Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Not Your Friends

Charlie Brown and Lucy, by Schulz

If I had to give one piece of advice to writers who are just starting out, or to those travelling hopefully in the early stages of the journey, it would be this: many of the people you encounter along the way, agents, publishers, managers, interns, editors, producers, directors, even those who work for agencies charged with funding the arts - remember that they are not your friends.

I have plenty of fellow writers and actors I've worked with, and I would count almost all of them as my friends. We share experiences in common, we sympathise with each other, we may well compete from time to time, but we also look out for each other when the chips are down. And even when we don't see each other for a while, we pick up where we left off when we do meet. That's real friendship.

When I look back over a long career in writing and publishing, I can see that most of the mistakes I've made - and I've made plenty - have involved me misinterpreting a warm professional relationship as genuine friendship. 

It never was. 

This is not a bad thing. We don't, for example, expect our doctors or dentists to be personal friends, as long as the relationship is polite and 'friendly' and mutually beneficial. Ditto our solicitors, accountants, and whatever other professionals we work with. There may be exceptions, but that's usually because the friendship predates the profession, or the professional relationship runs parallel to the personal friendship and has lasted for many years. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the situations where that was the case and, alas, the people in question are dead. 

Writers are often to be found extolling the 'friendship' they have with their 'wonderful' agent or director  or publisher. I've done it myself more than once. It's hard not to see it as friendship, when there are so many similarities with the real thing: the long, mutually supportive conversations, the praise, the positivity, the helpful suggestions, the promises. 

Unfortunately, and unlike real friendships that can persist through thick and thin, over many years, professional relationships may not. Sometimes they end suddenly and unexpectedly, with a letter or email. Occasionally, just when you thought things were coasting along nicely, you feel the chill wind of disapproval, followed by silence. Sometimes you realise that the person who was once so responsive - the person who made you think 'this time, it will be different!' -  hardly responds at all. You make a hundred excuses for them. To yourself and to other people. I've done this countless times with different people, giving them the benefit of the doubt, shrinking away from the obvious conclusion. Like Schulz's Charlie Brown, you can't resist one more try at kicking that ball. Afterwards, you liken it to those love affairs where you make excuses until no more excuses will do. 

It isn't a love affair at all. It's a professional relationship, no more, no less. 

The cut off is invariably a commercial decision. Mostly, it's that you simply aren't making them enough money. For professionals, the business always comes first. And you know what? That's exactly the way it should be. As long as it cuts both ways. 

It can't be said too often. A professional relationship is not a friendship, no matter how much it might masquerade as one. This is not to say that it can't be polite, congenial, supportive and very good while it lasts. All of that. But when push comes to shove, they are not your friends, and if you begin to believe that they are, you are, I'm afraid, doomed to disappointment. 

The corollary of this should be that you are free to do the same thing. Your career comes first. Look out for yourself.  Don't hang on to a failing business relationship, however cordial, because of misplaced feelings of loyalty. Save that for your real, personal friends. They're the ones who deserve it. Where business is concerned, and writing is a business as well as a vocation, speak softly and carry a big stick. Be nice, be polite, but always be aware of what suits you and your work best. They won't mourn the loss of you at all, if you walk away. Because they really are not your friends.

Some Book Recommendation - Books about European History


A little while ago, I wrote this piece for a fairly new site called 

It was a great pleasure - and certainly related to the massive amount of research I had undertaken, both for my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish side of my family, and a previous 'companion' volume, A Proper Person to be Detained, about the Leeds Irish side.

But in considering which books to pick, I was also taken back to the research I had done for my novel The Jewel, about Jean Armour, Robert Burns's longsuffering but largely unsung (except by the poet himself!) wife - and back even further to my radio dramatisation of Stevenson's great adventure story. 

Most writers are very fond of reading so it's good to be able to write about the books that we've loved enough to want to recommend them to other people. 

A Nice New Kindle


Here's my nice new Kindle in its nice new case. A fairly bog standard Paperwhite. 

This is my fourth e-reader to date. The first was even more bog standard - an early Kindle - but did sterling service. The second broke down but Amazon replaced it immediately. The third one has lasted for some six years of constant use. It was used for several hours every day, it was routinely dropped on the floor when I fell asleep while reading. It got lost among the bedcovers. It is a well travelled Kindle. But alas its time had come. 

It is still working. Just rather slowly as befits its age. And crashing a bit too much. And developing strange foibles. (I sympathise. Me too.) 

The case was in worse condition than the Kindle. We'd find odd bits of pink plastic in the bed. 

Anyway, I was attached to it, and postponed replacing it till - having been paid for some work - I thought the time had definitely come to find a new one. 

If you have an Amazon account, and buy your Kindle from Amazon, it is the easiest thing in the world to set it up. In fact my only problem was with our 200 year old house, with its immensely thick walls, and trying to set it up in in a part of the house where it wasn't picking up the hub properly.  As soon a I moved downstairs it worked like clockwork. Or better than clockwork, let's face it.

I love books. Have a room full of them, and overspill on shelves in the other rooms too.

But I love my Kindle even more. It goes without saying that the availability of books is wonderful - but I love the way I can dim the light a little, if I want to read in the early hours without disturbing my husband. Or change the font size.  I love the way it switches itself off when I fall asleep (even if it is tangled in the bedclothes.) But remembers my place for me. I love the way it is slim and simple and reasonably light, and allows me to take a whole library away with me when I'm travelling. 

