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.