Thursday, 31 January 2008

Happy Birthday to the Ultimate Frisbee Freak!

The Ultimate Frisbee Freak is eighteen today! Oh my goodness, where has his whole childhood and adolescence gone? I’m not going to say that it feels like only yesterday that he was born – it doesn’t – but in that peculiar way time has of speeding up and slowing down and signposting things more or less well things which happened before he was born seem more recent whilst his babyhood and early childhood seem a phenomenally long time ago.

The Other Half and I have – as is our wont when one of the boys has a birthday – been putting together some posters which we will stick around the house to celebrate the event. For the Bassist’s birthday we did Banksy-themed posters but since it’s the UFF’s eighteenth we resorted to the totally unoriginal idea of collecting photos from his entire life. So a picture of him lying on my lap zonked out on milk as a tiny baby sits next to an image of him and his brother aged about five and six gut-barging each other in American football shirts with pillows shoved up them and a picture of the UFF in his first suit aged fourteen. Others include teenage mutant ninja turtle costumes and the UFF and the B wearing home-made (by my Mum) capes which they were seldom seen without for a period of about eighteen months until the UFF went to school and abandoned such preschool pursuits.

And though he’s now the Ultimate Frisbee Freak, the photos remind me that he has passed through phases of being the goalie, the poet, the lead guitarist…

So, here’s wishing the UFF a very happy birthday, and looking forward to whatever he chooses to be for the next eighteen years… and beyond!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid


When I’m coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) I need a few things:
A study to work in (see yesterday)
Lots of light (this can be lightbox or, better still, nice bright days in which I can sit next to a window or go for a walk)
Chocolate (I try to ignore this need for the benefit of my arteries)
Not to be bothered with lots of people. I’m not exactly Ms Party Person at the best of times but I become positively (should that be negatively?) anti-social during the long, dark days of winter.
Approximately half as much sleep again as I need in the summer.
Funny books.

There aren’t a million funny books out there and I often find I’m re-reading old favourities – any of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, the Provincial Lady books of EM Dellafield and, more recently Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones.
And then there’s Bill Bryson.
BB needs a league all of his own when it comes to funnyness and I need to read his works with some care; tucking into a Bryson over breakfast and the lightbox can be a life-threatening endeavour as laugh coming up meets mouthful of tea going down resulting in tea where tea didn’t outghta be.

Currently, I’m reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid which is providing much anti-SAD therapy. On the back is a question quoted from The Evening Standard: ‘Is this the most cheerful book I’ve ever read?’ Well, if I’ve ever read a more cheerful, positive and self-deprecating account of growing up anywhere, ever, then I’m clearly losing my marbles because I have no recollection of it. The highest praise I can give TLATOTTK is that it is even funnier than Notes from a Small Island from which I swear I nearly died laughing at one point.

It’s not that the events Bill Bryson writes about are particularly funny – most are extremely mundane – as he points out growing up in 1950s Iowa meant a lot of time waiting for something – anything – to happen. No, it’s BB’s language which provides the amusement factor. Taking the page I’ve just put my bookmark in where he’s talking about toys of the 50s; Mr Potato Head is described as ‘majestically unamusing’, Slinky as ‘notable for its negative ecstasy’. Hyperbole is BB's literary device of choice and it is his love of overexaggeration which, for some reason, I find amusing in a way which everybody else in the family finds pitiably incomprehensible. It’s not that they don’t find the bits I read out (or attempt to read out, through face-crippling, breath-stealing mirth) amusing they just don’t find them that amusing. ‘Heh heh’ they snigger worriedly as I collapse in hysterics at the lastest sentence full of bons mots ‘Mmm, yes, quite funny.’
There is, clearly, no hope for them and I should just stop trying to turn them into heaps of Bryson-appreciating laugh-jelly. When I tell you that, for the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and The Bassist, there is nothing funnier than The Mighty Boosh, you may begin to understand. It’s not that I don’t think the lads who are TMB are clever and amusing, I just ‘heh heh’ to their surreality in much the same way as the UFF and the B react to Monsieur Bryson. Our senses of humour are generationally incompatible.

I’m only about a third of the way through TLATOTTK but already it’s provided me with more laughs than pretty much all the books I’ve read in the previous twelve months put together. Including one of Christmas 2007’s hits – 1001 ‘A Man Walked Into a Bar’ Jokes.

If you’re struggling with the season and the weather and are generally of the disposition to have your ribs tickled by verbal humour, I can’t recommend a dose of the underpants-over-trousers stuff from young Billy Bryson too highly.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Working Space

Today, I shall be re-organising our bedroom to give me some dedicated working space. What happens every winter has – without fail – happened again this January and I have despaired of ever being able to write properly (??) without a proper study. ‘I can’t cope’ I wailed to the not terribly distraught family, two-thirds of which looked at each other with ‘do we need to do anything about this? Nah..’ faces ‘I need somewhere where I can leave all my stuff and not have to clear it away – I keep forgetting where I’d got to.’

In a saner moment, this morning, I realise that that was a completely stupid thing to say – where I’d got to is almost invariably evident as soon as I pull up the most recent Word file and doesn’t depend on surrounding detritus but, somehow, it’s the principle of the thing. I should have somewhere I can leave my stuff. It’s my job. (Writing, obviously, not leaving stuff lying around…)

Anyway, the Other Half who is less prone to ignore all SAD-related utterances than the offspring announced a couple of hours later that the solution was obvious – I should turn a corner of our bedroom into a writing space. This has never really occurred to me because, when we first moved into the house and hadn’t yet dried out the cellar, we had the main computer in our bedroom and spent a long time working out how to get rid of it and just have the bedroom as a relaxed, calm, sleeping space. Which it now is. But the OH is right, with a little imagination and changing things around, I could use that corner without making too great a visual impact on the room as a whole. Its feng shui may be destroyed in the process but then I’m not sure it had enormous amounts anyway.

So, I’m off to move books and create a ‘study area’ as those adverts in the back of Sunday supplements call them. Except without all the hardwood, expense and men occupying our bedroom for three months, obviously.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Music and words


I’ve always been very envious of people who can play a musical instrument with any degree of facility. This now includes my own offspring as both the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist are pretty hot stuff on the electric guitar and (obviously) bass, respectively.

My parents were keen that I should learn the piano as a child but I knew that the local piano teacher was apt to rap you over the knuckles with a ruler if you got things wrong so I confined myself to learning the recorder, but only because it got me out of an hour of maths once a week. I was poor at maths and reasonable at the recorder. The obvious thing to do would have been to progress to the flute or the clarinet once I’d grasped the basic principles but, somehow, I never did.

I have had various attempts to teach myself to play the classical guitar over the years and I always get stuck at the same point – not because I can’t make my hands do the stuff but because I can’t make my eyes do the stuff quickly enough – I don’t scan well and have to count lines because it’s not obvious to me where the notes are. It’s a bit like dyslexia for notes. (Is there such a thing?)

But music remains important to me. As anyone who has read ‘my complete profile’ on Blogger will know I have eclectic taste when it comes to music but I think it comes down to a strong preference for melody over experiment (although having said that I am peculiarly susceptible to percussion as a form). I envy people who can produce music, whether they play or compose, because I know that it has an effect on me that words can never match. Music can tap into emotions more quickly than words – almost instantaneously for music which we are familiar with – and is, in my experience, more mood-altering than prescription drugs.

Several things have happened this weekend to make me think about music and its place not only in my life but in the world in general. Firstly, I was minding my own business in St John’s college front court in Cambridge on Friday when I heard the organ being played in the chapel. It chimed in so exactly with the sense of undefined longing I was experiencing that it felt like some kind of providential gift and I just stood there listening and wondering what name I should give to the longing I was feeling. I don’t hanker after the life of an Oxbridge student or academic – I had my share twenty years ago and was very grateful for it but I have, as our friends in the US say, ‘moved on’. So what was it? Something to do with the sheer beauty of the surroundings? Or was it something more akin to what Damia, the central contemporary character in Testament feels about Kineton and Dacre college – a sense of belonging to a community so old that one’s feeling of rootedness almost has a tangible physicality? I’m not generally a joiner, a belonger, but I do wonder whether this is part of what I was feeling.

Then there was The Choir Revisited on the telly. I managed to miss all but the first episode of the original series which followed Gareth Malone’s successful attempt to take a choir from Northolt School in Middlesex (number of choirs at inception of project: 0) to the Choir Olympics in China. I was in tears at various points in this programme and it was all to do with people making music together – in this context, very unpromising musicians making very successful music. They started out as a disaffected, underprivileged group of kids with very little in common with each other apart from their school and ended up as a choir. And music did this. Gareth Malone was essential but without music, as I’m sure he would be the first to admit, he wouldn’t have had a chance of getting these guys to act in concert. (Sorry, pun intended).

Then, on Saturday with friends, I was introduced to the ideas and work of Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals, an archaeologist whose research has led him to believe that music is as least as old as human language and that music may actually predate language and have been a precursor to it.

