Before everybody leaves off blogging and reading blogs for the festive season I thought I'd put up a quick post.
Wednesday, 23 December 2009
Before everybody leaves off blogging and reading blogs for the festive season I thought I'd put up a quick post.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Monday, 7 December 2009
Over at Tomorrowville, David Isaak is talking about how books are bought and sold and he quotes an interesting concept from a book called 'Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour'. In this book the author, William McPhee
'noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better.'
McPhee wrote his book in the USA (presumably based on US consumers' behaviour) in 1963. So I got to wondering – does the same thing hold good here in the UK in 2009?
I looked up Waterstones top 10 bestsellers on their website. The top 5 were either Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (interestingly the ebook was at Number 1 and the hardback at Number 5 which probably tells us how many ebook readers have been acquired for Christmas presents) or one of Stephenie Meyer's YA vampire series (New Moon, Eclipse and Twilight at 2, 3 and 4 respectively).
OK, maybe the theory holds good for the Dan Brown; I know that lots of people who rarely read will succumb to buying a book that has received a lot of hype and whose predecessor made it into film. But is it true for the Stephenie Meyer books? All the young adults I know who have read the Twilight series (to say nothing of the adults) are absolutely avid readers and have just wombled this series up along with everything else in a voracious reading life. I'm aware that that probably says more about me and the reading habits of the people I associate with than about young adults in general, but still.
(I should probably admit that I have recently borrowed the Twilight oeuvre in its entirely, largely based on a laudatory review by Juxtabook here).
Number 6 is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife. I loved TTTW and despite the considerable numbers of brickbats thrown at it, I don't think that it's the kind of book that people who don't habitually read books would buy. OK, it's probably at No 6 currently because of the film (sounds of my argument being shot in the foot) but it was made into a film in the first place because it's a massively good story, well told, and because it was a bestseller first time round!
Number 7. The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. I am a huge fan of Larsson's work. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when nobody had heard of it simply because I plucked it off the shelf, intrigued by the title. I found it strange – like no crime novel I'd ever read before – but very satsifying and very good. I read the other two in hardback because I couldn't wait for them to make it to paperback. Now, I don't know whether the Larsson books qualify as 'books read by non-readers'. I think they may be bought by such because the covers suggest some degree of salaciousness from the eponymous girl but I suspect that they are read, in their entirety, by few people in that category. They are meticulous, interestingly crafted, psychologically satisfying and they don't always rattle through the story – sometimes you're obliged to think and consider. In other words they are not your standard blockbuster. So, do they fit McPhee's model? Not sure.
I don't think Waterstones' number 8 fits. It's Maeve Binchy's latest novel Heart and Soul and, though my own purchasing of Ms Binchy's books is probably not going to keep her in any particularly opulent manner, I do know that a lot of people are absolutely nuts about her books and buy them accordingly, not simply because they are hyped and piled high.
Number 9 is – coincidentally – the book I am reading at the moment, John le Carre's A Most Wanted Man. I haven't read any le Carre before but the Other Half has. She read this one and was complimentary about it. She said she thought I would enjoy it and, as she has a track record of being 100% right about books I would like , I'm reading it. She remains at 100%. I think le Carre falls into a niche just like Maeve Binchy – there are enough people who love his writing and who buy his books for their own sake for us not to fall back on McPhee's model to explain why he is in the top 10.
Number 10? It's the first in the Larsson trilogy. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If you haven't read it, I do recommend it. OK, so it's probably benefiting from the release of the third and last element of the trilogy – The Girl who Kicked The Hornet's Nest – now out in hardback (and at number 18 in the bestseller lists), but maybe it would be there anyway.
So, where does this leave us? Is the 'people who buy bestsellers/blockbusters don't buy other books and aren't really readers' model correct? Or is it out of date and US-biassed?
Monday, 30 November 2009
I read the following on the excellent Guardian Books site today:
Rupert Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has called on "literate people" to boycott books until publishers stop bringing out ghostwritten memoirs by the likes of Sarah Palin.' [See the rest of the article here.]
Whilst my liberal blood-pressure shoots up at the mere mention of two of the names mentioned, I think I'm going to have to take issue with the owner of the third. Boycott books? How's that going to help?
Leaving aside the fact that Mr Wolff's argument, as presented in this article, is rather confusing (is he suggesting that we boycott all books or simply all ghostwritten ones which remain misleadingly attributed) I don't actually agree with his central argument which appears to be:
People are reading these books under false pretences because they're not actually written by the people they pretend to written by.
Why don't I agree? Well, firstly, I'm not sure that most of the people who buy these books actually give a monkey's who writes them – I think they're just fascinated by the characters involved. Sarah Palin, whatever you think of her politics, is a larger than life character who never fails to elicit a reaction of one kind or another. People want to read about her either in an uncritical, adulatory fashion if her politics and image appeal or in a species of guiltily horrified wonder if she appears to be as entertainingly mad as a spoon. Granted, it would be more honest if the cover read 'ideas conveyed by Sarah Palin in conversation with A. Ghostwriter who then put them into a coherent and readable form' but I don't honestly think it would affect the likelihood of people wanting to read it.
Secondly, I wonder how many people actually believe that these books are written by the people whose photographs appear on the front cover? Maybe I'm crediting the celebrity-autobiog-reading public with too much insight but I would have thought most people realise that if you're famous for – as an example – playing football superlatively well or revealing your rather magnificent chest in newspapers, then you are unlikely also to be blessed with the necessary talent to write about your experiences in a cogent and literate manner.
