Monday, 31 March 2008

Help - Advice Needed

OK all you multi-lingual clever clogs out there, pay attention! The Other Half and I have decided to go to Italy for a week at Whitsun and I have volunteered to learn some Italian so we won't look like totally hopeless cases and will be able to ask for things, exchange pleasantries etc. I've wanted to learn Italian for a while and this is just the push I need to get started.

So, this is the advice needed. Can anybody recommend a good, potentially quick Italian course - preferably multi-media so I can listen to and read the materials? I'm a reasonable linguist and pick things up quickly but, having always learned formally, would appreciate something more than just useful phrases and conversational stuff - I'd quite like something which shows me the way the language is structured so that I can begin to speak properly rather than just remember learned phrases.

If anybody has any expertise/advice in this area I'd be really grateful!


Friday, 28 March 2008

There's more time than you think!

According to the AskOxford site research by Oxford Dictionaries has shown that 'time' is the most commonly used noun in the English language.

When I read this, I thought ‘Seriously?! More common than…’ and then failed to come up with a noun which I thought might be more commonly used. But it still didn’t seemd astonishingly likely, so I picked up the three handiest books (Boy A by Jonathan Trigell which I’ve just finished reading, World Without End by Ken Follett which I’ve just borrowed in order to read, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks which I’m in the middle of) and checked. And yes, sure enough, ‘time’ was there on the first page of each book.

Yikes! How could I have failed to register its ubiquity? Perhaps my mind works v. differently to other writers? So, I fetched a copy of Testament – and there it wasn’t. Not in the Prologue, not on the first page of Chapter 1… but I did find it a third of the way down page 2 of the first chapter. So my mind only works a tiny bit differently, then. Like, more slowly. It clearly takes me a while to catch up to where the majority of writers get to on page 1.

Aha, but, does ‘times’ (as in ‘in these times’) count? – because that’s what three out of four of the quotations actually were. As in ‘so many times’ or ‘lost count of the times’, which feels a bit different to me to just the stand alone noun ‘time’.

It made me wonder: are novels, particularly, concerned with time and its passage? More than other writing, I mean?
I quickly flicked to the BBC News site’s front page and selected an article at random. Longer than any of the first pages of the novels I mentioned, the article (on Iraq) did not contain the word ‘time’. I did the same with an MSN front page article on the fiasco at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 yesterday. No ‘time’.

So, novels – time obsessed?

The Oxford article quotes Einstein as saying ‘'The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.' And that struck a chord with me. A lady at the writers’ group meeting I spoke to on Tuesday asked why I write split time novels rather than straightforward historical books (which she prefers). I drivelled something about being fascinated by the way history impacts on us now, rather than just what happened then. If I’d known the Einstein quote, maybe I’d just (pretentiously) have said that…

So, are novels particularly concerned with the illusion that the past is different from the present and the future? And, if so, is that why ‘time’ is such an often-used noun?

Answers on a postcard in the comments, please…

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

What's that funny sound?

The debate about listening to audiobooks instead of reading the real thing recurred last night when I was speaking to the writing group run by friend and fellow-writer Akasha Savage. Most people present seemed to agree that listening was no substitute for reading, except in certain circumstances – for example (as had happened to somebody known to a member of the group) if your hands were so arthritic that you could not turn the pages of a book.

But, catching up on a few blogs just now in a writing-break, I realised that sometimes I read and listen to blogs, when they are also available as podcasts.
For instance, I listen to the podcast of writer Charles Hodgson – Podictionary (‘the podcast for wordlovers’) but, as I recently discovered that the whole text of the podcast is also on Charles’ site as a daily blog, I also quite often read the information too, on those occasions when I want a quick break but don’t want to be completely idle. With words, you never know when something is going to spark an idea, after all... ahem.

And I’ve realised that listening and reading give me different things. Because, when I read I also hear. That’s because I’m a slow, auditory reader – I hear what I’m reading inside my head, as opposed to seeing words as shapes and just matching them up to meaning. Somehow, when you read things this way, they are funny in a way which, if you just heard them, they wouldn’t be. I don’t know why, but, for instance, in Monday’s Podictionary blog, Charles is writing about the word ‘stickler’ and, in the passage below, is talking about lexicographer Thomas Elyot.

'He had been working away at it for a while and gotten up to the letter M when Henry VIII took an interest. I think Thomas Elyot was of two minds about Henry’s enthusiasm. On the one hand it’s great to have the king recognize your work and want to help. But on the other hand when the king makes editorial suggestions your independence as an author goes out the window. Especially a king who is okay with beheadings etc.'

The bit which made me laugh was ‘a king who is okay with beheadings etc’. Why is it funny?
Years and years ago I tried – for a college literary group I belonged to – to try and define what made things funny in English. One of the things I hit on was incongruity – things not really belonging together. And, in the last sentence in the passage above, I think the phrase ‘okay with’ is incongruous in the context of the sentence. Don’t get me wrong, clearly Charles meant it to be incongruous, as well as being erudite and pithy, he’s a gently humorous writer/broadcaster who often has me smiling.
But, ‘being okay’ with something usually implies that it’s of no great consequence. You’re ‘okay with’ pizza for lunch as opposed to a sandwich, or with the Red Hot Chilis on the stereo as opposed to the Zutons. It’s impossible to ‘be okay’ with beheadings. That’s too momentous.

And then there’s that ‘etc’. Beheadings etc – that’s also funny. I don’t know why but it’s pretty easy to make me laugh using ‘etc’ – maybe it’s early exposure to Willans and Searle’s Down with Skool where ‘etc’ is unfailingly rendered as ‘ect’ and I always, subliminally, hear ‘ect’ when I read ‘etc’.
Or maybe it’s another of the things I identified in the ‘how English is funny’: under/over specificity. Either being too detailed about something or by suddenly shying away from whatever it is you’re talking about (as in Anderson and Miller’s WW2 skits where they’re speaking 21st century street slang in the cut-glass accent of the 1950s and say things like ‘going out on bombing raids and shit’). Incongruity and under-specificity.

Have any of you ever wondered what makes things funny in English?

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Boy A

Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A won the 2008 Spread The Word ‘Books to Talk About’ competition, an award for books which would make the members of book groups sit up and take notice.
Well, having read it, I can tell you that it’ll certainly do that. Sit up, take notice and come to blows, I suspect. I’ll be able to tell you next week as my book group is reading it. But I thought I’d blog about it today whilst it’s completely fresh in my mind.