Of course I can read on my phone and on my laptop if I want to and I sometimes do. But nothing beats my Kindle for ease of use. And no - I'm not being paid to write this! 

Too Much Hype

Out now in paperback

I'm a voracious reader and depending upon length, I can get through a couple of books in a week. I read most of my fiction on my Kindle Paperwhite, late at night or in the early hours of the morning, with the light off - so that I don't disturb my longsuffering husband, although the thud as the Kindle slides onto the floor when I fall asleep has been known to wake him up with a jump. 

Except that for a few weeks now, I haven't been able to find anything that I really want to read. Which is crazy when you think about the number of books published each year. 

Partly, I put it down to the fact that, having galloped through all of Fred Vargas's brilliant Commissaire Adamsberg novels, I'm feeling bereft without him. 'He' being Adamsberg. I know Vargas is female. But it's like the end of a love affair. Nothing quite matches up to the beloved, so everything I've tried to read since, with a few notable exceptions, has seemed a bit 'meh'. 

If you don't know these books, you could do what I did, on the recommendation of my good friend Alison, who first introduced me to this writer: begin with the magnificent, magical Ghost Riders of Ordebec - captivating pretty much from the first page - and then go back to the beginning of the series. 

I may just have to read them all again, I'm missing Adamsberg and his world so much. 

Since I finished the last one, trying to read more slowly to prolong the pleasure, I've tried for a couple of months to find something equally involving, thought provoking and multi layered. I've searched and I've downloaded samples. And I've become ever more frustrated and angry.  

Hyperbole. That's the problem. 

Every book from the major publishers is now touted as the best thing ever. The over-promotion is almost bound to result in disappointment. Right now, at the tail end of a particularly grim period, I find myself looking for well written fiction, good storytelling, believable characters and a reasonable mix of triumph and tragedy. I don't need the best thing since sliced bread. I just need something well made and satisfying. 

Last night though - and I'm naming no names - I came across a fairly new crime novel that had been praised to the moon and back. I downloaded a sample. I've learned the hard way about being tempted into buying something without first reading a chapter or two, unless I already know and love the author. It's one of the benefits of reading on a Kindle that you can do just that, and then go on to buy the book with ease. Even at 2am. 

Except that when I opened the sample, instead of finding the first chapter, I found ELEVEN PAGES (I counted them in a rage, and I don't use a particularly large font size on my Kindle) of quotes telling me how wonderful this writer and his books were, just in case I was in any doubt. Now all publishers and self publishers add a few positive reviews to our books. I've just checked a couple of my traditionally published titles and there's a page of well chosen quotes. Even Ice Dancing, above, just out in paperback, has a single page. It's normal. But they're meant to reassure the potential reader, not browbeat them into submission. 

By the time I had waded through page after page of turgid and exclamatory praise, I wasn't very well disposed towards the book itself. I read on a bit to see if it matched the promotional overkill. It didn't. It was ordinary. And a bit glib. There was a certain satisfaction to be had in deleting it, but I'd rather have had a really good read. 

Still, all is not lost. I've gone back to Poldark - I read the first two books during the winter, and now I've turned to Book Three. What a relief to lose myself in vivid, well structured writing, great storytelling and above all engrossing characters - the kind of book you look forward to reading and then enjoy so much that you can hardly bear to put down. That magical, enviable sense of entering a world of someone else's creation - one that Vargas's quite different, but still wonderful Adamsberg novels gave me too. 

If you haven't already read them, do try them. 

We Need to Talk About Hierarchies

Riding the waves ... 

Over lockdown, I've been having some online conversations with fellow creatives about what we want from our work, and how that changes as we grow older. How we manage our expectations. How we deal with disappointment. How we navigate the line between working at what we love and getting reasonable payment for that work. 

The real trigger for this post, though, may have been somebody referring to 'writers lower down the ladder'. It is a common enough expression and one that we often find ourselves using or implying. I've probably used it myself.  But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that the hierarchical model is useless where creative careers are concerned. If you see your career progression in terms of some hypothetical hierarchy, where you're aiming for status, authority, celebrity and massive remuneration, you will almost certainly be doomed to disappointment. 

Worse than that, you may waste good writing time hoping for your big breakthrough, when you should be getting on with writing. This isn't a counsel of despair. Nor does it underestimate the skills required, skills that you'll mostly acquire by practising every day. Reading a lot and writing a lot. 

The truth is that there is no single ladder. For the vast majority of people, a creative career is a giant game of snakes and ladders, with most of the ladders turning out to be more like step stools - and a whole lot of snakes of varying lengths, some more deadly than others. 

There are exceptions. There are wildly successful people. Some are fine writers. Some, not so much, but they have tapped into something in the popular imagination, and good for them. I may envy their success, but I don't begrudge it. But they are all outliers. You may as well go and buy a lottery ticket. The odds of mega success are pretty much the same. Somebody will win big every week just as somebody will achieve genuine, enduring, multi million pound worldwide best seller status. But if you do the lottery, the most you stand to lose is a couple of quid a week. If you waste a lifetime pursuing mythical best seller status as a writer, you may well lose a whole lot more: the joy of writing, of loving what you do, of honing your craft, of - yes - making as much of a living as possible along the way, but of not letting the pursuit of somebody else's expectations or fashions impinge too much on what you feel in your bones you should be writing. 

