Thursday, 26 December 2013

The storm that (almost) stole Christmas...

Belated greetings for the festive season from waterlogged's been all hands to the pump (literally) since the incessant rain turned to a violent storm on December 23. At a quarter to midnight, friends in the village knocked on our door to say that we might want to move our car to higher ground as the water level was rising fast. It was then about six inches deep on our spot on the village high street.
By midnight I had had a light bulb moment, and was unblocking a drain grill in the road with a mop handle, wind howling all around, rain still lashing down. The water had already flowed into the next door property (only just refurbished) and when I went inside to find some spare wellies for our new neighbour, I found our basement had started to flood. A not-so-comical interlude followed in which The Panto King and I locked ourselves out and had to scream up to daughter on the top floor (sleeping through it all, as only teenagers can) to open the front door. But at least the drain was flowing again, swirling like a giant plughole.
I will draw a veil of the hours of mopping as we fought to keep the water away from our new wooden kitchen, though we had a stream into the dining room. Eventually, we were down to one persistent trickle of water coming into the passage outside the dining room. So, I sat there in front of it, mop and towels in hand, stemming the flow until 4.30am on Christmas Eve, until I was certain our flood defences would hold and our efforts would not be in vain.
But by 9am, the road was flooding again, but on the other side. I rushed out with trusty mop handle to try to find the drain across the way. But the water was too deep. Soon several of our other great neighbours were out helping, trying to find the drain and keep the water under control, but our village is in a deep valley, where the Medway and Eden rivers converge, and we soon realised that water was flowing down from a large sodden hill; all we could do was direct it into the one cleared drain.
Meanwhile, cars were finding the village a dead end, as the roads in and out were impassable, except for a few of the back ways. The current across here - the Medway is a tidal river - was quite frightening. On the left, the hedge and fence have disappeared.
And there was another important issue many of us were facing: the Great Christmas Eve Turkey Crisis. Many of us order our turkeys from the local farm shops, to be collected on Christmas Eve, and now there were large volumes of water between us and our free range Norfolk Blacks. As we looked up from our labours, there were striken expressions on the drivers of vehicles that had had to turn round (mostly because they'd ignored our warnings - amazing how people think that because they drive a 4x4 hazards don't apply to them). Eventually, Rob managed to collect our bird, only a couple of miles up the hill shown here, but the subject of a twenty-mile round trip.
Still, by the evening we were drying out inside, the turkey was stuffed, and the drinks party next door was fired by Christmas spirit. Battered and exhausted we may have been, but it was a timely reminder that we have a fantastic village community here. It was a Merry Christmas among friends after all, and we counted our blessings as we heard that Edenbridge to the west, and Tonbridge and Maidstone to the east (and towns and villages all over the south of England) were underwater after the rivers broke their banks there too.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Gwen Raverat's Trinity Bridge

So many hits on the previous blog post about Gwen Raverat's childhood home and memoir Period Piece - thanks to a mention on the superb Cornflower Books - that I thought I'd put up a second part. Here's Gwen Raverat's print dated 1937 from a wood engraving of Trinity Bridge. Downriver from Newnham Grange, Trinity is the grandest college in Cambridge; her grandfather Charles Darwin studied here, and her father George was a Fellow. But the following extract from Period Piece tells you all you need to know about Gwen the iconoclast. (And what makes her book so entertaining.)
My mother took to [Newnham Grange, a house with a granary right on the river] with enthusiasm; which was characteristically brave of her; for most mothers would have thought the situation damp, and the river both dangerous and smelly.
And so it was; I can remember the smell very well, for all the sewage went into the river, till the town was at last properly drained, when I was about ten years old. There is a tale of Queen Victoria being shown over Trinity by the Master, Dr Whewell, and saying, as she looked down over the bridge: 'What are all those pieces of paper floating down the river?' To which, with great presence of mind, he replied: 'Those, ma'am, are notices that bathing is forbidden.' 

Raverat's depiction of Trinity Bridge, with the Wren Library in the background, is the view from the riverbank reserved for College members - a spot I came to know very well (and still feel a pang when I see it) when I had rooms in New Court opposite in both my first and third years as a student. Here's my photo of the edge of the great library the other week - note the same winter branches.

This is the view from the bridge, much sanitised since Queen Victoria's day - the modern (-ish) Garret Hostel Bridge eclipses Clare Bridge behind. I rather like the capture of the three Cambridge modes of transport: bicycle, punt and foot (cars being more trouble than they are worth in the labyrinthine one-way system around the pedestrianized town centre).