Well, that explains everything, doesn’t it? The older a potential skill is, the more deeply embedded its neuronal structures are in our brains. If we’ve been making music for tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of years, no wonder it speaks so deeply to us. And if, as Mr Mithen seems to be suggesting (haven’t read the book myself yet, so this may be a not totally accurate representation of his thesis) music and language have evolved in tandem, then it’s small wonder that the combination of music and words can be almost unbelievably moving. Hymns, love songs, patriotic stuff as sung at The Last Night of the Proms… and don’t even get me started on Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ read over Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ at the cenotaph…

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Shock and Awe indeed!



I’ve mentioned here before that I break out in thriller-reading occasionally, depending on mood, and, over the years, I have become quite a connoisseur (should that be connoisseuse as I am female? I’ve always wondered…) of fast-paced, action-filled fiction. I’ve devoured my share of rough-hewn heroes doing their thing indefatigably and without a shred either of self-doubt or real fear as to the consequences of their actions to themselves or others.
A recent discovery, David Baldacci, writes heroes far more thoughtful than the average – people whose existence you actually believe in – but now we have a new contender for the Thinking Woman’s Thriller Writer – Macmillan New Writing’s very own David Isaak.
Legends ‘fine and rare books’ sellers in America have already dubbed David’s book Shock and Awe ‘one to watch’ and I agree with them. Not only about the book but about David’s writing in general.
Why?
OK, here are the reasons.

He writes with a light, deft touch which never drowns you in detail but tells you enough.
His prose is fluent and literate.
There wasn’t a single word in Shock and Awe I wanted to substitute for another – a rare thing, believe me!
He credits the reader with paying attention and doesn’t plant big fat explanatory paragraphs when things happen after earlier signposting. ‘D’you remember what…’ and ‘I told you..’ are delightfully absent.
His characters can be amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud so.
Said characters are real human beings, not superheroes or cardboard cut-outs. Even when they are unusually fit, strong or capable, they always retain the ability to be badly – even fatally - hurt and they are never less than psychologically real.
His main ‘hero’ characters indulge in self-doubt, soul-searching, retributive acts and occasional despair.
Characters never seem to be at the mercy of, or act at the behest of, plot.
He writes both male and female heroes (I assume this is the generic plural?) and he writes women believably.
Carla Smukowski – one of the aforementioned heroes - does not think heels are the footwear women were born to wear, is exhausted and irritated by clothes shopping and finds bras ludicrously uncomfortable; just the kind of antidote to female stereotypes that action-fiction needs.
His characters can be both clever and ruthless – there is never a sniff of the archetypal evil genius or preternaturally morally-certain good guy.

So, I hear you cry, was there nothing wrong with Shock and Awe?

Well, I’m sure that one could find minor flaws to carp about but nothing that sat in the opposite pan of the scales in the kind of quantities that could begin to rival the good points above. So I shall leave it at that and agree with Legends Books – David Isaak is definitely ‘one to watch’.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Write about what you know - why?


I’m trying to get ahead of the game at the moment and sort out a few talks which I’m giving in the next couple of weeks. Since one is at the opening of a new Library, part of the talk is going to be about the research aspect of writing historical (ok, split time) novels.

And, though I was a bit worried, turns out there’s quite a lot to say, both about the precise research necessary for Testament (masonry, carpentry, building techniques, everyday life (that’s a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ one) medieval universities, the medieval church and its relation to medieval universities, Lollardy… OK, I’m going to stop now before I give the impression that the book is some kind of erudite tome) and about the research process itself.

When I did the bulk of the research for Testament the internet was not the massive, enormous, humungous, information-loaded thing it is now. It was little, it was weedy, it had very little stuff on it. It was twelve years ago. So, I relied on books. Remember them? Sorry… got carried away there on the whole cyber-thing. Of course the people who read this blog remember books, that’s why you’re here…
It’s been a stressful day…

Where was I? Oh yes, doing research out of books. Because I didn’t really have much of a feel for the kind of books I needed to read (I’m not a historian – I did English at university) I just got hold of a couple of medieval social history books, some very general guides (such as you can pick up from English Heritage or National Trust properties) on masonry and carpentry and followed footnotes and bibliographies to more detailed and relevant texts. Thank goodness for inter-library loan. Without that, Testament would have to have waited a few years.

But what was really interesting to me, when I was actually doing the research, was how it drove the story. Things which I had as part of the original plot line proved not to be possible, given the historical constraints of the time; things I found out during my research suggested new plotlines to develop. It was the total antithesis of ‘write about what you know’.

And, to be honest, how boring would that be, anyway? If I wrote about what I know you’d get novels about growing up on a dairy farm in Wales in the 1970s, being an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1980s or being a speech and language therapist. Not exactly the territory Testament covers.

I’m reading, admiring and liking (my gold standard) David Isaak’s Shock and Awe at the moment – I think it’ll be my weekend review – and unless he’s led a very chequered life as an FBI agent, a member of a slightly dodgy American militia and a mercenary (or ‘merk’ as the book would have it) then I don’t think he’s writing about what he know, either. Certainly his jacket-biog would suggest otherwise.

So where did this injunction to write about what you know come from? Surely the whole point of being a fiction writer is that you use your imagination? I don’t know what it was like to live in the fourteenth century – if anybody came back from the fourteenth century and read Testament they’d probably die laughing, always assuming that somebody had taught them how to read modern English beforehand, obviously. But it doesn’t have to convince anybody from the fourteenth century, it only has to convince twenty-first century readers and, if I’ve done my research well, that’s what it will do. But to tell me whether I’ve succeeded, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the book!

Agents

David Isaak over at Tomorrowville has an interesting dilemma on his hands at the moment - whether to enter the whole getting-an-agent fray (again) now that he's already got a publisher (the same one as me, ie MNW).

While I'm at work today (and therefore blogging this evening) regular readers and especially those who are writers too can ponder this for me - do we need agents? Apart from finding a publisher - clearly not an issue - do they deserve their 10/15/20%?

I am supporting, chatting with and consulting on the needs of my lads with Asperger Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders today and wondering if I should be worried about meeting the Heffers' reading group tomorrow. Still, I'll have Faye and Aliya with me to hold my hand...

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Coming out of the comfort zone

After I made a plea the other day for literary antidotes to my feeling that London is depressing, Paul over at Paul’s Writing Blog sent me a link to The City is Mine, an article in the Guardian by Kate Pullinger who is described as ‘an inveterate nightwalker’. She was actually responding to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s admission that she would not walk the streets of London alone at night, but her lyrical paean of praise to the city streets at night did act as a corrective to my feeling that London streets are dismal places.
Here are some extracts from the article.

'Crossing Lambeth Bridge on foot at 5am provoked in me a kind of epiphany, an ecstatic communion with the city and its only-just-buried layers of history. At night it's as though the city's history comes alive, bubbling up from where it lies dormant beneath the tarmac: when the crowds are gone, modernity slips away, and the city feels ancient and unruly. How could anyone not love London late at night, or early in the morning? How could the wide black Thames with the city reflected upon it not remind you of everything that is most desirable and glamorous in life?'

Which reminded me so much of William Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge, written over two hundred years ago:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

But it’s not just what she sees, but how the city makes her feel that makes Kate Pullinger an enthusiast for nightwalking in the city.

Just before Christmas I walked home by myself from a party... When I got outside the night was foggy and the street lamps glowed through the freezing mist; a black taxi passed with its yellow light blazing, the low purring sound of its diesel engine reassuring…. when I look up from the pavement and see the sparkling lights, I hear the night music; could it be that I am who I always wanted to be, and the city at night belongs to me?

I’m not accustomed to walking the streets of any city at night - it just isn’t part of my life. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am scared of the dark, some of my most vivid memories from childhood and adolescence are of night-time. In the winter on our dairy farm there was always the ritual of ‘the last feed’ – going out to the cubicle sheds where our cows were housed and spreading the contents of three or four bales of hay into the feeding troughs. We would sit there, the four of us and look at each other. ‘Who’s doing the last feed?’ It wasn’t horribly unpleasant but it did involve leaving the fireside, putting on your wellies and coat and making sure your baler-twine-cutting penknife was in the pocket. Then it would be out into the cold. Given that this was West Wales it was usually windy and sometimes wet and those were the nights when nobody wanted to stagger out into the weather. And the cows, being sensible creatures, probably weren’t all that interested in leaving the warm sheds to come and stand in the rain and eat wet hay.
But,occasionally, there were cloudless, moon- or star-lit nights when it was just astonishing to be out, when the cold air felt invigorating after the sleepy fug of the sitting room, when the stars were so clear and bright that a telescope seemed superfluous and fear of the dark irrelevant as there was very little dark to be had.

And these memories, coupled with Kate’s article, remind me that it doesn’t do, as a writer or simply as a human being, to become set in my ways. If I want to grow and develop as a writer I need to feed my imagination and that means doing things which are out of the ordinary run of things, even things that I find a little scary. Because if I don’t keep having new experiences, if I don’t surprise myself, delight myself, scare myself or put myself in situations where I can feel a sense of awe and wonder once in a while, my imagination will atrophy.

