Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Fact of Life - Joan Lennon

It's a fact of life, but not one of the fun ones ... Yes, it's editing, and I'm up to my red-rimmed eyeballs in it just now. I checked out earlier posts on this subject, and came across Katherine Langrish's words (Monday 8 December 2008 - Why Did You Pack All This Stuff?) -

"I take my first glance at the scrawled blue loops, crossings-out and comments with indignation positively foaming through my veins. I lose my cool. My inner teenager runs riot. I phone a friend. I pour out my woes. I am bitter, furious, misunderstood."

This is an utterly accurate description of the way it feels to me. And I react like this every flipping time, as anyone living within any sort of earshot will affirm. So I'm wondering, is it completely unnecessary? Or is this peevish surge of temper exactly what I need? Maybe the exercise of rewriting on the basis of somebody else's comments is the kind of adversarial activity that requires the adrenalin to be high and the eyes beady?

I'm beginning to think it does, at least for me.

The 3 categories of editorial change are:
1. it makes it better
2. it makes it different, but not really any better or worse
3. it makes it worse.

I think what I try to do is say yes to the 1s, yes to as many of the 2s as I can bear, and be absolute clarity itself in fighting my corner for the 3s. And maybe I need to be thoroughly hyped up to do this.

What do you think? Is this knee-jerk reaction an expression of childishness, or an essential primeval battle cry? I hope most of you will think it's the latter. Otherwise, I may come to your house and throw an enormous wobbly on your front step ...

The photo is from a blog called The Cloud Factory - thanks!
Joan Lennon's website

Friday, 29 January 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

TESTAMENT by Alis Hawkins Pan paperback. £7.99

This novel is part of the Macmillan New Writing scheme, which gives writers a very small advance but at least gets their books out there where people can read them. I haven't read any other books published under this plan but I enjoyed this one very much.

I have to confess to not ever finishing the famous LABYRINTH and part of my problem with that book was that I found the 'present day' bit of the narrative not terribly compelling. Hawkins, too, uses a double time frame here and to much more interesting effect because the modern story is a campus novel concerning the very building which is being constructed back in the 14th century.

The historical time is fascinating. It's 1385. Lollards, guilds, the setting up of a new college in Salster (an invented town somewhat like Canterbury) shine a light on a corner of the past I wasn't familiar with. The main characters are a master mason Simon and his wife Gwyneth. She gives birth late to a disabled son, Toby and the way this disability is described and its effect on both the parents, over time and also on the community is perhaps the most moving and unusual aspect of the novel. The online reading group I belong to has just finished TESTAMENT and some people queried whether a woman could be a master carpenter (which is what Gwyneth indeed is ) and responsible for such a complex thing as the intricate roof of a building, but the author told us in the comments box that she would write about women in the guilds on her own blog. I will post a link to it here later on when it's up.

In the modern half of the story, Damia works for a Salster college which unearths a wall painting of a very unusual kind....and from this narrative flows a story of campus wheeling and dealing as well as Damia's own love story and acceptance of many things which she has been wrestling with for her entire life.

The book is well written and so well structured that it's hard to believe it's a debut novel. I would have welcomed a map at the front to show us the layout of everything, but then I'm a sucker for maps and other readers might be able to visualize such things better than I can. But I do recommend this to anyone who's fond of past and present coming together in a very touching and satisfying story.

TRUTH by Peter Temple Quercus hbk £12.99

Last time I wrote on ABBA, I was talking about Nordic crime. This book is almost its diametric opposite: Aussie crime. What struck me when reading it was how completely thrillers, or at least good thrillers, are so characteristic of their country that you couldn't mistake them for anything else. This book is set in Melbourne at the time of the dreadful forest fires and is Australian through and through.

From the moment it begins, you're off. There are terrible crimes, there are gangs doing their horrible thing, there is dreadful corruption in high places and observing it all and living it day to day is Head of Homicide Stephen Villani, who comes to the story having also to deal with his own heart-breaking problems on a personal level. And of course, there are those forest fires which form a terrifying backdrop to the whole novel. All these things play out alongside the crime-solving and reading the book is what some reviewers might call 'a roller coaster ride.' I, of course, wouldn't be caught out uttering such phrases, but TRUTH is completely unputdownable and written in a language that not only burns across the pages but also catches you out with a laugh at the sheer Aussie-ness and oomph of what's being said.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Be prepared to have the image of Melbourne you've been envisaging shattered entirely. You will cry and laugh and not be able to resume your life till you've followed Stephen to the very end. I'll be looking out for more by Peter Temple.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Secrets of the Secrets - Sally Nicholls

The new edition of Season of Secrets is out this month - hurrah! It's a story about a child whose mother has died, and whose grief cycle mimics that both of the seasonal year, and of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King - pagans gods who rule over summer and winter, and do battle at the spring and autumn equinoxes.

When I first started writing children's books, all of my stories were realistic. My first book, 'Ways to Live Forever', is very realistic. I'm interested in people, paricularly damaged people, and there seemed to be so much interesting stuff to write about in the real world - love, death, happiness, unhappiness, abuse, loneliness, families, friendships, sex etc - that I wasn't really sure what the point of adding fairies was.

But I've always been fascinated by the Oak King. Like Eliot's Fisher King, he brings life and health to the land as he grows. And when he is killed in autumn, death comes. The plants die. The summer vanishes. It's winter. And then, in spring, he's born again and the life comes back.

It was the Oak King's damagedness which interested me. Here is someone so powerful that they change the world just by existing - yet each year they go through this painful and destructive cycle of death and rebirth. I wanted to write about him, but I wanted to do it through the medium of a real child.

How would this child's story be connected to the Oak King's? The idea that emotions affect the physical world is another old one - Demeter, in Greek mythology, brings winter through her grief for her stolen daughter Persephone. And winter is a good metaphor for grief, because although the spring does come back, winter is never truly gone - the sadness and the happiness will always be part of your life.

The myth became - not a metaphor, exactly - but a way of exploring Molly's grief for her mother. And because stories are much more interesting and fascinating than metaphors, it became a way of exploring her feelings towards her absent father - and a way of figuring her father. It's been described as a love story, and though that isn't what I intended when I wrote it, it's become that as well.

Aren't stories great?

Sally's website:
Buy 'Season of Secrets':

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Children's Lit Sans Frontières - Charlie Butler

I recently embarked on a two-year adventure that will take me, in Dan Brown style, from end to end of Europe (with a brief foray into Asia) in search of the answer to the age-old question: “What are the differences in the ways that children’s literature is taught to 8-11-year-olds in Spain, the UK, Iceland and Turkey?”

Okay, it’s not quite the Da Vinci code, but it’s still important! It’s easy to become myopically focused on one’s own situation and history, after all. In England and Wales we debate the National Curriculum and Literacy Hour, and complain about literature being taught in snippets rather than whole books. What has happened to reading aloud in class for the sheer pleasure of it, we ask? Where do books fit into the wider curriculum? Are they simply springboards to discussion of “issues”? Are they viewed as ways of inculcating social values – and, if so, whose? Which subjects are out of bounds, and why? Who chooses the books? Why do we read so little in translation? What do the children themselves think about it all?

I and my colleagues will be surveying both teachers and pupils in the four countries to find the answers to some of these questions – and one result, we hope, will be a sharing of ideas that will in a small way help invigorate teaching across the board. So far I’ve only been to Murcia in Spain, but in a couple of weeks I’ll be off to northern Iceland and the University of Akureyri to plan our next move (why didn’t we schedule that trip for midsummer? Why?). Ankara is slated for later in the year.

