Wednesday, 31 December 2008
So, picked up my New Year frock from the dry-cleaners - 'Ooh all ready for a big party?' the kindly lady asked. Cue wavy lines, reminiscences of parties past, champagne, fireworks and tender midnight kisses ... I hadn't got the heart to tell her we are spending it with Grandy and Gramps and whether we make it to midnight depends on the pilot's jetlag.
What happens to you when you stay with your parents? Is it just me or do you end up regressing? No one on God's earth would get away with patting me on the backside and saying 'Ooh you look too skinny/haven't you put on a bit since we last saw you?' other than my mother. I've just been re-reading Alan Bennett's brilliant collected works. He affectionately recalls his Mum meeting his idol T S Eliot - when he explains what an important literary figure he is his dear Mum says 'Well, I'm not surprised. It was a lovely overcoat.' When he goes to visit the Bronte parsonage with his Mum at one point (in the days before it was chichied up by the National Trust or whoever runs it now), he describes with glorious understatement how his mother glanced at the limp curtains and dusty hearth in need of blackening 'Too busy writing to keep the place up to scratch ...' she said. If it's a toss up between penning Wuthering Heights or cleaning the oven, I know which would win in this house.
The tables are now turning and I wonder what kind of blunders I shall make with my own children. The transition from thin-skinned teenager cringing with embarrassment to rhino-hided parent capable of unwitting acts of mortification passes unnoticed. The painful self-consciousness of the teenage years - who'd want to go back? One of the lovely things about growing up/older is the chance to lighten up, take yourself a whole lot less seriously. Just in time for your own children to point out your glaring flaws. Until you have children old enough to judge you, you think you are still - if not the wild young thing of the old days - still more hip than hip replacement. Why is it your friends' parents were always cool while your own were ... not? Have your kids ever called you up short on anything? What's the worst your parents have ever done to you - or have you ever embarrassed the pants off your children? I can see whole vistas of opportunity opening up before me in terms of mortifying the children - Dad dancing, inappropriately youthful clothing. Christmas, New Year, weddings and funerals - it's no wonder these family events are set pieces for fiction and film. They are dramatic pressure cookers, and wonderful fodder for observant writers like Bennett.
Interestingly, he did not grow up in a bookish household (they were hidden away in a cupboard). There was I think one bookcase at home growing up. How about you? Now, I could very happily start a mobile library (a career option if all else fails perhaps?) My parents are curious but perplexed I think by this crazy desire to write. It probably has something to do with the lack of anything concrete to show them. When my first short story won a competition aged 17 and was reprinted in the local Gazette, Mum must have bought every copy in a thirty mile radius. They have always been supportive, but perhaps now they think I'm deluded? Until I actually hand them a copy of the book I'm not sure it means much. That will be a good moment. As long as they don't think it's autobiographical ...
It made me laugh reading how Isabel Allende's family were scandalised by 'The House of the Spirits'. That was until it was made into a successful film, at which point portraits of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons proudly joined the family photographs. Funnily enough, having drinks with some neighbours just before Christmas the woman nudged the six year old and said 'Who knows, maybe Mummy's book will be made into a film and she'll be famous!' It's curious that films are accorded a higher sense of success than books. I do want to write the film script of The Lovely Ruined Things eventually, and I have a secret wish to direct films ... but to see this manuscript in print next year is the only dream now.
Wishing you all a wonderful end to the year - let's prove the gloom-merchants wrong and make 2009 our best year yet. May our pages, hearts and glasses always be full x
TODAY'S PROMPT: 80's flashback - enjoy!
Sunday, 28 December 2008
One of the things I miss this time of year are the Christmas cards from an old artist friend Mil Lubroth. I met her years ago at Egee Art in Chelsea, and loved her, her work, her infectious good humour. We placed a lot of her work in palaces and embassies, but there was a particular painting of hers that hung by my desk there for months - each time we sent out an exhibition tour to the Middle East I'd quietly hope it wouldn't sell (I know, sorry - not good for business, but I loved it and couldn't have afforded it). When the wannabe pilot and I sold up in London to fund his training, it was presented to me on my last day at the gallery, the back signed with good luck messages by everyone I had worked there with. Here it is, still above the desk where I write (excuse the mess - I have officially run out of space down there this year). Next to the children and the hound it's what I'd rescue in the event of a fire tonight:Mil stayed in touch - somehow just knowing she was in Madrid when we moved out to Valencia was like having a touchstone - and her handmade Christmas cards 'Querida Kate!' in flamboyant turquoise ink were a yearly treat. The painting is 'A Walk in the Generalife' - the summer palace in the gardens of the Alhambra, one of my favourite places in the whole world. It's like an optical illusion - depending on the light you see glimmering bismillahs, stately women walking, Moorish architecture, searing blue skies. It's a palimpsest - overlaid images, beautiful whispers of the past (we are back to lovely ruined things again). When someone like Mil dies it seems impossible - her obituaries were heartfelt talking of the ancient sadness of her eyes but her ready smile, and the personality that could light up a room. Maybe it was that combination of dark/light that I responded to in her work.
This time of the year, maybe you are feeling reflective too? It doesn't help that the pilot's away for days - again (Africa). What are you thinking about at the moment? We've survived a year of longhaul (just - flamingos and bikini clad hostesses anyone?), our baby in hospital, Dad's death and miraculous resurrection, me being knocked out by a flying copy of Harry Potter (hardback) and a summer spent sporting a black eye c/o the repentant pilot. Like a lot of people cutting back, no hot dates/jolly holidays, make do and mend - and, in spite of work for people like the Times and Blueprint, another year has gone by with no book. All of you know how this feels - Pseudo talked of how perpetually waiting for good news 'keeps you from living,' Marta talked about how it feels like you are dropping your work into a big black hole. But the encouragement and support from everyone are like the lovely messages scrawled on the back of Mil's painting. There is so much goodwill from around the world behind this book cheerleading every step closer to publication that I'm damned if its not going to be a success.
Who cares what's coming? Recession - pah. As Winnie said - Keep Buggering On (or for the female take on this as Scarlet said recently - 'chin up, tits out'). When the going gets tough - we get writing, agreed? There's this wonderful word - sprezzatura - the ability to make the difficult seem effortless. I like the lightness and energy of it. It's what being a writer, or artist, or anyone at the top of their game is all about. Mil had it in spades. If I was going to have one New Year wish it would be to have more of that. I'm bored, and restless, and raring to go - I want lightness, success - how about you? 2009 here we come.