I’m not necessarily sure about walking around London at the dead of night – I don’t live there and can’t afford to rent a hotel room for the night just to have somewhere to toddle back to at three thirty in the morning or whenever my body stops being prepared to put one foot in front of another – but doing things which our fearful, risk-averse society would tut and purse its lips about should definitely be on my agenda.

Stop Press: Just got the first of the BBC Radio Kent Writers' Room story threads through. And it's truly wonderful! Pat, in the vague hope that you might be reading this, ten out of ten for imagination - even your outline brought a lump to my throat...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Amazon



OK, I'm never saying anything horrible about Amazon ever again. They've just bundled Testament as a 'Perfect Partner' with Kate Mosse's new book Sepulchre.

Kate Mosse!

O. M. G!

Library Thing

Just a quick post to say that there's a really nice review of Testament here on Library Thing. Sorry, I'm still a bit chuffed about seeing reviews!

Gerard Manley Hopkins... well, he is one of my all-time favourite poets!

The Writers Room

Hmmm. I seem to have allowed myself to be flattered into doing voluntary work for BBC Radio Kent. After my appearance last week whilst still high on adrenalin and therefore probably talking rubbish fairly convincingly, a listener wrote in to Dominic King, the nice presenter I had spoken to, to say wouldn’t it be fun if we all wrote a story together with listeners contributing chapters. Yes, said Dominic, let’s ring Alis and see if she’ll kick it off. And read the chapters. And decide how to make a story out of them.

Well, to cut a long story short, initially, chapters morphed into chunks, for which read ‘a few lines’ and I was going to wade through the one/s which arrived each day and decide which was the best, stick it on the website and wait for more the following day. But that was deemed to be a competition which Radio Kent can’t do.

So I think what we’ve arrived at is that I start the story with a little opener – which I did yesterday on air – then listeners send in suggestions to what Mr King is calling ‘The Writers’ Room’ as to how the story should pan out. I get to read said suggestions and then we go back on air in a month’s time to discuss what fell on to the Writers’ Room cutting floor. And, clearly, what didn’t. Assuming I don’t have to read hundreds of submissions a day (I’m slightly hoping that the people of Kent haven’t been riveted, as a body, by my opener. A few dozen rivets would do me nicely) it could be a lot of fun.

I don’t know if we’re going to end up writing the story as per the top suggestion – that might be too competition-flavoured, I don’t know – but if not, how else could we generate a good finale for the Writers’ Room experiment?

What do you think, commenters and lurkers? If I don’t end up writing a story, will it be a bit of a damp squib, or will it be exciting enough for people to hear their ideas discussed?

I was asked for general pointers, to which I said:

a) decide whether this really is the begining of the story or whether it’s actually describing something near the end, so the whole story is explaining the beginning. Believe it or not, I actually put it better than that but I’m rushing this because I want to get it finished in draft before Messiah part 2.

b) choose a couple of characters and tell the story with your eye on them, don’t try to follow too many people

c) you can only have one plot in a short story. (Is this right, actually? I haven’t really written or read short stories for years, to my shame, except for a selection in one of the Sunday supplements a couple of months ago by tons of famous people which all turned out to be deeply depressing. Mostly about death, as I recall. But anyway, one plot for short stories, yes? Otherwise novella, surely?)

Anything else which I should have told the people of Kent lest they start producing sub-standard ideas?

And, in case anybody’s interested, this was the Kent-themed opener:

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!’

Monday, 21 January 2008

Have you seen the Sunday Mail review of Testament?

My cousin tells my mum and my mum tells me - apparently the Mail on Sunday reviewed Testament yesterday. If anybody out there has a copy of yesterday's Mail on Sunday, or knows how to get a copy ( I think the review was in the Magazine section) could you please let me know?

Huge thanks!

London, love it or hate it?


Apart from the kind of excitement which I wrote about on Saturday, London generally depresses me. I’m not talking about tourist London – the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the leafy parks etc – I’m talking about the streets, even supposedly posh shopping streets, where homeless people and desparate beggars shuffle, eyes averted and inadequate layers pulled around them as they try to get through the day. The kind of streets beyond the glitzy centre where rubbish collects in the gutters, shops are boarded up and where you see people walking the pavements looking blank, as if life has nothing to offer them and they nothing to offer it. Not everybody, of course not, but sufficient numbers of individuals to register on the richter scale of misery.

London – well, possibly any big city – seems to me to dehumanise people. Nobody looks at you, everybody wanders around in their self-protective bubble. If you were – God forbid – to smile at somebody they would undoubtedly think you were mad or at the very least dangerously strange. And don’t even get me started on the effect the tube has on me people.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the country. Maybe it’s the effect of living in a small town from whose centre you can walk into countryside in less than twenty minutes. Maybe I just don’t like crowds. But London depresses me.

Is there any fiction out there which will act as an antidote to my rather bleak view of the metropolis? As I sit here I can’t think of any books I have ever heard about, much less read, which actually celebrate and eulogise city living. Lyrical passages about one’s surroundings and the uplifting effects thereof tend to be confined to descriptions of countryside, at least in my mind and reading experience. Can anybody recommend a book I can read which wholeheartedly and without either ironic or romanticising intent portrays city living in the kind of elegiac way which, for instance, Sue Gee writes about the countryside. Don’t know the work of Sue Gee? Can I urge her books on you? They are truly beautiful. (Some are also gripping – The Last Guests of the Season had me in a sweat of anticipation.) See here for a bit in my books of the year on her The Mysteries of Glass.

Films occasionally manage to aspire to lyricism, though I’m suspicious of the romanticising tendency mentioned above. Notting Hill, for instance, must have done wonders for the estate agents’ business in that part of town, even when people shook the fairy dust out of their eyes and realised that neither Julia Roberts nor Hugh Grant’s lovely bookshop would be there in this quasi-village which just happened to be joined up to one of the biggest metropoli on the planet.

And before anybody says it, I know film-makers romanticise the countryside too. You’ve only got to watch the current BBC version of Lark Rise to Candleford to see how true that is. Lark Rise looks as spit-and-polished as young Freddie’s shoes in last night’s episode, without a puddle or a cowpat anywhere, much less any poverty-stricken children with rickets and chronic upper respiratory tract infections.

So, can anybody help me with a lyrical look at life in a city? Any city will do, though preferably a British one as the only cities whose dehumanising effects I’m familiar with are British and I don’t want the sunniness of disposition of any other nation to muddy the waters of whether it’s possible to be poetic about urban environments. Oh, and the book should preferably be set within the last twenty years. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that pre-Thatcherite British towns were nicer. Not quite sure why, it’s just a feeling.

So, any suggestions for improving reading?

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Fun, Jinks and Cover the Mirrors

Quite a lot of fun and jinks today (Saturday – this is going to be posted late) as the Other Half and I went up to London so I could sign some more stock at Goldsboro Books where the lovely David so kindly hosted Testament’s launch party last week. We also went on a hunt for Testament in local Waterstones and, I’m pleased to say found a stack of five (five!!) in the New Books section of the Piccadilly branch. I did take a picture of it on my phone but I’m having trouble downloading it on to my laptop so you’ll just have to imagine it sitting there, face out, looking at the world in a ‘buy me’ kind of way.
The dear friend who is always trying to get me to read more literary books and her daughter got (by their own admission) a bit over-excited at the sight of multiple copies of Testament in one of the two Canterbury Waterstones and texted me. Conversation with ‘the lovely book man’ revealed that ten had been bought and now only four were left. More texting ensued to relay this information. I would never have dared ask but I’m glad she did....

One of the nice things about going to London is reading on the train and today was no exception as I was looking forward to reading the last third of Faye L. Booth’s Cover the Mirrors in one go, having had to read the first two thirds piecemeal over the last couple of days.

When you read a book set in the Victorian period involving a young woman with ideas above her station, a young man with an eye for the ladies and some powerful – if slightly less than honest – and independent women, you think you know what you’re going to get. The women will be brought low and taught their place, the men will go all dominant and Victorian and break out in thinking only women of loose virtue enjoy sex and the repressive mores of the time will prevail and crush.
And then you read Cover the Mirrors and you realise that all these expectations, nicely set up by Faye at the beginning, are turned on their head and you get precisely nothing that you were led, by previous experience, to expect.

The line on the back cover of the book - ‘Molly was fifteen when she began working with the dead’ - is brilliant and really sucks you in. It’s soon clear that the dead she works with are ‘on the other side’ and she is acting as their spiritual medium. And when I say ‘acting’ I use the word advisedly.
But, although the book has some lovely scenes in the séance room in which an elegant sufficiency of detail deftly moves the action forward, Cover the Mirrors is not primarily about being a medium but about being a woman who wishes to retain her independence and, at the same time, satisfy her sexual desires, in Victorian Preston.

And very nicely done it is too.

It’s hard to say much more without giving too much information away and spoiling the reader’s own journey of discovery through Molly’s seventeenth year but suffice it to say that the young medium’s world is beautifully realised from the courtship-language of flowers to conditions in a cotton mill; from Victorian mourning practices to Preston street life.

