Bubbling up

Tonight, Thursday 7th February 2013, Chi-SCBWI is having its first public event -organised by the lovely Kathryn Evans & Mariam Vossough . I’m really looking forward to it.

I love books.

The theme is the romance of books – originally conceived as a retort to that over-commercialised festival later on this month. Certainly, all the people I know that are attending do love books in whatever form they are presented.

We are holding the event in The Fountain. This old inn dating from 1798 in Chichester’s Southgate has a suitable pedigree for all things literary. There are ghosts – a Roman soldier (to go with the bits of Roman wall inside), and a man and his dog.

I wonder if they will like our bookish chatter?

The inn was once kept by George and Sarah Neal – the grandparents of H.G.Wells (his mother was in service at Uppark not so very far away). In my researches for Georgiana and the Municipal Moon  – the city of Selchester not being entirely unlike Chichester I found The Fountain was originally run by one Lucy Ladkin. Further nosiness led me to discover she lived till at least 83 in retirement at Fishbourne. Glorious.

He looks like a jolly soul.

Who knows what further literary triumphs will spring up from this event?

If nothing else it should be fun, as we are having the lovely Ali Sparkes to talk to us, we are swapping books we love (so tricky to choose!) and eating cake.

Ali with her old biology teacher and a blow-up turtle. As you do.

I may even partake of a little Tanglefoot as the bus is my taxi.

Now there’s a source of inspiration!

There may be to follow…


Good things come in threes, too.

Number One
I’m off to Chi-Scbwi tonight, thanks to a lift from my good friend, Kathryn Evans. Several times a year a bunch of us local writers and artists get together and have a chinwag. It’s great – we are all at different ages and stages – and we support each other as only creative types can! ( make of that what you will)
Number Two
I have finished the first draft of Georgiana and the Municipal Moon (working title) today. 86k all told – a lot of which is piffle – but now I can have my own NaNoEdMo, if you see what I mean.
Number Three
My MA novel,  The Selkies of Scoresby Nab, has been long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. Hoorah!

It’s not me. Honest.

Storming the Citadel

Last night I went to Chichester’s rather lovely Assembly Rooms to listen to Kate Mosse talk about her intriguing new novel, Citadel. I had downloaded and read the beginning ,quite legitimately, I might add, and thought it might well suit my husband. We had been to Carcassonne,  and seen many of the streets in the Bastide which I knew were significant.

A delightful chap from the local Waterstones gave a preamble mentioning the many Kates – all facets of this inspiring and multi-talented woman. Her mother spoke up for Kate the Daughter – which caused a ripple of laughter. He also mentioned her previous titles but forgot ‘The Winter Ghosts’. A copy fell down shortly after. More amusement.

Through careful questioning by her husband, Greg, she took us through the stages taken to reach the finished work. I was pleased when she said ‘Sometimes the characters are not who you think they are’ and went onto explain how they emerge and assert their own traits. How many other writers have experienced this, I wonder?

It was fascinating, if humbling as a writer, to hear about her punishing work schedule. Up at three – coffee – write – jog – eat a little – write some more and so on… She deserves every success with effort like that. Especially when you consider that her beloved father died during the writing of this book.

The shadow of real life on every page of the draft .

Those who have read any of  Kate’s previous works will know how much the spirit of place informs what she does (another notion I aspire to). She spoke of the ‘shadows that you still feel in Carcassonne’ and how the events of 1942 can decide which cafe a person frequents in 2012. There were some deeply moving anecdotes – and in a strange way, it was good to see that these still affected her, despite all the research. She has not lost the emotional connection with the Languedoc over her 23 years of work.

She clearly knows her stuff, yet self-effacingly prefaces detailed facts with ‘As I am sure many of you will know…’ I also cannot help but warm to a woman who admits that ‘novelists are shockingly nosey and inveterate liars’. She is a great smiler and does not take herself too seriously.

