Saturday, 8 December 2012

Kinky Penguins & Musophobia

I've been a very lazy blogger but a reasonably prolific writer. Draft no. 102 of book two is with my editor, and I've just done two stories for the Daily Telegraph. Yay.
The first is about Kafka's musophobia, which he described in a letter to his friend Max Brod:

"What I feel towards mice is naked fear. To explore the origin of that is up to psychoanalysts... Like the vermin-phobia, it's certainly related to the unexpected, unwanted, unavoidable, sort of mute, grim, secret-purposeful appearance of these animals, with the feeling that they have dug hundreds of tunnels through the walls around me and are lurking there..." 

The German Literature Archive snapped up the letter in an auction on Friday thanks to a last-minute rescue effort by wealthy Kafka fans. The archive described the letter as a "key to Kafka's work" in a press release after the auction, citing the way it merges comical and terrifying images. Such as this one:

"The idea for example of an animal that would look exactly like a pig, i.e. in itself comical, but would be as small as a rat and come snorting out of a hole in the floor is a horrific idea." 

I've also written a feature about Liz Mohn, the matriarch behind the Bertelsmann media empire that now co-owns Penguin Random House. It's in today's printed Telegraph. I can't find it online yet, but hopefully the brilliant illustration of a sado-masochistic penguin will make you rush out and buy the print edition (Random House publishes spankbuster 50 Shades of Grey). 

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

Quakers, bonnets, war. Delete the bonnet, add a female scientist holding a diamond, and this could be the cover of my new novel. Source:

Earlier this year, I met the writer and blogger Sion Dayson at an event in Paris and we got chatting about her novel-in-progress, When Things Were Green. She kindly sent me the manuscript, and what a treat it was! A powerful love story, and a portrait of a small, segregated Southern town where secret lovers meet by the river and rumours of an immaculate conception hide a darker truth. It's beautiful, lyrical and edgy all at once -

Finishing school didn’t prepare Susan for the possibility that her husband might set his sights on the Negress maid.

You can read all about it here because Sion is the latest contributor to a Q&A that's been travelling from blog to blog. Each writer answers questions about her/his novel-in-progress and then tags other writers. Guess who she tagged? Ta-daaa! Me. Thank you, Sion. So I'm going to talk about my new novel, the one I handed in last week. I swore to myself I wouldn't think about it at all this week, but a Q&A is actually a great post-deadline task. It's kind of therapeutic. I've passed the phases of denial and anger and am now ready to come to terms with the fact that yes, I have written another novel, and it's called...

(What is your working title of your book?)

...Of Love and Other Wars. What do you think? Is that a good title? I'm in two minds about it but apparently it's already up on Amazon, so I guess that makes it definite.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago I went to the funeral of a family friend. He was a German refugee who arrived in the UK as a boy in the 1930s and became more English than any Englishman. From his perfect English accent to his tea addiction to his career as a civil servant, he really did Her Majesty proud. He was also one of the most inspiring people I've ever known: committed to social justice, passionate about music, fine art and literature. Yet this model citizen had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War, while his best friend had chosen to go and fight.
The best friend held a eulogy at the funeral, and I came away thinking about their different choices. What would it be like to refuse to fight a war considered right and necessary by everyone else? What would it be like to live with that decision in Britain, which really treats the wartime experience and "doing one's bit" in the fight against Fascism as a sort of unifying founding myth? My search for an answer brought me to the Quakers with their radical pacifism. At the same time I was living with my future in-laws, who are Jewish. Gradually, I began to see the story of Paul, a Quaker boy in London torn between his family's beliefs and his love for Miriam, a Jewish girl who wants nothing more than to be allowed to fight like a man.

Conchies at Dartmoor Prison during the Great War (source: Dartmoor Prison Museum)
What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction, apparently. The whole idea of fitting a genre is very silly, isn't it?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

See what I did there? I struck out "one-sentence"! That's the sort of maverick I am. The book is about Paul, his brother Charlie, and Miriam, and their choices during the Second World War. It's also about two families: Paul's Quaker clan, and Miriam's family of diamond-cutters. Each of the characters makes a decision that feels genuinely right at the time, and yet takes them down a path that's ever so slightly (or even completely, dramatically) wrong. I find this happens quite often in life. Tragedy isn't a high and lofty thing, it tends to be an accumulation of small decisions with major consequences.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I randomly met a young actor in New York - Xalvador Tin-Bradbury - who went to a Quaker school in northern England and loathed it. He would be perfect for Paul, or indeed Charlie. Nathalie Portman for Miriam, maybe? She'd need to put on some weight though. Miriam is supposed to be zaftig.
Slowly does it (no snails were harmed in this project*).