I’m looking forward to meeting Faye in Cambridge on Friday so that I can pick her brains about what she’s working on now. From what she says about her writing on her website, I’m assuming it will be Victorian or Edwardian but, whatver it is, on the evidence of Cover the Mirrors it will only set up expectations in order to dump them in the nearest Victorian-style bin.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Happy Official Birthday Testament!


Today is the day Testament is officially published. Hooray! But since the launch was last week and the book has been trickling into the world via Amazon and Waterstones ordering system for at least the last week, it doesn’t feel like a radically different day today.
But, as it is officially the day my baby leaves home, I thought I’d mark the occasion by doing something more than just drivel on as usual here and think about what I’m trying to do in writing. Apart from doing the thing which gives me most satisfaction, pleasure and fulfilment in the world, I mean…

A few days ago, one of my favourite bloggers and writers, Susan Hill, was reflecting on her most recent re-reading of Trollope`s The Last Chronicle of Barset. She had this to say.

But in the end, when it is all sewn up satisfactorily, we realise that the narrative, the plot, has been the least of it. What counts is the depiction of pride, greed, love, vanity, falsity, loyalty, steadfastness and Trollope`s profound understanding of how those motivate men, shape them, make them behave wisely and well or foolishly and rashly, and of how, even so, the redeeming power of love can change them into something better. Without this, the plot would be a romp with some suspense but not much else. But without the PLOT, any delineation of character would be dull in the extreme.’

It's not the Plot, Fri. Jan 11th

Which expresses perfectly why I like books with a strong narrative drive – a lot of plot, in other words – and why I try to create characters who are real, imperfect and searching people. For me, when I’m planning a book, plot – ie story – comes first. I start with an image, an idea, an event and work out from there until the whole story becomes clear. But, as the story begins to unfold in my mind, my characters’ reasons for being there, their hopes and dreams, their fears and fantasies, begin to change the way I see events. Events still loom large – they drive the plot forward and, I hope, keep people wanting to turn the pages – but they take on added significance, resonance if you will, from the themes and motives which drive the characters.
In Testament, for instance, the reader is – if I have done my job properly – keen to see Simon successfully complete Kineton and Dacre college, his masterwork. But by the end of the book we are not just rooting for him to get the college finished for his (and its) own sake, but for reasons which have to do with restoration, forgiveness, redemption and – above all – love.

If books were a matter simply of plot, they would be – certainly could be – very short. Events would be described, people only described in so far as that description bore on events and the resolution would be swift. Books are long because they try to draw the reader in by seeking to make us identify with the characters.

Description of landscape or topography should not just tell us why it’s possible for the hero to remain out of sight of the villains but should contribute to the ‘feel’ of the story. In my opinion, some writers neglect this aspect of the craft and there have been novels too numerous to name where I have skipped over passages of description which are both ill-timed and do not contribute in any way to my understanding of what is going on in the mind of the charactes. It seems to me that our characters’ physical surroundings are only really interesting if we are shown how these people see their surroundings and interact with them. Does beautiful countryside irritate the teenage boy because he’d rather be skateboarding in a concrete bunker; does the hardness of the built environment reflect the hardness of society towards the homeless girl? You get my general drift. If description doesn’t illuminate character it’s just wallpaper and I can get wallpaper by just looking up from my laptop screen, thanks.

So, given all that, it won’t surprise you to know that I was pretty chuffed when the following appeared, last week, in the first review I have ever read of Testament.

‘This is an ambitious first novel by Hawkins, which skilfully bridges two vastly different time periods and recreates interesting characters and settings. Both worlds are fully realised and fascinating in their own right.
My one minor quibble is that towards the end of the book it felt as if there was almost too much action in both time periods and it all got a little hectic. However, I would rather there was a lot going on than find a novel struggling for plot.’

Many thanks to Hannah Gray of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph for making Testament the lead review in the magazine last Saturday (Jan 12th).

And many thanks, on the day when Testament officially heads out on to booksellers’ shelves, to everybody who’s been kind enough to comment on this blog, buy the book and be part of the ongoing story.

It's great to have you along!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Touchy Feely

Yawn…blogging over breakfast (porridge - must make more bread this evening)... not ideal. But off to paid work today so thought I’d get this up now. Went to Oxford yesterday and was reminded – again - why living on the wrong side of the M25 is such a pain – it’s in the way of getting to anywhere which isn’t Kent. It took me 4 hours to do a 2 and a half hour journey on the way there…. Oh. My. Goodness. Thank heavens for Radio 4 - and Classic FM when the going got a bit tough on Mark Porter - was today national have a go at people who haven't signed up for organ donation day? If not, it should have been, because the issue was on pretty much every programme. (I am signed up btw.)

But, sitting on the conveyor belt otherwise laughingly call the London Orbital road was the only unpleasant bit of the day.
I was entertained very nicely by the journalist who interviewed me. Are you supposed to name journalists who interview you? Is there a convention? Will I be contravening some unwritten code if I tell you that her name is Jenny Lunnon and she is an extremely nice person who writes interesting stuff for the Oxford Times, usually about environmental or business matters and sometimes books? I assume not as her articles tend to be online on the OT site even if you don't buy the paper...

Talking to her was really interesting. We spent quite a long time just chatting about Testament, how it came to be, how I came to write it, what research I did and so forth. But she also made me think about the nitty gritty of my writing. She had noticed that there’s a lot of sensory stuff in Testament, particularly focusing on the sense of touch and tactile elements. Did all that come automatically, she wanted to know? I must confess, I had to think hard. And I came to the conclusion that sometimes it did come automatically – that it was there on the very first take of the very first draft - and that sometimes I went back over a scene and fleshed it out with more sensory stuff.
Reflecting on the way I construct my scenes, I came up with the thought that it’s a bit like the way a theatre director works – he blocks in all the moves first and then gradually, working with the actors (read characters) he perfects the scene – the dialogue, the emotions, the overtones and undertones firmly in place casting light and shadow on the events.

I must confess to being really pleased that the sensory aspects of Testament came over so well. After all, as a mason and a carpenter, both Simon and Gwyneth are people who work with their hands; they would, of necessity, be thinking about the feel of their materials beneath their fingers. But that sounds as if I thought about that very consciously – manual workers = must put lots of fingertip stuff in – and it wasn’t like that at all. I would hope that it’s just a case of getting inside the skin of the character and seeing the world through their eyes. I’m certainly having to do that more consciously in the work in progress as one of my characters is profoundly deaf and the world is very different when you can’t hear anything, whether it’s people talking to you or the wind in the grass.

I know I enoy books more if I can see the characters’ world not only through their thoughts and actions but through their senses too. I think perhaps that explains why I particularly like the novelists I do – Joanne Harris, Tracy Chevalier, Sue Gee – they can all be relied on to give you a multi-sensory kaleidoscope of impression.

What do other readers and writers think? Is this important to other people too or am I particularly touchy-feely?

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Sign, Line and Date

I'm going to Oxford tomorrow to talk to a journalist from the Oxford Times and then to see an old friend, so I’m posting tomorrow’s blog now.

One of the many things I have had to get to grips with since being proto-published is ‘lines’. Not lines as in ‘Hawkins, write out a million times ‘I am an arrogant poser’, lines as in ‘sign, line and date’. When you sign a book, these days, especially a first edition, it’s apparently not enough just to produce some illegibile scrawl of a doctor’s signature which could read ‘budgie seed’ or ‘buy a cincilla’ for all anybody knows, you have to write your name, the date and then a line from the book.

When I was signing copies of Testament at Goldsboro Books on launch night I decided that the whole ‘line’ thing could become rather time-consuming over tens of books, so I followed the Other Half’s advice and used the ‘equation’ logo which one of the students comes up with in Testament for the Fairings team - ‘x4&c/Toby’. I’m sorry, you just have to imagine that ‘Toby’ sits beneath a line, and ‘x4&c’ above, like a fraction, I don’t know how to make that work in the Blogger composition pane. The meaning of the ‘equation’ only becomes clear if you’ve read the book and I note that one bookseller who was at Goldsboro books buying signed and lined editions is making a virtue out of this.

Anyway, the whole issue of lines, my appearance on Facebook and whether Amazon really does only have 3 copies of Testament left were being discussed at supper tonight. (Sorry, the utter novelty of all this hasn’t worn off yet so you’re just going to have to put up with it.) The Bassist, as is his wont, came up with a corker of a suggestion. ‘Why don’t you’ he said, ‘start doing lines which work steadily through the book, a sentence at a time, then you could have a Facebook Group called ‘Which Testament line have you Got?’
Well, ok, it probably wasn’t as coherent as that, but that was the general gist. And if you wanted cult status, what a brilliant idea! In fact, I shouldn’t even be putting this out here as an idea because somebody with a more obviously ‘cult’ book will steal it and it won’t work for me any more. But what if it worked and people really did want to buy the book and get it signed so that they had a place in the sequence?

Scuse me, I’m just off to count the number of sentences in Testament…

Ola!

