I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!
How do you write about beautiful cities like Venice and Oxford? Impossible cities! How do you do them justice? How do you get under their skin. How do you write about a place without sounding like a tourist guide or like everyone who has ever written about them before? I’d wrestled a bit with the question of beautiful cities in the Sam Falconer crime series that I wrote, which was set partly in Oxford, my home town.
For many years I could not write about the city at all. It felt like an implacable, indigestible lump of compacted experience and my attempts were either grossly sentimental or unpleasantly savage. The way that I dealt with Oxford in the end was to have my protagonist, Sam Falconer, be severely at odds with the environment she was brought up in. Conflict of course creates drama. There is no drama in a person having a happy childhood and loving their home town. None whatsoever. It’s the grit in the oyster after all, which creates the pearl. Here is Sam returning home after quite a long absence:
“The Radcliffe Camera sat squat and golden in the autumn sunshine. However malignant Sam felt towards Oxford, she could never view the Camera with anything other than wonder and affection … Memories crowded in on her. Every step she took brought forth another and another. Overwhelming and insistent, they poured into her until she felt she would burst. Like a crowd waving placards they announced themselves one by one: Look at me! No, me! They pushed and elbowed and the sickness in the pit of Sam’s stomach grew.”
By JUMPING THE CRACKS the last in the series, Sam has an office in the Cowley Road and has ‘come home.’ It only took me four books to get her there!
One way of dealing with beautiful cities is to mine the area between their beauty and the reality of how someone may be feeling. Because most of us have probably had the experience of being in a beautiful place and feeling we ought to be happy when in fact we have, for whatever reason, felt as miserable as sin. “Look at me,” a beautiful city announces. “Aren’t I beautiful? What – you’re not happy? Well, if you can’t be happy here there must be something the matter with you because there certainly isn’t anything the matter with me?” If you’re in the wrong mood it can be a bit like engaging with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. No fun at all. The simple and obvious fact is that beautiful places do not necessarily make people happy. The gap between the beauty of a place and how we are actually feeling can make us feel worse.
So now to Venice. A startling place – a place beyond imagining even. In TITIAN’S BOATMAN there are two Venices, that of the 16th century and that of the 21st. How do you get under the skin of 16th century Venice? Well, my way in was through the people living there – the painters, the boatmen, the courtesans, the poets, the nuns and the patricians. In the 21st century part of my book, Terry, an actor, is not at all happy when his boyfriend Ludovico suggests they visit Venice. Here he is talking through his anxieties:
‘Don’t Look Now,’ Terry said.
‘No, the film Don’t Look Now, when they go to Venice it doesn’t end well.’
Ludovico burst out laughing. ‘I promise you it won’t be anything like that.’
‘And then there’s Death in Venice of course,’ Terry said. ‘It might be tempting fate … and I’ll have to get myself some clothes.’
‘Your clothes are fine.’
‘But it’s Italy, the country of the bella figura. It’s Venice one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I’m too fat and not well dressed enough. You know how they stare at you.’
In the end, of course, despite his sartorial insecurities Terry does go to Venice with Ludovico but that first visit does not go entirely to plan.
Don’t Look Now is a famous film directed by Nick Roeg starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and is one of the most unsettling films you could ever chance to see. It is on my list of “very good but so disturbing that under no circumstances am I ever watching it again as long as I live” films. It was based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. Death in Venice is the Thomas Mann novella and also a famous film with Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach, a composer (in the book he’s a writer) who travels to Venice and has his world turned upside down when he sees a beautiful boy, Tadzio. The film is excellent albeit extremely melancholic. In his autobiography Bogarde said that he kept wanting to talk to Visconti about the role and each time he tried Visconti answered, ‘Have you read the book?’ When he replied that he had Visconti just replied, ‘Well, read it again.’
Now over to you. In terms of Oxford and Venice what books/films have you read or seen that you’d recommend. And while you’re about it tell me about your experiences in beautiful cities – the good, the bad and the ugly.
I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.
Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.
The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.
On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:
“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”
From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.
Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!
Uys where were you when I needed you?
If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?
If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.
It started to rain and a most rare and unusual thought entered my mind. Weed your books. I tried to ignore it, obviously. Usually this voice only occurs once every ten years after a Health and Safety incident. OK – let’s call that a big trip and I’m not talking safaris. Sometimes it can be brought on by the fact I can’t find a book I know I have because everything has gone TOO FAR. I stood up and went and looked at one of my bookcases. It was filled with crime.
It was a crime.
First my eye chanced to light on an author I am never going to give away: Kinky Friedman. Any man who titles a book Armadillos and Old Lace will remain on my bookshelves for ever. Then I seized all of Patricia Cornwell and all of Henning Mankell and marched them to the door. Why? Well, Patricia Cornwell irritated me with a book about a hairy man. I can’t remember which one now, and she got a bit grandiose or maybe that was Scarpetta and I vowed I’d never read another. Or maybe I just had ‘great room’ envy.
Why Henning Mankell? I suppose because I just know I’m never going to re-read them and those books are fat. I liked the Swedish TV series and the Kenneth Branagh one but re-reading is just not going to happen.
I decided to keep all of Ian Rankin and all of the following: George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Dominique Manotti, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Jake Arnott, C.J.Sansom, Donna Leon, PD James, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid’s Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon series.
