A SHAMELESS PLEA!

Darlings, I know you’re longing to nominate me for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. The idea of the prize is to uncover hidden gems. If I win  I will receive a lovely Guardian mug and lots of publicity. If I get shortlisted  I will also get some lovely PUBLICITY for my lovely book. HURRAH! How can you resist? If you do I will take my hat off to you or I might even post a picture of myself wearing this hat in a burst of sunny gratitude.

hat and book

Hat and book

My friend Maggi has brought this to my attention and already nominated me. Thank you darling Maggi. So join Maggi in propelling THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN into the public eye.

To nominate me you have to us the word nominate/nomination and name my book in the comments of the link below and also name the publisher. Because my book has changed title it would probably be good to say something like this. I nominate The Return of the Courtesan by Victoria Blake first published as Titian’s Boatman (Jan 2017) by Black and White Publishing. The deadline is 30th July so that gives you nine lovely days.

Sending you kisses in advance…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/17/not-the-booker-prize-2017-needs-your-nominations-now

COINCIDENCE IN LIFE AND ART

As readers haven’t we all at some point felt that a writer has stretched our credibility to breaking point. That, ‘Oh come off it!’ moment when, however much we’ve enjoyed the book up to then, we draw back and think ‘Well that would never have happened.’ Speaking for myself (with my writing hat on) this is usually because I’ve got myself into a corner and am now doing something ridiculous to get myself out of trouble while hoping the reader won’t notice. It’s akin to a cat which has climbed a high tree and is now howling for the fire brigade. However, weird coincidences do happen. Here’s one example from my life – a strange day earlier this year in London, a city of 9 million people.

Image result for pictures of the foyles cafe

The lovely cafe at Foyles

I’d arranged to meet an old school friend in the café in Foyles in central London. It had been lovely to see her but after we parted I started thinking rather negatively about how I am with maintaining friendships – rather bad – and why that was. Then, walking back to the bus stop with diminishing feelings of regard for myself, I made the mistake of going into Waterstones, Piccadilly to see if I could find my book. This is generally not a good idea because if I can’t find it I feel despondent. In this case it was nowhere to be seen but I noted that the book of someone I know only very slightly, from a party we both go to at Christmas, was there and I felt, shall we say, a little more despondent. That is, despondent with a neon green tinge, I’m sure you understand. I then went and gazed at the stationery.

Image result for pictures of stationery department in waterstones piccadilly

Brightly coloured stationery failed me

For some reason staring at and indeed buying brightly coloured stationery usually cheers me up. It didn’t in this case and so I went and got myself some coffee and a cake in the café which looks down onto the stationery department.

I tried to do a bit of writing but then decided to give up any pretence of writing that day and got out my paper and read it from cover to cover. My reading was interspersed with eating what can safely be described as the oldest almond croissant to have ever existed in London, (make that the universe), at any time. It was so dry that when I gave it a speculative prod it shattered and hurled an atomic cloud of icing sugar and flakes of pastry all over me, the table and the floor. This did not improve my temper.

When I stood up to go, it required a prolonged period of brushing flakes of pastry off me. As I turned round to leave there was the man whose book I had seen earlier in the shop. He at least had his lap top out and so was doing better than me that day. ‘Is it Christmas?’ he said and we both laughed. I felt awkward because I knew he had seen that I had been doing no writing. It is one thing for a writer not to be writing but it is quite another thing to be seen by another writer who is writing not writing.  And it is indeed quite another thing to have been seen having an altercation with a one hundred year old almond croissant while not writing by a man whose book is prominently displayed in a shop which does not contain mine.

cover

The book that was not there

We chatted and then he said the fatal words ‘How is the book going?’ And because I was discombobulated with not writing and being covered in shards of pastry and icing sugar and not being a good friend, I did not say THE RIGHT THING. The correct answer would have been, ‘Yeah, fine thanks – what about yours?’ Writers are highly strung beasts and when they get into each other’s company they can spiral into a sort of collective neurosis. Stratagems are required for such encounters and these may include – bluster, lying, weedling, ironic detachment and charming self-deprecation. Or when that gets too exhausting you can ditch all that and just get drunk and lie in the  gutter hugging each other whilst crying. Also the truth about how one’s book is going is a tricky one to answer although obviously not if you are Lee Child, J.K. Rowling, Wilbur Smith etc. One third of the time you don’t really know, one third of the time you do not have the courage to find out and one third of the time  you have been told and you’re trying very hard to forget what you’ve been told or you’re not telling anyone (other than the cat that is now not up a tree).

