My writing life – in fact, my life generally – would be so much poorer without my friend and fellow-writer, Sue Hepworth. Since we first met around fifteen years ago, we have each read and commented on everything the other has written and been each other’s staunch supporters in the vicissitudes of the writing life. It is lovely to have her as my guest on the blog today. I began by asking her:
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
Theme and characters arrive together, and the characters bring along snippets of dialogue with them. I’m in the habit of collecting interesting bits of conversation that I overhear. I write them in my journal word for word, and then when I start a new book, I look at these notes and decide who is going to say what. It helps me to develop my characters. Take as an example this comment my husband made when I was getting over the flu – “Well, you look a tad less corpse-like this morning. You look as if you might be climbing out of the pit of illness, not cavorting in the bottom.”
The plot comes after theme and characters. It’s less interesting to me but I know it’s vital: it’s plot which grips people from the outset and keeps them turning the pages.
What’s your writing routine?
My best writing days are when I start writing in bed, any time after 6 a.m., as soon as I’ve had my first mug of Yorkshire tea. Then after a couple of hours, I have a quick breakfast and get up and go to my study. I like to write until one o’clock. Then my brain is fried and I need fresh air, practical activity or company.
BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU is about a long term marriage where the husband has Asperger syndrome. What drew you to that subject?
My husband and grandson have Asperger syndrome (now simply termed autism) and although there are currently a lot of fictional characters in popular culture with it, there is a lot of caricature which is unhelpful to a true understanding of the syndrome. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that whilst there are basic characteristics which all people with autism share, there is huge variation in specifics and in degree. On first meeting my husband or grandson you would have no idea they were autistic. They are both charming, polite, articulate, and friendly, with a firm handshake and able to look you in the eye. They also have a great sense of humour. Only after spending a day with them would you begin to see their different way of looking at what we take for granted, and also begin to appreciate and understand some of the stresses they experience just by being in the social and sensual world.
I am making the ebook of BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU free this weekend (27th-30th March) to support World Autism Awareness Week.
A favourite bookshop?
The Tattered Cover in Denver, which I go to when I visit my son in Colorado. It has a wonderful selection of adults and children’s books, friendly knowledgeable staff, and plenty of comfortable places to sit. I once read a huge chunk of Graham Swift’s Light of Day in there when it was too hot to be outside and I had some time to spare. Yes – I did buy the book!
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
Constant rain – day in day out – would help. I am an outdoorsy kind of person, and if it’s a warm, sunny day I have to fight the urge to go out and garden, or more likely, go for a ride on my bike.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am adapting But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You for television – four one hour episodes. It’s been challenging as well as huge fun to learn a new way of telling a story. I’ve enjoyed it so much, I may go straight to a screenplay for my next project and bypass the novel stage entirely.
There are times when I just don’t have the energy to tackle something new, and a return to old favourites is exactly what I need. Michael Gilbert is fitting the bill at the moment. To read his novels is to take a masterclass in crime fiction. He wrote a lot: over 400 short stories and around three dozen novels, as well as radio and TV plays. He wrote almost every type of crime novel: police procedurals, classic whodunits, thrillers. To all of them he brought a superb sense of pace, tight plotting and a dry sense of humour. What’s more he had a day job as a lawyer and wrote as he commuted into London. He was a founder member of the CWA. Rather wonderfully, he was Raymond Chandler’s UK lawyer. Rather less wonderfully he went to the same school as my husband, some considerable time before.
If he specialised in anything it might have been the one-honest-man-brings-down-corrupt-organisation plot. In The Crack in the Teacup, a small-town solicitor comes up against local government corruption. In The Long Journey Home it is an engineer who crosses swords with a corrupt international company in league with the Mafia. Of this sub genre I particularly like The Final Throw: corrupt financial empire brought down by – well, I’d better not disclose by whom in case you haven’t read it. Of the classic whodunits, The Black Seraphim, set in a cathedral close (a setting I plan to use myself one day) and the splendid Smallbone Deceased (set in a lawyers’ office in which a body is found in a deed box) are particular favourites.
Gilbert had a long career and died in 2006 aged 93. I bet he was great company and I am sorry I never met him.
I’ve very much enjoyed Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. It is the kind of gossipy, anecdotal history that is very easy to read. Nicholson has done an enormous amount of research. The pages throng with remarkable women who managed to find meaning in life without a husband or children: women like Gertrude Caton-Thompson who trained as an archaeologist in her thirties, travelled extensively on digs, and ended up teaching at Newnham College: Mary Grieve who was editor of Woman magazine for 30 years; many writers, including Elizabeth Jenkins and Elizabeth Goudge. Women lawyers, teachers, stockbrokers, and engineers all seized their chance. But if one thing comes over strongly, it is that while middle class and upper class women could often find worthwhile and financially rewarding employment, for working class women it was the tough life of a shop girl or factory worker. For them, marriage must surely have been preferable, even if as Nicholson points out, it was rarely a bed of roses.
