Friday 26 August 2011

Thanks to The Press…

This is the final day of the Sparkfest tour so I thought I’d just sneak in a short(er) answer to another of the questions which has been motivating fellow scribblers around the world this week: which author set off the spark of inspiration for your current work in progress?
There was no particular author who inspired my completed manuscript, rather two very different people in the news. One was a lady who spoke evocatively about why we should forgive the London Bombers of 7/7 even though she was the mother of one of their victims. I was in awe of her amazing strength of character, thought how much more powerful this emotion was than the, nonetheless, entirely understandable anger of other relatives and friends. She was crying, I was crying and I thought that if we could just harness what this lady had and spread it around, the world might just rub along a little bit better. 
The second person was the driver who allegedly fell asleep at the wheel causing the Selby Rail Crash. I remember seeing his face splashed across all the newspapers and thinking how complex it was. His actions were avoidable and people died as a result. And yet I knew his life would be affected for ever, that this wasn’t the face of a cold-blooded killer we were seeing, rather someone who made a stupid mistake. I wasn’t sure that this man really needed our vitriol; he’d never forgive himself anyway. Some of the people who were chastising him, had perhaps made stupid mistakes themselves but hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you know my novel is called Glass Houses, you’ll see where I went with this…!
My current effort is a re-write of a novel which I first drafted thirteen years ago.  I vividly remember scribbling down the idea on the back of three airline serviettes (I had to beg for the second two) on the flight back from my honeymoon when everybody, absolutely everybody else, was asleep. It’s funny to think that in those days I didn’t carry a pad of paper and pen with me everywhere I went! The idea came from an article in The Guardian on ‘Paupers’ Graves’. I can’t remember anything about the piece itself but I can absolutely picture it, full page as it was with its dishevelled oval shaped tombstone falling away from the tufts of grass at its base and do recall the reaction that inspired the book: how could anybody die without a single person to say farewell? What could be so bad as to lose somebody every friend and relative they ever had? That tombstone isn’t in the book but the concept certainly is.

So there you have it; I have the press to thank for hours and hours and hours spent alone in my study, just me and my keyboard.  How nice to be able to thank The Press for a change J

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Sparkfest! Jane Austen? It's complicated.

When asked the question, which book inspired me to write, I could only initially think of great works of literature which contrived to put me off reading for ever and threaten to turn me down the almost scientific path of linguistics which was my other great love.
At the risk of provoking a deluge of contradictory evidence, I have to admit that, ahem, Jane Austen just doesn’t do it for me. It may have been the way A-level English was taught by this one particular teacher who did, through our eighteen-year-old eyes, have a slightly obsessive passion for Jane Austen’s writing and everything else that went with it. However, I watch the odd period drama now with all its flouncing and pontificating self-doubt, its innocence with just a hint of naughtiness and yes, I appreciate the history but no, I still can’t get excited about a Jane Austen story.
I can picture my teacher back then in 1987 launching into another attempt to light our Austen fuses.
‘What do you hear behind the words? What is Austen doing so cleverly here?’ she’d ask, enthusiasm screaming out of every muscle in her face.
‘I-r-o-n-y?’ we’d offer. There was generally a good chance.
‘Yes! That’s it, so clever isn’t it?’ she’d say, adding, ‘for the times,’ as our cue to nod.
I know her writing is clever. I do appreciate her literary skill and, even back then, wished I could share our teacher’s exuberance for Jane Austen, but I just find the plots and characters too similar within and across the novels (granted I was only forced to read three), differing largely only in clothing or background. Perhaps I might have appreciated one Jane Austen novel in different circumstances, but six?
So, Jane Austen remains squarely in my brain as the author who put me off reading and started a literary drought which lasted into university where I read only compulsory French and German works which doesn’t count. It’s staggering really that reading for pleasure just didn’t enter my psyche during this period, having never been without a piece of fiction in my pocket up until my A-level years.
However, a chance conversation with my first employer changed all that. Astounded that I hadn’t picked up a novel of my own volition since my teens, she bought me a copy of the Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.
‘Read that,’ she said, ‘you’ll be back.’
Spare cash was an enigma to me back then. I was still paying back student debts (no student loans though, little did we know where student funding was headed) so I was extremely touched that somebody I didn’t know particularly well, would spend money on a book for me. It would be churlish not to read it.
Suffice it to say, I did read the whole of The Power of One. It’s quite lengthy, 629 pages to be precise and around three-quarters of the way through, I scraped together enough pennies and went to my local bookstore to buy the sequel, Tandia, all 900 pages! I had to order it, making a special trip into town a week later to pick up my copy, in its own, perfectly-fitting, crisp, white paper bag.
I’m sure Tandia is part of the reason why I’m still resisting a Kindle. I know it makes sense, particularly having recently flown with a certain cheap airline where half of my meagre luggage allowance was taken up with books. But the excitement of feeling that new novel pressed into my hand by the enthusiast assistant in the book shop, who assured me that the sequel was equally as good as the brilliant Power of One, is a feeling I don’t want to say goodbye to just yet.
In answer to the original question, The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is the novel which re-inspired me to become a writer. On and off throughout my childhood I’d imagined penning stories and wrote many a plot line in my head when my family thought I was simply away with the fairies (where, granted, I was, the rest of the time). During my reading drought, I forgot that dream. I pursued a career in Charity PR and Fundraising of which I enjoyed every minute but the writing dream came back once I started reading again.  And it just won’t leave me now.

