SUNSHINE BLOGGER AWARD

Hello, darlings! I have been nominated for the sunshine blogger award by Clara at Scribblings. Thank you so much. I first met Clara on the first day of the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford last year. I was feeling rather nervous since I didn’t know anyone and we walked into the conference together. She told me that she was going to pitch her book to two agents in the course of the conference. Clara is Italian. Since the idea of doing that in my own language would scare the living daylights out of me I decided that my nerves were misplaced and she had nerves of steel. Check out her blog here:

https://claragiuliani.com/

and you’ll find she writes better English than I do. So now I must answer her questions, nominate my own sunshine bloggers and set my own questions.

A little ray of sunshine. That is me and my blog!

Q. What is it you really can’t resist?

With the election about to happen here in the UK – Andrew Rawnsley’s political column in The Observer. Always interesting, thought provoking, well-written and entertaining. A good combination of historical context and insider info/gossip. I hate it when he goes on holiday. There is also William Keegan, also in The Observer, who writes about economics in a way that even I can understand which makes him a genius!

Q. Time machine – when, what, who, where, why?

I’m currently doing some research into the English Civil War. So it would be extremely convenient to be transported into the Blue Boar Inn in St Aldates, Oxford around the middle of January 1642. I’ve just been writing a scene there and I’d like a good look at the landlady and find out who is sleeping in ‘the Green Chamber’ of her inn.

Q. When might you be tempted to murder?

Other than Hitler before he came to power the couple who had the drunken argument on the pavement outside my flat a couple of nights ago. Oh, how people love to argue on corners and how incredibly boring they are when they’re drunk. And how wide awake I was by the time they fell into a cab.

Q. Who or what did you play at as a child?

OK, this is a bit odd. My earliest recollection involves a sort of Viking hat and a set of banisters. Then there was a nifty cowboy outfit I had, the trousers were made of thick orange corduroy and had plastic white tassels that stood out horizontally from the trousers. I thought I was the bees knees. There were toy guns that fired caps. They made quite an enjoyably loud bang. There were also some very beautiful boots that I never wore because they hurt my feet.

Q.The concert of my life?

It would have to be KD Lang and the Reclines at the Town and Country 2 in Kentish Town, London in the late eighties or early 90s. I think it was 1992. How those rhinestones dazzled. It was a small venue before she hit it big with Ingenue. I’ve still got the T-shirt although if I hold it up to the light I can see right through it. I absolutely refuse to turn it into dusters!

Q. My favourite weather – the one that makes my spirits soar?

First crisp day of autumn the one that gets me rummaging for my jumpers and discovering which have been saved from the moths.

Q. The ending of a book, film, play that you’ll never make peace with.

Now, Voyager – Oh Bette!!!!! you deserved the moon I’m sorry the stars were NOT enough and nor was that measly cigarette, not after you’d plucked your eyebrows so beautifully. I can’t watch it without crying.

Q. Ever got that ‘Oh, I’m inside a book feeling?’

Well, actually most days and usually it’s my work in progress, current title Fire and Brimstone, set during the English Civil War. At the moment I’m trying to generate female characters with a bit of agency without stretching historical credibility until it snaps and pings me in the eye.

Q. Let’s go with Proust – if you weren’t yourself who would you want to be?

Canadian director and actor Robert Lepage. I’ve just been to see 887 his one man show. It’s the perfect blend of the personal and the political. He’s so easy in his own skin on stage. He produces funny, original, arresting theatre. What can I say – I love him and  I could do with some of that performative ease sometimes, that playfulness. Well,  most days actually …

Q. One thing I have never done and would love to do?

Visit the Italian lakes. Como would be good.

Q. The moment when I would have stopped time.

The moment just before my partner got hit by a motorbike about a month ago. It would have saved us both a great deal of trouble. She’s fine now thanks.

