Talking about your work to numbers of strangers is not for the weak- kneed. On Tuesday night I was booked to talk to a group of readers at the new Palace of Books, Newcastle City’s six storey’d glass fronted multi-million pound library. G. who dropped me off for the train (and eats girders for breakfast), told me he thought I was very brave.
To be honest, no matter how many times I do this, it’s never easy. It’s like cabaret. You put on your make-up. You wish you looked like Gwyneth Paltrow. You choose your outfit. (Black ,with that favourite pleated tourquoise scarf that falls around all the time.) You wait in vain for someone to wish you to ‘break a leg’ as you go on.
I am especially early, to see this wonderful new facility and also to gather my wits before ‘going on’. In the neat little cafe where I have home-made lemonade and coffee, I bump into Carole McGuigan, a talented playwright and actress, and we talk about Julia(Darling), whom we both miss. Carole is now revising her first novel so we have lots to talk about.
Sheila Naughton, services manager at The City Library who comes to find me, reminds me that Newcastle is a hotbed of writing talent, nurtured by New Writing North, under the indefatigable Claire Malcolm and figure-headed by internationally esteemed Mslexia Magazine, edited by a quiet Americam, Daneet Steffans. Lots of wild writers up there.
In the room is a very nice crowd of people. Beside me is a table full of my books – mainly Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker (about which I am to talk as it’s is out now in paperback); a sprinkling of The Woman Who Drew Buildings (new in hardback) and a few of my back list including Family Ties and The Lavender House. Borders have done me proud.
I look at the bright, interested faces and read passages from Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker – an easy novel to talk about, as (although it is fiction), it has an unusually close connection to my personal and family history. I go on then to share with them fascinating inspiration for my new - very different - The Woman Who Drew Buildings which is launched in hardback this week.
The first smile of appreciation and the first spurt of laughter are like bulbs going on in my head. Now I no longer need to feel brave.
The questions they ask are penetrating: life experiences are shared. Then among the very good questions one lady asks a very familiar one, ‘When did you first start Writing?’
This is my opportunity to produce from my bag a small book protected by cling film. This is my very first published book – a children’s novel, written in 1972, called Theft. It was published by Corgi Transworld and the editor who bought it was a great woman called Anne Wood, the first Children’s Editor for the Transworld’s Carousel imprint. Anne went on to invent the Teletubbies and become a great force on children’s media.
I went on to write a lot more novels.
I thought I owned the only copy in the world, of this little, thirty odd year old paperback. But this very morning a new copy came through the post, courtesy of Amazon world wide second-hand market. (Odd when your own books become collectibles) Amazing! The people here in Newcastle share my pleasure at this surprise.
I know they have enjoyed it. There is a real buzz in the room at the end. One woman comes up to talk about fate, and how things are pre-ordained. Others come up to say thank you, how much they enjoyed it. One woman says it was great. Best yet! (In a programme of talks.) Her friend nods vigorously. Great endorsement.
I have talked here before about how I love and treasure libraries and now I love Newcastle City Library. Thank you Sheila and your colleagues. Your library has style. That’s confirmed for me when the driver actually opens his taxi door for me as Sheila waves me off.
After the train, another taxi! (No G or B for a lift – both on rugby duty…) Sitting here in the taxi it dawns on me that I’ve had four novels on my mind today: 1) Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvel Cooker, 2) The Woman Who Drew Buildings, 3) Theft, and my exciting new one (4) which is now in process and always on my mind, The Miracle of The Maison d’Estella.
As we draw away from Durham I realise this taxi driver is talking a lot - about adjusting to his father’s new girlfriend, and all the problems in his life. How he lives alone. How his father at 74 is going off with his girlfriend to another part of the country to live. He rambles on about the family house which, to his regret, is being sold.
I ask how he gets on with his father’s new girlfriend. ‘That’s immaterial!’ he barks. I am silenced. He asks if I have family at home. ‘Yes,’ I say, stretching the truth a bit, ‘a very large husband and a very large son.’
I make sure he drops me at the end of my road, not outside my house. As I walk along I can see (with my peripheral vision) that the taxi hasn’t moved on. Luckily there is a large van and two cars in the road, which will obscure just which house I enter. When I get inside my darkened empty house I double lock the doors, front and back. (Now there’s a fifth story when you think of it…)
And maybe G’s right. It is brave to be doing what I’m doing.
Hope you’re enjoying the novels.