TODAY'S PROMPT: Resolutions are so ... worthy. Are you doing them? Or shall we have some fun? Another year has flown by. What do you really want next year? If we were going to wave our magic wand tonight and grant you three wishes for 2009 what would they be ...
Friday, 26 December 2008
Here's a question - have you ever wanted not to be a writer? I remember a time when my 'day job' was running the gallery in Chelsea and every exhibition, every Private View I went to viewed with professional eyes. When we decided to sell up and let the (then) head-hunter become a pilot, we spent several months travelling around the world. All the way through the Far East and most of America, I looked at every gallery with professional eyes, not able to stop myself checking how the curating could have been done better, how people could have enjoyed the work more. I'm sure I've said before I can't watch or read (let alone write) horror, but ironically one of the best books I've ever read about writing is Stephen King's 'On Writing'. To paraphrase him, he said: 'The object of fiction is to make the reader welcome and tell a story. Make him/her forget. Writing is seduction.'
I've relaxed a bit with exhibitions now but with writing there's no let up is there, no end to where the day job and you begin? Who knew. Everyday is your work. All I know is I just want to write stories that people - lots of people want to read. I just want to tell a great story and give people a break from their lives - that simple. How about you?
I don't know about your part of the world, but Boxing Day in England for me used to be all about shooting. Not me personally, but everyone I knew growing up was either out shooting small creatures or on horseback chasing them. Things have changed a bit in the last thirty years, but as I carried out armfuls of wrapping paper to the recycling bins I heard hounds baying in the distance from the village this afternoon. I loved riding - still love horses and (not to sound too Holly Golightly) dream of space to have a few for the children (well, and me if I'm being honest). However I never wanted to hunt - never envied the pale faced girls who recounted on the Monday school bus how they had been 'blooded' that weekend - their faces wiped with blood from the fox's tail. I think after all the hoo-haa over hunting in the last few years the hunts aren't allowed to hunt to kill anymore but they were definitely out for fun today.
For years, my father either took part in or part owned pheasant shoots - I grew up with these beautiful birds hanging in outhouses, and consequentially I can neither stand killing things or eating game. Same with fishing - he once designed a whole fishery so we could catch as many trout as we wanted. I am (improbably) really good at fly fishing through many weekends spent out on the lakes but I could never bear to kill the fish once I'd caught them. Killing is a big thing in the country. Eat or be eaten? Everyone I knew didn't get their fish or fowl at the supermarkets - or their venison for that matter. When I was renting a flat in Clifton with a friend while I was at secretarial college I once knocked myself out returning home in the dark after a party because our landlady (her boyfriend's grandmother) had hung a pheasant in the dark corridor leading to our flat. What is it they say - you don't realise your life or family isn't normal until you move away?
Our dogs were gun dogs - beautifully behaved labradors and spaniels, devoted and perfectly trained. One of them (a hugely expensive mistake) was grandson of Sandringham Sidney - the Queen's Labrador. He turned out to be the black sheep of the family and earned the moniker 'The Stoodleigh Rapist' because he sired so many puppies in our Devon village. My own hound is snoring on the suede couch in front of the fire while I'm busy editing down in the basement. I look back fondly on the huge gatherings of friends and family, beaters and followers, dogs and children - the massive tables and meals, people laughing and drinking late into the night, but it was never something I wanted to stay with. However - that sense of making people welcome, taking care of them has stayed with me.
Our own hunt today involved a dwarf hamster gone awol (the six year old's Christmas present - members of Burning Lines will appreciate the irony). Moments ago we cornered the beast behind a bookshelf, tempted her out with a fresh carrot and now everyone is sleeping pleasantly. The pilot has been away for much of Christmas, and is now on his way to Africa until New Year so this is - again - not like Christmases I remember. How's yours going? Thank you for all the emails you've sent over the break - I am so grateful for all of you who are reading '(All) The Lovely Ruined Things' and curious about the synchronicity we are experiencing! I thought Pseudo's comment the other night about what it takes out of us all to write was incredibly touching. Right now - facing another stretch as 'single parent in a marriage' as my sister-in-law put it on Facebook, I don't quite know how we do it - but we do. Writer - nature or nurture, there's your thought for the night. Do you write because you are - or because of what's happened to you?
TODAY'S PROMPT: Gut instinct. Do you go by it? Hunters, shooters do all the time - should writers? I should trust mine more. I was thinking of Christmases past. The image at the head of this post is a Vivienne Westwood corset (with a Boucher illustration on the main panel). Which in turn made me think of one of my favourite videos and the Killers - which is aligned with today's 'hunting' theme. I remember seeing this in Sogo on Piccadilly about ten years ago, just as the pilot announced he wanted to be a pilot. At that precise moment (I can still picture it in it's glass box, Eros glimmering through the plate glass doors behind it), I really wanted it. In a brief 'to hell with it' moment I thought about blowing my whole paycheque on it. It's now in the V&A. And Sogo went years ago, so did Tower Records, so have many stores around there it seems. I didn't buy it, did the sensible thing, figured we were in for a long haul. I remember thinking 'what if this is as good as it gets?'. Boxing Day, the no-mans land to New Year is a tough time to navigate. Tonight I really wish I wasn't a writer and didn't read everything into a few words - or could go upstairs and extract my Westwood corset for a brief waltz with times past. My gut instinct is ringing alarm bells over a few words. Well, Proust had his madeleines, I wish I'd got my corset. What are your regrets as we turn to new resolutions?
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a computer was stirring, not even your mouse
Kate’s stockings were slung by the chimney with care
In hopes that the pilot soon would be there.
Misssy and Emma were nestled snug in their beds
While visions of contracts danced in their heads.
Shanta in her ‘kerchief, and Pat in her cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
Scarlet sprang from the bed to see what was the matter
Away to the window she flew with a dash,
Flung back the curtains, and gave Santa a flash.
As Moonrat nibbled dumplings in the new snow,
VodkaMom’s martinis gave lustre to all down below.
