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.”

WRITING ABOUT VENICE AND OXFORD.

How do you write about beautiful cities like Venice and Oxford? Impossible cities! How do you do them justice? How do you get under their skin. How do you write about a place without sounding like a tourist guide or like everyone who has ever written about them before? I’d wrestled a bit with the question of beautiful cities in the Sam Falconer crime series that I wrote, which was set partly in Oxford, my home town.

For many years I could not write about the city at all. It felt like an implacable, indigestible lump of compacted experience and my attempts were either grossly sentimental or unpleasantly savage. The way that I dealt with Oxford in the end was to have my protagonist, Sam Falconer, be severely at odds with the environment she was brought up in. Conflict of course creates drama. There is no drama in a person having a happy childhood and loving their home town. None whatsoever. It’s the grit in the oyster after all, which creates the pearl. Here is Sam returning home after quite a long absence:

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The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

“The Radcliffe Camera sat squat and golden in the autumn sunshine. However malignant Sam felt towards Oxford, she could never view the Camera with anything other than wonder and affection … Memories crowded in on her. Every step she took brought forth another and another. Overwhelming and insistent, they poured into her until she felt she would burst. Like a crowd waving placards  they announced themselves one by one: Look at me! No, me! They pushed and elbowed and the sickness in the pit of Sam’s stomach grew.”

BLOODLESS SHADOW

By JUMPING THE CRACKS the last in the series, Sam has an office in the Cowley Road and has ‘come home.’ It only took me four books to get her there!

One way of dealing with beautiful cities is to mine the area between their beauty and the reality of how someone may be feeling. Because most of us have probably had the experience of being in a beautiful place and feeling we ought to be happy when in fact we have, for whatever reason, felt as miserable as sin. “Look at me,” a beautiful city announces. “Aren’t I beautiful? What  – you’re not happy? Well, if you can’t be happy here there must be something the matter with you because there certainly isn’t anything the matter with me?” If you’re in the wrong mood it can be a bit like engaging with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. No fun at all. The simple and obvious fact is that beautiful places do not necessarily make people happy. The gap between the beauty of a place and how we are actually feeling can make us feel worse.

So now to Venice. A startling place – a place beyond imagining even. In TITIAN’S BOATMAN there are two Venices, that of the 16th century and that of the 21st. How do you get under the skin of 16th century Venice? Well, my way in was through the people living there – the painters, the boatmen, the courtesans, the poets, the nuns and the patricians. In the 21st century part of my book, Terry, an actor, is not at all happy when his boyfriend Ludovico suggests they visit Venice. Here he is talking through his anxieties:

‘Don’t Look Now,’ Terry said.

‘At what?’

‘No, the film Don’t Look Now, when they go to Venice it doesn’t end well.’

Ludovico burst out laughing. ‘I promise you it won’t be anything like that.’

‘And then there’s Death in Venice of course,’ Terry said. ‘It might be tempting fate … and I’ll have to get myself some clothes.’

‘Your clothes are fine.’

‘But it’s Italy, the country of the bella figura. It’s Venice one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I’m too fat and not well dressed enough. You know how they stare at you.’

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

In the end, of course, despite his sartorial insecurities Terry does go to Venice  with Ludovico but that first visit does not go entirely to plan.

venice

Don’t Look Now is a famous film directed by Nick Roeg starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and is one of the most unsettling films you could ever chance to see. It is on my list of “very good but so disturbing that under no circumstances am I ever watching it again as long as I live” films. It was based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. Death in Venice is the Thomas Mann novella and also a famous film with Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach, a composer (in the book he’s a writer) who travels to Venice and has his world turned upside down when he sees a beautiful boy, Tadzio. The film is excellent albeit extremely melancholic. In his autobiography Bogarde said that he kept wanting to talk to Visconti about the role and each time he tried Visconti answered, ‘Have you read the book?’ When he replied that he had Visconti just replied, ‘Well, read it again.’

Now over to you. In terms of Oxford and Venice what books/films have you read or seen that you’d recommend. And while you’re about it tell me about your experiences in beautiful cities – the good, the bad and the ugly.

BODLEIAN SHOP – OXFORD (with photos!)

I spent the day in Oxford a while ago doing a short interview at Radio Oxford about my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN. It went very well in the sense that I did not make a complete idiot of myself and kept talking. Nick Piercey was lovely but even so the levels of adrenaline these things bring out in me are akin to the time I jumped out of a plane with a parachute on my back. So the relief of it being over meant that I then ran amok in the Bodleian shop in the Broad. A shameful example of behaving like a tourist in the town of my birth.

First up this lovely bar of chocolate. I actually prefer dark, dark chocolate preferably 85% but I couldn’t resist this one for obvious reasons. Next time anyone asks me about WRITER’S BLOCK I will say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious. It’s luxurious … I wish it was darker but I eat it whenever I can …’

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Is there any chocolate left in it do you think?