One difference I noticed right away in Spanish bookshops, incidentally, was in the way they display books. Think of the colourful, not to say garish, stands of books in the children’s section of your local Waterstones, with dump bins, covers facing outwards, and each publication striving to be as different from the rest as possible. Then look at the Spanish equivalent, above. The colours of the jackets denote neither publisher nor genre, I’m told, but age-banding - which in the UK remains a highly-controversial topic. It all looks very dull to me, but several people have told me that as children they'd have preferred their shelves to have that kind of neat uniformity. So, who's missing a trick, the Spanish or the Brits? Chacun à son goût, I guess.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Defining moment: N M Browne

It seems pretty obvious to me that a writer, writes. It isn't very complicated you are a writer if you write and a fiction writer if you write fiction and a children's fiction writer if you write children's fiction. So far so good. But what if you are not actually writing - just talking about it? Can you still hang onto that status? We have all I'm sure bumped into the writer who published a slim volume of poetry forty years ago and has dined out on it ever since - can they call themselves writers? Can I?
I am Ok with people saying they are writers even if they are not currently working on something - if they are on holiday , or briefly between books but if the hiatus goes on for too long surely they are ex writers or former writers rather as women of a certain age can be 'former glamour models.' I say this only because I haven't actually written a novel or even really done more than a couple of hours writing for the best part of a year.

I have lectured on writing, run workshops on writing, critiqued writing, given talks about writing, given advice about writing, got into arguments about writing and even assessed other people's writing but I haven't done any myself.
This makes me feel fraudulent. Is an actor still an actor if they haven't had a part for ten years? And what is the cut off point? Am I still a writer now but not if I don't write for another year or two?

I don't think you can be a writer in your heart or head without also being one with your fingers ( or with whatever appendage you use to generate words on a page). I think you can be 'resting' for a while but not for too long or it begins to look like retirement. Sure you can be between books as you can be between jobs but doesn't that kind of make you just unemployed?
Maybe you are different and in your soul you 'just are' a writer, but I didn't start writing until my thirties. I wasn't a writer before then and I fear that I can cease to be a writer as easily as I became one. I am not sure my soul has noticed.

Does it matter? A bit. I like saying rather grandly that I write when asked what I do at parties. It seems more glamorous somehow than saying I hang around for long periods of the day in my dressing gown reading the paper and arguing with imaginary people on t'internet. I would miss the label, but would I miss the activity?
Would you?

Friday, 22 January 2010

Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

THIS is, I hope, a live link to the website of the Oxford Literary Festival, which is full of good things, this year as every year. The reason I'm highlighting it on ABBA is twofold. Firstly, Nicolette Jones has assembled a star cast of children's authors who will be appearing in events throughout the week March 20th- 28th and secondly, she's organized a day of events on Saturday March 27th featuring writers who have connections with St. Hilda's College. Among other things, you'll find PD James on Barbara Pym, an event about women in the media and a panel (Victoria Hislop, Anita Mason and me) discussing the Family and History in Fiction.
Do have a look at the website and please pass on the link to anyone you think would be interested.

Confessions of a Youthful Misdemeanour - Lucy Coats

The anticipated delight of a new title from an author you have been reading for years cannot be underestimated, and I am happy to report that I enjoyed Diana Wynne Jones' latest book, the just-published Enchanted Glass,very much indeed.  It's a stand-alone, and it has all the old W J magic about it--at least I thought so. There is just something about her writing which fuses the mundane and the magical in a way which makes me feel that were I to walk into one of her country villages, I would recognise the landscape and characters immediately.  I would even go so far as to say that if I had to choose a fantasy landscape to walk into, then it would be one of hers. They are so comfortably English, and yet have an edge of hidden danger and wild mystery about them which I find very appealing. 

I didn't discover Diana Wynne Jones at all till I was in my twenties, but I loved her books no less for that. I was working in those far off days as an editor for Heinemann, and was nominally in charge of some of the (then) new and shiny yellow Banana Books.  It was terribly exciting to be editing such literary luminaries as Mary Hoffman, Penelope Lively, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Dick King-Smith (to whom I was known as the Lacy Scout) and the late, lovely Douglas Hill with whom I had possibly the longest, chattiest and best author lunch ever and never got back to work at all.  It was a wonderful time, and I plunged headfirst into reading every modern children's book I could get my hands on to catch up on the ten or so years I'd missed out on. 

That included Charmed Life, and I fell in love with Chrestomanci Castle and its inhabitants at once.  You can imagine my delight when a Banana Book story from Diana Wynne Jones fell onto my desk. And now here comes the Dreadful Confession.  I found that I wasn't actually very keen on it, and I had to write and say so to her agent. Did I do the right thing? It is a question which haunts me even now, and I'll never know the answer.  Apart from anything else, I was longing to meet her.  But even the best of us have an off writing day now and then.  At least,  I know I do. It's part of the rocky territory which goes with this author business.

PS: In mitigation, I now own every book Diana has ever written, both adult and children's and reread them often when in need of comfort--and my own children pounce on them as eagerly as I do.  I do hope that's some small recompense for that one youthful editorial misdemeanour, (and if anyone else out there has a deep dark literary secret they'd like to confess, here's the place to do it!).

Lucy's blog is HERE
Her website is HERE
Lucy is also on TWITTER
and has a fanpage on FACEBOOK

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A new blog - starting from scratch ... Linda Strachan

I just started my own blog the other day, BOOKWORDS (do drop by and say hello!), and although I have contributed to this blog and also written a few guest blogs, this is much more scary and intimidating.
It feels like being the new girl at school on your first day, except that no one has told you what to wear, where to go and what you should be doing. And you KNOW that no one is going to talk to you!

Those of you who are experienced bloggers will probably think all this is obvious but to a novice like me it was a real journey of discovery and it turned out to be easier than I had expected.

I realised I needed a name for the blog and that was the first hurdle because there are so many blogs out there to do with writing,writers and books. So most of the obvious names were gone already.  I decided to call it BOOKWORDS but the url is actually writingthebookwords from the now infamous quote by a certain celebrity.  If you don't know I'm not telling!

Before I knew it - there it was all ready to go, but  aargh!  my brain completely wimped out and I could think of nothing to write.  I don't know about you but I tend to have great ideas when I am in the shower but by the time I have thought them out in detail in my head, got myself to a pen and paper they vanish like water on parched desert sands.

 That didn't last long and a bit like diving into a swimming pool, once I started I discovered the water was not as chilly as I had thought.
 The trick will be not to spend too much precious writing time on it.

And there's the rub.

Being a published writer these days it is almost compulsory to be prepared to put a bit of effort into  publicity and social networking. One writer I know said she had just had conversations with her publisher about her  not being on twitter or having a blog.
So apparently publishers are now actively asking authors if they are blogging, and a website is definitely becoming a requirement - that's not to say your publisher will provide one.  

But how much are we in control of our public or private face? Okay I know I've said something about this before - see my post about privacy and social networking - but  the thought remains. In 20 years time will the children who are being born today be told that far too much social networking is bad for them?    Will there be campaigns (similar to those which help people stop smoking ) to help people to communicate verbally face to face?

 All this blogging and twittering etc etc takes time, and is that writing time and energy.  All the time that aspiring writers spend reading blogs about writing, wouldn't some of it be better spent actually writing? Now there's a thought. 

Don't get me wrong - here I am blogging and starting a new blog so I am not against it - far from it,

I'm enjoying it and I love reading other blogs. 

Linda's website is
Her blog is  BOOKWORDS

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ow - John Dougherty

Please forgive me if this posting takes you longer to read than usual. That'll be because I'm typing it very slowly.

The reason for that is that I'm only using one hand.

And the reason for that is that on Sunday afternoon I broke my left wrist. Rather badly.

