Thursday 27 September 2012

A Pet Rook and a Competition

Author, Jane Rusbridge
Jane Rusbridge is the author of two beautifully atmospheric novels, The Devil’s Music and Rook. I was lucky enough to meet Jane back when she was writing The Devil’s Music as we took part in a course in novel writing in the picturesque village of Heptonstall in West Yorkshire. Talented Jane won her place through the prestigious Ilkley Festival Short Story Competition which explains how she came to be so far from her home in Chichester on the Sussex coast.

We agreed to become writing buddies which means that I get to read various sections of her novels under the pretence of making suggestions for improvement. Really, I just wallow in her rich writing. Jane has the ability to propel you to the centre of a scene and focus in on minute details until you’re there, standing next to the characters. Even first drafts of Jane’s writing have brought me to tears.
With Jane’s second novel, Rook, just out, I thought it was time we had a proper chat for Chase, Rotherham Advertiser's Lifestyle Magazine, where I feel totally privileged to have a regular corner for book reviews and other articles.
Having a personal phobia of birds in confined places (I blame the family cat), I really wanted to know about the bird simply named, Rook. How did Jane come to choose a bird to be a central character in her novel and how on earth did she manage to convince the reader not only to imagine Rook as a pet but also to become so attached to it?
‘I actively disliked birds in cages before I wrote Rook,’ says Jane, ‘although I was quite in love with them in the air.’ She knew very little about rooks but happened to notice a lot of nest building on her way home and asked her husband if he knew where they’d come from. It transpired that his mother had kept a rook as a pet when he was growing up and, being a farmer, he also had a wealth of information on the species. After that, Jane couldn’t stop thinking about rooks and she knew an idea was forming.

When Jane was finishing passages of Rook in the garden last summer, a blackbird grew accustomed to her, perching ever closer. If Jane was indoors, the blackbird would hop along the terrace to be able to peer in the window of the room where she was seated. She’d notice how it would cock its head at an angle as if it was concentrating or listening. One day Jane was able to feed it a piece of cheese from her hand, an act later performed by central character, Nora, and described in intricate, touching detail.
Jane read Crow Country by Mark Cocker, a non-fiction book which features the great swarms of rooks and crows which roost at Buckingham Carr in Norfolk. Mark’s love for the beleaguered birds further cemented Jane’s and when he spoke of them as the most mis-understood of species because of their synonymy with death and superstition, Jane saw great scope for parallels with Nora’s complicated past.

Buckingham Carr became the location for daughter, Natalie Miller’s three day photo shoot which produced an array of stunning photos of rooks, one of which Bloomsbury’s Greg Heinimann used for the jacket design and shows a thoughtful figure staring upward at a sky festooned with rooks. One of Natalie’s rook photographs was shortlisted and exhibited in the Pallant House Open Competition. More of her striking photography can be seen here
Rook is part historical fiction touching on King Cnut and the mystery behind his illegitimate daughter. Like many of Jane’s ideas, this was a chance observation that started a tumble of ideas which grew into a theme. On a visit to local village, Bosham, for a pub lunch, Jane took a wander through the church and its grounds as she had done many times before. This time she noticed a memorial stone set into the slabs of the church floor above the coffin alleged to belong to the drowned daughter of King Cnut. The stone had a drawing of a raven on it which looked remarkably like a baby rook to Jane. She launched herself into the church records and what she found helped her form a brilliant link between Rook’s historical element with all its family secrets and Nora’s 21st century world, a theme which results in a wonderfully climactic ending.

