Wednesday, 30 April 2008


Book group tonight, talking about the Costa-winning ‘What Was Lost’ by Catherine O’Flynn.
Stroke of genius to base a book in a shopping centre but the real genius is the way she’s carried it off – her characters are flawless, understated, pin-point accurate – you can just see them. And some you love and some you just want to pour paint over. Why paint? No idea, just came out.

Anyway, I’m in the middle of a good patch in the wip so I’m getting back to it. I just didn’t want you all to think I’d forgotten you.
Work tomorrow (as in going out to earn money) but I’ll try and put up a proper review of What was Lost tomoz evening.
Meanwhile, happy Wednesday evening!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Suddenly, Wales is Sexy

Read on It’s a Crime’s site the other day an extract from the Times announcing that, after years being very unsexy, Wales is now culturally hot.

Well, thank goodness for that! Wales is where the action in my new book takes place and I’d hate to have it turned down because I’ve chosen to set it the geographical equivalent of a fat git with back hair.

But, the article (in case you didn’t follow the link) continues:

Peter Gill, however, worries that, although there are Welsh singers, TV stars and sportsmen aplenty, there are fewer writers, poets and composers to match.

Well, that’s as maybe but I’m hoping that Peter Ho Davies’s ManBooker nominated The Welsh Girl and Owen Sheers’s Resistance, both set in Wales, will begin to break down the novel-buying public’s prejudices to work set in the Principality.

Interestingly, both these books are set during the Second World War – is this an indication that writers think this is the last time Wales was interesting? Both are also set in rural areas, unlike most of the success stories which the Times article is celebrating which are urban-based TV programmes and bands/solo artists most of whom (with the exception of Duffy, from the Lleyn peninsula) are from South Wales.

My novel is not set in the Second World War. It is, like Testament, a parallel narrative with one strand set in the past (in this case, the nineteenth century) and one taking place in contemporary West Wales. I think it’s a fascinating place to write about not just because I grew up there (that would just be frank nostalgia) but because I’m aware of everything that’s going on there still. All my immediate blood relations (except my children) live there. I have parents growing old there and wishing they’d got to grips with Welsh when we were little and nephews growing up there, trying to be bilingual. I read bits of the local paper now and again online (didn’t always do that, I started doing it for research and kind of got into it) and visit the website of the town nearest to the farm where I grew up. This website used to have a well-contributed-to forum in which natives and incomers had a lot to say to each other. Sadly, it’s been closed down, though a similar online presence makes an appearance in the book.

The Times article which It’s a Crime quotes, says:

Could it just be that much of Wales reminds many of us of how the rest of Britain used to be, in simpler, quieter, smaller times?

Well, if that’s the case then I’m on to a hiding to nothing as the last thing the new book does is to portray a simpler, quieter way of life.

West Wales isn’t the conventional rural idyll. It has all the usual problems of rural youth depopulation, unemployment and retiree-immigration but, on top of that, it’s trying to preserve a culture and a language. If young people are the life blood of a language (and they are) then Welsh is suffering a slow, inexorable haemorrhage. If the greying of an area makes it difficult to keep village schools (the heart of a community) open, then West Wales has a real problem.
Immigrants who are past compulsory school age see no need to learn Welsh as everybody speaks English and so the attrition continues.

All this forms the backdrop to the book I’m writing.
It presents a community finally saying ‘enough’ and doing something on its own cultural and linguistic behalf. It is not simple, quiet or nostalgic.
I hope that’s not a mistake.

Thursday, 24 April 2008


I’ve been tagged by Patricia Debney, the delightful Canterbury Laureate, to list six random things about myself. Random. As in strange (modern usage)? Or things which just whizz through my brain while I try and think of things I might actually want readers of this blog to know about me to make me seem more interesting / amusing / strange as in my strapline?