Saturday 20 August 2011

365 More Sleeps

About six weeks before we go on holiday, my husband starts counting down. If he could recall his 7 x table, he’d probably tell me how many sleeps it was. I’m ashamed to say, however, that his enthusiasm is generally met with a  grunted, ‘Nooaw, don’t tell me that,’ unless I can catch it in time, remind myself not to be quite so bah humbug and mutter, ‘yes, it’s great, isn’t it?’

Until a chance chat with a friend recently, my lack of frenzied excitement for holiday remained my guilty secret.  My friend, it happily appears, has the same view of Christmas. Is it really worth it? she asks herself, as she takes the forgotten Christmas Cake out of the oven after the date’s changed one cold December night or secretly repairs her daughter’s hand-made Christmas cards where glitter festooned fairies have become rather sparkle-less as all were too busy to remind her to smear glue before the glitter. And then there are the adults’ cards - although I think I am on my own when it comes to sealing the last envelope on the eve of Christmas Eve.  But, my friend adds, once, and only once the event is in full flow, she has to begrudgingly admit that it is, indeed, worth the sleep deprivation.

My friend’s Christmas is my Holiday Preparation where I am on my own - literally, at 2am, the first suitcase teetering on the tiny metal clip above the cheap-flight-must-have-handy-weighing-scale, my quivering bicep curl bringing the scale to nose height to reveal another case a nudge heavier than 15 kilos. Then I play the in-out game again, the game which quite amused me the first time, the, ‘pick the item least needed and looking most like it weighs ¾ of a kilo’ game. Without wishing to spoil the fun, a couple of bottles of toiletries generally do it – who needs their hair de-frizzing on holiday anyway?

So I decided that this irksome, lonesome business of packing had to be done together. Many hands make light work, I told my non-plussed children and husband, the latter telling me not worry about him, he only needed a couple of pairs of pants.

Still, my dutiful children set about tackling their lists. Under stopwatch management they raced each other to grab their clothing and belongings, pausing only to ask me to iron faster, they’d lose if they couldn’t get their jeans into their pile quicker than their sister could.

When I was called to inspect, I was flabbergasted – not by the speed with which they’d accomplished the task or that each had managed everything on the list (give them a competitive angle, dangle the promise of a larger sweet for the winner and they’ll rise to any challenge) but by the difference in the size of the piles they’d created.

Both had exactly the same lists. But my youngest, seemingly the most extrovert but actually, the most cautious, had twice the pile her laid-back sister had. In front of me lay two piles of personality; my daughters there in the form of light hand-luggage and excess baggage smiling up at me, eldest with her, ‘that will do, can I go back on the trampoline now?’ attitude and youngest just wanting to be absolutely sure, so let’s pack a couple of alternatives.

I had to smile, for I, too, perform to type when I prepare for holiday and so can only admit that it’s my personality which ruins the build-up for me. Why does the fridge have to be cleaned out if I haven’t managed it before 11pm and the alarm is set to go off five hours later in order to get us to our early flight? Why do I need to sweep the floor, too late to hoover, before we leave – frightened the local mouse contingent will choose our house for their annual vacation and party while we’re away? And the towels. They don’t really need to be clean and dry. I could wash them after holiday, yes, even with all that extra post-holiday laundry.

After all, what did my children wear on holiday? A third of what we packed. Will I learn for next time? Goodness, what kind of a mother do you take me for?