About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Moomins: Tove Jansson's Genius

Given the state of the weather in Scotland at present, I posted on Facebook that I wanted to 'fill my tummy full of pine needles' and hibernate for the rest of the winter. To my surprise, many of my friends had no idea what I was talking about, and had never read Tove Jansson's 'Moomin' books. I can understand the reluctance to try them, because if you don't know about Moomins, and have never read the books, you may well assume that they are the usual twee anthropomorphism and leave it at that.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I read my first Moomin book - like so many books that I later came to love - because my father discovered  and enthused about them. My family were great readers. My mum's side of the family (Leeds, Irish, working class) gave me a series of old and magical  'Wonder Books' full of fairy tales and extracts from the classics. They also gave me Noddy and the Famous Five and the Secret Seven and the Faraway Tree. I was pretty obsessive about Noddy, much to my aunt's chagrin. She had to read them to me over and over again, thinking, so she told me when I grew up, what a selfish little pig he was!
Blyton was followed by Just William, The Alice books, the Wind in the Willows and then - later on - Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and an abiding love of Dickens. My Polish scientist dad gave me quirkier reads - well, quirky for the time: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, long before they became popular, the Narnia books, Three Men in a Boat, 1066 and All That - and the Moomins. But of all of them, I think it is the Moomin books that I love most.
It is almost impossible to categorise these books, which means they probably wouldn't have a hope in hell of being published nowadays - a sobering thought. The earlier books in the series, Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland and so on, are lighthearted, funny, poetic, imaginative but always with a little thread of what I can only describe as wisdom running through them. No heavy handed life lessons here - just a profoundly reassuring but unsentimental understanding of the power of love and the value of kindness. When Moomintroll wears the magical and dangerous Hobgoblin's hat, and has his entire appearance changed by it, when all his friends don't recognise him, and mock him, and tell him to go away, it is his mother, Moominmamma, who looks into his eyes for a long while, and says 'yes, you are my Moomintroll.'
When he was little, this was my son's very favourite book. His battered copy still falls open at an illustration of a  bridge over a stream, with young Moomintroll and his free-spirited friend Snufkin contentedly dangling their legs over it. I don't know quite why this image exerted such power over him, but I understand it very well. Many of us, I think, like to live our literature if we can!
The books though, do become more reflective and - eventually - somewhat darker. Moominland Midwinter, in which Moomintroll finds that he wakes up from hibernation much too soon and has to learn to adjust to winter, is not only entertaining but an exploration of other ways of living and our tolerance of them. We have all known - and secretly admired - a Little My (brave, difficult, rude, edgy, impulsive) a shy Misabel, an obsessively tidy Fillyjonk. The energetic Hemulen, who desperately tries to organise everyone and make them participate in winter sports whether they want to or not,  is a creation at once so comic, so recognisable, and so ultimately poignant that it's no wonder Philip Pullman calls Jansson a 'genius'.
By the time we get to Moominvalley in November (in which the moomins don't really figure at all) and Moominpappa at Sea, which are both about the acceptance of change and loss and other profoundly adult emotions, as well as beautifully simple and imaginative 'reads' Jansson is displaying awe-inspiring skills.
I dramatised her short adult novel, The Summer Book, a gentle story about the relationship between a little girl and her grandmother, for BBC Radio 4. It was directed by Marilyn Imrie and starred Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson. I had more letters about that production than almost anything else I ever dramatised for radio.
Jansson was a Swedish Finn, an artist as well as a writer, certainly a philosopher. The illustrations are part of the unique charm of these books. But it wasn't till I visited Finland itself, and worked there as a teacher of English for a couple of years, that I realised just how very 'Finnish' these books are, how the changing seasons are so important in the lives of the Finnish people, and just how many of my lovely students seemed to display all kinds of traits to be found in the books themselves. It wasn't necessary but it certainly added another dimension of understanding. I adored Jansson's work before I went to Finland. I admired it even more by the time I came back.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Father, in Poland, in the Snow



I'm spending a lot of time researching Polish history in general, my family history in particular, and just generally feeling my way back into that time and place. I find myself absolutely enchanted by it! It's almost impossible to describe to a non-writer that feeling of entering into another world that seizes you at the start of a project and - with the occasional hiccup when you wonder what on earth you are doing with your time - possesses you for days, weeks, months and just possibly years on end.
That's my father, Julian, in the picture. He was Julian, not the more Polish Juliusz, since my grandfather was an anglophile. Just as well really, given what happened next. Not sure how old Julian was in this picture, but he learned to ski and ride at the same time as he learned to walk. In the UK, where he finished up at the end of the war, these were not really pursuits he could ever resume. Many years later, I remember him pony trekking, here in Scotland, when our son was very small. He seemed as comfortable then, on horseback, as he must have been as a small boy. I'm not sure that he ever tried ski-ing again, although in this picture he's a supremely confident young man. If you look closely, you'll see that there's a man in an apron, in the background, standing beside the tall structure (what is it? I don't know!) and, presumably, 'keeping an eye' on him.