Breaking news - the PanMacmillan rights manager has just emailed to say that Spanish rights to Testament have just been bought by Editorial ViaMagna. They have no publication schedule but it should be available in Spanish sometime in 2009. Spanish! I mean, a lot of people in the world speak Spanish...

Then another email arrived to let me know who is going to translate Testament into German. (German rights to Testament were bought back in the Autumn by Goldmann Verlag so I haven't blogged about it.) The translator's name is Sibylle Schmidt and she is the German voice of Sara Paretsky, Mo Hayder and Alice Hoffman!

OK, I am officially gobsmacked.

The Thirteenth Tale



I’m coming to the end of the second book in a row recommended by my Croatian friend (scroll down and you’ll see The Steep Approach to Iain Banks, also about her recommendations) – this one is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield [fab website, btw]. Not a promising cover (right) – don’t take this the wrong way, people on the other side of the Pond, but it has a US look – a kind of New England-y feel about it, which is very misleading. It is set very, very firmly in England. In fact, you feel it could only really take place in Blighty with its mad, degenerate and inbred sub-aristos, blindly loyal old retainers and banks and banks of fog, not to mention Other Important Weather.
The hardback cover (left) was far more in keeping with the whole tone of the book.

When I wrote here about the Lollipop Shoes before Christmas I remarked on its feel of timelessness. It’s a clever trick, this one of not confining a story to a particular year, or even a decade, and Diane Setterfield has pulled it off even more completely. It’s impossible to say when Margaret Lea is conducting her investigations into the March family and writing the biography of the reclusive Vida Winter. She travels around by train, there are cars and phones and cameras but that doesn’t help us much. She could be conducting her researches any time between the end of the first world war and the present day.
The narrator herself floats in a jar of the same kind of timelessness. She speaks about her childhood frequently but we have no idea how long ago this childhood took place. Both her parents are still alive but, given that they could be anywhere from their forties to their seventies or eighties, Margaret could be anywhere from mid twenties to mid fifties. She has the air of a young woman but then she is – by her own admission – inexperienced in dealing with people and the real world. She is only really happy with books.

And that’s really the point. Where we are in time isn’t what the book is about, though the somewhat gothic events it portrays would be incredible any time after the Second world War. It isn’t a social commentary, it’s a ‘peering through the mists of time’ kind of story; and, in the peering, we are watching one woman – Margaret - discover how another woman – Vida – has invented (read written) her own life. Because this is a book about books and about telling stories. About the importance of what is told and what is left unsaid, about the importance, as Vida Winter herself would say, of having ‘a beginning, a middle and an end.’ Since this is pretty much my philosophy on books, I was pretty much destined to like this one.

Vida Winter is a cult figure but, such are the lengths she has gone to to re-invent her own past, inventing a new biography for every interviewer, that her beginning is utterly lost. Now she is at her end and she wishes to put that right. But her beginning is also the beginning of her twin and it is in this discovery of twin-ness that Margaret Lea – a twin separated at birth from a dead sister – becomes hooked. Her own story, the secrets which were kept from her, becomes the prism through which she sees Vida’s story and this is nearly her undoing, because Vida’s story is almost totally unlike her own.

Though they are very different books, The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, because of the twin element. In that book, though, it’s not so much the separated twins who feel that something is lost but the mother who thinks that one of her twins died at birth, not knowing that she was taken away and fostered (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, it says as much on the back of the jacket!) However, the feeling that everything changes once people keep secrets – and, even more once those secrets are revealed – is one the books share. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is more rooted in time and place, it’s more ‘realistic’ in an everyday detail sense but it explores the same main theme as The Thirteenth Tale. Can we live just with what we know, or are we incomplete until we know the truth?

Monday, 14 January 2008

Amazon steals a march...

Well here's a thing. Amazon is offering Testament now - in fact by Tuesday 15th - ie tomorrow - if you order within the next four hours! Since official publication date is the 18th, I must admit to being slightly startled. Does anybody know whether Amazon routinely offer books before official publication, or is this because the original publication date (4th Jan) slipped back a couple of weeks and they've got copies early?

Whilst I'd generally recommend supporting your local bookshop, if you're desperate to read Testament before your mates, Amazon's your friend today!

Facebook and Me

In the very first blog I posted on this site, I complained that I had no idea, when my first novel was accepted by Macmillan New Writing, that it would involve me in enaging with the internet. But, now, I have a blog which is 76 posts old, a website and as of Friday – thanks to Simon Key over at the Open a Bookshop…blog - I am on Facebook. Oh yes. Forty five years old and I’m on a social networking site for teenagers. The Ultimate Frisbee Freak (17) is on but The Bassist (16) despises it and says it’s for wannabees and people without enough friends in the real world.

He may have a point…though he doesn’t exactly eschew MSN.

I have to tell you, I would not have joined if not encouraged to do so by this from Simon:

We'll also be using the site to advertise offers, discuss books, ask peoples opinions on bookshop stuff (I cant work out where the apostrophe should go in peoples, so I've left it out), and also have exclusive facebook book offers which are only available to the facebook members. It can also be an advertising post for people who want to let the world know about a favourite book or their own book!

What publicity-hungry author could resist that? After all, that’s why I’m here in the blogosphere, isn’t it? I’m not so self-obsessed that I think people would want to read about me unless I’d done something interesting. Let’s face, it, most of the cyber-world isn’t interested despite my doing something fairly interesing, ie writing a published novel.

A lot of the people I know who are under 30 – maybe 35 – are on My Space, Bebo or Facebook; possibly all three. People over that age (and contrarians like the Bassist) don’t sign up for social networking, they concentrate their internet attention on email, websites and blogs. There seems to be a digital divide between those of us who think that bite-sized is best and those of us who think that more words are necessarily better. People who have Facebook pages seem (on my minimal acquaintance) to let the photographs, music and video clips which they post speak for them, along with what they and others write on their ‘wall’, instead of overwhelming visitors with screeds of words. Whereas bloggers… well, we are clearly convinced that more equals better. Is it related, I wonder, to the way we were all taught and – more specifically – examined? Most of the exams I remember were essay-based. Make your case in not less than 500words. Persuade me with your loquaciousness. Nowadays, exams are more various and examinees are as likely to be asked to condense what they know into a pithy sentence as to expound it over several pages.

So what am I going to do with my Facebook page? That question presupposes that I'm up to speed with what I could do which, until the UFF and the B return from their Dad's later today, is far from being the case. But i suspect the answer, anyway, will be 'not a lot. The UFF and friends of both the boys of whom I’m fond have started to pop up in my inbox asking if they can be my friends on the site, which I am delighted by, and the UFF threatens to commit occasional cyber-terrorism on my Facebook ‘wall’ but more than that, I’m not sure about, as yet.

I really only joined so that I could be part of the A Decent Bookshop In Wood Green (revisited) group, support Simon and Tim in their very laudable venture and get access to all those people to tell them about Testament!

And I really can't be doing with something else to occupy all my writing time...

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Steep Approach to Iain Banks


It has been noted – mostly by me when I come to answer those ‘who do you like reading?’ questions – that most of the writers whose every word I more or less hang on are women.
Fortunately, one of my friends has more wide-ranging tastes and she is constantly thrusting books under my nose and saying ‘Here, you’ll like this.’ Since one of her aims in life (why?!) is to get me to read more literary fiction, this assurance often fails to ring true. I keep trying to tell her that, in recommending books by the likes of Orhan Pamuk and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she’s on a losing wicket but she’s Croatian so fails to grasp what I’m metaphorically on about. Or at least, she ignores me and continues to sigh theatrically and ‘tsk’ as only the Eastern Europeans can and leave Orange prizewinners lying casually around on our dining room table. She curls a lip at my plaintive cries of ‘when do we get to the story?’, ‘it’s so depressing’ and - my personal favourite ‘but it’s page 63 and I wouldn’t care if all the people in the book were taken out by a man with an AK47…’ and says ‘You went to Oxford, don’t tell me you don’t understand what they mean.’
When I try to assure her that I do know what they mean I just don’t like it she looks at me darkly and mutters something in Croatian about mice and mothers. (Not good I’m assured.)

Anyway, all that is a preamble to saying that I have actually read and enjoyed one of the books she recently intimated that I might not wholly hate. Iain Bank’s The Steep Approach to Garbadale is great. I really liked it. Not only the narrative, which (though I’m sure it’s elsewhere described as a bildungsroman) is basically an extremely long shaggy dog story as we keep going off on two or three temporal tangents as we may metaphorically approach but in reality continually fail to start off towards Garbadale, but also the language and Banks’s style. I’ve decided I’m missing something in not reading more male writers. There’s something profoundly masculine about the way in which Banks constructs narrative prose; his words are frequently strung together with the kind of innocent playfulness which the best kind of men never lose as they grow up. And he can be extremely funny. I laughed out loud a several times and read bits out loud to the Other Half, a sure-fire sign of genuine amusement and appreciation for a well-turned phrase

The fact that I guessed the family secret at the heart of the book way before it was actually revealed did not in any way detract from how much I liked TSATG. It was full of wonderfully observed passages (Alban and Sophie’s teenage love affair is so gut-wrenchingly real you think you are fifteen again) and characters whom you felt you knew deeply after only a page (if there is ever a film of TSATG then David Mitchell must play Alban’s cousin Haydn who, when talking about sex says ‘I find women quite attractive in a theoretical sort of way. They’re smaller, more efficient, better packaged. I just don’t have any overwhelming desire to penetrate them with any part of my own body.’)