But, whether we accept Mr Wolff's central argument about false pretences or not, do we agree that registering our displeasure by leaving off buying books would be a good idea?
I can only speak for me, so here's my answer. No. It's a stupid idea. Sleb-memoirs are, notoriously, Christmas- and gift-book fodder bought by people who buy few other books. But they buy these particular books in their hundreds of thousands for the reasons outlined above vis-a-vis La Palin. If people who generally fight shy of literary sleb-fests in favour of the Booker/Costa prize list (which is the group I understand Mr Wolff to be referring to when says 'literate people') stop buying Booker/Costa type books, the only books to suffer will be the latter which, generally, already fail to sell in their hundreds of thousands (unless they win said prize, obviously.) It would be a far better idea to buy more of these books, not fewer, as it might just make the difference next time an unusual but 'literate' book strays over a publisher's horizon.
Mr Wolff clearly thinks that, on many levels, these books are bad. Fair enough. If you think a book is bad, don't buy that book. But don't stop buying books en bloc as some kind of misguided protest.
That's my view, what do the rest of you think?
Sunday, 22 November 2009
As someone well aware of how expensive it is to print and distribute a book (I’d worked in print and print production for over seven years before moving over to the web), and how little of the overall price goes to the publisher (even less filters through to the author), I fail to understand why mainstream publishers are being so hesitant in embracing the ebook. The majority in the UK—imprints like Harper Collins’ The Friday Project are exceptions—are insisting on listing their ebooks at similar prices to the paper equivalent. The intention may be an effort to stall a drop in print sales, but the effect is more that they’re leaving customers who could potentially save them a good deal of money out of pocket. If this behaviour continues, then long-term traditional publishers are in danger of losing these customers to new publishing models, such as Cursor, the one being developed by Richard Nash, or to Mark Coker’s Smashwords, which I’m using myself and which has struck distribution deals with both Sony and Barnes & Noble, with more in the pipeline.
The book publishers are letting booksellers - who already have a stranglehold over them on the high street - lead the way in the ebook market. Most publishers seem content to let Sony fight their corner for them, and offer little support, against the online retailers like Amazon and Waterstones.
What’s the alternative? The production costs for an ebook are an infinitesimal fraction of those for print, and can probably be soaked up by retraining production staff and ejecting some of the expensive processing software they use for their jobs. Rather than plowing the money saved into an even greater share for the distritbutors, publishers should now be taking the fight to them. A single house selling its own books is never going to be able to take on the might of a giant like Amazon, but a collaboration between the major houses, perhaps partnering with a technology provider like Sony, which has already shown its support for publishers over retailers, may be able to. What book publishing needs is an effective body promoting co-operation between houses and representing the interests of the entire book industry, including the readers.
To me, the model for the future of publishing is simple: retain the hardback for readers who still aren’t ready to surrender the feel and smell of a paper product between their fingers. If anything the publishers will make more money on hardback sales than they do now (as hardbacks are a bigger money-spinner per unit sold than a paperback), and ditch the paperbacks altogether in favour of ereaders.
But for now, the people that will invest in e-readers, or receive them this Christmas - which I feel will be the time that the UK market really wakes up to how important they will be - will be genuine read-a-holics, people passionate about the books they read and also ones who talk about books, recommend them to friends and play an important part in the word-of-mouth success garnered by bestsellers. Surely these are the people publishers should be courting?
Personally I love books. I own probably a couple of hundred, yet most, once read, end up in my loft, given to friends or donated to charity shops. I have a bookcase with maybe twenty or thirty of my favourite books on it, and that’s it. Anything else I could be re-educated to use an ereader to digest.
If you’re one of these lucky types, to already be using an e-reader and looking for something new to get your teeth into, you can download my short story collection, The New Goodbye, for free. It’s available for both the Kindle and Sony Readers, as well as the Stanza app on the iPhone and most other formats, as well as HTML for your computer screen.
I’m likely to release a revised version of my first novel through Smashwords at some point too. So keep an eye on the Veggiebox if you’re interested in that.
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Alis for having me.
Thanks, Neil, and the very best of luck to The New Goodbye.
PS - I've just finished re-reading The Leaving Present, one of the stories I know Neil is most proud of in the collection and found it both accomplished and touching. I recommend it!View and download the whole collection here - you don't need any kind of e-reader, you can read it from your laptop or PC.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
I read all kinds of different books from young adult to crime, from thrillers to historical fiction and literary novels but there is one kind of book I'm not keen on – translations. War and Peace? Never read it. (Could have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge fan of the 19th century novel, of course). Love in the Time of Cholera? Nope. The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Afraid not.
More recently, there have been bestsellers like Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. People raved about these books but I couldn't get past page 100. Am I a horrible xenophobe? I hope not. It's just that these books never sound quite right to me. (I do mean 'sound' – when I read I hear the words as if somebody were reading the book to me.) There are always sentences that make me frown and think 'that's not real English, not really real English'. Every time it happens, I'm pulled out of the fictional world, my connection with the author is interrupted.
There are exceptions. I made it all the way through Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (author: Peter Hoeg, translator: Felicity David). And whoever translates Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (the translator doesn't get a mention on Amazon or the Waterstone's site) is clearly a genius. Halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I had to check that I was actually reading a translation.
But generally... I think it would be fair to say I don't do translations.
