FILM: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Branagh MurderFirst there are the moustaches. They flow out of Brangh’s nose, sweep across his cheeks and end up about an inch from the lobes of his ears. They are described by Agatha Christie as ridiculous and these ones certainly are. There’s a rather worrying moment when we see the contraption that Poirot wears at night to keep his moustaches safe. It makes him look a bit like Hannibal Lecter. Close your eyes at that point.

This being Branagh. Poirot is Branagh-ed, Branagh is certainly not Poirot-ed. Branagh is incapable of playing him as ‘a ridiculous little man’ so there is longing in the gazing at a photo of Katherine and there is manly striding and Poirot does clever things with his stick. The beginning sequence is extremely bizarre. Poirot solving the Middle East crisis while measuring the height of his oeufs. I’m sorry if that line is obscure but you’ll just have to go and watch it to see what I mean. I suppose the purpose behind it is to inform us that Poirot is clever and odd and it certainly does that!

The plot is changed somewhat from the book, which is a relief because if it hadn’t been there would have been endless scenes of Poirot interviewing suspects and going. ‘Làlàprécisémentmon cher and eh bien mon ami…’  and  nothing much else. Fortunately, we have introduced here a stabbing, a shooting and a chase and this livens things up no end in comparison to the book. In one scene Poirot strides across the top of the snow-covered train and he keeps his footing. Phew!

The settings are all very beautiful. We have a lovely train, we have thrusting pistons, we have steam and we have snow-filled valleys, snow drifts and snow falls. Yes, there’s lots of lovely snow and the scene when the train steams out of Istanbul is particularly gorgeous. I love all that.

Now to the rest of the cast. I could have done with a great deal more of Olivia Colman, a woman who can do no wrong in my eyes. Here she gets to order the fish, play some cards with Judi Dench and utter a few lines in German. I could have done with more of Judi Dench as well, if it comes to that, although she does look very splendid in velvet and toque. Derek Jacobi gets to say more and is as always eminently watchable.  Johnny Depp plays a rotter perfectly well and can do this kind of thing standing on his head so can Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer. The ones who stand out are not the starry ones but more Josh Gad as Hector McQueen, Phil Dunster as Col. John Armstrong and Leslie Odom as Dr Arbuthnot.

I was looking forward to the product placement episode that I had been warned about in a review. If you have not heard of GODIVA CAKES you will certainly know about them at the end of this film. And Poirot does utter the immortal lines ‘I lerve theese leetle cecks.’ It is a startlingly stand-alone line. It’s not even as if he says, ‘The knife is hidden in these leetle cecks.’ or ‘Theese leetle cecks are filled with arsenic.’ No, it is apropos of nothing that he lerves them. I wonder how much money Godiva paid for the privilege of having Poirot utter this line. And I wonder if the  cecks will follow Poirot to the Nile. I worry the chocolate might melt in all that heat. Mind you, I worry that Branagh’s moustache might get a bit bedraggled as well. At the end of the film Poirot is summoned to Egypt so we know that’s where he’s heading next. I think Ken will look very nice in the linen suit and the panama which he is probably being measured for as I type.

Would I recommend it?  Well, I think your enjoyment will depend on two things. First your view of Kenneth Branagh, who is in my opinion a bit of a marmite actor. If you don’t mind lots of close ups of his big, angsty blue eyes, you’ll be fine, if not, it’ll be a long couple of hours. Second, if you’re someone who knows Agatha Christie’s writing very well and wants a film that reflects that, the depiction of Poirot may well infuriate you. Probably best to give this a miss and seeks out the DVD of David Suchet’s version or Albert Finney’s, both of whom are much closer to the original.

MoustachesFinally, if you would also like to experiment with your own moustaches here is a lovely box of moustaches I spied in Paperchase. You can get to choose between six moustache styles: traditional gent, cowboy, rusty brush, Italian plumber, oil baron and Abra-Kadabra! (I know, I know but I’m only writing down what’s on the packet). Poirot’s incidentally is closest to traditional gent. This being my own product placement. Paperchase, darling, if you happen to be reading, I’m a writer so how about notebooks for life. Oh, and pens I could do with some pens as well, especially those fancy ones you lock in the glass cabinets. Waiting to hear from you. Thanking  you ever so, as Marilyn might once have said.

Have you seen the film? What did you think of it and Branagh as Poirot?

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THE MOUSTACHES HAVE LANDED

murder on orient

Couldn’t we at least have a train on the cover?

It has probably not escaped your notice (unless you are living in Antarctica with penguins) that there is a new film out of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It hasn’t escaped my notice because there are ads for it on the side of London buses and when the 22 stops in traffic outside my flat (which it has been doing a lot recently due to heavy plant activity – not triffids),  I have a very nice view of the cast. Kenneth Branagh, sporting luxuriant moustaches, is playing Poirot and directing it. In preparation for this wildly exciting event I read the book and here is my imagined dialogue between Agatha and an unnamed modern day literary agent after the agent has read it.

 

 


A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

Agent: Is this a first draft?

Agatha: Oh dear, well no I didn’t see it as such.

Agent: (sighs) But where are the descriptions? As it stands it might just as well be MURDER ON THE 7.15 CROYDON TRAM. You say the train is stuck in a snowdrift but where is the snow? There is no indication of the snow anywhere. Does it melt immediately? Does no one look out of a window and see it? Does no one scrunch a snowball or throw it?

Agatha: Oh dear you obviously don’t like it at all.

Agent: It’s not that I don’t like it but  there are no descriptions. I want to be able to see it. I want snow, I want lush interiors. I mean frankly you wouldn’t really know it was taking place on a train. What do the cabins look like? And if it comes to that what do the people look like.

Agatha: I do describe the people I think.

Agent: You describe Poirot a little bit – huge moustaches …egg-shaped head …ridiculous-looking but as for what’s her name … What is her name? The Countess …

Agatha: The Countess Andrenyi?

Agent: No.

Agatha: No?

Agent: She’s a drag queen or something.

Agatha: Oh you mean the Princess Dragomiroff.

Agent: Oh yes, that’s right – well simply telling us she’s ugly doesn’t tell us much. What kind of ugly?

Agatha: But there’s the yellow toad-like features and the toque.

Agent: The what?

Agatha: The toque, the toque, I describe her as wearing a toque.

Agent: What is that – some sort of otter?

Agatha: It’s a hat.

Agent: Oh. And there’s another thing. Poirot …

Agatha: Yes?

Agent: Well, can’t he fall in love with one of the suspects.

Agatha: No, that wouldn’t do at all he is a sexless individual with a large brain.

Agent: Whatever made you think that would be a good idea, darling?

Agatha: Well, my sales. So far Poirot has appeared in seven novels one play and one  short stories and he has always been the same. I can’t change him now. My fans wouldn’t like it.