I like writing related consumables and have come across WRITER’S TEARS (not sold in the Bodleian shop) which is a whiskey. The packaging makes the tear look rather cheerful. It would be nice if there was only one and it was this lovely orange colour. Interesting how anything writing related seems to be about the downsides rather than the upsides. I wonder why that is?

writers-tears

Fancy some writer’s tears. No neither do I!

Second up from the shop this postcard of the oath you have to swear when joining the Bodleian. I must have sworn this myself a long time ago but have absolutely no recollection of doing so. I particularly like the bit about not setting fires and it’s interesting to see the word ‘kindle’ in there.

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I swore this a while ago. I like the presence of the word ‘kindle’ here.

 

Third, a selection of beautiful bookmarks and also a turquoise leather notebook. Along with having a bad 85% chocolate habit I also have a very bad stationery habit. I couldn’t resist this one. Nostalgia, the memories of childhood home – the usual sentimental guff I’m afraid. When will I realise that a beautiful notebook is not going to make it all any easier. Probably when I’m laid out in my coffin.

turquoise-notebook

 

Finally books. I’ve been doing a bit of research on the early days of the Bodleian and both these were perfect.

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So there we are. The website says, “Take a treasure home today!” Well, I did didn’t I? A sack load of the stuff!

PIETRO ARETINO: POET, PORNOGRAPHER, PIMP …

Titian’s painting of Pietro Aretino 1545

How do you bring the past alive? This is the question that any writer of historical fiction has to ask themselves. In writing my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN I had the problem of evoking Renaissance Venice, so imagine my delight when I came across this quote when I was browsing through the introduction to a selection of Aretino’s letters by Thomas Caldecot Chubb:

“His letters are indeed a source book for his era. Whether I were an historical novelist, or a serious social historian, I would turn to his writings as a gold mine.”

And I have to say a gold mine is exactly right because Aretino wrote about everything you can think of art, food, sex, politics, war, friendship, tarot cards and rosaries. And his letters are written to dukes, doges, kings, princes and emperors as well as artists (including Titian), courtesans, and even his own gondolier. They range in style from the earthy to the arty  from the grandiose to the comic. They bring Renaissance Venice to life in an extraordinary way and I can’t recommend them highly enough if you’re at all interested in this period of history. It is like reading a mash-up of Nigel Slater, Brian Sewell, AA Gill and Clive James, with every now and again a bit of Claire Rayner thrown in. Oh, how he loves to give advice, especially about the affairs of the heart!

Here he is on a painting by Titian of St John carrying a lamb in his arms:

“The lamb he bears in his arms is so lifelike that it actually drew a bleat from a passing ewe.”

Part of the charm of his letters is that through them you meet the whole of Venetian society from the top to the bottom. He writes to Titian’s son telling him to come home and get back to his studies and he writes here in a rage to the acquaintance of someone who has crossed him

“Tell your ruffian friend that I have decided not to order his moustache cut off… The reason is that it would be cheating the executioner if he were not allowed to hang him uncarved up.”

He wasn’t above taking a pop at Titian if he didn’t think his painting was up to scratch. This is what he had to say about the above painting which he sent to the Duke of Florence:

“Truly it breaths, its pulses beat and it is animated with the same spirit with which I am in actual life, and if I had only counted out more crowns to him, the clothes I wore would likewise have been as shiny and soft yet firm to the touch as are actual satin, velvet and brocade.”

So who was this man whose volumes of letters contain (according to Chubb) approximately 4000 pages of begging, fawning and flattering and 4 or 500 pages  which are as readable now as if they’d been written yesterday,  who  was nicknamed the scourge of princes, who was Titian’s great friend and propagandist, who wrote poems and  pornography as well as these wonderful, infinitely quotable letters?

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Titian’s first portrait of Aretino

Aretino was born in Arezzo in 1492, the son of a cobbler. At the age of 14 he began as he meant to go on by being thrown out of school for composing a sacrilegious sonnet. He left home and went to Rome where he lost his job as a household servant for stealing a silver cup. He bummed around being at various times a hostler (certainly a hustler!), a pimp, a  mule skinner and a hangman’s assistant. He returned to Rome and came to the attention of Pope Leo when he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant that made witty and indecent jibes at  every important person in Italy including the Pope. Leo (the pope) was amused, summoned Aretino and gave him a position in his household, presumably on the basis  that it was better to have someone like him pissing out of rather than into his tent.

After various escapades, including backing the loser in the next papal election, an attempt on his life and the writing of 16 filthy sonnets to accompany a series of indecent paintings titled The Modes of Intercourse, Aretino wound up in Venice in 1527. It was in Venice, which was then at the height of its splendour, that he did most of his writing. If ever a man and a city were suited to each other it was Aretino and Venice. It was to be his home for the next thirty years until his death in 1556.

