Thursday, 17 December 2015

Sadly Drawn Lines

As the year decelerates towards Christmas, I am dwelling on the magical quality of this time of year; mostly the hiding of secrets and the anticipation of giving presents, not to mention the obligatory defrosting of the freezer and the overwhelming urge to wash things I haven't washed since last Christmas.

And the memories which surface when I write the cards.

I always dig out my ancient Filofax with its soft, yellowing pages, where more names have been crossed out than remain. Most of my newer friends and acquaintances are ethereal, yet strangely brighter and more 'real' than people I once knew in the flesh. These people are fading.

They are ruled through with a stroke of the pen, or at most, a diagonal cross, so I can still see the essential details of a person who is now a stranger. I wonder if my own name - maiden or married - still features in crumbling address books, either crossed out, or obliterated forever with Tippex, or even furiously scribbled into oblivion.

Sadly, some of my people are behind the Biro bars because they have died. Some simply stopped sending me a card. Maybe they discarded card-sending in general, or perhaps they dislike/don't celebrate Christmas anymore. Or maybe they don't like me now. Perhaps they never did!

Over the years, the resurfacing of the Filofax and its dwindling supply of friends has made me feel a little sad, but now it brings a reflective mood, perhaps because I am older, more stoical and less in need of confirmation that I exist in the eyes of others. And perhaps because my life is populated largely with both ethereal and fictional people who keep me company day and night. I can have as many, both in terms of quantity and variety, as I like. And I can set them aside for a while without hurting their feelings.

And there it is - the magic of Christmas. It is about how you make people feel, showing them with gifts, cards, food, drink, or simply your beautiful presence, that you care - or that you don't. Because if you don't, there is magic there too.

The lack of a card might mean crossing out another name, but at least they still feature in the book, consigned to the past now, but solid evidence of the life you have led and those who have enriched it, whether the connection lasted for years or snapped after only a short time.

The loss or lack of a person can become tangible, another thread woven into the tapestry. You and the now-stranger once criss-crossed your lives, component parts of each other's story.

Onto more prosaic matters - the joy of being given a chain belt by an ex-neighbour, Christmas 1970, modelled here with vintage pyjamas and imbued with the power to turn a child into one of Pan's People. I wish I still owned it. I have, however, retained the same hair-style, albeit playing fast-and-loose with the word 'style'. The giver of the chain-belt has long since been crossed out and the memory of her has waned, but I shall never forget her.

And the magic is ever-present in the memory of my brother, his final address in my Filofax still bold behind the sadly drawn line, who would have celebrated his birthday on the twentieth of December. Here we are circa 1963, our personalities clearly drawn - he was older, cooler and busy working out new mischief for us. And I was...well, a bit of a twit. But a happy twit  with an imagination - if not much else - that always had a lot of jingle-bells attached and sought out the magic in everything at any time of year, and hopefully, always will.

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The London Short Story Prize at the largest book shop in Europe

Me on the left with judges Jon McGregor, Elise Dillsworth and Kevin Barry, and  highly commended authors James Woolf and Kerry Barner

A week ago, I abandoned my novel-in-progress and the mist-shrouded Cotswolds to go to Waterstones Piccadilly for the London Short Story Prize announcement. The competition and the event were administered and arranged by the writer development agency, Spread The Word, who looked after everyone and made the whole experience a joy.

I had been amazed to see my story, Upshots, in the longlist, so when it had the great good fortune of reaching the shortlist of six, the surprise was wonderful. When Upshots was declared the winning story, I was completely overwhelmed by the news and by the generous feedback from the three judges.

I read an excerpt to the audience, which involved improvising a Yorkshire voice for Stan, my narrator. Acting the part took me right out of myself and helped overcome a few nerves. I was told by a proper Yorkshireman afterwards that I had managed to pull the accent off - yet another surprise because I was certain it came and went quite a bit.

Upshots will be included in an anthology from the competition, due to be published next year. This year's anthology, a beautiful book called Flamingo Land & other stories, was launched the same night and features last year's winning story by Ruby Cowling, and a story by my Twitter friend, Kate Willis. Ruby read an excerpt from her title story and it was truly mesmerising.

After the announcement, the next highlight of the evening - and what a highlight - was an Audience with Jon McGregor, who gave us a reading from his book-in-progress, and Kevin Barry, who read from his latest novel, Beatlebone, recently the winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize .

And just to cap it all, on the way out of Waterstones, I spotted TDTL on the shelves. It was a big thrill to see it in Europe's largest book shop. I did replace it spine-out after the picture was taken, I promise.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Second drafts and second opinions

Novel number two, a harrowing story with an all-male cast whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by females, is shaping up well, largely due to my husband reading each chapter as I revise the second draft. Thankfully, he says he is really enjoying it, but I can also trust him to be honest when a detail jars or a passage of description teeters into total tedium territory or a character behaves...well, out-of-character. Several chapters have been returned with constructive comments and he is living up to his family maxim that a Campbell - while not always right - is never wrong. (I have spent thirty-one years trying to understand that.) Every time I follow his suggestions, the narrative improves in manifold ways.

This method of working has increased my confidence in the novel. Knowing he is keenly awaiting the next installation is a brilliant spur. He sends me an email when he has loved a chapter, so when it fails to ping, I know further work is in the offing. As a pure reader seeking entertainment and hoping to feel empathy with the characters, rather than reading it as a copy-editor or proofreader, he is giving me the feedback I need at this stage and always suggests wonderful ways out of any inconsistencies or dead-ends in the plot.

In other news, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, my story collection, is due to be released by Christmas if all goes well. Ink Tears, the publishers, say it will soon have its spine, so, with that in place, I am looking forward so much to seeing it up and running.

And finally, Tying Down the Lion has been given a very kind review by Carol Sampson on her website here. Nothing thrills me more than knowing a reader has enjoyed their journey with the Bishops, so, while gnashing my teeth over Chapter Eighteen of novel two before the hubster sees it, her lovely response has given me a wonderful boost.