Agent: Oh, you have fans do you? Hmm…

A long silence ensues …

Agatha: Are you still there?

Agent: Yes, I’m thinking.

Time passes …

Agatha (tentatively): What did you think of the plot?

Agent: The plot is OK as far as it goes although it sort of falls off the end of a cliff doesn’t it? Couldn’t we have a scene when they are all saying goodbye to each other on the platform, something to round it off. Now let  me see how can we salvage this … could we have longing perhaps … yes, that’s it, longing …

Agatha: For what?

Agent: For pretty much anything darling. Yes, that’s it longing… Now then I can’t hang on here sorting this out for you but basically it’s plot B+ and all the rest C-. Have another go at it and bung it back to me in a month.

Agatha looks down at the notebook in which she’s been making notes of the conversation and sees the following words: Lush Snow, Lush Interiors, Toque, Longing … Otter????? She picks up her pen and begins:

Poirot scrunched the lush snow into a ball and filled with longing threw it playfully at the Princess. It struck her toque and she laughed gaily galloping through the snow towards him. She might have been the ugliest woman in the world but to him her yellow toad-like features were the epitome of beauty … Suddenly, out of nowhere an otter appeared scything through the lush snow. It threw itself at his face. It latched onto his lush moustaches. Poirot screamed as it dawned on him too late – the otter had done it!

Agatha threw down her pen and went and poured herself a large gin …


So here’s the question. Are you a fan of Agatha, Poirot, the books the films? And what kind of Poirot do you think Ken will be. I can’t imagine him playing him as a sexless brain can you? After all, Ken is always the hero – so what’s going to happen? My guess is a bit of longing and some manly striding. Anyway, I’m off to see it tomorrow and I can’t wait. Apparently there is an outrageous piece of product placement which produces this piece of dialogue from Poirot: ‘Ah, lerve theeese leeetle cecks’. The cecks incidentally are of the Great British Bake Off variety. And so that you can excercise yeur leetle greh cells which I know you long to do, answer this. What was the title of the German version of the book?

 

 

 

 

JOHN LE CARRÉ – still an angry young man

Off last night to see an evening with John le Carré who has a new book out, A Legacy of Spies, which signals the return of George Smiley, the spymaster who has appeared in many of his novels. Part of the purpose of the evening was to raise funds for Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), a medical charity which works in war zones, and an organization that le Carré is devoted to. A short film told us that MSF had treated 504,500 men women and children in the crisis in Yemen.

le carre

The evening involved several short films in which actors, directors, and screenwriters who have worked on adaptations of le Carré’s books talked about their experiences. The people included Michael Jayston, (Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on TV), Simon Russell Beale who played Smiley in the Radio 4 adaptations of le Carré’s books and Tim Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who had played characters in TV adaptation of The Night Manager.

Of Smiley, Simon R-B, who has played him most, albeit on radio, described his intense melancholia. Hiddleston commented on Smiley’s quiet heroism. When asked what he might ask Smiley if he came face to face with him Simon R-B said he’d run away from him. He wouldn’t ask him anything because he was so intimidatingly clever.

First le Carré gave an hour long lecture then after an interval he was interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news and there was a Q&A.

LE CARRÉ ON SMILEY AND A LEGACY OF SPIES

The origins of Smiley was a character called John Bingham who le Carré worked with in section F4 of MI5. This was before he went and worked for MI6, convivially known by MI5 as ‘those shits across the park.’ Bingham had run double agents during the Second World War and posed as a German officer. He was also a thriller writer. From Bingham came some aspects of the physical Smiley – the nakedness of his face when he took off his glasses and the habit he had of polishing his glasses with the end of his tie. Bingham was an aristocrat, an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and le Carré said that he couldn’t make Smiley an aristocrat, that wouldn’t have done at all, so he made his wife Lady Anne one instead. He said that Bingham was a proxy father figure and mentor to the younger spies in his section.

He went on to discuss the various actors who had played Smiley on film and TV: Rupert Davies, James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. Mason actually played a character called Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (based on the book Call for the Dead) because the Americans did not like the name Smiley. He said that the filming of the character involved a certain personal loss for him of the Smiley of his imagination because the character was made physical but that of course the upside was that his work reached a much wider audience.

One of the things he loved about Guinness’s performance was that the enigma of Smiley was kept in tact for le Carré as well. He told a very funny story about doing a cover shoot for a Sunday magazine cover with Denholm Elliott on the set of A Murder of Quality, which they they were filming in a school. They were standing opposite each other with their noses only a few inches apart while they were being photographed. Elliott repeated range of obscene barrack room jokes throughout the shoot which le Carré ignored. Later Elliott asked him what he was doing on the set and le Carré said, ‘Well, I’m the writer.’ ‘The writer?’ ‘Yes, the writer of the book’, and Elliott said ‘Oh, I thought you were the headmaster.’

At one point they considered Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army for the part of Smiley and he did a screen test. Le Carré said Lowe did it beautifully but the trouble was that because of the associations they all had with Captain Mainwaring they could not stop laughing when they saw it. He said that Gary Oldman (in the film of TTSS) brought a heterosexual passion to the part. He compared him to Guinness describing the scene where Guinness embraces Lady Anne and saying he could not watch it without shuddering and thinking, ‘Oh, don’t do that Alec.’

At the end he read out an imaginary letter from a Daily Telegraph reader complaining that he couldn’t bring Smiley back because if one stayed true to the books Smiley would be 104 (or thereabouts). He countered this by saying that it was poetic license. Smiley was alive in his imagination and he was alive so why not? Of course his millions of fans will feel exactly the same.

A Legacy of Spies by [Carré, John le]

Q&A WITH JON SNOW

Jon Snow began by asking him about his father. Le Carré had discovered that his father, who was a con-man and a crook, had a Stasi (East German secret service) file and it appeared to indicate that he was an illegal arms dealer. He said that the Stasi had gone to the trouble of sending spies to his father’s office in Jermyn Street and marking where the safe was and also where the telex machine was.

Q. Would you recommend the secret service as a career?

He said if you were good at maths they’d send you to Cheltenham. If you were a seducer, befriender and liar you’d be good for MI6, although in the present climate you should think about the second half of your career/life because you might not have one.

Q. Do you think the US has lost its senses?

He said that what was happening in America was ‘truly, seriously bad’, that the stages Trump was going through – the fake news, and the assaults on the justice system were the same as those during the rise of fascism in the thirties in Japan, Spain and Germany. That kind of behaviour was infectious and toxic and he cited the use of the expression ‘fake news’ by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in dismissing the reporting on the assaults on the Rohingya muslims who are fleeing into Bangladesh.

Q. Which of your own characters do you most relate to?

He said that was Peter Guillam who works for Smiley and reappears in A Legacy of Spies. JS said I thought so.