OK then, while I sit here with the best of Top Gear as company while I wait for the boys to get home from Frisbee (the OH is catching an early night – don’t know how she can go to bed when it’s light – that is actually a truly random fact about me: I can’t possibly go to bed when it’s still light outside, it’s just against some fundamental human law which I formulated when I was about six. ‘Mum, I can’t go to bed, it’s daytime…’ I had clearly better never spend the summer in Finland…) here are six not quite random things about me:

1. I have empty space in my brain where the sense of direction should be. I routinely – no, instinctively – turn the wrong way when eg coming out of restaurant loos and end up in the kitchens / a totally different bit of the restaurant where everybody seems to be eating sushi as in some parallel universe / outside in the cold, dark night…

2. Because of the above, I always leave ‘getting lost time’ whenever I go somewhere for the first (second and third) time(s). This is often used up. Especially in Margate. Have you ever been to Margate? It swallows you into its arcane system of ‘you can’t go down here, love’ roads.

3. I refuse to get sat-nav because I need to keep trying to grow the requisite bit of my brain, otherwise it will be nothing but a little black hole into which a nice lady (are they all ladies, GPSes? I’ve only ever heard ladies) tells me to go down yet another improbably weed-grown alley. They do this – all new Sainsbury’s delivery drivers unfailingly ring us up to say they’re lost because the GPS keeps telling them they’ve got to us when they’re sitting on a back lane which is parallel to our road but which is quite definitively not our road.

4. Unrelated to driving or senses of direction, I speak fluent Welsh. Or at least, I did when I still lived there. Given that I have not lived there for twenty five years, I understand fluent Welsh but occasionally find that – embarassingly – I can’t remember the word for something really obvious like ‘home’or ‘run’ or ‘face’. Mind you, that’s not wholly surprising to people who know me well. I often forget the English words for things like ‘home’ etc. My family are star interpreters of words like ‘thing’ ‘whatsit’ and ‘y’know’.

5. If I hadn’t gone over the time allowed, I would have won the Welsh under 16s stock judging championships at the Royal Welsh Show 1978. As I went over the two-minute time allowed for delivering my reasons why I had placed a ring of six British Fresian dairy cows in a particular order I was docked points. I therefore didn’t win, though my reasons were, according to the judges, the best. This wouldn’t have been an issue – moral victory etc, who cares about tropies – except that I therefore did not get an all expenses paid trip to Jersey to represent Wales in an international stock judging competition. Sadly, this did not teach me that brevity is the soul of wit. Or even make me keep my utterings pithy. (You lot should know, you read this blog.) I’ve still never been to Jersey.

6. I deeply hate patterned carpets. I’m not a big fan of carpets in general – I prefer wooden floors with rugs here and there. But I absolutely hate patterned carpets. At one stage in my life I had a bedroom carpet which was swirls of gold, black, orange and green. I’m still recovering.
The only fitted carpets in our house are in the attic, the boys’ domain.

OK, not absolutely random – more thematically related as far as 1 -3 are concerned, but interesting…no?

Right, I now have to tag other people and give you the rules.

The rules are:
Link to the person that tagged you - i.e. me.
Post the rules on your blog.
Write six random things about you in a blog post.
Tag six people in your post.
Let each person know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
Let the tagger know your entry is up.

So, I’m tagging Aliya (or Neil I suppose), Akasha, Karen, Tim, David and Leigh

Wednesday, 23 April 2008


My desk is awash with colour-coded cards, the restructured version of the book is a nicely-shaped outline and the rewrite is well underway. I am a happy novelist. More blogging when I’m less involved…review of Mr Y tomorrow, hopefully.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Scrivener and me

Ever since I read an article about a programme for writers called Scrivener, I have wanted to get it. It sounded so elegant and beautiful and just what every writer to uses a computer needs. But it’s only available for Macs and, though a lot of my formative writing years were spent on Macs, I currently use a Windows machine – mainly because, working in schools, I needed my stuff to be compatible with theirs.

So, do I rush out and – at vast expense – buy a Mac?
I wish.
No, I formulate a do-it-yourself version of Scrivener using Word and Powerpoint.

I’ve always made the vast majority of my notes on paper in a kind of spider diagram / mind map amalgam but, since I prefer to use A4 notebooks as my ideas tend to sprawl, I end up with pages of notes which it’s not always easy to read at a glance. Since I don’t then tear them out of the book and file them neatly in a folder divided into sections like ‘plot’ ‘characters’ ‘themes’ ‘odd scenes which might go somewhere’ ‘sudden inspirations’ etc, I have to flick through the whole book if I’m trying to find a brilliant thought I had the week before last.

