Thursday 30 April 2009

The Dictionary Game and The Boy Who likes Chocolate

The Joys of ChocoLATE Angus, sixteen - who likes chocolate - has been feeling restless after a year of living industriously in preparation for pending GCSEs  and more latterly deprived by temporary injury of the explosive relief of his beloved rugby.

The really hard times begin when the exams are done and dusted.  Being advised to rest!  chill!  take it easy! is difficult when one has a black hole in a head which had - until very recently - been packed with facts and figures, concepts and theories, poems, plays and sophisticated equations. Games on TV and occasional sessions with the guitar go nowhere near filling the black hole in the head. And this, I feel,  is where the restlessness comes in.

I want to help, and - being the pedant I am - I suggest a bit of challenging reading to fill the black hole. I have  just been reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls (research for  At The Villa d’Estella)   and had come upon a very sharp series of Very Short Guides by OUP,  including one very well written one on my subject, by Timothy H Lim.  In the back of the book is a very comprehensive list of subjects from Archaeology to Machiavelli, from World Music to The Russian Revolution.

The chocolate eater gets his eye  on the VSG s to Philosophy, to Consciousness, and to Logic. Then, while the little books whirr here from the Planet Amazon, he picks up from my shelves Fear of Freedom by the wonderful Erich Fromm.   As he gets stuck into this book he whoops with delight, discovering that Erich Fromm has  ideas that fit in with his own – sometimes very original – worldview. Then the little books arrive and the whoops continue right  through the consumption of  the books on Philosophy, Logic  and Consciousness. 

Then one day he throws the last little book aside and asks I fancy playing a game ‘for a bit of a rest’? He calls it The Dictionary Game. He’ll pick ten words at random and test me on them and I have to pick ten words to test him. And so on. We amaze ourselves with how many words we actually seem to know.

Then something strikes me and I tell Angus that when I was even younger than he is, my mother used to play this very game with my brothers and sister and me.  That was in a tiny  house a tenth of this size of this one, where the  money was in very much shorter supply than the love and the language.

So we agree, he and I, that playing these clever games does not depend on wealth or privilege but on the nature of the people who play.  And he tells me of this new word he has just invented – lucaviatic. He says it means eccentric but brilliant.

That must be a compliment.


Festival Fever

Last night to Hexham Book Festival (
at Queen’s Hall Library in that town to talk about writing long and short fiction, using Knives and Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker as my examples of the two forms. I used the notes published here in yesterday’s blog to inspire my talk. I also read part of ‘Queenie and the Water Man’ (from Knives) and the section from Sandie where my character Karen dances Sandie Shaw style in the factory toilets. The audience were wonderfully attentive and shrewd in their reaction. As well as this, they laughed in the right places, which is very reassuring.

The library is in a very gracious, high-galleried space and the welcome I received from festival director Susie Troup and this Hexham gathering was equally gracious. Susie, who is a big fan of the short story, seems to have enjoyed Knives very much and she is now relishing the end game in Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker. I was touched by her reaction. Susie also told me she once lived in Agde in the Languedoc – the very town to which I am fleeing tomorrow! I love these coincidences. They connect us all like spider’s webs.

The audience was made up of an interesting mixture of readers and writers. I recommended Dorothea Brande’s wonderful ‘On Becoming a Writer’ to two beginning writers there. One lady liked my comparison of the magical Japanese paper flowers with the nature of the short story. Another was deriving fictional stories from her own family history, as I have done. Another had finished a novel and was busy sending it off. Writers are always good company.

Claire, of Cogito Books ( had a lovely display of my books and a nice smile to go with it. I’ve not yet been to her prize winning shop which is just nearby but will certainly go next time I’m in Hexham. From an on-like peek it looks like a beautiful shop. (Don’t you love good bookshops?).I see also that they have an online ordering facility which I will certainly use.

Of to the pub for a pint - well, two halves - with Peter Mortimer of Iron Press (, along with Kate and Eileen who helped with the proof-reading of Knives, and writer friends Avril and David. I began to relas as we talked of writing and books and - of course - France! We exchanged reflections on French at school. Peter said reading Guy de Maupassant - a favourite of mine - in his teens had turned him onto the short story, and reading Moliere at the same time had started him on writing drama. I chipped in with my delight in Honore de Balzac, who wrote novels through the night against publisher’s deadlines and partied afternoon and evening to generate material for his novels. Then it turns that out Kate and Eileen spent a week on the Canal du Midi, in the Languedoc, on what sounded like a rather speedy not-so-narrow boat, (Kate driving…). Time to say it’s a small world…

As we drove back later across the moors I let out a very long sigh. Hexham was the last of a month long of (albeit pleasurable) duties. Now I can forget for the time being books that are already written and sink into the deliciously private world of the new novel.

To France! Hooray!