Adrian (another male whose life is thrown into turmoil by females) with me and our three daughters at the launch of TDTL

Monday, 5 October 2015

Around the World in Books - Melissa Rose Showcases Tying Down The Lion

Today, I am proud to be the featured author on Around the World in Books, the lovely website of book enthusiast and author champion, Melissa Rose from Vancouver.

Melissa loves to read books from all around the world and every Friday she showcases five books from a selected country.

Melissa's tireless support for authors aiming to promote their books is greatly appreciated. Many thanks to her for supporting Tying Down The Lion and bringing it to a new readership.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Merry Christmas?

The novel-in-progress includes a scene set in Christmas 1970, although there is little for my fictional families to celebrate. A tragedy has tugged the rug from beneath their feet, but some of them are contemplating beckoning beacons of hope which appear to shed a tentative light on the future. However, those beacons are in forbidden territory...

The Christmas of forty-five years ago brought to an end a year in which England lost to West Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals. This unexpected result (two goals to three after extra time) had such a devastating effect on the country that it even prompted voters to lose faith in Harold Wilson's government. Like the England squad, the Labour party, who had secured a good lead in the Gallup poll, suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of Edward Heath's Conservatives.

Also in that year, Paul McCartney said he was leaving the Beatles, British Leyland announced that production of the Morris Minor would cease, and the General Election, with that shock result, was the first in which eighteen-year-olds could vote. Just around the corner in 1971 was the introduction of decimal currency, with young people trying to convince older members of the family that the change to 'new pee' would be easy and many people certain the new system would be a smokescreen for price rises.

The research led me to seek out old family pictures of that Christmas, but I could look no further than these, taken in 1967, the year in which Tying Down The Lion is set.

My father had not quite managed to finish decorating the 'front-room', hence the stripped-bare walls. He feared the plaster might completely crumble if the sellotape went anywhere near it, hence the lack of tinsel. He, my mother and I had all caught a vicious 'flu on Christmas Eve. My father was actually hallucinating at one point and to this day my mother has no idea how she cooked the dinner. Only my dear, irrepressible brother was cheerful.

My husband says it is the most depressing picture he has ever seen, from the un-festive tablecloth and plastic salt and pepper pots, to the eerie way my mother's hat is perched on top of her curls. Not to mention the way the food is congealing during the obligatory photo session - it was an icy-cold room with no heating. And what a huge amount of (cold) bread sauce on each plate. We had to have it, whether we liked it or not!

I love these pictures for their hand-knitted cardigans, National Health glasses, pallid faces, unclad walls and the dogged determination to sit at the table, pull the crackers, take the photographs and wade through the meal, despite three of us feeling utterly ghastly.

So I shall wallow in memories of 1967 for a little longer before turning back to 1970 - and to my characters who decide not to sit at the table at all...

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Listen to silence, feel its echo

The written word is beautiful to see and the paper always feels and smells special. If my finger traces the words of a brand-new book, the freshly inked letters seem to stand proud of the paper. Older, well-leafed pages with thumb-softened, yellowed borders carry a faint scent of cut wood, cold ash and forest clearings with a curl of smoke.

Words also sound beautiful. When authors used to introduce their own talking books, Thomas Mann, referring to his novel, Buddenbrooks, told his listeners:
"An epic is for the ear more than for the eye. In early times it was said and sung, it was listened to—and, as a matter of fact, this book too was listened to before it was looked at, when the young author read it aloud as he wrote it, to relatives and friends."
I know a man who is blind. He listens to talking books, especially character-driven stories about ordinary lives, which he orders via the RNIB. Only five percent of published books are available in this way, he told me, although the choice is still huge. He may not turn pages in his hands, but the recorded voice unfolds and shifts the scenes in his mind.

In fiction we all lose touch fleetingly with our own selves in order to slip into the worlds of others, to feel undercurrents heaving with secrets, to witness the struggle against the gathering waves and to worry that the protagonist might be swept away. Whether we hear the words or see them, the most important part is to feel their weight and search their strata.

Without being able to see the words, without feeling the paper and breathing in the scent of the pages, perhaps the layers of the story and the characters become even more profound. 

The descriptions of what my friend 'saw' when he listened to one particular book we discussed showed that my interpretation of the characters was shallower than his. I had absorbed far less, unrolled fewer layers. He had uncovered greater depths and unearthed more hidden treasure than I had managed to find.

However,  the words alone had not led him to these discoveries. All that was unsaid/unwritten, all the pauses/paragraph breaks and every discreet trace of foreboding spoke to him too.  When I had turned the pages, I missed some of those shadows and echoes. My friend who listens, saw them all.

Brian loves the fragrance of paper, occasionally attacks it, and listens to first drafts without wincing.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The shadows of war

One of many signs warning that the border between East and West Germany was directly alongside the path.

I invented the Bishop family for Tying Down The Lion, but the genesis of the novel probably came from my father's fascination with Germany since the war, having lied about his age to join up when it was in its last throes.

In 1968, he took us on a driving holiday to Bavaria, in the intense heat of a Ford Corsair, our legs velcroed to the vinyl seats. My father quietly swore about the dwindling petrol and diminishing money, boiling over when his cigarettes ran low. My brother and I squabbled in the back seat and learnt to accommodate bladders stretched to full capacity. Every time we spotted Toiletten, my father said, "Ooh, sorry, too late. Gone past now."

I was obsessed with asking where Hitler was buried until my exasperated father pointed vaguely at a mountain, saying, "Somewhere up there." After that, the F├╝hrer’s face stared at me from every slope.

During the trip, we were plucked from our hotel and taken in by a German family who insisted on showing us—total strangers and English to boot—incredible hospitality and showered me with presents when they found out it was my birthday—a fact my parents had been hoping to ignore until we were back home and they could draw out the Family Allowance.