In fact my only criticism – more of a query really – is why Iain Banks felt it necessary to have a first person narrator who makes precisely two appearances in role – one on page 5 and the other on page 389 (in a book of 390 pages). This person is Tango and it is his council flat in which Fielding, Alban’s cousin, finds him at the beginning of the book. On the book's last two pages, Tango describes both his own current living arrangements and Alban’s which are rather different. If he is there to show us what a good bloke Alban is, how different he is from the rest of his family, then Iain Banks should have had more faith in himself, because that comes over more than adequately in the rest of the book.

But this is a minor quibble about a book which I enjoyed very much and which will make me go back and read all the Iain Banks back-catalogue. But not Iain M. Banks, the novelist’s sci-fi alter ego. I’m not into sci-fi. I leave that to the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Other Half.

Friday, 11 January 2008

The Launch Party

So, the launch party. It was amazing. I shall be processing it all for weeks because there wasn’t time during it to stop and think about what was happening, it was just necessary to react.
As predicted I did weep – not just once but several times – during the speech I made but nobody seemed to mind. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to and all that. One of my friends made a short, wholly unexpected and very moving speech about what being involved with the evolution of Testament had meant to him and his wife and I cried some more. Ho hum.

But millions of thanks to all the friends and family who turned out on a horrible evening to make it one of the most memorable occasions of my life. I felt entirely surrounded by love and good wishes and that is a wonderful place to be.

Thanks also to Will, my editor and Sophie, Macmillan New Writing's publicist, for all their hard work and willingness to talk all evening to people they’ve never met before and, in all likelihood, will never meet again. I really appreciated your help and support guys. Thank you.

Thanks also to Simon of the Big Green Bookshop and his other half, Katie, for coming and proving that bloggers can meet in real life and not explode in a puff of html code!

But the biggest thanks must go to David and Daniel at Goldsboro Books who put on such a fantastic party and made me and all my guests so welcome. If you love books and can get on a train (or if you live in London) you have to go to Goldsboro – it’s like a jeweller’s shop where all the jewels are books. And where the people selling the books aren't snooty like expensive jewellers can be but, instead, share your enthusiasm for books and want you to have them not just to make them some more money but because they know how these books will enrich your life.
Each book at Goldsboro is wrapped in protective plastic film to keep it pristine and this has the effect of making each book shine slightly just like a jewel or semi-precious stone. I arrived early so that, before I started signing stock, I could just browse (we don’t have an independent bookshop in Canterbury and I needed a fix). This was nearly extremely bad for our bank balance but I tried to keep my hands in my pockets and just look. In the event, I confined myself to buying books by my fellow MNW authors Faye L Booth and David Isaak. Going to need yet another bookshelf soon to join the one we put up recently, I can tell…

I was probably still high on adrenalin and excitement when I did an interview with BBC Radio Kent this lunchtime. It all seemed to go amazingly well considering that I’ve never been on the radio before, and that it’s a rather strange experience sitting in a little soundproof room on the local university campus talking into a microphone to somebody you can’t see and hearing what they’re saying to you (and that section of the people of Kent who listen to the station) via headphones. A slightly surreal way to conduct a conversation which is being overheard by thousands but peculiarly enjoyable, none the less.
[If, improbably as it may seem, you are interested in hearing this effort, go to the link above, click on the listen again button and go to the Dominic King show for 11th Jan. I was on either side of 12 noon.]

Anyway, huge thanks to all who made the launch such a success and who bought the book in such quantities that I’m going to have to go back to Goldsboro and sign some more to fill their existing orders!

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Launch jitters

I must be mad thinking I could get anything useful done on the work in progress when my head is full of Testament and the launch. Though I did physically sit down yesterday and try to get on with the current chapter, it was like trying to listen to conversations in the spectators’ seats from the bottom of the swimming pool. I just couldn’t hear my characters at all, when I tried to get close to them they seemed like people I’d once known quite well but whom I’d lost touch with. There was a barrier between us and its name was Preoccupation.

So in the end I gave up and went to get my hair cut for the party. Today, I’m working (as in not writing) so hopefully I’ll be able to concentrate on things other than the launch, although as most people from work are coming to the party it’s unlikely to be a completely launch-fever-free zone.

The local press in various areas which have been local to me through my life are starting to show interest. The interview which I quoted here for the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser has now been transformed into an article and is in this week’s edition of the paper. My mum, at least, is very excited! I’ve done telephone interviews for two local newspapers so the people of Kent have the potential be heartily sick of me by this time next week. And, next week, I’m going to Oxford to see friends, but also to talk to a journalist from the Oxford Mail about Testament which will be fun.

Before Thursday evening I have an important decision to make. I have to choose a couple of pages of Testament to read at the party. They need to neatly encapsulate the themes of the book, be self-contained and, if possible, generate the odd laugh from the assembled well-wishers. Oh, and not include spoilers of any kind. Quite a tall order, I’m finding.

I also need to make a short, witty, moving speech in which I thank all the relevant people for getting the book to this stage. Given the gestation period of Testament, that may take some time. I don’t like writing notes for speeches but I know that I’m probably going to lie awake for hours tonight going through the main things I want to say. And then, when it comes to it, I’ll probably forget it all in the emotion of the moment.
Frankly I shall be pleased if I get through without actually weeping!

Probably won’t get a post up tomorrow for obvious reasons. By the way, after mentioning problems with the email feed from my website the other day, we’ve now simplified things a lot so it’s now possible to email me from the Contact page. Just in case you wanted to know!

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Big Green Bookshop Milestone

Just had to pop on here again today to say many congratulations to Simon and Tim over on Open a Bookshop what Could Possibly Go Wrong? on reaching their 100th blog. Their celebratory post is really funny, well worth a read.

Launch worries

For a week or so now people have been asking me whether I’m excited about Testament’s launch on Thursday. And, though I have been getting excited, I’ve also been worrying. Worrying that the contingent from Canterbury, who are coming up on a small coach, won’t get there early enough to enjoy the party; worrying that people coming from elsewhere will decide not to come after all and there won’t be anybody there at all until after 7 o’clock; worrying that I’ll disappoint people when they ask me to ‘write something for me’ in the copies of the book that they’ve bought; worrying that we won’t be able to find somewhere for people to eat before we go home… and so on.

But then, yesterday, I spoke to the lovely David at Goldsboro books. None of the above worries went away – except that he did say that Sophie, the publicist at Macmillan New Writing has quite a few people coming - but he was so positive about Testament that it was hard not to think that the launch is going to be fun. Goldsboro books are fantastic supporters of MNW, so the front window is full of copies of Testament and David, who has actually read it, says he's been recommending it to people which would explain why it’s already sold well over a hundred copies in pre-orders. I am gobsmacked. And delighted, of course, but gobsmacked is the primary emotion.Over a hundred people who don’t know me have decided that they want to read Testament and have ordered it.
Of course the whole point of writing and publishing novels is to sell them so that people can read them but – prior to publication - it takes the self-belief of an ego-maniac to really believe that people wholly unconnected with you are going to buy what you have written. So, I am immensely encouraged and not a little bit thrilled by these pre-orders. Granted, they're not going to make me rich, but that was never the point.

The other encouraging thing that happened yesterday was that Simon Key told the world, on the Open a Bookshop What Could Possibly Go Wrong blog that he’s coming to the launch. I am significantly chuffed to be having a bookseller coming. OK, I did shamelessly invite him because I really like what they’re trying to do in Wood Green and I love the blog which he and his partner-in-books Tim write but still…

So, L-day minus two. Tomorrow I am working and my parents arrive so today’s the last writing day until next week as various family are staying over on Friday and into the weekend. Today will be interspersed with vacuuming, bed-making, and sorting out Sainsbury’s but I’m hopeful that the current chapter will at least assume some kind of shape before all that happens or in bits between it happening, if you know what I mean.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Excitement of Testament on the net

A friend has just told me that you can see the whole of the first chapter of Testament on the Macmillan New Writing site. Click on this link if you'd like to see it. Added to the fact that you can read the Prologue on my website here, you can get a pretty good flavour of Testament free!

I think I'll have to put up a link to chapter 2 somewhere so people can get a flavour of the twenty-first century strand of the book as well.
What do you think - good idea?

Workspace


Sorry for the dearth of posts over the weekend – our internet connection has been down and we’ve only just got it back. I cannot believe how internet-dependent we have all proved to be – kept saying to each other ‘I’ll just check that’ and reaching for the laptop only to realise, in a crestfallen manner, that online checking was not available. And, apart from the dictionary and an ageing encyclopaedia we have no other checks to make.
Anyway, back now, so here’s Saturday’s delayed post.