Here is the majestic Wren Library from inside Trinity, at the west end of Neville's Court...

...with the misty river beyond...

For more information about Gwen Raverat, I can recommend Frances Spalding's excellent biography, and the Raverat Archive blog, run by her grandson William Pryor, which also offers prints of her work for sale. 

And finally, some atmospheric music from the Choir of Trinity College, to go with the pictures:

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Gwen Raverat's Cambridge

I happened to be in Cambridge again last week, in the soft blue-grey mists of winter that blur the present into the past. Down Silver Street and over the bridge, the river scene is little changed not only from my memory of it, but from the way it is depicted in Gwen Raverat's illustrated book, Period Piece.
It first came my way when I was thirteen, at school in London - an English class text. First published in 1952, it's a charming memoir of Raverat's childhood in Cambridge as part of the influential Darwin family: Charles Darwin was her grandfather. When I first read it, all the interest seemed to lie in the often hilarious depictions of Victorian life, the odd proprieties that had to be observed, especially in love and courtship. The characters are larger than life: Gwen's American mother Maud du Puy of Philadelphia, who arrived in Cambridge to stay with an aunt in the summer of 1883 and accepted the proposal of Darwin's second son, George, a fellow of Trinity College; eccentric hypochondriac Aunt Etty invents her own anti-cold mask that gives her a beak like a cross bird. Young Gwen never forgets seeing a party of undergraduates running up from the river and into The Anchor pub carrying what looks like the dead body of a young woman.
It's a warm, enticing read, full of dry humour and acerbic wit and wisdom as the Gwen who is now in her sixties recalls the child's world she once inhabited. Throughout the book are Raverat's own line drawings, giving vivid impressions, full of detail, of both people and her surroundings. At the time I first read it, I don't remember being particularly interested in the lovely setting. I had never visited Cambridge at that stage so it didn't mean a great deal. It was only later, as so often, that I read it again as a student there and took pleasure in placing events in their true context.
The family house, Newnham Grange, with its exciting-looking granary on the river, is now part of Darwin College. Here's her illustration, with the present-day view below:
What I find really interesting is that the illustration is not architecturally accurate, and it differs in a way that is unlikely to be due to renovation of the building. This is a place Gwen Raverat knew well all her life. It was her last home, as well as her first. It seems more likely that she drew the granary from memory, and that memory focused on the set pieces like the Romeo and Juliet window and the door onto the river. In a way, it's also an illustration of how we remember places and events: imperfectly and individually.
When I was about nine the granary became so dilapidated that something had to be done about it; so my mother had the idea of turning it into a flat, or upstairs house, and letting it. Then for a long time, we had glorious fun with scaffolding rising up out of the river, and ladders, and mortar, and workmen, and mess. (...) The house is most ingeniously full of my mother's beloved gadgets: tricks for opening the front door without going downstairs, and for drawing up the bread in a basket; though, of course, the architect insisted on following the well-known Victorian principles of making the dining-room as far as possible from the kitchen, and the bathroom as far as possible from the hot-water boiler. This particular architect was quite explicit about it: he wrote a book on house design, in which he said: "The coal store should be placed as far as possible from the kitchen, in order to induce economy in the use of fuel."      
                                                                 from Period Piece  
The book ends with Gwen a young woman in London, studying art at the Slade School; she went on to become a renowned wood engraver and illustrator. She was a great friend of the poet Rupert Brooke and married French painter Jacques Raverat in 1911. Both part of the Bloomsbury group, they lived in the South of France, in Vence, until Jacques' death from multiple sclerosis in 1925. The couple had two daughters. Gwen returned to Cambridge, moving into The Old Granary in 1946 and remaining there until her death in1957.
Gwen Raverat, self-portrait

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The giveaway draw winner

The names were loaded into the hat this morning, and the winner is...A Novel Review Laura, who entered over on the facebook page. A huge thank you to everyone who entered, and left such lovely comments. I was quite overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and goodwill for the new book.
As soon as the UK bound proofs are issued, I will hope to be offer several more chances to have an early read. Shouldn't be that long now!