I'm not telling you this just to get a bit of sympathy, although quite frankly that would be nice. Rather, I thought I'd use this opportunity to share with you an opinion that just about everybody - including me - has voiced in order to cheer me up:

"Oh, well, you can write about it in your next book."

To be fair, not everyone has assumed it'll be the next one: only that the experience will be useful source material at some point. But it is intriguing, this general assumption that when a bad thing happens to me I'm likely to write about it.

Equally intriguing, by the way, is that nobody's mentioned money. There's no sense of, "Shame you broke your wrist, but you'll get a few quid out of it when you put it in a story." The feeling seems to be that the writing itself will be the silver lining, a compensation in its own right.

I don't know if I will ever write about this sort of injury in a story; but it's noteworthy that - while it has been and continues to be painful and inconvenient - more than anything, I've found it interesting. It's all an experience: the moment of sharp, sudden, numbingly wrong pain; the first sight of the swollen question-mark of my once exclamation-straight wrist; the jarring pangs as every speed-bump takes me ruthlessly closer to hospital; the strange blurring of the world as the morphine takes effect; the peculiar internal disassociation as the doctor and orderly take hold of an end each of my twisted forearm and pull it back into shape; the hot rush of blood back into my veins after the bier block... I've lived it all, but I've also noticed it all, and noticed it in a way I don't think I would have done, once upon a time before my working life was taken up with stories.

So perhaps Anne Rooney was right, when she said in Saturday's entry that "Writing is our way of making sense of the world" - or perhaps writing teaches us to make sense of the world. Whatever the truth of it, I'm going to leave you with a question posed to me in sympathy on Sunday evening, by the lovely Katie Fforde:

How do people who don't write deal with it, when terrible things happen to them?

John's website is at

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Authors and their Muses - Katherine Roberts

The part of me that dreams up stories is quite separate from the part of me that goes to the supermarket for food, drives my car, or does the accounts. It is a fragile part, since it needs to feel safe before it emerges. Yet it is also a strong part, because it is always there deep inside me even if it does not feel like coming out. I am talking, of course, of my muse.

Traditionally the muses are young women who appear in Greek and Roman myth. First there were three, then seven, then nine. They had names, and they specialized in poetry, music, dance, history, astronomy. But obviously nine muses are going to be vastly overworked in our modern age, when nearly everyone seems to be writing a book or making music or doing other muselike things. So my muse is not a daughter of Zeus. He’s male for one thing, and he’s a unicorn.

I can tell when he is sulking. In some environments he emerges, delighted and curious and playful. He likes open spaces, mountains, beautiful gardens, candles, sunshine, snow, independent shops, second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, interesting artwork, music, colours, animals, the moon, stars, sparkly things. He dislikes noise, grey streets, traffic jams, litter, crowds, fluorescent lighting, mobile phones, dentists, and men in suits. He likes to be given little treats – a coffee in pleasant surroundings, a walk in a scented garden, ten minutes of sitting in the sun, a candlelit bath with incense and wine, an open fire on a cold day. In short, he has to be charmed.

For quite a while I did not know what my muse looked like and called him vaguely “my artist”. But gradually over the years he took form. He first showed himself to me when I won a short story competition – I went shopping with the intention of spending my winnings on something special to remind me of my success, and came back with two unicorn book ends. They were rather sweeter and pinker than I imagined, but of course they were my muse as a foal…

(I have been wondering if this means he is a twin – does anyone else have a unicorn as their muse?)

Later, browsing around Hay-on-Wye during festival week, I came across a poster of a more grown up unicorn, which I have on the wall of my study. I burn candles and incense on the shelf beneath it if I need his advice. I painted the wall behind him red for inspiration. He watches me as I write peering over my shoulder and breathing magic mist over my computer. Naturally, he is on the south wall for creative development (he’s into feng shui at the moment).

The unicorn is quite an interesting muse to have. He is a shy creature who will only respond to gentleness (the traditional maiden), and yet has potential for aggression when threatened (a sharp horn). Unicorn horn also has magical properties – it is supposed to bestow eternal life in powdered form, and can transform poison into sweet wine. Unicorns have a spiritual connection sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and are also associated with healing. They are usually shown as being horse-like, which means they can be ridden (but presumably not bridled). They are everywhere you look, and yet they do not exist except in the imagination. It is no surprise they turn up in several of my books.

Lately, my muse has grown strong enough to start his own blog. You can find him at RECLUSIVEMUSE. I am hoping he won’t get too distracted by posting there and forget I need him! He hasn’t got a name yet, but maybe that will come as he matures. He’s only a young unicorn at the moment, a bit innocent still.

Since my unicorn started Reclusive Muse, several of my colleagues on this blog have admitted to having muses of their own (see comments on Muse’s first post) and it’s fascinating how they seem to reflect their authors’ work. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King says his muse is “a basement guy, chomping on a cigar”, which seems about right. I have been looking for an entertaining book about children's authors and their muses but can't seem to find one - does anybody know of a good one, or do I have to write it?

Do you have a muse, and if so what shape does it take? How do you communicate with it? Does it have a name? Is it reclusive and prone to disappearing into the enchanted mists, like mine? Or have you managed to tame it? What kind of books does a tame muse produce? I have a feeling my unicorn will always remain a little bit wild...

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Write for your life

A few months ago I wrote a post about reading as a way of making sense of terrible experiences and events. Finding our own strong emotions expressed eloquently and evocatively by great writers can be a source of consolation or comfort. A book offers companionship, too, a respite from isolation in shared humanity stretched through millennia.

But we are writers. When terrible things happen to us we not only read, but also write about them directly, or indirectly. We might write letters and emails to try to fix or make sense of things, but we also write about the experience itself and can't avoid doing so. Writing is our way of making sense of the world. It is therapeutic, it helps us to work out what we think and feel.

Therapeutic writing is best kept private - only if you are going to polish it with the dispassionate, objective skill you would apply to any other piece is it worth making public. If writing about the experience becomes a dire, slushy story steeped in self-pity like a used tissue, it's best to consider it therapy and leave it hidden. If the writing is In Memoriam, it's worth publishing as a beautiful testament to the beloved, a great and inspiring work of art, and a lifeline to those who come after.

Some people write for revenge, barely disguising the people who have hurt them and seeking their public humiliation. Revenge writing might make you feel better, but it's a bad idea to do it as a reflex, at least in public. A scriptwriter who named two characters in an episode of CSI after a couple who had annoyed her in a real-estate deal was sued for $6 million for defamation in May 2009. A classier revenge is to write something which becomes immensely successful, thus (the writer supposes) leading the perpetrator(s) to be annoyed that the grief they caused has been used not to hurt the writer but to bring them success, fame, wealth and/or artistic fulfilment. Songwriter David Carroll followed this route when he wrote United Breaks Guitars to get back at United Airlines, who would not pay compensation for breaking his guitar. The song became a YouTube hit, which has now had more than 7 million hits.

These commercial incidents were no doubt distressing to the writers, but were hardly earth-shattering tragedies. When things get serious, so do the works of art. Claire Bloom wrote unflatteringly in her autobiography about her ex-husband, American novelist Philip Roth. You might think someone as intelligent as Claire Bloom would have had more sense than to provoke a novelist like that. Roth responded by writing I Married a Communist, lambasting Bloom in a thinly-disguised bad wife. The Roth-character in the novel wants revenge on his wife (who has written about him): "After that book of hers, all he thought about was how to inflict [human cruelty] ... what this huge man really wanted to do was to lash out." Bloom sued Roth.

There are hundreds of examples of writers channelling the pain of real-life trauma into art. Harold Pinter's play Betrayal was based on his affair with Joan Bakewell, and although the story is hardly news she's now trading on it in the wake of Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Pinter, Must You Go?