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It's going to be published by Simon&Schuster UK next year (unless I have to tackle another major re-write, in which case we're talking 2014...). My agent is Stan at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A year, because I rushed it. It was awful so I pretty much ditched the entire thing and started again. Hard-won insight: don't rush it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There's a film called "Friendly Persuasion" about a U.S. Quaker family during the civil war. Not the same genre; not even the same medium. But it does feature some lovely scenes that encapsulate this sense of doing what is so clearly right in the eyes of some, and so clearly wrong in the eyes of others.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The family friend I mentioned earlier. My partner's grandmother, and her brave choices during the war, also inspired me in a wider sense. Her courage and resilience were very much on my mind when I wrote this book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It's a love story! In fact, it's four love stories. Four very different couples, but I've grown enormously fond of all of them.
Here's one I made earlier.
And now...drumroll....let me introduce you to three fabulous writers who've agreed to be tagged for The Next Big Thing:
Melinda Joe is a sake, wine and food writer in Tokyo who is working on a delicious novel that makes me miss Japan (and Melinda) every time I read a new chapter. Check out her blog, too. Fermented fish guts, the perfect choice for an elegant aperitif. I did have fish sperm once, but it didn't taste quite as yummy as it sounds.
Karin Spirn is a martial artist, community college teacher and writer whose brilliant campus novel about post-structural analysis and hard-working wonderbras has brightened up my week. It also features academia porn. Yes, that's right! Academia porn.
Ceri Radford is a journalist and the author of the wonderfully funny and clever "A Surrey State of Affairs". We were trainees at Reuters together, and all those mock press conferences in the fictional country of Manchukistan clearly did something to our imagination. She is about to finish her new novel, and I'm so excited about it!

* In case you worry about the snail used as a fridge magnet in the photo: it now lives happily in the hedge outside our house, having been evacuated from my flowerpots.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Iran and the Local Library

I was nine years old when the Ayatollah Khomeini urged Muslims all over the world to find and kill Salman Rushdie. At that time I lived in a provincial town in Germany, read books about horses and had no idea what a Muslim was; but I remember the announcement of the fatwa as clearly as the other generation-defining event that year, the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989.

Rushdie learned of the fatwa on Valentine's Day in 1989. I suppose it took a few days for the news to become a major talking point in my home town of Marburg.

"If the newsreader were to look up now and ask people to read the book," I asked my parents one evening when we were watching TV, "Would Iran bomb the broadcasting company?"

The next day, when we were talking about Rushdie in school, something else occurred to me:

"If our library has a copy of the book, will it have to get rid of it? If it doesn't get rid of it, will Iran bomb our library?"

And would it be right for our library, housed in a beautiful old stucco building, the one public source of free books for children, to expose itself to such a threat? Then again, would it be right for a library not to stock a book just to please Iran?

The book was, of course, The Satanic Verses, or as I knew it then, Die Satanischen Verse. It might seem strange that a bunch of children in a small German town would have been so deeply fascinated by a death threat to a writer in London. None of us had ever heard of Rushdie before (let alone read any of his books). But we had already heard of other writers persecuted for their work: we had heard about book-burning under the Nazis, had read "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" by Judith Kerr.

Rushdie's own son was about the same age as me when his father was forced to go into hiding and take on a false name. He chose "Joseph Anton", a nod to Conrad and Chekhov. "Joseph Anton" is also the name of his soon-to-be-released book about those days. Judging from the extract on the New Yorker's website, it's a witty, brave and terribly sad book and I can't wait to read it:

"“Free People Write Books,” (the advertisement) said. “Free People Publish Books, Free People Sell Books, Free People Buy Books, Free People Read Books. In the spirit of America’s commitment to free expression we inform the public that this book will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.” 
While all this and much more was happening, the author of “The Satanic Verses” was crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer."

Rushdie describes his shame, fear, guilt, the crushing tedium of isolation. The pain of seeing his work treated as if it were not a novel but a mere insult, the literary equivalent of "Your Mom is Fat". There were some passages that made me want to reach through the text and tell him that it wasn't his fault, that he wasn't the one to blame; that it's always the same people who burn books, that history has not once judged a book-burner to be on the side of love and decency.

He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated. “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him,” Iqbal Sacranie, of the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, said. “His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness from Almighty Allah.” (In 2005, this same Sacranie was knighted at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.) 

Once, he believes his son and first wife may have been taken as hostages, and tells one of the policemen that he would exchange himself for his son. The policeman replies:

“That thing about exchanging hostages, that only happens in the movies. In real life, I’m sorry to tell you, if this is a hostile intervention they are both probably dead already. The question you have to ask yourself is, Do you want to die as well?

There are bright spots: loyal and courageous ex-wives, helpful friends, protection officers using their marksmanship to win a soft toy for Zafar at a fair ground shooting gallery. The most surprising aspect of the story is that Rushdie survived, that he neither was murdered like his Japanese translator, nor committed suicide. It's a reminder of how little it takes to break and silence a person. Over the past few years, there's been a constant stream of stories about Rushdie the party tiger, romancing women half his age, flirting over Twitter. Like a hungry little boy standing at a buffet and scooping up the mousse au chocolat with both hands. Well, who could begrudge him that.

Back in the days when I still thought Iran might bomb the Marburg library (there were individual attacks on other libraries, so the notion wasn't that far-fetched after all), I marvelled at the fact that a single book could have the power to cause such an uproar. Today, I wonder if it was, in a way, tragically powerless. "The Satanic Verses" was snatched from its rightful place as a novel and used as a political prop along with banners and burning flags. Both the novel and its author had no power at all to prevent this. Then again, it certainly influenced my view of what books were and should be: precious, big, important. It made me think that Rushdie must have really needed to write that book if he was willing to risk so much for it. And it's probably one of the reasons why I don't write books about horses.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Small Island, Big Voices

Latest addiction: the British Library's online sound archive, especially the "Survey of English Dialects" category:

"The Survey of English Dialects (SED) was a groundbreaking nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England... From 1950 to 1961 a team of fieldworkers collected data in a network of 313 localities across England... the informants were mostly farm labourers, predominantly male and generally over 65 years old as the aim of the survey was to capture the most conservative forms of folk-speech."