Boy A is one of my gold-standard ‘like and admire’ books. An accomplished book whose pages you want to turn very slowly so that you can savour the perfect voice Trigell has found for Jack’s (Boy A’s) point of view but whose pages you also want to rip through to see what happens. Despite its loose resemblance to the James Bulger case, the book avoids sensationalism and, insofar as is possible in a book about child killers, brutality and young offenders institutions (Feltham gets a very bad press), it avoids graphic violence. Jonathan Trigell pulls off the tricky feat of suggesting a lot more violence than he shows and, in the chapters which portray Child A’s time in prison, you fear for him as constantly as he fears for himself.

Actually, the reader is made to fear for Jack’s safety and wellbeing on pretty much every page of the novel and that’s another of Jonathan Trigell’s successes – right from the beginning you share his minute-by-minute fear that he will be found out, that he will be discovered, that he will get something so horribly wrong that his ‘legend’ (for those of you not accustomed to watching/reading spies-go-undercover stories, the legend is the assumed biography or backstory of the person going undercover, or, in this case, being given a new identity) will be seen for what it is, a fictitious life which bears only a passing, sanitised resemblance to Jack’s own.

In a 2005 interview here (Boy A was published in 2004) Jonathan Trigell says:

I wanted to ask a lot of the reader, to see if they can examine their own moral certitudes sufficiently to feel for someone who has apparently done something so terrible.

I certainly felt for Jack from page one. But, actually, I didn’t feel that a lot was being asked of me in handing over this sympathy. From the book’s very first scene Jack is portrayed as a wide-eyed, twenty-four year old child who looks on everything he is provided with on his release and finds it quite marvellous. You can’t help liking him. Even though it’s clear from pretty much the outset (spot the title, for a start) that Jack is a convicted killer, at no point did I feel a twinge of doubt about liking him because he is portrayed without any apparent reservations on Trigell's part as immensely likeable and even moral. Not once does he harbour thoughts of violence to anybody apart from himself. (The possibility which suicide always offers of a way out– ‘the choice’ – is never far away.)

So if he’s so nice, why did he do what he did? Has he been reformed by prison? Hardly. Adult prison is presented as further education for criminals and the young offenders institute which Jack goes to once he has left the secure homes of his childhood is an unremittingly brutal, de-humanising place from which anything resembling redemption is wholly absent.

Jonathan Trigell salves any worries we might have about liking Jack by fudging the question of whether he actually is a killer. Almost to the end, we are unsure of his complicity in the actual murder, though the fact that he was hand-in-glove with Child B, his alleged partner in crime, is not disputed. but I didn't need to have my worries about liking Jack salved. I didn'thave any. For me, Trigell makes it quite clear: Jack and Boy B have been badly let down, their crime is hardly to be wondered at and, when it is played out in front of us at the end of the book, it becomes even more credible and poignant as an act of desperate self-preservation.

The relationship of Boys A and B, two brutalised, bullied, unloved children; children either born as or made into victims, is at the heart of the book. They take refuge in each other, in their joint truanting, in their acts of casual vandalism and petty crime, in their feeling of never belonging. They never talk about what has happened to them, they do not cry on each other’s shoulders, they just know that they are two of a kind and they stick together with the desperation of victims everywhere.

Most of the story of Boy A is told in flashback and this selective picking out of events distances the reader from some of the more awful aspects of Jack’s life. Jonathan Trigell says, in the interview quoted above

I think memory can be more vivid, in terms of painting pictures for the reader, than the actual experience - because the parts that are retained are the significant ones

And that’s certainly true of the ‘parts’ which the reader sees in the book’s flashbacks. We see all of the significant factors which have made Jack who he is without having to be subjected to his traumatising everyday existence. Each chapter is given a letter of the alphabet. ‘A is for Apple. A Bad Apple’; ‘M’ is for ‘Mother. Mothering Sunday’; ‘Q’ is for ‘Queen. Pleasuring her Majesty.’
Everything, from the A to the Z of his life, from his relationship with his parents to his prison experiences, has made Jack what he is. Unspoken, but quietly threading its way through the book, is the conviction that Jack is not – cannot be – intrinsically evil, whatever the tabloids bay about ‘monsters’. Because if he was truly evil – different from the rest of us from his DNA up – he would have been unable to become the good friend, the beloved if confusing boyfriend, the adored ‘nephew’ he is throughout the book.

To have written so sympathetically about Jack, Jonathan Trigell must surely feel that what happened to him was, in some significant way, not his fault. That, given the treatment meted out to him and the multiple failures of the adults in his environment to protect him, something awful was bound to happen. Though Trigell never addresses this issue directly, there is a very telling scene in a chapter showing Jack’s psychologist with her young son. Whilst the little boy (a preschooler) is playing with water in a wheelbarrow, she notices that he is crushing ants on the side of the barrow, picking them up and squishing them between his fingers.

'After a few minutes she stroked the back of his neck and said to him ‘You know that hurting the ants isn’t very nice, don’t you?’
He nodded.
‘Why are you doing it then?’ She wasn’t cross, just curious.
‘You didn’t stop me, Mummy. I thought you’d stop me.’'

In the end, Boy A isn't a tale about Jack’s responsibility (or otherwise) for the death of Angela Milton but about the responsibility society has – and often ignores - to boys like him.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Ultimate Frisbee Freak goes global!

HUGE EXCITEMENT chez Bizarre this evening as the UFF has just heard that he's been picked for the Great Britain Junior (under 19s) Ultimate Frisbee team to play in the World Championships this summer in Vancouver.

He's been training hard which is pretty tough combined with 4 A-levels so we're all really proud of him.

Hope you've all had a lovely, peaceful Easter. Normal blog posting will be resumed tomorrow when we've all settled down!

Friday, 21 March 2008

Laureates, Open Mics & National Year of Reading

Well, the interweb, as we all know, is a wonderful thing and another example of that landed in my lap (OK, my inbox) yesterday.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had serendipitously e-discovered Ian Hocking an author who, like me, lives in Canterbury. Well, he’s obviously mentioned my mentioning him to another Canterbury-based author. Patricia Debney happens to be Canterbury Laureate. I was vaguely aware of this as somebody at work knew her from the University and asked if I knew her (assuming, as people tend to, that I will know all published and/or aspiring authors within a ten mile radius of my house). Well, I didn’t, but after her email yesterday, I do now. At least in cyberspace, where an increasing number of my acquaintances/friends seem to live. [Hmmm, note to self: GET OUT MORE]

As a result of exchanging a few emails with Patricia, I find I have agreed to stand (possibly in the pouring rain) outside Canterbury library next week in front of a microphone to read some of my stuff. This is not just some bizarre initiation ritual which Patricia makes any new local writer engage in, it’s part of the city council’s drive to publicise the National Year of Reading (which, I have to confess with much shame, I had not heard about til now…).