I have a Croatian friend who is determined to cure what she sees as my dreadful literary parochialism and who keeps lending me books in trnslation. And, finally, she has struck gold. Or perhaps I mean I have. Last weekend she brought me Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, translated by Thomas Teal. It is, quite simply, beautiful.
The True Deceiver is almost a fable. Though it's clearly set in the twentieth century – there is a motor vehicle (just the one) and there are merchandising deals for the children's author who is one of the main protagonists – there's a timeless feel to the book. The whole book takes place during the course of one winter but there's a dreamlike quality to the passage of time and the characters almost seem to be suspended in the snowy season as events shake the snow-scene around them.
The book is full of beautiful, spare, luminous prose. Characters are strongly drawn but never charicatures. With enormous economy Tove Jansson shows us how people's inner life and outer worlds collide as conflicting needs come to the fore; the need to retain independence but to feel secure; the need to make money out of somebody whilst at the same time securing that person's financial interests. People don't talk much in this book, speaking to each other is something the characters do only in extremis – communication takes place through actions not words; and the actions speak very loudly.
Will The True Deceiver convert me to reading more books in translation? Probably not, to be honest. But I shall definitely be reading more Tove Jansson – particularly if I can get hold of translations by Thomas Teal.
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Reaction to my last post seems to indicate that, for readers of historical fiction, authenticity of both voice and detail is as important as plot; a view which I heartily agree with.
So, can I move the debate on a notch?
If the authentic historical details box is ticked and the decent plot box is ticked, how important is it that the people in the novel are as representative of their era as the novelist can make them?
In other words, how important is it to the reader of historical fiction that the characters they are reading about are not simply twenty-first century people transplanted into a well-drawn historical setting?
When I started reading historical fiction in my teens, I think I automatically accepted that historical characters would think and feel like me – I mean, how else was I going to identify with them?
It wasn't until I started doing the research for Testament that I began to understand how very differently the people of the medieval period thought and felt about the world they lived in. This realisation didn't stop me enjoying hist fic which failed to acknowledge this – I remain a huge fan of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books, for instance - but, in general, my criteria for judging historical novels became far more exacting.
Historical fiction with a crime/murder theme is suddenly big in publishing terms – it's a genre on the up – and I read a fair amount of it but, I have to confess, a lot of it doesn't ring true because the way the protagonists think – particularly those who are investigating the crimes – doesn't stack up in terms of authentic world view.
So, what does everybody else think? Does coming across recognisably modern people with twenty-first century views about justice, social politics or religion put you off certain kinds of fiction, or will a good plot and external period detail get you through? Are there excellent examples you've come across (I was recently massively impressed by Shona MacLean's The Redemption of Alexander Seaton and here's somebody who agrees with me) or real howlers (I'll let you fill those in)?
Tuesday, 27 October 2009
I've recently joined the Historical Novel Society. Amongst other things, each issue of the society's journal – the Historical Novels Review - briefly reviews a great number of historical novels and, having read quite a few of the back numbers the society has kindly sent me, I am struck by something. Though the reviews talk a lot about plot, character and authenticity and, to a slightly lesser extent about structure there is very little comment on language, voice, vocabulary – how the author has used the narrative tone to convey some impression of the period they are writing about.
Now, for me, this is one of the most important – and interesting – things about writing histfic. But how important is it to readers?
If you read historical fiction, what are the criteria by which you judge a historical novel? What are the things you look for? What are essential and what optional extras? I'd be fascinated to know.
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
I've read a couple of Hilary Mantel's other novels and been very impressed; also slightly at a loss to know why she isn't more widely read. But Wolf Hall knocks them into a cocked hat.
OK, I suppose it was a pretty fair bet that I'd like it – it's a historical literary novel – my absolutely favourite genre, if genre it be; but it is an absolutely cracking read.
I must admit I did groan slightly when I heard that it was about Thomas Cromwell – not another novel about the Tudors, I thought. But this is not another novel about the Tudors. This is very much a novel about Cromwell – who, as if his centrality needed emphasising, is 'he' throughout the text. I'm not sure Mantel ever refers to him as Cromwell herself after the first chapter – she lets other characters do that. And they do refer to him, a lot, though they're not always so polite as to call him Master Cromwell.
Because I'm fundamentally a medievalist and find other periods of history less compelling, I have to confess to not knowing a huge amount about Thomas Cromwell. OK, there's Hans Holbein's painting which makes him look like a toad - kind of sticks in the mind, though I can't say that he looks particularly like a murderer, an appearance several people accuse him of in the book. But then my knowledge runs out with CJ Sansom's rather machiavellian Cromwell in the Shardlake books and the nastier version in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Bolt's play portrays Cromwell as the jealous, scheming villain who is out to bring down hero of the hour and popular saint, Sir Thomas More. Mantel does it the other way around and, I have to confess, I found her version more convincing. Bolt's More was heroic – yes – but chilly, too, as fanatics are prone to be. Mantel's Cromwell is anything but chilly – he is a humane pragmatist who combines a very street-smart kind of wisdom with a deep understanding of what makes individuals tick and a vast capacity for loyalty. Portrayed as unswervingly faithful to his patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, even in the latter's downfall, Wolf Hall's Cromwell is a man it is very easy to like – as even the haughty and autocratic Duke of Norfolk discovers. And it is his commoner's disarming lack of personal vanity, coupled with an uncanny ability to make things happen for Henry which sees him rising up the notoriously greasy Tudor political pole.
