Sunday, 7 December 2014

Tears Water the Seeds of a Novel.

In 1981, when the Berlin Wall was still there, I lived in Germany for a year, in a narrow, damp room where I watched the wallpaper bubble and blister. My fellow lodgers drank too much and needed a cheap home, somewhere to sit with their bottles, not too far from the nearest street-corner cigarette machine, somewhere to talk to others who understood loneliness, who knew how it felt to have lost their way in life: Konrad, an enormous docker who rose at four in the morning to catch his bus to Hamburg, Eddie, a teacher no longer allowed to teach, and a decorator who worked day and night to provide for a child he no longer saw and for whom he cried at night.

Erwin and Uschi, my landlord and landlady, were also alcoholics. They fuelled themselves with spirits not only when they finished their day's work, but also before they began it. When Uschi once woke me at dawn, excited to show me the new-born rabbits in her hutch, I was overcome by the cloud of schnapps fumes. After she had heaped rabbit after endless rabbit into my arms, she wandered back to her kitchen, to her hidden bottles, leaving me to put them all safely back.

She and Erwin worked hard, however, and had a good standard of living. A ramshackle extension built onto their house provided the four rooms which they rented to waifs and strays who needed a home. There was one gas ring and a shared shower with plumbing issues. It regurgitated waste that appeared to emanate from the one dreadful toilet.

My new family were overjoyed to find a twenty-year-old English girl moving in. I was so unexpected, a living representative of one of the reasons for collective German post-war guilt.

I was so fortunate to meet them all and, after observing their struggles, equally fortunate to have my young and guilt-free life, my carefree future, my tiny measure of time as one of the waifs and strays.

Every single day, Konrad reminded me that during the war, with no choice but to defend himself to save his own life, he had shot dead a Soviet soldier barely old enough to shave. He thought of his mother before he pulled the trigger. "But that soldier," he said with remorse, "he also had a mother."

There was not one moment of his life when he did not suffer shame and guilt and not one day passed without him apologising to me for what his country had done to mine.

While I studied the literature of the divided country and sought to develop fluency in its language (although interpreting my friends' somewhat slurred conversation caused some confusion), I believe the seeds of Tying Down The Lion, to be published thirty-five years later with its theme of how we all must search for our true home, first began to be sown.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A Stunning Cover for Tying Down the Lion

Amazing artist, Adam Regester, has designed this stunning cover for Tying Down The Lion, which is set to be released in March 2015 by Brick Lane Publishing.

I am indebted to him for capturing the heart of the story, which centres on a family road-trip from England to Berlin in 1967. I love every aspect of the artwork, especially the contrasts.

Despite the Wall, its shadows and the menacing symbols of one horrendous war that is over and a colder one that has just begun, the quaint, yet incongruous English car is nevertheless battling through. Both car and city are worn-out and full of holes - either rust or bullet induced - and beset with problems, so there is a little common ground too.

For me, the cover is a complete and beautiful picture composed of all the metaphorical brush-strokes that were painted before the novel could come to life; the research, the rewrites, the gnashing teeth, the consultations, the revisions, the clumps of torn-out hair, the editing, the coffee at dawn and the offer of a contract. It has travelled a long distance from its beginnings as a short story of a thousand words that refused to be filed away.

My favourite memory of the writing process is the day I  looked again at that little story, inserted a page break and typed Chapter Two?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


My sister-in-law, Judy, chose not to have children, but instead to dedicate her life to teaching theology in a girls' school, preparing her students for further study at university. Many of them credited her with their successful applications to Oxford and Cambridge.

Once she had retired, she told us about her new plans. For some time, she had longed to write a book about Jewish influence on the use of colour in medieval iconography. Unfortunately, after looking into it, she decided that there wasn't any! Her research, however, led her to explore western medieval art that included scenes and characters from the Old Testament and this became the basis for the book she really wanted to write.

It became a ten year labour of love and involved countless trips to ancient churches, where she studied and photographed the stained-glass windows and carvings. She drove thousands of miles across England and France, usually alone, totally absorbed in her task and refusing to buy herself lunch unless she could find something half-price.

She wrote and rewrote her chapters at the same time that I was embarking on my stories. Writing aside, our interests could not have been more diverse. She tended to read only non-fiction and disliked both television drama and theatre, calling it 'a lot of silly people dressing up.' As you can tell, she spoke her mind! She refused to have the internet installed and her old, red telephone came out of the ark. She had never bought a women's magazine, always lived frugally and had absolutely no interest in material things. Her life was dedicated to teaching and, finally, to her beautiful book.