For me, the fact that she wanted to tell the hidden history of women and commemorate the ordinary people who couldn’t turn a blind eye,  was appeal enough – but there had to be more before I would get it for my husband. It came with her enthusiasm for adventure stories: H. Rider Haggard and the like:

I like big juicy novels.

And when she said ‘Really, it’s girls with guns,’ and  ‘It’s all about that action!’ I just knew it would fit the bill. As a Sussex man, he would also appreciate the value for money of 700 pages.

So I coughed up and had it signed by both Kate – and Greg. As one of Greg’s MA graduates, I was privileged to be invited to the after-party at Amelie & friends, which was a lovely mixed, inclusive event ( with rather nice olives too). Kate gave an emotional  thank-you speech stood on a chair. I will not forget the deep affection expressed there for her husband and his support. I will always treasure this book as a symbol of the kindness I get from mine.

Playing away

I am going to Carcassonne for the first time tomorrow. I have a soft spot for any walled city or castle and a deeply romantic yearning for the medieval. I think I have dragged my poor parents to every single Norman castle in Wales and one of my earliest memories is being told off for using the clothes prop as a lance. I can only have been five.

You can guess that I am really excited.

However this trip has absolutely nothing to do with my current work-in-progress The Wedding Ghost, nor any other writing I have on the back-burner. It certainly has no relevance  to selkies. So what is the point?

First of all, it is a creative respite: in Julia Cameron’s terms, a chance to refill my well. I have been bashing the first draft of my ghost story and I’m pretty drained. Something unrelated yet inspiring gets the muse going again, I often find. Besides a little French cuisine and culture is all to the good.

Cassoulet - this I must try.

Secondly, you never know, it might start something off. I do not think I would be treading on Kate Mosse‘s toes if I were to write my sort of fantasy adventure prompted by  Carcassonne. A. she is far too generous a writer to mind, B. I don’t think I could manage such involved doorstops as she does and C. it would end utterly transformed by the time I’d finished with it if any of my other locations are anything to go by. Scoresby is not Scarborough, Selchester is not Chichester nor Selsey and The Isle of Wythering exists in some dark space on the South Coast entirely of its own.

Thirdly, it is a deliberate distraction. My MA novel provisionally titled The Seal People of Scoresby Nab is out there: somebody professional is reading it. I am understandably nervous yet I need to focus on what I am supposed to be doing now. I cannot emend my work by telekinesis so worrying about it is fruitless. Hence a trip away thanks to The Beloved Husband.

I am a very lucky wife and writer, I realise. I expect this will stoke me up for quite a while. I shall report back soon.

Which new place would you chose to set your muse singing?

Great Expectations…

This morning I’ve been writing lists and  laying out clothes in preparation for the 5th Chichester Writing Festival. I can feel a fizz of excitement inside and my inner eight year old is squealing and running around.

I get to meet proper writers and get taken seriously. The buzz has made my writing this week go really well – and I haven’t even crossed the marble entrance hall. What will I be like when I get there? I hope I don’t gabble too much. At least I’ve got some pennies to buy drinks – that always helps.

It will be good to meet up with West Dean College friends who are going. On the whole, I find the writing community very supportive – and perhaps children’s writers even more so. ( Name drop moment : Francesca Simon, David Whitley, Sally Kindberg &  Bridget Strevens) We all need time with others who understand our obsession.

So there will be more here on Monday – just what silly things I said and what intelligent things I heard. Now to pack and catch the bus.

I wonder – what do you like about festivals?

The most democratic of spaces…

The Library Book is published today – and I have taken the words of one of its contributors to headline my post this week. Kate Mosse, a local Chichester resident, is a frequent and eloquent advocate on behalf of libraries. She speaks up for libraries everywhere, even though West Sussex is relatively healthy on that front.

She is in good company.

Big names such as Stephen Fry, and tireless long-term campaigners like Alan Gibbons, are asking all of us to do something for our local libraries on Saturday 4th February : National Libraries Day.