David Isaak commented on Friday’s post that he couldn’t possibly write in public and that got me wondering about how much the place where we write affects our work.
One of the weekend papers had a series last year called ‘where I work’ or ‘my study’ or some such thing. You can see how bad my memory is – can’t recall either the publication or the title. I can’t remember any of the writers whose work-spaces were featured either but that’s not the point, the point is that they all had a dedicated space in which they did their stuff.

But when I read what the likes of Joanne Harris have to say about catching time to write in airports, on trains, planes and in waiting rooms, I begin to wonder whether necessity forces us to be more flexible. When on a book tour, maybe work on the next novel has to take place under less than ideal conditions. Joanne Harris says she has a study in her new house which is something she’s never had before, but it seems to me that she worked very well without such a luxury.

I once heard (though not from her own mouth, therefore not v. reliable information) that Libby Purves writes all her novels sitting in bed with her dressing gown on. I couldn’t do that. To me being in bed during daylight hours smacks of being unwell and that wouldn’t be a good place at all from which to work.

I know PG Wodehouse used to do a lot of his writing in the garden. No screens to keep the glare off then, obviously, just paper in the typewriter. And, now I come to think of it, it always seems to be summer in his books…

And perhaps that’s it. Perhaps what we all need, wherever we choose (or are forced) to write is somewhere which enables us to tap into that place inside our heads where our alternative worlds play out, where we can see our characters, hear them and understand not only what they’re doing but why they’re doing it. Stephen King recommends putting your desk against a blank wall to remind yourself that what you’re doing is not part of the everyday world around you, that you’re entering an alternative universe.

Clearly, that works for him. But, for me, I get stuck in a rut too easily. Words don’t always just pour out, I have to work hard at finding them, at mind-melding with my characters, at feeling my way into the world I’m writing about. If the kitchen has become somewhere where that process has ground to a halt, then I’ll try the living room, or (at least on dull days – I do need to be able to see the screen) the glass-roofed space which we, somewhat inaccurately, call the conservatory. OK, tea-making apparatus isn’t so close at hand but one has to make sacrifices. The final draft of Testament was mostly written in a regular peregrination from conservatory to living room with occasional diversions to a friend’s house when things had really frozen up and I needed to be somewhere with no connotations of failure to engage.

The current work in progress is taking place largely in the kitchen and, as mentioned on Friday, in my favourite coffee shop whose ladies loo, by the way, has the most unexpected view of Canterbury cathedral’s west towers (not the one in the picture above) over a higgledy-piggledy Kent peg-tile roofscape. I love red tiled roofs, especially ancient ones which sag onto their rafters and have a patina of lichens and acreted debris not unconnected with environmental pollution. But I digress. This coffee shop also offers free wireless internet access, so it’s also possible to sit there and do research, though I’ve never yet tried to post a blog from there. That just feels – at least as yet – like something I do from home.

What do all you other writers out there think? Does where you write influence your thought processes? I know some people simply cannot write at home - any other foibles of that sort out there?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Writing again

When the four walls of the kitchen - my usual writing space - begin to close in on me and I feel stale and uninspired, I often take my laptop into town and sit in my favourite Canterbury coffee shop to write.
I always work upstairs where it’s light and bright and where, if I’m lucky, I’ll get the table by the window from which I can watch people scurrying about on the crossroads below.

I really had to get into town today and get some work done. I’ve done nothing serious on the work in progress for nearly a fortnight and I’m beginning to be very wound up by that. Add to that the fact that it’s mid-winter and, as I blogged about before, I have Seasonal Affective Disorder which is aproximately the opposite of a life-enhancing experience. Keep adding things like the fact that Christmas is over and paid work kicked in again yesterday; like the fact that the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bass Player are not yet back at school and - though they don’t deliberately disturb me - their simple presence in the house makes me unable to shut the real world out and enter the world of my book (where it’s blazing summer) and I have not been a happy bunny at all. The Other Half described me as 'floppy'. She was being kind; what I was was unresponsive and morose. I had stopped making eye-contact (always a bad sign) and had begun to form an automatically negative response to any suggestions made to me.
Aliya Whiteley (of whom more below) also has these non-writing difficulties, as she admitted on the MNW blog here.

Why can I work in a coffee shop full of people when I can’t work in my own home? Don’t ask me. Clearly it’s not an absence of other people which I need, but an absence of people who have a right to expect something from me; I can’t switch off properly if somebody might want me for something at any moment. Not that they usually do, you understand, they’re pretty self-sufficient at their age, but they might. I suppose it’s just hard to switch off being Mum.

And, I’m happy to tell you, the coffee shop produced the goods. A nice spider-planned page of pencilled notes and 1,346 words produced on screen. Result. Two mugs of tea consumed and only two other people upstairs whose conversations I had to ignore. Sometimes, when I’m mulling things over, ignoring conversations is far from what I'm doing as I convince myself that listening in to snippets of other people’s chat is ‘research’...

Writerly fact - a laptop is a fantastic thing to hide behind when you’re eavesdropping.

Now that I’m home I’m catching up with emails and suddenly there’s a whole rash of publication-related ones to deal with. This is novel and therefore pleasurable. I’m sure that – like others who have gone through the being-published thing ahead of me – I will soon find it an irritating interruption to work.
I’m doing an event with Faye (L.Booth) and Aliya (Whiteley), two of my fellow-MNW authors in Cambridge on the 25th January. We’re meeting the Heffers’ reading group and doing a bit of book-signing. The three of us are getting together for coffee beforehand so that instead of trying to get to know each other and be interested in other people at the same time, we can introduce ourselves to one another and then speak sensibly to the kind readers who've come to meet us. It should be cool, I’ve been getting to know Faye and Aliya a little bit from their respective blogs and am pleased that I’m going to be able to do it for real, too.

Then there was an email from Sophie, the lovely publicist at MNW, wanting to know if I was planning to go to Oxford any time soon as the Oxford Mail are keen to do an interview and would prefer ‘in person’ to ‘on the phone’. As a) I’m always game for a trip to Oxford which I love and where I have great friends and b) I hate speaking to people I don’t know on the telephone as I’m prone to say rash things because I’m getting no facial-expression feedback, I’m inclined to foist myself on the said friends for the day and go up. But what fun, anyway, that the Oxford Mail is interested in me and Testament!

Then there was an email to be written to Steve who designed my website as we try, yet again, to sort out the non-existent email feed from the site. Apologies to anybody out there who has tried to send me an email from http://www.alishawkins.com/ – for reasons Steve can’t fathom things just don’t seem to be making it through. Hopefully the situation will be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, you can always leave a comment here.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Fiction and Reality


Should art reflect life? If so, how? Discuss.

Hmmm. This all stems from yesterday’s blog about What Came Before He Shot Her, a book which is proving not just to reflect life but to describe it in all the seedy, hopeless reality which some people are unfortunate enough to endure.

My books don’t do that. Early on in my writing career I was told that my writing wasn’t edgy enough, that it didn’t have enough ‘bite’. Well, good. Because - each to their own - I don’t particularly like reading edgy, gritty fiction so why would I want to write it?

On the other hand, I don’t like candyfloss confections full of silly people doing and saying things that nobody would dream of doing or saying in real life either. Nor am I enthusiastic about books full of impossibly, ruggedly handsome men with piercing blue/startlingly green/melting brown eyes who do derring until they should drop dead with effort/exhaustion/punishment meted out to them by the bad guys but don’t. See, I do like a bit of reality in my books.

I suppose the question is, whose reality?

See, reality as I live it isn’t particularly edgy (though, I must admit, I may have been on the edge at certain points along the line and in danger of dropping off, if I’m honest) and if it has bite then it’s the bite of life relished rather than the savage teeth of fortune. I suppose, if I had to categorise what I do, my novels are about fairly ordinary people getting caught up in events which become more and more extraordinary until the ordinary people have found the extraordinary within themselves. Extraordinary in this context may be good or bad, but they are different people at the end than they were at the beginning and it’s the unfolding story which has effected the change. I’m fascinated by how living through stuff can transform people. Not walking away when the gauntlet of circumstance is thrown down changes you – it’s bound to, you have to discover reserves in yourself to deal with things that you never anticipated dealing with. They say that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Well, people do die in my books but others are made stronger.

One of my previous, unpublished, novels is about a homeless teenager who accuses a vicar of paying her for sex. Whilst I was writing it, I was doing a lot of voluntary work at a charity for homeless people so life on the streets was something I had a lot of horse's-mouth information on. I knew a lot about how people forced to sleep rough survive in a provincial town and how those who are lucky enough to have a roof over their head treat those who do not. So, the book should/could have been gritty. But the more I got under the skin of my homeless characters the more I became fascinated by them, by their backstory and what drove their reaction to finding themselves on the streets. Gritty details about everyday life without a bed, a front door, a washing machine did make their way into the book here and there - there were aspects of the characters’ lives which were authentically unpleasant - but I could not allow them to sink beneath the weight of their circumstances because, then, the book would be depressing and I have no more desire to write depressing books than I have to read them.

So - I can hear the accusation coming - you write feel-good fiction then, do you?