So, if you happen to be in the East Kent area on Saturday 29th of March and fancy seeing some writers strut their stuff, it starts at 10 and goes on til around 2. The library’s not hard to find, as it’s on the main shopping street – it’s confusingly called The Beaney Institute so you might not instantly recognise it as a book-repository but just ask anybody where the library is and (always assuming they’re not a tourist) they’ll point you in the right direction. Actually, given that the Beaney is quite an attractive feature on the Canterbury landscape (as you can see in the picture below) tourists’ll probably be able to point it out as well.

I’ve volunteered to help Patricia out with the 10 o’clock slot which basically nobody wants as there’s not much shopping activity at that point. But hey, somebody’s got to occupy the mic as all the delivery lorries do their thing…

Thursday, 20 March 2008

First Draft Struggles

Some writers loathe it, others view it as a necessary evil but would prefer somebody else to do it, others – like me – positively look forward to it. Editing.

Actually, perhaps editing is the wrong word. I do editing all the time – yesterday’s work always comes in for a stiff combing-through before I get on with today’s effort – but perhaps what I’m really talking about is second-drafting. I’m with Stephen King on this – your first draft is where you work out what your book is really about (as opposed to what happens) and your second draft is where you make sure that you’ve done all you can so that the reader is also aware that your book is about more than simply the storyline.

But Stephen King plans his books better than I plan mine. I’m also discovering not only what my story is about but who the characters are, how they interact with events and how they feel about each other. And a whole load of tweaking, rewriting, enhancing and chopping is going to have to go on in the second draft to bring some of that to the forefront because, as so often happens, the way they feel about each other turns out to be what drives the narrative.

One of the reasons I’m looking forward to second drafting at the moment is because finishing the first draft is such hard work. I’m at the stage of the novel where the final 20% usually almost writes itself but the work-in-progress is refusing to do that. It’s sitting back with its arms crossed going ‘No, you do it. This was your idea.’

I’ve just come to the end of a long set-piece which I had known was going to be there for some time now. It was hard to write because it involved following my characters through a particularly action-packed and significant day and my writing tends to focus more on particular key episodes and conversations here and there, rather than – for me – such a relatively long time-frame.

The struggle to get it done in a way I’m happy with has put back my self-imposed schedule. I had hoped to have the first draft finished by Easter. That’s tomorrow. So the new deadline is the end of May, when the Other Half and I are planning to go away for a week. It would be good to go on holiday knowing that I wasn’t leaving my characters at a crucial point; not having to spend the week with a nagging worry at the back of my mind as to whether I was going to be able to pick up the psychological thread exactly where I had dropped it.

However, I’m hoping that I can gather enough speed and momentum as the days lengthen and my energy levels increase to finish the second draft by my original target date of September, so I’ve got something I’m happy to show Will, my editor.

At the moment, though, that seems a long way off.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Novel tv or televisual novels...

Aliya’s post yesterday about novels doing what novels do and not what television does in terms of cliffhanger, motivation etc (read the post, then I won’t have to synopsise) got me thinking.
Is it true that modern novels are more like the telly than novels written before Edison et al got their heads round the cathode ray tube? Or is telly, as it were, the new novel form?

Do we, in fact, only need one form of essentially visual, linear storytelling and is it now the telly?

Let’s say visual and/or linear because a Jane Austen novel is a linear narrative but not all that visual – she does a ton of showing us how people are but tells us very little of what they look like – and she does dialogue wonderfully. So wonderfully that Andrew Davies, in patches, just quoted it in the BBC tv adaptation of P&P. So, if she were writing today, would she go for telly? Or radio plays? Would she be writing chick lit? Or would she be experimenting with her characters’ voices, a la Nicola Barker in Darkmans?

And, now that we have telly to do our linear narrative (because anything non-linear is deeply confusing on telly, at least to the likes of me.(Aargh, double parenthesising! Oh, who cares? - Imagine the scene – we are watching tv with the Ultimate Frisbee and the Bassist. Something happens. I say ‘What just happened?’ One of the boys explains ‘It’s a flashback to the time before he was a superhero.’ I say ‘When did he become a superhero?’ They say ‘In one of his previous lives but then he’s found himself in this reality…’ I look confused. I am confused. They say ‘I’ll explain it all at the end of the programme, Mum. It’s deeply depressing. You get the gist. )
Where was I? Oh yes, now that we have telly to do our linear narrative, should novels be doing something else? People like Jeanette Winterson clearly think so. So, perhaps, does Ms Barker.

So, what do we think? Is it genre-specific? Is it OK to be non-linear or experiment with form in literary novels but not in crime, thrillers etc?

Or are so called experimental novels not actually novels at all but some other form of fiction?
Finnegan’s Wake anybody?
(And yes, I have read it…)

Monday, 17 March 2008

Beginnings and Endings

David Isaak has started an interesting thread over on his blog about opening/second lines and how important, or otherwise, they are.

Which got me thinking about the endings of books – not necessarily the last line, but the final chapter or scene. Thinking about it, in the final analysis, the ending of a book is more important to me than the beginning. A good opening page will hook me in and make me read on (though I’m still working to the rule I articulated in this post about when I might discontinue reading) but it’s the ending of a book – as much as what happens between first and last scene which will make a book memorable for me. I thought very long and hard about how to finish Testament – in one of the drafts (one I quite liked but Will never saw) the prologue and epilogue were essentially the same, with one or two minor changes as mysteries of identity and meaning (particularly of the wall painting) had now been solved. It gave the thing a certain sense of roundness, of symmetry and completion. And as someone who’s deeply wedded to symmetry as an aesthetic principle, this was important to me.

Testament in its published form still begins and ends with the wall painting but in a slightly less identical form.

I’ve realised, thinking about endings, that the ones I hate are the literary equivalent of the following:
1. She woke up and it had all been a dream
2. But the zombies weren’t finished and, as she walked away, her ray-gun still smoking (can you kill zombies with a ray gun? Well, whatever...) they were rising behind her.
3. But the big bad wolf had a brother who made the BBW look like a pussycat and now he was very pissed off
4. Resolution? You want resolution? Meh! Go and read Enid Blyton.

(Clearly, if I was a serious blogger, knew what I was talking about and had the memory of my old Eng Lit tutor who could find any given book in five seconds in a room which - a fellow-student and I once worked out - must, at a conservative estimate, have contained five thousand books, I would quote a well-known novel which exemplifies each of these styles. As it is, I’ve got a novel of my own to write, so I’m afraid that, as far as examples goes, it's 'bring and share'.)

The corollary of the above, slightly embarassingly, is that what I apparently do want in my endings is a dressed-up version of:
And they all lived happily ever after. Well, at least the ones who deserved to did. The others we’re not really thinking about because nobody cares about them, do they?