Q. Was Graham Greene an influence?

Yes, his early works were. He had read them in his adolescence and that Greene gave a very generous quote for his book The Spy who came in from the Cold. However he said that the big difference between Greene and himself was that Greene had God in his books and there was no God in his own books. He also said that Greene had a dotty political streak and flirted with communism but he said he was hypnotic to meet. Maurice Oldfield head of MI6  said that Greene was a bad spy because he embellished his reports.

Q. On his writing methods.

He talked about the importance of making notes as soon as possible, even when he was drunk. As an example he said on your first day in Moscow what you notice is the smell of Russian petrol by the second day you’ve got used to it and you  won’t register it anymore. He writes long hand. He said this produces a lot of paper and that when the Bodleian Library  (to whom he was giving his paper) came and saw how many there were they had a fit. He starts with very little plot but always has the final frame in his mind and an idea of what he wants the audience to feel at that point. His wife reads what he writes and he is influenced by her response especially if there is a deafening silence. He talked about a mutual understanding between them about his work. He writes every day.

He was asked by Jon Snow about his relationship to MSF and le Carré said that he had been struck by their courage and devotion and Jon Snow said that they were the most trustworthy organization for journalists reporting from war zones.

There was a very poignant moment when le Carré asked Snow how he endured the human suffering he comes across in his reporting. He himself had been very effected by the research he does for his books, especially by seeing the effect of Big Pharma in Kenya and Sudan, the basis of his book The Constant Gardener.

I came away from the event thinking that le Carré is a man who cares passionately about the world. Olivia Colman described him as being, ‘Everything you would hope he would be.’ A beautiful description that rang absolutely true. Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for the film of TTSS said le Carré was ‘still an angry young man … like Orwell always in opposition’. Angry certainly but also erudite, charming, witty and with a passionate sense of injustice. He’s certainly not going gentle into that good night. What more could you ask for from a novelist? We are lucky to have him.

I’m off to buy A Legacy of Spies. There are signed first editions in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road but they’ll probably be gone by the time I get there.*

If you want to take a look at the work that MSF do and donate here’s the link:

http://www.msf.org.uk/lecarre

  • They were!

 

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

REVIEW: COGHEART by PETER BUNZL

The very beautiful cover of COGHEART

I’ve just finished a wonderful book called COGHEART by Peter Bunzl. I think its age range is supposed to be pre-teen but frankly it could be enjoyed by anyone from 8 to 80, as far as I’m concerned. It reminded me of the Joan Aiken books (Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Night Birds on Nantucket) I read when I was younger and if you’re looking for a Christmas present for a passing child this will do nicely.

The story is set in an alternative Victorian universe (1896) and it starts with John Hartman and his mechanical fox Malkin being pursued by a Zeppelin. Malkin is put in the escape capsule  with a note to John’s daughter, Lily. She is in a terrible school where she is practising her lock picking skills and reading her Penny Dreadfuls. Excellent heroine!

Robert Townsend is a clockmaker’s son, who is drawn into the story when he spies Malkin being pursued by the terrifying baddies – Roach and Mould. He puts them off the scent and then repairs Malkin and winds him back up again. Malkin is an excellent character, ingenious and mouthy. Just the kind of fox you would want to rescue you from trouble.

The world setting is excellent part Victorian, part alternative universe; it is inhabited by humans, mechanicals, mechanimals, and hybrids. There are some vile baddies and some splendid oaths:  ‘Cogs and chronometers’ probably being my favourite. If you’re interested in airships and Zeppelins there’ll be enough detail to keep you entertained.  The book ends with a thrilling denoument on top of Big Ben. A splendid story sweetly told. It left me with a longing for a mechanical fox called Malkin. Well, one can always dream. Are you listening Santa?

Finally, this is the 100th post of this blog and so it’s an opportunity to thank those of you stalwarts who have supported the blog from the beginning and welcome more recent followers. Thank you for following and welcome. I hope you enjoy the ride although unfortunately it won’t be in a  Zeppelin!

What is your favourite book that you read as a child?

http://www.peterbunzl.com

Q&A WITH CRIME WRITER SUSAN GROSSEY

Portraits of Pretence (The Sam Plank Mysteries Book 4) by [Grossey, Susan]I’m delighted to welcome Susan Grossey to the blog. She is the author of a crime series set in Regency London, figuring Constable Sam Plank’s investigation into financial fraud. Susan is herself an expert in anti-money laundering. Her most recent book, the fourth in the Sam Plank series is Portraits of Pretence. The books are beautifully researched and have wonderful descriptions of Regency London. If you read them you will also discover what it is to be jug-bitten!

Q. Why the Regency period? Can you remember what it was that made you first decide to set your books then?

A. The first Sam Plank book, “Fatal Forgery”, came about almost by accident.  My day job is the prevention of financial crime, and to this end I was reading about bank crime, which of course has existed since banks began.  And I came across the story of Henry Fauntleroy, a banker who stole from his own bank in the 1820s and was caught in 1824.  He immediately admitted his guilt, even though this meant a fast-track to the scaffold, and I wondered why he would do that.  A mere four years later, “Fatal Forgery” was finished!  Along the way I had realised that the Regency period was very under-examined in every writing genre except romance.  There are plenty of books set in the Georgian period, and more Victorian detectives than you can shake a stick at, but Regency?  Not much at all.  And from a London policing perspective this was a fascinating era – post-Bow Street Runners, pre-Metropolitan Police, with very little structure to the service beyond the savvy of the individual constables.

Q. Your books have a real charm to them that I think comes from the tenderness of the relationship between Sam and his wife Martha and Sam’s assistant Wilson. Sam is a protagonist enviably free of dysfunction and that’s very refreshing these days. In some ways it reminds me of the dynamic between Morse, Lewis and Lewis’s wife although in that case the older man is single. Could you tell me a little about the decision making process around your development and characterization of Sam, Martha and Wilson?

A. Sam is an amalgamation of several constables whose actual words I was able to read in the invaluable online transcripts of Old Bailey cases – in fact, the name Sam Plank came from one of those!  And I liked the idea of a man who has been around a bit – Sam escaped a poor upbringing, was a barber for a while and then fell into law enforcement – but remains essentially decent.  As you say, he is not dysfunctional – I was a bit tired of “the copper more damaged than the criminals” – but I have tried to show that he has human flaws (he’s rather vain).  As the books are narrated by Sam, I needed to have discussions in them, rather than just interior thoughts (plus I enjoy writing dialogue), and I liked the idea of a man being brave on the outside only because he has support at home.  At the same time, I have to remind myself constantly not to make Martha modern: she is no feminist, simply a woman who adores her husband and has a good brain.  And as Sam is reaching the end of his career – he’s a good age, for a working man of his era – I wanted to give him a chance to pass on his knowledge, and sometimes to explain to the reader why he was doing certain things, and Wilson is the mechanism for that.  But, as characters will, Wilson is starting to demand more attention.