I don't know whether I will write anything useful or meaningful from current difficulties. I don't have any plans at the moment, but maybe it won't be obvious to me that I'm doing it. I did come across a short story I had started many years ago when wondering how to get out of a relationship that wasn't working. In the story, which is somewhat Gothic to say the least, there is a character who is a conjoined twin, and his twin has died. He has to go about his life, dragging the corpse around with him. Astonishingly, I did not see the significance of this motif at the time. I gave up on the story because I couldn't see an interesting way of dealing with the twin. (In real life, the twin rotted and dropped off.)

So for now I will fiddle around with things and see what sticks - and maybe nothing will, or maybe something will be but I won't see what it is. But if a critic comes across it in a hundred years time, they might see immediately how it relates to my current life. That can lead us into a whole realm of critical theory about authorial intention and constrained readings. But I'll leave that to someone else and ask instead for other examples in the comments of writing in response to real-life tragedies or difficulties. Inspiration, please!

Friday, 15 January 2010

"The Fury of the Norsemen" - The Appeal of the Vikings - by Katherine Langrish

Three of the four books I’ve written so far are set in the Viking Age, and when I visit schools, children often want to know why. Well, obviously Vikings are great material for exciting and bloodthirsty narratives. If I ask the children themselves to describe what Vikings mean to them, hands shoot up, and they say things like: ‘bloodthirsty’, ‘raiders’, ‘killing people with axes’. And I say, ‘That’s all true, but did you know they were also farmers, sailors, discoverers, poets, and adventurers?’

As a writer I’m fascinated by the paradoxes of the Viking age. Here are these hugely energetic, independent, self-reliant people, bursting out of Scandinavia and sailing all over the world, to Byzantium, to Russia – raiding the British coast, discovering and colonising Iceland and Greenland, crossing to North America. Yet their appetite for adventure is intensely practical; it’s all about things we can understand – obtaining goods, winning land for farms, settling down in a new place to raise families.

The whole period is one of colour, excitement, change. Norway and Iceland didn’t adopt Christianity until around 1000. That’s incredibly late for Europe as a whole, so you get this tension between pagan and Christian ideas, sometimes with members of the same family holding different beliefs – amulets with the cross on one side and Thor’s hammer on the other so that people could hedge their bets. We’re so entirely used to post-Christian Europe that it’s really intriguing to peer into this mirror where things were different. (And this may be the reason why so many people vaguely assume that the Vikings are, er, sort of prehistoric. A couple of years ago, Waterstones in Oxford had their Viking books shelved under ‘Prehistory’…) Christianity, it seems to me, expends a great deal of ingenuity attempting to reconcile the notion of a loving God with the world as we see it. The Vikings accepted that their world was a violent and unfair place. Even the gods were not immune from destruction. The best thing was to earn the respect of gods and men. “Cattle die, kindred die: every man is mortal. One thing never dies: a man's good name.”

And we can share their admiration of those who did their best to live up to that motto, often with grim humour:

“Bury me on that headland I thought so suitable for a home,” says Thorvald Eiriksson (mortally wounded by an arrow, in the Greenland Saga). “I seem to have hit on the truth when I said I would settle there.”

In modern terms, Thorvald richly deserved his fate, having just massacred several Native Americans as they lay asleep. Iceland’s great poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, was just six years old when he deliberately killed a playmate with his axe. Violent, ruthless, canny, yet capable of great sensitivity and author of a heartbreaking poem on the death of his son who drowned at sea, he typifies the Viking Age hero – not a man you would be happy to have for a next-door neighbour. I was thinking of Egil when I wrote the character of Harald Silkenhair for ‘Troll Blood’ – whether it’s a gun, or a sword, how do we stand up to the threat of violence? What is it to be a hero? What is true bravery? These are questions the Vikings were deeply concerned with, and so are we, however different our answers may be.

Visit Katherine's website and her new blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

The Sweet Smell of Sliced Watermelon and Swimming with Dolphins - Dianne Hofmeyr

While snow has bucketed down across the Northern hemisphere, I’ve been fighting a duel today with my modem (Broadband doesn’t come easily in Africa!) and have only just managed to pick up all the ABBA news like Leslie’s lovely icy descriptions and Meg’s blog on the Big Outdoors and Elen’s notebook and the 100 odd emails on the books everyone got for Christmas. Sitting here barelegged and barefooted tapping away at these keys I feel about as out of touch and as isolated as being stranded in a snow-bound home.

So with the sweet smell of sliced watermelon wafting up from the breakfast table I’m wondering about how we as writers connect with where we live. Does growing up in a certain environment impact on our work? Are our taste buds for story set by certain idiom according to the landscape of our childhood?

I grew up before television in South Africa. The stories I knew came from movies, radio serials, from being read to, and listening to grown-up gossip while hidden under the table or slinking in doorways. Later I cut my teeth on Nadine Gordimer and writers like Carson McCullers… writers who have a strong sense of place. I don’t think it’s about an ability to describe landscape, but more about a landscape informing your characters. Annie Prouxl does it brilliantly. Her words fairly crackle with a sense of the people who live in a place at a certain time. Which perhaps mirrors what I think happens to all writers in reality. We write as we do because of our inner landscape and connection to place.

A sense of landscape is often perfectly reflected in short story because it’s so condensed – a small fragment that becomes real, important and compelling. The pleasure for me in reading Prouxl, is being completely caught up and utterly driven from line to line in a rush of impact, knowing that in a single sitting I can immerse myself entirely and give myself over completely to the story. Some novels manage this too… their characters informed by an immensely strong landscape… Cormack McCarthy’s ‘Road’, Rhys's ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and Tim Winton's ‘Breath’ I read in the same way, feeling literally at times that I had to come up for air.

I remember seeing the face of the Oklahoma bomber in a newspaper when I happened to be in the US at the time. He was staring silently out, caught in a maelstrom of people milling around him – police, crowds, photographers. In a short story ‘Face of a Killer’ I took this image and gave it to a mother opening the morning newspaper to find her terrorist son staring out at her in the last years of the ‘apartheid’ struggle in South Africa, when gunmen were shooting down people in churches in Cape Town and when Steve Biko lay naked and dying in the back of a van in winter on the 1000 Km journey to Johannesburg, while two policemen sat up front.

Another story ‘Coming of Age’ was written after spending Christmas in intensive care at the bedside of a friend. A young boy was brought in paralysed from the neck down after a diving accident on Christmas day. The gold tinselled Merry Christmas strung across the ceiling shivering in the air-conditioning, the tree at the entrance flecked with artificial snow, the florid red of the cannas in the dusty car park outside the window, and the tinny sound of Christmas carols did nothing to alleviate a sense of the unreal.