So readers and lurkers, what do we think about endings. Important or not? And do you share my likes and dislikes?

Quite honestly, if you do, I’ll be amazed…

Friday, 14 March 2008

Podcasts and the sudden ubiquity of Dr Ian Hocking

OK, I know people say it’s a small world and there’s that whole however-many-degrees-of-separation thing going on over on Facebook but I’m beginning to realise that the book world – or the book blogging world – is really quite small.

For instance, I’d never heard of Dr Ian Hocking until he was mentioned on Aliyah Whiteley and Neil Ayres’ blog the other day. And then, when I was scouring for links to Mil Millington’s book, I came across him twice and linked to his reviews. And, further astonishment, he lives in Canterbury. Which is where I live.

Apparently his book, Déjà vu (edited by MNW’s own Aliya Whiteley) is now only available as a collector's item (you'll see what I mean if you follow the link to Amazon and read his blog) but he’s made it available as a podcast. Given my penchant for podcasts I’ll try and download it. I wonder if it’s on iTunes?

So, lovely readers of Hawkinsbizarre, what do we think of novels as podcasts? I don’t want to re-Kindle (ha ha) the debate about Amazon’s e-reader but for those out there who are regular MP3/iPod users, do you make use of Audible where you can get books as podcasts cheaper than the paper version? Would you if you knew how to go about it?

I must admit, the only time I listen to fiction rather than reading it is when I’m on long distance drives. And my taste is slightly different in a listen than a read. I need more action when I’m listening and the beautiful flow of elegiac words is unlikely to keep me riveted as it would if I was simply reading. Or maybe that’s to do with the fact that a sizeable proportion of my attention is being taken up by driving so maybe a smaller part of the brain is available to process what I’m hearing and therefore I need it to be more immediate, less ‘let’s read that sentence again it was so fab’ish’.

Before Macmillan New Writing offered to publish Testament, I was investigating various ways of publishing/marketing it myself, so that I could at least get it out there and read, even if people didn’t have to pay for it. And, inevitably given my own penchant for gadgets, giving it away a chapter at a time as a podcast was one of the ways I was keenest on. But that raised its own problems. I would need a website, which – at that point – I singularly failed to have. Should I invest in a professionally-designed website or an off-the-peg one? Would one be a better platform than the other for putting podcasts on? I was pretty sure that I could get my head round any of the necessary technology but first I was going to have to buy it – both hardware and software. The podcast option began to look no less expensive than the self/subsidised publishing one.

And then there would be the whole mechanics of recording the chapters. Who should read them? Clearly, it would be cheapest to do it myself, but do I have the kind of voice which would work well when digitally recorded, or would my tone irritate the hell out of listeners after a page or two?
Then again, with the two strands in Testament being so different – one fourteenth century, one contemporary – I felt it would be better to use two entirely different voices for the two time periods. More complications.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t have to go down this route. For this, as for so many other things, I am profoundly grateful to Macmillan New Writing. They now own the electronic rights to Testament so, if it’s made into a podcast at any point, they get to decide all the knotty problems about who and how. Meanwhile, I get to listen to other people’s books on drives to West Wales to see my folks or the South of France to see the Other Half’s mum.
You can listen to a lot of book on the way down to the Cevennes mountains, believe me!

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Love and Other Near Death Experiences

There is a nice picture of me and the Other Half (a ‘detail’ of which appears next to these words) on the Big Green Bookshop’s Facebook page. It was taken by Mark Farley (Bookseller to the Stars) and he and I have been exchanging desultory conversation about it on said site. In case you don’t have access to Facebook the conversation has gone like this:

MF: Alis, are you laughing at 'A Thousand Splendid Suns"?
AH: Who could ever laugh at ATSS?! No, it's Mil Millington's Love and Other Near Death Experiences - such a cool book!
MF: Khaled will be disappointed....
AH: I'm sure he'll get over it!

Such is the wit and repartee which I indulge in with my Facebook friends. Ahem…
Incidentally, the worrying thing about this little exchange is that when Mark says ‘Khaled will be disappointed’ he probably means that he will know this personally as even a cursory look at his blog will show you that it is well named and people who twinkle in various celebrity firmaments drop in with nonchalent regularity to allow him to sell books to them.
The other worrying thing (so many worrying things in so few lines) is that I have managed to imply (hah! so easy to confuse and mislead if you have even a passing acquaintance with what you’re doing…) that I have read A Thousand Splendid Suns. I have not. I tried to read it but I have this problem with violence against women. I can’t cope with it. Though I have never been a victim of it or even witnessed it first hand, it brings me out in such a visceral rage that it’s best not to go near the subject at all. So, although my friends have raved about ATSS and I could tell, from what I did read, that the writing was lovely, etc, I couldn’t read it. But anyway, who could laugh at it?

What I was laughing at, as will have been picked up by the more observant amongst you, was Mil Millington’s astonishingly amusing book Love and Other Near Death Experiences.

Mil (I shall call him Mil as if I know him, which I clearly don’t. Apart from Mark Farley and the guys at the Big Green Bookshop, I know nobody famous) used to have a column in the Saturday Guardian (or possibly Observer – they’re pretty much the only weekend papers I read) magazine. It was called Things My Girlfriend and I have Argued About. It was funny. Sometimes it was hilarious. Not just because of the things they argued about ( I actually can’t remember a single one) but just because of the way Mil reported the said arguments. He then wrote a book called – and who can blame him for cashing in on his success – Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About. This was also hilarious, so when I saw LAONDE on the shelves at the Big Green Bookshop on Saturday (don’t be fooled by the photo which has ATSS hovering near my left shoulder, H and M aren’t shelved anywhere near each other, even in The Big Green Bookshop, where they could have been forgiven, on Saturday, for not having anything alphabetised – as it was, it was miraculously orderly, but I digress) I grabbed it and started reading. I mean, who can resist a book whose first chapter consists solely of the line:

'Hello. My name is Robert, and I haven’t been dead for sixty three days now.'

I mean, it just screams ‘You wanna know why, don’t you?’ Doesn’t it?

The basic premiss goes like this (just quoting the cover blurb)

Rob Garland is getting married in two months. Oddly, however, this is the least of his problems. More vexing than the seating arrangements and the choice of stationery is the fact that Rob should be dead: and he knows it. He should have been sitting in a pub at the very moment it was wiped from the earth, but he wasn’t, thanks to a series of pointless coincidences.
Now he’s paralysed by the knowledge that every decision he makes, no matter how tiny, has potentially enormous consequences. Faced with an ultimatum from his girlfriend, he pours his heart out to listeners of his late-night jazz show. It’s a decision he may live to regret…

The said girlfriend - who insists on addressing him as ‘babe’ and is insufferably irritating – does not, fortunately, take up much space in the book because, after his pouring his heart out on the radio, Rob starts making very weird acquaintances and finds himself on a quest, which may only tangentially be about sorting out his terminal tendency towards indecision.

