OH FRABJOUS DAY! CALLOOH! CALLAY!

There’s nothing like spotting your book – TITIAN’S BOATMAN – in the window of your local independent bookshop to make your  day utterly frabjous. The next line of JABBERWOCKY by Lewis Carroll is ‘He chortled in his joy.’ Exactly right. That’s me chortling. Thank you Nomad Books!

TB nomad

THE 2017 BOAT RACE

mwbs putney

Gerolamo Barbarigo by Titian 1510

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

HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR

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

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

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

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

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

LETTER DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRITING ABOUT VENICE AND OXFORD.

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

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

bodleian_library

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

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

BLOODLESS SHADOW

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

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

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

‘Don’t Look Now,’ Terry said.

‘At what?’

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

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

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

‘Your clothes are fine.’

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

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

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

venice

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

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

PIETRO ARETINO: POET, PORNOGRAPHER, PIMP …

Titian’s painting of Pietro Aretino 1545

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

Titian’s first portrait of Aretino

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMNESTY BOOKSHOP EVENT

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

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

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

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

img_1409

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

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

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

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

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

dsc06869I got a delivery of my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN this week. Hurrah! And it has a lovely quote from Francesco da Mosto on the cover.

“Travelling across time and place, this compelling intrigue captures the beauty of several Venices and the essence of Titian – the city’s most scandalous genius.”

Thank you Francesco!

It made me think of this quotation by Alice Walker, an author I love:

“There is an ecstatic side to writing. It’s like jazz. It just has a life.”

ALICE WALKER

To be perfectly frank the ecstatic side of doing the actual writing sometimes passes me by but I can tell you there’s nothing quite like taking delivery of finished copies of your book for the first time especially when your publisher has done such a fantastic job. There is the lovely Man with the Blue Sleeve. What a fantastic jacket! Hope you like the look of it. Very much hope you read it and enjoy it! It’s published January 26th.

dsc06898-1

Forgive the ecstasy but sometimes a gal just has to celebrate and scatter these !!!!!!!!! around like crazy. Then she gets on with the business of wrapping her parcels and swearing because she’s run out of Sellotape (why can’t you tear modern Sellotape with your teeth?) and wondering what size Christmas tree she’s going to buy and why she has failed to put the recycling out for the last three weeks and why she hasn’t written a Christmas card yet and, ‘Oh God the post office is going on strike, isn’t it?’ and (London-centric) what on earth is the matter with the Piccadilly line these days and how dare Sainsburys play Shirley Temple Christmas songs to you when you’re trapped doing your shopping and why can’t they have Fairytale of New York by The Pogues instead… Hope your Christmas preparations are going better than mine and many thanks to Thomas at B&W for the lovely pictures.

 

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

img_1355

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

This very beautiful Advance Proof is of my new book TITIAN’S BOATMAN which is going to be published by Black and White in January 2017. I am so delighted I have put it on a celebratory pink cushion and drooled over it. It is set partly in Renaissance Venice and partly in 21st century New York and London. Over the coming months expect this blog, on occasion, to take a sharp turn into the serpentine alleyways and canals of a sixteenth century Venice, populated with courtesans, gondoliers and painters. I very much hope you will enjoy the ride!

WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS INTERVIEWED

IMG_1276

Robert Blake: January 1939 

Today Michael Armstrong, the main character in my book FAR AWAY is being interviewed by writer Helen Hollick. Helen has been interviewing 26 characters in historical novels for the A2Z Blog Challenge. The historical part of my book is set in Africa and Italy during the Second World War. The interview was fun to take part in although also slightly alarming since my main character is based, ahem, loosely on my father, the historian Robert Blake, and so it turned into had the potential to turn into a bit of a Freudian nightmare.

As the A2Z has advanced I have been experiencing that well-known disease ‘character envy’. Oh, why wasn’t my character a nineteenth century Romany footballer (Steve Kay’s Rabbi Howell), or a seventeenth century pirate (Helen Hollick’s Jesamiah Acorne) or a Greek soldier in 5th century BC (Nick Brown’s Mandrocles) or an Ancient Egyptian Queen (Inge Borg’s Nefret). Well, the reason why not is because one of the purposes of my book was to publish the part of my father’s memoir which he managed to complete before he died; the part which covered his experiences of being in the Royal Artillery and being captured at the fall of Tobruk in Africa and his subsequent escape from a POW camp in Sulmona, Italy. And because I’m a fiction writer I wanted to use a novel to do it.

One of the complications in doing this was that I had quite a large body of writing already in existence before I started and was confronted with the question of how best to utilize it. In none of my other writing have I started off quite so constricted. Throughout the book I battled with whether I should cut or not cut some of his material. Finally I cut very little and for the most part the details of the escape described in FAR AWAY are what happened to him.

IMG_1277

Robert Blake in later years

Of course, the Michael Armstrong of my novel is not my father. He couldn’t be because I have no idea what my father was like as a twenty-five year old soldier imprisoned in an Italian POW camp in 1942. I was born when he was forty-eight so I got to know him in the last forty years of his life. If I think back to what I was like in my twenties that person appears to bear little relation to who I am now although my sisters might beg to differ! There is, of course, a perennial fascination to the question of who our parents were before we turned up and maybe that in the end was part of what fueled my desire to write this book. In life my father was not a man to be open about his fears or his passions. He was a charming, brilliant and staunchly private man. FAR AWAY is perhaps my attempt to get to know him a bit better and to shine a light on the young man he once was.

If you’re interested in historical fiction these interviews give an incredible range of characters to choose from. A nineteenth century American spiritualist, a Viking, a Roman soldier, an Egyptian Queen … Great interviews and brilliant books. Thank you, Helen!

If you want to know what Michael Armstrong has to say about me you’ll find him here. Oh, he does go on … and the comments are worth reading just to watch me getting into a whole load of trouble!

http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk