How incomprehensible unworkable things inspire

Joanna Briscoe and Grace Paley caught my attention this month. They’re very different writers but I’ve just read articles about writing by both. Grace Paley died in 2007 but a friend sent me her thoughts on writing recently. Here’s an extract from an article, reprinted here):

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. …

In other words, the poor writer… really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about. 

It sounds mad, but it’s entirely sane. Grace Paley called it ununderstanding and it’s essential: I don’t write because I know the answers to life’s difficulties and dilemmas, I write because I’m looking for answers. I write in the dark, groping towards the light.

Joanna Briscoe wrote this (the complete article is here):

Yet somehow, for all the agony, it soothes my soul to write. Festering psychological horrors are brought to light. Lives are invented and made anew. The shapes, concealments and twists of storytelling form a puzzle that brings great satisfaction in the solving.

Exactly so.

And the thing I would be proud to have invented this month in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible is a solution to something that wasn’t working. Nineteen years ago Michelle Mone was at a party when the bra she was wearing got so uncomfortable she vowed to design one that wasn’t. The result was not one bra but many, from Ultimo, the hugely successful company she founded.

So, when something’s ununderstandable or unworkable, don’t give up: make something new.

Posted in Storytelling, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Women, Writers, Writing | 5 Comments

Ideas are NOT stories; and the Biblioteca Jardim

It becomes obvious if you write,
but perhaps not if you don’t:
ideas are not stories.

Before I wrote or, at least, before I finished a novel, I didn’t grasp this fundamental fact because ideas, when they come (and I’ve no idea where they come from) are so exciting. They’re the fuel; the energy; the surge; the thrill; the I’ve-got-an-idea-so-now-I-can-write part of writing.

But an idea is just that: an idea. It can be written on one line or told in a few seconds. It’s the elevator pitch. It’s not the story.

Stories are born, often during protracted years of labour, from the idea but the story fleshes out the idea through characters whose lives intersect and whose personalities make them do what they do and fail to do what they fail to do. Characters who love and hate and dither and wait. Characters who work and lie and comfort and die. Characters who misunderstand and hesitate and plunge in and necessitate … other characters to react. As Hilary Mantel writes in The Agony and The Ego:

If you make your characters properly they will simply do what is within them, they’ll act out the nature you have given them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot [p38].

And as Neil Gaiman writes here:

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

I’ve been re-discovering this while writing my third novel: I’m about to begin again … .

And this month’s thing I’d love to have made in a parallel universe where all things are possible and time is infinite is: the Biblioteca Jardim in the Estrela Gardens in Lisbon.Biblioteca Jardim, Estrela Gardens, Lisbon

It was built in the 1920s, fell into disuse but was resurrected and it’s such a fine idea: there’s a choice of 1,000 books to borrow as well as magazines, newspapers and games. There’s shade to read them in and no need to weigh yourself down with your own book(s) or newspaper(s) while you walk. Just sit and surprise yourself with what you might read one sunny afternoon in the Estrela Gardens.

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Men and Embroidery, and a belated apology

Inspired by this post about John Craske and his delicate life and delicate embroidery in a new book by Julia Blackburn, at dovegreyreader earlier this week, I’ve begun thinking about men and embroidery. My grandfather sewed: tapestry, I think, for chair and cushion covers, but I thought, horrible child that I was, that it was an unmanly thing to do.

My grandfather suffered from depression and sewing may well have been a form of solace, even, perhaps, therapy, as it probably was for John Craske. But I’ll never know whether sewing helped my grandfather because I never had the wit or the wisdom to ask him. But I discovered, from Megan McConnell here, that during the First World War the Red Cross ran embroidery classes for men as part of their rehabilitation from wounds and shell shock. She writes:

Embroidery was taught to men who would otherwise be unable to work and many of them went on to produce skilled work both as professional embroiderers and hobbyists.

The same thing happened in World War II, although by then the need for professional hand-embroiderers had diminished but that didn’t stop embroidery becoming a hobby for many men, as it did for my grandfather.

The thing I would like to have done this month is be less blinkered (and idiotically sexist) about my grandfather’s hobby, but I wasn’t and now even the opportunity to apologise for my lack of appreciation of what he did is lost. But as is the way with lost things, they haunt us and I think this one will haunt me and find a way into my fiction. I’m already gathering threads, silks and blank canvases for a novel about mending broken things … .