That’s enough about the plot. What really makes this book worth reading is the sheer humour. Don’t read it if you’re offended by a lot of swearing as several of the characters swear constantly and inventively at each other. Personally, though I’m not much given to what one character in the book (a huge American ex-serviceman who speaks in US army jargon almost the whole time) refers to as ‘cussing’, I found it added to the general hilarity. Let me quote you some lines. If they don’t make you at least smirk, this book probably won’t appeal to you. if they tickle your funny bone you should probably rush out and acquire LAONDE immediately.

From the beginning of the book, while the aforementioned wedding is being planned:

‘Asking someone to be your best man is rather like letting a mate know that you think he is admirably resilient by abruptly pushing him down some stairs.’

Yes, the general sentiment is funny, but the way the sentence is constructed makes it more so. Not just ‘resilient’ but ‘admirably resilient’ not pushing him down ‘the stairs’ but ‘some stairs’. Why do these choices of words make it funnier? I don’t know. But they do.

And this, from a scene where the two main characters are, for reasons I won’t go into, in a pitch-black, deserted, ex-factory, waiting for somebody.

‘Did you hear that?’
‘What do you think it was? Do you think it was Zach? [Zach, unsurprisingly, is the US marine type] Maybe it was Beth? Do you think it was Zach or Beth?’
‘Hello?’ she shouted. ‘Zach? Beth? Is that you?’
‘Shut up!’ I hissed.
‘Jesus fucking Christ – I thought you were a book addict. Haven’t you ever read The Rats? By James Herbert?’
‘I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t, no.’
‘It’s about these rats.’
‘There could be a whole bastard horde of rats in this place. And there you are telling them right where we are. They’ll swarm over us in the darkness, tearing us to bits with their lacerating claws and needle-like, pestilent teeth.’
‘Fuck me. How dreadfully lurid of them…. Zach? Beth?’

See? My shoulders are shaking so much whilst I’m typing that I’ve just had to go back and correct a load of typos.
Not only does this beautifully exemplify the relationship between Rob and Elizabeth –he’s a total coward who can’t believe her blasé attitude towards pretty much everything and she’s a chain-smoking depressive who couldn’t give a stuff – it is also just killingly amusing. The astonishing incongruity of the juxtaposition of 'Fuck me' and 'how dreadfully lurid of them' is priceless. And I’ve never laughed so much at the simple syllable ‘Ahhh’. It’s only funny because the characters have been developed so well that there’s basically nothing else Elizabeth could say (less gifted characters, I suppose, might have gone for ‘Naturally’ or ‘why am I not surprised?’) in these circumstances.
I laughed hard at his passage for at least half a minute and then nearly choked on my breakfast trying to explain to the Ultimate Frisbee Freak what I was laughing about. He’s next up for the book.

Add to this amusement value a highly satisfying ending and it’s a book to gladden the heart at the end of a long, dark winter.

You can catch Mil Millington here and there are more reviews of the book, in case you’re interested, here and here.
Go on, have a laff!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Radio Kent Short Story

At the risk of irritating the real short story writers out there, today’s offering comes in the form of the short story written for BBC Radio Kent’s Writers’ Room.

In terms of word-per-minute it took approximately twice the time I would devote to a passage of similar length in a novel, so I’m not sure I’m going to be repeating the exercise any time soon, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

A field, grass worn to bare earth in patches, ragged trees in the middle distance motionless under a heavy grey sky. A group of young men, all dressed alike, sprawl on the ground, joking, laughing, their muscles defined, their edge keen. A pale, slight youth rises to his feet as if to an unseen signal and his companions follow suit. Gathering in a tight knot, their jokiness left behind on the ground, they thrust their right arms into the closed centre of the circle, rigid, like spokes on a wheel. Fists pump, voices chant; there is an abrupt beat of silence and one voice is raised ‘Garden of England!’

My lips move with them in the chant and I wonder – will I ever feel that passion again?

They can’t see me, my former comrades, but I watch them as the onscreen image tracks over their heads. The invisibly tiny surveillance bot darts ahead of them and, suddenly, they appear to be running towards me. As they run, the bot scans retinas in non-compliant identity checks.

Names appear onscreen, as familiar as my own. But individual names are irrelevant; the young men running, unseeing towards me are simply Garden of England.

Garden of England are criminals. The government courts have found them each guilty – twice – of crimes against the built environment.

Crimes like planting a thousand oak saplings on a farm. A farm destined to become a shopping village with car parking for ten thousand vehicles.
A money-shaped, greed-flavoured shopping village?
Or an oak wood?
If juries weren’t just a memory - would you convict Garden of England?
The government courts did.

On each member’s identity record there is a two crimes tag; a signal that if this person commits one more crime, he will be imprisoned for the rest of his life. No parole. No time off for good behaviour. For the rest of his life.

I gaze at them as they run towards me onscreen. Like ancient warriors, their arms are bare, and, on each left wrist, a pale band of skin not yet used to sunlight. Pale skin where identity bracelets used to be.

Garden of England have gone No ID.

They have declared themselves non-members of society. Without ID they have no access to government food programmes, health monitoring or skills provision. They no longer have even the conditional protection of the courts.
No ID means no rights. The security forces can shoot them on sight.
No ID means not British. Not one of us. A threat.

But Garden of England would rather be shot than spend the rest of their lives in jail. Like young warriors throughout time, they don’t really believe in their own mortality.

But they should. I’m living proof of that.

Yes, living - though they think I’m dead. They saw me dragged off by the security forces, a lifeless corpse.
But I was revived and, when the stark reality was laid out – life in prison for me and all my family’s social rights revoked – I turned. I put on the ID bracelet with my new – clean – information and sold my soul to the government.

And now, as the surveillance bot tracks Garden of England in their latest action, I must prove myself.

The government doesn’t want them dead. Killing people makes them into martyrs. And martyrdom is bad.

Garden of England was my battle cry when I was one of them. And now it’s their name. That’s my martyr’s memorial.

The monitor assigned to me shifts restlessly. It’s time. I must atone for my crimes against the government’s wisdom, prove myself a compliant citizen once more.

The surveillance-bot is a clever little device. Its retinal scanner has two settings – press one button for ‘read’ and another for ‘erase’.

A blinded activist is no activist at all.
A blinded No ID refusenik is no threat to the government.