Image result for sunshine blogger award logo

Now to my own nominees – Clara did four so I’m doing err, five:

https://colinbisset.com  – writer, traveller, broadcaster, fantastic writing on architecture, author of lovely book Loving Le Corbusier about Yvonne Gallis, the architect, Le Corbusier’s , wife …

https://silverpaintedriver.com – beautiful writing on colour by painter Francesca Howard author of the wonderful Colour Potential …

https://harvestinghecate.wordpress.com – gorgeous writing on nature, creative process – simply beautiful writing …

https://tarasparlingwrites.com  on the bonkers business of books – she’s very funny and informative on pretty much everything …

https://ourlifewithprops.wordpress.com – Keir and Louise Lusby and their life making everything you might ever have seen on TV or film including the Aztec medallion from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film …

And here are my eleven questions:

  1. Favourite building in the world?
  2. Have you ever walked out of a film/play/thrown a book down on the floor in a rage? If so which one?
  3. You’ve got a morning free in the town you live in/ nearest to where you live – what do you do?
  4. The subject at school that made you look out of the window and kick your heels and dream of freedom?
  5. You’re held hostage in solitary confinement – what film do you know well enough to roll through your mind while mouthing all the lines?
  6. What were you expected to be when you grew up? What happened?
  7. Asterix or Tintin? If neither what’s the first children’s book you loved?
  8. You can have a date with one of Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo OR Cary Grant or George Clooney which do you choose?
  9. If you had to save one film out of Casablanca, The Third Man and Notorious from the flames which would you choose?
  10. The place you have the strongest romantic associations with excluding your own home.
  11. Smell that is most redolent of childhood for you.

So there we are. Incidentally my ‘I am a hostage film’ has this line: ‘My name’s Dorothy – D-O-R-O-T-H-Y. Dorothy. Now Alan’s always Alan and John’s always John …’ Anyone who can tell me where that’s from will win a bonus point and my everlasting regard. And if anyone fancies answering any of the questions other than my nominees please pick and choose – be my guest.

PEONIES AND THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

mwbs and peonies

The man with the blue sleeve being outdone by lush peonies. It could happen to any of us and also a nice quote from the Historical Novel Society about TITIAN’S BOATMAN:

“This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small – some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book.”

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

REVIEW: WORDS THAT TOUCH by NICK POLE

WORDS THAT TOUCH by Nick Pole is about Clean language and is aimed at mind/body therapists. How do you write about what happens between therapist and client? Well, I’m not sure but this book does a pretty good job of it. However you don’t necessarily have to be a therapist to enjoy it. There is a great deal here to engage the general reader. If you’re someone who is interested in the power of words, in the ways the mind and the body communicate with each other, and also neuroscience you’ll find a lot to delight in. As a writer I was fascinated by the chapters on metaphor and how the use of metaphor helps the mind communicate with the body and heal trauma.

Although dealing with a complex subject Nick Pole writes in a highly accessible way. In clear, elegant chapters he lays out what Clean language is, how it works and the neuroscience behind it. The aim of Clean language is to ‘make the client more involved in if not actually leading a collaborative process’. Case studies by a variety of mind/body therapists explain how they use Clean language in their own practice. I know this is a book that I will find myself coming back to again and again. There is too much wisdom in here to be taken in the first time around. My favourite quote: ‘Distance always contains the hint of a relationship’. Like many things in WORDS THAT TOUCH that made me stop and think for a good long time. I highly recommend this book.

Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Words-that-Touch-Nick-Pole/dp/184819336X/

And here is the link to Nick’s website: http://www.nickpole.com

WALKING WITH THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

wisteria and mwbs

An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …

handkerchief treeAnd here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).

If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.

TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

back cover TB

The back of Titian’s Boatman’s jacket

1. Don’t – you fool! Are you insane? People have sex but it doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Don’t, don’t, don’t …

2. However if one of your main characters is a Venetian courtesan (as in my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN …) do not think you can skip them. Sex, after all, was the currency of the courtesan and if you avoid them everyone will rightly think you are a coward.

3. If you feel you have to, make sure you mother and father are six foot under. Whatever it takes – literally is best but metaphorically will do. Dead, dead, dead … ashes to ashes … because you simply cannot imagine them reading … oh dear God … (puts fingers in ears and closes eyes and sings la, la, la…) and you can’t afford the twenty years of Freudian therapy to call them by their first names let alone . . . No, sorry, dead parents is the only answer.

4. Now convince yourself that no one you know will ever read them. Your book will not be published. No one will ever read them other than you.

5. If you are writing Renaissance sex scenes read Renaissance pornography. Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti are bawdy, funny, satirical and you will pick up some useful descriptions and metaphors … ‘Rubbing his rod and olives’ was one I particularly liked and would never, ever have dreamed up. Also you will never view nuns and monks in the same light.