Q. I was fascinated by the material in the book about miniatures, especially about the fact they were painted on ivory. Could you tell me a little about your research?

A. Some time ago I visited the Wallace Collection in London, a wonderful private collection open to the public, and they have a gorgeous display of miniatures.  I stored the thought away…  I have known for some time that there will be seven Sam Plank books and I have plotted the central crime for each, so I already knew that “Plank 4” – “Portraits of Pretence” – would be about art fraud of some kind.  And when I thought more carefully, I realized that I wanted portable art – miniatures were perfect.  So back I went to the Wallace, to look more closely, and then I started reading all the contemporary sale catalogues I could find for descriptions of miniatures and their frames.  I am lucky enough to be a member of the University Library in Cambridge, and in their rare books collection they have several “how to” guides from the Regency era, written for amateur artists.  Every accomplished young lady wanted to be able to paint miniatures, and careful instructions are given on how to select and prepare materials, and how to paint the picture.

Q. My feeling is you have certainly walked the walk when it comes to describing Constable Plank’s perambulations around Regency London. Could you tell me a little about how you researched that? Were crumbling maps involved! In particular I loved the descriptions of Custom House.

A. My husband calls this research “walking the Plank”!  It’s actually quite simple: I walk around London.  Although the street-level architecture and detail is all very modern, just raise your eyes and from the first floor upwards, most of it is original.  I did consult a few crumbling maps – the University Library again – but the best of all is Greenwood’s 1827 map of London, thoughtfully put online by someone at Bath University.  It’s particularly useful for checking street names; for instance, Sam lives in Norton Street, near Regent’s Park, but you won’t find that name today as it’s now Bolsover Street.

Q. Did you always want to be a writer or did you start writing as an adult?

A. Always, always, always.  I am an only child and spent a huge amount of time reading and writing.  My first success was a short story entitled “Bonkers the Witch”, for which I won a rosette from my headmistress when I was six.

Q. Influences as a writer and crime writer.

A. My absolute hero is CJ Sansom – if I can evoke an era a tenth as well as he can, I’ll be happy.  I find that now that I am a writer myself, I am much more critical when I read: I will make notes along the lines of “make sure it’s always clear who’s speaking” and “don’t indulge yourself in reams of description”.  I’m much less tolerant of poorly edited books, as I think it should be done properly – it’s rude to expect a reader to put up with your laziness.

Q. I see that you have three more to come in the series. Will that then definitely be the end? Or will you continue with Wilson?

A. I’m already a bit sad at the thought of being without Sam, so the smart money – i.e. my husband’s – is on Sam sticking around in a consultative capacity!

Q. Do you have all the others in the series planned out or are you operating on a one by one basis?

A. They are all planned.  There’s a simple pattern to them, in that they take place in consecutive years: “Portraits of Pretence” is in 1827, so “Plank 5” will be 1828.  The unifying feature of the series – apart from Sam himself – is financial crime, so we’ve had bank fraud, investment fraud, bribery, and art fraud.  “Plank 5” will be about… oh no, I can’t reveal that too soon!

Q. Could you give a brief account of your path to publishing. Have you done courses, do you belong to writing groups etc?

A. Once I had the first (extremely rough) draft of “A Fraudster and a Gentleman” – the ghastly original title of “Fatal Forgery”, written from the point of view of the banker Fauntleroy – I hit a road-block: I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t see how to put it right.  I didn’t like the idea of a writing group, because I wanted an expert to help – not other, albeit enthusiastic, amateurs.  And then I read about Gold Dust, a writers’ mentoring scheme set up by a group of proper, professional, published authors.  For about a thousand pounds, they offered a year of monthly meetings with an author, at which you would discuss your latest chapter – which meant writing the blasted thing.  I asked for, and was given, Jill Dawson as my author: she’s local to me, and knows about writing historical fiction.  And every month I had to take something to show her.  What was most valuable – above and beyond the excellent writing and plotting advice she gave me – was her belief that, one day, this would be a book worthy of publication.

At the end of that year I had “Fatal Forgery” ready to go.  I submitted it to five agents and four publishers, and they all turned it down “because no-one is interested in financial crime”.  By then I had fallen in love with Sam, and I decided to rewrite the whole thing from his point of view.  Once that was done, I couldn’t face the agent/publisher merry-go-round again, and self-publishing had come on in leaps and bounds, and I decided to go it alone.

Q. What advice would you give to a young writer starting out now?

A. Set a timetable and deadlines, and stick to them.  If you wait for the muse to appear, for the “writing mood” to descend, you’ll never do anything.  I write a book a year and in the first half of the year, I write a thousand words a week – perfectly manageable.  In the second half of the year, I double that, and in the final month, I really go for it.  Even if it’s rubbish, you can edit rubbish – but if you’ve written nothing because that sock drawer really, really, really needed tidying, you have nothing to edit.

Q. I see that you are an expert on anti-money laundering. How does your experience in that field filter through into your novel writing?

A. I am unashamedly fascinated by financial crime – why people do it, and why it keeps working.  That’s what made me want to explore Regency financial crime, as it’s simply history repeating itself.  In “Fatal Forgery”, Fauntleroy is able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – share certificates – to bamboozle his customers and steal from them.  Recently, bankers were able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – subprime mortgages – to bamboozle their customers and steal from them.  Now we have Bitcoin, mobile payments, crowdfunding – on it goes.  The same is true for the crimes in the other Sam Plank books – we still have investment fraud, bribery, art crime.  We greedy and gullible humans never learn our lesson!

Q. I love the design of the covers. They are simple but very striking. Could you tell me a little about your design choices?

A. Aren’t they gorgeous?  I take absolutely no credit for them: they are the work of Andrew and Rebecca at the company Design for Writers.  It was the one area where I decided to treat myself to real talent, as I have the artistic capabilities of a roll-top desk – left to my own devices, I would have created a cover out of glitter and macaroni.  For “Fatal Forgery” they asked me to fill out a long questionnaire about the book and its subject, the sorts of covers I liked and disliked, any fonts I admired, the colours I preferred and so on.  At the end of that, they came up with the cover that you see now – complete with custom-designed “Plank font”.  All I had to ask them to do was adjust the whiskers; the original gentleman they used had a moustache, but Sam has only side-whiskers, so they redrew them.  The fine fellow you see is how Sam imagines himself – I fear the real Sam is a little less elegant.  From then on, we have used that cover as the model for the other books, with the addition of the strapline across the top, indicating that the book is “A Sam Plank Mystery”.

Q. What will you write after the Sam Plank series? Will you stay in the Regency period or spread your wings?

A. I probably should move on, but, as I say, I like writing in a less popular era, and now I know so much about it, I’d hate to leave.  Perhaps I could do the diary of a magistrate, or reminiscences of a prison keeper…

Q. I love the glossary at the back: puff guts, rum cull, square toes, jug-bitten. Is it fun discovering and using these words?