Now picking up your snow stories, how strange and unreal it is to be sitting here smelling sweet watermelon and breathing in the warm smell of sea and ‘fynbos’ which literally translates as ‘fine bush’ - the natural scrubs, wild pelargonium and bulbs, indigenous to my sand-dune. I claim it as my own even though it holds the footprints of eons of people before me. Some of the ABBA bloggers might remember the driftwood ‘yurt’ I built on the beach last year. The log pointing skyward in the photograph above is all that remains 12 months on. This year on New Year’s morning of 2010 a group of dolphins slowly circled my son while he was swimming… so close that he could hear them ‘clicking’ underwater and see their scars. What a celebration to the start of a year.
What landscape will inform him as he begins the year he turns 40?

a dolphin wave jumping one evening.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Bonding with the Big Outdoors

OK, I know Creative Partners doesn’t pay the going Society of Authors’ rate for author visits but I’ve just accepted a job with them. Will you all forgive me? I’m not proud. Times is hard and the work will be fun and you will know by how that I simply can’t resist the temptation to do everything that has to do with writing that isn’t actually writing. (I did write three chapters in the last two days, honest!) Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the ‘enquiry question’ set by the school. A storyteller, a visual artist and I will be helping years 1 and 2 and their teachers to explore the question:
‘How can we use the outdoors to enable children (and adults they learn with) to better express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings and make connections?’
My first thoughts are about exploring what they mean by that question – especially ‘make connections’ – but come on, folks – what do you all think? How do you use the outdoors to better express etc etc? Do you? Don’t you? Are they barking up the wrong tree? (Ho, ho, ho!) Personally, I find a brisk walk of a morning an essential part of a writing day – it’s great mulling time. I don’t mean I thrash out ideas that way, though I have a friend who does, but it just allows my mind to go into freefall, wandering all over the place in a relaxed sort of way and I think that’s very helpful and fruitful. It’s also moderately helpful in the battle against writer’s bum! But how useful a brisk walk would be in a big group, I don’t know – and almost inevitably, we’ll be doing group activities. Of course, I’m already thinking along more structured lines – building willow story-sharing arbours, thinking outdoor theatre, planning story trails (there’s a lovely one all laminated and ready to use if you go to Hackfall Landscape Gardens up near Ripon – see my photos) – but how do we as writers use the outdoors? I’ll be fascinated to hear. For me, places are often the inspiration for a story or creep in there somewhere. A long time ago I visited Chastleton House in the Cotswolds and was inspired to write ‘The Ghost in the Gallery’, partly because of the astonishing interior but also because of the spooky, neglected topiary garden. Stockport’s amazing air-raid shelters tunnelled into the sandstone banks of the Mersey sneaked into ‘Piper’, Thurlestone Bay in Devon provided the beach in ‘Fur’ – but this isn’t really about helping me to better express and communicate – it’s more about ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
I am intrigued. Perhaps they have a gut feeling that these small children, living on a fairly grim estate, are creatures of the TV and the play station and need to be outdoors. I would agree – but whether to help their expression and communication, I don’t know. I am excited and challenged and eager to find out. I will be on a journey of discovery and I hope to let you know what I learn. Certainly Forest Schools of which there are now quite a few in the English state system, find that the amount of time and activity spent outdoors has hugely beneficial effects on children’s learning and well-being. I find it fascinating. The stereotypical view of the writer is of one beavering away in his or her study – an indoor person. But here we’re going to be exploring writerly stuff with the focus on the outdoors – which suits me perfectly in moderation. I just want to know what the rest of you are up to! Passionately embracing the snow and the ice as your lifeblood just now – or rejoicing in the cosiness of a job that can keep you in all day? And how would you answer that enquiry question?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

When Chemistry Becomes Biology - Elen Caldecott

Don’t worry, though the title of this post might sound like the denouement of a Mills and Boon, there will be no ripping of bodices here. And no besuited gentlemen writhing in ponds. No. The chemistry I’m thinking about are the little atoms of ideas that strike me regularly. Each of which gets scribbled in my notebook. I’m sure most writers carry one or, failing a proper notebook, a handbag full of bus tickets written all over with a blunt eyeliner (or the male equivalent!).
My notebook (that's it on the right) says things like:

Punkin Chuckers is an annual US pumpkin flinging contest.’

A word is a semi-autonomous virtual machine.’

I like marmalade and clean sheets.’

The owl and the pussycat eyed each other warily.’
The notebook records thoughts, overheard gems and random nonsense. Each of these is a separate, discrete element, set apart from each other like atoms on the Periodic Table. Alone, they do nothing very much; they're no more than a bit of hydrogen, a drop of carbon, a dash of oxygen.

However, given time, something miraculous might happen. I like to think that my notebook is a kind of ancient swamp – the primordial soup – and that the ideas in it might just come together to create a living, breathing story. A narrative abiogenesis. I just have to fill the book up with enough interesting chemistry and, with luck, the biology will follow.

So, since submitting my last novel before Christmas, I have been spending a lot of my time filling the notebook. I spent a couple of hours looking at religious paintings; I saw the finalists in the wildlife photographer of the year competition and visited an abandoned shop which now hosts local artists’ shows. I’ve been reading fiction and non-fiction. I’ve been stealing ideas and dropping them into the swamp.

On the 1st February, I will sit down to begin something new. I’m not sure what it will be yet. I’m hoping that the notebook has been getting jostled and shaken and heated and when I open it on that day, something exciting will spring out. Or, of course, grey sludge might dribble onto my keyboard. There’s no way to know when just the right ideas will meet, so until then, I’m out in the world, scribbling in my notebook. Or on the back of a receipt if I’ve brought the wrong handbag.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Girl Meets Boy. Girl Writes Boy. Girl Loses Plot : Gillian Philip

I was talking to another (female) YA author a few weeks ago, both of us bemoaning the fact that we’d both crashed to a halt at similar points in our new books-in-progress, and at roughly the same time too.

The funny thing was, we had both come to the same conclusion about the reason. We’d just left behind male characters: boys we’d grown terribly fond of. Two of them, in my case, who both told their stories straight into my head. We agreed it was almost easy, the way they’d taken over the narrative, to the extent that they wouldn’t shut up. They wrote themselves, the little beggars.

So this other writer and I had both moved on to new protagonists, and the new protagonists were female, and everything had crunched to a miserable halt. This had got to such a disastrous point for me that I’d just had to switch viewpoints midstream and flip over into the boyfriend’s head. I need to be in love: is that all it is? How shallow of me.

I’m not trying to draw any conclusions from this. I’ve heard some male authors say they don’t feel they can write from a female perspective, not because they ‘can’t’ in a technical sense, but because they don’t feel they have some nebulous ‘right’ to do so. Yet so many men write women convincingly and beautifully. At the same time I wonder if any fella would feel offended by me having the cheek to write ‘as’ a fella.

So all I’m doing here is wondering. Do other writers prefer to write the opposite sex, or their own? Is one easier than the other for you? Would you ever hesitate? Does the gender of an author make you take a doubtful breath if their protagonist is the opposite sex, or don’t you care in the slightest?

Anyway. A very heroic postie staggered across the four-foot snow mountain outside my door yesterday (I’ve stopped shovelling; it felt like an almost suicidal defiance of the gods) to deliver Keren David’s debut novel When I Was Joe (for it was she, the author I mentioned). I’ve already read the first three chapters and I’m already addicted – yes, to its totally convincing cross-gender portrait of a young male.

(And why James Dean and Billy Crudup? Oh, just because I felt like it...)

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Big Snow, Leslie Wilson

Nobody else has done it yet, so I’m going to write about snow! And maybe a lot of you are sick of it by now – I have to admit the not being able to go to Waitrose, etc, is beginning to get a bit annoying, though my neighbour has a 4x4 truck and he’s promised to get us shopping – which is very nice of him. Thank you, Jon! His kids currently have our sledge, since we have no young at home to use it, and I hope they are enjoying it. However, it’s not they who are the authors of this quirky snowman and his igloo home, which I feel deserve display here! The children three doors down made them.

One difference between this Big Snow, so far, and 1963, as far as I’m concerned, is that there aren’t the sculpted drifts – though if the weather forecast’s correct we may well get them, and horrid wind-chill. I do remember them, meringue-topping dry stone walls when we drove out to toboggan in one of the Lake District dales, and that lovely cerulean blue sky which I’ve seen here in the last few days, which otherwise you’d only get in really cold countries. I can remember that headlong rush down the long field into the iciness of a drift, picking ourselves out, my brother and me, and setting off up again for another swoop!