6. If your book is going to be published do not read through the sex scenes obsessively at the editing stage and fret about those elderly aunts who are approaching 90 who might read them. Do not do that whatever you do, especially if they disapproved of one of your earlier books in which someone swore once or twice (OK it was the ‘c’ word) … and in which your main character had sex once or … Oh good lord, she was tied to the banisters in the first scene, wasn’t she? Excuse me while I . . . delete . . . delete . . . dump memory . . . dump memory . . .

7. Now where was I? In fact who am I? It is probably best not to say to your agent or your editor when in a state of high anxiety, ‘Are the sex scenes alright?’ because it will only embarrass them and you and really what are the poor dears going to say to you? If the answer is ‘no’ where do you go from there?

8. Once the book is published if at all possible obliterate said sex scenes from your mind completely, so that when your partner after a phone conversation with a mutual friend looks at you quizzically and says ‘She’s enjoying the sex scenes…’ you can immediately respond, ‘What sex scenes are those?’ in an entirely natural tone of voice.

9. If you end up in the Bad Sex Awards blame your agent and editor and comfort yourself with the thought that at least one person has read your book and all publicity is good publicity… and then make a secret vow that you will never write another as long as you live. Never, never, never … to quote King Lear. Oh, dear and look what happened to him …

10. If you bump into your neighbour and he looks at you in a curious way and says, ‘Oh, I’m half way through and I’m … (very, very long pause here broken by his mobile going off) … excited … err, sorry I have to take this call.’ Do not overanalyse any aspect of what he has said. Just don’t. And it’s probably best to delete the whole scene from your brain immediately along with the sex scenes.

11. Make a vow that you will never write another one as long as you live.

What do you think about sex scenes in novels? Like? Loathe? Laughable? Oh, go on – do tell. I’m absolutely not looking for comments on mine because I didn’t write any, did I?

MY NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHIES …

cover

BOOK CONTAINING A NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHY

There’s been a bit of a debate recently about whether historical fiction writers should add bibliographies to their books or not. Hilary Mantel, a woman who likes to put cats among pigeons, commented in an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try and burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”

She goes on to say this: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complimentary.”

My immediate response was a highly sophisticated one. ‘Fuck right off dearie.’  I mean – what got into her? A case of getting out of bed the wrong side? Too much steak for breakfast?

A few things come into play here for me:

  1. My father was a historian and I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to him grumbling about inaccurate historical detail in TV dramas. At the time I remember wishing he’d shut up so I could follow the story
  2. I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
  3. My last two books – FAR AWAY and TITIAN’S BOATMAN have been historical fiction and I’ve attached bibliographies to both of them.

The reason why I do it is not particularly to “burnish my credentials”. I mean what the hell does that mean anyway?  It’s because I think the reader might be interested to read some of the books that have fired my imagination. As a reader I like bibliographies and often track down books from them. I appreciate the fact the writer has taken the trouble to do it. It is work to put together a bibliography. It would be much easier not to do it.

I do not in any way feel cringing.

There is of course another element in play here. In creating a bibliography you are giving away your sources. I like that because there’s a part of me that likes to demystify the process of writing. I want you as my reader to know that fiction writing is not a mystery carried out by magicians. You too could read these books and you might write this sort of book. It sort of democratizes it in some way. Sometimes it does occur to me that a reader might read the books in my bibliography and go, ‘Well, you got that wrong didn’t you?’ Or even, ‘So that’s where you pinched that from,’ but so what?  Bring it on!

far-away

… AND ANOTHER ONE.

As a reader of historical fiction I give the writer a fair amount of latitude. After all it’s fiction. I did a history degree and I know the difference; fiction is much more enjoyable! When I read it I do not assume every little thing is accurate. I expect the main big things to be right i.e. the date of a battle or the date of some one’s death but sometimes things can be disputed. For example no one knows exactly when Titian was born so as a writer you take your pick within a certain range and stick to it.

However I very much like the idea of someone who has read my book then reading the things I have enjoyed in researching the book: Pietro Aretino’s letters are great fun – he’s fantastic and I’d like as many people as possible to have the pleasure of reading him. And aren’t you curious to read the letters and poems of a Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco? Those closest to me have had me banging on about them for years so why not spread the love? Don’t we all take pleasure in word of mouth recommendations? Why not make that easy for the reader? Books I have read and not enjoyed like Paul Morand’s Venices, an unbearably portentous book, I didn’t include.