Besides, as the wonderful William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything' - so you're just as likely to make it big following your heart as you are following somebody else's 'how to' prescription. Or last year's fashion.

The myth of the ladder to success - if you try hard enough and climb long enough you'll make it - is such a powerful one that all writers seem to subscribe to it when they're starting out. Me too. But it's demonstrably untrue - a tale usually told by those who have already made it big, often more by good luck than good management. 

With experience comes the harsh but liberating truth. Experienced writers often make judgments based on all kinds of things, often conflicting things that we would do well to acknowledge. Do we want to get this book or play or other piece of work out there? Do we want to communicate? Are we working on something for ourselves alone? Do we trust this person with this project? Do we believe in the project? How much are we prepared to sacrifice? Do we feel exploited or are we - as is so often the case - partners in some worthwhile but not very lucrative exploration. 

Everything is a negotiation between what we want and what is possible. Which in turn makes us think about how we can manage a career and how our aspirations can change over a lifetime. There is no ascending curve that you can plot your position on at any one time. We are, lets face it, all at sea, almost all the time. Sometimes our little craft is riding the waves beautifully. Sometimes we're rowing like mad and getting nowhere. Sometimes we're clinging to the wreckage and praying for help. Just occasionally, the million pound yacht looms on the horizon and we dream of climbing on board but more often than not, it motors on by. And sometimes, in the words of a very fine poet indeed, we're not waving, but drowning. And even then, we'll probably write about it. 

I Love My Kindle

There's a meme doing the rounds on Facebook all about books and reading. A nicely drawn little cartoon character is seen in all kinds of situations, contentedly reading his book or imagining other worlds, while screens of various kinds - some of them unmistakably Kindles or eReaders - are depicted as the villains of the piece. 

It is - let's face it  - nonsense. Mainly because it deliberately and quite irritatingly confuses the medium with the message. It reminds me a bit of the time when word processors arrived, and various writers resisted writing on them, telling me that they really enjoyed typing up five or six or more whole versions of a piece of work. Before that it was longhand, and I'm pretty sure there must have been people saying 'ah - but the smell of the quill pen. Nothing quite like it.'

I write books. I love physical books, especially old ones. I possess a lot of books. Thousands probably although I've never counted. I love the scent of old books - that slightly musty, slightly aromatic scent - just like I love the scent of old textiles. New books, not so much. Let's face it, they smell of paper. Open a packet of bog roll and you get much the same scent. 

I love my Kindle. My elderly Paperwhite that has been used every single day for years is slowing down, so I'm going to have to invest in another one very soon. 

I wouldn't be without it. I'm fairly insomniac these days, so my Kindle allows me to read on well into the night, or to wake up in the early hours and keep reading. If I fall asleep, it will power itself down, quietly, and when I switch it on, it will take me back to the place where I left off. I can change the font and I can adjust the brightness, so that if I'm reading in the dark, I can keep the light down so that I don't wake my husband. I can look up unfamiliar words, make notes, highlight parts I want to go back to, and if I finish my book at three in the morning and want to start another one, it can be there in seconds. 

Gorgeous herring bone bound tooled leather Old Testament
belonging to Elizabeth McLehose.

There is the book as a concept, a world I work on and enter into and spend months and sometimes years of my time creating. And then there's the book as an artefact. Some of them are very beautiful indeed, like the one above  and some of them are just handy containers for stories, ideas, concepts. My publisher designs and produces beautiful books. It's a skill and the covers are perfect for each of my books. 

But I still love my Kindle, especially for reading fiction. When I read in the dark, I'm there, in the world of the book. The better the book, the more this feeling seems to happen. I remember reading China Mieville's The City & The City, right through a couple of nights - dozing, dreaming about the book, waking to read more. The closest I can come to describing it is the way a good radio drama will draw you in, so that you are there, in the world of the play with nothing intervening. 

What's not to like about that?

What Your Bookshelves Say About You

I don't even know what my bookshelves say about me, but it seemed like a good title, especially in the light of those lockdown interviews, in which the celebrity or politician is carefully positioned in front of a shelf full of significant books.

Here are some of mine, even though I haven't done any interviews. The room where I'm lucky enough to work is full of books, and there is very little rhyme or reason to their arrangement - but I more or less know where everything is.

There's a loose subject matter theme to it all, and for a particular project, I'll gather lots of books together. So for a while, researching A Proper Person to be Detained, I was sitting among heaps of books and maps about nineteenth century Leeds, while the picture below shows the shelves that held - and still do hold - all the books about Robert Burns that I gradually amassed while I was researching The Jewel.
Burns among others.

On the rare occasions when I've been persuaded to sort everything out, I've needed a particular book almost immediately, gone looking for it in the old place and realised that I didn't have a scoobie where it was. So now, I weed out books I don't mind recycling, but I try to leave the rest more or less as they are.

All the same, the books don't stay in one place. They migrate. In fact I'm pretty sure they breed. So there are art and craft and antique books in my husband's office/studio, where I also keep most of my antique textiles (well out of the way of the paint), there's a shelf of novels in the living room, cookery books in the kitchen and heaps of our son's books in his room that has gradually become a comfortable spare room, although visitors are still treated to large tomes on Game Design and Discrete Mathematics.

Two things surprised me a bit about the celebrity books on display. One involved shelves full of 'colour coded' books that I'm told is an interior design thing. But no reader, surely, would do this? How on earth could you colour code a thousand books. Oh wait - most people don't have a thousand books.