For many women in all classes the absence of children was a sadness. Many played roles as aunts and godmothers, but few in those day dared have an illegitimate child to raise alone. It’s a pity that so few felt able to follow in the footsteps of Rosamund Essex, editor of the Church Times, who as a single woman adopted a little boy, a touching success story
Nicholson writes in the introduction that at thirty she was still unmarried and expected to remain so, but two years later found herself planning her wedding. For me it all came even later and I thought as I read this book about what it must have been like to have no choice about marriage or children because there just weren’t enough men to go round. I wonder too how many of the (mostly) single women teachers at my girls’ grammar school in the sixties had lost the men they might have married in WWII – or whether they simply preferred a career – or other women (not a thought that occurred to me in those days!)
This book by Greg King and Susan Woolmans is subtitled: ‘Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World.’ It was recommended by Elaine at http://randomjottings.typepad.com. I decided that it was something I didn’t know enough about. It did after all set in train a sequence of events that led to the deaths of millions, including my great uncle.
King and Woolmans tell the story with great verve. It is tremendously readable and only occasionally was I pulled up short by a statement such as ‘Princip fingered the revolver in his pocket.’ How could one possibly know? That is the pedantic historian in me.
The account of the morganatic marriage between Franz Ferdinand and Sophie is told in touching detail. Even though she was a princess, she did not come from the tiny group of aristocrats regarded as suitable for a future emperor and suffered many humiliations at court. The archduke comes across as a devoted husband and father. He was less successful in the political realm.
The sequence of events that made the assassination possible beggar belief, particularly the incompetence of Potiorek. the provincial governor. Again and again there were opportunities for things to happen differently and I longed to intervene and at least to rescue Sophie so that their three children would not be left parentless.
The Austrian-Hungarian empire must have seemed as though it would last forever, its rigid protocols and bureaucracies set in stone. And yet it all fell apart so quickly. The seeds of modernity were already sown in turn of the century Vienna: the home of Freud, and Klimt and Schiele and Mahler.
So: a throughly good read, and I understand a lot more about the causes of WWI than I did before I read it.
Today Moira at ClothesinBooks.com and I are posting our list of books that have made us laugh. Mine are, in no particular order:
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. A classic. I particularly love the part where they try to open a tin of pineapple without a tin-opener, and Uncle Podger hanging a picture, and then there’s . . . but read it yourself, if you haven’t already.
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. I was twenty-five when I first read this, and have lost time of how many times I have read it. Romantic and touching as well as funny.
The Harpole Report, which I blogged about a couple of posts ago.
P. G. Wodehouse, Summer Lightning. Difficult to chose just one, but many years ago when I was living alone in a bedsit in Birmingham this was read by Ian Carmichael as a Book at Bedtime. Sheer bliss.
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals. A teenage favourite that has endured.
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through. Again, mentioned before as a favourite on the blog. I wish it was twice as long. There is another volume, but it’s not enough.
Michael Simkins, What’s My Motivation? Michael Simkins is one of those decent, jobbing actors who often plays the main character’s boss, as in he does in Foyle’s War, but he is also a wonderful comic writer, writing frankly about the up and downs (mostly downs) of the actor’s life.
Kate Dunn, Exit Through the Fireplace: The Great Days of Rep. Another theatrical offering drawing on actors’ memories of door handles jamming on flimsy sets and fluffed lines (‘It’s Marple, Miss Murder!’). I nearly fell out of bed laughing.
Sue Hepworth, But I Told You Last Year That I Love You. One of the funniest writers that I know – and a great friend, maybe because we make each other laugh.
Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid. Not only very funny, but contains some startling insights into the America of the fifties and sixties.
Another day it might be another choice, though most of these didn’t really need thinking about, they are such old favourites. I’m longing to see what Moira has chosen.
Ps. I have now, and it is fascinating. Hardly any overlap, so lots more for my reading list.
Robert Harris’s novel, An Officer and a Spy, has won the CWA Ian Fleming Gold Dagger for the best thriller of the year and deservedly so. It is a masterly fictional account of the Dreyfus affair, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in history. I have been intrigued by it since I came across it when I taught a course on French painting 1880-1920. The affair, in which Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason and exiled to penal servitude on Devil’s Island, split the nation and caused bitter arguments, dividing even families into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. The artist Degas was an anti-Dreyfusard. The cover-up went right to the top, involving high-ranking officers and politicians. It was only the courage of army officer Georges Picquart, and a few others, including Emile Zola, that blew the conspiracy apart. Zola’s open letter to the President of the Republic, beginning ‘J’accuse’, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore on 13 January 1898 was a clarion call to justice.