In fact, Judy was well-known for her parsimony - when our eldest daughter was two years old, her present from Judy was a one thousand piece jigsaw of Tewkesbury High Street. It was so ancient that, parked in the front of the picture, was an Austin Allegro.

Some of my Woman's Weekly stories have contained flashes of her eccentric ways - a woman with a chain-saw permanently lying on her sofa ('well, there's nowhere else to keep it') and, while being serenaded by a suitor with a clarinet in her front garden, an embarrassed young girl fervently willing the wind to blow away his sheet-music - which it did, draping the pages neatly over the neighbour's box-hedge.

When we talked about writing, we really connected, sharing our highs and lows, especially the patience required when seeking publication and the subsequent joy of acceptance. When we visited her one winter Saturday during the time I took part in the live online flash-fiction contest, Write-Invite, she insisted on taking my husband and daughters out for an ice-cold walk at half-past five so that I could write my story in absolute peace and quiet. My husband accessed the internet by tethering my laptop to his phone and I sat in her dark, chilly kitchen (she didn't turn on lights until strictly necessary and there was virtually no heating) and typed in fingerless gloves and a bobble hat. No one could have been more delighted than Judy when I told her the following Saturday that my piece had won.

As you can imagine, Judy and I were equally thrilled for each other when we received our publishing contracts. This was the culmination of our dreams. Very different tomes, just about as different as you could imagine - neither of us were likely to actually read each other's books - but our joy was completely mutual!

While she worked on her footnotes, index and requests for permission to include certain photographs, Judy began to suffer great pain in her back and lost the use of one arm. Typically, she persevered for as long as possible before a close friend insisted she see a doctor. The diagnosis was as bad as it could possibly be. The back-ache was bone cancer. The poorly arm was actually broken.

Great friends rallied round to help finish the indexing and final proofreading. With Judy so ill on the day the book was released, one very dear friend drove like a bat out of hell to the publisher's office and collected her personal copies. At last, frail though she was, Judy could hold her book in her hands. It would be impossible to forget how she looked that day. Fragile, but utterly fulfilled.

The book made a huge difference, as books often do. She rallied for a few more months and suffered surprisingly little pain. But the illness took its toll. During her final days in August, my husband and I sat by her bed in the hospice, wishing there were any words of comfort we could say, knowing there were none. Even after she died, I could only say goodbye. I was no longer a linguist or a writer. The words simply did not exist. But her book lay between us on the bed and that said enough.

I try to overlay that final memory with one of the day last Christmas that Judy presented us with a copy of the book. She had included us in the acknowledgements; my husband for all his technical support once she finally got round to buying herself a laptop (still refusing internet, though) and me for translating a little piece of old German for one of the chapters. She was a linguist too and could have translated it herself, so I am certain she just wanted to make me a part of it, and I'm so grateful.

I miss storing up the wealth of material she inadvertently gave me for stories, safe in the knowledge she would never recognise herself, because she would never read them! I miss her gooseberry crumble, her amazing pastry, her elegant turn of phase and her laughter. I miss her genuine interest in us as a family, her endless quest to track down a herbal remedy for our daughter's migraines and her enthusiasm for hearing the latest writing news. I wish she could have held my books in her hands.

In the year since Judy's book, Behind The Image, was published, it has sold to universities, libraries and museums throughout the world, including Harvard and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thankfully, she lived long enough to know about the success of her legacy.

Since August, I try to banish trivial aggravations and worries by remembering some of Judy's final words of wisdom. During those last days, a friend asked her if she was frightened. Judy replied, "No. Just a bit annoyed."

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Lions, Planets and Dreams That Come True

According to the Waterstones website, my novel, Tying Down The Lion, is only 110 days away!

November 3rd is the date set for its release, sliding in nicely with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the same week. (In a small twist of fate, the Wall was built on my first birthday in 1961. And it came down on the date that would become my middle daughter's birthday.)

There is a little blurb about Tying Down The Lion and a small interview about me here and here, which some of you will have seen on Facebook. Thank you for all those heart-warming words of support. Truly, thank you. As you all know, writing is a solitary delight, but the encouraging words of friends bring an immeasurable support that spurs a writer on. It reminds me of learning to swim as a child. I really struggled as I left my depth and was on the verge of panic. And out of the blue, one of those thick polystyrene floats bobbed by, just within reach, and also large and white enough for me to see without my glasses. (Not that I knew what it was. It felt like a huge slice of Sunblest bread. Why were those floats always so nibbled-looking?)