It's not just Cromwell himself who is humane in Mantel's Tudor court. Unlike many other fictional Tudor-fests – both on TV and film as well as in novels – there are no monsters here; though Thomas More in his unyielding fanaticism and unlikeable treatment of his family comes close. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn's uncle, is usually presented as, essentially, a ruthlessly ambitious pimp of his neices. Whilst Hilary Mantel doesn't let him off this particular hook of accusation neither does she major on it, allowing us to see Norfolk as a rather more human character, one whose initial antipathy to Cromwell is worn down by the latter's sheer, unremitting competence and utter failure to pretend to be other than he is.
On the whole, it's the women who come off worst. Whilst in Cromwell's immediate household (a wonderful place – a cross between a job centre and a refuge) the women are feisty, opinionated and generally full of the usual human foibles, those at court are an unappealing bunch. Chief amongst them, of course, is Miss Unappealing 1533 herself, Anne Boleyn. Mantel's Anne is calculating, selfish, ambitious, jealous and ruthless. It will be interesting to see whether she can – or indeed wants to – generate any sympathy for La Ana, as the French ambassador calls her, in the sequel to Wolf Hall.
Jane Seymour – whose destiny the reader knows, as the characters do not – emerges as a the only kind woman at court and as someone Thomas Cromwell has more than a passing interest in. And it is the Seymours' family seat in Wiltshire that gives the book its name. This confused me, initially, as Wolf Hall itself receives very little attention in the book beyond the recounting of a notorious and quasi-incestuous scandal which took place there. Then I realised – Wolf Hall would actually be a wonderful alter ego name for the Tudor court where, as Cromwell says on more than one occasion homo homini lupus – man is a wolf to man.
Unlike many historical political novels Wolf Hall takes zero time to get into. We are plunged in to Cromwell's abused childhood and, within a few pages, he has fled his brutal father and packed himself off to the continent to make his fortune, returning in the next chapter after a decade and a half as Cardinal Wolsey's right hand man. At first, I thought this opening chapter was simply an attention-grabbing device on Hilary Martel's part but, as the book progresses, you realise that she is making the reader privy – as nobody else in the book is except Cromwell himself and his despised family – to the truth about his origins. Wolsey, obviously delighted with his diamond in the rough protege, has told numerous scurrilous stories about Cromwell's upbringing and it's amusing to see who has been told what and who has believed what. But then, it becomes increasingly clear, as the book progresses, that it is possible to believe anything of the king's fixer.
The priviliged-information trick of the opening chapter is hardly Hilary Mantel's only clever device. The whole book is an object lesson in historical fiction writing. She manages to convey a flavour of the speech of the time without ever resorting to gadzookery or making it feel anything less than fresh and authentic. You can hear the characters speaking, they're then and they're now – it's the true historical writer's trick.
And how does she manage to encompass so much politicking, so much grandeur, so much intrigue in 672 pages and still write a book which feels so light of touch? Answer – she never labours a point, sometimes she barely makes a point, allowing the reader the satisfaction of grasping what she is talking about without having it spelled out. Time and place are beautifully conveyed but in the small details of recipes, lacings, books; a hanging here, a painting there. I was dribblingly grateful to be spared endless details of what everybody was wearing – Wolf Hall has no acres of velvet, seas of brocade nor bushels-full of seed pearls - only occasionally do we get an insight into what people are wearing and it's always relevant, always tells us something about the character.
So as to help the narrative and the reader along, Mantel also surrounds Cromwell with younger men (as I'm sure he would have himself) which means that he always has a reason – other than the need to explain things to the reader, I mean – to unpack what's going on, what he's thinking, why he's doing what he's doing.
I could go on but that would involve going and getting the book and prising it from the Other Half's desperate fingers, so I will stop and just urge you to go and buy Wolf Hall – now, don't wait for it to come out in paperback, it's the sort of book (and I rarely say this) that you need to own in hardback. Except, as I know to my cost, that it's ruinously heavy for reading unobtrusively in bed...
If all Man Booker prize winners were this good, I'd be waiting on the bookshop's doorstep on shortlist morning, ready to devour the lot.
Friday, 16 October 2009
My central character, Martin, has no maps - nobody did in the fourteenth century, maps were political nor topographical - and he is having to navigate from one known point to the next, never knowing what each day's journey is going to bring.
And I'm doing something similar. While I was writing Not One of Us, I used a technique I have used in writing other novels: I had a general outline, I knew where it started and ended and I had a few 'set pieces' that I was working towards. Each new chapter was plotted as I came to it - before I started writing I would map out, spider-diagram fashion - what was going to happen in the next few pages. It helped me to see the themes I was bringing out, some of the conversations I might want the characters to have, the overall flow of the chapter and how it dovetailed in to what had gone before and was going to follow.
I'm not doing that this time. I didn't actually sit down and decide not to do it like that, I just started writing one day without making a chapter plan and found that things emerged as I was writing which would not have made their way into a spider diagram; so I came to the conclusion that that kind of roughing-out might actually be inhibiting my subconscious. Since this is where I think all my best writing comes from, I decided to give the new, freer, approach a go.
It's having its ups and downs. Like Martin, I'm prone to look up every now and then and think 'where on earth am I and how am I going to get to where I want to be from here?'. But, just as often, I find I'm looking up and thinking 'blimey, didn't know we were going there but I'm glad we did!'
In other respects, my approach is similar to what it's always been. I know the book's end. I know several big things that are going to happen but what happens between them is something the book and I are finding out in our own time.