But what with the not writing and the not finding my book and being attacked by a violent, exploding, almond croissant which had been nosed and rejected by an Archaeopteryx dinosaur at the end of the Jurassic era and thinking I was a hopeless friend I did not manage this encounter very well.  ‘Oh,’ he said, looking rather startled ‘What’s the title? I’ll look it up.’ Please don’t bother…’ I said shortly after telling him the title and making sure he had typed it into Google correctly. Then, as several flakes of pastry fell from my eyebrows onto his laptop, I said, ‘I should let you get on with your work.’ ‘Well, see you next Christmas,’ he said which was approximately 10 and a half months away. And that was that and I went a stood at the bus stop and festered.

There are 9 million people living in London so tell me exactly how did that sequence of events happen?  Oh, and by the way my book is about to nudge Lee Child off the top of the bestsellers list. Thank you for asking. Isn’t that amaaaaaaazing? Oh God, where’s that gutter, Oscar?

IMG_3270 (1)

Incidentally, the book that was not there in February has now morphed into this in paperback and it will definitely be there from the 27th July… definitely… it’ll be everywhere…absolutely everywhere…

 

ON MY DESK: LIFE AND DEATH STONE

I picked this up on St Columba’s bay on Iona in 1995. Iona is a tiny island off the coast of Mull, one of the largest islands in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It’s an extraordinary place and this particular beach is where St Columba is supposed to have landed from Ireland. It’s the point from which Christianity spread throughout Britain. It’s renowned for its green stones and I have a few of those about the place as well.

I can’t remember now which side up it was lying when I first saw it. I think it was this side which made me think of a skull …

death

I picked it up and turned it round and then I saw this which I interpreted as a lopsided  smiling face…

smile

At the time I had come to the island to make some decisions. I wanted to take time out to write but I was very frightened about taking that step. My mother had died at the beginning of the year and I had been reading all these books on grief that stated you shouldn’t make any major decisions in the immediate aftermath of a death but at the same time I felt this reckless energy to tear up my life and move on. Her death had come as a shock. She was only 69 and, in the way death can, it acted as a wake up call. But along with the reckless energy there was colossal fear. I felt as if I was in a pressure cooker.

Holding this stone in my hand on that beach released some of that pressure and made me smile – one side is so sweet and one side is so sinister. By July of that year I had handed in my notice at work and moved into a housing association house in Finsbury Park. I was living with an actor, a musician, a Tai Chi teacher, and someone who was training as a Cranio-sacral therapist: a fluid group of people who needed cheap rent to pursue their creative dreams. And I began pursuing mine by writing my first novel. God, it was hard and I struggled! But it was a start and finally I was taking myself and my ambition seriously.

Maybe one day I’ll travel back to Iona and return the stone to the beach where I found it. After all it’s a long way from home. Maybe I’ll make that journey one day but for the moment it’s on my desk and I hold it in my hand and turn it back and forth, between the skull and the smile, most days.

ON MY DESK: TIGER AND MORNING GLORY

tiger and morning gloryWhat can I say? Every desk should have a tiger. He isn’t strictly on my desk. He hovers over it in a benign sort of way. I bought him from a wonderful shop, sadly no longer in existence, that was called Neal Street East, in Covent Garden. Oh, how I loved it! It has now been replaced by an Italian shoe shop. I like the way the tiger moves around in the breeze. I like the way he watches over my writing. He has a small sticker on his back that says he was made in Thailand. I have him there to remind me to have courage. I mean a tiger isn’t frightened of anything much, is it? I particularly like the fact he has articulated paws and jaw. When I’m feeling particularly stressed I open his jaws wide. Andy Murray used to do that during his matches and I presume it reduces tension.

I’m not quite sure how this morning glory thing is going to pan out though. I should have started these seeds off much earlier. I found an old packet and was feeling a little stuck and threw them in a pot and thought nothing would happen. But then it did!  They all germinated which was exciting but they like to climb and we have no outside space so I thought I’d see if they’ll climb up my tiger. I’m not sure how he feels about it though. When I was a very small child my mother grew morning glories one summer and each morning there’d be a competition between me and my sisters to guess the number of flowers that had bloomed. The winner got a sixpence. It was very hard to guess accurately.

geraniums and tigerI work by a window which looks out onto the street. When I want to concentrate I have the blind down but when I don’t I have it up and then I look out onto geraniums, motorbikes, cars and I get to listen to people’s conversations – neighbours bumping into each other, a man explaining how he goes all the way to Kingston for his shopping because it has an Aldi, the number bus he gets, the fact that he had fallen down and everyone had rushed to pick him up. People are very kind, he says. In a city like London where there are so many people and they are often under a great deal of pressure, it is good to hear things like that. We all want to hear that if we fall down we will be picked up.

Basically, it’s all about growth and courage, isn’t it? I’ll let you know how the morning glories pan out.

