to Talk About 2008 will know the result. But until then the other 9 authors and all 10 publishers must be feeling a little bit funny inside too, must be having at least some difficulty concentrating, must be wondering about the result. I can't be the only one ... .

So ... what to do until this time tomorrow? I think I'll read.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Do you live near Oxford (England)?

If you do, and you aren't already doing something tonight, you might like to come to Mostly Books in Stert Street, Abingdon at 7.30 to hear Eliza Graham and I talking about the effect that the Spread the Word, Books to Talk About shortlisting has had on our writing careers, and how our books made the shortlist.

It'll cost you £3, redeemable against a book bought on the night, and the wonderful indy bookshop, Mostly Books, are here.

The winner of the award, THE Book to Talk About, will be announced on World Book Day, Thursday 6 March 2008, from the ten books on the shortlist.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Daffodils for St David's day

... from my little garden.

... aren't they beautiful?

And because it's St David's day why not support a Welsh Arts Centre that might lose its Arts Council funding? The St Donat's Arts Centre runs the wonderful Beyond the Border storytelling festival (which features in Speaking of Love) among many other brilliant events.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Spread the Word / World Book Day - last chance to vote

As I write this there are less than three hours to go before voting closes on the shortlist for THE Book to Talk About 2008 award.

If you'd like to vote for Speaking of Love, go here. Or click on the link on the paperback cover over there on the right.

Thank you ... and may the best book win.

Results will be announced on 6 March which is, as I'm sure you know, World Book Day.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

There is only one: Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennet. She is feisty, funny, serious, sympathetic, won't-be-downtrodden, thinks intelligently and feels passionately. She is also stubborn, prejudiced, arch and (temporarily) short-sighted. Her recognition of her failings, particularly of her prejudices, is heartwarming and her confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh should inspire anyone faced with a bully disguised as a member of the great-and-good. But the chief thing about Lizzie is that she's so human that men and women fall in love with her.

It's no wonder that Mr Bennet says, when she turns down the obsequious Mr Collins's offer for her hand in marriage (a marriage that would keep the Bennet house in the family):

'Well, Lizzie, from this day henceforth it seems you must be a stranger to one of your parents.' He looks at her while she nervously awaits his decision. He keeps her waiting ... then he says: 'Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins ... and I will never see you again if you do.'

Mr Bennet's deep love for his favourite daughter, and my favourite female lead character, lights up this scene.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Jallaludin Rumi, 13th-century poet

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honourably:
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

I shall remember this, and do my best to act on it too.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Books and Myths

Ali Smith has written a wonderful book for the Canongate Myths series (a wonderful series, too) called Girl meets boy. The book sets 'Ovid's most joyful metamorphosis', the story of the man-woman Tiresias, in the twenty-first century.

I've just read this passage (from pages 29-30):

The second-hand bookshop used to be a church. Now it was a church for books. But there were only so many copies of other people's given-away books that you could thumb through without getting a bit nauseous. Like that poem I knew, about how you sit and read your way through a book then close the book and put it on the shelf, and maybe, life being so short, you'll die before you ever open that book again and its pages, the single pages, shut in the book on the shelf, will maybe never see light again, which is why I had to leave the shop, because the man who owned it was looking at me oddly, because I was doing the thing I find myself doing in all bookshops because of that maddening poem - taking a book off a shelf and fanning it open so that each page sees some light, then putting it back on, then taking the next one along off and doing the same, which is very time-consuming, though they don't seem to mind as much in second-hand shops as they do in Borders and Waterstones etc, where they tend not to like it if you bend or break the spines on new books.
Now I'm going to think about that every time I'm in a bookshop, or even just at home ... .

Does anyone know the name of the poem she's talking about?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Booking through Thursday

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

My father used to throw paperbacks away ... and I rescued them. I couldn't bear the idea of books being thrown away, but he came from a generation that thought paperbacks were rough replicas of their lofty hardback originals and didn't deserve a shelf life (on his shelves).

But I love paperbacks. They're lighter in your pocket (or bag, or suitcase) and they cost less to send to a friend. Often they have better covers so they look prettier on your shelves and their spines bend more easily ... paperbacks every time for me. (Even though it is lovely, as a writer, to see your work in hardback it really isn't necessary, or particularly green.) I think there'll be fewer and fewer hardbacks as paperback publishing becomes more and more sophisticated. There are some beautiful trade papebacks out there in the world, with front and back flaps and wonderful production values. Long live the paperback.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A love letter from Dr Iannis on Valentine's day

When Dr Iannis's beloved daughter, Pelagia, returns from a meeting with Captain Corelli, she tries to pretend to her father that she hasn't met Corelli. But she knows that her father knows that she has. Dr Iannis doesn't talk about his daughter's love for Corelli directly; he simply says this:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision.
You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.
Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion.
That is just being 'in love', which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground and, when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.
I love these words: they ring so true with me. They go straight to my heart.