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Sea Garden: early copy giveaway

A very exciting parcel from New York this week...some early copies of The Sea Garden. Known as "bound galleys", these are uncorrected proofs, the same text I worked on a few weeks back, bound into paperback form. There are a few mistakes, which have now been set right. These versions are intended for book markets and early reviewers, so I was wondering if any of you here would like a chance to read it now?
I only have a few copies, so this will have to be a lucky dip. Please put a comment on this post and I will draw a name out of a hat in a week's time. Don't forget to leave a blog link or another way for me to contact you. Or, if you prefer, go over to my official facebook page, "like" it and leave a comment on the giveaway post there. Good luck!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Nancy Wake: The White Mouse

Eagle-eyed readers who know their wartime history will know that the beauty in uniform shown in the montage I made for the previous post was no model or actress but the real deal: Nancy Wake, SOE agent in France and the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of WWII.

She was born a world away from Occupied France in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912, of French Huguenot and English stock, with a dash of Maori. The family moved to Sydney, Australia when Nancy was 20 months old – she was the youngest of six children. But her newspaperman father walked out on them, and her mother struggled to raise the children alone. By 16, Nancy Wake was working as a nurse, but when an aunt in New Zealand died and left her a windfall, she used the money to travel to London and then to Europe.

Following in her father’s footsteps, she worked as a journalist, first in Paris, then witnessing the rise of Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism in Vienna. She met wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca in 1937 – entranced by his spirited nature and proficiency at the tango! – and in 1939 Nancy was happily married to him, living a life of luxury in Marseille. Charming, sophisticated Henri was the love of her life, but the storm clouds were gathering.

Six months after they married, France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Never one to stand by, Nancy joined the embryonic resistance movement as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. As the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had connections and an ability to travel denied many others. With false papers and the purchase of an ambulance, she was soon involved in helping escaped prisoners of war and airmen out of France through to Spain on the “Pat O’Leary line”.

But the Gestapo was watching her. Her life was in constant danger but she assumed so many guises and was so adept at evasion that the authorities named her “The White Mouse”. At one stage she was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list with a five million-franc price on her head. When it became too dangerous for her to remain in France, she managed, after five failed attempts and capture and interrogation by French Vichy enforcers, the feared Milice, along the way, to escape to Britain using the arduous route across the Pyrenees.

Anyone else might have thought they had done their bit, but Nancy Wake, then 31, joined the British Special Operations Executive which worked with local resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in occupied France. In the run-up to the D-Day invasion she learned about codes and wireless operation, survival skills and explosives, and in April 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France, her mission, alongside SOE agent John Farmer, to organise wireless communication between London and the bands of Maquis, to oversee ammunition and arms caches from the nightly RAF parachute drops, and facilitate the destruction of key targets.

It was a rough, tough life, a far cry from her cosmopolitan pre-war existence in the well-to-do quarter of Marseille. In country dominated by German troops, she slept in woodland, and on one occasion she cycled 500 km through several German checkpoints to replace vital codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. It took her 71 hours, at the end of which she collapsed with pain and relief.

As she moved between Maquis groups hidden in the hills, she survived countless violent engagements with the Germans. She had to shoot her way through roadblocks, and execute a German woman spy on the basis that only one of them was going to get out alive. All around were hideous burnings and reprisals. She killed a sentry with her bare hands to keep him from alerting the guard during a raid on a German gun factory, saying afterwards that the SOE had taught her “the judo-chop with flat hand” but its effectiveness took her by surprise. Nancy Wake’s French resistance comrade Henri Tardivat said of her warrior queen qualities: “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.”

The liberation of France in August 1944 brought no good news for Nancy. She learned that her husband Henri was dead, tortured and executed by the Gestapo in 1943 because he had refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.

Back in London, Nancy Wake continued working at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department. She married again in 1957, to a former prisoner of war, RAF man John Forward, and moved back to Australia with him. She was active in politics there, standing as a Liberal candidate, though never being elected.

For her achievements, she was awarded the George Medal from Britain for her leadership and bravery under fire, the Resistance Medal, Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star from France, and the Medal of Freedom from America.

For many decades, she went unrecognised by the Australian government, possibly because she was considered a New Zealand citizen. Finally, in 2004, Nancy Wake was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2006 Nancy received the NZ Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, for her work with the French resistance during the war.

Nancy Wake returned to London in 2001 after she was widowed for the second time. She lived for a while at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s, which had been a forces club during the war and where she was still remembered. She passed away on 7 August 2011 in Britain, where she lived her last years at the Star and Garter forces retirement in Richmond, just three weeks short of her 99th birthday. Her ashes were scattered at Verneix, near Montluҫon, scene of her parachute drop into extraordinary wartime heroism.