I made several exciting discoveries: continental quilts meant sleeping beneath a cloud, potato salad didn't always come from a Heinz can, and the thrill of playing German whist. It was similar to the Knock-Out version I knew, just slightly more aggressive.

Years later, on a school trip to Germany, I was old enough to realise that the spectre of war still hovered. The first question the father of my host family asked me the moment I set foot over his threshold, was, "How old is your father?"

But The Cold War was casting the longest shadow. 

We were taken to see the barbed-wire border dividing the country into east and west. All the English students climbed out of the coach and stared at the warning signs. Despite the bright summer weather, the atmosphere was chilling. Our German counterparts opted to stay in the coach. The girl I was staying with chose not to go on the trip at all.

“I'm sorry. I find it too sad,” she said.

Even the livewire English boys fell silent. For all our group photographs, at least one of them could be expected to raise one arm in a Nazi salute and hold their little black Instamatic cameras, moustache-fashion, above their upper lips. On this occasion, the mood was sombre, the photographs hastily taken, and soon we all wanted to leave the barbed wire and the sorrowful strip of no man’s land, beyond which lay this other place, where villages were—as Jacqueline Bishop describes it—sliced apart like Battenberg cake, only they look less pretty

It was a place where watchtowers grew out of the soil. Where fields cultivated from the same batch of seed were crudely divided. A farmer’s own land had become suddenly out-of-bounds. If he took one step too far, he would be shot.

The only harmony was underground, where, like the warm air of the West Berlin subway drifting up through the ventilation shafts onto the pavements of East Berlin, roots free to travel at will could spread unseen. 

The armed guards patrolling the strip were also invisible, but our guide assured us they were there.

Since that day, recalling the final glance we all made over our shoulders as the coach rumbled into life and the boys' Hitler jokes softly resurfaced, I have imagined the East German guards watching us leave, their tension lifting.

I think of them lighting cigarettes in the stillness, relieved that nothing came to pass, the thump of their hearts slowing as they stood in the shadows to watch our coach disappear into the sun setting in the west.

Unsure if I was allowed to take a picture, I snapped this view of the border fencing with my Instamatic. It may not look much, but for me it captures the loneliness of the divided country.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Greenacre Writers

Greenacre Writers is a fantastic organisation, which has expanded into three groups covering short story writing, starting novels and finishing novels.

They run beautiful retreats and stimulating writing workshops, including a walking workshop with an emphasis on nature as a spur for writing, as well as offering short story writers an opportunity to submit work to their excellent and very popular annual competition.

They also run the highly successful Finchley Literary Festival, which offers all kinds of literary events in a variety of venues throughout the borough of Finchley. Writer Lindsay Bamfield, one of the organisers, has a very interesting blog, which includes reports on all the news from the Finchley Festival.

Greenacre Writers, who have always offered me great support, have kindly interviewed me about my writing and asked some lovely, searching questions which transported me back through the years to relive the beginnings of my writing career.

Thank you so much, Greenacre Writers, for this perfect opportunity to reflect.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Not the Booker longlisting for Tying Down the Lion

I am so thrilled to find out today that Tying Down the Lion is on the longlist for The Guardian Not the Booker prize!

The shortlist is determined by public vote and the deadline is August 2nd. If any blogger friends would like to vote, then of course I would appreciate their support very much.

However, most of all, this is a chance to say just how pleased I am for the novel itself - this is a lovely tribute to the characters, their story and the five years of pleasure that writing it has given me.

Lara from Brick Lane Publishing and me at the launch in Waterstones, Bath

Friday, 24 July 2015

The Real You, As You Are

This is another extract from the talk I gave at the launch of Tying Down The Lion, this time about the moment I found out my book would be published and how we should trust in our own unique writer's voice.
I spent years living within the history of post-war socialism to the extent where one daughter announced I had essentially become a communist. I think she was referring to our empty fridge.

However, finishing was just the beginning. I had to look up from a desk cluttered with books, papers, sixties magazines and comics, pictures, cuttings and essential replica bars of Cold War chocolate - and find a publisher.

I found it so much harder than writing, this moment of actually approaching real people. This might be a good point, I realised, to change tack and become a potter or a rug-weaver instead.

The experts who write books on getting published rightly suggest sending sparkly letters of enquiry, buffing your synopsis to a gleaming mirror-finish and making yourself sound like an irresistible person to work with.

However, I am not able to do that - or be that. I submitted the manuscript to Lara Schonberger at Brick Lane Publishing with the rather hopeless, if honest, words, “I have written a novel I don’t know what to do with.”

Fortunately, Lara read it and did know what to do with it.

When she said yes, it felt like a hundredweight of birthday presents, the culmination of all the dawn starts, false starts and restarts. My five years of work had taken me from the original short story, via an overweight and unmanageable tome, to this complete novel—the rightful end to the year, over thirty-five years ago, when I lived in a Germany scored into slices, with people scarred by shame.

But did I celebrate?

Not immediately, no. I asked my husband if there could be two Joanna Campbells who had submitted novels to Brick Lane Publishing. He said there was thankfully only the one.

And every writer is unique. Each one owns their own inimitable, instinctive voice. If authors are loyal to themselves, they succeed.

My voice tells stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations with a weave of wry humour, the sort that binds life together when it is at its most fragile, stitching its way through every dark twist and turn—a line of gold thread through fabric black with despair.

That is how I write. That is who I am.

Author of The Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said:

"Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."

I like this church how it is. 

Unique and still standing tall and proud, the 'hollow-tooth' spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. The bomb damage remains as a reminder. This church will not be pulled down or remodelled. It is itself. On its left is its modern-day  'lipstick' companion.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

When Planets Slip Their Tracks

The cover of my first short story collection. Huge thanks to Ink Tears Press for all their hard work and skill.

Like many short story writers, I always hoped I might be asked to gather a collection for publication one day. Three years ago, that wish came true. 

After entering an Ink Tears competition in which one of my stories was highly commended, they approached me about the possibility of publishing a book. They have produced three stunning hardback collections so far and this autumn, mine will be one of the next to follow. 