When, what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and some partying dears.
With wild looking drivers, so lively and fun,
They knew in a moment it must be Donn, JES and Son.
More rapid than eagles the bloggers they came,
And they whistled, and commented, and called out their names!
"Yo Rowena! yo, Marta! yo, Natasha and Mary!
Hey, Pseudo! Hey, Megan! Hey Magpie and D’Arcy!
To the top of the house! to the top of the wall!
Party on Lindsay! Party on Charlotte! Party on all!
"As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
Dan parked his Simplicity cycle to mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the bloggers they flew,
With a sleigh full of cocktails, and Mrs P too.
And then, in a twinkling, we heard on the terrace
A jazz riff as Shelly flicked on some Miles Davis.
As Scarlet drew in her head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Gorilla Bananas leapt with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And he was all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked rather saucy, just opening his sack.
Her eyes-how they twinkled! her dimples how merry!
Had Christmas come early for this little cherry?
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled up the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
They sprang to the sleigh, to the team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But we heard them exclaim, ‘ere they drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas all bloggers, and to all a good-night!"
To everyone who has visited and made WKDN what it is with their wonderful comments this year (sorry if I’ve missed anyone!) – THANK YOU! Thank you for subscribing, reading, all your feedback. This has become the most extraordinary global writer's group and I for one am becoming a better writer because of it.
Happy Christmas – may 2009 be our best year yet.
TODAY’S PROMPT: For anyone who loves the original 40’s version, why not settle back by the fire and enjoy the video clip (mince pie and scotch for Santa, carrot for Rudolf at the ready …) To borrow one of my favourite comic's taglines: Goodnight, thank you, and may your god go with you (Dave Allen) x
Monday, 22 December 2008
How quiet is your voice? Who hears your writing? I read somewhere the other day that if you put a male butterfly in a box with a big, colourful fake butterfly and a little real female, it will go for the big fake butterfly every single time. Looking at the shelves in the bookstore today, the Christmas Celeb biographies and novelty books I thought again about that big, bold fake butterfly. I've done my bit for the industry - everyone is getting books this year. If you've been feeling a bit like the real thing, quietly flapping your wings in the corner to no avail this is a good time of year to take stock and think what you are going to do next year.
I had one of those conversations yesterday that suddenly pulls everything into focus. My lovely little (she comes up to my waist) 92 year old grandmother was reeling with shock. You know that brilliant line in 'As Good As It Gets' where the art dealer tells Jack Nicholson 'My Grandmother has more Attitude than you!' - well mine has Attitude with a capital A. She still lives - alone - in a remote nunnery with my grandfather's shotgun under the bed. Yesterday for the first time she sounded old. A dear friend of hers suddenly died on the way to pick her up for church. Heart attack. 'She was only young,' Mamgu said faintly (she was 74). It made all my recent worries seem ... insignificant.
People either love or hate American Beauty - I thought it was great and sought out this video clip last night. Dancing carrier bags are my kind of thing. If Christmas does nothing else this year, may it give us all a chance to take stock and appreciate how fleeting this all is and how lucky we are.
Anyone who needs cheering up drop me an email - 'Kate's Calendar' is going down rather well with certain ladies who read this blog. Your free copy could be winging its way via email to you tonight ... x
TODAY'S PROMPT: Have you ever written a book for your children? Depending on their age, or the age of your nieces and nephews, godchildren or little friends - there is nothing like having a book in which you are the main character. They will love it - and who knows it could be the next Alice in Wonderland.
Saturday, 20 December 2008
At the moment I'm deep in the Spanish Civil War - the nostalgic flashbacks are drawing me in on the third book, I'm reading George Orwell and Laurie Lee because Rosa's heroic, romantic story is becoming as important as her granddaughter's. It's something I learned studying art history - wherever possible go back to first hand accounts. Listen to people who were actually there. Their voices are alive, have an immediacy that will inject your script with authenticity and vitality. The manuscript is rough - literally and figuratively. The copy is coffee, tear and toddler stained, the text could do with the literary equivalent of a week or two at Chiva Som. So could I. But with George and Laurie to help out, we'll get there.
Friday, 19 December 2008
So are you all going 'home' for Christmas? Not necessarily to your own homes, (perhaps like us you are going to spend too much of the holiday on the motorway). We have family on the east and south west coasts of the UK, with a large contingent (the refugees from Scotland and Wales) in the Cotswolds/Midlands. So, there's a lot of driving if you want to see everyone - and a lot of that strangely Celtic phenomenon we talked about a while ago - 'hiraeth', a longing for home. Do you still go home to the house you grew up in? The pilot's family moved all over the world but their house on the Suffolk coast has been a constant for around thirty years. I don't have a 'home' in the same way. The houses my father designed and built are lived in by other families now - Christmas memories are just that, distant, not layered with more recent visits. Which could explain why I long to finally put down some roots and give my children somewhere to come home to.
My parents moved to Devon in 1977. This was the time of strangely familiar sounding petrol crisis, economic depression and unemployment. Everyone thought they were crazy to move somewhere so remote but Dad had been reading all the warning leaflets distributed to each family about how to survive nuclear war and he wanted his children to grow up in a safer place. Canada was a possibility (we have relatives there), but as Mum didn't really want to move in the first place Devon was far enough.
Devon and Cornwall are popular holiday destinations - a lot of our friends now pack their children off to the coast for the summer. Growing up there is rather a different experience. I'm more with Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath - the wild beauty of the landscape is tinged with something darker, a harshness and 'head pincering gales' as he put it. It is very cut off from the rest of the country - once you're past Stonehenge you are entering a world of superstition and bleak moors as much as thatched cottages and cream teas. The summers are glorious in my memories, the winters snowbound, dark and punctuated by long power cuts.
If you're old enough to remember them, what are your memories of the 70s, and your family Christmases? Dennis Cass made an interesting comment the other day when we were discussing whether 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' is uplifting or depressing as a title. He pointed out that during the 70s, cinema, TV, books all developed a much darker strain - maybe its schadenfreude - when things are tough you want to see people who are worse off than you to make you feel it's not so bad after all? Perhaps it's like our discussion of why on earth all those awful tales of childhood abuse litter the bestseller lists at the moment.