For more detailed accounts of her life, I recommend Nancy Wake’s autobiography The White Mouse, published in 1985, and the authoritative biography by Australian journalist Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, revised in 2011. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Sea Garden: blurb

Thank you all so much for your fantastic reactions to the US cover! There are more over on the facebook page, and your thoughts really mean a lot. So what's inside the cover? This is the HarperCollins blurb, the long version for the catalog - note spelling! - and pre-publication sites. No doubt some of it will appear on the back cover, too.
I've made a couple of photo montages to help set the scenes. Let me know what you think...
Romance, suspense, and World War II mystery are woven together in three artfully linked novellas-rich in drama and steeped in atmosphere-from the critically acclaimed author of The Lantern
On the lush Mediterranean island of Porquerolles off the French coast, Ellie Brooke, an award-winning British landscape designer, has been hired to restore a memorial garden. Unsettled by its haunted air and the bitterness of the garden's owner, an elderly woman who seems intent on undermining her, Ellie finds that her only ally on the island is an elusive war historian …

Near the end of World War II, Marthe Lincel, a young blind woman newly apprenticed at a perfume factory in Nazi-occupied Provence, finds herself at the center of a Resistance cell. When tragedy strikes, she faces the most difficult choice of her life . . . and discovers a breathtaking courage she never expected.

Iris Nightingale, a junior British intelligence officer in wartime London, falls for a French agent. But after a secret landing in Provence results in terrible Nazi reprisals, he vanishes. When France is liberated, Iris is determined to uncover the truth. Was he the man he claimed to be?

Ingeniously interconnected, this spellbinding triptych weaves three parallel narratives into one unique tale of love, mystery, and murder. The Sea Garden is a vivid and absorbing chronicle of love and loss in the fog of war-and a penetrating and perceptive examination of the impulses and circumstances that shape our lives.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Sea Garden: US cover reveal

I think it's safe to show you this the past week several pre-publication sites have uploaded the US cover of The Sea Garden that I wrote about a while back. Here it is, the wisteria tunnel in all its mysterious splendour - and most of you will be happy to know that the proofs I've just sent back to the publishers in New York contain references to it in the text.

So what do you think? Will you be enticed to pick up the book, and will it draw the eye in a bookstore next June when it's published stateside by HarperCollins?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Sea Garden: proofs

A quiet week, once again immersed in The Sea Garden. The US proofs arrived, the final stage before the manuscript becomes a bound book to be published next year. The copy edited version is now laid out as the pages will appear for the reader. This is the last chance to spot mistakes - of plot inconsistencies, fact, spelling and punctuation - and rectify any infelicities.
Only the small things, mind. We've gone far beyond the stage of wholesale re-writes. Any great new ideas will have to remain missed opportunities. I find proofreading quite nervewracking precisely because of these constraints: this is more-or-less it, and the fear is that you will sit down in front of these pages with your red pen and cup of tea, and despair at what you read. The words aren't perfect, and it never will be as perfect as they were in your head. 
The danger is also a terrible kind of word-blindness. As a writer, you've gone over the same words so many times that the story can seem dull. Obviously there are no surprises, but even the phrases that seemed good enough to survive this far seem lacklustre through familiarity. A few can be struck out, but you don't want to be completely ruthless or there'd be nothing left.
I find it most relaxing to sit on the floor, leaning back against a sofa, with the pages in piles on the carpet around me, anywhere but at my desk where I feel too much like the person who wrote them. As much as possible, I want to feel like a reader of the book. A very critical reader. Those pages where I mark some alteration are put in one pile, to be sent back to the publishers. The clean pages go in another.
Sometimes I realise that I ought just to run upstairs and check a fact, either in my research books or on the internet, and return relieved that I'm in time to change something. Just as well I had mental alarm bells when I came to the part set in wartime London and saw I had my characters walking past the statue of Eros in Piccadilly; it took five minutes to ascertain that Eros was packed away in storage during the course of both world wars. Pity, that was one of the better descriptions that had to be red-penned! 
But obviously, there's excitement and a certain pride in reaching this stage. The steps in the process by which writing turns from a private endeavour to a public one are gathering speed. I never forget to feel hugely grateful that anyone wants to publish me at all, and that top-notch editors and agents in New York and London have devoted their time and expertise to my efforts.