ON MY DESK: BEARS

The first book I ever wrote was titled FLYING BEARS. This was a Ronseal-title. There were bears in it and they flew. Not only bears were in the book, there were also twins and magical circuses. I imagined it as the love child of the John Irving book, The World According to Garp,  and the Jeanette Winterson book, The Passion. It was never published you won’t be surprised to hear but I loved it because it was the first book I ever completed and as such it had taught me that I could write 100,000 words with a beginning a middle and an end. And then when I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher it taught me about rejection which is useful in its own way albeit bloody horrible. Since then I’ve had eight books published.

I have always loved bears. It has something to do with the fact they spend a great deal of each year sleeping and then when they wake up they (well, some of them) stand in streams while salmon jump into their mouths. Not being much of a cook that way of feeding myself has always struck me as having a great deal to recommend it.

So over the years the people close to me have given me bears of various kinds. Currently on my desk I have the five below.

bears

The two furry ones in the middle I have had since I was a very small child. I’ve no idea where they came from or who gave them to me. They may not even be mine. Perhaps I hoovered them up when my parents moved and when we sold my father’s house.

The brown one on the right is one given to me by my partner a couple of years ago and has a distinctly Germanic look to it. I feel it should be holding something between its paws but have not yet found what that thing might be. My mother had one a bit like this, but smaller, which held a thimble.

The one on the left is the glitziest. It’s really a Christmas decoration but I loved him so much I kept him out of the decorations box which is a bit daft. So here he is on my desk and whenever I pick him up and admire him I transfer glitter to the end of my nose which improves my appearance no end. Sometimes I hang him from the money plant for good luck.

Finally, the little fellow in the middle is on a green stone. I bought him from Watkins, a mind, body, spirit bookshop in Cecil Court in London many years ago. If I’m feeling anxious about doing something I’ll slip it into my pocket. Oh, did I mention I’m superstitious?

Incidentally, bears have staying power. They appeared in my most recent book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN (aka TITIAN’S BOATMAN). In fact I think one of the  main reasons I decided that my Shakespearean actor, Terry, is acting in The Winter’s Tale was so I could have a lovely time with bears. ‘Exit pursued by a bear,’ being one of the most famous of all stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. There’s another bear in the book, a small silver one, which is one I own, but have now lost, temporarily. Maybe once it had muscled its way into a published book, it decided to fly away.

The moral of this particular tale is that you can’t keep bears out of anything. Or at any rate it seems you certainly can’t keep them out of my imagination or off my desk.

ON MY DESK: MY MOTHER’S WATCH

A weekly post in which I describe one of the items on my writing desk.

sekonda

My Mother’s Watch

Why are the watches of the people we love so hard to get rid of? This one doesn’t even work anymore. It’s an old Sekonda – 17 Jewels.  On the back of it is the following sequence of numbers: 658832. On either side of the number 6 you can just see the letters USSR. My mother bought it one year at an airport – I’ve forgotten which one and where she was flying to. She’d left the one she usually wore at home. She used to wear watches that were quite delicate but this one isn’t. It’s a man’s watch. I suppose she bought it because she was in a hurry and it was cheap. But she took to it and she was wearing it around the time that she died.

It’s a wind up. She didn’t like battery driven watches and neither do I. I wore it for a long time after she died and each day when I wound it up I would think of her. It had a tendency to lose 5 minutes within any 24 hour period. I liked that as well. As if there was something mischievous about it, something not altogether reliable. My mother sending me messages from the after life.

Then I went on a boat trip to Grassholm, an island off the Pembrokeshire coast, to look at gannets and guillemots. On the way back a storm blew up and I got soaked to the skin. The watch stopped. I took it to a repairer who lost it. When he found it again he said that the mechanism had rusted and nothing could be done. He’d lost it for such a long time I’m not surprised it had rusted. But I also wondered if he just couldn’t be bothered.

Occasionally, I fantasize about finding a wonderful watch repairer who will be able to get it working again. It’s not worth anything but my mother wore it on her wrist for many years. Then I wore it on mine. I’d like to be able to wear it again. Maybe that will never happen but in the meantime I have the pleasure of its generous open face.

There is a particular poignancy to the things that the people we have loved have worn close to their skin.

I don’t think I will ever be able to throw it away.

So here it sits, on my desk.

PEONIES AND THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

mwbs and peonies

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

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

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

back cover TB

The back of Titian’s Boatman’s jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTHOR PHOTOS – ANCIENT AND MODERN

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

The_Anatomy_of_Melancholy_by_Robert_Burton_frontispiece_1638_edition

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

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

Now last of all to fill a place

Presented is the author’s face;

And in that habit which he wears

His image to the world appears.

His mind no art can well express

      That by his writings you may guess . . .

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

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

It was not pride nor yet vainglory

(though others do it commonly),

Made him do this: if you must know,

The printer would needs have it so.

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

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

toibincolm03

Colm Toibin

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

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

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

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

All I can say is I aspire to be Doris.

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