When I think back to the 70s it seems pretty glorious to me. At my daughter's age we were suddenly living in a very wild and beautiful place. We had space, freedom - it was like Enid Blyton - freewheeling through the lanes, riding muddy little ponies, building camps in the wood. We had all the grandparents, aunties and uncles to stay each Christmas. 1977 was also the year I was given my first casette player - up until then it had been those massive eight track or reel to reel tapes. At six I loved Beach Boys, Elvis and Darts. Den Hegerty was my first crush (I know ... the three year old just asked me who the funny man dressed as a dalmatian is in today's video clip). Bizarrely he ended up living near one of my school friends - that he was a close friend of her Dad's seemed just ... wrong somehow. I last saw Den in Tiverton library when I was 18 and had already left home. I bet they're still touring ...
Our part of Devon is a bit like the Bermuda triangle for semi-retired celebrities. The Cure lived in the next town, my brother worked for Rik Mayall for a while, you'd occasionally see the other one (not Tracy Ullman or Lenny Henry) from 'Three of a Kind' wheeling his trolley through Tescos. Fellini's costume designer lived next door to us (I learnt a lot from her), with a husband who fought with Franco. Caroline Quentin ended up buying the house that Dad has never really got over losing. I drove past it last time we were home - Morebath Manor is the model for Combe Grange in the book. My memories of it are fragmentary, the house in the book is a fiction, but rather like my characters start with a grain of fact the places and houses are rooted in truth. One day I want to write a 'Cider with Rosie' type tale about the place - there is a lot of raw material.
TODAY'S PROMPT: How different are your Christmases now from when you grew up? Do you still go 'home'? Have you deliberately set out to have a different life from your parents or have you retained a lot of their traditions and beliefs? Maybe you have moved away, chosen a different life - or maybe you have stayed in the same town. Today why not take some time with your journal and paint a word picture of Christmases past - jot down the images that come to mind when you are thinking about some of your best times growing up. Mine would include: coloured fairy lights, rock & roll, Morecambe & Wise, the smell of indoor fireworks, moonboots, Tammy annual, wood fire, copper chimney breast, mulled wine, prawn cocktail, shagpile carpets. Your word picture will conjure up different things to different people, but to you it will be the key to writing about your Christmas when you are ready to, your sense of coming home.
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Talking of lovely ruined things, I've been plotting a few short story ideas and came across a bunch of reference material on Keith Richards last night. I have files like this stacked up in the basement. You know how I'm always banging on about how nothing is ever wasted as a writer? If something grabs your attention, jot a note, rip a photo out, because even if you can't use it now it will trigger a story at some point. If ever I'm stuck for a character or twist, I flick through all these files until something jumps out at me. Every image, every quote grabbed me at some point over the last ten years so this system is guaranteed to work each time. (In fact, next year I'm working on an exciting new web project with a brilliant team of designers that's going to develop this idea. More news of this in the new year).
There's something quite Dorian Grey about that Rolling Stone cover isn't there? In fact there's something quite miraculous about the man full stop - he must have the constitution of an ox. I've always loved the Stones but it wasn't until reading Marianne Faithful's bio that I realised quite why Richards is so compelling in a way that the others aren't (at least to me). She famously dated Mick (Mars bar anyone?), but Richards was her first great love. He was beautiful (if not quite Johnny Depp he was at least seriously attractive when young), brilliant, intelligent - and dangerous, he still epitomises Byronic rock star excess. A lot of the great rock partnerships are like marriages aren't they? So which way are you drawn - Mick or Keith? John or Paul? Actually trick question - I'm with George. I wonder why someone like Keith has survived when so many rock stars are hellbent on destruction - what do you think, luck or intelligence? Apparently he lives near here - if I ever see him when I'm walking the hound around West Wittering I'll ask him.
I've loved hearing your reactions to Michael, the pop star boyfriend in the first book. It's good that you all wanted to slap him - he's the bad habit that's hard to break, the beautiful disaster that your friends despair of. Who hasn't had at least one relationship like that? You know it's bad for you, but you just can't help yourself ... When I was writing him, I had pictures of another Keith (Urban) plastered on the wall. Urban is a talented musician, married to Nicole Kidman, and is a recovering alcoholic. He'd been in the news recently for going back into rehab shortly after the wedding, and he was the perfect prompt - a real life rock star battling his demons, fighting for his relationship to work.
It must be a difficult balance, moving between adulation and real life. Unlike my brother, I never became a musician or performer, but at some point I'm going to write that character inspired by Richards. It's an enduring, potent mix - sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, groupies, money. A friend at college was dating a musician - I remember driving round Trafalgar Square on the way to a lecture with about 20 awestruck girls crammed in her red Golf listening to the latest song he'd written her. She dated Mick Hucknall of Simply Red for a while after that - beautiful girl, great stories. It's one of those compelling fantasies isn't it? Being singled out by a rock star. I wonder what the reality is (I'm just thinking about dear Jo Wood and her recent troubles with Ronnie, or St Jerry Hall whose mantra 'lady in the drawing room, chef in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom' didn't stop Mick's antics). Would you want the reality - or is it one of those fantasies that's better off staying just that - a fantasy?
TODAY'S PROMPT: Can you remember what it was like to be obsessed by a group or singer? Do you think it's something we grow out of? Is 'fame the thirst of youth' as Byron said? Have you ever dreamt of being a performer - or have you ever met one (or dated one)? I read an interview with Stephen Fry recently where he was talking about fame. He said one of the most difficult questions he hates being asked is 'What's it like?' What do you think it is like - would you want it? Would you want to be as famous as Persil like Victoria Beckham - or be like Madonna 'I won't be happy until I'm as famous as God.' Or perhaps as Erma Bombeck cautioned: 'Don't confuse fame with success. Madonna is one, Helen Keller is the other'. Which would you want? Do you think there's something bizarre about the obsession with celebrity? What does instant fame do to you? X-factor, Pop Idol - young girls aspiring to be WAGs ... where's this all going? Why not take some time today and jot down a few ideas about celebrity and fame - or start your own 'inspiration' files. You never know when they will come in handy.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
The '1000 tasks of maternity and matrimony' Isabel Allende talks about in her new memoirs come thick and fast this time of year don't they? At the end of a six day stint with children without the pilot (last report: admiring iguanas in the Dominican Republic), all it took was Kate Bush coming on my playlist for the new novel as I worked late last night wearing several jumpers to battle the gale whistling through the cottage, and I was in pieces. A combination of working late and the little one waking at four because Daddy's away is ... challenging. You don't need Macbeth to 'murder sleep' - three year olds can do that all by themselves. Do any of you remember 'She's Having A Baby'? It's a perfect cinema moment - life and love in the balance as this song plays.