I wrote here a while back about the section of the book that is set in Provence (you have to scroll to the end of the post - note the change of the overall title, though not of this part). Well, here it is, and if I say so myself, I think it looks great on the page:

The Sea Garden will be published in summer 2014 by HarperCollins in the US and by Orion in the UK.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Cambridge revisited

Cambridge in October...the falling leaves on the Backs and the sense of excitement and possibility...there's nowhere in the world that brings back my younger self to me with quite such intensity. It has been a busy half-term, and a shockingly sad one, for reasons I don't want to go into here, but it began with a trip to my old university with daughter Maddy.
It's been decades since I was last at the arts faculty buildings on Sidgwick Avenue, but there we sat in the old lecture halls for a couple of the Festival of Ideas talks that she was interested in: Six languages that changed the world given by Professor of Linguistics Ian Roberts, and Truth and lies in teenage fiction, a talk by author Anthony McGowan. Both were utterly engaging and thought-provoking, delivered to the kind of packed houses that lecturers like Christopher Ricks on Tennyson used to command in my student days.
In many ways, the town and the university seem completely unchanged. The venerable buildings are beautifully cared for, though more closed off from the public than they used to be. The atmosphere is the same; even the scraps of conversation  from passing students seem unnervingly the same as they always were. "...tea at Caius..." "...see you at the ADC..." "...essay crisis..."
Yesterday, it brought home how extraordinarily comforting it is, when a place stays so much the same, when I happened to drive past the location of my first real job as a trainee journalist, the next stage after Cambridge. Maddy was involved again, as she'd found a driving test theory centre that offered a slot that did not entail getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, that just happened to be down the hill from the old Kentish Times building on Sidcup Hill. 
After leaving her to take the test, thinking that it would be another glimpse of the past, I decided to take the road past the old newspaper office, a hulk of a 1920s/30s place with the name proudly emblazoned. But at the top of the hill there were only unfamiliar new buildings and no sign at all of what had once been the hub of a large regional paper with nine area editions. I had no idea it had gone, and the gulf between expectation and present reality was oddly disconcerting. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

Do you have this children's book I've heard about? It's supposed to be very good. It's called "Lionel Ritchie and the Wardrobe".
It goes without saying that booksellers are the salt of the earth. That they are also long-suffering and possessed of a fine appreciation of life's quirks and oddities is the joy of this tome by poet and short story writer Jen Campbell, who toils at an antiquarian bookshop in London.
Chock-full of mind-boggling queries and responses, it's like eavesdropping on incredulous staff in the storeroom. And it really is jaw-dropping at times - as well as being laugh-out-loud hilarious. If you haven't discovered it yet, run don't walk to your nearest bookshop.
Customer (holding up a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses): Why is this book so long? Isn't it supposed to be set in one day only? How can this many pages of things happen to one person in one day? I mean, I get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home...sometimes I might go out for a drink, and that's it! And, I mean, that doesn't fill a book, does it?
Customer (having read the blurb to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief aloud to his son): Excuse me, is this book based on a true story?
Bookseller: It's about an American teenager discovering he's the son of Poseidon by accidentally vaporising his maths teacher.
Customer: Yes.
Bookseller: So, no.
Dead-pan responses from the booksellers are particularly well done, especially when books are not the main concern of a surprising number of people who pitch up in bookshops.
Customer: The things on the walls...
Bookseller: Bookshelves?
Customer: Yes.
Customer: Do people still have them in their homes?
Bookseller: Yes, I think so.
Customer: My friend's just made some - would you be able to sell them for him?
Customer: I've got an aubergine and I don't know what to do with it.
Bookseller: Oh, well, what did you buy it for?
Customer: I didn't - someone gave it to me and I just saw you've got cups and saucers in the window - do you know about cooking?
Bookseller: ...Our window display is the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland.
I've been chortling ever since I picked up this book - it would make a brilliant gift - and I can't recommend it highly enough for booklovers and those of us who really appreciate all that the booksellers of the world do. The good news is that there's a second volume, and (I've just discovered as I went over to Jen Campbell's blog) she's announced today that she has a new book in the pipeline, The Bookshop Book. Hurray! 

Friday, 18 October 2013

The author photo

"Also," said Jennifer Barth, my editor in New York, "What are you thinking in terms of an author photo for the new book?"

Hmm, I'm not sure I was thinking about it at all. Possibly that I might just get away with using the one that went out last time...have I changed that much in the three years (nearly) since it was taken? Some long hard stares into the bathroom mirror. Some even harder questions to long-suffering husband.