But he is a very clear warning.

One of them – Jared, the youngest and sharpest-eyed – suddenly looks up. He doesn’t know it but, through the surveillance-bot, he looks straight into my eyes. Straight into my soul.

‘Jared’ I whisper and close my eyes.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Big Green Bookshop Opens!

Had a lovely time on Saturday when the Other Half and I took a little jaunt (OK, two hours on the motorway) to Wood Green for the opening of Simon Key and Tim West’s Big Green Bookshop. If you nip over to their blog you can see lots of photos of the day, including one of me, looking pleased and proud, holding a copy of Testament.
As well as meeting Tim for the first time (I’d already met Simon and his other half, Katie, when they came to Testament’s launch) it was great to meet Mark Farley who blogs amusingly and informatively as The Bookseller to the Stars.

I can’t quite believe that Simon and Tim have managed to turn an internet café into a bookshop in a little over a fortnight using very little but volunteer labour, total enthusiasm and (as far as I can tell from their blog) regular infusions of cake and chocolate. And a bookshop it is, with red-shelved children’s area, settee and wonderful picture windows which let in loads of light. Though not on Wood Green High Street, it’s visible from the High Street which I think is just as good.

I’d never really stopped to consider how much of an art stocking a smallish bookshop must be. When you have limited space, how do you decide which writers to stock and how many of their titles? In terms of household names, Tim and Simon seem mostly to have gone down the ‘most recent paperback plus one from backlist’ route; or ‘most famous plus one other’. For authors who are less well-known there may be just one book, but then - in that – they are no different from much bigger bookshops. They promise to order things in quickly and, given their general efficiency in working to the 8th March opening date, I believe them! Their confined space and customer base means that their policy on hardback fiction is ‘only if signed’ so I was immensely honoured to have Testament on the shelves. Simon had some very nice things to say about it on the blog, which I blush to quote here, you’ll just have to go and read the post. Go on, here it is

Inevitably, like any visit to a bookshop, we bought lots of books (even a Maisy book for a recently-arrived little person, born to some good friends of ours last weekend) and I’m already well into Mil Millington’s Love and Other Near-Death Experiences. It’s a very funny book and it’s cheering me up no end at the back end of a long winter. I shall tell you all about it in a couple of days.
Tomorrow, I must tell you about today’s Radio recordings…

Friday, 7 March 2008

Another First

Almost forgot, though I'm not sure how I could as it's been on my mind all week. I've been invited to the opening of a brand new bookshop tomorrow - The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, London will open tomorrow at 11.oo. If you want to go (they'd love to see you) you can find out how to get there by clicking here.
Be there or be square, it promises to be fun - especially if you are little as there will be balloons, lollies, goody bags and Maisy Mouse. Yes, Maisy Mouse! Who can resist. Not me, that's for sure.

Lots of authors will be there signing books and smiling a lot ( I suspect) including me, if we can find any copies of Testament for me to sign as the wholesalers seem to have sold out the first edition. This doesn't mean it's sold out, sold out, it just means that all the copies which were printed are out there, either on people's shelves or on bookshop shelves. Just not, sadly, the Big Green Bookshop's shelves.
Luckily, I've got a couple I was saving for a rainy day or a forgotten birthday...

Podcast geekery

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a technophile – I like gadgets and I positively love my laptop. I have a whole raft of blogs set up on my favourites list and I don’t suppose it’ll come as a surprise to anybody that most of these are to do with books, writing or publishing.

But I’m also a bit of a podcast freak. This started when I began running again a couple of years ago and I needed something to think about other than the pain. My boys had MP3 players or ipods and I’d always quite fancied one but had never been able to justify the expense as I don’t find music necessary to my life in the minute-to-minute way which headphone use implies. But running whilst listening to interesting stuff really appealed to me. So, sleek little 2gig nano acquired (white, so as not to be confused with The Bassist’s black one) off I went for a trawl on the iTunes podcast directory and Podcast Alley to load up some stuff.

But in case you thought it would be all arty, booky stuff, think again.
If anybody compared my blog list with my podcast list, they’d think they belonged to two entirely different people. My list of podcasts casts me as science geek-girl. Here’s my complete podcast list, in alphabetical order (because that’s how iTunes does it – I’m not that anal)
All the the mind (psychology programme from Australian national broadcasting corp)
Best of National Geographic Magazine
Beyond Belief (BBC programme comparing standpoints of different faiths on moral/religious ideas)
The Brain Science Podcast
CBC Radio: Quirks and Quarks (Science digest from Canadian Broadcasting Corp)
CBC Radio: Search Engine (internet magazine prog, ditto)
Crossing Continents (BBC international reporting)
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (not the history of porn it sounds like! Actually a fabulous look at history from an enthusiastic amateur who always relates the 'then' to the 'now' - just like a split time novel really...)
Documentaries (BBC Radio)
Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4(the Now Show, the News Quiz et al)
From our Own Correspondent (BBC foreign correspondents’ eye view of current posting)
Living Planet (English language environmental magazine programme from Deutsche Welle Radio)
The Naked Scientists (also not porn – actually an excellent BBC eastern region science programme broadcast weekly on Sundays at 6pm but listened to by most of its devotees online or via podcast.)
Podictionary weekly (Canadian Charles Hodgson’s weekly digest of his words of the day – fascinating to those of us geeky enough to be fascinated by etymology.)
Radio 4 Choice
This Week in Science (describes itself as The Kickass Science Podcast – unsurprisingly it’s American, coming from the University of California at Davis via public radio. Covers, what’s new that week in science. Also has ‘the weird from Washington’ – what US legislators are doing/not doing to advance/get in the way of science.)
The Word Nerds (yes, more word-geekiness chez moi, this time at a more whole-language level. Broadcast by three high-school teachers who are just fascinated by language it’s described as ‘why we say the things we do’. Podcast from ‘just outside Washington DC, the capital of obfuscation and acronym’, it clearly has a large international following.)

I know that if I were a really good blogger I'd have linked all those to their relevant websites but that would take ages and I've got the w-i-p to get on with. Just stick any of them into Google and it'll take you straight to the site anyway.

So, what does my podcast habit say about me?

That I don't get enough time to listen to the radio.
That sometimes it's easier to listen than to read (I'm definitely a more auditory than visual person).
That I’m interested in the way things are and why they are that way, from language to international politics, history's influence on now and the world around us.
That I’m fascinated by the brain, the mind and why people do the things they do.
That I like my comedy word-based and clever.

Not bad attributes for a novelist.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Review on Amazon

Just had to point you in the direction of a fabulous new review of Testament on Amazon. (Well, new to me, I try not to be an obsessive Amazon-checker.)

