MY DESERT ISLAND BOOKS

Here’s a piece I did for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) on what my five desert island books would be. Tricky deciding but I went a bit for laughs on the assumption that I’d need them. Don’t worry, you won’t find The Brothers Karamazov here, but maybe some books you might enjoy. They contain the following: rats, playwrights, an actor having a nervous breakdown, a woman with webbed feet, a war hero and the magnificent city of London. Sorry about the dolphins by the way – don’t know what came over me!

http://www.historiamag.com/desert-island-books-victoria-blake/

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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: 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.

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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.

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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.

TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

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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?

BODLEIAN SHOP – OXFORD (with photos!)

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

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

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Is there any chocolate left in it do you think?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

WHO WROTE THIS?

“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out of a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it . . . I shall be nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer.”

DECEMBER 1938 Blashford, Ringwood, Hants

I like this quote because it’s pretty much how I feel. I’m not someone who the sun helps to write. I favour rain, cloud and a nip in the air. I’ve always thought I’d never be able to write somewhere where the weather wasn’t constantly changing. Admittedly, I didn’t manage very well one year when the scaffolders came and wrapped the block I live in in cling film and no light got in for six months but other than that one time, I too like the grey country.

How about you? Have you been nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer? And do you fancy taking a guess at who wrote this and to whom?

DANGEROUS RABBITS AND HOW TO OUTWIT THEM

Occasionally my writing turns into a dangerous rabbit a bit like this one …

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When this happens running and hiding seems the only sensible thing to do …

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But there is only so long one can hide in a tree with those damnable, smiling rabbits waiting at the bottom. Eventually, of course, I come to realize how silly my fears are and come down …

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And that’s when they strike …

The illustrations come from The Romance of Alexander, by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise, 1338-1344 and are from The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s interesting to speculate about Jehan de Grise. Did he go out for lunch, down a few too many ales and then pick up quill and ink and think to himself. ‘What am I going to do with this lower margin? Oh, I know, The Revenge of the Rabbits. Apparently this kind of thing is known as a monde renversé.

A postcard of it fell out of a book I was pricing in the second hand bookshop I work in. On it was written:

Here I am at 6 a.m. hurtling out of Oxford towards the Belfast festival and skimming too hastily through the things I had meant to do at leisure, and in pleasure. Before Christmas I shall let you know better how good and true I found your book. Love, Seamus

What a lovely postcard to receive especially when it came from Seamus Heaney.

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As for me, if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because those damn rabbits have got the upper hand.