The picture above - summer, this time - shows him at the wheel of his father's car, (I do like the motoring gear, the goggles etc!) In the background, you can just make out a building of some sort, a group of cottages or thatched houses. And again, it's the sense of mystery about old pictures like this that I love. When and where was it. Certainly pre war. Can't you just smell the leather of the car seats? It was the only car in the district and my young grandfather couldn't really afford it, but he bought it anyway. And what is the blurred object at the top right? This picture always gives me a little frisson since the child that my father was looks so like the child that I was!
But of course, his life changed very radically, in the UK. He was a 'refugee alien' by then and such pursuits as ski-ing were way beyond his reach. He had a choice. He could work in the mills or the mines, so he worked in a textile mill for some years, and went to 'night school.' I remember him cycling home on his push bike, when I was a little girl.
He became a very distinguished research scientist, which says a great deal for his spirit, and his determination - considering that he had lost everything, and I mean everything, except a handful of battered photographs to remind him of his past.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Copyright, Intellectual Property, Publishers and and Writers

Recent debates about these issues on Twitter and Facebook became heated and no wonder. As writers, we feel that our very livelihoods are at stake. But since at least one of these threads degenerated into an unpleasant attack on publishers, who are surely not the villains of the piece, I thought it might be worth revisiting the subject.

One of the problems is always assumed to be that we are faced with a generation of young people who have grown up with the idea that all information 'out there' should be free. They will happily pirate software, download and share tunes. Partly, this is the fault of an older generation who, in far too many cases, condone what is essentially theft. We can all help to remedy this in a small way, by setting a good example for our children and grandchildren and pointing out just how much effort - and expense - goes into creating the finished product. But given the impossibility of instituting mass prosecutions (actually, it's possible, but financially ruinous) I think everyone involved in the so-called Creative Industries needs to be able to debate these issues, and explore ways of dealing with them, to the advantage of all concerned.

Most writers can think of bouquets and the odd brickbat we would like to award to certain publishers (sometimes, come to think of it, the same publisher!) but I also think that when the relationship works well, as it so often does, we value it enormously. As a personal example, I could name Nick Hern, who has been publishing plays for many years and keeping them in print as well. Every year, when a nice little cheque arrives for my royalty share in one of his excellent anthologies of Scottish plays, I find myself giving thanks for his commitment and dedication.

But we also need publishers because they can save us from ourselves. Self publishing is a respectable option for professional writers with a project which may not be commercially lucrative enough for conventional publishing or a non fiction project with a very specialised market. I've self published a poetry pamphlet to my own satisfaction - but most of the poems had been published elsewhere first. And I wouldn't rule it out for other projects. But we have all read - or tried to read - dire examples of self published work, where it is clear that the writer has a fine conceit of his own abilities coupled with no editorial sense whatsoever. Writing is a craft and too many beginning writers seem to have little idea of the hard graft, the many revisions and drafts - as well as the vast amount of work involved in designing, producing and distributing that small paper and cardboard entity known as a book. Like all jobs which we know little about, this part of the business is a great deal more complicated than we suspect. It is argued that there should be far fewer gatekeepers, only 'aggregators' and that people should be allowed to decide for themselves. I've been known to argue as much, myself. But the grim reality is also that it can be very hard to find the occasional treasure amid the mountain of ill-thought-out verbiage and most of those treasures are the work of fellow professionals with many years of experience.

However, changes in technology do mean that all of us are going to have to adjust our way of thinking, publishers as well, although I'm sure many of them - perhaps the small to medium concerns most of all - have already taken this on board. When it comes to new developments, the video games industry may have something useful to teach us. We often assume that if people are willing to pirate music, they will also pirate  game downloads. Experience and hard evidence, however, tell developers that this is not necessarily the case. Huge numbers of people will happily pay £5 or £6 for a video game download, even quite a simple one, and many companies of all sizes are making themselves a very good living this way. Not only that, but the stakes are that much lower, so there's room for experimentation and the odd failure.