Your comments and friends' emails after the last post have all been so interesting. This struggle, this relentless dance we are all part of as we keep partners, children, family, clients, editors and bosses happy takes some doing. Kate Bush herself famously took a decade off to raise her son. That was her priority. Marta's comment reminded me of the brilliant writer friend whose child was asked at school 'What does your Mummy do?' He thought for a moment - 'She's a typist,' he said.
So how do our books get written? I asked Joanne Harris recently, and her thoughts are wonderful: 'In my case, my advice would be: Cut your hair (saves on maintenance). Buy crease-resistant clothing (see above). Forget dusting - forever - and lastly, make sure all the balls you are juggling are balls you really, truly want to keep in the air. There's no shame in pruning the non-essential aspects of your life to make room for the essential ones...'
That's the key - decide what is essential for you. It won't be what's essential for your mother, your best friend or the girl next door. This has been a tough couple of years - but it has been my choice. Some events recently have been beyond my control - but it was my decision to write. I've always written - the deal was if we sold up, put everything into the pilot learning to fly then he would support me while I had the chance to do it full time and take the MA in creative writing at UEA. Best laid plans ... we all know what happened to the airline industry post 9/11. So, you end up working full time, then running your own company while you have one then two babies and your husband scrapes together the hours of experience you need before they'll let you fly commercially. Where is the space for writing in this? The truth is if you really want something you can make it happen. As we moved countries, towns, I carried the first manuscript with me. I read every single book on writing I could lay my hands on. I stole each precious moment I could to write. I taught myself.
A couple of years ago, I was headhunted to set up an auction house's operations in the Middle East. It was a dream job - the ultimate reward for everything I'd done in the 'day job'. The salary was amazing - the perks (house, help etc) tempting ... but I turned it down. It would have meant the pilot moving just as he'd made it to flying big jets at Gatwick, it would have meant me not being there for the children - and it would have been the end of writing. I decided what was essential for me, and writing is. It's three years now since I was able to go back to the book, a year and a half since I finished it (thanks to the blissful summer where Great Aunt Rose's legacy paid for the nanny who painted the children and hound blue). There have been countless times where I wondered if I'd made the right decision it's been that hard. The truth is books are written against the odds. One word at a time.
A long time ago, some friends in Brighton set up a lunch for me to meet Mick Jackson - he'd just been nominated for the Booker prize for 'The Underground Man', and we had a fascinating conversation about writing. 'So what's your process?' he asked. (I'd just started writing 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'). Process? Writers have processes? I didn't want to say 'well I get up an hour earlier before work and write with my keyboard balanced on a sock drawer in the corridor ... or long hand on the top deck of the number 22 after work'. But I bet a lot of first books get written like this. It's only once you've made it that success buys you hotel suites, studys, garden offices - you have to earn that space and time.
Everyone knows the stories about JK Rowling and her coffee shop. I wish I could write in a coffee shop, but one whiff of Cafe Nero (or Happy NoNos as the three year old calls it), and he kicks off. With very small children you are tied to home, which is where my 'process' comes in. During the day, I write short notes - word pictures, snatches of dialogue as I think of the new book. Backs of envelopes - post it notes if I'm being organised, till receipts, a dictaphone in the car all come into play as you go through the day. Everyone knows that frantic moment as you arrive home - groceries, hungry children, leaping hound, calls to return. The notes are sent tumbling down to the dark basement like offerings to an Oracle. They are safe down there. Someone asked me 'why don't you just have a folder in the kitchen?' Let's see - because someone will either scribble over it, rip it up or eat it (the dog not the children - well possibly the children). Every night when the house is asleep, I go down and divine what all the pieces mean, where they fit in the puzzle of the new book before I start to write. It's not perfect, but it's how I've managed. A friend asked me the other day 'So what happens when you're published? When you've bought a place, settled down - what happens when you're happy?' In other words, will I still have the same drive, the same determination to succeed against the odds? Watch this space.
So that's how I do my work - what about you? From JK in her coffee shop, to Isabel Allende's handwritten manuscripts on yellow legal pads (House of the Spirits was delivered to legendary agent Carmen Balcells in a basket apparently), we each find our way. What's yours?
TODAY'S PROMPT: Maybe you know the saying 'fall down seven times, stand up eight'. I've been thinking a lot about that recently. We all fall down - or are knocked down - again and again. Life blindsides you, maybe you're unlucky and come up against poisonous people in relationships or at work - what makes you pick yourself up and start over? Sometimes I am very glad to be descended from prime ministers and bare knuckle boxers - my genes have stood me in good stead. Perhaps with everything else going on for the holidays you - and your work - are getting pushed down on your list of priorities. Today, why not take five minutes to think about what is essential to you. Do something simple for yourself - a long bath, a proper meal, an early night. We're almost into a new year ... what do you hope it is going to bring for you?
Sunday, 14 December 2008
So where do you go with this? (Insert your answer here - this blog's inclusive - I know where I am. All other religions, faiths, disbeliefs welcome). To my (studied philosophy at uni, theology for kicks answer) she retaliated: 'Well if God invented me, and he's so good, why am I naughty sometimes ..?' Temporarily floored - concentrating on not hitting tractor up ahead/ running over kamikaze pheasant in the lane I answered 'Free will, darling, free will.' The pilot's away again - I was out of screenwash (he normally takes care of these things), it was a close run thing for the pheasant but we survived. Free will - there's a discussion for your Christmas lunch if things fall quiet over the sprouts this year.
We've talked before about whether it's possible to be a writer/artist AND be a perfect mother/parent. Not, I think was the global concensus - but we persevere in trying to get the balance right. I rather feel I'm doing a rubbish job on all counts at the moment. I am wife/mother/businesswoman/writer/housekeeper etc and it's not adding up. Artists are (supposedly) entirely self obsessed. Children are - by their sheer nature - entirely selfish at the outset. It takes years to discover you are not the centre of the universe. You can see how there are problems reconciling the two. Adults struggling to retain a part of themselves, children learning that other people matter too.