Apart from the gorgeous rhythms and cadences of the different dialects, what makes this collection so addictive is the contrast between the interviewers' bemusement and the farm labourers' gruff banter:

Hampshire farm labourer: "Locust is good to eat... that used to be sweet."

Interviewer (bewildered/vaguely disgusted): "What's locust exactly?"

Farm labourer: "Well locust is a bean! Locust beans!"

Or take this brilliant recording from Great Snoring, Norfolk:

The only word I understood was "pheasant", but the mere fact that this interview was recorded in a place called Great Snoring, Norfolk, makes it worth listening to.

In fact, I'd recommend the entire collection as a masterclass for dialogue & characterisation. Take this cheerful duo in Shropshire:

Interviewer: And did you have very good food and that?

Farm labourer: Oooh, we used to kill a couple of good fat pigs!

Interviewer: How did you kill a pig?

Farm labourer: Oooh we had a butcher... a butcher going round, like.

Interviewer: And then what did you do to it after it had been killed?

Farm labourer: Oooh we hung it up! ... saltpeter and salt... leave it like that for three weeks then turn it... you got to have saltpeter though.

Interviewer: And how long does it keep?

Farm labourer: Oooh... three years? Push it up the chimney. Get the ham up the chimney.

I'll end with one more line from my favourite recording, the one from Hampshire. It sort of summarises the spirit of the entire survey: 

Interviewer: "What was this tale you were telling me... someone went up to Bedwin or somewhere?"

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

ALIVE! The Great Huayhuash Trek

Every now and then, a writer needs a break from her characters. And what better way to escape than to go on an eight-day Andean trek with very little oxygen, lots of snow and no showers? The Huayhuash mountain range in Peru promised all that, plus freezing nights in a tent at more than 4000m, a deadly scree-covered descent from 5000m, and a writerly epiphany.

Andean farmhouse

Here's the epiphany: a bit of oxygen deprivation does wonders for literary morale. 

When I handed in my manuscript just before leaving for Peru ("Of Love and Other Wars", a love story set among Quakers during the Second World War) - when I handed in the manuscript, I hit a post-partum low. The plot, the characters, the whole sodding book just weren't quite right. I began to endlessly re-write it in my head, even though I'd already gone through 73 (seventy-three) drafts.

However, once I was on the 160-km circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash, with no sign of civilisation or literary critics anywhere, the manuscript miraculously improved in my mind. Waking up in a frosted tent, reaching for the water bottle only to find that it had frozen overnight, I began to feel that writing a book wasn't the hardest thing in the world after all. As my lungs seized up and my head throbbed with altitude sickness, the plot and characters acquired a new depth. At 5000m, I thought that if the sharp winds suddenly knocked me off the pass, "Of Love and Other Wars" wouldn't be the worst legacy to leave behind.

Dan at 5000m plus height of rock

So here's a quick Q&A to help you plan your trip in case you, too, are a writer on the run (or a non-writer looking for a spectacular trek). Don't forget to pack thermal undies and alpaca legwarmers as it does get rather cold. As for the rest... 

Fearsome security patrol building a snowman

Q: Isn't the Cordillera Huayhuash were all those tourists got mugged?

A: Well, yes, but that was several years ago. Frequent robberies (and the resulting drop in tourist numbers) prompted the communities in the area to get together and devise a rather clever system for improving security. Now tourists have to pay a fee of about 20 soles at each camp site. The money goes straight to the local communities who in turn look after the gorgeous camp sites and somewhat less gorgeous outhouses, and also organise patrols along the hiking paths. The patrols are a bit of a joke - two guys with a rifle left over from the 1980s civil war, plus a radio blaring Andean tunes - but I actually found their relaxed attitude very reassuring. They certainly didn't seem worried or scared.

In the old days, patrols would fire gunshots at night to let any bandits know who was in charge, but the tourists weren't big fans of that method, so they dropped it.

Q: What about the protesting miners?

A: When you're walking the Huayhuash trail, you're walking on gold. There are several gold and iron ore mines in the region, and miners are currently pushing for better terms (eg for the big mining companies to fund local irrigation projects). Not that the family-run artisanal goldmines seem any better than the big ones - we passed one that was little more than a pile of rubble over a handmade death trap.

The village of Huayllapa, which we visited on day six, owns part of the beautiful Diablo Mudo mountain, and until recently villagers were considering opening a goldmine there. However, they've now decided that tourism presents a better and more sustainable income stream (they've built a school and a library with the camp site fees), so the mining plans are off for the time being. 

Q: Is the Huayhuash trail really one of the world's ten most beautiful?

A: I don't know, since I haven't seen the other nine. But it was certainly the most beautiful mountain range I'd ever seen. Our photos don't quite do it justice. There were so many moments that felt unreal, dreamlike, as if I was moving across an unexplored planet. 

Dog and donkey having a party

Q: How difficult is it really?