It's by Gareth Wilson (anybody acquainted with this v. nice man?) who also goes by the title 'drosdelnoch2' which sounds slightly Welsh to me, though I can't see an obvious translation.

I was going to put in a link, but, sod it - here's the whole review, it's not long. It comes under the thrilling (to me, obviously) heading 'Book of the Year Potential'...

Following on from the recent trend of having the book told from two different time periods this wonderful novel is a breath of fresh air into a convoluting historical fiction genre. Whilst many would wonder why they should spend their hard earned money on a new author this is a book that I really think should come with a "Remington" Guarantee from the publisher (if you don't like it your money back. LOL) Highly creative, cracking characters and above all a story that virtually sails itself through the readers imagination means that this is going to be an author that the public are going to have to watch. Top it all off with a tale that drags the reader along by not only the heartstrings but emotionally and this really is going to be a book that's hard to top by years end.

Gareth is one of Amazon's top 500 reviewers (Does anybody know what this means? Does he simply write a lot of reviews?) and has over a hundred and fifty reviews to his name; so I checked out his general reading taste. Lots of fantasy, crime, some non-fiction and some more general stuff. So, although I love crime novels and am not a total stranger to fantasy, in some ways, Testament wasn't an obvious choice for him - I didn't see reviews of any of the famous split time novels out there on his review pages, for instance. Maybe it was a recommendation from a friend. Anyway, as to his reviews, Mr Wilson is, on the whole, a very enthusiastic reviewer though he's not afraid to be more down-beat when he hasn't enjoyed something.

The whole business of being reviewed is interesting. When Testament was first published, I kind of assumed that I would be most interested in what the newspaper reviewers said, though goodness knows why as I never read national newspaper reviews. No, seriously, never, because when I used to, I found I invariably disagreed, hating the things they praised and liking the books they dissed. So why would I want them to say nice things? - because we all want to hear nice things about our work, obviously.
But I have discovered that it is much more gratifying when somebody who's not being paid to do it bothers to write a review of your book; when a reader just feels so enthusiastic about what you've written that he has to tell everybody else.

So, in case anybody knows Gareth Wilson, aka drosdelnoch2, please convey my very sincere thanks for his enthusiasm.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Proust and the Squid or Reading, Writing and Talking

Jeanette Winterson (whose books I always want to like but am unlikely ever to truly warm to as she believes conventional narrative has had its day and is dull, or words to that effect) has been reading Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf which, it seems, is all about reading. It has clearly had a profound effect on her. One of the reasons I keep trying JW’s fiction is because I read her monthly newsletter and am consistently struck by her lucidity, her passion, her engagement with life which amounts to taking it by the throat and squeezing every last drop which can be got out of it.

Anyway, her take on Proust and the Squid is that reading is of vital importance to the development of minds. Well, with my day-job hat on I could have told her that for nothing. Not only reading but its necessary precursor, competent use of language. I have seen so many young children struggle to read because they don’t have the necessary underpinnings of language – it’s like trying to ride a bike when you can’t yet balance well enough to walk.

She makes out a case for our engagement with the problem – support libraries, be on school boards (American term, I assume she means be a school governor) all of which is reminiscent of Susan Hill’s current campaign to support libraries in schools and young offenders’ institutions. And so we should. Libraries are important.

But just as important as reading is talking. One of the reasons we’re such an illiterate society is that we don’t talk to our children, we dump them in front of a DVD and hope that that will foster their language. Well it won’t. No more than you would learn Arabic if somebody dumped you in front of a television screening wall to wall Al Jazeera. Learning language is an interactive process, it takes two.
In that respect reading is similar – you have to be taught. Whatever anybody tells you nobody entirely teaches themselves to read. Somebody has to tell you what these squiggles you’re looking at signify, at the very least.

I’ve always said that writing novels is not a million miles, philosophically, from being a speech and language therapist. Both, fundamentally, are about communication. And I stick by that claim. I do feel passionately about children’s language. I have gone into battle with schools, parents and the state from time to time to get individual children what they need to communicate successfully. So why am I not a full time SLT instead of footling about in the foothills of commercial fiction?
Frankly, because to engage with people – particularly needy people – all day every day it helps if you’re an extrovert. I like people, I’m fascinated by them, interested in them, but they wear me out. Extroverts get their energy from engagement with people, introverts (and I’m guessing that most people who write novels are introverts) get our energy from being alone. At the end of a day as a therapist I would come home utterly drained, totally devoid of the kind of energy writing novels demands.

So, I channel my passion for communication into writing words instead of speaking them. Does it do as much good in the world? I’m not sure. I know that at certain dark periods of my own life reading has shored up my sanity, if not saved my life, so I think books are pretty important. Even on a day to day basis, when my equilibrium is perfect, reading has a huge power and place in my life.
But that doesn’t dull the constant, nagging thought at the back of my mind that I should be out there, helping kids who, without adequate communication skills, will be unemployable and may well resort to crime. In case you don’t believe me, look at the statistics. Over three quarters of those in prison have problems communicating adequately. Whether they become violent because they have no other outlet for their emotions or whether they simply resort to crime as a way of getting money, kids with communication difficulties are horribly likely to end up inside. Particularly if they come from socio-economic groups which can offer no buffer between them and the streets.

All of which brings us a long way from Proust and the Squid. I shall probably read the book, it sounds intriguing and the brain has always fascinated me. But, in the end, will it offer any solutions to the problems of non-readers, those kids who come from homes where the only book is likely to be big and yellow, kids who never see anybody but their primary school teachers (overwhelmingly young women, a group unlikely to act as role models for macho little boys) reading books?

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t got the answer either. I find the linguistic divide – the linguistic haves and have nots – in this country depressing. I’m not talking about accent or dialect or whether you use ‘were’ or ‘was’ for the first peson singular and plural, I’m talking about the ability to use deductive reasoning, inferential reasoning, to make predictions and see consequences, all of which have linguistic substrates. The knowledge that ‘why’ always entails a ‘because’; that ‘if’ should always be followed by a corresponding ‘then’ (even as in the simplest of transactions ‘If you hit your brother, you will be in trouble’).

In writing novels, am I just pandering to the top half of the linguistic equation – the haves? Inevitably, yes, I am writing for people likely to read.
But maybe, one day, when I have honed my craft to a pitch of something approaching perfection, I will be able to contribute to the other side of the linguistic equation and write in a genre which I hugely admire – the ‘books for reluctant readers’. Books which have to have a story believable and exciting enough for a ten, eleven, twelve year-old boy told in language accessible enough for somebody with a reading age of around six.
I’m not there yet – still working through my linguistic over-achiever stage.