A. So much fun!  There are several Regency lexicons and slang dictionaries that I consult.  My own personal favourites are the ones for throwing up (a pretty common occurrence in Regency times, when almost everything you ate or drank was contaminated with something), such as “flashing the hash” and “casting up your account”.  And if flashing the hash doesn’t purge you sufficiently, you might well end up “wearing a wooden surcoat”… lying in your coffin.

Thank you so much Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope your husband is forced to ‘walk the plank’ for many years to come! Lots of good luck with Portraits of Pretence and the rest of the series.

You will find all the links to Susan’s books in the purchase section of her blog here:

https://susangrossey.wordpress.com

And Sam even has his own twitter account: @ConstablePlank

CONCLAVE: ROBERT HARRIS

A book has come out recently on the subject of bestsellers:The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. In it the authors, two Stamford academics, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, describe how they created an algorithm and then used it to scan 20,000 New York Times bestselling novels, in order to find out what components they have in common. Among the topics you should focus on apparently are marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. I wonder what that last one means? These are the topics you should avoid: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Makes you wonder about where Fifty Shades of Grey fits in, doesn’t it?

I would propose that one of the simplest predictors is the presence of a name like ROBERT HARRIS on the cover of a book.

His most recent book CONCLAVE is set in the Vatican.  The skeleton of the plot is this: The pope dies, the cardinals gather for the Conclave, the cardinals vote and keep voting until three quarters of them agree on a successor, the pope is chosen, the book ends.

Not, you might think, particularly promising material. The book however is very entertaining – both page turning and wickedly funny. Along the way  you will find out all kinds of things about the Catholic Church that you probably didn’t know. It also has a very modern twist at the end that I am not going to divulge but which amused me.

Part of the pleasure of Robert Harris’ books is the combination of elegant writing, gripping hooks to make you want to know what happens next, and some excellent jokes.

Here’s a lovely description of the recently dead Pope as Lomeli, the Dean, leans forward to kiss him:

Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.

But later Lomeli frets about the treatment of the Pope’s body and thinks about some of the unfortunate things that happened to the bodies of previous popes. In 1978 the face of Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s

. . . had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn’t as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII’s body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran.

Here is the description of the Pope’s apartment. He had insisted on living in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.

Fifty anonymous square meters, furnished to suit the income and taste of some mid-level commercial salesman.

Lomeli casts a somewhat jaundiced eye over his fellow cardinals. Here he is in contemplation of Cardinal Tremblay, one of the more ambitious ones:

Despite the hour, his appearance was fresh and handsome, his thick silver hair immaculately coiffed, his body trim and carried lightly. He looked like a retired athlete who had made a successful transition to television sports presenter; Lomeli vaguely remembered that he had played ice hockey in his youth.

And here is Cardinal Simo Guttuso:

His personal chaplain struggled behind him with his three suitcases.

Lomeli, eyeing the suitcases, said, ‘My dear Simo, are you trying to smuggle in your personal chef?’

Little wonder if he was, given the appalling descriptions of the food the Cardinals suffer. Someone needs to give the nuns cooking lessons. ‘Veal scallopini – the meat looked rubbery, the sauce congealed’. ‘Chicken wrapped in Parma ham. It was overcooked and dry but they were eating it none the less’. ‘Some unidentifiable fish in caper sauce.’

If anything forces this Conclave to a swift conclusion, thought Lomeli, it will be the food.

Lomeli, the Dean in charge of the voting, is struggling with his own faith, as he struggles to run the Conclave. There are, of course, various twists and turns along the way.

My feeling is Robert Harris could probably conjure a bestseller from two elderly crumbs playing dominoes inside a paper bag but until he writes that one, I suggest you read CONCLAVE. If you buy the hardback, it has nicely blackened edges to the pages. It’s a new fashion this and I rather like it.

If you’re interested in what makes a bestseller you’d be better off buying a few Robert Harris books and making careful notes, rather than buying a book about an algorithm. To my mind, it is thorough research, lightly used, combined with a finely honed talent to amuse and entertain in words. Incidentally, he does conform to one bit of data that the algorithm throws up; apparently a disproportionate number of bestseller writers have worked in journalism and advertising and Harris  was a political journalist before turning his hand so successfully to writing fiction.

CRIME Q&A WITH VENA CORK

vena_largerI’m delighted to welcome the crime writer Vena Cork to the blog. She is the author of the Rosa Thorn trilogy (Thorn, The Art of Dying and Green Eye). Her most recent books are The Lost Ones set in Notting Hill and Toxic set in Willesden. This Q&A is about Toxic set in Yew Court, a block of flats in North West London where dark forces are unleashed.

Q. I loved the Prologue and it reminded me immediately of Alan Garner’s books. I wondered if you’d read them and been influenced by them at all? That feeling of there being something ancient in the land just waiting to burst out!

A. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen many years ago, but I can’t remember  anything about it except being totally gripped. So if there’s an influence it isn’t a conscious one.  I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, though, which tinkers with the reality behind reality, so that may have rubbed of a bit, even though it’s a different genre.  When thinking about Toxic I became fascinated by old photographs of places in London that in the very recent past were little villages in the countryside but are now part of the city. It  made me envisage a time when there were no villages at all, just  primeval forest, and then all that history flowing in between.  It’s exactly the same place on the planet throughout, but forever changing. I do feel in certain places that the ancient past is still there lurking just under the concrete.

Q. Could you tell me a little about how you came to set it in the setting you did. Is there a particular yew in Willesden that caught your eye?

A. I love London and I love how each area has its own distinctive personality. My previous book, The Lost Ones, is set in Portobello Road, Notting Hill, which is a very high profile place. For Toxic I wanted to tackle somewhere that was the opposite, somewhere ostensibly without much atmosphere or known history behind it. I also wanted to tell a story about a tower on a hill, and I found a road on a hill in Willesden with several blocks of flats that absolutely fitted the bill and that also has a view over a wide open space to the neat suburban houses that I wanted Alma to be able to spy on. The yew tree came out of nowhere and became so important that in its latin form, taxus baccata, from which the word toxic derives, it even became the title of the book. Originally I noticed that the block of flats in which I was interested was called by the name of a tree and I thought that was a good idea for my block. That led on to the idea of having a sinister tree outside the flats. Then I remembered that yew trees can live to a great age, and that this would be the obvious link to the savage earth beneath the suburban concrete. Much later, I found out that not only were yew trees poisonous, but that they were also the symbol of The Furies. All this came about in a very round about and serendipitious way. In my experience this is something that often happens when writing a book: strange connections and coincidences surface that fit absolutely with what’s needed.