When Planets Slip Their Tracks includes stories that have won prizes or commendations in competitions. Several have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. They are often disturbing and startling, but also sometimes funny, as Jilly Cooper states on the cover. 

The binding theme is how people's lives teeter on the brink. Since we are all finely-tuned, precariously balanced waifs, an unforeseen wind or turn of the tide can cause us to waver off-course. The stories show how ordinary people cope when that happens. Sometimes life presents them with a dilemma and sometimes a fluctuation within their own minds makes them falter.

Although the man in the cover picture battles against driving rain, he also appears to be enclosed by it; separated from - and protected by - the more savage turbulence life brings. The rain could be a torment or a haven. Perhaps both. 

For all the characters in the stories, life deals blows that can conceal blessings, and blessings that sometimes turn into blows.

For those who may not have seen me talking about short stories and how I write, this is the video of the interview I did with Ink Tears while we were busy with the edits. 

Almost all the revisions are now finished and I am looking forward to the book's release later in the year. Thank you to Anthony and Sara-Mae at Ink Tears for giving me the opportunity to hold Planets in my hands.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Between Rocks and a Cliff

I thought I would share an extract from the talk I gave at last week's launch. This section is about how writers must often force their characters to suffer.

The Grand Canyon - not a bad cliff from which to throw your character.

While authors can sometimes be caretakers, nurses, peacemakers and friends to their long-suffering characters, they are also megalomaniacs, killers, poisoners, stirrers, tormentors and nit-pickers—sometimes to their editors as well.

Vladimir Nabokov said:

“The writer's job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

In Tying Down The Lion, although Nikita Khrushchev had already done quite a bit of rock-throwing for me, I still felt a surge of power. Shrinking violet I may be, but perhaps I have the roots of a dictator.

In the evenings, when my family ask about my day, I have, at various times during my short story writing days, been able to confirm that I have given an old man with dementia a trip in a car without him leaving his living-room; I have awakened Benito Mussolini’s mistress from the dead and transported her to Becontree station; and I have transmogrified a brash young salesman into a red-necked ostrich.

I once wrote a story called The Journey to Everywhere—which is where I go every day from my desk in a corner of the living-room.

Writers observe people—mentally writing even when socialising. It can be quite menacing. After meeting me for the first time, one daughter’s terrified boyfriend said to her, "OMG, it was like she was peering inside my soul."

The author, Meg Rosoff, said that a writer should travel to the edge of experience and then stretch even further beyond it. I imagine she meant: hang your characters from a cliff by their fingertips, but force them to take in the view.

The text-books say to write what you know, but I like to take what I know and—this might not be the most highbrow term—dangle it. Watch it hang over that edge, stretched to absolute breaking-point, until it becomes something I don’t know—something I want to write about; to go up to the border at which I meet myself as a stranger, so that I am never in the writing, only what is beyond me.

Berlin was my ready-made ‘edge’ and I could use it like a factual rack to stretch the fictional Bishop family to their limits.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Launch of Tying Down The Lion

Signing copies of Tying Down The Lion at Waterstones, Bath

I had such a wonderful evening at the Bath branch of Waterstones, talking about Tying Down The Lion's path to publication and also the events in my life that have inspired it.

Thank you to all the kind friends and family who came along to listen and I'm very happy to say we sold out of our stock of books by the end of the evening. Many thanks to the staff at Waterstones, to all the kind, supportive friends who came along and showed such interest and enthusiasm, and to those from far and wide who sent their good wishes. My husband, Adrian, and our three daughters were all absolute stars and we stayed up far too late looking at all the pictures and talking about the event that was the pinnacle of five years of writing - and five years of the incredible support I received from them all.

Such a memorable evening - my heartfelt appreciation to Brick Lane Publishing for making it possible. I had the time of my life. Thank you everyone.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A Sense of Shame

The pavements of Berlin today, showing the path taken by the Wall 

I am a guest of Brick Lane Publishing's blog today, talking about the German sense of collective guilt following WWII. I recall life in a West German bedsit when the country was still coming to terms with Hitler and the Holocaust, and, of course, with living in the chill of the Cold War.

Friday, 26 June 2015

New Release Feature

Today I am delighted to see Tying Down The Lion featured on A Woman's Wisdom as one of 2015's new book releases. Many thanks to Rosemary for recommending Ali's incredible website, on which all kinds of authors give interviews, receive reviews and are given the chance to show their new releases.

I was thrilled to receive my first review on Amazon this week and am gradually adjusting to life post publication, with every day bringing new comments and mentions. I am eternally grateful to the generosity of friends old and new for lending support with spreading the word.

I have entered a very different territory from the familiar world of writing fiction. Normally I live a quiet, hermit-like existence and now I feel as if I am shouting at everyone. It is far from easy to act out of character, but as I am so pleased for Tying Down The Lion that it is 'out there' after five years of research and writing, that I might have to mention it now and again for a little longer before I tuck myself away again.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Guest Post

Today I am honoured to be Rosemary Gemmell's guest at her lovely blog - Reading and Writing.

Rosemary has been a fabulous friend for years and is a very talented author with many short stories, articles, novellas and novels to her credit.

My post on Rosemary's blog today focuses on the Kindertransport, in which thousands of Jewish children were rescued from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia during 1938/9 and given new lives in England.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Beating Heart of a Book

Since writing about the Bishop family in Tying Down The Lion, I would like to reply to some interesting questions people have asked about how I constructed it. Which came first: the backdrop of Berlin or the notion of a road trip? Did it set out to be a novel about war or about living with the after-effects? Was my intention to concentrate on their journey or their destination?

One thread links these questions: where is the beating heart of a book?

Is it in the surroundings or the travelling - both the physical and emotional journey? Is the pulse of it in the historical research or the period detail?

My answer is straightforward. None of these. With both short stories and novels, I begin in the same place every single time - with the characters.