I don't really like having my photo taken. I'm not sure I ever did, being forensically self-critical and possibly a bit vain. Not that I think I'm marvellous in any way, you understand - it's more a question of wanting a bit of a break for trying hard with what I have. Or, these days, simply bearing up without recourse to anything stronger than Dior moisturising serum when women of my age (and much younger!) in the public eye have so often developed strange bulbous lips and oddly sculpted expressions.

The nuclear option would be to have a full makeover and airbrushed studio portrait. But for someone like me, is that just a bit desperate? And I do have an ace up my sleeve: the photographer Rebecca Eifion-Jones, whom I met through a friend, and who took the last set of author pics. She is quite simply brilliant. And it was only the thought of going along to see Bex, not in a scary studio, but in her own light-filled home in Kent that tipped the balance. For these kinds of pictures, she uses only natural light, of which she has an almost magical understanding.

So off I went this week. The most intervention I considered was going to get my hair cut - and then decided against, as hairdressers tend to take one look at my thick mop and go in for the kill, and it's weeks before I feel myself again. I got out of the car and straight into the shoot. Bex makes it all look so easy, chatting and laughing as she moves around with her camera, no fuss, no artifice, just her unerring eye.

I haven't yet seen the full results but she sent me some samples of what to expect, of which this is the one I like best. It may well end up on the book sleeve.


Friday, 11 October 2013

A cover question

Now here's a knotty issue for those of you who take an interest in book covers. Should a cover be an accurate reflection of details in the story? Does it irritate you if a prominent feature of a cover is simply wrong?
The reason I ask - and I suppose I'm looking for confirmation that I did the right thing - is that I've now seen a mock-up of a potential cover for The Sea Garden and loved it at first sight. (And that doesn't always happen, let me tell you.) But there was just one thing, very minor but nevertheless a potential source of puzzlement for readers: the image showed a mysterious tunnel of wisteria, and the garden tunnel in the novel was formed of bougainvillea.
I wish I could post the cover here, but I can't as it's still under wraps. Wisteria really is very beautiful, as well as bringing a feeling of gnarled history, perhaps for the simple reason that it takes so long to grow and is often associated with old houses.
Bougainvillea, on the other hand, is even more rampant and lends an undeniably exotic splash of colour that is absolutely appropriate for my Mediterranean setting.
What to do? The manuscript was right there in front of me, still open to changes in the copy editing process. In the end I did a bit of horticultural research and replanted my imaginary garden in the South of France with wisteria. But did it really matter one way or the other? What would you have done?

Friday, 4 October 2013

Knowing when to let go

    "The shepherd’s body was found up on the steep slopes where the lavender made its last wild clutches at the mountain peak.

    Each year the sheep were moved across the high meadows above the lavender fields. Here men still adhered to the old ways: hardy men with gnarled and twisted limbs as if they had been carved by the same winds as the rock sculptures.

   One of them was the shepherd Pineau. Alone under the blue citadel of the sky, he guided his flock from one ancient stone borie to the next. All the farmers knew him: Old Pineau in his ragged clothes was part of the landscape when the great surge in lavender growing for the perfume industry had begun, when the Mussets and others began staining the slopes purple. The shepherd was a man who knew every stone and tree of the ridges, a man who had seemed part of nature: part mountain, part stream, part animal, living his life by the turn of the seasons, solitary with his sheep, walking from rocky ledge to pasture, valley to plateau as they fed. He sang as he went, songs that had been sung for centuries.

   That summer day in 1943, when small puffs of his flock broke away and drifted in lazy clouds down the hill, the lavender farmers knew something was wrong. In the uplands men and women had always relied on one another. They went up looking for him."

                                                                                    from The Sea Garden

No sooner had I started to immerse myself in research for a new novel last week, than the copy edits on the book to be published next summer arrived on my desk and I had to put the notebook away to re-focus on the previous story.

Quite a good thing, I think, to have started to move on from the completed work. I'm sure it sharpens the critical facilities. Sometimes, when I've spent too much time continuously a manuscript, it feels as if I can't see the wood for the trees, or the sense for the words on the page. The terror at the copy-editing stage is in wanting to change everything, and I'm sure there are authors who give in to temptation.

The art is doing enough, but knowing when to let go. Now is not the time for wholesale rewrites but for trust in yourself and your primary editor, and the work that has already been done.