As people have been telling me pretty much all my adult life, I need to file things better. As I’ve been responding pretty much all my adult life, I don’t DO filing.

The problem is, because I was so viscerally averse to the huge amount of filing I had to do when I was an NHS drone, I have always let myself off doing any at all in my writing life. This, I have decided, has been unhelpfully self-indulgent. As I find it difficult to hold lots of ideas in my head at once, I need to have them where I can see them; I need to be able to physically move them about and change them. I need to externalise my working memory because the one that came built into my system is rubbish.

So, Draft two of the work in progress (which I am forced to call a pretty comprehensive re-write since I allowed myself to be telling the story through too many narrative voices which hasn’t worked) is being planned out more thoroughly, using powerpoint slides as index cards. I haven’t used index cards since I did the research for Testament x number of years ago and I’m not about to start using the physical sort again. I need things you can alter easily and play with constantly. Since I’m not into rubbing out pencilled-in ideas, working in a computer programme is much easier. Also there’s the whole business of me typing far faster than I can write, and not losing my small desk beneath a tidal wave of colour coded index cards.

So, in the interests of getting a grip on my story and retaining it, I now have PP files called ‘key events’ (this is to build each chapter around); ‘key people’ (in an attempt to crystallise my throughs on each of the people I’ve allowed to remain in the narrative after my Draft 2 purge); ‘key events from L’s childhood’ (as I weave the main character’s past into her present; ‘historical episodes’ (basically my nineteenth century chapters tidied up) and ‘themes’ just so that I can keep track of what it is that I’m highlighting and bringing out in this tale of everyday rioting-type country folk.

AND each set of slides (which I shall print off as index cards) is colour-coded, so that I can move each of them around and make sure I’ve got a good balance of things happening.

Scrivener would do it all much better and you can do clever things like link notes to chapters and all that kind of stuff. But this is a good start for me. Already I’m feeling much more in control of the rewrite than I ever did of Draft 1 which was a bit of a seat-of-the-pants ride, if I’m honest, and not altogether comfortable.

So, let’s all watch this nicely-filed space…

Friday, 18 April 2008

Scarlett Thomas

Fascinating. I write some dross about structure in my novels – or not in my novels and then I start reading The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas which I picked up at the opening of The Big Green Bookshop and have, funnily enough, never seen anywhere else. Why did I pick it up? It has black-stained page edges which makes it look different. Yes, I really am that easily hooked. Sad. But true.

Anyway, the point is that The End of Mr Y is fascinating in various ways. For a start, nobody else seems to have heard of it, though it could easily turn into a huge cult thing. Secondly, it’s based in Canterbury, or, if it’s not (the town’s name hasn’t been mentioned yet, but I’m only a quarter of the way through) there’s a town which shares Canterbury’s features to a spooky degree. It even begins with a bit of the university falling into a huge hole made by an early railway tunnel – this really happened to one of the University of Kent at Canterbury’s buildings.

So I went online to find out about Scarlett Thomas - who she is, why she’s setting her novels in Canterbury, etc to find that she’s got quite a lot to say about structuring the modern novel here.

She also has a Myspace page which kind of implies that she wishes she didn’t. In fact she seems ambivalent about a lot of stuff, as you can see here.

So, Scarlett Thomas, anybody want to tell me what the rest of her books are like and whether there is a growing cult out there? Or is the mysterious The End of Mr Y mysterious for a reason…

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Structure, sonnets and novels

I have been thinking a lot about structure recently and decided that more is better. OK, let me expand on that as it is – I realise – a little vague. I think I need to have a structure on which to hang my novels rather than letting them evolve in a haphazard way. Over the five novels I’ve written (if you include the wip which is about to enter 2.0 territory) I’ve tried pretty much every putting-a-novel-together method from detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown from the off to ‘ok I know where I’m headed, let’s see where the journey takes me’. And I think my optimum modus operandi is somewhere between those two. I need a structure tight enough to give me security but not so tight as to prevent the characters coming to life and surprising me. (Or me, frankly, having a better idea in the middle of the book and changing the whole planned course of the second half.)