I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. I read in bed, in the dark, and I'm there, in the world of the book. But if I really love a book, or if it's written by a friend, I will often buy a paper copy as well.

The other thing that surprised me was people scoffing at writers actually having their own books on their shelves. Here are some of mine. Generally, nobody sees them but me. This is, after all, my workspace and few people are ever invited into it.

But why should people be surprised at writers having copies of their own books? Would you be surprised at Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh having a garden? The fact is that on publication, we are given a handful of author copies. We give some away to close family or to people who have been helpful, but we generally have a few copies left. Then we often buy our own books to sell at various events because that's one of the ways in which we make our income. We may even sell signed copies online.

Also, on those days when we wonder why the hell we are doing this, we can at least look at them and figure that it might not have been a terrible waste of time. Most books are the product of many months of hard work and sleepless nights. We like to think that it hasn't all been in vain. Having something tangible is a good way of countering imposter syndrome. 

The Great Silence

Last week, a good friend in a different area of creativity asked me why I had given up writing plays.

I suppose the answer is that I haven't, not completely, and if somebody asked me to write a play again I would certainly consider it, especially if it involved dramatising one of my own books. Still, the question gave me pause for thought.

Why did I give up?

Well, one of the main reasons was that I wanted to write fiction, and in fact I was writing fiction, lots of it. But because I was learning my craft, I didn't want to go back to dividing my time between the two. I wanted to live in the world of whatever book I was working on. So in a way, abandoning plays wasn't so much a conscious decision as a refocusing. And that was fine.

But there were other factors. Lots of women who were writing plays at the same time as me seem to have abandoned theatre as well, especially here in Scotland. Somebody speaking about women in theatre on a radio programme only the other week pointed out what a difficult place theatre was for women to get so much as a toehold in, back in the 1980s. Listening to her, I thought 'not just me then.'

It struck me that one of the other reasons why I gave up on theatre was that my life had changed significantly. I was living in the countryside, I had a child - and I couldn't any longer lurk in theatre bars making sure that those doing the commissioning remembered my existence. This may sound like a lame excuse - and the truth is that had I wanted it badly enough, I might well have done it - but the fact remains that I fell off their radar and at the time, I really didn't miss it.

Back in the 80s, after writing 100+ hours of radio drama, some TV, community theatre, and a production at Edinburgh's Lyceum, I had two major and very well reviewed productions at the Traverse in Edinburgh: Wormwood (all about the Chernobyl disaster) and Quartz. I remember Michael Billington's complimentary review of Quartz and his hope that the theatre would go on to 'nurture' me.

Nurturing was never going to be on the agenda.

I had a brief resurgence with the wonderful David McLennan at Glasgow's Oran Mor, who produced three of my short plays, at least one of which - the Price of a Fish Supper - has gone on to have an excellent and successful life beyond its first production. But after David's sadly early death, I again entered what I have come to think of as The Great Silence.

I would send ideas, scripts, proposals to various theatre companies. Most of the time, they simply weren't acknowledged at all, although there was the occasional standard rejection. From that point on, nobody - except David, for that short time - treated me like a professional.

I was reminded of this recently, when I decided to explore the possibility of finding an agent. I have had agents in the past, including the late, great (but scary) Pat Kavanagh, who sold my first full length adult novel. It was sold to the Bodley Head, which was instantly taken over by one of the big publishing beasts and they tried to transform it into the fashionable beach bonkbuster it wasn't. My next novel had a Polish background. Pat loved it but couldn't sell it, and if she couldn't sell it, nobody could. We got a string of rejections saying that editors loved it but nobody was remotely interested in Poland. Nevertheless the single best piece of advice I have ever had about writing came from Pat.
'Only write something if you can't bear NOT to write it,' she told me.

My last agent disappeared without trace. I have no idea, not the foggiest notion, what became of him. He went AWOL and incommunicado and I've never heard from him since. Perhaps he too entered the Great Silence. Over the past year, with nine published novels under my belt, four of them still very much in print, and a brand new and well reviewed non-fiction book published in the summer, I contacted various agents who said they were looking for new clients, and who seemed like a good fit.

One responded pleasantly and personally. She was understandably too busy and told me so quite quickly, while also praising the work.
One turned me down immediately with a formal rejection letter. I doubt very much if my enquiry got beyond the intern employed to sift them.
One asked to see a PDF of a book and then - nothing.
The rest didn't respond at all. I had again entered the Great Silence.

Well -  I'm fine. I have an excellent publisher and exciting work to do, and I've given up on the notion of representation. In fact I've probably got enough interesting writing work to keep me busy for the next few years: work that I can't bear NOT to do. And that's a blessing in anybody's book.

But it does make me wonder about people just starting out. Apart from the lucky few, how do they get themselves noticed? How do they ever stand out from the crowd? And what about that old maxim that if you're 'good enough' you'll make it? So you just have to persevere? Because the successful people I know have persevered with the actual writing, for sure, but I suspect most of them have also taken matters into their own hands in some way.

I don't have any easy answers to this, but I do wonder what other writers, experienced or emerging, think about it.
How did you do it?
How do you plan to do it?

Remembering Olenka - The Story of a Friendship

Strawberry Street where Sandra lived.

I've never written about this before but because I've been writing about my childhood in Leeds for my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, it has become very fresh in my memory. Even though I didn't include it in that book, now, in Easter week, I think the time has come to remember Olenka. This is a long post but it seems like a long story.