A: Pretty difficult if you're an unfit writer with an urban lifestyle. Expect 5-8 hours of hiking every day, crossing eight passes in as many days. Dan and I could have done with an extra day or two of acclimatisation; we both suffered quite a bit for the first two days. Then again, one woman in our group tackled the trek with a raging bronchitis and dragged herself from camp to camp on the emergency horse, coughing all the way. So that's an option, though not one I'd recommend.

Q: Follow the herd or free-style it?

A: It's possible to organise the entire trek yourself. You can hire a guide, donkey driver (arriero), cook and donkeys at the Casa de los Guias in Huaraz, but it takes a bit of time and effort. We went for the convenience of joining a group. Our trekking companions were a Colombian who writes vampire novels in Bogota, and an American couple who like to practice crevasse rescue in their back garden (with paper bags over their heads, to better simulate the darkness of the crevasse - I'm not making this up).

Quechuandes, a Huaraz-based company, organised the whole trek including transport between Huaraz and the trailhead. The food was much better than expected - trout, delicious soups, even popcorn. Carlos, our guide, was excellent and knew lots about the area, its history and politics.

We took the eight-hour Cruz del Sur coach from Lima to Huaraz - very comfy, amazing views. Stayed at the rather fancy El Patio hotel in Monterrey just outside Huaraz for a bit of pre-trek luxury and booked the Lazy Dog Inn, a lovely mountain inn, as a reward lodge for post-trek rest and recovery.

Q: And the bathroom situation?

A: Better than I thought, since there were outhouses at almost every campsite. We each got a bowl of warm water every morning for a quick wash, and visited some lovely natural thermal baths on day four. I recommend packing some Nivea/Johnson facial wipes as an Andean shower substitute.

 Q: Favourite moments?

A: Sitting in the thermal bath with hail prattling down on my head; crossing a pass and feeling like I was stepping into another world; gazing at the starriest sky I'd ever seen; eating fried dough balls and drinking tea on an Alpine meadow surrounded by glaciers; discovering that drinking bottles can be used as a hot water bottles; tasting the first spoonful of hot pumpkin soup after another epic day.

"And the 5000m pass," says Dan.

Courtyard and proud house owner in Huayllapa

 Q: Least favourite moments?

A: Bad cold on day six and seven; waking up at 3am with my lower lip shaking from the cold; altitude sickness; the scree slope up to the sixth pass.

...and now we're at the wonderful Lazy Dog Inn, watching hummingbirds and doing nothing much. Beds and duvets really are a fantastic invention. So are hot showers.

Thursday, 24 May 2012


Handed in the manuscript last week. Fly millstone fly!
In other news, I'm taking some time off writing to focus on snail-proofing my window garden.
I don't want to kill the snail but there seem to be few non-lethal methods. Am currently trying out slug tape. Any other suggestions?
This thing attacked my garden back in Tokyo. Size of a thumb. Just to show you what I've had to put up with in this life.
CaterZilla chilling out on my little orange tree

Oh, and I'm in the usual post-deadline baking mood. Profiteroles! Will publish the recipe in a separate post. It doesn't really go with snails.

Monster Killer Snails Attack North London

When Monster Killer Snails Attack II

It sends a tiny electrical current through the snail, just enough to discourage it.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Virginia Woolf would burn down Columbia University. Discuss.

"Rags. Petrol. Matches... burn the college to the ground." 
(Virginia Woolf, "Three Guineas")

Yesterday I co-taught a class on Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas" at Columbia University. The text ties in nicely with my research on conscientious objectors for Book Two, so apart from feeling tremendously honoured/flattered/privileged to be invited, I was also genuinely interested in hearing what the students would make of a pacifist essay written just before World War Two.

"Three Guineas" begins with Virginia Woolf's reply to a letter from an anti-war society. The correspondent's question is simple: How are we to prevent war? Oh, and he would also like Woolf to make a donation (one of the three guineas) and become a member of his society.

Woolf responds by citing two other begging letters. One is from a fund to rebuild a women's college; the other, from a society helping "the daughters of educated men", ie women like Woolf, find employment in the professions. Woolf's point is that the question of war, and how to prevent it, links all three letters, all three guineas. Why? Because it is 1938 and women, who spent centuries on the margins of society, now have certain rights. They can vote, they can study at universities that were previously closed to them, they can earn a living. This gives them a choice: the choice between joining the "procession of the sons of educated men", thereby perpetuating a system that encourages war through nationalism, elitism and militarism; or using their experience as outsiders to create something new and different.
As Woolf puts it: "We have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don't we? On what terms shall we join that procession?"

It's a question that keeps feminists - and activists from all sorts of marginalised groups - busy to this day, but the passage that I especially looked forward to discussing with the students was Woolf's response to the treasurer of the college re-building fund:

The guinea should be earmarked 'Rags. Petrol. Matches'. And this note should be attached to it. 'Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire... and let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry "Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done this 'education'!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this passage sparked the liveliest moments of the two-hour class. Students felt particularly strongly about the canon, the core texts that make up Columbia University's idea of the basis for Western civilisation. "Filled with dead white men," was one student's comment (Woolf is one of only two dead white women on the Contemporary Civilization reading list). "Canon-based education is a way of excluding people," said another, suggesting more diverse voices be added.
"Beyond our university education, there are universal aspects of being human that we should tap into," was a third comment, inspired by Woolf's idea of personal experience of oppression and exclusion as "unpaid-for" education.
On the other hand, references to Freud, Plato, Nietzsche and Sophocles popped up throughout the class, so clearly the canon, however narrow by some standards, has its uses.