And, by way of belated apology to my grandfather, here is a beautiful embroidered panel designed by one of the masters, William Morris, which I would love to have talked to him about:

Design for an embroidered panel with border by William Morris, 1878. Victoria & Albert museum number E.55-1940, part of the May Morris Bequest.





Posted in Artists, Design, Things I'd Love to Have Made | 4 Comments

Electoral Reform in the UK. And Inspiration.

On 5 May 2011 a referendum on electoral reform was held in the UK: 68% of us voted No; 32% (including me) voted Yes; the turnout was 42%. We weren’t collectively brave enough, or we were too frightened of change to vote Yes conclusively (or to vote at all).

Last Thursday, 7 May 2015, a Conservative government was elected with a majority of 12 seats under our first-past-the-post voting system: their share of the vote was 37% (or 11.3 million votes). Labour was defeated, but its share of the vote was 30% (or 9.3 million votes). The difference in seats between the Conservative party and the Labour party was 99 despite the 7% difference in share of the vote (the turnout was 66%). The first-past-the-post system doesn’t represent actual votes cast.

On 11 May Dr Henning Meyer, who writes about social democracy for Social Europe, wrote about whether or not proportional representation could save the United Kingdom. Here’s an extract:

A continental-style, more representative electoral system fostering cooperation rather than confrontation would in my view be a significant means to moderate the political forces ripping the Union apart. At the same time, such a system would deliver outcomes that have more legitimacy outside England as it involves a process of coalition and wider political representation … [and would] incentivise the creation of a unifying, countrywide politics rather than prioritising electioneering in specific target areas.

If the UK’s voting system was proportionately representative (and I know there are several possible systems) the difference in numbers of seats won by the Conservative party and the Labour party on 7 May would have been less than half what it actually was under what the Electoral Reform Society call a ‘fair voting system’. And of course the other seats would have been distributed more fairly among the smaller parties. One day, let’s hope, we’ll be inspired to make the change.

Talking of inspiration, on 22 April my sister Sue Tribolini and I talked about what inspiration might be and how to tap into it, on her Invisible Dimension radio show. We actually made the thing I’d love to have made, this month, together. I said jewels inhabit our unconscious minds, jewels formed from the things we experience (not just literally, but the things we read, discover, think and feel), but that we ‘forget’ these jewels. I said inspiration is the link we make between the ‘forgotten’ jewels (which form just the way minerals become precious stones before they’re mined) and our imaginations, through writing techniques like morning pages. (By the way Dorothea Brande in her essential Becoming a Writer talked about morning pages years before anyone else.) It’s just like mining, really, only without a torch and without the physical hardship or danger.

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103 years on, Titanic; and the things that come unbidden when you write

One hundred and three years ago today more than 1,500 people died in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic when RMS Titanic hit the iceberg and then sank, in the early hours of 15 April. My great-grandmother, Nöel Rothes, was one of the lucky survivors and this year YOU Magazine in the Mail on Sunday has printed an article I wrote about that terrible night, the things Nöel did to help the survivors and the bond she and the Able Seaman in charge of her lifeboat forged. You can read it here, if you’d like to. I also wrote about her and the tragic sinking on the 100th anniversary in 2012, here.

RMS Titanic leaving Southampton on 10 April 1912          (from Wikipedia)

The Dance of Love, my novel that reimagines Nöel’s life – as discussed here on the wonderful Shiny New Books – took a while to write, and to get right, partly because I’m a novice novelist (it’s my second) but also because it was my first piece of historical fiction so I didn’t recognise immediately, as Hilary Mantel so wisely put it:

You have to think what you owe to history, but you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story and they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatised.

The Dance of Love by Angela YoungThe Dance of Love doesn’t faithfully follow the course of my great-grandmother’s life: when an image arrived unbidden one day I realised the story I was writing was emotionally linked to that image and not to many of the facts that made up her real life.

On 22 April my sister, Sue Tribolini, will interview me about things that arrive unbidden while writing. We’re going to talk about what isn’t anticipated, where these things might come from and how it might be possible to harness them. The station is called, it’s based in Toronto and Sue’s Invisible Dimension show is an hour long.