Do you ever feel guilty for being a working parent/writer? I do. We turned up just before the end of term - I'd been researching a piece for the Times all day, but remembered on the drive in we were supposed to bring cakes for their party the next day (and that I was out of screenwash/ice spray - sometimes it's like a little version of the pilot pops into my mind when he's away rather like Don Capello's angel/devil. 'Buy Screenwash!' he said). Swung by the supermarket. As we were waiting at the school gates - me clutching my boxes of prepacked crispy cakes (congratulating self for having remembered), a lovely mother (the kind of woman I would like to be when I grow up), arrived with a beautiful platter of hand iced fairy cakes. Earth's crust cracks open - descend to purgatory, do not pass go, baleful looks from the six year old. Could I ever be that perfect? Perhaps you also end up feeling inadequate on all counts. Is that a mother's lot?
Talking of photography in the last post set me thinking about one of my favourite photographers - Lee Miller. To define her as 'photographer' diminishes her. She is a heroic figure. Model, journalist, war photographer, muse ... she's pretty much the template for every female protagonist I write. She took the photograph at the head of this post (a print hangs on my wall where I write). Man Ray - the Surrealist photographer who taught her everything he knew before she broke his heart looks into space, amused - or is it bemused, next to his new hot girlfriend. Her new partner/husband Penrose looks into the air in a very British 'o Lord what are we up to now?' way, while the Eluards embrace opposite. The dynamics - the tension in this photograph ... you could write a book. That it was taken by a woman, unlike so many 'fetes champetres' or loaded images like Manet's 'Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe' adds something. It raises questions.
Anyway - if you love photography, do a search, check Lee out. Her life is fascinating. The footnote is interesting: it was only after she died that the family discovered Lee's great cache of photographs in the attic of their farmhouse. Not only was she a surrealist muse, a Vogue model, she had worked on the front line and photographed terrible things during the war for Vogue, survived great hardship and unimaginable horror. None of them realised. In later years she wrote - wait for it, cookbooks, and sadly succumbed to alcoholism. Only now, ten years after I wrote my thesis on photography, is she getting the recognition she deserves with shows at the V&A etc. She had lived, and loved, one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century, and yet it had become hidden by her role as wife, mother, foil to her husband. In this obsessive tribute to her beauty, Man Ray pasted a photo of her eye to a metronome in front of his portrait:
and here she was photographed (if I remember correctly by her then lover), in Hitler's bath tub:
Saturday, 13 December 2008
There are lots of reasons I made the enigmatic father, Jerome, a playboy war photographer in 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'. What else defines the twentieth century better than photography? Think of all the greats - Cartier Bresson, the Magnum reporters, the swinging 60s photographers of 'Blow Up'. I was lucky to meet a fascinating old guy at the gallery in Chelsea one day - the most impeccable tailoring I've ever seen (Egyptian apparently), beautifully manicured hands fluttering over sumptuous photographs he had taken of doe-eyed shepherd boys in the hidden deserts of Saudi fifty odd years ago. I think the impression he made fused with my interest in photography (I wrote my thesis on photography, fantasy and fashion). It's one of those 'almost' dream careers we were talking about a couple of days ago. There's something magical, alchemical about the whole process of developing your own prints. A dark room is up there on the wish list.
One of the things I miss about that career are the trips to Drouot - the Paris auction rooms. Next door to a big Orientalist sale, you'd find a humdrum house clearance, full of the ephemera of one person's life. Sometimes they were almost unbearably poignant - all that was left of one human existence. I'm always drawn to photograph albums. Now, when everyone has camera phones and a hard disk full of unprinted digital images it's hard to imagine how exotic photographs once were. Whole lives contained in a single album. Even in our lifetime, do you remember how you treasured single photographs of lovers, pinned up or carried with you?
I have to admit, I still have more fun with my old 35mm SLR and a roll of black and white film than with digital work. This is what photographers like Cartier Bresson were talking about with the 'decisive moment'. The one good shot. Roland Barthes talked about how photographs have the ability to 'pierce' you, the punctum. For anyone interested in the theory of photography, his book 'Camera Lucida' and Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' are fascinating - thought provoking for anyone involved in the creative arts, not just photography.
Photographs - your own, found albums in flea markets or auctions, or iconic images like Brassai's Paris street scenes are some of the most powerful prompts you can find for writing. What's the story with this image by Brassai?:
What does this picture by Tina Modotti tell you about female strength? How does it differ from the still from 'Blow Up' at the head of this post, or the gorgeous girls in Fellini and Sagan's 'Mirror of Venus' video clip at the bottom? I love them all for different reasons. 'Mirror of Venus' is out of print but I found a copy on one of my first dates with the pilot at an old book dealers - a good omen?
What's this woman thinking in Eve Arnold's beautiful image? Each one is a short story in itself, or the beginning of a bigger tale.
Annie Liebowitz's high gloss work for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair always reminds me of court paintings of the past - it's a new kind of royalty, a new celebrity class. What does this picture of Arnie tell you?
One of my favourite images is Modotti's roses - it always reminds me of my Great Aunt Rose (the brave woman who saved her husband from the Nazis by hiding him in a secret room beneath the staircase of their hotel, and helped the Dutch Resistance). Every time I see it I think of her, how she always wanted to write but didn't. Somehow the fact that her inheritance gave me the chance to finish and edit the first book (it was that or a longed for 10th anniversary trip to Venice ... the book won), is poetic justice for her. I hope she'd enjoy it.
TODAY'S PROMPT: Why do you think it is so many people say the first thing they would save in a fire (after partner, children, pets) is their photographs? Photographs seem to tell the truth - but do they really? Is it a partial truth? Why do you think teenagers photographs themselves obsessively - is it trying to see how they appear to other people? Do you have any photographs of yourself that you like? What great photographs appeal to you and why? Today, why not take one of the images above, flip through your albums, scour magazines or surf some of the photographic sites online to find a picture that inspires you and plot out a character or story. If the children are at home today, why not give them a disposable camera or Polaroid and go out for a winter walk - seeing your child's eye view of the world is fascinating (and a great help writing a young character). Have fun - smile.