What would Virginia, who loathed Oxford and Cambridge, have made of all that?
Would she have been pleased to see so many young, intelligent women voicing their opinions in a class at an elite university - and reading "Three Guineas" with such enthusiasm, more than 70 years after it was written?
Or would she have cried out in horror at tuition fees of some $40,000 a year, and gone off to look for petrol and matches?

When I prepared the class, I came across a poignant little fact (courtesy of Woolf scholar Michele Barrett): after the publication of "Three Guineas", Woolf received a real-life begging letter asking her to donate a manuscript to a fund-raising effort for Spanish refugees.
She donated "Three Guineas".

The manuscript of "A Room of One's Own", in contrast, was given to Cambridge after her death. There it was misfiled and lay forgotten for nearly half a century.

No matches. Promise.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Two Frozen Pizzas and a Paperback

We're in Tesco's!
Between a Kate Middleton biography and the Kosher for Passover section.

Buy two boxes of matzoh, get one free copy of the Registrar.

Dan accosted a random Saturday shopper and tried to sell her a copy.
"It doesn't really sound like my kind of book," she said. "I think I'll go for the new Jackie Collins."
Which is fine since Jackie Collins is also a Simon & Schuster author. I'm generous and team-spirited like that.
Look, I can balance three copies on my head. So can Dan.
Then Dan thought of a new sales strategy: telling random shoppers that if they bought a copy, the author - here she is! - would sign it on the spot.
That's when I remembered we had to rush home and water the flowers or paint eggs or something.

Hope everyone had a relaxing & reviving holiday. I'm off to New York on a research trip for a novel about art forgers; any recommendations (galleries, exhibitions, forgers' labs) will be much appreciated.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

May the Taste of Honey Linger

The Registrar has just been launched as a paperback. It's very exciting and I should probably use the occasion to blog about book covers, marketing etc, but instead I'm going to dedicate this post to Passover Seder, the feast that celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The reason being that:

a) I'm going to my fourth Seder on Friday, thanks to my boyfriend's family

b) I'm finding it hard to write (or think) about anything that isn't related to the Great Rewrite; and Passover is sort of related, in that there's a Seder scene in the new book that I must have re-written about fifty times. 

Passover is one of my favourite religious holidays, and it's one that's particularly accessible to outsiders like me because it comes with a manual, the Haggadah. I'll never forget the enormous sense of relief I felt when I sat down for my first ever Seder, opened the Haggadah and realised all I had to do was follow the instructions (oh, and keep an eye on the other dinner guests to make sure my timing was ok).
It's all in there: the story of the Exodus, an explanation of why it's important, and a detailed series of steps you must take to commemorate it, from reciting prayers to spilling a little wine to show pity for the Egyptian victims of the plagues. It's a precise choreography of remembrance, and perhaps that's why I find it so moving and poignant.

Easter, by comparison, is a much more disjointed affair: there's Jesus, there's Easter bunnies, there's painted eggs. Some of the spiritual and comestible elements link up to form a narrative, eg crucifixion/Hot Cross buns. Others don't, eg resurrection/eggs. Of course they all fit the Spring/rebirth/renewal theme of Easter, but there isn't the kind of precise connection and deep tradition that you get with a Seder.
As Joan Nathan, one of the New York Times' food journalists, wrote recently, describing Passover at her house: "We may not 'eat the flesh that same night, roasted over fire', as the Book of Exodus says, but we still eat unleavened bread (and) bitter herbs."

I'm in the process of re-writing my own, fictional Seder scene once again; let's hope that this re-write will be different from all other re-writes. Maybe a second helping of stuffed artichokes (we're on the Sephardi side of the artichoke/chicken soup divide) will give me an extra creative spark.

In the meantime, I'd like to share this beautiful poem by Adrienne Rich, who died last month. It's about Jewish New Year, not Passover, but I find that it somehow fits the occasion; and it went straight into my heart the way great poems do. Thanks to the New Yorker for re-publishing it:


For more than five thousand years,
This calm September day
With yellow in the leaf
Has lain in the kernel of Time
While the world outside the walls
Has had its turbulent say
And history like a long
Snake has crawled on its way
And is crawling onward still.
And we have little to tell
On this or any feast
Except of the terrible past.
Five thousand years are cast
Down before the wondering child
Who must expiate them all.

Some of us have replied
In the bitterness of youth
Or the qualms of middle age:
"If Time is unsatisfied,
And all our fathers have done
Can never be enough,
Why, then, we choose to forget.
Let our forgetting begin
With those age-old arguments
In which their minds were wound
Like musty phylacteries;
And we choose to forget as well
Those cherished histories
That made our old men fond,
And already are strange to us.

"Or let us, being today
Too rational to cry out,
Or trample underfoot
What, after all, preserves
A certain savor yet -
Though torn up by the roots -
Let us make our compromise
With the terror and the guilt
And view as curious relics
Once found in daily use
The mythology, the names
That, however Time has corrupted
Their authenticity,
Still burn like yellow flames,
But their fire is not for us."