When I first knew her, she wasn't Olenka. She was Sandra. Her Polish name was Aleksandra, Olenka for short, but at school she was Sandra Jankowski, just as I was Catherine Lucy Czerkawski. It was only later that we both had the confidence to insist on the female 'a' ending for our respective surnames. I carried on using the English/Irish version of my first names but Sandra became Olenka.

I don't have a picture of her. Not even a school photograph. I wish I had. She was a pretty little girl, with very dark hair and an almost translucent complexion with a rosy spot of colour on her high cheekbones, like a doll. We both had fancy clothes: mine because my mother was a talented seamstress whose sisters worked in tailoring, and Sandra because her mother, Irene, spent all her spare cash - of which there wasn't much - on good clothes for her much loved daughter.

We started school more or less at the same time in 1955. Holy Family Primary School in Armley was a small, very ordinary Roman Catholic school in a not-very-well-off part of Leeds. I don't think we were best friends from the start. My friend at that time was a girl called Christine Danby, but a year or so after we started school, she and her family moved to Drighlington - not too far away, as it turned out, although it could have been Mars for all two six year olds knew about it. Then Sandra arrived. I have a feeling she started school later than I did, but it may have been because there were two 'intakes' at that time, depending on age. While I started in the autumn, Sandra may have started just after Christmas.

Sandra's mother was a widow: Irene (presumably Irena) Jankowski. I never knew what had happened to her father, but only that he had died, possibly as a result of injuries sustained in the war, so Irena was left to bring up Sandra on her own. We were two 'only' children - not lonely, but certainly a little spoilt, precious, and a bit precocious too. Also, we knew that we were Polish and proud of it. In my case, I knew that I was Irish too. And English.

We became friends. Neither of us quite fitted in at school but I think I fared better. I had a strong Leeds Irish mother and a father who was respected (and quite possibly indulged) by the teachers because of his academic prowess coupled with his typically Polish charm. I was seriously asthmatic, and I spent plenty of time at home. There was always somebody to look after me: my grandparents were on hand and my mother helped out in their little sweet shop. It didn't do me any harm. I read avidly and my father taught me the rest. Sandra couldn't skip school. Her mother worked long hours in Armley Mill, and there was nobody else to look after her, so come hell or high water, she had to go, even when she wasn't very well. She had, I think, the reputation for being a 'nervous' child although I didn't find her so. She just wasn't very robust. I was often ill but as strong as a horse.

We spent a great deal of time together, Sandra and I. She lived on Strawberry Street, which sounds prettier than it was. I lived in a tiny two roomed flat on Whitehall Road, next to my grandparents' house, until we moved across the city to a big, chilly, council flat in Bellevue Road. She loved Cliff Richard. I didn't. When we walked down the hill from school past the big cemetery, she would make up stories about the ghosts she had seen there. I half believed her. We shared hopes and dreams.

One of our teachers was notorious for having almost daily tantrums and throwing the furniture - and herself - about, at the risk of her pupils' life and limb. I can still remember the terrible noises, the shrieks and roars that emanated from her classroom. At the end of one school year, just before I was due to go into her class, my dad paid a visit to the school, and - miraculously it seemed to me - I skipped a year and went straight into the next class. Sandra, with no father to fight her corner and a shy, struggling mother, had to face the gorgon. Then my dad got a temporary placement at a scientific research institute in Mill Hill and we moved to be with him. At some point during that year, a rumour from relatives in Leeds reached our ears that quiet, well behaved Sandra had stood up in the middle of the classroom during one of the teacher's all too frequent crazy spells, thrown her books and her chair on the floor, put her hands over her ears, closed her eyes and screamed and screamed and screamed, bringing the other teachers running.

So she moved classes as well, but with far more trauma than me.

When we came back to Leeds, we moved into another chilly flat in Rosemont Road in Bramley to discover that Sandra was living just around the corner in Hough Lane. When we started secondary school, we made the journey to Notre Dame Grammar School, a walk and two bus-rides, together. Irene had remarried a man called Stanislaw Wilk and Sandra had gained a stepfather. Mr Wilk - Mr Wolf in English - was quiet and kindly: a good man who loved his new wife and his stepdaughter and his garden.

We slid back into friendship again. Sandra came on all our expeditions, My dad was keen on expeditions: hill-walking on the moors, blackberry picking, museum visits. We  went to cricket matches at Headingley, and played tennis on the public court in the nearby park. I celebrated various Polish festivals in her house, but most particularly Easter.

Irene Wilk always cooked an Easter feast: feather light yeast cakes with crumble or apple or plum toppings that filled the whole house with their scent, dense and delicious baked cheesecakes, rye bread and frankfurters and sauerkraut, boiled eggs and gherkins and salads of all kinds. There would be pisanki, hand painted eggs that my dad made as well, and the grownups, friends of Irene and Stashek, would drink vodka. These parties were memorably hilarious, warm and foreign, and I loved them.

Sandra and I found ourselves in different classes at Notre Dame which meant that the steady drift apart had  - although we didn't know it or acknowledge it - already begun. I was academic; she was a little less so, but intensely artistic and creative. We both loved to draw and paint and read. Then, when I was twelve, my father, with his new, hard-won PhD in biochemistry, got the offer of a position at a government research institute just outside Ayr. We moved to Scotland and went back to Leeds only a handful of times. Once, in the year following our move, I stayed with the Wilks for a week. It might even have been during the Easter holidays. We wrote to each other, but then the letters stopped.