It's slightly scary. But if I can tap into some of Martin's fear about what's going to happen, that can only be good. Can't it?
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
So, I printed out the words I’d written and proceeded to read them.
Now, you need to bear in mind that, of the (at least) two kinds of writer I am not of the ‘get it down fast and dirty but get it down’ variety. I find it impossible to move on to the next chapter until I’m pretty satisfied with the one I’ve just written. In theory this should keep later editing to a minimum. It doesn’t. I don’t know whether I’m a) a perfectionist b) inefficient c) indecisive or d) all three but, anyway, these chapters that I’d printed out had already been scrutinised, read aloud, cut, augmented and polished. Each had at least four versions of itself saved in a folder marked ‘chapter x’.
And still there was work to do.
Things which I would have expected to notice first time round – infelicities of style, repetitions, saying things twice, confusing paragraphs where I knew what I meant but the poor reader would have to be telepathic to grasp – suddenly leaped out at me.
Was it the ten days’ distance from the words?
Or just that it was printed and not in ‘first draft’ mode on the screen?
Or perhaps I’m being unduly self-critical and not allowing myself the luxury of writing myself in to the book in peace without expecting it to be instantly satsifactory.
I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.
So, should I routinely print out my chapters once I’m happy with them on screen?
What does everybody else to in this context?
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Actually, I feel like the last person who should be telling you about it – I didn’t even see it properly as I was the prompter for both performances. My eyes were glued to the script so I just listened and snatched odd visual snippets of what was going on. I will be able to watch it – eventually - as a cameraman from Kent Online has provided us with some uncut footage and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak was there with his digital video camera and the cathedral’s tripod recording it for family posterity.
We’d dreaded bad weather – particularly as one scene was played almost entirely in the cloister garden and we had no contingency plan other than to issue the audience with as many umbrellas as could be mustered – but, in the event, the sun shone all day, leaving the cast – most of whom were in medieval-style woollens – overheating in the unseasonal weather.
And the Indian summer encouraged the crowds to come. We had excellent audiences for both performances – in fact the audience for the first was almost too large, causing some delays between scenes and nasty moments of ‘do I come in now or not?’ for the poor cast. But all the actors coped with that – and all the other minor hitches of ‘with the audience’ performance - admirably. With ad libs to the fore and some nice moments of cast-audience interaction the whole thing was carried off with great aplomb.
Here are some pictures of the actors in action:
Actually, this one isn't an actor in action but, behind the mask (click on the picture to enlarge it) which was fixed to the outside of the organ loft, stood Bob, an actor with a mighty Green Man's voice which filled the cathedral with his rage during his anguished conversation with Justus, first bishop of Rochester:
Then there were the monks:
Ulf, the novice, who nearly slithered down the stairs in his haste to make his meeting with the Novice Master and
...Gundulf (not to be confused with Gandalf, despite the magician-like robes) aka The Weeping Monk of Bec who built the early bits of Rochester cathedral, its castle and the White Tower of London for William the Conqueror whom he didn't much approve of.
Then the audience was treated to a garden-based murder most foul. One of the cathedral's two saints - William of Perth, a thirteenth-century baker on pilgrimage - was done to death by his treacherous foster-son...
the story told by a storyteller and observed by a Madwoman...
...I'll leave you to work out which is which...
Then we watched as a conservator had a fright when the bishop whose memorial she was working on suddenly showed up with a lot of difficult questions...
...which were partly answered by the following scene in which two men who, in all probability never met - John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley - confront each other with chaplains at the ready...
The last scene, involving Dickens and a wholly fictitious biographer whom I had great fun inventing, allowed us to end on a poignant note - that of Dickens's last days.
Many thanks to my son, The Bassist, and to Richard Simmons both of whom took wonderful pictures of both performances in difficult circumstances.
And, in case you’re wondering where we came by all our fantastic costumes, the majority were designed and made by Berthe Fortin, a professional costume designer with whom we were very lucky to work. Berthe researched and produced all the medieval costumes which gave the early scenes – and particularly the story of William of Perth and Rochester’s madwoman - a great sense of unity and cohesion. The Dean and Chapter kindly made real vestments available for some of our Bishops and their chaplains which meant that the contrast between bishops Fisher and Ridley was wonderfully highlighted by the difference in clerical clothing the two men wore.
Of course, most of the experience of writing a play and having it produced is unlike novel-writing. The interactivity, the different medium, the audience… But one thing is exactly the same – the minute it’s finished and you can’t do anything to change it, you want to rewrite, cut, polish and change.
Fortunately for the actors, I restrained myself...
Many, many thanks must go to the Dean and Chapter of Rochester cathedral for giving me such free rein to interpret the history of their lovely cathedral in my own way – their faith in me is very much appreciated.
Friday, 25 September 2009
It’s different with plays. When you write dialogue for actors you can have your views on these things but – in the end – they will be decided by the actor playing the part. Of course, if you’re the director as well as the author, you can influence how the character is played, but only to a certain extent. After all, an actor’s appearance can only be altered just so much; you can’t make a tall man short or a person of 50 look 20 (though it’s possible to do the reverse operation if you’ve got a good makeup artist).
So, writing and directing a play has been a very interesting process. (If you don’t know what I’m going on about, read this post.)
When you’re writing a novel, words are the only tools at your disposal. Crossing the tracks to writing dialogue, I kind of assumed that – to an extent - words would suffice there, too, but I’ve been surprised at how much of a difference costume and location within the cathedral make.