The story emerges from the people in my imagination. I don't feel in a position to slide them up and down the peaks and troughs of their narrative arc until I know who they are.

Yes, unavoidable factors, such as surviving the war - and which 'side' they were on - have influenced the Bishop family's choices and actions, their mental health and their relationships. But I slotted those 'exterior' elements in place (if only it were as easy as 'slotted' implies) after I had understood their strengths and their spirit, their flaws and failings, their uniqueness as individuals.

"I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven." (Stephen King: On Writing)

In order to know the Bishops, I thought about them all the time and dreamed about them at night, often waking up with deeper insight as a result. They held conversations with each other in their living-room, or inside their car, or on the streets and squares of Berlin. Never in my home or my car or on the streets where I live. I closed my eyes and 'saw' them where they fitted, in their spaces rather than mine. That way, they could always be themselves.

There were arguments and blistering atmospheres, brightened by rare moments of harmony. Sometimes they fell silent and I observed the way they sat, or how they looked away from each other's faces, or noticed whether they lit a cigarette and how they lit them. (If you have ever watched the amazing AMC series, Mad Men, you will know the many different ways people can smoke.) I thought about what scared my characters, and also what brought them comfort. I wondered how they suffered in private and how they might show love.

Imagination shapes the souls of book-people. Their essence fills the pages. However, there is no clear idea of their physical appearance in my mind. The imagination of each reader supplies his or her own exclusive pictures. I hope I can show my readers enough, rather then tell them everything.

Tying Down The Lion has a huge framework - the ruptured city of Berlin - and deals with complex feelings and personal issues: depression, mood swings, alcoholism, gambling, loss of identity, persecution, prejudice and fear. But both the massive setting and the wide range of emotions exist because of the Bishop family. Without them there would be no Berlin, no bad moods, no bigotry. The Bishops are the beating heart of the book.

The East German Ampelmann has such style, he became a small character too. But he was taken from real life. More about that in the next post.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Publication Day

It felt wonderful to type the title of this post. Tying Down The Lion has been part of my writing life for five years and the focus of it for the last two. My hope was always to see it traditionally published and I am so grateful to Brick Lane Publishing for making that possible.

I am looking forward to seeing the paperback for the first time and, after more than fifty years of reading, interested in how I shall respond to holding my own book in my hands. I have wanted so much to do that since I was very young and as the day draws closer, I can hardly believe it is about to happen. I will be celebrating in the best way I know - writing.

Most of all, I hope that anyone who reads Tying Down The Lion will, in some way, be moved by its story. I hope the characters will linger in their minds afterwards. And I hope that the time spent reading it will be considered time well spent.

Its essence is beautifully captured by novelist and dramatist Rachel Connor on her website.

Thank you to Lara at Brick Lane, to Rachel, and to all my writing and reading friends who have given advice and encouragement. And thank you to my family for living the communist lifestyle with me for all this time. I'll restock the cupboards soon, I promise.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Tethering Lions

People are talking about the sad death of Charles Kennedy and naturally, in the same breath, his chronic drinking problem.

In the days of Margaret Thatcher, we entered an age of restyling, her teeth, hair, clothes and voice all overhauled to improve her public image. But Charles Kennedy retained a 'what you see is what you get' persona, never appearing sanitised or airbrushed. We may have seen him appear sweating and puffy-faced, but he was also intelligent, empathetic and, above all, human.

In Tying Down The Lion, one of the German characters suffers from alcoholism, her dependency the result of her ordeals when the Red Army invaded Berlin. She is fettered by the impossible longing to return to her magical life before the war, unable to separate the past and set it free. But there is not always such a clear-cut reason for alcoholism.

I hesitated before writing a post about this theme because it felt like a betrayal. Someone close to me was an alcoholic. People with addictions can be viewed as self-destructive, weak or selfish and I am reluctant that he should be remembered that way. However, it has to be said, those are apt descriptions of his behaviour sometimes - accurate 'symptoms' of his disease. He was nevertheless a whole person with human faults, failings and also great, shining qualities too, just the same as anyone else.

He possessed a wonderful sense of humour and loved to be surrounded by people so that he could entertain them. He was generous, kind-hearted and keen to help solve the dilemmas of others. However, following the path of many alcoholics, he concocted webs of lies and manipulated situations in order to feed his addiction. Like Charles Kennedy, he frequently denied he had a problem.

When I look at old pictures of him, the need for 'something else' was possibly always there. In adolescence, his confident stance and smile, the hint of swagger, mask an uncertainty within himself. An expression of irritation often seems to have crept in, a lack of ease that seems to be directed at whoever was holding the camera, but is probably a sign of his own diminishing ability to love himself.

As a young man, he was already drinking both in public and in private. His family were often woken by the sounds of him staggering in and struggling to make his way upstairs. He would think nothing of 'borrowing' a motor-bike to roar his way home, covering fifteen miles in ten minutes, then taking a further hour to crawl inside the house.

As the years went by, he became adept at concealing alcohol, even in shampoo bottles under his bed. One hot day, when I asked for a sip from his pint of water, he was not quick enough to stop me, although he tried. The glass was full to the brim with neat vodka.

Every component of his life gradually eroded; three marriages, a promising career, friendships, trust, hope and health. His best relationships were with my young children. In them, he could see the bright potential we all have when life is just beginning. He saw the best of himself, a memory of all that was now disappearing.

In the end, he was trying to piece some of the broken parts of himself back together. He secured a job he enjoyed, with responsibilities he seized like a lifeline. There was a chance he might have a future after all. But after an accident at home, unrelated to alcohol, he let the lifeline go and quietly died.

I think he drank because he never believed he could function without that 'something else'. Some of us are driven and inspired by our family, our work, our interests, or simply by our own selves. Others slide into the belief that they need a different kind of support in order to be happy. Eventually they need it just to function. On the day I sipped his vodka, he watched me and winked. The wink said that he knew he was in the clutches of something deadly, but he didn't know how else to live.