Friday, 12 December 2008
Anyway - just another domestic disaster we're all used to juggling, right? The meeting was great - it's all happening, which is thrilling. The book's going out for a sneak preview, and the main submissions will be in January. But another title change is being considered on the first book - which is where I'd love your help. Here's the blurb:
Maya Dumas discovers over the course of a summer that 'love and loss come in equal measure', as she returns to her childhood home to paint her estranged mother’s portrait. When her mother reveals that not only is she dying, but that she is being blackmailed, secrets about her celebrated American war photographer father emerge. Maya finds her life changing forever as she is drawn back into the world of her peripatetic childhood, and rediscovers a secret love she thought she would never find again.
All you regular readers will know my ideas about 'method' writing - really immersing yourself in the characters, casting/visualising the book like a film. So you can picture it - Maya 'is' Emmanuelle Beart, her mother I've always seen as Catherine Deneuve, George her godfather 'is' Terence Stamp - it's set in New York, France, and the wild coast of Devon where I grew up. Hopefully you get the idea? One friend who read the samples said 'this isn't a book it's a French film'.
The title is: 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'. (Ted Hughes' original line was 'All, all the ruined lovely things' - but I rather feel things can be lovely and beautiful because or in spite of the fact life/time has 'ruined' them). The French title is 'Toutes Belles Choses Ruinees'. The problem the agency has is 'Ruined' - in the current economic climate is 'Ruined' too depressing? Do people want something ... cheerier? I love it, but can see their point - at the end of the day you want people to be intrigued, and buy the book.
They've suggested I think about alternative titles. The one I've come up with is 'The Secret Place' - as in the secret place in everyone's heart, and the literal secret place that holds all the answers to their family's secrets.
So - you're walking into Waterstone's, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Kinokuniya, John Sandoe or your lovely local independent bookstore. There are two books in front of you 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' and 'The Secret Place' - which would you go for?
I would genuinely love your thoughts - anyone who reads today, all you lovely subscribers - please click on the little grey 'comments' link at the end of this post. Also (oh this is scary ...) The only people who have read samples are my agents and a couple of brutally honest writer friends. But it's Christmas, the book is being launched in a few weeks ... anyone who would like a sneak preview, drop me an email via the 'profile' page and I'll send you a little early Christmas reading to say thank you for the fun we've all had over the last few months.
TODAY'S PROMPT: End of term today - will much writing be done? Go, eat, drink, be merry - and buy books for Christmas.
UPDATE: Thank you all for the wonderful comments coming in on the blog, by email and on Facebook. Some of my favourite suggestions for alternative titles include: 'Sex & War' and 'Recession Sucks: Get Over It'. That 'The Secret Place' is also a kindergarten euphemism for bottoms in the US adds a whole new element to things ...
Thursday, 11 December 2008
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
This is the flipside to all the Christmas glitter and yesterday's post about parties. Perhaps it's the forced jollity - the sense that we should be feeling warm and fuzzy makes us feel that if we are not there is something wrong with us? Reading round all your recent posts a lot of people are having a tough time this year. I'll stick my hand up and join you - this has probably been the toughest year of my entire life. I've mentioned on several occasions my family's propensity for Celtic seething - the Scottish/Welsh druidic/gypsy mix has resulted the ability to see the cloud before the silver lining. As those of you who've kindly hung around these last months have no doubt gathered, I've rebelled (what do you expect), and am normally able to call fate's bluff and make the best of a bad situation - but there have been so many setbacks this year. Maybe we're all feeling a bit like children at the moment - there are so many momentous things happening on a global scale that are beyond our control. How fragile the hopes and dreams we all carry with us suddenly seem.
We were joking yesterday about turning into your parents, but it's not until you hear platitudes pop out of your mouth like 'there are thousands of starving children in Africa, eat your fish fingers,' or 'what do you mean you hate your brother? There are millions of people alone tonight who would love to have a family ...' that you realise the transformation is complete. Life is a story of love and loss (which is why the first book was called 'Love & Loss' for so long). Christmas is a time when we are thinking not only of everything we love - home, family, lovers - but also everything we have lost. Christmas past tinged with regret for relationships that didn't go the distance, with grief for people who have died - perhaps this year, and aren't here to share the holiday with us. This is the time of year when we look back, and all our successes and failures are there in black and white while the future stretches uncertainly ahead.
When I was unpacking the decorations I found all our 'grown up' blown glass baubles, exquisite and fragile from our BC (before children) trees in London. Some of them are like bubbles - clear iridescent glass. They would last about two seconds with the three year old, so have been packed away again for Christmas future. Maybe you're the same - right now it feels like I'm not so much juggling balls as beautiful glass bubbles - our fragile hopes, our little family's dreams ... don't want to see a single one shattered. I was thinking today about a Stoppard quote I came across a few years ago - he said 'accept loss, all else can be treasured'. If you accept that one day everything and everyone you love now - including yourself will be gone, suddenly whatever you've been feeling isn't quite right now is insignificant. All we can do is treasure today - with all its imperfections, and seek out that silver lining.
TODAY'S PROMPT: 'The Big Swoon' Al Bowlly is an inspiration to us all - from barber to 20's superstar, knocked back by the Great Depression, forced to busk to survive, clawed his way back to celebrity (not even letting the discovery of his new wife in bed with another man on their wedding night stop him) - this man knew the meaning of guts. Grace under pressure as Hemingway put it. Fate may have caught up with him in Jermyn Street during the Blitz when a bomb killed him, but he gave it a good run for its money. As writers we are lucky - you can take every heartbreak, every worry that is currently being amplified by the forced cheer of Christmas and get it down in black and white. Offload it in your journal, get your characters to mirror your reflections - and for those of you feeling alone or lonely tonight (even if you're surrounded by people), maybe dear old Al can bring some genuine cheer.
