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.