Much of the history and description of Bosham and the Sussex coastline today is described accurately in Rook - from the pub which sometimes get flooded and the dispute about Harold’s burial place to the concerned citizens of Bosham who feared for the village being overrun with tourists should such a documentary about the village’s historical mysteries ever be made. All the characters however are fictitious and, ‘great fun to write,’ adds Jane, who particularly enjoyed writing Ada, the not particularly pleasant mother of troubled Nora. She doesn’t conform to the stereotype of the ageing woman and although frustrating in her interpretations and dismissive attitude of her daughter, she’s certainly a ‘character’.
So, with Rook now on sale, I wondered what Jane was doing now, writing number three? Jane laughs, ‘I’m gardening,’ she says, ‘and I’m enjoying my first grandchild.’ Yes, Jane is thinking about her third novel and says that it will certainly involve the Bayeux Tapestry. I ask her if she’d like to say anything else about her next project and she smiles and says, ‘No, I’d rather not.’ But then she adds, ‘Forests, I’m researching forests and the dawn chorus.’
I have a signed copy of Rook up for grabs. I've stolen the idea of a Top Tenuous from the legendary Chris Evans, I'm sure he won't mind, and I want to know your most well, tenuous connections to Jane, Sussex, rooks, Bosham or, indeed, King Cnut. My totally impartial better half will choose the winner. Answers by midnight October 5th, please.
And for a second chance to win a copy of Rook, pop over to this interview in Chase magazine and answer a simple question over there. Click here (pages 48-52) Good luck!
You can learn more about Jane and her work at

Rook (RRP £12.99) and The Devil’s Music (RRP £7.99), are published by Bloomsbury and available in all good book stores and as e-books. Rook is published with new literary imprint Bloomsbury Circus who aim to produce books as collectible objects. Learn more at
The writing charity, Arvon, runs a wide range of writing courses to suit all levels of writing experience across four residential centres in the UK. Grants are available to help with course fees. For more information, please visit:

Monday 17 September 2012

What Would You Like?

It was my birthday last week. Regular readers will know that I have an acute case of ‘Hackaphobia’ which prevents me from stating the exact date but I can say that I love birthdays and those that fall in September are every bit as enjoyable as in any other month. I enjoy the fuss and the cake and feel the only place for being depressed about getting older is from the fluffy clouds above (God willing) even if the time spent in front of the mirror plucking out grey hairs is so significant these days, I’m going to have to promote it to the To-Do list.

If I’m asked what I would like for my birthday I tend to answer, ‘a publishing deal, please’ but whilst I am thoroughly spoilt by my wonderful friends and family, I’m afraid this particular item has eluded me thus far.

However, this had me thinking of other more abstract ideas for presents I’d be happy to accept and I came up with the following list. If you would be so kind, I’d like:

… the tidying fairies to sort out my study while I sleep. First of all, I need extra storage space, about twice the amount which would fit in the room should suffice. As a priority, I could do with extra shelving for my ToBeReads as hubbie is soon to notice that the book purchasing has exceeded the read of speeding over the past few months. My lapsed one book in, one out rule of foisting much loved missives on un-suspecting fellow readers, needs to be revisited.

Next, I’d like the four black bags of old clothes to be disseminated amongst parents of younger children. The fitness ball and hoola hoop should disappear from view, only to miraculously reappear should I ever decide to use them again. Could the old computer have its own desk please? It has to stay, it has three billion six hundred thousand photos stored on it but viewing is currently restricted as the path to it is strewn with un-hung pictures and large, children-generated (very good, actually, but we’re running out of wall space) pieces of artwork. That would be a good start.

… the government NOT to allow the selling off of school playing fields. Hello! Olympic legacy?

… a self-cleaning bathroom. Nay, a self-cleaning house. And car. And cases which unpack themselves. I’ll stop there.

… my children to be totally unmoved by all negative peer pressure. (Ok, I didn’t say my requests had to be feasible, nor, in the long term perhaps, desirable but for now, in my dreams, it would make parenting so much easier.)

... my children to eschew all trashy tv and replace it with literature. See also the addendum to the above.

… winter to be resplendent in crisp, white snow which has not a jot of impact on traffic or journey time and bi-passes the slushy stage before giving way to a snow-drop be-speckled, blue-skied  spring.