I know Val’s other series is the big seller but I never got beyond a torture scene at the beginning of The Mermaids Singing which I have already disposed of. Wimp, you might say, Yes, I would reply. Torture scenes are not really my thing. Having said that I once wrote one in one of my own books, Bloodless Shadow, but I did it with my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la, so I’m not sure it counts.
There are a few there I’d forgotten about – Pernille Rygg for example. A Norwegian writer who wrote The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Section. I enjoyed those.
There are some that have such cool titles I’ve never dared read them: Ken Bruen’s Rilke on Black for example. I just feel I’m going to have to start drinking whiskey and turn into Nick Cave before I crack the spine of that one. Or at least get a hair cut like Tilda Swinton.
The author I’ve got most of is Ed McBain (21) but Christie (18) Robert Parker (17) and Allingham (17) are close on his heels. The Fontana 3/6 versions of Christie are my favourites because of their camp schlocky covers, that’s why they are liberally scattered through this post. I love the covers in the same way I love the pictures in Ladybird books and Janet and John books. The images must have hit my visual cortex at about the same time and therefore fill me with drooling nostalgia. It’s probably why I became a crime writer.
So now you know if you want to stay on my shelves
- don’t irritate me
- don’t solve your crimes with hairy men
- don’t have torture scenes
- do have a camp/kitsch cover, preferably from the 60s
- do have a good title
- do be published by Fontana for 3/6
- Oh, and make me laugh
And then you’ll be mine for ever. Sorry, that last bit sounds a bit sinister.
Finally, I’ll end on my all-time favourite Agatha cover. Can you get camper than a violet cream, held elegantly against a non-sweating palm, a bullet (yes, that’s a bullet not a cigarette) and that nail varnish … a cover to die for!
“Death and mystery among the muffins (could be Caffè Nero) and the best Indian tea … set in a hotel patronised by dowagers and bishops … Miss Marple knits and listens (that’s me crouched over a cappuccino with the crochet).”
The book is dedicated to:
“Harry Smith because I appreciate the scientific way he reads my books.”
I wonder if Agatha would appreciate the scientific methods I use to weed my books?
How do you weed yours? Or don’t you?
Here is the cover of my new book, Far Away, which is due out this summer. I like it very much for its mean and moody atmosphere. I love those footprints tracking away through the snow. I like that lone wolf of a man on the horizon. I’ve been very lucky so far in the covers I’ve had. I’ve never had much cause to complain.
The cover of my first book, Bloodless Shadow, was Hertford Bridge, the Oxford “Bridge of Sighs,” a bridge I had walked under I don’t know how many times in my life, because it was the route from our home to the market where my mother did most of our shopping. Like this one, it also had the silhouette of a man walking away. The man looked rather eerily like my father. However Dad had died three months before the book was published. Well, I thought he was dead until he materialized on the front of my book!
Far Away is the first book I’ve published as an Independent Author and it’s a very different thing when you are choosing your own cover – a degree of paranoia kicks in. After all, even if we wish it wasn’t the case, we all know the snap judgments we make on the basis of appearance. So covers matter. It’s what your prose is dressed in. Anyway, here it is and I’m delighted to show it to you.
What do you think of the cover? If you’re a writer what have your experiences been like with your covers? Tell me the good, the bad and the ugly!
Samantha Falconer has always been pretty good at taking care of herself. Four times world judo champion, she now runs the Gentle Way detective agency in London. But when her brother Mark asks her to return to Oxford to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Sam finds herself confronting a past she’d hoped she’d left behind.
‘Blake’s Sam Falconer joins the rank of strong but flawed female characters who have taken crime fiction by the throat and shaken it until its teeth rattle.’ STEPHEN BOOTH
‘Blake’s skill at depicting the dark and light side of her character, the smoothly interwoven plot lines and authentic settings makes this a strong first.’ PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
‘…a taut competent novel.’ SHERLOCK MAGAZINE
London is frozen in a January blizzard and everywhere she goes Sam has the creeping sensation of being watched. When Harry a talented young rower from Oxford University goes missing she hopes the case will take her mind off her increasing paranoia.
‘A pacy whodunnit… Gutsy female detectives are nothing new, but Blake’s heroine is an attractive addition to what seems a growing series. Some nicely deadpan humour and crisply detailed descriptions of place offset the obligatory punch-ups.’ THE TIMES
Oxford, May Morning. While the city rejoices life takes a sinister turn at St Barnabas College. Disturbing gifts have been sent, threatening letters posted and now events have taken a deadly turn. A student has been found dead in his rooms.
‘Move over Morse, PI Sam Falconer’s in town…Gripping…’ DAILY EXPRESS
‘… entertaining and enjoyable …’ LAW SOCIETY GAZETTE
‘Blake’s got something that keeps you turning the pages.’ REVIEWING THE EVIDENCE
Oxford holds a lot of memories for Sam; few of them happy. When she’s asked to guard a collection of strange museum pieces, ranging from shrunken heads to bottled witches, she quickly realises that being back in Oxford means confronting her own demons, as well as those behind the glass cases.
‘Forgery and murder drive a fast-paced plot.’ FINANCIAL TIMES
‘Sam is an engaging and complex protagonist; her friends and family are convincing and well drawn … the city of Oxford is the really dominant character… this is an entertaining and well written book.’ THE GUARDIAN