And yet, however we choose
To deny or to remember -
Though, on the calendars
We wake and suffer by,
This day is merely one
Of thirty in September -
In the kernel of the mind
The new year must renew
This day, as for our kind
Over five thousand years,
The task of being ourselves.
Whatever we strain to forget,
Our memory must be long.

May the taste of honey linger
Under the bitterest tongue.

- Adrienne Cecile Rich.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Five Ways to Cure Writer's Block (and cross the desert)

Sorry for the long silence. I'm trekking through the Great Rewrite, aka the waste howling wilderness (Deuteronomy, 32:10).
I'm also reading the King James Bible. Hence the Deuteronomy reference. I missed out on the Bible when I was younger, but it's a strangely comforting read now that I'm wandering about in a 130,000-word desert. I particularly like the idea of being guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus, 13:21-22).

In case you're similarly lost - or worse, completely stuck - here are five methods that I find helpful when I'm feeling like a spring shut up, a fountain sealed; when the words just won't drop as the honeycomb (Song of Solomon, 3:11-12):

1. Make them drop as the honeycomb (for 25 minutes)
Forget about writing well. Just write. No one is going to see this; no one is going to judge it. Use a prompt: a line from your manuscript, a scrap of dialogue, or even a line from some completely unrelated text - a poem, a quote from your favourite author. Set a kitchen timer, or a 25-minute Pomodoro, and write until the bell rings. Writing for 25 minutes is a lot less daunting than writing into the great unknown.

2. Create Boundaries
The human brain finds it really hard to cope with unlimited freedom. "Where do I start?" asks the unfettered mind. "Ok, let's write a short story... or maybe water the plants first?"

I've noticed this particularly when working with children. Ask them to write a story and they'll sit there for half an hour, chewing their pencils. Followed by a sigh of despair: but... I don't know what to write!
However, give them an extremely restrictive format and a list of words they must use, and I promise you they'll be working away like my late Grandma at her crossword (that's why haikus are so popular with teachers).

So fence yourself in. Re-set the timer you used for exercise #1 or give yourself a clear target (500 words before lunch). This leaves you with a measurable goal. Once you've reached that goal, you'll experience a sense of satisfaction. Once you've experienced that satisfaction, you'll feel less frustrated/blocked.

3. Let your Qi circulate
Yep! We've reached the bonkers part of this post. So, my acupuncturist says that sometimes Qi, or life-energy, gets trapped in the head. That's when you start having those spiralling thoughts about some incident that happened five years ago, and the minutes are ticking by, and then it's lunchtime and you've written precisely zero words.
Get your Qi circulating again and your words will drop as the honeycomb. How? If you can't face the thought of acupuncture, try going for a run every morning (focus on your toes and feet as you run) and drink lots of hot water. Ask any Chinese granny and she'll tell you this is true. Especially the bit about the hot water.

4. Go for a Long Walk
If all else fails, head for the hills. Yesterday, my friend Sophie T. and I walked the South Downs way from Seaford to Eastbourne (lovely 7-hour walk along the cliffs). Today I wrote, well, more words than on Friday.
Long walks and long-distance running give you a sense of freedom as well as improving your stamina and helping you move that Qi (the one that got trapped in your head). Lots of writers swear by this method (eg Murakami, who runs ultra-marathons).

5. Take a step back
This is for those of you who are simply lost. Not blocked, not paralysed by your inner editor, but simply lost. You've written a few chapters, your characters are well on their way, but somehow... they've run out of steam. They're standing in the waste howling wilderness, looking at a map of Prague.
In that case, writing prompts aren't going to help. What you need is a pillar of fire. Put your chapters to one side, open a new document and write a story plan. Or if you've already got a story plan, look at it and try to figure out where and why it snagged. Is there a narrative arc?
A beginning, a middle, an end?
A starter, a main dish, a pudding?
Try dumbing down your story: who's the hero, what's their problem, how are they going to solve it? Draw that arc on a piece of paper. Don't worry about making it too Hollywood-y. This is about clarity; about a sense of direction.
"But I don't want my story to follow a traditional arc," I hear you say. "I want it to be more like Kafka."
Well, Kafka's stories actually tend to follow a very traditional pattern. Problem-climax-resolution. Eg, young man has to leave his country because of a scandal; arrives in strange place full of bandits; joins wonderful theatre of Oklahoma (Amerika). Not to mention: man wakes up as giant insect; undergoes trials and tribulations; dies.
A solid story plan can also act as a useful boundary, see #2.

That's it for now. Having compiled this useful list, I'd better get back to work. Which, by the way, is the sixth way to cure writer's block: get back to work.