Q. It strikes me that what Toxic is really about is the marginalized and the vulnerable, those at risk of falling through the cracks and people who could easily disappear. You’re casting a bright light on society and saying look here. This is what can happen if we don’t take care of each other. Was there some of that feeling in you as you wrote the book?

A. Yes absolutely. We have, by and large, lost the habit of caring for our neighbours. In London the rich and comfortably off live cheek by jowl with the poor, but I don’t think there’s much communication going on. There’s a bit of wish fulfillment in Toxic because I don’t know whether in a real block of flats such a coming-together would happen. Although, having said that, I’m reminded of the play and film London Road, co-written by my son Adam Cork and the playwright, Aleckie Blythe, which tells the true story of the inhabitants of London Road, Ipswich, initially strangers, who united to repair their fractured community after the presence of a serial killer in the street had tarnished the reputation of the place.

Q. Now we’ve got to talk about Alma! She was one of my favourites. She reminded me a bit of the women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – there was that sort of gothic horror aspect to her but she was also very, very funny and I have to say I was rather upset about what you did to her! Did you enjoy writing her?

A. I loved wrtoxiciting Alma. Inventing characters who behave very badly is brilliant fun, in a way that interacting with such characters in real life often isn’t. In a book you can laugh at their all-consuming egos without having to actually deal with them.  And inventing someone who behaves badly always feels slightly transgressive – making them do and say things I’d never allow myself to do and say.

Q. It was very brave to cast such a ghastly character as a bookseller. I’d never dare! Discuss (if you’d like)!

A. I didn’t set out to diss booksellers! I love booksellers – they sell books and books hold a central place in my life as a reader and a writer! David’s new wife was a bookseller by default. His ambition was to open a bookshop and I wanted his new partner to have something major in common with him. When I started the novel I didn’t know she would turn out to be either a bookseller, or so awful. I often find that characters go galloping off on their own path and become completely different from what I initially intended. I also find that sometimes those I imagine are going to be important end up as either minor characters or scrapped altogether, or, vice versa, a peripheral person suddenly begins to loom large and move to centre stage.  In Toxic, Gary is one such character who started out with a very minor role and just grew.

Q. I was really impressed how you marshalled such a large cast of characters together and yet made them distinct and clear in the readers mind and also how you ratcheted up the tension. Is this the biggest cast of characters you’ve dealt with in a book? As I was reading it I thought I would really struggle with this technically. It’s a really skilled piece of writing. Did that involve very careful pre-plotting before writing began? Did you have a clear idea about what would happen and in what order from the beginning?

A. I knew about the beginning of the book and I knew the end would involve the destruction of the tower, and I knew a few points along the way. But that was it. I didn’t know who would bring about the destruction of the tower, or, indeed how that would happen. I initially thought that it would be blown up! I envy writers who are able to plot everything in detail in advance. I can’t do that. I have to crawl forward painfully slowly, wondering what has to happen next and who does what to whom. On the other hand I think I’d become bored if I knew too much in advance. This is the largest number of narrators I’ve dealt with and I often found it difficult knowing which narrator would reveal which piece of information and when.  One thing I did do, though, was scribble out a plan of the tower and write in who was living where and at what number. Before I did that I found it very confusing trying to remember who was on what floor and how that would impact on the plot.

Q. I think I saw that you’re writing a Rosa Thorn novella. Could you tell me a bit about that?

A. The working title is Rosa and Revenge and in it we meet Rosa ten years on.  Her children are grown. Anna is also an actor and Danny’s a journalist. Rosa’s just got her big break starring in one of the country’s top soaps, but as always when she’s around, death and destruction follow, as fellow soap stars start to die. I don’t want to say anymore about it in case I give away the plot.

Q. You can ask 5 writers to dinner which do you choose?

A. This is a very difficult question because there are so many. Would I choose the Victorians – Eliot, Dickens,  the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope , Wilkie Collins,  or would I go for  Joseph Heller, Susan Hill, Steven King, Donna Tartt, John Lanchester, John Irvine, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Philip Pullman. Yes – I know – more than five, and added to this list would be all the writers mentioned in the next two questions. So more a party than a dinner party!

Q. Which crime writers do you like?

A. Again – so many: Currently Kate Rhodes, Lesley Thomson, Ben Aaronovich, Elly Griffiths, Harlan Coben, Val Mcdermid, Stuart Macbride, Karin Slaughter, Sabine Durrant, Mark Billingham. I could go on …

Q. Which crime writers influenced you?

A. It’s hard to say who’s had a direct influence on my writing. My first experience of crime novels and the things that have stayed with me from that time are  Agatha Christie’s puzzles, the character of Albert Campion in Margery Allingham’s books, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and slightly later, John le Carre’s George Smiley books. But latterly there’s   Elizabeth George, Nicky French, Tana French… The list goes on…

Q. Can you remember what book made you want to become a writer?

A. I don’t think there’s one particular book, although as a girl I read and reread Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women and a collection of  Greek Myths. I also loved Enid Blyton, The Faraway Tree stories and The Famous Five. I was allowed to go to my local library by myself from about the age of seven and adored discovering all the fantastic stories that were there for the taking. It was here, aged eight, that I first came across Jane Eyre and I remember being terrified when she was locked in The Red Room, and amazed that anyone could write something so real and so gripping. From the moment I learned to read I’ve been hooked on books and I think I’ve always had this urge, both as an actor and a writer to tell stories. The first thing I ever did was a collection of children’s verse, which is sitting in a drawer somewhere along with a couple of short children’s books, and after that I wrote plays for several years. During my time as a drama teacher I was lucky enough to have a couple of these plays performed at the school in which I was working.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent, and I’ve just finished The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale  Retold by Jeanette Winterson.

Q. How do you work? Do you have a routine? Set place/hours/word count per day or is it more flexible than that?

A.I have a small study, but I don’t use it to work in. It suits me better to work on the sofa in my living room. I usually try to do an hour before breakfast, and then after a walk with my husband, who is also a writer, settle down from 10am and work until lunch time. After another walk I start again around 4pm and work until supper, and sometimes I do a late evening stint before bed. But I’m not rigid about it, and have various breaks during the week for seeing friends or doing other necessary tasks. I constantly live with the idea that I should be working harder and that when I’m doing one thing there’s another that I should be doing instead. With the novella I set myself the task of completing it in a month. I hit my target and then took another two weeks to edit, so six weeks in total, which was pretty full on, but very satisfying. Another source of guilt nowadays, is being told by the health police that if I don’t get up and walk around every ten minutes or so I’ll die. I hate doing things just for the sake of it so now I’m trying to build into my regime, little breaks where I do something useful like iron a skirt, or peel a potato. Needless to say that’s not working out brilliantly.

Thank you very much, Vena, for taking the time and good luck with your future projects.