It’s a great story, and Robert Harris pulls off the difficult job of turning a complex historical event into a thrilling novel. His research – which must have been meticulous – never intrudes, the pace doesn’t slacken. It is narrated in the first person by George Picquart and this works well, as we share with him the dawning realisation of what has happened and the danger that he personally is in as he struggles, reluctantly at first, to right a terrible wrong. An Officer and a Spy is a great read.
I love a theatrical mystery, so Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song, set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside, has been on my TBR pile for a while. I’ve just finished it and loved all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the can’t-stop-reading suspense. Sarah has kindly agreed to be my guest today. I began by asking her, How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
These days I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time, which means starting around 8.30 am and finishing at a reasonably civilized hour. But there was a time when I lived a double life, pursuing a fairly hectic nine to five job, writing when and where I could: in the car, on the hoof, during meetings if no one was looking – I used to make furtive plot notes on the back of quarterly sales reports. In the evenings I wrote into the small hours to meet deadlines, so I generally arrived at the office each morning pink-eyed from lack of sleep.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
It’s usually an idea, and ideas are everywhere. They’re in bits of TV news items or overheard conversations in the supermarket.
But for The Whispering, published in paperback this month, a very particular event sparked the plot…
Some years ago, my brother searched the newly-released Debt of Honour Registry for mention of our father who had died in 1963, but fought in WW1 – he was fifteen when war was declared and he lied about his age to join up.
Disconcertingly, we found that someone with father’s name, age, regiment, and place of birth, was listed as having been killed in action in 1917. His name was even inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
We knew very little about father’s early life – he hadn’t met mother until 1940 and by then he had lost touch with his family, so there was no one we could ask. So who was it who had died in 1917? Who had my father really been?
For me, that was the start of a fascination with the Great War – its causes, its atmosphere, and the many tragic and heroic stories about the individuals caught up in it. Over the years I wrote two books touching on its causes and build-up – Ghost Song and What Lies Beneath. But for The Whispering I was interested in the letter that soldiers wrote for their families, in the event of their death. A last farewell, a final message of – what? Love, regret, courage?
With that question, a plot began to take shape, centring on a young man from a remote house in the fens, writing that letter to the people still living there… But a young man who believed he was going to die in an unexpected way, and who wanted to preserve the heroic legend his family had created.
Often in your novels the present is intertwined with the past. Tell us a bit more about your interest in history.
I think it’s that I like the feeling of the past affecting the present.
Many of my plot inspirations come from buildings. There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story. It’s – ‘Listen to the house.’
And I do just that. I don’t mean cavorting round the Tower of London thinking you’re seeing Ann Boleyn. I mean ordinary buildings where people have lived and worked. There’s so much to hear from them – their atmospheres, their histories. Homely details like how Winston Churchill stipulated there must always be a ginger cat called Jock in residence at Chartwell. And so there is.
The supernatural figures frequently in your novels, notably in your Michael Flint/Nell West series. Have you had any supernatural experiences yourself?
The nearest I can get is an incident that occurred while writing House of the Lost. I was describing a character’s appearance – it always matters to let readers know what people look like, of course, but this was a special case because he was being eyed with semi-suppressed ardour by a lady who shouldn’t have been eyeing him at all.
I described him as being in his early thirties, with soft dark hair, slightly too long, and wearing a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie, and cotton shirt. I finished the scene, then went off to collect some shopping. In the supermarket checkout was a man in his early thirties with soft dark hair a bit too long, a green corduroy jacket, brown knitted tie…
I’m glad to say he had bought pasta, wine, cheese and fruit. If he had been buying chicken nuggets and frozen faggots I would have had to re-write the whole of Chapter Six.
By the time I reached the car park he had vanished. I do know the sensible explanation was that I’d seen him in the supermarket on a previous occasion and subliminally absorbed his appearance and used it. But I would much rather believe that no one else in that supermarket saw him except me.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
My tastes are quite catholic – but I enjoy anything that’s well written. I do love the classic ghost stories from the early 1900s – M.R. James and his brethren. I’m also a huge Dorothy L Sayers admirer. And one of my desert-island books is Broome Stages, written in the 1930s by Clemence Dane. A massive doorstop of a saga about a theatrical family over three centuries.
What are you writing now?
I’m halfway through the sixth in the Michael Flint/Nell West series – which is probably going to be called The Bell Tower. This series has been so good to write – I’d only done stand-alones before, and I’ve loved staying with the same two central characters all through.