Oh... and do let me know if you have any other ideas/tricks/magic potions.
Thank you.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Aristotle and Puddings

"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end... A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles." 
(Aristotle, 350 BC)

Beginning, middle, end. Exposition, climax, resolution. It's a pretty obvious formula, but when it's lacking, a story tends to feel vague and strangely frustrating. 
The other day, I found two great illustrations of this: The Moro cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook, Plenty. I actually prefer Ottolenghi's recipes and use his book a lot more (and no, he's not sponsoring this post). But there's something that always frustrates me about his cookbook, and I've found out what it is: he doesn't do puddings.
Puddings are to cookbooks what endings are to novels. One must have puddings. Beginning, middle, end. Starters, main courses, puddings. 
It's the most satisfying structure: you flick to the final section, and there they are, sweet and fatty, the ideal way to end a meal, or a cookbook.
The Moro cookbook respects this fact in a positively Aristotelian fashion, with a nod to the more modern five-act structure. "Soups" (= exposition); "Fish/meat starters" (= rising action); "Fish/meat main courses" (= climax/turning point); "Vegetables" (= falling action); PUDDINGS (= resolution, happy ending).
Ottolenghi's cookbook, on the other hand, is like an anthology, or a post-modern arrangement of scattered vignettes. "Funny Onions" reads one category, "Mushrooms" the next, "Green Things" another. The recipes themselves are original and tempting, but they might as well be written on a deck of cards. As my friend the scriptwriter would say: where's the journey? Where's the quest?
Right at the end, Ottolenghi seems to realise that something is missing. So he shoves in a final category: "Fruit with Cheese.
That's like a romantic novel that ends with: "And then they became good friends." 
Here's a word of advice to all writers, including myself: respect your starters, respect your main courses. And never, ever cheat your readers out of their puddings.*

*Unless they don't like puddings. This option just occurred to me and completely destroys my menu-based structure. Any suggestions for alternatives?
** PPS: the photo shows a giant block of tofu. Whatever you do, don't structure your story like a giant block of tofu.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

"Revenge of the Wandering Whore" and other top titles

While I'm still struggling to find a name for novel number two, German TV broadcasts a series with this title-to-beat-all-titles: "Revenge of the Wandering Whore" ("Die Rache der Wanderhure"). 
It's a medieval romp starring... a wandering whore.

This got me thinking about titles. Especially foreign titles. I'm a bit obsessed with titles: I love it when they contain a bit of a surprise, a bit of contradiction, a bit of "ooh, I wonder what this wandering whore might be up to."

So in the interest of diversity and multi-culturalism, I thought I'd list my top ten foreign book/film titles. Some are lovely, some are clever, some are downright silly. Here we go:

1. Ok, it has to be Revenge of the Wandering Whore. ("Marie, a wandering whore in the Middle Ages, is on a quest to find her lost husband...")

 2. My Father is a Cleaning Lady (Mon pere est femme de menage), a novel by Saphia Azzeddine about a boy growing up in a gritty French suburb. This is the sort of witty and melodic title that makes me go green with envy.

3. Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del colera)... and almost every other Garcia Marquez title: "The Autumn of the Patriarch", "A Hundred Years of Solitude"...

4. Life is not a Cucumber Sandwich (Das Leben ist kein Gurkensandwich). The German title of my friend Ceri Radford's brilliant, funny debut, "A Surrey State of Affairs." The original title is nice, but I just love Life is not a Cucumber Sandwich. It's so... quotable.
5. Coffee... with the scent of a woman. (Cafe, con aroma de mujer). Another glorious soap title from Colombia, the country that brought you Yo Soy Betty, la fea (why did they opt for "Ugly Betty" in the U.S.? I am... has so much more bite)

6. Amerika (Amerika) by Franz Kafka. This is a new translation and they kept the "K"of the original - quite cleverly, I think, given that it's the story of a German immigrant in America.

7. Some Prefer Nettles (Tade kuu mushi) by Junichiro Tanizaki. Apparently the title refers to a Japanese proverb: "There's even an insect that likes to eat knotweed [nettles]" ("Tade kuu mushi mo suki-zuki"), ie, there's no accounting for taste.

8. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Religious writing often has that special something. See also: The Apocalypse, City of God, The Song of Songs.

9. Czech titles, eg "Whatever happened to Wenceslas?", "Badly timed emigre", and of course "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Czech writers have a way with titles. Also, just out of interest: whatever happened to Wenceslas? 

10. You decide! Thai and Egyptian soap operas look quite promising but I can't understand the titles. I almost went for "When A Woman Doesn't Understand, She Falls In Love" ("La donna quando non capisce si innamora"), but it's a bit too tediously sexist... not that Wandering Whore is a feminist manifesto...

Monday, 20 February 2012

So You Want to Write a Screenplay

Last year, my friend Nathalie asked me to co-write a treatment for a TV drama. Nathalie is a successful French scriptwriter, so it was a bit like being offered a mini-masterclass in writing for TV - and being paid for it. Well, this is what I learned:

1. Writing screenplays is fun
You get to write with a friend, swap ideas and even act out scenes - compare/contrast with the lonesome bum-on-seat business of writing a novel.

2. Writing screenplays isn't all that much fun
...because you need a really, really thick skin. Calluses, basically. And that's because...

3. Novels are dictatorships; screenplays are democracies (with the production company as the ruling party)
When you write a novel, you're the dictator. You create the plot, the characters, the setting. A great editor will help you refine and perfect your vision - in the delicately bossy way that great editors have - but ultimately it remains your vision.