Possibly.
If feel-good means that the reader is not cast into a slough of despond by what happens to people at the end of the final page but hasbeen given some reason to hope for the characters' future, then yes, I write feel-good books. If feel-good means pages full of shiny, happy people to whom nothing really unpleasant or challenging ever happens, devoted families smiling through their scrubbed-pink lives, then no, I do not write feel-good books.

As I said yesterday, in What Came Before He Shot Her there is every reason for the characters to feel that life’s a bitch and then you die. In my books life may be a bitch but - given that my stories aren’t so gritty that their characters begin the narrative without hope for themselves or the future – in response to the bitchiness you grab it by the throat and bend it to your will with all the strength and low cunning you can muster. And then you - and the reader - watch what happens.

That’s what I do.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Crime Fiction and Reality


I have mentioned here before that I am a fan of the crime novel. In particular I am a fan of crime novels which are more about people and why crimes are committed than about the simple solving of a puzzle. In other words I like ‘whydunnits’ more than ‘whodunnits’. In fact, I don’t think I’m a particular fan of whodunnits at all.

Elizabeth George – an American writer who bases her books in England - is the creator of the Inspector Lynley novels which have now come to the TV with Nathaniel Parker as the 8th Earl of Asherton, aka Lynley.

I should just say that if you’re a fan of Lynley but haven’t yet read With No One as Witness, the rest of this contains massive spoilers so you might want to go away at this point and come back tomorrow…

I am currently reading the rather intriguingly titled What Came Before He Shot Her which sounds like a working title which hung on in there to me. In terms of plot, though not in writing order, it is the prequel to With No One as Witness in which Helen, Lynley’s wife, is killed in what is, apparently, a random and senseless shooting. A deus ex machina pops up and bang! Helen and their unborn child are fighting – ultimately unsuccessfully – for their lives on a life support machine.

Having read Susan George’s explanation for this death (which caused a certain amount of consternation amongst her fans, I gather, though not to me as I’ve never liked Helen) it was the aftermath of the death which she was interested in and not the reasons why this apparently random shooting happened. Having said that, she goes on to say that Joel, the twelve-year old central character of What Came Before He Shot Her, did originally feature in With NO One as Witness but that she had to cut his part of the plot out as it was taking over and making the book unfeasibly long. The focus of WNOAW is Lynley’s reaction to his wife’s death, not the reasons for it. The reasons are given to us in WCBHSH.

WCBHSH is not a murder mystery. I’m only a third of the way through but I’m guessing that Helen’s shooting is going to come near the end of the book, with the bulk of the book leading inexorably to it. WCBHSH already has the feel of a tragedy – Joel is going to bring this on his head because of the interplay of circumstances beyond his control and his own highly likeable personality.

OK, when I say that WCBHSH is not a murder mystery, I’m not entirely making myself clear. It’s not remotely like that genre. In fact, if it wasn’t so intimately linked, via plot, to WNOAW it would probably be described as something like 'a grimly realistic portrait of life at the bottom end of black London amongst gangs of adolescents without hope or future, and the guns, drugs and all pervasive sex with which they fill their lives'. If Susan Geroge hadn’t written it – and to be honest, without the link to WNOAW – I probably wouldn’t have bought it. But I’m so glad I did. It’s not that I think there’s going to be a happy ending for Joel or his siblings, far from it, but the world into which Susan George takes us is so vividly realised, the characters are so clearly real people and not charicatures, their motives are so horribly believable, that I am gripped by what is happening and not just by a desire to reach some final resolution.

But, all those plaudits aside, it’s also a profoundly depressing book. Because the world which Susan George writes about is not a fictional world. This is no dystopian alternative reality, this is the reality to which tens of thousands of people in impoverished, drug-ridden inner city Britain wake up every day. And the reader is left wondering not why the crimes portrayed are committed – that’s all too horribly apparent – but what could possibly be done about such a situation. Children are neglected, adolescents feral, adults hopeless and powerless. The Lynleys of the world cannot help, they can only arrest, incarcerate and despise those who commit the crimes of which this book is full. And that’s why we need books like this because, as it says on the back of WCBHSH, there was more than one victim in the murder of Helen Clyde. And it’s the victims out there who are committing the crimes.

If everything in your childhood has taught you that life’s a bitch and then you die, why woudn’t you take what you want however you can get it and damn whoever gets in your way? The question this book poses – at least to me – is not how do we stop these childhood victims committing crime but how do we stop them becoming victims in the first place?

I’ll leave Susan George the final word on the brutality and hopelessness in WCBHSH and Joel’s attempts to redeem what he can for his family.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that happens in our world, and from the beginning of my career, I have wanted my novels to reflect our world.

And I ask myself, how much is that what I want my novels to do?
Expect a glimmering of an answer here tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Looking forward, looking back.


So 2008 dawns and, as well as looking forward, I find myself looking back to see what’s changed since the beginning of 2007.

Last New Year I was what I had been for – seemingly – all my adult life, a wannabe published author. The typescript of Testament was out there in publsher-land waiting for a decision but I had no idea when or whether I would get any kind of positive response. Previous experience had led me not to be hopeful.
I was a self-employed Speech and Language Therapist working three days a week in primary and secondary schools and writing like mad on the other two days, getting more and more frustrated at my inability to sustain any kind of presence in my fictional world when I wasn’t able to write. Each week, half my writing time seemed to be spent in getting back to the point where I’d left the story and only the other half in moving it forward.

But, this New Year, I am days away from being a published author. I have edited, proof-read and drooled over the first copies of my book. I have reduced my non-writing work to a day’s consultancy every week during term time. German translation rights to Testament have been bought in a pre-emptive move by Springer Verlag. Macmillan New Writing have already taken the decision to release the book as a mass-market paperback sometime at the end of this year or the beginning of next. Now, people who have never met me have begun reading Testament and publicity material is being written by me and others to appear in everything from our parish magazine, through my college’s old members' newsletter to my erstwhile local paper in West Wales. (Not to mention the Macmillan New Writers blog, here!) In less than two weeks time, the book will be launched. Just over another week after that, any bookseller who has bought it will have it on the shelves. It’s happened, I am a published author. I have had a year to get used to the idea and I’m still going weak at the knees at the thought that it has All Actually Happened.

One of my fellow MNW authors wrote a piece recently on his experience of being published. You can read it here. It’s not been an altogether happy story for him, which is sad. I think my own story is going to be rather different because I don't share his expectations. I have always wanted to be published, not to make my fortune or make me desirable, but as a vindication and a validation of how I spend my time; of what, in effect, makes me me.
Fundamentally, what has happened is that somebody who has no vested interest in my happiness thinks that what I write is good enough to pay for. That, for me at least, is sufficient justification to carry on writing. Because, whatever we all say, we don’t just write because we have to, we write with the anticipation of publication, of connecting with an audience. Every now and again, in the long years when I was learning how to write, I would ask myself whether I would go on doing it if I knew for sure that I would never be published. And the answer was no. Because nobody wants to waste their life doing something they’re simply not very good at, however much they feel in the depths of their being that this is what they were meant to do.


Writing novels is not like other forms of self-expression, it is not like playing a musical instrument or the visual arts, or even poetry. Musicians can get a huge amount of enjoyment and satisfaction out of making music with other people without ever getting paid, or getting paid to do the odd non-professional gig. You can paint and give your pictures away or hang them on your own walls. You can write poetry for your friends, or submit it to small presses and competitions and get published. You can even act on stage as an amateur and find an appreciative audience. But you can’t give typescripts of novels to people as a present unless you want to look like a complete loser. Nobody asks you to come and do a reading of your unpublished novel, not even your local pub or arts centre. In the sense that writing is performance, the only stage we novel writers have is publication, nothing else offers us an audience. It’s that or nothing.

So, has MNW’s decision to publish Testament changed my life?
Yes, it has.
It has given me a new confidence in my writing; not only in the sense that somebody thinks it’s good but in the sense that being part of bringing Testament to publication has given me a greater degree of self-criticism which I now apply to the work in progress. It has given me and my family the impetus to invest in my writing (or possibly speculate on it!) and cut back on the amount of time I spend earning money from doing therapy so that I can attempt to make a similar amount of money from writing. So far – with the German deal promising to swell the first couple of royalty cheques – so good, as Speech and Language Therapists don’t earn all that much.
And it’s allowed me to meet the eye of people who, for years, were patronisingly indulgent of my writing and would ask ‘any news on publication yet?’ with the kind of expression on their face which told me just how much they believed in a future in which that was going to happen. Being able to say to these people ‘Yes, my first book’s coming out in January’ has been the evil twin of the innocent pleasure I’ve taken in telling those who have believed in me and struggled with me through rejection and disappointment.

What is 2008 going to mean for me as a writer and for Testament? I really don’t know. But I do know that the book is going out into the world with a lot of people’s hopes, wishes and belief behind it and that, surely, has got to count for something.

Anyway, here’s wishing all who read this blog a really happy and successful 2008 and to those of you who are not published yet and long to be – hang in there and keep doing it!