In the mid seventies, when I was doing my Masters at Leeds University, we met again, just once. Olenka, as she liked to be known now, was living with her boyfriend, while I was still fancy free. She cooked a meal for the three of us. She didn't want to talk about the past at all. We made no arrangements to meet again. I wondered if we even liked each other very much. Now, I chiefly remember how her childish prettiness had turned to a truly exquisite beauty, stunning in its intensity, and how she was planning to pursue an artistic career.

I stayed in touch with her mother, more than with Olenka. Looking back, I can see that Irene loved me very much, but I was young and busy with my life and thoughtlessly selfish. We sent Christmas cards and Easter cards too, in memory of those Easter feasts. I can see Irene now: small, energetic, always cooking or cleaning, always cheerfully, volubly Polish when she was at ease with you as she was always at her ease with me. I've wondered since if she was - at that time anyway - slightly overawed by her own daughter, or perhaps by her daughter's singular beauty.

And then one day, in the early 1980s, I and my partner returned from a weekend away to the dreadful news that Sandra had died, taken ill, quite suddenly, with a bleed on her brain. Worse, her mother and stepfather had been away too, on a long anticipated trip back to Poland. Her funeral was the first I had ever been to involving somebody so young, a contemporary. She had been my first close friendship.

Irene and Stashek are long gone, although somewhere in my box of Easter decorations, painted eggs, fluffy chicks, there are one or two Polish Easter cards with greetings in Irene's familiar, spidery handwriting. Mr Wilk died first, leaving her alone. One year, there was no card from Irene. There was nobody left to tell me what had happened to her.  Their house is still there. I've walked past it, virtually, on Google Maps and given myself a frisson of sadness.

I find myself wondering if, had Olenka still been alive, we might have reconnected on Facebook, shared notes and lives, remembered the terrible teacher, or the expeditions to Bolton Abbey, the cricket matches, the clumsy, giggling tennis, the picnics at Adel Crag and Ilkley, the bonfire nights with parkin pigs and treacle toffee  - or Mrs Wilk's spectacular Easter feasts that every year I think of replicating - and every year, without fail, find that I can't.

Sitting on top of my piano, the piano I've had since I was thirteen years old, is a small, nicely modelled plaster head of a young girl, with her long, thick hair in plaits. It was the last gift Sandra gave me. Before I left Leeds, we were old enough to spend time painting our nails and experimenting with face packs. We pretended to be grown up, but we were still little girls. On Saturdays, we would sometimes go into Leeds, to the shops, more often than not with our parents or my aunts, but we were allowed to browse the shopping arcades by ourselves. Sandra always had plans for the things she was going to buy. She would save up her pocket money, although I think her mother and stepfather would give her whatever she asked for. One Christmas or birthday, when I was eleven or twelve years old, this figurine was her gift to me.

'I bought it because it looks like you,' she said.

And it did.

I've treasured it ever since. I still play the piano and whenever I look up and see this young girl with her plaits, I remember Sandra - Olenka - and the story of our friendship.


The Bookmark, Grantown - a Bookshop in a Million

As usual, I'm talking with my hands!

Last month, I was invited to speak about my new novel, The Jewel, to a group in Grantown on Spey. To my shame, I'd never been to Grantown before but it's such a jewel of a little town in itself that I really hope to be back. The visit was organised by Marjory Marshall who runs the Bookmark, a fabulous independent bookshop in the centre of town. My husband came along for the trip - it was a mini East Coast book tour with more events planned in Dundee and St Andrews - and he did the driving, leaving me free to concentrate on my talks while admiring the scenery.

We had been booked into the Garth Hotel - a lovely traditional Scottish hotel only a stone's throw from the shop - and Marjory had told us that the event would also be held in the hotel, because the shop would be too small. Once we had checked in, Alan put his feet up in the comfortable room, with a cup of tea, and I wandered along the main street in search of the Bookmark. Grantown is exactly what a small town should be with lots of wonderful small shops, real shops selling everything you could need, plus cafes, pubs and hotels. It has a prosperous and well kept air, a pretty town too, and it must be a very good place to live.

The shop, for a bookaholic like me, was paradise: small, for sure, but absolutely crammed with all kinds of books you really want to read. Marjory - a small bundle of energy - was instantly friendly and welcoming. I could have spent ages browsing in there, and immediately vowed to go back when I can spend longer.

When the time came for the event, I looked at the (large) size of the room and the number of chairs and couldn't believe that so many people would turn out to listen to me. But, as you can see from the pictures, people did. Marjory runs three book groups and most of them came, plus a few more. 'I'm very persuasive,' she remarked, and she certainly is! A lovely lady played the celtic harp and sang Burns songs beautifully, to get us all in the right mood. I chatted about Jean and all the research that had gone into the book, answered the excellent questions, signed copies, drank wine, ate nibbles and was buzzing from the event all night and most of the next day. In the morning, after a very good breakfast, we managed to spend a bit more time in the Bookmark. Then I browsed the charity shop, the antique shop and the hardware store before we - rather reluctantly - headed off to Dundee. I love old fashioned hardware stores almost as much as I love bookshops, and Grantown's is wonderful. There's even a dedicated shortbread shop, as well.