Chekhov said: A writer is a person who has signed a contract with his conscience.

The Middle English translation of conscience is inner knowing; the Latin is with-knowing/understanding. Sue and I are going to see what we can untangle of this inner knowing and it would be lovely if you joined us here, at 8pm on 22 April (or, if you’re in the US or Canada: 12 noon Pacific; 1pm Mountain; 2pm Central or 3pm Eastern time).

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A time when women weren’t persons … and other equally unequal inequalities

In 1927 a group of Canadian women’s rights activists, including Emily Murphy, who was born 147 years ago today

Emily Murphy, Women’s Rights Activist, born 14 March 1868, Cookstown, Ontario, died 17 October 1933, Edmonton, Alberta.

launched the Persons Case, which contended that women were qualified persons eligible to sit in the Senate. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they were not (I wonder what the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, thought women were, if not persons?). But, on appeal to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council, the court of last resort for Canada at that time, the women won their case.

It’s extraordinary to think that only 88 years ago such things had to be debated, that it wasn’t a matter of ordinary fact. That only 67 years ago the United Nations declared and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That only 50 years ago the Selma Voting Rights Movement led to the Voting Rights Act. And so much more that has (and still hasn’t) happened in terms of our humanity and equality. What is it with us humans that we feel we must segregate and divide ourselves? Why do we fail to find our curiosity about each other?

On 18 February, on her radio show The Invisible Dimension, my sister, Sue Tribolini

Sue Tribolini

interviewed Kass Thomas

Kass Thomas

who has her own show on the same radio station, (a Canadian internet station). They discussed how we might live without prejudice. Kass suggested curiosity was the way. If we ask, ‘What’s it like to be you?’ and ‘What’s life like for you?’ instead of assuming we know (and so holding on to our prejudices) we might begin to get somewhere: somewhere better than where we are now.

Those will be my questions from now on: no need for a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible this month: these questions belong right here, right now, in this world, where time and our humanity are the most precious things we have.

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The Brain in Love; and Jim Burge’s Burgeoning Promotional Videos for writers and artists

Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, studies the brain, in love. She gave a glorious TED talk about it, here.

I particularly loved Walt Whitman: Oh, I would stake all for you.
and Emily Dickinson: Parting is all we need to know of Hell.
and Dr Fisher herself: Anthropologists have never found a society that did not have love.

Dr Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist at Rutgers University, talking about the Brain in Love.

Dr Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist at Rutgers University, talking about the Brain in Love.

And, Dr Fisher again, The brain system for focus, for wanting, for craving, for romantic love, becomes MORE active when you can’t get what you want.

Dr Fisher and her colleagues have made neurological studies of people who’d just fallen in love and people who’d just been dumped and they found the same brain centres were activated and the same brain chemical (dopamine) was ‘sprayed’ into other parts of the brain. This centre is also the place from which we take enormous risks for huge gains or huge losses … and in Dr Fisher’s opinion love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful one when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible one when it’s going badly. But the thing that cheered me about all this is that when she was asked if all this knowledge had taken the romantic nature of love away, for her, she said it hadn’t: she said you can know all the ingredients of a chocolate cake and still, when you eat it, you can find yourself in heaven. Dr Fisher developed a personality test for based on our levels of dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and oestrogen: to tell us who we are and whom we should love!

She ends with:
Love is in us. It’s deeply embedded in the brain.
Our challenge is to understand each other

Happy Valentine’s Day!

And the thing I’d like to be able to do, in a parallel world where time is infinite and all things are possible, is to make the promotional films and videos that Jim Burge makes. At Burgeoning Media they make videos for writers to publicise both the writer and the work; for artists, for gallery owners: they’ll even make a film of your wedding, should that be your heart’s desire.

The brilliant thing about Burgeoning Media is that they take the time and the trouble to find out about you and your work so when you find yourself in front of the camera (a terrifying experience for must of us) you look and sound as if you know what you’re talking about, and you sound spontaneous because you’re answering intelligent questions about your work, not spouting something you’ve learned by heart (which always sounds wooden). I’d love to be able to make such captivating films. Here’s the film Jim Burge made of me talking about The Dance of Love … if you want proof of his ability (it’s all his, I promise you, not mine).