One of the characteristics of a cult leader is that it all comes from them personally. It is their genius as opposed to the fact that they might have cobbled together a bit of CBT, a bit of EST and a bit of mindfulness and mixed it with a bit of charisma and bobs your uncle. Never trust an individual who doesn’t acknowledge their teachers, who doesn’t acknowledge their sources, who makes it all about their genius. I don’t want you to think it’s all me. I don’t want you to think it’s all my talent as a writer because that’s not what I believe.

I like the idea of you following your nose into my research material and may be thinking, ‘Oh, look at this juicy element. Why didn’t she use that?’  I’d quite like that. I’d like to know what your story might be. I  don’t want it to be mysterious because it isn’t. I remember when I was in my twenties and all I knew was that I wanted to write but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I did courses, I had teachers, I read books on writing, I joined writing groups.  I still have teachers. All those elements contributed to me becoming and staying a published writer.

So what do you think about bibliographies? Apologetic cringing or an act of generosity to the reader? Do you think I have been burnishing my credentials? I’d be very interested to know and when I say interested that’s in a slightly Tony Soprano/horse head in the bed sort of a way. Only joking. I just want you to realize this is an entirely cringe-free zone from a non-cap doffing person. Excuse me, dear reader, while I walk backwards away from you in a suitably groveling, servile manner while begging you for comments … Oh God, what happened there?  Maybe Hilary was right all along. PS You should all read her books – every one of them. Every single one. She’s a genius, she really is. She’s just completely wrong on the subject of bibliographies.

THE 2017 BOAT RACE

mwbs putney

Gerolamo Barbarigo by Titian 1510

The Man with the Blue Sleeve (Titian 1510) at the start of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in Putney a few days ago. Is that sleeve light blue or dark blue he wondered?  Today he decided it was light blue when the women raced (they won) and dark blue when the men raced (they won). He is a winner after all. But he wants to make it clear that he wouldn’t be seen dead in anything other than a gondola. And that he doesn’t like to exert himself in any way whatsoever. Well, that’s all clear then. Oh, and he knows you would like to buy my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN in which he figures in a very gratifying way. Buy it and you will find out all about him. He knows you want to. Or at least go and visit him in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He is definitely worth it.

AUTHOR PHOTOS – ANCIENT AND MODERN

I’ve been reading THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY recently. It’s by Robert Burton and was first published in 1621 and is one of the earliest books to be written about depression and its causes. To use a strictly technical term it is a stonker of a book. My version is about three inches thick. Burton was the librarian of Christ Church, Oxford for many years and died in 1640. Four more versions of the book came out in 1624, 1628, 1632, and 1638.

The_Anatomy_of_Melancholy_by_Robert_Burton_frontispiece_1638_edition

The Frontispiece of the Anatomy of Melancholy. That’s Burton holding the book.

In the ‘Argument of the Frontispiece’ (don’t ask) Burton has this to say about his ‘author etching’ which appears in the said frontispiece. It is the equivalent of the modern author photo.

Now last of all to fill a place

Presented is the author’s face;

And in that habit which he wears

His image to the world appears.

His mind no art can well express

      That by his writings you may guess . . .

ENOUGH ALREADY!!!!!! BORED, BORED, BORED…

OH, ALRIGHT THEN JUST ANOTHER TINY BIT AS LONG AS YOU HURRY UP

It was not pride nor yet vainglory

(though others do it commonly),

Made him do this: if you must know,

The printer would needs have it so.

So he’s blaming the presence of his picture on his publishers Henry Cripps and Leonard Lichfield. Mmm … I wonder … perhaps he doth protest too much.

I’ve been thinking about author photos recently because someone who shall not be named said that my photo (in the orange jacket against a white wall) looks as if I’m about to be shot. Well, I wouldn’t be smiling so sweetly if that were the case I thought bitterly to myself but it also made me remember one of my favourite author photos and here it is:

toibincolm03

Colm Toibin

Why I hear you ask? Well, it’s the mess. I just love the mess of it and the fact he doesn’t look that happy or defiant about it; he’s just standing in the middle of it all. Of course you’ll find all kinds of other photos of Toibin – rather more conventional ones but this is by far my favourite because to me it’s by far the most accurate image of what a working writer’s room actually looks like when you’re in the thick of it. Basically, it looks as if you’ve just been burgled.

When it comes to photos, of course, men can get away with this kind of thing whereas women can’t. Women are judged differently. The photos I really can’t bear are of women writers looking perfect, sitting at perfectly organised desks perhaps with the sun coming in behind them and lighting up perfectly tended pot plants. It doesn’t in any way equate with the reality of my life.