Thank you, Sarah. Sarah’s new novel Deadlight Hall is out at the end of December and The Whispering has just been published in paperback. Find out more about Sarah and her books at www.sarahrayne.co.uk
The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society recently did a survery of writers’ earnings and discovered the median income of British professional writers is now £11,000, down from £15,540 in 2005. I am not surprised by the drop in earnings: writers are earning less per sale than in the past. Amazon slashes prices and this in turn slashes a writer’s income. Discounts have never been greater. The writer, who has produced the book, gets the smallest slice of the cake. Most writers do other things, too: teaching, editing, journalism. I was membership secretary of the CWA for a while.
I have been brooding about the changing fortunes of writers ever since I read Maggie Gee’s first-rate memoir, My Animal Life, in which she is admirably frank about the vicissitudes of her life as a writer. She was dropped by her publisher in mid-career. Later she was dropped by her agent, too. She made it back, but by the skin of her teeth. She describes the changes that she has seen in publishing. ‘As giant firms sucked up the independents, they aimed to sell more copies of fewer books . . . perfectly respected and serious publishers talked proudly about “the death of the mid-list”, to show they too were out there, swimming with sharks; but really they were just making sad boasts about the loss of variety and interest.’
‘The death of the midlist:’ that is, of all those many, many worthwhile books that are not among the best-sellers. It is a sad prospect. Not to mention the fact that many of today’s best-sellers started out as mid-list writers and wouldn’t have been best-sellers if publishers hadn’t believed in them and given them time to succeed. It’s true that it’s never been easier to self-publish, but at the same time it’s never been harder to get a start with a decent publisher.
The First World War poets – Wilfred Owen in particular – were still very much read when I was at school. And I must have been in my teens when I read Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Most moving of all was Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I read in my late twenties in an edition brought out at the time of a TV adaptation. Brittain lost both her fiancé and her brother, along with many of their friends. And yet, though I had two grandfathers who served in WWI and one of them had even pulled up his trouser leg to show the marks of shrapnel in his calf, I never thought to ask them about their experiences. Nor did I think to talk to my grandmother, my father’s mother, whose older brother had died at Passchendaele in October 1917. Now of course they have all been dead for decades and because my father died so young, I never had the opportunity to talk to him about his uncle and the effect his death had on my grandmother. He was in any case born nearly a decade after his uncle died.
None of my family have ever visited Tyne Cot near Ipres in Belgium where the death of my great uncle, Richard Francis Morritt, is commemorated, I am pretty sure. They were working class people who would not have thought of going abroad. I discovered the exact location from the War Graves Commission web-site and last week on a grey and drizzly October day I stood in front of the his name on the Memorial to the Missing and felt the tears well up. Tyne Cot is the largest British Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. The Memorial to the Missing lists thirty-five thousand men. My great-uncle has no known grave, though he may well be buried in Tyne Cot, for over half the 11, 956 bodies buried there were never identified and their gravestones are simply inscribed with the words ‘Known unto God.’ Or he could be lying somewhere in the fields of Flanders, waiting for some farmer to turn up his bones.
My great-uncle was twenty-six when he died. I felt sad that there was no grave, but glad to have gone and visited him all these years after his death. He is not one of those ‘which have no memorial; who are perished as if they have never been.’ His name will always be there. But oh the thought of those thousands on thousands of young men, and their mothers and fathers, their sisters, wives and sweethearts . . . The context to it all is very well set out in the Memorial Museum in the nearby town of Zonnebeke, though it doesn’t make it any more comprehensible. The scale of the slaughter is staggering.
Last week I went to the opening of Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960 at the National Portrait Gallery. I haven’t been to an opening in quite a while – I’m not really part of that world anymore – and it was fun. But more than that: it reminded me of why I love Morris so much. He has played an important role in my life. It was a break for me as a struggling young academic when I became curator of the William Morris Society in the late 1980s and led to my first book, a short illustrated biography of Morris. Later I edited a collection of his writings on art and design. After I’d moved on to a teaching job in Cambridge, I stayed on the committee of the Society, became vice-chair and then chair. Though I’m not actively involved now, I’m still a member and always will be.
Morris was a great designer, but if that was all, I wouldn’t admire him as much as I do. A lot of people grow more right-ring as they get older, Morris got more left-wing, and damaged his health working for the Socialist cause. He cared about every aspect of life and this lovely exhibition shows how far-reaching his influence was, right up to the Festival of Britain and beyond. There are textiles, jewellery, ceramics and clothing, books and more. Morris’s ideas about art and society and conservation are as pertinent as ever they were. I can whole-heartedly recommend this exhibition.
The design above is for Morris’s wallpaper, Trellis.