I loved the landscape your eyes can travel over, and the sense of those spaces of white, and the danger of it – we always knew the landscape was dangerous. The sheep huddled in the shelter of the drystone walls, canny as they were, the hard weather could kill them. I remember a tarn frozen, it seemed, in the act of bucking in the wind, ice-waves all across it. My parents got out my father’s old army skis and used them till one of the leather straps broke, and Mum told me about the winters in the Riesengebirge/Krkonose Mountains in Lower Silesia, when the snow came up to the first floor of my great-grandfather’s house and she’d ski out of the bedroom window.

When we get up at night, David and I peer out at the garden in the sepia snow-light. In the first half of the night the solar tree-lights we put up for Christmas still hang in the rowan tree, glowing blue-white, then later they fade. Walking the dog this morning we looked at a pale-green sky separated from the blue by a swath of thick white cloud. Even down here in the Thames Valley the snow seems to stretch distances out, the fields of our dog-walking park seem much wider than they usually do, and the trees, cluttered with lumps of snow, all bright white and blue shadows, are utterly incredible. It’s like living somewhere else. Later the snow’s covered with pointy tiny diamonds of light; this afternoon the westering sun lit bars of light inside the fat icicles on that side of the house. Then there’s the salmon sunset light on the snow before the light fades into sepia again. Here's the house we look out at, being glamorous and like a Christmas card with clouds flocking the sky behind it.
I keep thinking, though, about the 1947 winter, when my mother and grandmother were living in a single room in Siegburg outside Cologne – lucky to get that – with no gas or electricity, since coal supplies had given out, and only newspaper in the windows. They had a tiny stove, but the room was icy. At night they put all the clothes on top of them on the single bed and huddled up together. They wore my grandfather’s military clothes, cut down and with all the insignia and braid cut off, and lived on turnips and bread bulked out with sawdust. Once a wild boar came out of the forest, crazed by hunger, and chased my grandmother down the main street. And all over Europe people were homeless or living in inadequate conditions and they died.

This makes me so grateful for our heating – but please, everyone, remember the homeless now – and the birds! They need our help. And – good news, I’ve just heard that Michelle Lovric’s power has come back! I’m so glad, Michelle.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Inspiration Corner - Karen Ball

I am starting to think about the next book I might write. Inspiration came to me one dark winter afternoon as I switched off my computer from writing a third draft of my current project. I had music playing and leant back in my seat to listen to the same song over and over. It set up such a strong mental image in my head and touched my heart – I could almost feel the story taking shape in my mind as I listened to those four minutes, 55 seconds. But part of me feels embarrassed. How could a Christmas pop chart single from a woman who nearly won a TV talent competition be the source of a book? Could I ever admit it to anyone without blushing? Okay, it was Susan Boyle and her cover of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. There, it’s out in the open.
Susan’s story has touched many hearts and been the source of hot debate over potential exploitation. People have crowded round computers to watch her on You Tube and the States has embraced this Scottish woman as the modern poster girl for the American Dream. Why has she had such an impact?

For me, it’s the story of achievement against staggering odds. Bullied at school, with learning difficulties and living in an isolated community, she walked on a stage to audible sniggers from the audience. Then she started to sing. Despite all the people telling her ‘no’ she went ahead and had a go at ‘yes’. I think everyone can relate to the feelings of not being good enough, of insecurity and self-doubt and we all hope we could be as brave as Susan and have a happy end to our own story. (I’m quite sure there are dark clouds in Susan’s life, too, and hope that she has the support network she needs.) Her story is a fairytale, and we all love a fairytale.
It still amazes me how different arts and crafts cross-pollinate. A song inspires an idea for a book. When I need to rest from writing, I pick up my knitting. Knitting makes me think of the next dress I could sew. If I’m cooking, I want music playing to sing along to. All of these different activities crucially feed each other. It goes further. When I’m out running, I’ll spot a hole in my plot. Cleaning my teeth remains one of my best thinking times of the day. And the violent cursing and pedalling of inner city cycling allows me to work off the frustrations that otherwise would get in the way of anything being achieved at all.
Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not necessarily a thunderbolt or a lightbulb. And, let’s be honest, inspiration is the easy bit. It’s what you do with it that matters. A large dollop of stubborn determination, a slice of good old-fashioned craft, a ... oh god, can I make this stretch any further! You know what I mean. It’s about getting the damn thing written. But thank goodness for inspiration corner, full of surprises and unexpected ideas.
There’s one last thing that most of my activities, including writing, have in common. They take a heck of a lot of patience. Fortunately, I have lots of ripe swear words I can use when no one’s around to listen. Inspiration, patience and swearing. They sound like the ingredients for a book!
What have been your most unusual moments of inspiration? Can anyone beat SuBo?
Visit my website at

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Escape from the Twenty-first Century – Michelle Lovric

We’re always talking about how much the READER loves to suspend disbelief, and about the READER’S craving to indulge in escapism.

But what about the WRITER’S own, deeply selfish motives for escaping the brash, brutal modern quotidian?

Here are seven candid reasons why I like to set my books in the past.

In the 18th century and early 19th century,

1. TRAVEL. One’s characters can gallop about on horseback or be thrown into fascinating company in post-carriages. Or proceed in gondolas with cabins curtained for mischief. Mobile phones do not ring on trains, and nor do attention-deficient businessmen while away long journeys braying the same inanities to ten colleagues, one after another. One’s characters can credibly leave babies in handbags on platforms, unchided, for there are no station security announcements. There is no Gatwick Airport, that cheerless sump of the imagination and of hope. In Venice, you can walk down the street without bumping into a 30-strong tour group with a guide shouting historical inaccuracies into a megaphone.

2. FOOD. There is no McDonalds. There is no nouvelle cuisine. No supermarkets with their ghastly corpse-light. No Finest, Taste the Difference or Everyday labelling on the food: it is visibly good, bad or maggotty. One’s characters can attend, even give sumptuous dinner parties. (And writing a dinner party beats shopping, cooking and cleaning up after a real one – in fact, beats it raw, dips it in egg and rolls it in sage-sprinkled sourdough breadcrumbs and fries it in extra-virgin oil made from olives picked by blind nuns in the shadow of an ancient convent).

3. WATER. One’s characters can go to the well for water, which also allows them hear all the gossip and simultaneously contract a dangerous disease with compelling symptoms. Thames Water did not exist, and nor did their automated dialling system for reporting a burst water main in your street: the one that keeps you holding on indefinitely, without ever speaking to a human being.

4. HEAT. Building regs did not disallow flues for open fires in listed buildings. There was no mains power to cut off. EDF did not exist, and nor did their Customer Service Department have a list of picturesque but conflicting mendacities to recite: Thames Water cut through your pipes/ Our engineers have not yet been assigned a time to attend due to the overwhelming demand/ the wire that is needed to fix the situation is on a truck that is snowbound in Yorkshire/ we had to send our engineers home because of Health and Safety – It is too cold for them to work. (‘What about the Health and Safety of your CLIENTS?’ One bleats, pathetically, nursing the elderly cat who is already wheezing with the cold, after 22 hours without power. But EDF Customer Services is trained in Obfuscation and Mendacity, not Irony.)

5. WORDS. One’s characters can talk in sentences. They know the subtle joy of the semi-colon. They can say, ‘Whereupon I mentioned the very salient fact that …’ instead of ‘I’m, like …’ Or ‘Are not the noble EDF engineers equipped with warm vestments so that these grand fellows may verily execute their appropriate labours in the service of your esteemed clients?’ instead of ‘What the …?’