… the time difference to be banned so that I could ring my sister in America at 8am our time and she be happy to hear me.

Oh, and did I mention the publishing deal? Although, ever the optimist, I can say that I am a whole heap closer to getting one than I was this time last year so I shall accept that as an extremely acceptable birthday present, thank you.

So, now it’s your turn. You’re not allowed to ask for World Peace because that’s a given. But other than that, sock it to me, what would be your perfect birthday ‘present’ this year?

Friday 7 September 2012

The Dark Side

Frightened of my own cyber shadow, I go to great pains not to reveal publicly when I’m away, just in case the ‘dark side’ visits my home when we’re not there. I know, I know, chance would be a fine thing that my missives had gone viral but, well, with the need to tell stories comes a slightly warped imagination and you wouldn’t believe the control room of villains I see plotting to pounce.

my new writing buddies from Swanwick
But, now I’m back so it’s safe to safe to admit that the silence is due to an inspirational week at the Swanwick Writers’ Conference where stimulus, loveliness and laughter were rife, where I wrote 10,000 words and where I found myself an agent who’d like to see the rest of Glass Houses. So yes, thank you Swanwick, it was wonderful. Click here for more information Swanwick Writers' School. This was followed by a fabulous family holiday in Croatia where we all fell in love with the country and its people. If I ever truly go missing, please look for me there first.

The great news is that none of my party broke anything other than a glass, although, in reality, it was actually three.

We’ve had some momentous holidays where we’ve become acquainted with the workings of a few European hospitals. When other people equip themselves with their foreign abode’s word for ‘thank you’, first on my list is ‘hospital’. It’s ‘bolnica’, in Croatian, if you’re wondering. There was the dislocated-elbow-screaming on the French camp site, not to mention the infamous arm smashing incident, already well-documented in this blog. But I say, if you’re going to break too many bones to count, do it on the final night of an amazing action packed two week holiday in the Swiss Alps and bag yourself the best room in the hospital at the foot of the Eiger, dosed up with morphine, contemplating the blue sky and snowy peaks through the almost picture window of your own ward.

I only remember one holiday being so bad that we almost came home early. It was 2006 and, somewhat unbelievably, a heat-wave of a summer. We’d taken ourselves off to North Wales in a borrowed six man tent, a luxurious upgrade to our usual 3-berth.

The weather broke. When I say ‘broke’, imagine trying to keep a hot air balloon anchored in a typhoon and you get an idea of how much the wind had picked up; tip a bucket of cold water over your head every time you exit the house and you are some way to understanding the inundation we were confronted with if we ever dared to leave the canvas. One by one, all the tents disappeared from the site. It was us and the caravans. At least the tents left of their own accord, I was so convinced ours would up and leave us in the night, despite guy ropes tied to the car, and I would be found next morning snoring in my sleeping bag, the rest of my possessions and family strewn across the field, that I slept in my clothes to protect my modesty. Worse! As it was my friend’s tent, I was petrified about returning empty-handed so any sleep was fitful at best. My friend laughed when I told her. ‘You’re joking,’ she said, ‘I’d have been so happy to be shot of the thing.’

That particular camping trip is probably the closest I’ve come to not enjoying a holiday. Cold feet, a punctured mattress held together with the contents of the first-aid kit, wet clothes slapping you in the face as you walk through the doorway, mud in the showers and soggy boxes of cereal aren’t top of my list of prerequisites for a great getaway. But I do have pleasant memories of being forced to do different things - such as going to the pictures three times in one week, learning card tricks from our equally marooned neighbours and eating two cream teas in one day. Suffice it to say, our youngest has lusted after camping ever since so it can’t have been that bad.

How was your summer? Dare I ask, did you stay dry?
Ps If you like watersports and fancy Croatia, I can't recommend these people highly enough (and no, I'm not on commission ;)) Raftrek Travel, Croatia