A tiny glimpse inside The Sea Garden, then. I chose this extract because I know many of you enjoyed the lavender sequences in The Lantern and this gives a flavour of the link between the two novels. I hope it's not too misleading, though: the new book as a whole is not a prequel, but one section does relate the story of Marthe Lincel as a young woman and how exactly she became a perfume maker. And it gives me a chance to post one of the lavender photos I took in the summer! 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

How it begins

The grapes above the outdoor dining table are just on the turn from green to ripe purple. In Provence it's another sign that high summer is drawing to a close (this photo was taken in mid-August). Each evening, another day of hot sun has darkened a few more beads of fruit.

Now, back in England, I can't help but feel wistful at missing out this year, not only on tasting the grapes - a dessert variety, very sweet and muscat-floral - but on those days in the garden when life slows down. I was going to give myself a break from writing until the new book comes out next summer, but somehow the idea forming for the next is too insistent to ignore. The theme has been in mind for a while. In the notebook, the observations and ideas to explore are slowing coming to fruition. The story is no more solid than trailing leaves from the vine canopy. I can't say anything specific about it; it might change out of all recognition.

But early research reading is bringing plot possibilities. There's a tingle of excitement and anticipation of something new that could be achieved. Not there yet, by any means, but each day some new aspect develops, and the colours change. This isn't work - it's fun.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

A publishing lunch and other distractions

A rainy day in London, but all was colour, light and clamour at Bocca di Lupo in Soho, where I had lunch the other day with the four women who are the mainstays of my writing career: from New York my literary agent Stephanie Cabot and publishing editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Barth; and the London team: agent Araminta Whitley and Orion fiction editor, Kate Mills.
Over sublime Italian food (including a radish and celeriac salad to match the ceiling fittings...see above and below) we shared news and views, and discussed plans

for publication next summer of The Sea Garden, as the new novel is now titled. For a wonderful couple of hours I felt in the thick of it, the publishing gossip and the zeitgeist, revelling in Kate's account of how she came to admit publicly that she had turned down J K Rowling's pseudonymous detective novel for being a competent but not stand-out read (it was in a twitter exchange with author Ian Rankin, who writes the fantastic detective fiction Kate loves).
Jennifer's schedule in London was eye-opening, back-to-back meetings; I realised she is as meticulous and hardworking at the business side of publishing as she is in her editing role, and all achieved with distinct intelligence and charm. Stephanie, too, packs a lot in when she comes over - she arrived from seeing another of her UK authors in Oxford, and it's all down to her laser-sharp advice, loyalty and professionalism that I am where I am. She and Araminta - tough and funny and brilliant at spotting new trends - have been friends for a long time, and it couldn't have worked out better for me when they decided to join forces to co-agent my books. 
It really was a lunch to remember, not just because it was such a treat, but because it was quite something to have all of us there together. We talked a little about my idea for a new novel, and it was good to be able to try out a few ideas (they are only ideas so far) face to face. But best of all, it was a chance for me to say thank you.

Afterwards, I popped into the National Gallery to look for the Velasquez paintings given to the nation by Sir John Hookham Frere, a distant ancestor of my husband's whose portrait hangs in our sitting room. The information surfaced in a book trail I've been following through the British bohemians and Bloomsberries. The Velasquez works in question, including St John the Evangelist at Patmos, seem not to be currently on display, but there was no chance of being unable to see the other item on my agenda: the Boris Anrep mosaics in the floor of the entrance staircase landings.

Created between 1926 and 1952, the mosaics depict figures of the day - from Churchill to Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell to Edith Sitwell - in evocative greens, greys and browns, with a lively dose of humour. Russian émigré Anrep's great friend Augustus John is depicted as Neptune offering Alice in Wonderland gifts from the sea. The Hollywood film star Loretta Young fills a loving cup with red and white wine to symbolise British and American friendship.
I'd been reading about Anrep in Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians, which does a good job of putting famous names into social context. It prompted me to look again at a book already on my shelves, Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw, a novel in which her memories of Sanary-sur-Mer in the late 1920s and '30s are only thinly disguised. Then on to Julia, A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, which is choc-full of incisive and poignant detail.
A tenuous family link here: husband's "Granny", universally loved for her great charm by young and old (she lived to a grand old age, and I was privileged to be invited to many an open house in Somerset), was a cousin of both the redoubtable biographer and Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey, and of the artist Duncan Grant, lover of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, etc, etc. Among the photographs in Julia is one of Julia Strachey aged ten, which bears a startling likeness to both husband as a child and our daughter. (Those genes must be super-strength...)