6. WHAT TO WEAR. One may dispense with the dismal inevitability of thermal underwear, bobble hats jeans and crass designer labels instead indulging in Swiss spotted dimity, tarlatan, salmon-pink surah, crepe, poplin, batiste, pique and lawn, not to mention mousseline-de-laine, organdie, voile, gauze, jaconet and pompadour sateen.

7. (LEGAL) DRUGS. Instead of today’s brutal stuff, gruffly named and garishly packaged, you have the whole lovely lexicon of quack medicine to work with. Such as, Dr Worden’s Water for Weak Women, Dr Bowder’s Compound Syrup of Indian Turnip and Dr Wynkoop’s Katharismic Honduras, The Original Widow Welch’s Female Pills, Vogeler’s Curative Compound, Irristum, Fitch’s Kidney and Liver-Cooler, Pesqui’s Uranium Wine, Hoffman’s Harmless Headache Powders, Dr Brodum’s Nervous Cordial and Botanical Syrup, Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People, Chameleon Oil and Dr Vincent’s Anti-Stout Pills. All these were eagerly bought by a literate public (and feature in my next book, The Mourning Emporium).

So - is anyone out there going to tell me you can have as much or even more fun with Max Factor, cars, mobile phones and aeroplanes?

Michelle Lovric’s website

EDF’s website

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Incredible India: Penny Dolan

What can I tell you about? Please sit down, get comfortable, for I have lots – probably too much – to write about. The mad traffic from Delhi airport, full of battered cars, auto-rickshaws, buses, trucks, motorbikes, bikes, most crammed full with people. Breakfast on a sunny balcony with the birds singing different songs from the green branches. Goats filling the road to Jamid Masir, tinselled necks marking them out for the Great Feast of Eid.. Mohammed, the stylish rickshaw driver who cycled us round Old Delhi, mobile phone pressed to his ear. Streets of tiny shops where people sat on carpets, discussing wedding saris and jewellery. Dust from the huge sacks of chillis burning your throat in the spice market. The view from the top, staring down at the gently decaying building, while men sleep on lower roofs and carts of goods are continually blocking the streets below. Then, on to the modern tiled Metro, where we were sped away to the more orderly Connaught Place, a hive of pavement laying and beautifying.

Or what about the mathematical tranquillity of Humayan’s Tomb, where the sun squinted through the jali screens into the cool darkness within? Families out in their weekend best, posing for photographs around the site of the Qtab Minar, where children ran and rolled laughing down the grassy slope. Or the ancient Haus Kaus college site, where students study geometry homework among the shaded arches while down below a less carefully-minded youth sculls in a giant inner tube across the poisonous jade green lake.

Or the sense of people living everywhere, starting with the cloth tents and corrugated iron shacks along almost every roadside? Construction workers – men chatting, women working and children helping – camped in the shadow of the concrete fly-overs. Small children tapped at the car windows on main roads, selling books or calendars, turning cartwheels or more, under the gaze of their teen minders. Cows went wherever they wanted to be, tugging at rubbish, wandering across motorways, gathering in slow companionable groups, taking their own Indian time.

Then there were regular visitw to the vegetable and fruit stalls, each item beautifully on display – or the chai stall nearby, where, one night, great skeins of halva paste were being tugged into smoothness over the foil-wrapped branches of a tree to make a smooth biscuit dough. Or trips to the stationers shop where all things could be found, no matter what it said on the box. The haberdasher who could – in a shop smaller than many living rooms – find an assortment of string, ribbons and craft materials, plus a hundred yellow "Bookaroo" rosettes and two handsome tie-on beards for a visitor to take home for her children’s dressing up box. There were trips to the MESH shop, home of a good charitable trust, where craft goods made by the handicapped are sold. Or, in the block we went to for bread, the tall glass-fronted Benetton store, the sight of a man dangling from a ladder on a rope, wiping the fourth floor windows. More and more and more images come into my mind, and I hope soon to find a place for them on my website. (Twitter? Blog? Impossible. I needed all my head to even take in such sights!)

But, apart from all this, there special reason why I was delighted to be there. I was there for the weekend of BOOKAROO, the most wonderful Delhi CHILDREN’S BOOK FESTIVAL, now in its second year. For two days, children from toddlers to teens milled around the sunny green garden of the Sanskriti museum, meeting writers, artists and storytellers from across India and Asia, as well as visitors from Australia, France and the UK.

JENNY (Violet Parks) VALENTINE and ANDREW (Spy Dog) COPE were there, as well as WENDY COOLING and JO WILLIAMS, collecting a great crowd for their Elmer the Elephant books and activities.

The festival bookstall, run by EUREKA, the specialist Delhi children’s bookshop, supplied books by most of the speakers. Their array of Indian books surprised me, books that we rarely see in our shops. I particularly loved TARA BOOKS picture books, works of beauty using traditional styles of art to simple but stunning effect – do look up their website! I also discovered some modern Y/A writers like PARO ANAND and others whose books deal with the political and social issues affecting young Indian teens.

And how was my BOOKAROO? I absolutely enjoyed sharing stories with the smiling crowds of children under the big banyan tree, though I must add that all the while, I was trying not to pinch myself in case those moments would all turn out to be a dream. In a way that is what my trip was, a dream come true - a wonderful, incredible, great trip that I have not yet stopped thinking about or pondering on.

I must add that after more adventures, I even got to see the Taj Mahal, where my grandmother and mother had once stood. My deepest thanks to all involved! Namaste! And thank you for listening.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Shameless Self Promotion Anne Cassidy

I have no shame. I will, in this blog, promote my new book, GUILT TRIP, published by Scholastic today, 5th Jan.

It is another crime thriller from me which fits into what someone once called my oeuvre. It’s set in Dagenham and part of it is a kind of ‘road movie’ or homage to the great A13 which I drive up and down at least once a week. Four teenagers drive around in a car. They drive for the sake of driving, the car being a place for them to be, not just a vehicle. They are two couples who are bored and fed up with each other and one night they happen on a boy who is trying to hang himself from a tree. They save his life and it brings them a sense of self worth and gives their lives a sudden value.

For me, the A13 has a kind of urban beauty. From the Beckton roundabout it soars out of East London past the Ford factory at Dagenham and then it glides above the Rainham Marshes towards the giant struts of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge which spans the Thames at Purfleet. It passes lines of tower blocks and used car lots and then the ground beneath it is flat and green punctuated by vestiges of old industry that has long gone. In the middle of the landscape sits a spindly wind turbine that is marooned. It never seems to move and looks out of place, as if it should be in the sea off Norfolk not stuck among the dying plant of the Ford factory.

My characters, Ali, Stephen and Jackson drive up and down the A13. The scenery they pass is a backdrop to their lives. It is in this area, in a nearby park, that they save the life of another boy, Daniel Feeny. Then one night, five weeks later, on one of the derelict car lots under the A13, they kill him and try to hide his body.

That’s when the guilt starts.

Monday, 4 January 2010

When is a door not a door - Joan Lennon

You will all have discovered the joys of IPlayer eons ago, but I'm just catching on - and one of the things I stumbled across recently was a series of talks by Alan Bennett, including one on Writing. My heart sank as I heard him say, in that inimitable voice, the following:

"A writer only feels he or she is a writer at the point of performance, the moment of writing. Do anything else, even related activities like research or background reading and the claim seems fradulent. A writer is only a writer when writing. The rest is marking time. And your published books and plays don't count. They only prove you were a writer yesterday ..."

Rats. Busted.

We all believe this, in spite of what we say to ourselves (and what others, in increasingly weary tones, tell us too) when we are not, in fact, writing. The need for fallow times, curing our ideas in the smoke of experience, letting our words lie in the dark, in oak casks, simmering gently, maturing like cheese - all the analogies we apply to our fear that we aren't really writers at all. Not anymore. Not this time. He says, "Put down the pen or abandon the keys and a writer is always on the brink of fraud." Talk about cold comfort.