I'd go back again in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, if you're interested in Crime Fiction, they are holding a
Wee crime festival  at the end of this month and more Saraband authors will be involved. I'll be heading the other way, to the Tarbert Book Festival and thence to my beloved Gigha, weather permitting, but if you're anywhere near Grantown, go along. You won't be disappointed. And if you're anywhere near Tarbert, you could come along and see me instead!

Editors and Artistic Directors - So Much In Common.

Coming back to theatre with a bang: Wormwood
Novelist (and friend) Gillian Philip wrote an excellent piece on editors and editing for the winter edition of the Society of Authors in Scotland newsletter. So many people wanted to read it that she reposted it on her own blog, here and I can very much recommend it. 

I had just been involved in an online discussion about the role of the artistic director in a stage play and reading Gillian’s post, it struck me that there are parallels between a good artistic director and a good editor – just as there are striking and unfortunate parallels between a bad director and a bad editor.
Let me get the horror stories out of the way first.
Back when I was starting out in theatre, I wrote a play about the Solidarity movement in Poland and its effects on one family. I was ecstatic to be told that it would be performed at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre. That, though, was where the ecstasy ended. The first time I met the artistic director I realised that we had opposing views of the play. He took the script away and sent it back to me with massive rewrites on every page. He had torn it to bits, deleted large sections and rewritten it as the play he thought it should be. I fought as best I could, and so did the (lovely) cast, but it was a disaster. I was too young, too naive and too inexperienced. He was an elderly bully and it was years before I went back to theatre - with a play about the Chernobyl disaster for the Traverse in Edinburgh.
Later, this time with a novel, I encountered an editor who tried to do something similar. To be fair, some of the points she made were good, but she also made extensive changes to my manuscript without tracking them, rewriting whole chunks of my work in the kind of voice and idiom she would have used herself. By that stage I was confident enough to dig in my heels, but it was a tedious and time consuming business, going through my version and hers, reinstating my dialogue but trying to do useful rewrites where she had made fair points – which she had.
When I thought about it, I realised that a good artistic director and a good editor share quite similar qualities.
An artistic director will hold the ‘idea’ of the play in his or her head. The buck stops with her. If she is on anybody’s side, she is on the side of the play itself as you have intended it to be not as she might have written it herself. Not even as she wishes you had written it. It is her aim to make it as good as it possibly can be on its own terms. She will never do that by imposing her voice on the voice of the playwright. The process is much more collaborative, more fluid, more fascinating than that and since most directors are freelance she will almost certainly walk away rather than take on a play she dislikes. Since editors are increasingly freelance too, the same thing applies.
Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood
There is an etiquette in theatre, so the actors will talk to the director and the writer will talk to the director, but the writer will not give instructions to the actors and the actors will not ask the writer for changes except through the director. If you know each other and have worked together before, there is a lot of leeway and what eventually emerges is a comfortably collaborative process. But I can think of many occasions where, for example, an actor has asked for changes and the director has said ‘not yet. Try it the way it’s written.’ The good director takes the work seriously, treats it (and you) with respect, but helps the playwright to see what needs to be seen. A little way into the rehearsal process, you can see where something isn’t working but it’s almost always you who make the changes.

Happy days with a very good director: Hamish Wilson
This is how it works with a good editor. I’ve just been working with one on the Physic Garden and it has been a joy. I knew that there was something not quite right somewhere, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was something small, but it niggled. The editor read the manuscript, said ‘I love this book’ but instantly put her finger on what it was that had bugged me and the publisher. It was indeed something quite small but once she had pointed it out, it also seemed obvious and important. (It was one of those ‘why didn’t I see that?’ moments.) And it had a couple of knock-on effects on the rest of the story.  Essentially, it was a case of finding out how a particular character might really react at that point in the novel, and addressing it. It was the work of a couple of days to make the changes, but it mattered. There were other bits and pieces, of course: punctuation, the odd inconsistency or infelicity. But really, it was her ability to hone in on one small but vital facet of the story that was priceless and I’m glad I made the changes, glad to have worked with her. 

A good editor, like a good director is both unselfish and generous. But I’ve also come to realise that not everyone possesses those qualities, although they may be learned over a period of years. My genuinely bad experiences - I can count about four and that isn’t very many - involved people who were too ignorant to know how little they really knew. (Youth, though, wasn’t an issue because some of them were old enough to know better.) They were on a power trip, over confidently imposing their own views on whatever work they were editing or developing.  It was, I realised eventually, a bit like that scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith converts everything into a clone of himself. Too bad Neo wasn’t around to fight my corner when I needed him.

Something Magical About My Kindle

These guys think so too.

Right from the start, let me say that I love paper books. Always have, always will. We have books in every room in the house. Too many, really. Periodically, I'll have a clear out and send a few boxes off to my charity shop of choice, but they creep back in again, especially non fiction books that I come across and know I'll need for reference: illustrated books about textiles and Scottish history and folklore and cookery and gardening books and lots more.

I'm currently reading a big, brand new hardback book. It's an extremely good book, but I'm not going to name it here, because that doesn't matter. It could be the best book in the whole wide world and I would still feel the same about it. How I feel about it is this.

The very peculiar smell of time.
It's a really beautiful, well produced artefact. Contrary to popular myth, it doesn't actually smell of anything at all, other than a faint odour of new paper, (but then so does bog roll). Actually, I think old books smell lovely, but then I think antique paisley shawls smell lovely too, have been known to bury my face in these gorgeous old textiles and breathe deeply - the slightly stale and very peculiar smell of time and use and dust and old scent and ... well, you know. Not everyone feels the same, but I don't care.