So we must ask why. Partly it seems to be the perception of value for money. Partly, it's because, even with these reasonably simple games,  there is the possibility of an update, or other 'enrichment' in the future. And partly, I suspect, it's that - although the video games industry has its problems, a relationship has developed between producer and customer (often by means of related online material, blogs etc) which in turn leads to an acknowledgement of value and a willingness to pay. Since a similar positive relationship usually exists between writer and reader, we must find new ways of tapping into all that goodwill. Most of us already do this,  but I get the sense that the games industry is also researching itself in a seriously committed way, (my own son is part of that movement!) while so much of publishing's relationship with the new technology seems to be posited on assumption, rather than hard evidence. But perhaps it's too soon. Perhaps the evidence will come. At any rate, the advent of e-readers, of Kindle and similar methods of delivery for the written word mean that the technology is in place to do the same thing for publishing. These are early days, and there are interesting possibilities for writers and for booksellers as well as publishers, in facilitating this method of delivery, not as a replacement for the conventional book, but as another aspect of distribution to a changing demographic.

As writers, we should be supporting bodies such as the Society of Authors, in making sure that we are fairly rewarded for our Intellectual Property within this changing market. But I think we might also stop talking about copyright, and start talking about IP. Intellectual Property theft has many manifestations, from the blatantly criminal pirating of material, on an industrial scale, to the borrowing-without-permission of copy from a blog or website as a one-off irritant. The former should be addressed with the full might of the law - or as much of it as publishers and writers can afford. The latter might be better remedied, in the first instance at least, by pointing out the 'error' and asking for attribution. In hard cases, fighting fire with fire, online ‘outing’ of culprits can have devastating effects on recalcitrant offenders. But whatever the transgression, it is the concept of Intellectual Property that seems to me to stand most chance of appealing to the emotional involvement of those people at the other end of the chain, who are guilty of the many small piracies that could add up to a big loss of income for all of us. If I accuse you of infringing my copyright, you may not give a damn. If I accuse you of stealing my Intellectual Property, you may at least pause for thought. Words are powerful tools when it comes to stirring up emotions. As writers, we know this better than most!

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to turn the tide by conventional means. Somebody working in the video games industry said to me, 'Effectively, you can't really protect your IP. People will steal it if they want to.' But the companies involved at least do whatever they can to try to protect their creative ideas, not least in enforcing secrecy agreements on their employees. There can be few professional writers who haven't seen at least one cherished idea turning up with somebody else's name attached. Most often it's pure coincidence. Occasionally you just know that it's been stolen, but there's not a thing you can do about it. And you have to get the stuff out there, take the risk. This is quite different, however, from seeing a project which you and others have taken to hard-won completion being pirated by somebody else - these are the true parasites and they drain the lifeblood of the industry. But we must remember that tides are also sources of energy, and perhaps, instead of struggling to turn this particular tide, we should be seeking ways to harness it to our own advantage.

As an example, I do wonder why publishers can't keep their entire backlists active in download form, for which readers would pay a smallish amount, a fair percentage of which could go to the writer. There are, no doubt, all kinds of logistical and legal problems with this, but it seems to me that the availability of many of these texts, coupled with a willingness to support writers in their own publicity drives, might be instrumental in sparking a renewal of interest in a particular writer and lead, eventually, to hard copy sales of new work. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for agents, authors and publishers to hammer out reasonable deals along these lines. At the same time, this might allow smaller publishers to address the problem of the 'collapse of the mid-list.' I can visit a supermarket these days, and hardly see a single book that I might want to buy, although I can fully acknowledge that no self respecting business is going to turn down the chance to capitalise on a brand. On the other hand, the potential cheapness of downloads, means that many publishers might be able to follow the example of the games industry and supply new mid-list novels, initially as downloads, relying on the potential of the internet to spread the word to niche markets and capitalising on the often considerable online following of a mid-list author.

A parallel and fascinating example from the world of games involves a game called Flower, which – being gentle, philosophical, poetic and demanding of no particular technical skill - is vastly different from our conventional ideas of that industry. It was never going to be a so-called Triple A title, on sale in the big stores. But sold on the Playstation Network, as a £6.00 download, and spread largely by word of mouth, bloggers and a few mentions in significant books, it gives hours of pleasure to many thousands of people worldwide, (myself included) and has made a tidy profit for its extraordinary development team, with the backing of a major company, backing which would probably not have been forthcoming without the possibility of distribution in this easy, cost effective way.

It is my view that, in the current highly polarised debate, we are not only underestimating the exciting potential of new technologies, but  also underestimating the genuine fairmindedness of many - not all, but certainly many – people, young and old, who would be prepared to pay a reasonable price for what they see as a good return in terms of entertainment.