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Je Suis Charlie …

… one week on, what else is there to say but Je Suis Charlie and to stand with the murdered at Charlie Hebdo? Except Je Suis Ahmed.

copied from Wikipedia (which copied the image from the Charlie Hebdo website).

image from here:

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Fog Island Mountains and Dr Atal Gawande, this year’s BBC Reith Lecturer

Michelle Bailat-Jones has written a beautiful novel called Fog Island Mountains. I’ve just posted a review of it here. The novel won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award and I hope it goes on to sell, and so to affect, many many readers. It deserves to because it deals with the most serious event in our lives with eloquence, compassion, honesty and delicacy. The term Bailat-Jones gives her protagonist for his cancer is everywhere … something that can neither be contained nor cured nor properly understood, just coped with. But this is definitively NOT a depressing novel: I urge you to read it: you can find copies here.  Fog Island Mountains

And the thing I would like to have done this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is linked by subject matter to Fog Island Mountains: I would like to become Dr Atul Gawande because his series of Reith Lectures are extraordinary for their depth of understanding of the way medicine is practised – at least in the Western world – and for his compassion for the people whose cases he uses to illustrate his lectures. He embeds a personal story in each lecture and so we discover the things Gawande thinks medics get wrong through the palpably personal experience of one individual. The lecture broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday 9 December was about the medicine, treatment and care of the dying and how we’ve spent, in Gawande’s words: ‘Fifty years medicalising mortality and it hasn’t worked’. It used to be that we died at home; now most of us die in institutions and that isn’t good for us or for our families.Atal GawandeObvious, obviously … but the reason it happens, Gawande thinks, is that doctors ask the wrong questions and they talk too much. They should talk less than fifty percent of the time (Gawande discovered he talked ninety percent of the time when giving diagnoses) and doctors should ask questions of their patients, because the only way to discover what a person really wants is to ask. (Families can ask the questions too.) The answers to the questions Gawande now asks can make a patient’s final days as painfree as possible and more peaceful, even happy. In the case of the patient he talked about in Tuesday’s lecture, a piano teacher, after she’d answered his questions she was able to leave hospital (where the chemotherapy was actually making her condition worse) and give classes, hold concerts for her students and give them each a few words of wisdom and encouragement before she died.

‘When you focus on what’s worth living for,’ says Gawande, ‘you can live better and longer, for a while.’ Hospice nurses, Gawande says, focus on making each day the best day possible for the patient. But this is the opposite of medical thinking, which is to make a medical intervention that usually makes things worse, at least to begin with, even though it’s likely to make for a better future: but many people in the final stages of life die in surgery, their last day on earth is spent on the operating table. So doctors’ attitudes, at this stage of life, need to change.

The questions Gawande asks are: what do you understand about your illness?; what are your fears and worries for the immediate future?; what outcomes are unacceptable?; where, how and with whom do you want to spend your last days? When a person answers these questions it’s often possible both for families and medical teams to make that person’s last days or months good days or months for them, and days or months to remember and live on in the hearts of the people who loved them. ‘It is,’ says Gawande, ‘the rounding of the story of your life. It’s not a good death that’s needed, but a good life, for as long as is possible.’

A remarkable man … may his compassionate ideas find their way out into the world: everywhere.

Posted in Death and Dying, Literary Prizes, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers | 2 Comments

Sequels, Literary Festivals and Natasha O’Farrell’s heavenly handbag

There have been some heart-warming reactions to The Dance of Love and several people have suggested I write a sequel, possibly set in the Depression and the lead-up to the Second World War because, they said, it would be fascinating to find out what happens next in the characters’ lives and how they do or don’t live with the things they decided (or didn’t decide) to do by the end of the novel. I’m delighted to discover that the characters lived convincingly enough in readers’ minds to make more about them and their lives happily anticipated and – although I’m at work on my third, very different, novel – I’m quite taken by the idea. But if I do write a Dance of Love sequel (perhaps to be called, as suggested by one sequel-desirer: The Dance of Life) I’ll bear in mind the following comment from this article about sequels, from an August 2014 piece in the Guardian (which included the news that Audrey Niffenegger is writing a sequel to The Time Traveller’s Wife):

I think that well-written books, especially those with uncertain endings, are best left well alone. Re-visiting is always a bad idea … like meeting up with ex-partners; it never turns out as well as you hoped it might.