For instance, at the beginning of the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, I walked in to the dressing room and saw a grey-haired, bearded man in a frock coat whom I completely failed to recognise as Owen, the actor who is playing Dickens! Suddenly, he was Dickens. And it may or may not have made a difference to how he felt about the lines, how he spoke them, but it certainly made a difference to how I heard and felt them.
What I’d forgotten, of course, is that both the writer’s and the reader’s imagination are constantly moving beyond the words on the page to see the characters they’re reading about. Writers and readers do what actors do – they use their imaginations to see the people on the page and to breathe life into them.
Obviously, the imaginative work required of the reader is slightly less onerous than that required of the writer – the reader doesn’t have to invent everything from scratch, merely to put their own interpretation on what the writer has written but, without imagination, the process of reading and understanding a book is impossible.
So, actors do for their audience what a reader’s imagination does. They take the bare words on the page, imagine what lies behind them and flesh the characters out, bringing them alive in the process.
All of which makes play-writing a far more collaborative process than novel writing, even if – as they playwright – you never get to influence the production. You are still in a process of collaboration with the actors to present the finished piece to the audience. In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to influence the production very much as its director, and it’s been wonderful to work with the actors.
Tomorrow is production day. If anybody is in or around Rochester, do come along to the cathedral and join in the festivities for the new interpretation project’s launch. You can try out the new audio-guides (voiced by Jools Holland) look at all the spiffy new display panels, see the audio-visuals and even watch the promenade play. First performance is at noon and the second will begin, seamlessly, just after one.
And the cathedral has a very nice tea-room too…
Thursday, 17 September 2009
So, because I have a back that enjoys tormenting me by popping its sacro-iliac joint fairly regularly and – according to my osteopath – pretty naff ‘core stability’ I decided I’d get one.
Foolishly, I followed the height recommendations at
less cheapskate more medically-oriented ones which tell you ‘if you have unusually long legs this may necessitate the use of a larger ball’. Well I do have unusually long legs. I’m just shy of 5’10’’ and I have a 34’’ inside leg. Nightmare for buying trousers – average women’s trousers are 29/30’’ with 31/32’’ considered long or even (hah) extra long. For me, only Long Tall Sally trousers will reliably fit, so if I don’t like what they have on offer, I go without. I have a lot of very well-worn trousers…
So, having used my 65cm ball for a week, I sent off for a 75cm one instead. Of course, it arrived today. When we were all at work/school/in
Has anybody else tried alternative seating in a bid not to completely knacker themselves by sitting at a desk for large parts of the day?
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
In case any of you follow the link and are wondering where I said all this, the original guest-blog post is here on the lovely Juxtabook blog.
So, finally, the thing is started. I got the house straight (OK straight-ish) over the weekend, organised a new working space (I’ve been doing all my research work in the kitchen) and bought a box for my index cards instead of keeping them in a nasty confused pile on the kitchen table.
I spent Monday and Tuesday getting in to it and, after being at work today, I’ve decided I’ve started in the wrong place. So I think a long walk will be necessary tomorrow morning to try and get my head around how I’m going to start where I think I should have started.
Thursday, 3 September 2009
Because I do. Love research. But that was taken to a whole new level this past weekend when the Other Half and I headed down to the Dean Heritage Centre in the
I had thought I’d just watch. I’d spoken to the guy running the burn – Pete Ralph – on the phone and he had very kindly said ‘come and join in as much as you want’ but I didn’t think I would. I’m not a gregarious person and the thought of gate-crashing an event already supplied with sufficient volunteers who knew what they were doing and having to talk to loads of new people for hours on end didn’t appeal.
But I hadn’t anticipated the warm welcome of the volunteers – most of whom were our age or older and the easy way they just included us in the whole process. There wasn’t a whiff of ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ they just naturally included us and assumed that we knew as much as they did and were as fascinated as they were. Which turned out to be true – certainly the fascinated part, anyway.
The process of burning charcoal is actually quite simple. (And, like lots of things that are simple in principle, it takes years to learn to do well.)
Here’s a recipe for one smallish charcoal-burning clamp:
2 cords of wood (a cord is a stack of wood eight feet long, four feet high and two feet wide, each ‘log’ being 2 feet long and approximately 3-4 inches in diameter. Interestingly the stack is called a cord because an eight-foot cord was used to measure the stack – the cord was doubled over to measure the 4 foot height and then doubled again to measure the 2 foot width. I always knew a piece of string would come in handy…)
Enough turf (approx half an inch to an inch thick) to cover the whole stack (a dome approximately 8 feet in diameter)
A mix of soil and charcoal dust/debris lifted from the hearth (ie the area of forest floor where the burn is going to take place) prior to building the clamp.
A nice flat area away from too much wind (which causes the stack to burn unevenly).
Method (in pictures...)
First build a central chimney...
then you put the turf on...
then you start covering it with earth...
and when it's nicely covered in earth, you (ie Pete) go up a ladder on the outside of the stack and , with a shovel, put loads of burning embers and half-charcoaled logs from the outside of the last burn (the brunts) in to the central chimney to start the fire.
We spent 5 hours building the clamp and watching the firing process on Saturday and then, on Sunday, we went back as proper volunteers on a shift which combined watching the clamp for signs of collapse or turf-shrinkage and putting patches on with chatting to members of the public who’d come to see what it was all about. We sounded like pros in no time.