We have to work out exactly how to organise this team effort, between publishers, online and real world booksellers, (the return of the smaller, private, niche seller might be facilitated if downloads could be obtained instore - especially if these smaller bookstores offered coffee, wifi, and their own expertise and advice), agents, writers, illustrators and all those other invaluable professionals in the middle, such as editors and publicists. All of these have their counterparts in the games industry, and without them, nobody would ever think they could produce a reasonably complex and entertaining game, even as a simple download. Or if they did, they would soon find out how hard it was. The 17 year old genius producing a best selling game in his bedroom is something of a myth. Look at the credits (beautifully organised within the game itself) on Flower. Look at exactly how many talented people have worked to produce this ‘simple’ hugely creative game even though it was initially conceived in the mind of one man. It is in working out how best to facilitate something similar for the written word that the challenge truly lies.

Are we up for it? I certainly hope so. Because I think that if we go about it in the right way, the benefits for all concerned could be immense.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Polish Grandfather

Here he is, my Polish grandfather, Wladyslaw. This little picture of him (looking a bit, I always think, like Olivier, playing Maxim de Winter, in Rebecca)  accompanied my father to the UK, via Monte Cassino, in the later years of the war, when dad was still a very young man. Nobody knew what had become of Wladyslaw, and it was many years later when I began to piece his story together. I am still doing it and it has proved to be altogether more romantic and tragic than almost anything I might be able to make up. One of my father's favourite movies was Dr Zhivago, and - when I began to find out exactly what had befallen my grandfather, and what an extraordinarily eventful, albeit very short, life he had led - I could see exactly why this should be so. There's definitely a quality of that film - with its tale of a deeply attractive man, a beautiful woman, an illicit and ultimately doomed love affair, the demands of family and the tragedies of war - about Wladyslaw's story.
But fictionalising all this - ah, that's where things get a little tricky. I always find, when writing historical fiction, or drama, that there comes a moment when, no matter how much research you may have done, you have to give yourself permission, as it were, to turn aside from the research and dive head first into the piece of fiction you wish to create. But the closer you are to your subject matter, the harder it can be. It is always the rejoinder of the beginning writer, when faced with editorial criticism of a piece of fiction, however mild or tentative, to say, 'But it really happened like that!' Which is, of course, entirely immaterial. As long as there's a certain level of authenticity about a piece of fiction, as long as you don't make howlers that jolt your reader out of their willing suspension of disbelief, the fact that 'it really happened like that' is neither here nor there. What matters is the 'made up truth' of your work. As my agent says, there's always the risk, with historical writing,  that a project will fall between two stools, being neither accurate non-fiction, nor a fully imagined piece of fiction. And the closer you are to your subject matter, the harder it can be to achieve the required separation.
My new novel, The Amber Heart, set in nineteenth century Poland, is finished  now and with my agent,  and I'm about to start work on the sequel, The Winged Hussar. But I'm aware that with this tale, I'm on more precarious territory.
The Amber Heart is loosely based on some episodes from my own family history. The house - called Lisko, in the novel -  was a real house - alas, no longer in existence. One of the characters, in particular, was inspired by an historical character about whom there was a certain amount of material in the public domain, because he was a Polish representative to the Austro Hungarian parliament. And the love story which is central to the Amber Heart was inspired by the tale of a scandalous liaison, related to me by my father, about his own grandmother. But that time and place always seemed so remote, fascinating and wildly romantic, as to be the very stuff of fiction. The resulting novel isn't quite family history - it's genuine fiction, inspired by family stories. With the Winged Hussar, the sequel, however, I am on more familiar territory. I grew up with stories of Wladyslaw. I never met him, but I knew a great deal about him, even before I began to interrogate his life. I met one of his sisters, and spent time with his best friend. I loved him although I had never met him, used to dream that one day, he might turn up on our doorstep. So how to turn his life story into a credible piece of fiction? And how to avoid the pitfalls along the way?
Well, I came up with the idea - and I must confess that I've borrowed this from an artist friend who is embarking on a creative practice PhD - of keeping detailed diaries/scrapbooks all about my research and my writing, not just the usual complicated notes for the novel, but books that will allow me a certain amount of reflection on the process itself and my own emotional response to it. These should allow me to document the reality behind the story, should give me something concrete, which I may even be able to turn into an interesting non fiction project once the new novel is finished. The diaries will, to some extent, anchor me in reality, and allow me to reflect on my own pursuit of this mysterious character who is a part of me and to whom I feel strong emotional ties. But at the same time - I hope - they will also allow me to move confidently forward into the stand-alone fiction that the Winged Hussar must become, if it is to be a marketable and readable novel and a genuine sequel to The Amber Heart.
And I'll post a little of that exploration on here, from time to time, especially where I feel it may help others who may be embarking on similar projects.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ideas, Poland, The Amber Heart and The Winged Hussar