Hmmmm … .

And just recently, while researching literary festivals in the UK, I discovered a wonderful website that lists all the literary festivals in these islands. It also hosts writers’ pages: mine is here.

And the thing I’d love to have made this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, is this heavenly handbag:

The O FARRELL - made in England by Natasha O'Farrell

The O FARRELL – made in England by Natasha O’Farrell

Here’s Natasha O’Farrell’s website: wouldn’t her handbag make a glorious Christmas present for someone you love (perhaps even yourself?).

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Haworth Parsonage, Richard Flanagan and Anselm Keifer

In September we holidayed in England: we travelled north-west to Stratford (and saw a wonderful production of The Roaring Girl, a play about Mary Frith, an astonishing sixteenth-century woman who lived and dressed as a man, partly in defiance of her times to give herself freedom, partly so she could act as pimp, procurer and cutpurse). Then we travelled north from Stratford: our northernmost destination was Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads just north of Hexham, but my favourite place was Haworth Parsonage in West Yorkshire. My skin tingled as I stood in the Brontës’ dining/writing room and listened to a curator telling me how Charlotte, Emily and Anne would walk round the small table reading their work to each other (and how, after Anne and Emily died, Charlotte continued to walk and read aloud, and how sad that made their housekeeper). The curator also told me that her particular Brontë hero was not the writers, nor the errant Branwell, but Patrick, their father, because he encouraged his daughters to read anything and everything: he never proscribed a single book, a rare thing for a father of daughters in the early nineteenth century.

I have yet to read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North but I’m already looking forward to it because of the things Flanagan said in his 2014 acceptance speech for the prize: the bit about novels in particular:

‘Novels are [not] … a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.’

And the thing(s) I’d love to have made this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible, are Anselm Keifer‘s paintings and sculptures. There’s a room of paintings in his exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (which ends on 14 December) – I think it’s the third room – where, as soon as I walked into it, I felt a deep sadness. I can’t tell you how Kiefer transmits these feelings or what it is about his paintings that makes that happen, but it happens and I urge you to go to the exhibition if you can. There’s another room where the paintings glow sunnily yellow and as soon as I walked in to that room I felt joyful. And another where three small and one large painting sparkle with stars in a night sky (or jewels, or ideas that excite). I didn’t love every painting but the ones that touched me, touched me deeply. There’s also this: a leaden-winged pile of books called The Language of Birds: how could I not love it?

The Language of Birds by Anselm Kiefer, 2013

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The Launch of The Dance of Love, History of the Rain, and Emily Young’s Kew Gardens angel video


The Dance of Love

The Dance of Love

was launched at the wonderful Barnes Bookshop last Thursday: I wrote about on Robert Hale’s blog – the book’s publishers – here. It was a happy family affair: my whole family was there: my two younger sisters smuggled my American sister into the country for it which was a wonderful; the family of people without whom no book makes its journey out into the world were there, and the family of readers without whom no book can ever transfer itself from the writer’s to the reader’s imagination were there. A happy day, all 50 copies sold and may that augur well for the book’s future.

I hate the Man Booker Judges’ decision not to include Niall Williams glorious History of the Rain on its shortlist.
Media of History of the Rain

But it’s such a spellbinding book that – despite the judges’ decision – it will continue to spellbind readers with its lyrical poetic language and poignant uplifting story. It will be read and read and read and … as I tweeted before the shortlist was announced: may it reign and reign and reign.

And the thing I would love to have made this month, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and nothing is impossible, is Emily Young’s Wounded Angel who has lived in a secluded spot in Kew Gardens since 2005. I wrote about him, and Emily, before, here. But how could I not write about him again: he is so very beautiful, poignant and touching.

sculpture copyright Emily Young, photograph copyright Angelo Plantamura

You can see a video of him on Emily’s website, here.