I think maybe it’s a bit like poetry, which I’ve written for thirty years and more (dear God that makes me sound old!) entirely for my own benefit. Mostly I write in free verse and use rhyme and metre to suit my purpose but sometimes, if I really want to flex my poetic muscles, I’ll write a sonnet. I prefer the English or Shakespearian version (rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg) to Italian version (abbaabba then cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce). It’s a bit more like a short story with a twist at the end in that couplet.

I can’t say I’m a wonderful exponent of the sonnet but I do enjoy writing them. The discipline of distilling a thought or a feeling or even an event into those fourteen lines can be wonderfully creative for somebody who’s inclined to let things get a bit flabby.

Free verse is more flexible, obviously, and allows me to search for the refrain or the repeated line/image which is central to the poem and allows me to highlight it with rhyme, metre and repetition.

I think my novels need to be a combination of the two. I need anough form to make me think in a careful, structured way about what I’m doing – to weigh more easily whether things belong and to give me a means whereby the thing can be shaped into a lean, sinuousness. But too much form and the thing is constrained, there’s insufficient room to see those recurrent motifs, the call-and-echo between characters in the past and the present, the surprise burst which takes both reader and writer’s breath away.

It’s going to be an interesting re-write, folks. Watch this space.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

My family - insufficiently outrageous!

With many thanks to Randy Glasbergen, whose cartoons amuse the Other Half and me on a regular basis!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

What's on MyShelf?

With all the debate recently (not least at the Oxford Literary Festival which I didn’t go to but refer to here to make myself seem like valid literary type) about lit-bloggers vs. professional reviewers, it was interesting to get sent a link today, by Sophie at MNW, to a review of Testament on a book-reviewing site called MyShelf. They offer free books in exchange for ‘professional reviews’. Since one of the things litbloggers are always a little leery about is the (possible) expectation of a good review if they are sent a review (free) copy of a book, it’s interesting that this site is completely upfront about its modus operandi.

So, it’s not a site where people are blogging about books they happen to have read and liked, as many of us do, nor is it a newspaper books page where reviewers are paid to comment on (aka criticise – in both senses) books they are sent by publishers. As many lit-bloggers adhere to the code of ‘if you didn’t like a book, don’t blog about it’ (which is endearingly like my Mum’s maxim ‘if you can’t find something nice to say about somebody, just don’t mention them’) it’s interesting to read reviews on a site which is not party to the same line but who aren't being paid to do entertaining put-downs either.

You can apply to be a reviewer for MyShelf on their site (click the link for New Reviews) – here are some of the requirements:

Address in USA - unless an ebook reviewer
Willing to review more than 1 book a month.
Turn in reviews on time. (Deadline: 22nd of each month).
Will not accept books on behalf of MyShelf without permission.
Serious about the commitment
Reachable by email
Willing to join MyShelf contact list at Yahoo

Drat that first requirement, I was getting quite excited about free books… Still, it’s interesting that MyShelf feel there’s a market for this. Are people getting cynical about reviews in newspapers? There’s certainly a feeling around amongst bookreaders I know that newspaper reviewers don’t feel they’ve done their job properly unless they’ve chopped the writer down to size (though the books editor of the Sunday Telegraph said in a recent article - for which, I apologize, I haven’t been able to find a link - that they have a gentleman’s agreement not to ‘go for’ debut authors). But even he admitted that an excoriating review was more entertaining to read than a laudatory one.

So, what do readers of this blog think? Where do you go when you want to find out what’s hot in the latest releases? Litbloggers, Library Yhing (someone seriously needs to explain to me how this works, please!) Amazon, the newspapers, friends? Or do you not bother and just go and browse in your local bookshop and dip in and out?

The link to the Testament review is here, by the way, in case you’re interested.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Sales and Returns

Well here’s a thing - Amazon is now advising the unwary who click on Testament and wonder whether to buy it to ‘order soon!’ as there are only 5 left. And, indeed, in bookshops other than Amazon, Testament does seem to be getting hard to get hold of. Friends check in from various points in the country to tell me that it can no longer be had or ordered in bookshops for love nor money (OK, as far as I’m aware nobody has offered anything except money…). But, then, Amazon says cheerily ‘more on the way’ and this fails so completely to fit the available facts that I am inspired to wonder ‘where from, exactly?!’ Because, as far as I know, there are no ‘more’ to be ‘on the way’. Booksellers who try and order copies are told that neither Macmillan nor the wholesalers have any copies left. Perhaps Amazon is sourcing its copies from Goldsboro Books which, I believe, still has some signed copies.