It's the voice, I guess. Alan Bennett is just so believable when he speaks. I'd as soon quibble with David Attenborough. But since no one can write constantly, and all those fallow times will happen whether we need them or not, and feeling like a fake is not a good basis for a life, this is not a helpful definition of what we do. A little too bleak. A little too like a northern winter afternoon, about 3:30, in the rain.

Maybe I should forget about IPlayer, and just get on with my writing ...

Joan Lennon's website

Saturday, 2 January 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

ECHOES FROM THE DEAD by Johan Theorin Black Swan pbk.
The decade we’ve just left has been remarkable for the number of wonderful Scandinavian crime/thriller writers who have been brought to the notice of British readers. This last year ended with the Stieg Larsson trilogy (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its sequels) sweeping all before it in terms of sales and attention. These books are terrific and I recommend them to anyone who’s missed them. But...and it’s a big but...they are only the tip of a Nordic noir iceberg and the cliché seems appropriate in the circumstances. We are in very chilly territory with a great many of these writers. My favourites are Arnaldur Indridason, Hakan Nesser, Karin Alvtegen, and Karin Fossum. There’s Henning Mankell, of course, creator of Wallander and the Daddy of the genre but I have to confess to liking this particular detective better in both his screen interpretations than in print. Maybe I was too young when I tried him and ought to give him another go, but meanwhile, there are so many others that I’ve not done so.

I found Johan Theorin through a recommendation on a blog. I then went to Amazon and read a whole lot of rave reviews and bought his first novel. I couldn’t resist buying his his second and I’m waiting for the next most eagerly. Theorin is a journalist and his books are set on an island off the south-east coast of Sweden called Öland. ECHOES FROM THE DEAD concerns the disappearance and presumed death of a young boy in the alvar (look it up on’s an amazing landscape of miles of treeless flora, windswept and rocky and completely fascinating). Many years later, his mother goes back to the island to visit her father, now in an old people’s home. He used to be a sea captain and his hobby is making ships in bottles. He’s also something of a detective and when a parcel arrives with a shoe in it which seems to be the one his grandson was wearing on the last day of his life, the hunt is on for his abductor and killer. The story (in the past ) of the person we suspect may be the guilty party runs parallel to the present -day mystery and by the time all is revealed, we get not only a cracking good tale but also a sort of history of this amazing place with its people and customs and their struggles to make a living in a habitat that is anything but hospitable. The sea is never far away and its sights and smells pervade the narrative without lengthy paragraphs of nature description. It’s very skilfully done. The book has photographs in the back to give you some idea of what the place looks like (rather in the manner of WG Sebald) and this is something I wish more publishers would encourage. I can’t recommend this crime novel too highly. Do try it.

You will then, I’m sure, want to go on to Theorin’s second book, THE DARKEST ROOM (Doubleday trade pbk) just as I did.
This will appear in mass market pbk in March. It won the prestigious Glass Key Award for the best Nordic crime thriller of 2008 and was a number one bestseller in Sweden. We’re still on Öland but this time round it’s a place called Eel Point where the lighthouse stands. We have a house, which has a history and which may or may not have a haunted barn attached to it. We have a family busy with renovating it, just before Christmas. They, too, have a history which will become important later on. A tragedy occurs and although it’s presented as an accident, the rest of the book concerns the attempt of a brave policewoman ( who believes it might be a murder) to discover what really happened. Other people, both from the past and from the present, are caught up in the drama. There are children to worry about. Characters from ECHOES FROM THE DEAD recur and there’s an exciting race to find everything out and prevent other crimes before the arrival of a dreadful blizzard that everyone knows is coming. The dénouement is not only dramatic but also very snowy and cold and ghostly and I can’t help feeling that even now someone is greenlighting the movie and casting suitable actors. Read the book before that happens, because although the resulting film may well be splendid, nothing beats the pictures in your own head. Theorin is a superb newcomer to the Scandinavian crime pantheon.

THE OWL KILLERS by Karen Maitland. (Michael Joseph hbk)
Karen Maitland’s first novel, COMPANY OF LIARS , was a very good Black Death thriller with a terrific twist in the ending and an amazingly beautiful cover. It took you straight back to the Dark Ages and they turned out to be pretty dangerous and brutal too, and of course it was huge fun to read about them. Now Maitland has followed that with a story which is even more fascinating. It concerns the fate of several characters, each one telling his or her own story in the first person and far from being muddling, this technique makes for an exciting build- up, a kind of chorus of different voices, chiming in, one after another and in the process creating a beautifully nuanced story of hideous crime, poverty, ignorance, faith, ambition, greed and superstition. The Christian Church has a rival in the Old Religion and this bit of Norfolk, in the early 14th century, is riven with disputes over the souls, property and allegiance of the peasantry, who live in dreadful conditions and who nevertheless manage to wrest some kind of normal existence (and even a kind of pleasure in life) out of their dire situation. Then there is a group of women: beguines, from Bruges, who are seeking to set up a sister beguinage in England. They are wise, civilised, kindly and efficient and the contrast between conditions in their community and those in the nearby houses, both rich and poor, is striking. Envy fills many hearts. Fear of the unknown has a very bad effect on some. Add into the mix pregnancies, floods, relics, leprosy, a witch, sexual relationships of various kinds and men who enjoy dressing up in huge owl masks and terrorizing the population and you have a rich stew of a book which you won’t be able to put down, even though your arms might need a rest. It’s very heavy and fat and the cover is just as good as the one on Maitland’s first book. Congratulations to everyone concerned at Michael Joseph for producing a really handsome volume and to Maitland for keeping us glued to the (mostly ghastly but with occasional respite) goings- on all the way to the end. I can’t wait for the next book by this author. She writes very well indeed , eschewing completely cod Middle- Ages- speak. There’s an excellent glossary which tells you about the beguinages and other things and this is most helpful. It’s a terrific book for winter evenings by the fire. You can read it and thank your lucky stars you’re living in the 21st century. A very happy reading year to everyone!

Friday, 1 January 2010

Looking Back Catherine Johnson

A late morning and a walk along the Thames in and out of the private gated warehouses, watching the blue grey water lap at innumerable steps. It was lovely standing on stone steps that are so worn by the thousands of footfalls unloading everything from all over the world.

The alleys down to the steps are like brick lined corridors which open onto the bright reflecting blue grey of the river spread flat between here and the south side. There are some awful buildings, but enough interesting ones to make it worthwhile. There is the swallow and gulp noise of the river as it hits the stone steps (the tide was in this morning) to remind you this is the way to the sea, and not just stone steps leading down into nowhere.

And Wapping is so quiet. I can remember when there was nothing at all in Wapping except the derelict warehouses where we went for parties. Now the wasteland has been filled in but because it's all (mostly) expensive flats, no main roads with through traffic or buses it is still, for central London, deathly quiet.

So you stand by the river, facing the sun trying desperately to imagine the noise of all those ships and people and work. Hundreds of people some tired some bored some terrified, just off the whalers from Siberia or Murmansk, others loading up for the voyage to Indonesia, Batavia, Patagonia. The smell of tobacco and spices so strong the empty warehouses kept the scent for years.

It is very hard. So you try some more. Put your hand against the oldest bricks you can see and hope somehow you will get a picture flash up into your mind of how it was, maybe smell the smell, hear the sound.

It never happens. I used to hope, when I was a child, that I'd get some kind of electric shock from Castle walls, a shock that would catapult me into the past, even for a second.

I didn't know then that I would still be trying the same trick as a grown up.

At least, sometimes, if I am lucky, I can call it work!

Happy New Year!