You’ll find all the links to Vena’s books at http://www.venacork.com

BERYL BAINBRIDGE: A BIOGRAPHY

Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means: A Biography by [King, Brendan]How much does the life of a writer you love interest you? This is what I’ve been wondering as I’ve read the biography of Beryl Bainbridge, Love by All Sorts of Means, by Brendan King. In my case it turns out a great deal. I love her writing and I worked for her publisher Gerald Duckworth for a while. In fact I was working in the warehouse when her book on Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica Birthday Boys came in. It was the most copies of one title that I ever packed up and sent out to the bookshops and I particularly liked the photo on the cover of the men wearing  their  big furry mittens.

Brendan King worked for Bainbridge for many years but this is no hagiography. What he delivers here is a measured and psychologically astute  assessment of her and along the way he displays considerable sensitivity to her children, especially with regard to the effects of her drinking and her affairs, those known about and those kept secret (until relatively recently).

Bainbridge was a publicist’s dream. There was the stuffed buffalo in the hall and the hole in the ceiling from when her mother-in-law, Nora, tried to shoot her. There was the shop dummy called Neville that she placed in the window to make people think there was a man in the house. The expression one-off is overused but it seems a more than usually apt description of Bainbridge. She was a genuine eccentric and eccentricity makes good copy. And she was also a fantastic, original writer and the fact that she never won the Booker, despite being nominated five times, seems more and more of a disgrace as each year passes.

If you’re interested to know who the sweet William in  Sweet William was or who the character of Scurra in Every Man For Himself was based on you will find it all here. Along with what made her publisher Colin Haycraft kick the draft of Watson’s Apology across the floor. Interestingly, King suggests that one of the reasons Bainbridge turned to historical fiction and away from writing which mined her own life, was because the complexities of her private life were such that she did not feel she could use that as material in her fiction any more.

In his excellent introduction King is very good on the subject of memory especially when it comes to fiction writers:

“Her interviews and her written memoirs are always brilliant, full of memorable quotes and anecdotes, but that was partly because she was never hampered by the feeling that she had to be literally accurate about the facts when recounting them.”

A polite way of stating that she had no compunction in making things up!

“All memory is fiction, which is why autobiographical accounts and historical ones, for that matter are notoriously inaccurate. We censor memories by recalling only those fragments we wish to remember.”

King’s job as her biographer is sorting the fibs from the facts and he does a very thorough job of it.

There is a lot here which is amusing including an assessment of her by the psychotherapist Charles Rycroft as being, ‘a hysteric with psychopathic tendencies.’

There is also hope for novelists who have been on the receiving end of bad reviews:

“No amount of mannered writing – and there is quite a lot of it – can conceal that Miss Bainbridge hasn’t much to say.” SUNDAY TELEGRAPH on A WEEKEND WITH CLAUDE

To The Hampstead and Highgate Express she stated:

“I’ve got some really terrible reviews, so I’ve just given up reading them.”

And yet she survived and thrived.

After reading this biography I was left with the impression that it is probably best never to trust what comes out of a writer’s mouth about themselves. If you want the truth you’re more likely to get it from their fiction.The act of  writing is exposure enough. When confronted with the perils of publicity what writer isn’t going to reach for the invisibility cloak and puff a bit of smoke in the air or hide behind their stuffed buffalo while pointing at a bullet hole.

Nowadays one wonders if someone like Beryl would have broken through. You can’t imagine her synopsis and three chapters would have made it out of any agent’s slush pile, not with her spelling. King suggests she was probably dyslexic.

Here is one of my favourite examples, a note typed to a friend when she was a bit pissed after a row with one of her lovers.

“I have had a violent argument. Surprise – he takes off his bliddy galoshes and lies down. Alright if he’s paying the bills, but wot a romantic set up, if he is my sooter. I have sed his hair cut is losey . . . andd I will neffer wash his underdrawers, not if he is paralised. He ses I have holes in my jumpers. But I sed I am an orther, and they have holes.”

This book comes highly recommended. It’s well written,  emotionally intelligent and fair minded in dealing with her highly complex private life. I should imagine that it’s going to appear on a great many of the lists suggesting books to buy as presents at Christmas. An extraordinary woman and a magnificent writer, Bainbridge has been well served by this sensitive and entertaining biography. Any writer out there wondering who might write their biography should give King a call. Now I’m off to buy a buffalo.

How about you? Are you interested in the lives of the authors you admire or do you find it an irrelevant and irritating distraction?

Q&A WITH WRITER COLIN BISSET

Author Colin Bisset

Today I’m very glad to welcome the writer, traveller and broadcaster, Colin Bisset to a Q&A on my blog. He’s written a wonderful book, Loving Le Corbusier, on Yvonne Gallis, wife of the world famous architect, Le Corbusier. I was eager to ask him some questions about writing in general and the process of writing this book in particular.

                                                         

1. When did you first hear about the ‘secret wife’ Yvonne and how long was it between then and you deciding to write a book about her?

I had intended writing a novel with Le Corbusier as a peripheral figure and so I re-read some of my old books on him. Yvonne was always described as a model from Monaco, which sounds rather glamorous, but photos showed her to be perfectly ordinary. Gradually I began to realise that no one really knew much about her. One article I read suggested that she might have been a prostitute, which I don’t believe. A biography of Le Corbusier by Nicholas Fox Weber pointed me in the direction of the published correspondence and from there I began to form a fuller image of her. I thought she might be a good way of looking at him but gradually I realised she was the story.

2. Could you describe a bit about your research process? Did you have letters etc? Was there a moment when Yvonne jumped out and came alive for you? When was that?

I read everything I could get my hands on, not only about Le Corbusier but also histories of France and biographies of people like Cocteau. I watched old French films from the 1930s, too. But the chief source was always the personal correspondence. Le Corbusier and Yvonne are both adoring in their letters but once you read between the lines then you start to form a slightly different picture. After so much reading I knew I had to get to France so off I trotted and spent a fantastic time following in her footsteps. It was then that Yvonne really came to life for me.

3. Did you suffer at all from Stockholm syndrome – being taken hostage by her? I remember there was a moment when I was writing about Florence Maybrick, a Victorian arsenic poisoner, when I thought she’s got me, my sympathies have been won over. I’m on her side no matter what! I had to work very hard after that to present a balanced picture.

When I visited their apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt the place was empty apart from the person who let me in, so I was able to walk around, imagining their life there. When I went on to the roof terrace and saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and that you couldn’t get to the edge of the roof and look down into the street, that was when I really felt the pain that Yvonne must have felt being there, removed from the liveliness of the centre. It was hardly a grand literary moment but I said in my mind to Yvonne, “I’ll see you right”– a real Aussie phrase. Ever since then I wanted to champion her side of things. She was such an unpretentious person that I didn’t feel I had to sugar-coat anything about her.