Waterstone’s website is advising would-be purchasers to ‘contact customer services’. Whether they want to warn people against committing their hard-earned cash to my debut fiction, tell you they can trawl their stores for copies hanging around unloved on shelves, or advise customers to wait until next January and the paperback version is unclear. And yes, they are offering the paperback version (£7.99 in case you’re interested) for pre-order. As are Amazon.
For goodness sake! Who orders a book nine months in advance? I know people are fond of comparing their novels to offspring, but there are limits…

All this sales stuff is baffling to me. Well, ok, not baffling, I’m not an idiot - I do get the general concept. MNW do lots of unseen publicity, lots of booksellers think they like the look of the book, they order it, they put it in their shops/on their site, it sells, royalties accrue. It’s confusing, though, and slightly bewildering, to have no idea how the thing is actually selling in terms of people removing it from shelves, taking it to a till and parting with actual money. Booksellers may be enthusiastic about a book which the public totally fails to take to its collective reading bosom. In other words, there may be tons of returns. I’m hoping that the fact that are trotting out the ‘customer service’ line and Amazon are having to draw on some hitherto unsuspected (most things about Amazon were hitherto unsuspected, let’s face it) source of copies means that there won’t be tons of returns but – and here’s the bit which baffles me slightly – I HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING.

I suspect that the bafflement is a largely first-book phenomenon. You’ve spent years writing the thing, polishing, honing, hawking it about, polishing, honing, hawking it about – I don’t have to draw you a picture - and then somebody offers to publish it, and suddenly it’s not your book any more. It’s theirs and they deal with all the sordid details like whether it’s actually making its way, via a commercial transaction, into people’s homes and on to their to-be-read piles. It would be great, as an author, to have some kind of access to sales data but it’s just impractically difficult. I just have to get used to not knowing what’s happening to my book any more. If I can talk MNW into publishing the next one, I’ll know what to expect.

Before we wander off the subject of returns completely, HarperCollins’ new idea of ‘no frills’ publishing which includes not accepting returns from booksellers, is an interesting one, is it not?
Initially, my reaction was to say ‘Hooray! Jolly good show!’ and throw items of headgear in the air but then realism kicked in and I realised that, in terms of debut fiction, booksellers would be monumentally unlikely to take books nobody’s heard of by people nobody’s heard of without the option of sending the things back if they looked like long-term shelf-clutterers.

What HarperCollins are clearly hoping, on the other (more optimistic) hand is that booksellers might just be motivated to exert themselves to sell the stock they’ve bought.

I’m not being funny, but which do you think is more likely?

PS, independent booksellers – THIS DOESN’T APPLY TO YOU – you are all lovely, self-exerting-type people.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Flowers, music, furniture and writing...

Municipal parks have municipal flowers,
Woodland plants from woodland bowers
Are better.

I certainly thought that as I walked through one of Canterbury’s very beautifully-tended green spaces on my way home the other day. Though the day was balmy and the air smelled beautifully of hyacinths and primulas all I could think was that they weren’t a patch on the bluebells and primroses in an ancient woodland up the road in Blean.

I like flowers in direct proportion to how wild they are. So I can cope with forget-me-nots but not dahlias, buttercups but not lillies. I know the names of a good number of British wild flowers (aka weeds) but struggle to remember the name of a single garden variety which isn’t ‘tulip’. I like alpine flowers in rockeries (quite wild-looking) but can’t usually remember their names – I think they’re stored in the ‘garden’ bit of my brain which I’ve sub-labelled ‘not worth remembering the names of’.

I’m a bit the same with other things – preferring the simple to the over-elaborate. I like plain furniture without too much decoration; I can see the sheer artistry which has gone into an inlaid, carved and curlicued antique, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more of a Shaker-sympathiser than a Chippendale-enthusiast. I suppose, in a way, I don’t like things which have been interfered with too much – I mean, why do we need blue roses?

I think a lot of horticultural artistry is more a matter of mastery than aesthetics. ‘Look what I can do’, rather than ‘look how beautiful this is’.