(A small interlude shall pass while I go and water my withered money plant.)

I work in quite a lot of mess and chaos. I scrub up a bit when I go out so I don’t frighten the horses – but not that much. The horses around here are very forgiving. I really enjoyed it when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. There she was coming home from the shops only to find god knows how many TV crews and journalists on her doorstop. She does not look a happy bunny because she is not a happy bunny. It is worth watching this all the way through to the end. I wonder if Radio 4’s The World at One got that interview.

All I can say is I aspire to be Doris.

What are your thoughts on author photos? Got any favourites?

HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR

francis plugThere is a very funny book called HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR by Francis Plug (actually Paul Ewen). In it Francis Plug, a deranged, drunken gardener and putative author trawls round literary events, (focusing on Booker Prize winners), in order to gain tips about how to behave when his book is published. His journey is a sort of Dantean descent into hell. My feeling about it even though I am not an alcoholic gardener is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ By the end he is snaffling as many as two bottles of free wine per event and his encounters with writers are becoming more and more chaotic. It seems that Paul Ewen  did attend these events because all through the book are the title pages of books signed to Francis Plug by the likes of John Berger, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salmun Rushdie, etc, etc. I presume the encounters are made up but it is noticeable that all the authors are  tolerant and friendly in the face of their surreal encounters with the deteriorating and unhinged Plug.

When I first met my editor he asked me if I was willing to do publicity for my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN and I thought it was very sweet of him to ask. I had assumed I had no choice in the matter. This is what you are expected to do now.

It is quite thrilling to discover that some writers won’t do it.

frantamugliaItalian writer Elena Ferrante was very clear that she had a choice and she made her stance clear from the beginning. Here she is in her book FRANTUMAGLIA writing to her publisher Sandra Ozzola, who had enquired what she intended to do to publicize her book, Troubling Love:

“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it … I believe that books once written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t.”

LETTER DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1991

Well, she couldn’t be clearer, could she? There is a part of me that loves this. My guess is that a great many authors would love to say this to their publishers but wouldn’t dare! And it has to be said that she’s right because her books which include the bestselling Neapolitan Quartet have certainly found their audience without her doing any personal publicity.

Putting on my reader hat, however, I really enjoy hearing my favourite authors talk about their books and it does make me buy them. At the Historical Novel Society conference last year two people who were outstandingly good at it were Melvyn Bragg and Tracy Chevalier. They both spoke fluently and entertainingly for about 40 minutes or so and then took questions. They were not being interviewed by anyone, they were not on a panel. It was simply them talking. I daresay it takes practice to be that easy in your own skin in front of a large audience.  Many writers do not have that practice unless teaching, lecturing or broadcasting is part of their everyday existence, so then what do you do?

Quite a long time ago now I did a very good course run by The Society of Authors about giving an author reading. There were bits that involved breathing deeply and exercising the vocal chords. One of the most interesting bits was listening to someone reading out the same piece (I can’t remember what it was) at two different speeds. The idea being  that you took on board how much easier it was to listen to the slower version. At the end we had to give a reading from our own work and all I can remember is the very nice woman who was teaching us saying, ‘Slower, slower, even slower, Vicky… Err, shall we start that again …’

quietThere is a book I love called QUIET by Susan Cain. The subtitle of the book is :The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain admits that she had to persuade her publishers that she wasn’t so introverted that she would be unable to do publicity for the book. To any author out there for whom the idea of a public event holds as much pleasure as doing the Cresta run, I highly recommend CHAPTER FIVE: BEYOND TEMPERAMENT: The Role of Free Will (and the Secret of Public Speaking for Introverts).

Incidentally, one of the most interesting author events I went to was John Berger at the South Bank. The main thing that I remember was how much time he gave himself to think before he answered questions. No one I had ever seen on a public platform allowed themselves that much time to consider their reply. The silence that resulted was both impressive and disconcerting. He also had Tilda Swinton to read out his work. I can’t help feeling that all my problems relating to author events might possibly be solved if I could get Tilda to do that for me.

Now over to you – what have your experiences of going to author events been like? Are you more likely to buy the book of someone who you’ve heard talk about it? Or (and this is slightly more interesting and worrying for a writer) have you ever been actively put off a book by going to an author event?

P.S. It’s worth buying HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR for the author bio of Paul Ewen which has this gem: “His first book, London Pub Reviews, was called a cross between Blade Runner and Coronation Street.”