Monday, 8 December 2008
I was genuinely disappointed not to make it to the weekend's Tarts & Vicars party. Never been to one - have you? However, the pilot is in Mexico, and not really feeling up to braving the freezing streets of Hampshire alone dressed as either a vicar or a tart I kept him company with an early night and 2am alarm. I am however looking forward to the photographs - some of the costumes sounded rather imaginative. When I was younger the Christmas choice was either hunt balls or toga parties (post Animal House I suppose?) They were rather similar on reflection. Both involved randy Young Farmers and sixth-formers with ruddy cheeks drenched in aftershave chasing giggling girls down freezing corridors or around dimly lit barns with red lightbulbs and a mobile disco. Togas are an excellent idea in sunnier climes, a bit parky in mid-winter Exmoor. But you just don't notice things like the cold when you are younger do you?
Party season is well and truly upon us. Misssy and Scarlet have both blogged brilliantly about the wonders of the office party recently - well worth a look. Is your mantlepiece heaving with stiffies this season? My parents used to be stuffed with invitations each Christmas - I think half of Devon must be permanently pickled in December. Once you've hooked up, Christmas parties become more of the matching jumpers and mulled wine variety again - it's like reverting to those parent's parties you couldn't wait to get away from. Where we lived 'between the moors' was so wild you would often have 6ft snow drifts in winter, which is quite unusual for the UK. My Dad and the other men would rescue stranded villagers in Jeeps and tractors, bring them to the party, and then (more innocent times) merrily drive them home again.
Inevitably there would be a sing-a-long around the baby grand. My uncle is a brilliant jazz pianist and I remember lying in bed listening to the grown-up parties downstairs. They'd normally swing through Bing, Jerome Kern - all the standards. My mother was the church organist and choir master - it's amazing how all those little old ladies could belt out the show tunes. Every year was the same - hiding under the electric blanket trying desperately to warm up (English people don't heat their houses or they didn't in 70s Devon) listening to 'Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man til I die ... Can't help lovin' dat man o mine ...' One other song I remember clearly is today's video clip - what made me think of it was musing about Christmas dating disasters. What is it about Christmas that seems to accelerate and heighten every emotion? I don't know what the stats are but I bet divorce lawyers are busy in January. Christmas is the season of hook-up and break-up. New Year is the time you don't want to be toasting alone - or do you?
TODAY'S PROMPT: Every Christmas party is a short story in the making. The hopes, the fears, the hidden passions, the feuds and arguments simmering below the surface. Why not have a think back over the years to your best and worst parties. For worst, you might want to provide a few triggers. If it is a romantic disaster - music (Last Christmas by Wham perhaps?), smell - (Kouros? Lynx?), taste ... you get the picture. My own favourite Christmas disasters include the one where the boyfriend who used to watch himself talking to you if there was a mirror in the vicinity (he who inspired the video clip) made full use of the mistletoe and a more than willing 'friend'. Or perhaps the family party which descended into such divisive arguments that the factions split in two, the hall became no-man's land and a few of us spent Boxing Day sheltering there with the drinks trolley passing messages from one side to the other. Love, family - if they weren't tricky enough to navigate normally, what is it about Christmas that brings everything to fever pitch?
PS: What the heck - it's Christmas - put the journal away and curl up under your blanket and enjoy:
Saturday, 6 December 2008
As Isabel Allende put it in her latest memoir 'The Sum of Our Days', this time of year 'the 1000 tasks of maternity and matrimony' seem to multiply tenfold, so this post is for anyone who needs to buy themselves five minutes - why not put the kids in front of the monitor and let Tom & Jerry do their Christmas magic. Isn't it amazing how available everything is now? I remember seeing this cartoon - only once - when I was little and have never forgotten Jerry sliding gleefully round the candy cane, playing with his reflection in the baubles. I've always hoped they'd replay it one Christmas but today is the first time I've seen it in around thirty years. Good old Youtube
Allende talks at one point about her tribe of best women friends 'The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder' - we joked in the pub the other night this might be a good nickname for our bookclub. Perpetual disorder just about sums it up at the moment. A friend started saying yesterday how she had written all her cards, wrapped the gifts, and it was all I could do to smile admiringly rather than stick my fingers in my ears and go lalalalala to drown out the contented tirade. Christmas is going to happen inevitably - I just can't quite see how at the moment.
TODAY'S PROMPT: What are your best Christmas memories? Forget about family feuds, frenzied shopping, overeating (oh, go on, just one more Quality Street, you know you want to ...). Why not cherrypick one or two of your treasured memories and work them into the plot of a short story? D'Arcy mentioned yesterday how the scent of oranges always makes her feel festive. One year I remember Dad coming home with a whole crate of tangerines still with their leaves attached from the greengrocer in the nearest moorland town. Sounds crazy, but I had never seen so many tangerines (I told you I grew up in a remote place). It seemed crazily extravagant and luxurious. You could write a whole story just based on a single memory like that.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
We went to the Christmas concert today - it's a cliche but I don't think there was a dry eye in the house watching all those tiny tinsel bedecked angels, cuddly shepherds and small people dressed up as donkeys and sheep. They were amazing - kids aged four to eight sang, danced and told their tales with the kind of easy confidence adults would die for. This is what it's all about - precious moments like that.
If you're not feeling the magic yet, Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack for 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' always does it for me. The least schmalzy of all the Christmas tales thanks to good old Charlie Brown's lugubrious nature, it pretty much sums up everything that Christmas is really about. Misssy has a great post about the best ever Christmas films (see the sidebar) - what are your favourite seasonal TV shows? In this house I'm banned from cracking open the Christmas CDs until Dec 1st (and this year it's been so busy haven't even found the boxes yet). Once this album is playing, Christmas will have officially started.
TODAY'S PROMPT: What are the smells you associate with Christmas? Why not jot as many as you can think of down in your journal - like a scent essay, an evocation of Christmas. One of the things I love about unpacking the decorations each year is finding the clove studded oranges from the year before. They've normally dried out so much their ribbons are loose and the cloves crumbling away, but there's still a magical fragrance. If you've never made them why not have a go with your children? Loop a ribbon around an orange dividing it into four quarters - tie tightly with a loop at one end to hang. Stud the four sections with cloves (you may need to poke holes with a skewer before giving the orange to the kids!) You can score lines, make patterns, even string oranges up with cinammons sticks to make garlands. A fraction of the cost of the chichi garlands in design stores and all the pleasure of doing it yourself. The smell is incredible - that and a little Vince G and I'd defy the Grinch's heart not to grow a little.