Posted in Artists, Dance of Love, The, Design, Places, Reviews, Things I'd Love to Have Made, Writers, Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

Today for one day only THE DANCE of LOVE is .99p on the Kindle Daily Deal (or $1.64 in the US)

If you own an electronic reading device (why does that sound so odd?) and you’d like to download and read a historical romance that’s received kind words from reviewers (‘Lovers of Austen will find much to admire here’ Shiny New Books; ‘A beautifully-written book that moved me deeply’ BooksPlease; ‘Sparkles with rich and authentic detail’ Fiction is Stranger than Fact😉 then you can buy THE DANCE of LOVE for just .99p today (until midnight) from here (in the UK); or for US readers, for $1.64 instead of $4.13, from here.

Dance of Love, The - FRONT cover FINAL (2)I hope you enjoy it and if you do, it would be lovely if you left a review on one or both of its amazon pages, here or here. Thank you so much.

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Niall Williams’s History of the Rain

I’m so full of Niall Williams‘s History of the Rain that I don’t want to write about anything else this month.

It is the most beautiful and beautifully-written novel I’ve read, probably ever, and if not ever, then certainly for a very very long time. And it is – naturally – a book I would love to have written myself but i hardly dare even think so because I haven’t the man, Niall Williams’s, genius.

It’s a novel that sings to its reader and enfolds her. It’s a novel about writing and reading and books and stories and about our need for stories:
Only through story can we tolerate death.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

And it’s a wonderful story too.

Here’s my goodreads review.

Thank you for writing it, Niall Williams.

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The DANCE of LOVE is published today

Dance of Love, The - FRONT cover FINAL (2)

A big thank you to Buried River Press for publishing it.
You can find out more from the YouTube film here,
or the book’s pages on my website, here:
and, if you’d like to, you can buy it in paperback here and here
and with worldwide free delivery here
or in an electronic edition here.
If you do buy it, thank you.

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THE DANCE of LOVE published soon; goodreads giveaway; first two reviews and … StuckinaBooks’ letters and Letters to an Unknown Soldier

Happy news, THE DANCE of LOVE

Dance of Love, The - FRONT cover FINAL (2)

will be published on 31 July by Buried River Press. You can pre-order copies here and here and here with free worldwide delivery, and, of course, here.

There’s also a Goodreads Giveaway running from today until early on 17 July for four free copies. Enter here, if you’d like to.

And the first two reviews have been posted on Juxtabook and Fiction is Stranger than Fact. So the show is on the road: may it be a long and well-travelled one.

And over at Stuck in a Book, Simon Thomas – a little while ago – wrote asking us to let him know our favourite book, author, song, film and object. But not from any old list, from a list made up from a letter he assigned us. My letter was W and I chose: Wuthering Heights, Edith Wharton (it was very difficult to choose between her and Jeanette Winterson), What a Wonderful World (must be the Louis Armstrong version), On the Waterfront (or, if the W had to come at the beginning, West Side Story) and a Windmill:Here are the links to the results that, unlike mine, were quick enough to be included in Simon’s round-up post.

And the thing I’d love to have invented, in a parallel universe where time is limitless, is the Letter to an Unknown Soldier memorial. I wrote him a letter; many others have written to him including Stephen Fry and Andrew Motion. But the organisers want all our letters so why don’t you write one? It’s a wonderful idea for a lasting memorial, in words.

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THE DANCE of LOVE : goodreads giveaway. And Bill Viola at St Paul’s, London

In a few days’ time, 17 June to be exact, for a couple of days until midnight on 19 June, two uncorrected paperback pre-publication proofs of THE DANCE of LOVE will be available free in a goodreads giveaway. If you’d like to enter the draw – it’s limited to people living in the UK and Ireland – you can, from this link: but the link to the giveaway won’t be up on the page until 17 June. Good luck.

And the thing I’d love to have made this month, in a parallel world where all things are possible, is these beautiful images by Bill Viola. He’s called them Martyrs and says he means martyr in the original Greek sense of the word, which meant witness.

a photograph of Martyrs by Bill Viola, taken from his website. Exhibited at St Paul's Cathedral, LondonObviously these are stills, but if, when they’re in motion, they’re as glorious as other pieces I’ve seen by Bill Viola, then they will mesmerise. They’re at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on long-term loan from Tate (just the other side of the wobbly bridge) so they should be there for some time.