Back to books. This book in particular. It is driving me nuts. Not the content, which is excellent, but the delivery system. I keep wishing it was on my Kindle or at least as a nice, soft, bendy paperback. It may be beautiful, it IS beautiful, but it's also big, heavy, unwieldy, spiky at the corners and difficult to handle. The book itself keeps getting in the way of my undoubted pleasure in the contents. I read a lot in bed, but to cope with this one, I have to prop it on a pillow in front of me, and even then it keeps sliding about. The weight of it sets off my carpel tunnel syndrome and I get pins and needles and have to hang my hands over the edge of the bed to recover.

I'll finish it, because it's so good, and I'll treasure it and I may even want to read it again. But as soon as it's available in paperback or as an eBook, I'll probably buy another copy. Wrestling with this object made me think again about eBooks, and the reading I do on my Kindle, made me think about the uses of books and why we might want them in a particular form. As a part time dealer in antique textiles, I'm all too horribly aware of the transience of fragile things, the need to preserve some important or beautiful objects against time and change. Similarly, some books are so crammed with wisdom that you fear for their transience and want to see them in as robust a form as possible, disseminated as widely as possible.

But as far as reading, experiencing, absorbing the contents is concerned (which is, after all, the real purpose of writing and publishing) there is undoubtedly something magical about my Kindle.

In the way that a really good radio play, well acted and produced, seems to be transferred straight from the mind of the playwright to the mind of the listener (and can therefore be uniquely disturbing, when the themes are distressing or highly emotive) - there is something incredibly immediate about the experience of reading a really good, intense, well written piece of fiction on a Kindle or other e-reader or tablet.

Over the past year or so, I've been doing more and more reading on my Kindle and have noticed that the experience can seem more intense and more immediate than anything I've experienced for a long time. Maybe I've been lucky in my choice of reading matter. But it seems to me to have something to do with the medium itself. I can only think it's because there is so little to get in the way of the words and images and ideas. I've found myself more intensely involved with fiction than ever before, even dreaming about the books I'm reading, about the events and the characters - vivid, disturbing dreams in which I'm the character in the novel, or I'm witnessing and participating in the events in the book. It reminds me a bit of the way it used to be when I was very young and stories were so fresh and new and exciting that I felt as though I were completely absorbed in this amazing new world. I love it.

I'd be really interested to know if other readers feel the same way!

Why Do I Write?

'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.'
So said Samuel Johnson. Overused and inaccurate as it is, it’s a line that has been running through my head a great deal recently. It can’t be true, of course, since my income from writing has gone down, rather than up over the years and still I write. So why do I do it?

Maybe I write out of habit. I have been writing for as long as I can remember: poems, stories, plays, articles, but now novels, lots and lots of long novels about which I think I feel more passionate than I have about any other form of writing. For me, coming to grips with this form has felt like coming home after a long and difficult journey.

Is that why I write? For the profound absorption of being in the middle of a new project? For the sense of achievement when I've finished? But there are other things I could do that would give me the same feeling, surely: less exhausting, better paid things.

So do I write for pleasure? Is it always a pleasure? Of course not. But it’s more of pleasure than not writing, which is a pain. When I don’t write, I feel ill. I could no more take a decision to stop doing it than I could take a decision to stop breathing. It's how I cope with life, the universe and everything. I write about it.

Are you still writing? Well, am I?

Of all the questions anyone can ever ask a writer, that is surely the daftest. And the most aggravating, although I reckon only another writer would fully understand why.

But who asks the estate agent – are you still selling houses? Or the doctor – are you still diagnosing? Or the plumber - are you still making a fortune out of….. ?

So why do all my friends and acquaintances, whenever I chance to meet them after a gap of years, or in some cases mere months, inevitably ask me ‘Are you still writing?’ Like that other comment ‘I would write a book if I had the time’ it implies that writing is some casual pastime, a mere indulgence, which you can abandon at will. Not a real job at all. If D List celebrities can conjure 2 book deals out of thin air there can’t be anything too demanding about it, can there? So are you still writing, or have you found something better to do with your spare time? Like canoeing, or cookery.

So, why am I still writing?
Why do I write?
I wonder.

Because I can’t do much else.
Because I want to. Even when I'm not doing it, I desperately want to be doing it. This must be how a vampire feels about blood...
Because when it is going well, there is nothing like it.
Because I go around most of the time with my head in another world
Because characters insist on populating my mind, and somehow I have to find out about them.

I have to find out, I have to know, I need to explore. Not knowing is...

This is what it is!

And that, I suppose, is the real answer.
I write to find out.
Whatever I write, whether it be a play, a novel, or a piece of non fiction, I am writing to find out what happened, what really happened, what happened to make this character the way he/she is, what is happening now and what will happen next? It’s the insistent, persistent desire to know. Non writers always think that you know it all before you start. But in my case at least, it is a constant process of interrogation. Even by the time you type The End you don’t always know. And when you write a play you never know because the actors come along and start asking you questions and then you know you don’t know much at all. Which is half the fun of it. Every book, every story, every play is a quest to find out.

So there it is. I write to find out. And all the other things as well. And for money. Of course, whenever I can, I write for money!