When you write a screenplay (and you're not the Coen brothers), you're a mere parliamentarian submitting a vision, and if the people who commission the script don't like it, they will overrule it. They will ask you to change the name of your character, the age and physical appearance of your character, and even the character of your character, and then set the whole story in a place that may co-fund the film. I was in awe of Nathalie's ability to remain unfazed even as some of our favourite scenes were cut (Riverbank/Dawn. Our HERO kneels by the water, head bowed in despair. The LOVE INTEREST slowly emerges from the mist... cue angels and violins... when a GIANT HAND holding a RED PEN reaches through the clouds and crosses them out of existence.)

Still, it was an interesting experience, and when the organisers of the Raindance film festival offered a one-day filmmaking course for 39 pounds this month, I signed up right away. It did seem very cheap for a whole day. When I arrived at the venue - Leicester Square Theatre - on Saturday, I realised why. There were about 300 aspiring filmmakers and two lecturers. However, as an affordable introduction to the world of filmmaking, it really wasn't bad.
Elliot Grove, the founder of Raindance, grew up in an Amish family in Canada: his parents considered cinema the devil's work. They lived on a farm and eventually moved to Somalia as missionaries. I found his personal story absolutely fascinating and spent the rest of the day filming it as a movie inside my head ("'Billy Elliot' meets 'Witness' in this heart-warming tale of..."). This meant I didn't pay quite as much attention as I should have to the other components of the course - eg, how to make a movie. There were some useful remarks on writing to a budget (I mentally deleted the pitchfork-wielding crowd scene and replaced it with off-screen shouting and jeering, which we hear as the HERO peers out the window), and on being creative when it comes to finding cheap locations (the Amish farm scenes would be filmed on Hampstead Heath, using a cheapo camera and no permit).
I came up with one more budget-cutting plot twist, but it's so incredibly, outrageously clever that I can't share it here or you'll steal it.

So if you want to write a screenplay... well, Elliot's advice is: write one, submit it, write another one while you wait for a reply, submit that, and so on. Make sure you get the format right. Use free resources like the BBC writers' room website. Write a screenplay and get one friend to direct it, another to film it, and a third to appear in it. Don't get disheartened. Persist.
It's surprisingly similar to the publishing process: write a novel, submit it, write another one while you wait for a reply, and so on. (As for the literary equivalent of simply making the movie yourself - I suppose it's like publishing a literary journal with your friends? Or self-publishing? Or perhaps there isn't an equivalent?)
So there. Now go and write. Good luck! Look forward to the Premiere.

(And if you're a producer or director interested in Billy Elliot meets the Witness in this..., please get in touch.)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Birthday Party at the Family Grave

"Lord and Giver of life... we praise thee for Charles Dickens whose birth we commemorate today."

Amen to that, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens! Charles Dickens, who died from a stroke mid-way through Edwin Drood, would have been 200 today. His wish was for a small, private funeral at Rochester Cathedral; what he got was a three-day public procession through Westminster Abbey. Well, writers and their work belong to the public, and as the Dean of Westminster said during a wreath-laying ceremony on Tuesday, the Abbey is the family grave of the nation.

So there he lies, snugly nestled between Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, with the ghosts of Miss Havisham, Mowgli and Tess of the D'Urbervilles wafting overhead.
Jessica, my editor, kindly took me to the wreath-laying ceremony along with Ben Wood, whose debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, has just been published. I'm sure Ben drew as much comfort as I did from the prayer. Apart from praising the Lord for making Dickens, it included a rather sweet and encouraging nod to writers everywhere:

"Let us pray for those today who seek to express the truths of creation through the arts; for novelists and playwrights, for actors and directors, for poets and prophets, for commentators and columnists, and all those who record our own age." 

It's not every day that you hear yourself prayed for right under the soaring stone arches of the nation's family grave, with sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. Ben and I mentally added a prayer for our editor: it's only fair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke beautifully about the exuberance of Dickens' novels and characters (in that there's an exuberance even to his villains, and the thing he most mourns about the life of the poor is that their lives are flat, bereft of that exuberance). Two of Dickens' great-great-grandsons read extracts from The Life of Our Lord and St Luke's gospel, and biographer Claire Tomalin warmed up the chilly Abbey with a passage from a letter to Dickens' sister Fanny in which he describes calming his nerves before a public event with "a pint of champagne and a pint of sherry". That's the spirit!
Prince Charles laid the wreath.
Shakepeare sent his birthday wishes, too

It was all very moving and festive, but nothing could rival Ralph Fiennes' reading of a scene from Bleak House. It was the one where poor Jo... hmm, I don't want to spoil it in case you haven't read it. Anyway, you know when you read a bedtime story to a child and you try to do all the different voices? Well, Fiennes did all the voices, and did them so well that we all began to melt and sniffle at Jo's pitiful end (ok, I'm spoiling it a bit, but you knew it was going to be sad, right?).

"... 'Jo, can you say what I say?'

'I'll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it's good.'


'Our Father! - Yes, that's wery good, sir.'


'Art in Heaven - is the light a comin, sir?'

'It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!'

'Hallowed be - thy - '

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day."

Some readers can't bear Dickens' sentimentalism, but I think he showed a lot of courage in combining his wit and sarcasm, his delight in the absurd, with a pint or two of sentimentality. So I'll hope you'll celebrate Oliver, David, Fagin, Jarndyce and Jarndyce and Little Nell today, and as my editor said during our post-ceremony lunch: here's to passion and compassion.