TDTL was a joy to write and I always hoped like mad that it would be published. But I knew there were no guarantees and I didn't want to have any expectations in case I was disappointed. Huge thanks to Rosemary for suggesting I try approaching smaller, independent publishing companies. As soon as I did just that, I was offered the contract and everything fell into place.

Brick Lane are fabulous - friendly, efficient and brilliant at keeping me informed at each step of the process. I couldn't ask for more. They are organising the cover at the moment, having shown me all their exciting ideas for it before they were sent to the artwork designer. When I see it, I know I'm going to be absolutely overwhelmed. Just seeing the ISBN stopped me in my tracks. But the cover will make it all feel real and a fifty-year dream will have come true.

My short stories are being published in hardback by Ink Tears, who approached me in 2012 after I was a runner-up in their competition. They are bringing out their first three collections soon, all of which I hope to talk about in a future post. Mine, which is called When Planets Slip Their Tracks, will follow on after those, possibly this winter or early next year. Once again, the experience is a joy. I have met some lovely people and been kept fully informed every step of the way. There are so many things to think about, from blurbs and bylines to interviews and endorsements. But my favourite part of the magical process was proofreading and polishing the stories, all of which are from various competitions and many have appeared in anthologies over the years. I read each one out loud and loved every minute of it. I tucked myself away in my youngest daughter's bedroom (she was at school sitting her GCSE exams), where I wouldn't disturb my husband and middle daughter working in other rooms. After reading them, I was amazed by how many improvements there were to be made. And the copy-editors might find more!

It's wonderful to imagine these stories together in one volume and feels as if it's come about almost by magic - if gluing myself to my chair, hunching over the keyboard and frowning at my screen from dawn until dusk could be construed as magic. I certainly remind myself of a grumpy old witch weaving a spell. I even let out the occasional cackle.

I hope everyone who reads either of these books will enjoy them, especially if they feel moved enough to smile, laugh, or maybe even cry. Again, I'd prefer not to have high expectations, but if any of the characters remain with you, that really would be my ultimate dream come true.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Thank You!

Thank you to all of you for your encouragement, which has helped lead me to two publishing contracts, one for my short story collection and one for my novel!

This is a dream come true for me, as you all know. Your kind words have been the most wonderful spur and your brilliant advice has been massively helpful. I am truly grateful. You made me believe it was possible.

I'm still at the stage where the final revisions are underway, so I can't give precise details about the titles and publication dates just yet, but I couldn't wait any longer to tell you it's finally happening and how much I appreciate your friendship that helped me reach this hugely exciting place.

Thank you all so very much. xxx

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Paper Cups of Words

Almost Easter already and how much progress have my writing plans made? As far as the novel is concerned, they're still in the same place!

I'm waiting for further news, but not holding my breath. So far, the feedback is generally the same: the writing itself is all right, but there is no market for this book. It's a simple road trip: an English family in a car heading towards divided Berlin. In common with their destination, the car is filled with tension. There is a xenophobic grandmother, a father on the point of a nervous breakdown and even a brief appearance by a guinea-pig in a tutu. There is a Cold War, but no spies. Just a family spilling secrets and sharing sorrows. Plus some irreverent humour.

I enjoyed writing it more than I could ever describe and remain timidly hopeful, but definitely not expectant. That way, I won't be disappointed if it stays unpublished. (Who am I trying to kid?) Anyway, if I consign it to the What Might Have Been pile, it was still a wonderful trip.

In the meantime, I'm free to start the next one, for which I'm trying a different method. I've written the synopsis first this time, hoping to ensure the pace won't sag and the structure is sound. These are the main issues for me with writing novels, rather than short fiction. Juggling the comparatively enormous number of scenes and characters is quite overwhelming. I returned to short stories recently and enjoyed the novelty of a smaller cast. And having eight - instead of eighty - thousand words was blissful.

My short story news is going to wait for the next post, which hopefully won't take so long this time.

For some reason, I'm thinking about these lines from the Beatles' 'Across the Universe':

'Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy...'

Not everything written is published. Some beautiful words might, at least for the present, 'slip away'. But setting one project aside doesn't diminish the continuing joy of words, nor does it pull the shutters down on anyone's writing dreams.

And I like the idea of a paper cup of words. It sounds like one of those strange gifts you can buy, some sort of writerly prompt perhaps.

Wishing everyone a very happy Easter and great success with all your writerly projects. xxx