I hope this post will have whetted your appetite to explore more (and indeed read my book!) but finally for all you cheese lovers out there  this is how to respond on that day which will inevitably come when you receive the gift of an ENORMOUS cheese!

“I assure you that I do not believe that from the udders of all the herds of cattle and the flocks of sheep that Apollo ever looked upon, would have come, in their whole lifetime, enough milk to make a cheese as enormous as the one that you … made me a gift of… When I saw it, the admiration it aroused in me, went into conference with the appetite which its excellence and handsome appearance evoked …”

Dear God, how big was it? But you see what I mean? The perfect thank you letter and proof that he was a man incapable of writing a dull word even about a cheese!

The Chubb book: The Letters of Pietro Aretino published by Archon Books in 1967 is more difficult and expensive to come by but better in my opinion. There is also a selection of his letters published by Penguin Classics in 1976 which can be tracked down more easily and cheaply in the usual second hand book markets. Also available is The Ragionamenti (The Dialogues) which is said to have influenced Rabelais. It is a series of conversations between two elderly harlots about the lives of wives, nuns and courtesans. It is both filthy and funny, a deliberate mocking of the classical dialogues of Plato. Pornography certainly but also a scathing satire on society.

AMNESTY BOOKSHOP EVENT

On the 15th February I’m delighted to be taking part in an event at the Amnesty International Bookshop at 181, King Street, Hammersmith, London with crime writer Vena Cork: https://venacork.com/

We’re going to be talking about our current books, Titian’s Boatman and Toxic.

The event is free and  all proceeds of book sales will go to Amnesty International. In a time when the leader of the free world is saying that torture is OK, it seems more important than ever to support our human rights organizations. My publisher Black and White have kindly donated some books and I’m going to as well.

Please come and I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d spread the word, share etc. If there’s anyone who comes who I’ve had contact with through the blog please say hello, it would be really lovely to meet you. Look forward to seeing you there! You’ll find all the details below.

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An Interview with Victoria Blake, author of Titan’s Boatman

Q&A with Linda’s Book Bag. Fun questions to answer about Titian’s Boatman and my writing life. A tale of stone throwing nuns and red Doc Martens …

Linda's Book Bag

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I’m so pleased to welcome Victoria Blake, author of Titian’s Boatman, to Linda’s Book Bag today to celebrate publication. Titian’s Boatman will be published in hardback by Black and White on 26th January 2017 and is available for purchase here and on Amazon.

Titian’s Boatman

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It is 1576 and Venice is in chaos, ravaged by plague and overrun by crime.

In the midst of the anarchy we find those brave souls who have chosen not to flee the city. Titian, most celebrated of Venetian painters, his health failing badly. Sebastiano, a gondolier who is the eyes and ears of the corrupted and crumbling city. And Tullia, the most notorious courtesan of the age, who must fight to retain her status as well as her worldly possessions.

In the present day, the echoes of what happened centuries earlier still ripple as the lives of ordinary people as far distant…

View original post 3,318 more words

Q&A with Victoria Blake #author of Titian’s Boatman @VM_Blake @bwpublishing

Please check out my Q&A with the lovely Portobello Book blog. I had good fun answering their questions and I hope you enjoy it!

Victoria Blake’s novel Titian’s Boatman will be published on Thursday by Black and White Publishing. It sounds a really wonderful story and I’m d…

Source: Q&A with Victoria Blake #author of Titian’s Boatman @VM_Blake @bwpublishing

THE WINTER’S TALE or HOW NOT TO WRITE A PLAY

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Judi Dench as Paulina in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

In my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN (published on 26th January) one of my characters, Terry, is an actor taking on the role of King Leontes in  THE WINTER’S TALE. Back in the day I had an idea I might like to write a play. I made the mistaken assumption that because I liked writing dialogue in my novels, plays would come easily to me. By the end of the course I felt like someone who walks past a BT engineer when he’s in the middle of fiddling about in one of those dark green wire-filled boxes. You stop and look and think how can he know what he is doing? Writing plays, I had discovered, was much more complicated and technical than I had ever imagined.

However, here are some things that my teacher would undoubtedly have advised against:

  • do not get rid of a character by having him eaten by a wild animal. Exit pursued by a bear? No,no, no – it’s not on;
  • check your geography. If a country is landlocked (Bohemia) do not give it a coastline;
  • don’t just have someone come on stage at the beginning of the second act and say 16 years have passed. It’s clunky;
  • do bother to sketch in a bit of back plot if you decide to hurl your character into a jealous, paranoid, fury that destroys his family and his kingdom;
  • you can’t tell the audience a character has died and then bring her back to life with the words,    ‘It is required you do awake your faith!’. Suppose they haven’t got any?
  • don’t write a speech like this because it will traumatize the actor who has to try and make sense of it and no one in the audience will understand it:

“Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre.