A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of first year Creative Writing students on the topic of 'Ideas'. It is probably the single most frequently asked question during readings and talks  - 'Where do you get your ideas from?' - and the temptation to reply with suggestions like 'www.ideas.com' and 'Ideas-R-us' is almost irresistible. Well, I did resist the temptation, and I think the session was both productive and interesting - they were a lovely group of youngsters - but I still feel that if you have to ask that question, you may be in the wrong line of business. Most writers of my acquaintance have far more ideas than time to work on them. We all have folders and/or notebooks, stuffed with them. Of course most of these fledgling ideas don't stand the test of time, and are discarded along the way - get tipped out of the nest, so to speak. But every now and then, something stays with you and nips at you until you simply have to do something about it. The ideas are never the problem. But getting started, deciding what shape something should take, finishing, revising, revising again, finding time, finding commitment, finding a certain relentless application, revising for the twentieth or even the thirtieth time - all these can be a little problematic. But not the ideas. They just come and keep on coming.
However, I am currently in a bit of a quandary. My big Polish historical novel, The Amber Heart, is currently with my agent, who loves it, and is about to start sending it out. The Amber Heart has been rewritten to within an inch of its life and we are both very happy with it. It is set in the nineteenth century and is very loosely based on some episodes from my own impossibly romantic family history in Poland's 'wild east'.  I am sitting here with a draft of  a Scottish historical novel called The Physic Garden which I think has potential, but which I also know needs a great deal of work, (essentially, changing a first person narrative to a third person narrative, and adding in several other points of view) before it can be sent out. So I'm wondering whether to do the necessary work on that, because I'm very fond of it, and think I could make it work, before going back to Poland.
But if I go with my heart's desire, what I really want to do is to start writing the sequel to The Amber Heart. This is - again very loosely - based on the story of my grandfather, the grandfather I never knew, who was born in a sleigh, and went on from that somewhat surprising start in life to have a short, dramatic, and also impossibly romantic story. It will be called The Winged Hussar. I have done lots of factual research already, know more or less what the story is, and feel a bit like a diver on the edge of a pool. Once I pass the point of no return, that'll be me for the next year or so. But it will be a big project - I know that it will be emotionally draining - and I need time and space to work on it, which means that I also need somebody out there to have a little faith in The Amber Heart. At present, I'm in a kind of limbo.
And here's the interesting thing. I've been browsing online for pictures of Lwow/Lemburg/Lviv which was the closest city to the place where these people lived, and the city where my grandfather first met my grandfather. Back then it was Polish - now it's Ukrainian. These were deeply troubled borderlands, and that's part of the story. But to my surprise I find that eBay has a number of old, hand tinted, colour postcards of the city, not just buildings, but street scenes, with people, horses, horse-drawn vehicles, trams, from the early years of the twentieth century. I find that I can sit for hours, gazing at these. I'm even in the process of buying some of them. I find them not just fascinating, but curiously moving. They give me a small pain, in my heart, a sense of sorrow, loss, nostalgia. Not sure what the right word is, but I'm fairly obsessed with them right now. It strikes me that any one of these people could be one of my forebears, but I wouldn't know it. That man crossing the street, he could be my great grandfather. In another picture, there's a smart little girl, arm in arm with an older woman, and she could be my grandmother. Those shops, perhaps they visited them. For many years, when my father was young, I was told stories about this time and place, but they were as remote and inaccessible as fairy tales. Now, suddenly, because of the internet, they are real, they push themselves into my consciousness and into my dreams - a thousand stories, begging to be told. I'm obsessed with them. What can I do, but obey? Where do you get your ideas from? That's the easy bit. It's knowing exactly what to do with them that's problematic.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Paying the Piper, Again.

Excellent piece about 'getting paid' on Jenn Ashworth's blog - here . I think we all know this, but I also think that we can't be reminded of it too many times, because it's a hard row to hoe and we regress, unless reassured that fellow professionals, like Jenn, feel the same. The labourer IS worthy of his or her hire, and just because we love what we do, we shouldn't be conned into thinking that it isn't work. It is.