PS By the way, if you're interested in hearing Maryanne Wolf talk about the neuroscience behind the book, there's a great podcast here.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Interview for Kent Libraries

As I may have mentioned, recently I did a talk at the new Thanet Gateway Plus library in Margate. Last week, I was asked if I would like to do an online interview for their website. Naturally, I was delighted and the rest of this post is what I have sent back. If you'd like to see other examples of people who've been interviewed on the site see here for an interview with Roopa Farooki, nominated for Orange Broadband New Writer Award.

Q. What inspired you to write Testament?

A. From somewhere in the ether (I never know where my ideas come from) the image of a ghost in an Oxford college floated into my head and the germ of the idea which became Testament unfurled itself.
I say this was the germ of an idea because the storyline has moved way beyond this initial image. Though the ghosts of the past are everywhere, there is no literal ghost in Testament and it is no longer based in Oxford (I decided not to make unnecessary work for myself in the research department) but in a fictitious medieval city which I have christened Salster.

Q. Your book has a well researched historical background. Did you use our local studies and archives sections in the Library for your book?

Thank you, I’m glad Testament came over as well-researched but I have to admit I didn’t use either the local studies or archive sections in my researches. Sadly, this says more about me than it does about the library’s resources. For some reason, I just could not bring myself to go in to my local library in Canterbury and say ‘I’m writing this novel and I need to know…’
My natural reticence/inability to ask for help was made worse by the fact that I didn’t know exactly what I needed to know because the story was at an early stage of development and a lot of the narrative in my books tends to grow out of the research I do. So, I just needed to know anything and everything there was to know about city life in the late fourteenth century, the practice of stonemasonry and the place of the master mason in late fourteenth century society.
There was also the fact that, in common with many writers, I find it difficult to talk about my work whilst it’s at an early stage of development. Talking about the story to people – even sympathetic and helpful librarians – might have exposed it to too much scrutiny and caused it to wither away through sheer self-consciousness.
So, though I did use my local library – and interlibrary loan – extensively, I just tended to go from bibliography to bibliography, reading one book then following sources to the next and on from there. It was a real journey of discovery and I made some amazing, quite serendipitous, finds. It’s not necessarily the research method I’d recommend but it worked for me in Testament.

What is your favourite Library and why?
Hmm. This isn’t an easy question. When my children were small we spent hours in the library at Canterbury, borrowing books each week and wandering upstairs to look at the pictures in whatever exhibition the Beaney Institute had on show at the time. Canterbury library is a light and open building, a feeling it shares with the new Thanet Gateway Plus at Margate where I did a talk a couple of weekends ago. I loved the new building, incidentally, it seemed an ideal place to read, browse and study.

The library I probably have most fondness for is the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, which is part of the University’s Bodleian Library. Like Kineton and Dacre college in Testament, it is an unusually shaped building (Kineton and Dacre has the great Octagon and the Camera is round) and I love the way it sits in Radcliffe Square, a jewel of architectural perfection. I spent a lot of time reading in the Camera whilst doing my degree, though I have to admit, I never ordered anything from the Bodleian’s famous ‘stacks’ as I had missed the introductory talk on how to use the library and was too embarrassed to ask!

My favourite library in fiction (apart from Terry Pratchett’s library at Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University which infinite due to the folding of time and space caused by words and their infinity of meanings) is the one I’ve invented for Kineton and Dacre college in Testament. It occupies the galleried top storey of the college’s central, octagonal building and sits beneath a lantern roof (a feature of great controversy in the book) where Simon of Kineton, the college’s master mason, imagines it being filled with sunlight for the studying scholars. This is the kind of library I dream about building for myself – a little wooden eyrie, filled with light and books. I’d only ever come out to make tea…

Q. Recently you visited the new Thanet Gateway Plus, did the Readers ask you any surprising or interesting questions?

A. One thing which really impressed me was that the readers managed to avoid the usual questions people ask authors which I wrote about recently in my blog.
Most of their questions were about how my historical research had found its way on to the pages of the book. I had talked a bit about the kind of research I had done into stonemasonry and carpentry, life at a medieval university, death and funerary practices (doesn’t sound interesting but this bit of research generated another whole subplot) and the history of the Lollard sect (the patron of the college at the heart of Testament is a Lollard – a follower of John Wycliffe and his early protestant, anti-clerical movement) and the readers were interested to know whether I had the story first and then did the research or whether my research in some way dictated the story. To which the answer, inevitably, was ‘a bit of both’.

One interesting question was whether expectations of life were very different in the fourteenth century and whether that had coloured my writing of both characters and narrative. It wasn’t entirely easy to answer that question since we don’t necessarily know what people’s expectations of life were. Certainly, the poorest people in that society would have been struggling to keep body and soul together and their lives would have been dominated by getting sufficient food and shelter. Brief glimpses of this kind of life appear in Testament but the book’s main protagonists are of a higher social class – artisans, priests, wealthy merchants - and their life is capable of sustaining a good deal more than the simple struggle to survive. As I said earlier, my research ended up involving an eclectic mixture of books, some old and some new, and it was interesting to see how historical thinking had moved on. For instance, in one book written in the nineteen fifties, the author stated quite confidently that the craftsmen of the medieval period would have had no notion of personal ambition. As the whole of Testament’s fourteenth century story is predicated on Simon of Kineton’s personal ambition this came as a heavy blow until I read on into the work of historians in the sixties, seventies and eighties and realised that this view of the medieval craftsman as being somehow fundamentally different from his modern counterparts had been superseded. More modern historians seem to agree ambition – not to mention backstabbing to get the best jobs – was likely to have been as rife then as it is now.

The readers were also very interested when I said that one of the skills of writing historical fiction is in not putting in to the book everything that you have learned in your researches. How did I decide what to put in, somebody wanted to know.
The test I used on myself was that if I found myself describing and detailing everyday things like house-decoration or clothes or food more in the fourteenth century part of the book than in the twenty-first century, I needed to cut it out. I wanted the two strands to feel similar in style and texture – to make the fourteenth century narrative as everyday as the contemporary one.
Unless historical details develop the reader’s understanding of a character or move the plot forward, I think you have to ask yourself whether they should be there.

Q. How would you recommend Testament to our Readers in Kent ?

A. Advice to budding writers is always to write the kind of book you like to read yourself. I like books which make me think, books which take me into a world I’m not familiar with but with which I can, nevertheless, identify and books which – above all – have a strong story line with well-developed characters. Testament will also appeal - obviously – to those who like historical fiction and to readers of mysteries as there are several mysteries to be solved in the book. A synopsis of the book can be found here and a very nice review of Testament can be found here .

A big thank you to Kent Libraries!