 

4. Simon Schama talks about historians becoming so immersed in their research that they begin to ventriloquise the voices of the past. Did you experience anything as useful as that!

Yvonne was so much about unsaid things, her unspoken thoughts, her uncertainty. Can I say that I felt the power of her silences? Although of course there were moments when she was pretty vocal with her husband!

5. So if you have to chose between Rue Jacob (in St Germain where Yvonne started her life with Le Corbusier) and the apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt (24, Rue Nungesser et Coli – 24NC – where they moved to) which would it be? I have to say I’d never have moved from the cluttered attic!

Oh, the romance of a cluttered attic, especially in the 6th Arrondissement! Boulogne-Billancourt is an interesting area with some rather sumptuous 1930s buildings but it doesn’t compare to Rue Jacob. It was totally not Yvonne’s sort of place. Although of course now Rue Jacob is so fashionable that I don’t think Yvonne would recognise it, although the Petit Saint Benoit restaurant seems unchanged.

6. One of my favourite scenes is when she and Le Corbusier meet up with Picasso and his girlfriend Francoise towards the end of the book. There’s a conversation there between the two women in which you say a great deal about the situation of women who are ‘muses’ to ‘great’ men. Do you have a favourite scene?

Too many! I always grit my teeth at the tragi-comic scenes with Le Corbusier’s mother as Yvonne tries to do the right thing. I like the tiny scene in the Pyrenees when Yvonne and Ed (the name Le Corbusier was called by his family) are collecting kindling in the bitter cold and they suddenly erupt into uncontrollable laughter. It says something of their essential closeness, I think, despite everything.

7. Your love of France shines out of the book could you tell me a bit about that?

It’s almost an affliction, my love for France! I think I’ve always enjoyed its difference. As a child we often went to France for summer holidays, or passed through it on the way to Italy or Spain. I remember houses with balconies (always a sucker for a balcony), people eating at tables outside, and crumbling old towns (and fetid loos, in the 1960s). I was always sad returning to the UK. As an adult I often considered moving to France, and I did do a little bit of work there as an interior designer. Now I live in Australia, I love returning to France each year if I can. It feels like home – a certain old fashioned quality, the love of food and wine, the fantastic buildings and the natural beauty. I even watch the French news most mornings on the TV as we get that here.

looking across the hall at 24NC

Looking across the hall at 24NC

8. Could you talk a bit about the technical choices you made in the book? Were you ever tempted to write the whole thing in the first person for example? You have two first person pieces at the beginning and end which are very vivid.

Good question. I started out writing in the 3rd person but abandoned it about halfway through because it felt too distant. Writing in the 1st person gave me a much stronger insight into who Yvonne really was, using her voice, but it had a certain clunkiness because I also wanted to convey certain information about what was happening around her, and I had to simplify the language as she was an uneducated sort. I missed writing descriptive passages and I often find that reading something in the 1st person can become a bit hectoring, like you’re sitting next to a bore who keeps talking about herself.  So I put it back into the 3rd person and it felt much better, more spacious. The exercise of writing in the 1st person was a vital part of this process, though, and I think it’s a good exercise to get inside a character’s head. But I wanted to keep the sense that she was talking to the reader directly which is why I bookended it with 1st person scenes. I suppose going into the 3rd person at the beginning of the novel is rather like the traditional fuzzy screen in a film.  

9. Was this a very different experience to writing your other book, Not Always to Plan? If so in what way?

‘Not Always to Plan’ was different in many ways, especially being set in modern day Australia, although I managed to slip in a bit of Le Corbusier. ‘Loving Le Corbusier’ required a different headspace in that I had to be factually responsible and didn’t have the freedom to invent so much. I wanted to follow the arc of Yvonne’s life and although I wrote in my first draft scenes when she was a girl in Monaco in the 1900s, I got rid of them because they were purely fictional. The essence of sitting down and writing was the same, though – becoming so absorbed in a character that the hours pass by unnoticed. I love that process.

10. Now then we’ve got to talk about what Le Corbusier did to the dog, Pinceau. I found that incredibly chilling. If he’d done that to your dog what would you have done?

 It is chilling although it wasn’t that unusual at the time. Taxidermy was a huge thing in the late 19th century, too. But it does show the gulf between Ed and Yvonne at that stage. I’d struggle to like, let alone love someone who did that with my beloved pet.

 

the high bed at 24NC

The high bed at 24NC

11. “Artists, she thought, were like horses they needed space or you might get hurt” Excellent quote – it made me laugh  and I have to say it rang a few personal bells – would you care to elaborate?

I’m glad you like that – I’m rather proud of it, although I’m not intentionally quoting anyone (to my knowledge). Don’t you think artists are like horses, rather wonderful to watch but temperamental and prone to galloping away? Ed was certainly someone who needed his own space. I’m not sure what my artist friends will make of it, though!

12. You’re given an unlimited budget to build a house anywhere in the world – where do you build it and which architect (living or dead) do you use?

The view from the area around the cemetery at Roquebrune where Yvonne is buried is simply breathtaking. I love that whole area – the sparkling sea, the wild mountains, and close enough to the Alps and Italy for the odd little sortie. So that’s the place. Architect? Of course I should say Le Corbusier but I won’t. I do love Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines and the Arts & Crafts use of wood and stone. But a building that was engineered to work with the climate would be the most important thing now, with lots of glass and a huge terrace overlooking the sea. Oh, and a fantastic writing room, of course!

13. Could you tell me a bit about books which influenced you or made you want to be a writer?

When I was a teenager I adored the novels of Iris Murdoch, the sense of civilised people behaving badly, and I used to scrawl terribly turgid pastiches of those. I suppose I’ve always been attracted to domestic dramas of some sort –  Franzen’s The Corrections blew me away, and  Mark Haddon’s lovely A Spot of Bother was a big influence on my style of writing. Alan Hollinghurst’s descriptive writing is so beautifully precise while seemingly effortless. And bringing humour into any novel is vital, I think – it releases the pressure sometimes. Kingsley Amis is the master of ambushing the reader with a seemingly innocuous phrase – a one-line description of people on a bus, for instance – that has you on your knees with laughter. I’d love to do that!

14. What’s the next thing you’re working on?

I used to do a radio series called Design Files, giving a potted history of a particular object, anything from a pepper mill to the paper clip. Often the design originated in France. I’d like to explore that more – a travel book of sorts, perhaps. For fiction, I’ve got the 1980s swirling around my head at the moment so I’m not sure where that’ll lead me.

Thank you Colin for a fascinating insight into the writing of this wonderful book and lots of good luck with it and your forthcoming projects.

Here is the link to Colin’s blog:  

https://www.colinbisset.com

And the Amazon link for the book: 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01FE4FNCQ/

All photos are from Colin’s blog and used with his permission.