It is tempting to say to someone with alcohol dependency, "Just stop." And that person, with the best of intentions, might give you a faithful promise to do just that. Tomorrow. And everyone, with or without addictions, knows how easy it is to make declarations about tomorrow. Often these vows turn out to be slippery fish, impossible to catch as they slither away and disappear into the deep. But these natural human responses should not diminish the stature of the person, just as the addiction should not define them.

In Tying Down The Lion, just as in real life, no cure for alcohol dependency can be offered. As with many human problems, the attempt to master it is as formidable as tethering a lion. However, readers will discover whether there is any hope for a happier outcome and a release from the ties of the past.

Charles Kennedy should be remembered as a gifted orator who united his party, and above all, as a man who was flawed, yet real. As for the man I knew, I choose to remember his good days, even though they became gifts we were all scared to open, not wanting the promise to be shattered.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Crowd in White Boots

In Tying Down The Lion, young narrator Jacqueline longs for a pair of white patent boots. Also known as go-go boots, these were an important trend in the sixties, or 'all the rage', as they termed it then. 

A friend of mine recently unearthed a photograph of herself posing on a motorbike in the centre of London. She was wearing a pair of these marshmallow-soft, long, gleaming boots and I said how much I would have loved a pair in those days. "Never mind those days," she said. "I want them now."

But she couldn't recall the photograph being taken, nor could she recollect owning the lovely boots.

Fashions come, go and return again, in and out of our lives like passing acquaintances, quickly consigned to oblivion and then re-embraced. Or, as in my friend's case, completely forgotten. And yet our garments define the times, drawing an outline around our past. When we see old pictures of ourselves, we focus on the clothes, recalling our loathing of a dreaded hand-knitted balaclava our mothers forced us to wear or cringing at neon-yellow trousers with embroidered flares the size of a ship's billowing sails.

Does this mean we identify ourselves by fashions - not just in clothing, but by other shifts and fluctuations? Over the years, home furnishings change in style, certain colours are 'in' or 'out' and hairstyles vary. Then there are the wider changes. 

During the austere years immediately following World War II, people in the UK suffered continued rationing and conscription while war-rubble and ruins silhouetted the landscape of towns and cities with no sign of any major rebuilding work. Britain was almost bankrupt. 

But in the sixties - the era of the white patent boot - the outlook altered. The country was being patched together, living standards rose and unemployment was comparatively low. People owned cars and drove them on the new motorways. They shopped in supermarkets instead of at the corner shop. The era had Carnaby Street, pop music and its own 'Swinging Sixties' identity, a sharp contrast with the bleaker days of eking out rations, making underwear from parachute silk and queuing for food.

But how do people catch up with who they are inside when the outside world frequently and persistently changes its mind, its course and its moods?

Jacqueline, on the cusp of adulthood and still too young to have much say in how she looks, talks of the Identity Crisis of adolescence when she considers her longing to be one of the crowd in white boots. Her father likens them to 'Nazi jackboots', his own bad memories putting paid to her dreams. She can no longer feel like one of the in-crowd. All her plans of sophistication and glamour must be put on hold. She is left wondering where she fits in until the day of her transformation through the golden gates of adulthood dawns.

But does an identity crisis occur because of an unfulfilled, burning need to pull on the same boots as everyone else? Or does it originate from the longing to tug out the piece of you that you carry around inside, the hidden part that makes you different? 

Perhaps our lack of ease with ourselves, especially during the pre-adult years, stems from repressing our true identity in favour of following the trends. The friend I envied most during the teenage years was the one who refused to blend with the the crowd. While we listened to pop on our transistors, she chose to play opera records. And when we danced around our clutch bags in the discos, she stayed at home with her canvas and easel, creating marvellous paintings. Without doubt she was fully in tune with the interior part of her that made her different.

We have a peculiar relationship with the mirror, odder than any we have with another living soul. Do we look at our reflection in the hope of seeing someone who will fit in, adapting our appearance at the dictate of fashion in order to ensure it? Or do we see ourselves as we really are, rather than how we would like to be?

Times change, fashions rotate, but it is never clear whether we buy the white boots because we love them, or because we want to be loved. Whichever way it goes, I can't imagine how my friend could have forgotten she owned a pair. Jacqueline would have slept with them under her pillow.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Launch of Tying Down The Lion

I am very happy to let everyone know that Brick Lane Publishing has arranged a launch for Tying Down The Lion.

The venue is Waterstones bookshop in the beautiful town of Bath and the event begins at 6.30pm on July 9th 2015.

I will be reading extracts from the book, signing copies and talking about my path to publication. 

If you would like to come, just let me know via the Comments or my Author Page on Facebook and I will be very happy to see you there.

My heartfelt thanks for all your support and enthusiastic comments throughout the process of writing Tying Down The Lion, from its beginnings as a short story to a work-in-progress, then finally to my debut novel.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Elvis and The Cold War

In 1958, Elvis went to West Germany, but not to rotate his famous pelvis. He was drafted to a tank division that would help prevent the Soviets storming through from the east.

Khrushchev had given the Western powers six months to leave Berlin, but the US, UK and France stated their intention to stay exactly where they were. As a result, Soviet tanks were expected to emerge from the same East/West German mountain gap through which Hannibal and Napoleon had once invaded. Elvis's unit was sent to guard it. However, he - and many young men like him - could not fully comprehend why they were there at all.

They were justifiably mystified about their presence in West Germany, since it was likely that the Soviets were more concerned with spreading communism to countries that were easier targets and would eventually unite with them against America. Were the Russians really coming? As Elvis himself said, "What the hell are we doin' this for anyway?"

During this time, Elvis became a significant person in the forefront of the Cold War, because he was the epitome of freedom. West Germany, aware that his popularity could encourage young Germans to lend weight to NATO, took advantage of his presence, even running a competition for winners to take tea with him. East Germany, however, blustered at the moral decline he represented. Rock 'n roll was considered savage, a threat to ordered society and, according to defence minister, Willi Stoph, “a means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war.” They had to find something to counter all that Elvis stood for and their response was -  the Lipsi.