My feelings about music are similar. The more producers have had to do with it – on the whole - the less I like it. I prefer the raw emotion involved in a live gig, even if the mistakes and rough edges can’t be edited out later, to the perfection of a sound-levelled, digitally-enhanced, added-tone production. I don’t want echo-effects and people singing in harmony with themselves. If they don’t sound good in the first place, why would I like more of them? I don’t – and this won’t surprise you a bit – like electronic music. It seems to have so little to do with people that I almost fail to recognise it as music at all. I’m not saying I’d prefer to listen to a scratchy, out-of-tune violin or an under-rehearsed choir, but I do prefer my music authentic and performed with all the raw passion people can conjour up. I’d prefer to listen to my boys playing cover-versions with their mates and having a whale of a time than a professional band going through the motions.

And then there’s writing. Where do my rough-hewn, don’t over-produce, leave it as nature intended with lots of passion preferences lead me in terms of my reading and writing habits?

Well, in terms of consumption, on the whole, I’m more of a commercial fiction genre-reader (mostly history and crime) than an enthusiast for literary fiction but that’s not to say that I’m more interested in plot than style. I like my prose to be opaque, by which I mean I don’t want to see straight through the prose to what's being said. I’m not a fan of prose styles which don’t add anything, just let the story do ‘what it says on the tin’ (sorry to non-UK readers - this is a reference to a tv advert which has become a mainstream slang saying meaning ‘does exactly what it’s supposed to do, no more, no less’).

Years ago, I used to do a lot of calligraphy and was advised that the art should always add to the reader’s understanding of what was being read, that just rendering words beautifully wasn’t enough – printing could do that quite adequately. And I suppose I take the same view with prose – it should add something to what you’re reading about, help you see it in a different way, either emotionally, philosophically, psychologically or visually.

Books which I love – a random sample from the top of my head might include The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Hours of the Night by Sue Gee, the book I blogged about last week The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, much of Ben Elton’s work – combine a deeply engaging story with prose which is in some way or another outstanding – sparkling, magical in the case of Joanne Harris; lyrical and poetic in the case of Sue Gee; quite brilliantly right for time and place in the case of Geraldine Brooks; witty, pithy and obliquely-truth telling in the case of Ben Elton.

I don’t often stop reading a book because of its prose style – though it has happened – but the books which stick in my mind, the words of whose sentences I will read and re-read because they are so utterly beautiful or precise or perfectly capture some concept, are books where prose style and the ability to tell a great story have come together perfectly.

It’s what I aspire to.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Listen to me!

Did the last interview on Radio Kent about the Writers' Room short story today and got to hear what they’ve done with it (fx, music etc) and it sounded really good. What is it about the combination of music and words – gets me every time.

If you have a hankering to hear the interview I did with Dominic King, or me reading the story, go to Dom’s homepage and click on listen again (you’ll have to choose his name from the list of shows there).
If you have no such hankering, skip the rest of this paragraph.
Once you’re listening again (you’ll come in on the traffic news) you’ve got to wait and hear the news on the roads locally before you get to me. There’s a brief bit of me, some music, then more me, then the news… Clearly too much me at any moment is hard to handle. If you want to just listen to me reading the story, go forward (from the beginning of the show) an hour and five minutes - you’ll come in on Dom doing a piece about film music (lots of der-ders!!!) but he re-introduces me after about a minute and then you get me reading the story. Yikes – the wonders of technology, eh?

Anyway, it’s been fun being on the radio and working on a project with the listeners to Dominic’s show.
Lots of people have asked me whether I got paid for being on the radio. The answer, as any recently-published writers out there will know, is ‘no’ – but it keeps your name in front of the public (at least in Kent) and if you’re lucky (I was very lucky) the presenter will be nice and keep mentioning the title of your book.

I know there’s been a bit of hoo-hah recently about whether authors should do radio and tv stuff for free in order to generate publicity for their books but, to be honest, although the free plugs are nice, that’s not why I agreed to do The Writers’ Room. I had decided, when MNW offered to publish Testament, that this was the beginning of a new phase in my life and I was going to grab it with both hands. Therefore, if anybody asked me to do something new, I’d do it (always assuming it wasn’t immoral, illegal or fattening and didn’t keep me away from the w-i-p too much. And it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve discovered that I’m OK behind a microphone, talking to somebody I can’t see – I don’t freeze or find I’ve nothing to say (not, sadly, a surprise to anybody who knows me...) I’m not quite as crap at short stories as I thought I was and radio journalism seems to be full of very nice people.