My contribution will be a little unusual. Instead of taking books out, I shall bringing books in. ‘The Local Rag’ ( yes, Castle Printers‘ news round up really is called that) ran a story on the library wanting books. The Witterings Library was overwhelmed – which shows the level of local support. Since the original influx, they have asked for paperbacks under two years old and hardbacks under four. I will do what I can to provide.

You might like to check what your local library wants – or in some wonderful cases –  is giving on Saturday. Show them you care.

Join a wonderfully diverse band of supporters : The Bookseller, The WI,  and Unison.

Please sign this e-petition ( if you haven’t had chance yet ) by  FEBRUARY 5TH

Buy the Library Book from Waterstones or Amazon or even better from Hive and delivered free to your local bookshop.

Take books in – or out – of your local library.

Do something so that people will have the chances you had in the future.

Marx for tots

I took a break from editing to visit an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. The illustrator featured was a friend of Eric Ravilious ( who so perfectly captured Downland Sussex ) and had worked on children’s books so I thought I’d give it a go.

Enid Marx (1902 – 1998) was the first woman engraver to be appointed a Royal Designer for Industry in 1944 amongst other claims to fame. Do look her up – she is quite inspiring. But I want to focus on what I saw – and what it said to me as a writer.

It was lovely to see a real book, slightly worn and read, on display. Her designs for Zodiac Books’ ‘Nursery Rhymes’ were light-hearted, slightly scribbly and full of tiny details. She hid ‘easter eggs’ to spot – a technique which appeals directly to children. An early form of interactivity, you might say.

It was also plain she did not patronise children. The birds for Who Killed Cock Robin are each recognisable, the seaweeds in a cloth-book are identifiable and the herring gull and tern quite distinct. She gave her animals character (her cats are particularly fine) but they are not twee. Her large owl is definitely predatory, if not haunting.

I should not have been surprised that she and her partner Margaret Lambert studied and wrote about English traditional art. There is that same directness, delight in detail and playfulness. Despite her sophisticated technical ability, she strove to create something engaging and apparently simple.

That was the message for me. I believe that open-minded children are not so easily fooled by the smooth and glibly perfect, that they react to the quirky, the wonky but honest, and loathe being talked down to. It is our job to produce the best we can, using all our adult guile – yet remain true to our stories.

What sort of writer do you want to be?

The viva voce for my MA in Creative Writing was on Monday. I have passed ( thanks to superb tuition from Greg Mosse) – and I am immediately wondering which subset in the Venn diagram of authors I should inhabit.

I’ve been asked to consider writing for adults. Straight off I flinch at that. I will admit to an entire Harry Ramsden’s on my shoulder about the status of children’s writers. It is compounded of my experience as a teacher that your rank is in direct proportion to the age of the children taught; the same impulse that made the ‘Children’s Writing IS a proper job’ badge sell out so quickly in November 2010, and Martin Amis’s remarks in February about brain injury and writing for children. The subtext is that writing for adults is somehow better, cleverer, more valuable.

Well, I’m with John Dougherty:

Don’t worry Martin. We can’t all be imaginative and versatile.

One of the things I admire most about the literature published for young people is the sheer range and breadth of ideas. Big ideas, written for people who will not be blinded by the effulgent beauty of your prose nor give one microfortnight of attention to reviews by your literary chums.

It is notable that David Almond (a literary hero to me) found a sense of liberation in writing for the young. I am put in mind of this concept:

Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.

Robert Moss, Dreamgates 

Quite simply, I believe young people are more likely to be receptive to the stories following me about and asking to be told than adults. And I bother to write because of my belief in those same young people, and what stories are for.

 Every word written, every sentence, every story, no matter how dark the story itself might seem, is an act of optimism and hope, a stay against the forces of destruction.