Thou doest make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dream (how can this be?),

With what unread thou co-active art,

And fellow’st nothing. Then ’tis credent … “

And on and on … into greater and greater obscurity.

THE WINTER’S TALE (Act 1.Scene 2.137)

  • do not write one act as if you are a Scorpio and the second act as if you are a Virgo; try for a bit of consistency. Take it from me a mash up of Othello and As You Like It will not work.

All the above are things that Shakespeare does in THE WINTER’S TALE. The plot of which goes something like this. *SPOILER ALERT*. King Leontes the King of Sicilia starts behaving like Tony Soprano without the therapist. He accuses his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, of having an affair with his pregnant wife, Hermione. He puts Hermione on trial which leads to her death, the death of their son and the banishment of his infant daughter, Perdita. Too late it becomes clear he has made a terrible mistake and he and his kingdom are plunged into an endless winter of sorrow and grief. Jump 16 years. Perdita has been raised by a shepherds in Bohemia. She returns to Sicilia and is reunited with her father. Leontes is invited by Paulina to visit a statue of his late wife. When he touches the statue it is warm and it is clear she is not a statue but very much alive. He is reconciled with her and his kingdom returns to prosperity.

The first time I read the play I closed it with these profound words of literary criticism, ‘It’s bonkers and I’ve no idea how you’d act it.’ Then I went to see it and I thought aren’t actors mysterious, magical beings. I heard that speech spoken in a way that I felt the actor understood it even if I didn’t. I still thought it was nuts, and for the most part I found the second act pretty tedious (too many nymphs and shepherds). As soon as women start waving herbs about in Shakespeare it’s either too twee or a death is in the offing and I tend to switch off. But I could also see that it was powerfully nuts.

Then I went to see it again and it really got under my skin. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • It is a really odd play.
  • It is also a very powerful play.
  • It has one of the most tender of lines in it, ‘Oh, she’s warm,’ and one of the most savage, ‘Burn it,’ in reference to the infant Perdita.
  • It has one of the best roles for women in Shakespeare, in the character of Paulina. A woman who will not stop telling Leontes how wrong he is, a woman who is not afraid to speak truth to power. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a role and as you can see from the photo above it attracts some powerful actors.
  • Don’t go and see it if you’ve recently been bereaved; it will break your heart.

In TITIAN’S BOATMAN my character Terry, while struggling with the role of King Leontes, suffers a nervous crisis. Now come on! Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit intrigued by that scenario. Have you seen the play? Or have you read Jeanette Winterson’s novel ,The Gap of Time, a modern day version of it. What did you make of them?

ON MADNESS, MELANCHOLIA, PANIC AND FEAR

There’s nothing like starting the New Year in the way you intend to go on. A bit of a clear out today and I’m not good at it. I pick things up look at them and can usually come up with 10 good reasons to hold onto them and 4 to let them go. But today sorting through some of my many …

img_1391 … many …

img_1394… notebooks. I came across a handy post-it note with this quotation scribbled on it.

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how those who do not write compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

GRAHAM GREENE

I don’t know how many years ago I scribbled this down. I might even have used it in the blog before. It obviously rang bells. It still does. And there it was waiting for me to read on 6/1/2017. Well, it is Epiphany, after all.

My problem with this time of year is that usually it’s the longest I go without writing. From about half way through December my concentration breaks down because there are too many things to do and think about. And one thing I do know is that the longer I go without writing the more my anxiety and fear grows. Not enormously but insidiously it all ratchets up a couple of notches. Coming back to it I have to circle it a bit, make coffee, make tea, hoover, do the washing up, stare out of the window. There are always pine needles to sweep up. It’s a way of drawing back down to me the zeppelin that is my work in progress because sometimes it can seem as if it has floated far, far away and is quite happy where it is with absolutely no inclination to come back down to me at all. In other words it is ignoring me.

Robert Burton, who wrote the huge tome the Anatomy of Melancholy which was first published in 1621, was himself prone to depression. When badly effected he would go to Folly Bridge near his college Christ Church in Oxford and hearing the ribaldry of the Thames bargemen would be thrown into a violent fit of laughter. I wonder if comedians do particularly well in January.

Personally, I have never been so happy to be out of one year and into another. So a Happy New Year to you all and a Happy Epiphany. Here’s hoping 2017 isn’t as bad as 2016 suggests it might be and that there is less madness, melancholia, panic and fear. Now wouldn’t that be nice? And good luck with the  pine needles. I’m usually still picking mine off the floor in the middle of August.