Finally, a most fruitful visit to my friend Sophie's new boutique in Sevenoaks, Kent - The Clever Dresser (she is, very - and what's more, she can make you one too). This rambling blog post, you see, was begun in order to explain why I haven't been doing much blogging lately... Excuses, excuses, and none would be complete with the biggest excuse of them all, the writing notebook which has been simmering along nicely.


Monday, 9 September 2013

The Coffee Shop Book Club

I never thought I'd get under the same cover as Tracy Chevalier and Kate Mosse, let alone Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, but I have sneaked in somehow... Out this week, The Coffee Shop Book Club is a fantastic collection of short stories, each the perfect length to read with a cup of coffee or tea. "Irresistible stories of love and fidelity, mystery and unexpected lives from some of the bestselling authors writing today", runs the blurb, and I do feel quite pink with pride to have made the cut.
The roll-call of writers really is quite something, including some of my personal favourites like Elizabeth Buchan and the hilarious Kathy Lette, Jojo Moyes, Victoria Hislop and Adele Parks. The collection is edited by Fanny Blake, once Dirk Bogarde's publishing editor and now a novelist - and story contributor - in her own right.
My story is The Scent of Night, originally writtenas most if not all these were, for Woman & Home magazine's summer reading section. It was a tie-in with The Lantern, and those who read and enjoyed my novel might be amused to spot the links. A couple, happily married for many years, rent a Provencal farmhouse for a month in the summer. But annoying guests intrude on paradise...
There really is something for everyone here, mostly in light-hearted vein but there's much wit and wisdom too. Reading the proofs, I particularly enjoyed the effervescent poignancy of Veronica Henry's A Friend with Benefits, gritty thriller writer Val McDermid's The Ministry of Whisky and Katherine Webb's Downton-esque The Midsummer Sky.
The Coffee Shop Book Club is published by Orion on September 12, and £1 from the sale of every book will be donated to the Breast Cancer Care charity. There's more detailed information over on the Lovereading site

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Faro notebook

Back from Portugal and looking through the notes made and photos taken in Faro. Will any of the material eventually transform into part of a published novel? At this stage, I have no idea. The ideas I have are vague and constantly shifting. The only way to find out if they work will be to sit down, start writing and see what happens.

When I'm in a place, I like to engage with the details that I might not remember when I sit down at the desk to write. Surprisingly often, the pursuit of these details leads seamlessly to the bigger picture - the geography, the atmosphere, conversations with the locals. Take the gate to the Old Town, for example, just visible in the picture below at the far end of the Jardim Manuel Bivar.

After a few days wandering around the town looking up at the pretty Moorish-inspired buildings, I started to see dried grass hanging below streetlamps and rooflines. On closer inspection, these were birds' nests. Then I started to see wheels of grasses and twigs on churches - they were everywhere, including on the pediment of the Old Town gate (below). One evening, there was a flutter of white wings inside.

But which birds were making them? As an ex-journalist, I'm not shy of asking when I want to know something, rather to my daughter's embarrassment on occasion. ("Mum! Did you have to ask the hottest waiter what that music was?!" "Yes. And did he not bring me over a written note of the CD title? That's the way to do it.")
So I asked a cosmopolitan-looking local (many Portuguese speak excellent English) and was told they were storks. We chatted for a while under the gate and I found out that it's illegal to remove the nests as storks mate for life and only build one nest. They sleep there each night, bedding down at sunset, and the storks have always been in Faro as it's so close to their food supplies on the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa, now a natural park between the coast and the barrage islands fronting the Atlantic. 

Another story in the details that was hard to miss was the economic woe of Portugal, an issue they share with several other southern countries of the European Union. As someone who loves Europe and its people but not the EU political construct and the dead hand of its bureaucracy, I noted the evidence of closed businesses and decaying houses for sale with sinking heart.


I've never seen such pretty cobbled pedestrian streets, though; lining them, shops selling very cheap fashion items - clothes a third or a quarter of the price of similar items in the South of France - and great bags for around ten euros. (Naturally, we did what we could to help out economically...)

Faro beach was a half hour bus or ferry ride away. This is a view from the ferry, which was our preferred option. On the salt flats were tiny fishermen's huts, and constant fishing activity, whether from small rowing boats or the backbreaking work of clam digging.

Finally, a snap taken on Farol, part of one of the barrage islands, sandy spits of land that are constantly being pulled and reshaped by the strength of the Atlantic Ocean along the southernmost points of continental Portugal. The beaches are superb, the water clear and cold. And just look at that sky.

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