The Lipsi - the name designed to offer a degree of 'modern' appeal - was a staid, old-fashioned dance strictly for couples, with the man leading the woman and not a pelvic thrust in sight. There was minimal bodily contact and both the steps and the hand movements seemed childlike and innocent. Its introduction - officially endorsed by the state - openly demonstrated the communist party leaders' distaste for men and women dancing solo and therefore able to make their own individual moves. The Twist, for example, was declared to be harmful to one's internal organs. Signs were put up in dance halls declaring that dancing apart was forbidden.

East German youth took to the streets in protest. Arrests and prison sentences followed. Among the evidence in court were pictures of Elvis found in the rebels' homes.

Khrushchev's ultimatum eventually came to a crescendo with the building of the Berlin Wall. Elvis had left Germany by then and the east was sealed against western decadence.

In Tying Down The Lion, we meet East Germans of the age between the younger and older generations. For them, weary from the horrors of World War II, the rebelliousness of youth has passed by, but the compliance of old age has not yet set in. It is therefore with a gentle touch of disdain and self-mockery that they teach the Lipsi to our English narrator, Jacqueline. Her knowledge of music is confined to television programmes such as The Black and White Minstrel Show, although she has seen Ready, Steady, Go!, in which the gyrating dancers met with her grandmother's shock and disapproval.

Perhaps, to the younger British teenager of the sixties, whose eyes sometimes had to be covered while they gazed at exciting new sights on the small screen - and to those who covered them - the Lipsi was representative of a tamer, more 'respectable' time. Whereas to those of the age to seek greater self-expression, it was stuffy, prim and repressive.

The final irony is that 'Elvis the Pelvis' had already outraged the establishment with his gyrations (he eventually had to be filmed from the waist up for television) and with his music that crossed racial divisions in just the same way as he disturbed the leaders of East Germany, and yet the US found it useful to parade him as a symbol of western culture during the Cold War - a perfect example of how the ideals and standards of different countries and regimes are not as diverse as they might at first appear. That said, the Lipsi was doomed never to catch on - anywhere.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Family Car Journeys - then and now

Lovely and talented writer, Shirley Golden, has kindly hosted my guest post comparing the joys and pitfalls of family car-holidays today with road travel in the sixties.

Here I am in 1968 - very sulky behind my clip-on sunglasses - between my parents and beside the road somewhere in West Germany. While my mother is wisely enjoying the picnic, my father is brooding - I think he was short of both petrol and cigarettes. The very shiny Corsair was his absolute pride and joy, but the 'joys' of the family holiday seem to be eluding him here.

Thank you, Shirley - I really enjoyed the memories that this brought back.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

A Temporary Uprooting

In this extract from my short story, A Temporary Uprooting, which ignited the inspiration for the novel, Tying Down The Lion, narrator Jacqueline is contemplating the imminent trip to Berlin.

The prospect of venturing Abroad throws into relief the existing conflict between her narrow-minded English grandmother and her German-born mother. Grandma's friend, Elsie, gleeful at the opportunity to stir up a hornet's nest, offers no help.

“Elsie says there are soldiers clicking triggers on every corner of Berlin,” Grandma tells my mother.
Elsie blushes to the black roots of her dandelion-clock hair.
I reassure Grandma that Germany is an ordinary country like ours, but she says, “What, with all that sausage?”
My mother has kept a newspaper picture of a Berlin bride in tears because her grandparents must watch the wedding from the other side of the Wall. The elderly couple strain to see the white froth of the dress from their bedroom window, their knotty, tired hands clasped together on a cushion laid on the sill.
But, divided city or not, I imagine the people on both sides wake up and groan at the cat for leaping on them before the alarm clock trills, accuse each other of leaving toothpaste-spit in the wash-basin and hope to shake out more than dust from the pit of the cornflakes box, the same as they do here.
For the people of Berlin, half of a city has to mean the whole of it.
Grandma says, “I don’t trust sausage with green bits.”
“Nell, they are only peppercorns,” my mother explains, elaborating the peppercorns with a whispered German swear-word that only I hear.
“Pepper's white," Grandma says. "And it's for mashed swede.”
My mother promises to make Grandma her four o'clock tea every day in Berlin, vowing to pack the lump sugar and a quarter pound of best leaf, even when Elsie says the guards will poke bayonets in her handbag. Mother won’t let anyone float a German lemon slice in the cup, but Grandma should not expect the milk to come from a bottle.
I imagine them singing the praises of the British milkman to my West Berlin aunt. The other aunt lives behind the Wall with - according to Elsie's over-taxed imagination - a cupboard full of nothing but pickled cucumbers,  coffee made from rotting sugar-beet and chocolate bars that taste of earth. 
My mother and I have a one-day pass to visit her in East Berlin...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The open road that may close wounds