One of the things I’d really been hoping I could do was to see the stack at night to find out what it looked like in the dark and how the woodland felt once the dominant sound wasn’t human but animal. (The owls were particularly vocal). Thanks to the generosity of volunteers James and Tina who were on the Sunday night shift we stayed until about ten o’clock and I was able to get a wonderfully atmospheric picture of what it might have been like to do the same thing in the mid-fourteenth century. I won’t wax lyrical here because, no doubt, a certain amount of that will find its way into the book. Many thanks to James, too, for sending me an article he had written on the evidence for medieval charcoal burning.
Sadly we weren’t able to see the clamp quenched (ie have lots of water poured over it) on Monday night or opened on Tuesday as we had to drive home on Monday. I’ll have to find another burn to discover the feel of those parts of the process. And I will. Because however many books you read, actually seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling the thing gives you the kind of first hand knowledge you can’t get any other way, no matter how erudite and specific your reading matter.
We’re so hooked we’re going back to the Dean Heritage Centre in May, as volunteers this time.
Who’d have thought there’d be so much entertainment value in watching a turfed-over pile of logs smouldering gently…?
PS Many, many thanks are due to the Dean Heritage Centre for putting me in touch with Pete Ralph and to Pete and his team of volunteers who made us so welcome. Thanks guys!
Monday, 24 August 2009
It appears I am low maintenance. At least according to my accountant.
I have, apparently, not claimed enough expenses in the last tax year.
Well, writing is pretty low-imput isn’t it? Even taking into account the internet which I use constantly for research, it’s not exactly a technology-intensive job. And you don’t need posh clothes to do it. Or a car. I keep trying to persuade myself that my laptop needs replacing but, as I generally can't bear to replace anything I own while it still actually works/fits/isn’t actually steam-powered, I plod on, bearing with it as it takes three minutes to log on to the internet and crashes if I even think about having iTunes and webmail on the go at the same time...
I may be about to gladden my accountant’s heart, however, as this weekend will see the Other Half and me and set off for the first of what will probably amount to half a dozen research excursions for The Black and The White. (It's what I heard Antonia Fraser refer to on the radio the other day - quaintly I thought - as 'optical research'. Aka actually eyeballing the places you're writing about as opposed to reading about them or looking at a map and inferring madly.)
To start with, we are off to the
This has all come to pass thanks to the wonders – of course – of the internet. I was surfing around looking for details of the medieval extent of the
Other things I have been using today as I plot – literally – my character’s journey through the novel are the online Domesday Book which will give you a list of every village in any given county mentioned in the said tax record (excellent for checking whether villages which are there now and look ancient were actually there then looking new) and Google’s map function which enables me to look at terrain as well as where things are in relation to each other. I basically have to get my main character across
I also spent a lot of time today toggling between about four different websites as I tried to work out whether the bridge in
Lest you think all my research is internet-based and therefore shallow and of dubious authenticity I would (if I wasn’t so lazy about taking and downloading photos) include a picture of my current work-area in our kitchen. The table is littered with books propped open, books sprouting yellow post-its like slim pointy fungus, books still waiting to be consulted and dozens and dozens of index cards with spider-diagrams and cryptic notes-to-self on them. For reasons of economy, when I bought the index cards (usually I’m a notebook person but my notes were beginning to resemble the disjointed ravings of a lunatic) I neglected to buy an index-box. However, this means that any minute now I’m going to have to go all Blue Peter and make one out of a cereal box before the cards start to migrate about the house and I lose track of some pearl-like thought or vital fourteenth-century fact.
Or maybe I should just bite the bullet, buy a plastic box and gladden my accountant’s heart….
Monday, 17 August 2009
I am in a state of anxiety at the moment for which I am prescribing myself long walks undertaken at marching pace. These are mostly working.
Why the anxiety? Well...
We came home from holiday to a million things that needed doing and which I had been putting off before we went away. Repairs to our kitchen roof, sorting out issues with our internet service provider, getting the boiler seriviced, thinking about my Mum’s 70th birthday… and a ton of other, lesser things. The list seemed to go on and on. Last week saw most of them sorted, at least prospectively (appointments made etc) but there are always new things popping up.
Then there was the awful shock, ten days ago, of a friend of ours being admitted to the
In a less dramatic vein, this Thursday sees both the first full rehearsal of Ancient Stones, Stories Told, my promenade play for Rochester Cathedral, and The Bassist’s AS level results. Both need to go well or the future is going to look bleak.
But, if I’m honest with myself, none of these things actually account for the gut-churning anxiety that’s plaguing me. All of them are difficult in their various ways but I would cope with them.
No, the anxiety-provoker in chief is, inevitably, The Book. The Black and The White. I’m a couple of weeks off being ready to begin writing. Outlines for the big, ‘set-piece’ scenes are beginning to form in my mind and I am frantically trying to decide where to begin the damn thing. (And don’t say ‘at the beginning’ or I may scream…)
I’m anxious because I’m captivated by the story and I DON’T WANT TO GET IT WRONG. I know it could be good and I don’t want to make mistakes at the outset which will compromise the whole thing. I am more excited by this book than by anything since I began my original draft of Testament which induced a similar state of nervous tension. I’m hoping that’s a good sign. Much as I enjoyed writing some of Not One of Us, it was nothing like this.
But there’s a problem. The more I think about my original structure for the book – the structure I discussed with Will – the more I’m convinced it won’t work. And I have a slightly dramatic solution which is also contributing to the lizards fighting in my intestines.