So, all in all, a very happy outcome to the embracing of a new challenge.

At the end of my bit on the show today, Dom mentioned the possibility of me being involved in something else which is coming up – Dom’s Big Book Club. Now that could be very interesting…

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The nature of good and evil and other such stuff

I blogged last week about Boy A by Jonathan Trigell and tonight my book group met to discuss it.

We (two speech and language therapists, an educational psychologist, a Teaching Assistant in an autism unit, a child minder and a gap year student working in social work) were left with several unresolved questions:

Is there a ‘core’ of every person which remains unchanged throughout life?
Is ‘evil’ a useful concept?
Can a crime like murder ever be put in the past so much that both the perpetrator and those who live with him/her forget about it to all intents and purposes?
Are reasons and excuses morally equivalent?
Should the primary aim of prison be to redeem/reform the criminal?
Why are there no books about happy stuff?

Answers in the comments box as usual, fellow inhabiters of the blogosphere…

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Year of Wonders

What makes a good historical novel? A story deeply grounded in the socio-political landscape of the time? Characters who are really of their time rather than modern people transplanted to century x? A perfectly realised world – where you really believe that this is what it was like to live at that time and in that place? Language which seems time- and place-appropriate?
All of the above?

OK, I read a lot of historical novels and I’m voting for all of the above. And I’ve just read one: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. The year in question is that between ‘leaf-fall’ of 1665 and the same season in 1666 and the ‘wonders’ come about because plague has arrived at a Peak District village. What will the villagers do?
The story is based on the real-life Derbyshire village of Eyam which cut itself off from the world so as not to spread the plague to neighbouring villages and beyond.

In her aferword, Geraldine Brooks says that surprisingly little is known of what happened in the village during their self-imposed quarantine but that a few traditional tales were handed down through the centuries and that, in writing Year of Wonders, she drew heavily on source materials like medical texts, journals, sermons and social histories:

'My library now includes tomes such as A History of Lead Mining in the Pennines, which Is not a volume I ever expected to own.'

And the result of her reading, travelling to Derbyshire (she is an Australian Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and journalist who now divides her time between Sydney, Australia and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts) and just good, old-fashioned imagining, she has created something quite outstanding. The voice she has found for Anna, her viewpoint character, feels so authentic and Anna herself comes over as so much a woman of her time, untainted by twenty-first century notions of what a woman’s life might be, that it’s hard to remember that you are not reading a first-hand account of what happened.

The vocabulary Brooks uses seems authentic without resorting to gadzookery and I liked the way she didn’t explain unfamiliar words. If you couldn’t get the gist of what they must mean from context then you could jolly well go and look them up!

Whisket, toadstone, barmester, spud (not a potato), pipkin, stemple – such English words – I loved them and the feel of earthy authenticity they gave the fabric of the book.

Nobody reading this novel will know, first-hand, what it is like to live in a village shut up with bubonic plague, a plague in which two-thirds of family and their neighbours will die around them during the year. But, having read this book, I feel as if I do know what it was like. The reaction Brooks describes – from wanton promiscuity through witch-hunting to despair and self-flagellation all seem horribly realistic. You don’t want to think that you might succumb to one of these maladaptive ways of dealing with things but, faced with a disease whose transmission, natural history and provenance was so little known as to appear to be a Biblical plague sent as a punishment for sin, who knows what expedients any of us would resort to?

Historical detail, voice and character apart, Anna’s story – over and above the story of the village and its battle with plague – is beautifully told and does not follow the course it seems set for. Anna is a victim of circumstances but her circumstances become so extraordinary that it makes for an extraordinary life.

Don’t imagine that this book will get you down because it’s about plague. It’s a book about the human spirit and the good – and bad – of which it’s capable. Read it if you love great historical fiction. And read it if you want to write good historical fiction – it’s a master-class.

As a PS to this post, you might like to know that Geraldine Brooks has a new potential bestseller out – People of the Book. It’s gone straight to the top of my ever-expanding ‘books to buy’ list...