One of the main characters in Tying Down The Lion is Roy Bishop, the driver of a battered Morris Traveller entrusted to transport his family from England to Berlin. While he invests his faith in his beloved car, his wife and children must put theirs in him - their 'King of the Road'. 
But for Roy, this is more than a trip, more than simple driving for pleasure. The car must survive because the open road ahead represents his longing to escape the devastating psychological effects of World War II. The war may have ended over twenty years earlier, but he still suffers from what was eventually to become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had previously been recorded as 'shell shock' in WWI and 'battle fatigue' in WWII.
These days there is greater and growing sensitivity towards unseen wounds, an ability to acknowledge that stressful events can cut deep inside and more encouragement to seek professional help. However, that does not mean it is easy to find solace. Before asking for support, the sufferer has to acknowledge the impact of their ordeal and express their torment when such recognition can itself force open the emotional scars and cause deeper pain. 
For a man like Roy, who returned from a war which hailed its men as heroes, rather than casualties, it is especially difficult to expose the concealed damage. Although by the time of WWII, military psychiatrists had arrived at the conclusion that any soldier could reach their breaking-point, many men saw their failure to cope as a weakness.
Roy is a husband and father in the sixties, an ex-soldier who served his country during the worst conflict in history. He believes that he is not expected - indeed, not permitted - to show emotion. He has a different role to play now. He must look after his family without caving in, despite the horror of the past shadowing him with dogged persistence. When sometimes it becomes unavoidable that his wife and children witness the signs of his agony, the harrowing scenes are not discussed afterwards. No help is sought.
This was a time when the revelation of feelings was often considered unmanly. A masculine image was important. My own father, who suffered horrific dreams after the war, refused to push a pram or carry a bunch of flowers. Although he felt proud of his children and lovingly tended the beautiful blooms in his garden, he could not bear to have his pride or his tender side revealed in public. In many families, everyone - both male and female - was discouraged from outbursts of inner feelings, even within the privacy of the home. It was termed 'getting in a state' or 'being emotional' and considered a demeaning and embarrassing lapse of strength.
Therefore, even during the relative peace of England during the years of the Cold War, Roy must battle on, the conflicts inside him lingering long after physical battle has reached a conclusion. Ever hopeful, he devises his own 'cure' - the road ahead. This way, there is no looking into the horror of the past, no peeling back the 'soft' side of himself, no revelation of the terrible hurt that has to stay with him forever. His family must not lose their unshakeable belief that he will reach his destination. Only his mother is less sure that he will bring them to Berlin in one piece - not only because of her uncertainty about his driving prowess and the delicate condition of his car, but also perhaps because she senses his fragility inside.
If Roy could choose a mantra from more enlightened times, this quote from author M.B. Dallocchio might be appropriate for him: "The open road. Seemingly my only friend for years upon end since leaving war. The road embraced me, let me breathe, and more importantly, did not judge me."

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Writing an Iceberg

Ordinary people - both English and German - left mentally scarred by World War II; homes that have been transformed in a grotesque way or shifted altogether; a holiday that opens up family fissures; an ancient car that struggles to reach Berlin; and the city itself, pockmarked with bullet-holes and split in half: these inherent parallels provide the nuts and bolts of my debut novel, Tying Down The Lion. But how does a story-teller reveal interconnecting themes without consciously laying them bare to the reader? I try to explain The Iceberg Theory in my guest post for Brick Lane Publishing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

A Book is Not a Baby

People tell me my book must feel like my baby. They say that with publication imminent, watching that baby take its first steps must be a wrench. The truth is, I don't feel like that. Once my book was finished, there was a positive and welcome sense of detachment - it was a complete being and ready to try its luck in the world.
If it succeeds in entertaining any of its readers, then it will be successful and I will be inordinately proud. Not of me, but of it. This is not some sort of coy modesty. I feel this way about short stories too. Once they become complete pieces, I see them in a different way. They must stand alone. I send them off and wish for the best possible outcome, but without expectations, since those can lead to disappointment. However, I am always hopeful, as there would be little point submitting if I couldn't allow myself a sliver of that. If the story is unsuccessful, I am disappointed for it, not for myself. If it flourishes, I am overwhelmed with happiness, but for the story, not for me. The mood has changed since we were closely acquainted. I am occupied with a different set of characters, an unrelated setting and brand-new words. This is why they cannot feel like babies. If they were, it would be impossible to discard one in favour of the next.
I really miss the characters I have created and wish they were still with me, but none of them can be tiny infants - even those who actually are. They must all stand on their own feet. If they seem to be faltering, then I probably shouldn't write The End just yet.
My book cannot be a baby. It has to go out and speak for itself, function on the precipice without me clutching hold of it and clinging on for all I'm worth - just in case I decide to pull it back from the brink.
A book and a baby are two different entities. One is painful to produce, causes endless anguish and disturbs sleep. The other is soft, pink and gurgly.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

An Interview with Rachel Connor

I am excited to announce the release date for Tying Down The Lion is June 15, which was the day in 1938 when the newspapers announced Hitler's great plans for Berlin to become the 'centre of culture and civilisation.' Connected to his own palace by a covered passage, a huge 'People's Hall' would be constructed, although in truth he envisioned it as a massive temple to National Socialism. It would even have its own weather - the breath and sweat of its 150,000 occupants creating precipitation in the lofty dome.

Of course his project never came to fruition. There was no 'People's Hall', no 'Avenue of Splendours', no Germania. Instead, a few years later, Berlin was reduced to a heap of rubble. And sixteen years after that, with the city beginning to recover, came the Wall.

Tying Down the Lion takes place in 1967, six years after the Wall was built, and captures life for ordinary, war-weary people on both sides, as observed by a young English girl with her own project to complete. The novel is the result of a short story I wrote years ago that touched on the plight of the city from the somewhat incongruous setting of a pebble-dashed semi in an English suburb. I was intrigued by this odd juxtaposition of a family motoring in their Morris Traveller from such an inconsequential, anonymous little town into this huge, jumbled metropolis.

My writing often focuses on contrasts - the joy that so often cuts through sorrow, the humour that laces through tragedy and the ordinary within the extraordinary. Tying Down The Lion is no exception.

Novelist, dramatist and prize-winning short story writer, Rachel Connor, has kindly interviewed me about the book - and about my writing in general - on her website.

Rachel, who is also an editor for the renowned literary consultancy, Cornerstones, read an earlier draft and gave me an invaluable report on plot, structure, characterisation and all other vital facets of building a book, which led me out of the wilderness and toppled the barriers blocking the novel's essence.

After laying some lacklustre characters to rest and tightening the narrator's grip on the proceedings, I began to see the wood for the trees. I would unreservedly recommend a consultation like this. It was only once I had read the report and talked to Rachel at length that I could step back and see the potential of that first draft that I had - horrifyingly - presumed was a finished novel. In truth, the real, thrilling work was just about to begin.