I need to discuss it with Will before I say anything here, so perhaps I’d just better go and compose an email.
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
But we did have a lovely time, including me wheeling out my very rusty A-level French (tenses all over the place, can never remember the gender of non-immediately-obvious nouns – A-levels are beginning to be a frighteningly long time ago…) with all and sundry, but particularly our Belgian campsite neighbour who concealed the fact that he spoke perfect English until the last evening. ‘The English – they never learn French, but you’re very good [clearly a lie but flattering none the less] and I think it’s good for you to practice.’
He had clearly had less than wonderful experiences of Brits abroad and was prepared to find my willingness more than compensation for my linguistic all-over-the-placeness. When our conversations revealed that I am more Welsh than English, he decided that this was obviously the explanation for my readiness to speak other languages. The Other Half hastily foregrounded her Irish credentials (50% genetically, 90% temperamentally).
Fortunately, because we live in the bit of
Whilst we’ve been away, the work in progress has been on my mind hugely – in fact I can’t remember any of the books I’ve written (6 at the last count) ever preoccupying me so much. I’m hoping this is a good sign – and being able (after my resolution to turn over a new leaf and discuss my work instead of keeping it a deep dark secret until the end of the second draft) to discuss it with the Other Half helped. In fact, she came up with an idea which may go a long way to solving my approach to what was threatening to become the ‘sticky middle section’ of the book.
Now we’re home I’m back to research and while the teenagers – back from their various trek- and frisbee-based jaunts and not yet returned to work – languish in bed, I am reading about the Peasants’ Revolt and general life in the fourteenth century. Oh, and I’m also trying to find a demonstration of traditional charcoal burning so if you know anywhere that offers this, let me know!
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England really is a gem. In research for previous books (mostly Testament) I’ve read a couple of the more academic books that he quotes and have been referring to one of them (and getting bogged down in tables and endless details) as I read his lucid prose. How he manages it, I don’t know but Ian Mortimer manages to give you the most astonishing amounts of information (a digest of the more academic stuff, basically) almost without effort – reading his book feels like chatting with an immensely knowledgeable but highly agreeable person: an absolute treasure trove.
But more of that anon.
Meanwhile, the other thing which has been occupying my mind since we got back a day or two ago and I started the cyber-catch up is: should I be on Twitter?
Is it a good thing?
Is it something writers should do?
Friday, 17 July 2009
I met up with my editor, Will, last week to talk to him about my ideas for The Black and The White. All the way up to London, on the train, I looked at the notes I’d made, thought more about my ideas, moved the thing on a bit more and - above all – wondered what he’d make of it.
And, of course, his making anything at all of it would be done in the context of what other writers of historical fiction are doing at the moment, how readers are responding to that and how TBATW might fit in – or not – to that context.
As you’ve probably spotted, there’s a vogue at the moment for historical crime, with or without a clear series intent. I’ve just read an extremely good book called The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean which is a case in point. Though more of a historical novel than a murder mystery, there is a murder and it is central to the book and that gave me pause for thought. If somebody this good at time and place (
The Black and The White is not conceived as a murder mystery. There are deaths (it begins in the Great Pestilence which we know as the Black Death and ends in the Peaseants’ Revolt, deaths are pretty inevitable) but the novel doesn’t concern itself with finding out about how or why these people died. It’s the consequences of the deaths we’re primarily interested in.
But there is a mystery. And a quest. And an obsession. Or two.
So, if it’s not quite going to fit neatly in to what’s selling, is it a goer? And did Will like the idea?
Well, I hope it’s a goer and Will definitely liked the idea.
But, he and I both know that, for it to succeed, I’m going to have to get the central question which lurks at the heart of the novel absolutely right. Nails need to be banged exactly on the head. No thumb-dinging can be allowed, or the accompanying swearing. Which means that I’ve got to get the central relationship and its two protagonists spot on. There’s no real room for sloppy characterisation or anything less than perfectly focussed point of view. I’ve got to get it right.
It would be so much easier to just base the whole thing on a murder. Or at least, I think it would. Maybe that’s just because I’ve never written a murder mystery.
I mean, think about it (the murder option, not my lack of any relevant experience). England in the grip of the Great Plague would be the ideal time and place to hide a murder – if a dead body turned up, nobody was going to look too closely at it to see how the person had died and the fact that they’d been seen – perfectly fit and healthy – on the morning of their death would not need to throw any suspicion on the fact of their demise. The plague had three distinct varieties – classic bubonic plague with lymphatic swellings in groin, armpit or elsewhere which took a week to kill you and was contracted (probably) from flea-bites from infected rats; pneumonic plague which was spread from person to person, infected your lungs and killed you in two to three days; and last but definitely not least, septicaemic plague in which the bacillus entered your bloodstream directly and killed you in hours.
Anyway, murders aside, I’m still reading background stuff for the novel and, when we go away next week, I will be taking a couple of books to continue my research, among them Summer of Blood, the new book on the Peasants Revolt by Dan Jones who you can see talking about the book here.
He’s clearly as mad about the fourteenth century as me.
Before we can get away on Monday, however, there’s still tons to do getting the house in some kind of order a) because I hate coming back to a mess and b) because we have a kind friend coming in to house/cat sit and she can’t be expected to live with our mess.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I suspect I will next appear here when we’re back from our Francophile jaunt.
But, while I’m away, perhaps you’d like to leave your comments on current historical fiction, murder-based or otherwise…