David Almond, Hans Christian Anderson Award acceptance speech

Now before I get all too Messianic, I’d also like to point out that despite all the moaning of the pessimists, the children’s book market is thriving. According the ‘The Bookseller’ in 2001 it was worth £193 million – and in 2010 £325 million. Christopher Paolini’s ‘Inheritance’ sold more than 76,000 copies in UK in first week of publication this November.
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (Man Booker winner) ? 14,600.
Children’s books often demonstrate the effectiveness of long tail marketing: they carry on being bought long after the brass bands and banners have left town.
It’s possible for me and my colleagues to do well.
When I decided to get serious about writing, I read Alison Baverstock’s unsettling but finally very useful ‘Is there a Book in You?’. She made it quite clear how important a support system is for any writer. My best scaffolding comes from SCBWI – I know I can contact wonderful people who will talk me down off the parapet, sort out my formatting issues or just plain be there. The conference in Winchester is a highlight of my year.
What other sort of writer could I possibly want to be?
Then come the next questions: YA or middle grade? Fantasy or thriller? Ghost stories or sea stories?
 to be continued….

Facing the Truth

Today, 3rd September 2011, I went toPallant House Art Gallery’s Open Day. This was an ‘artist’s date’ to use Julia Cameron’s term. Having reached the end of the first draft of my novel for the MA, my inspirational well was bone-dry.

I needed to make the most of it, so I took my time and explored David Jones’ Xtension exhibition and other artists’ work. The thing which struck me was the unashamed truthfulness of the best artworks. In ‘Icarus in Brighton’ there are beautiful nymphs or goddesses, the pier, the fallen young man – and a coke can. This ‘outsider artist’ showed what he saw in his mind’s eye.

I compared the ships of the naive artist Alfred Wallis with the other works of the St Ives artists represented in the collection.For me, his work has an unselfconscious strength. He wasn’t looking over his shoulder, wondering what critics might think. He created. That’s all.

I coughed up my £2.50 and went to see the Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera Exhibition. I loved how Frida painted her own moustache with the same care as the lace round her neckline. She showed faces with warts, scabs, pouts and unplucked eyebrows.

Her husband said it all:

‘She tears open her heart and her chest to tell the biological truth about what she feels.’

As a writer, I aspire to such honesty, such ‘telling it as it is’. I think of Rembrandt’s later portraits – who would not aim for such truthfulness of compassion?

So that is my justification for observing closely a family drama played out in a cafe. I noted down the expressions, the phrases and the actions in order to convey emotions truthfully as I see them. I shamelessly dissected what was going on, remaining uninvolved and dispassionate ( I recall Kahlo trained to be a doctor). The point of such apparently callous behaviour is to get at the truth.

Squeamishness in a surgeon is something to be overcome – and I think it is also in a writer.

In concert

We all need encouragement.

A church with no parish on a wet lunchtime in Chichester – not somewhere you would expect stimulation for writing, perhaps. But experiencing the thrilling She’koyokh klezmer band led me to some thoughts about books, writers and readers.

The band came on stage in fine style. Your eye was taken by the violinist in rich red satin and cobwebby lace, or the clarinettist – a white-suited woman in a glossy black hat. You might favour the django guitarist with Roma-dark hair or the bass player – a Georgian vampire or pirate with his long hair, waistcoat and watch chain. An appearance of otherness, of exciting, glamorous colour, of being more draws you in. That’s what I’d want right from outset in in a book cover – to reflect my individuality of voice .

Then there was the theatre of the performance. It was heightened; it was hyper-real – but not just for show. The two young women duelled across the stage, smiling and reacting to each other’s playing. The young men nodded frowned, responded -there was an exchange going on about the music itself. I would wish that from my writing – to have drama and a certain degree of showiness to pull the reader inside the world I’ve made for sharing.

One of the most popular moments was the opportunity to join in. I had never sung the chorus before – but the melody was familiar enough to follow. It had a shape I could recognise – but enough difference from tunes I already knew to be entertaining. My writing needs to do this on both structural and emotional scales – the pattern of the story telling needs to be there for the reader to follow, and the music to bring their hearts along for the ride.

Finally, there was the exuberance of different traditions brought together: it’s not every day you hear Yiddish sung in a neo-classical preacher’s church. I loved how Greek and Turkish music conjoined beautifully. It brought both vigour and delight. I long for my stories to bring disparate strands together in a satisfying whole.

I believe that’s what in concert really means.