I haven’t been yet, but I soon will.

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Writing a novel is just like life …

… it’s only in the doing of it that I discover what works and what doesn’t.

I can plan and plan and plan and I do, but when I do I tend, at least some of the time, to let myself get away with vague descriptions, half-formed theories or, sometimes, whole ideas that don’t hold water. (And in life the way I imagine things will happen is rarely the way they do happen!) But the thing is, when I’m planning a novel, I’m blind to my vaguaries. I don’t know I’m letting myself get away with it. I think the thing’s watertight (The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley: Robert Burns). It’s only when I begin to write scenes that I discover the history I’ve given the characters isn’t congruent with the way the story will work; isn’t even congruent with the words they’re speaking, sometimes.

So … it’s only in the writing that I discover what really works. But I can’t do without plans, even if they’re rudimentary (and sieve-like). So what I plan (!) to do from now on is plan a bit and then write a bit, plan some more and write some more, because I’ve discovered that if I don’t plan at all I write miles of words in the wrong direction (I wrote about that here, several years ago: it seems I’m a slow learner!). And if I plan too much I kid myself into thinking I’m actually doing the bit that matters, when I’m not.

Although one thing that’s remained constant in my writing so far is that I always know how the novel will end: it’s just the getting there that’s not so clear. Just like life … .

And the thing I would love to have made this month, in a parallel world where all is possible and time is infinite, is Barbara Hepworth’s SINGLE FORM:


Hepworth was commissioned to make a piece to commemorate Dag Hammarskjöld who died – far too early – in 1961. There’s also a version of this beautiful sculpture in New York.

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SPEAKING of LOVE : just .99p or $1.66 for Easter : Kindle Countdown

For a few days over Easter, 17 April to 22 April to be exact, the ebook of SPEAKING of LOVE will be half price. Just .99p at and $1.66 at amazon in the USA : it’s on a Kindle Countdown. You can watch the clock counting down should that be your kind of thing here for the UK or here for the US. You could even buy a half-price copy and if you do, thank you very much.

Speaking of Love

A very recent review on amazon said: ‘A wonderfully poignant story. I thoroughly recommend this book.’ And here are some more reviews if you’d like to read them.

And it occurs to me, because it’s Easter, that Speaking of Love could be interpreted as a secular metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection. The story of an ordinary woman’s descent into extraordinary emotional darkness followed by the resurrection of love and hope in her life. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch: love, unspoken, can cause serious pain; speaking of love can heal.

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The Titanic: the 102nd anniversary of the tragic sinking, and, on a happier note, the launch of SHINY NEW BOOKS

On this day, 102 years ago, many many people drowned, or froze to death, in the icy waters of the north Atlantic after RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg. My great-grandmother, Noël Rothes, was one of the lucky survivors. I wrote about her experience on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, here. But I’m sure there are many many families for whom today remains an anniversary of sadness and loss, and many of those who died on 14 April 1912 came from Southampton. In 2012 TITANIC – Southampton Remembers was broadcast and this short clip from it describes the huge losses sustained by Southampton families: 550 crew members (of 913) came from the city, a terrible loss and a frightening foreshadowing, it seems to me, of the even greater losses so many families across the land would sustain between 1914 and 1918.

On a happier note, just a week ago, SHINY NEW BOOKS launched their shiny new website. It’s the thing I would love to have invented, in a parallel universe where time is infinite and all things are possible. The site is run by four wonderful bookish literary reviewing bloggers: Simon Thomas, Annabel Gaskell, Victoria Best and Harriet Devine and this is their Spring edition. SHINY NEW BOOKS is a ‘Quarterly online magazine focusing exclusively on new and forthcoming publications that will help you decide what to read next and why.’ Go there immediately.Shiny New Books logo: old gold books tied with violet ribbonAnd there is a link between Shiny New Books and the tragedy of the Titanic: SNB commissioned a piece about the writing of my second novel, The Dance of Love, for their BookBuzz section hereThe Dance of Love began life as a story about my great-grandmother’s experience aboard Titanic but metamorphosed into something rather different. It will be published by buried river press on 31 July.

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