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Bolthole a la Francaise

When I was little I liked making dens. I remember making one on a low scrubby hill covered with whin bushes not far from my house. It was no rural dream - just a patch of wild urban land. (All gone now, buried under a bypass).

In my den there was a stone for a seat and piles of leafy branches as a kind of couch. From the seat there was a narrow view of a modest water-seepage lake that was teeming with frogs and a good source of frogspawn. The nicest thing was that it was only when you were upon it, that you knew about my den. It was a perfect bolthole: for a while it was an escape from a stressed and crowded life when things got on top of me.

I would take a book and a bottle of water sit there quite seriously and read one of the dozens of books I devoured each month. Since then, one major thread in my life has been this running away to boltholes where I could read - and particularly write in peace. Mostly it has been to write.

My boltholes have ranged from a cottage, then a flat by the sea in Alnmouth, a bungalow near Stranraer, The Gladstone Residential Library in Wales, The Tyrone Guthrie house in Ireland, a flat in Colorado Springs USA, an Apartment in Fiskardo on Cephalonia. These escapes have always been fruitful in personal as well as writing terms. Sometimes I have escaped on my own; sometimes I have gone with writer friends, sometimes with B, who is the most peaceful and unstressful companion.

The longest stay was the Tyrone Guthrie Centre where I stayed for a month and completed a whole volume of writing emerging from my prison experience, which is still a resource for me today. There were other writers and musicians around but everybody’s creative and physical space was respected.

But now! We have the bolthole a la Francaise: two months in a house in Agde in the Languedoc. Agde is a pre-Roman town, We will stay in a house on one of the medieval streets that is part of the old city wall. Who could not write stories here?

We will be writing lots. And reading. But also looking, talking, eating and drinking. And relaxing. Well, trying to! All this with my great writing friend Avril ( ) and for part of the time my very special Debora ( ) and her super Sean. Debora will be working – that is cooking, experimenting and writing about her beautiful food with a French connection – and we get to be the guinea pigs. Yes it is a wonderful thing, especially for the non-cooking mother.

It’s a far cry from a hole in a hillside, you might think….

Tuesday 28 April 2009

So, What's Your Book About?

You meet someone at a party, or in the supermarket or a bookshop: ‘A new book?’ they say. ‘So. What’s it about?’
You struggle to answer. ‘Oh. It’s about these three women who work together in a factory in 1965. And there’s a man. And his father. And two men and their wives. And this celebrity comes… Er…’

Then you say. ‘You really have to read the book, to know that!’
And now, this special week you have to say, 'You really have to read both books,to know that!'

But you know your book is about many things.

‘Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker’ is about:
• Friendship and salvation between women
• Authentic factory life when industry was booming
• The birth of celebrity culture
• Changes in access to higher education
• College life
• About changing cultural attitudes brought about by the Women’s Movement.
• The nature and hesitancies of young love.
• The experience of immigrants moving into British life
• The ironies, assumptions and secrets of institutions

In addition to many of the above, my collection Knives is about:
• The darker ironies, the comedic undertones and the isolation of modern life
• Ironies of escape after the endurance of false and repressed lives
• The loss of childhood innocence and freedom
• The death-dealing outcomes of sexual abuse
• Survival on the fringes of modern society of those labelled mad
• The young as the saviours of the old.

Of course the reader can – and must - love reading stories, short and long, without even bothering to think what they are about. Even for the writer these realisations can continue to emerge long after the books have been written. Intense writing is full of involuntary evidence about the writer. We have a literary criticism industry built on this fact.

In my workshops I often use a quotation which makes total sense to me: ‘How do I know what I mean till I see what I say?’ (I’ve looked and can’t find the source for that quotation. Does anybody know?)

NB The images here are some indications of what my next book 'At The Maison D'Estella' will be about.But that is only just beginning. What would I know about what it will be about?

Monday 27 April 2009

Reading Sandie For Rachel

Sunday’s jaunt for me was a drive in the sunshine, up through wonderful Durham and Northumberland countryside to Hexham, to read from Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker for Rachel Cochrane at the Core Music Studio.

Rachel, a playwright and script writer, is setting up this fascinating new website, to be called ‘Listen Up North’, as a vehicle for her own plays and also as a showcase for other writers and poets in the region. Her enthusiasm for the project is infectious. At present she is just building the website, banking up segments from a whole range of writers for her archive. When it is up, Rachel’s website should interest and reflect insiders and also act as a showcase for outside individuals or institutions which might be looking for people who can write.

At this Sunday afternoon, under the eye of sound engineer Dave, my turn to read came just after poet/playwright, Sue Hedworth, had done her reading. She showed me a copy of her First World War play White Poppies (published by Heinemann) and talked of her poetry and her other play about Ann Frank. And then, after me, came writer John Murray. Rachel seems to be creating a procession of writers.

In reading my fifteen minute extract I learned a great deal.I learned that reading to record is really hard – very different to reading out in public. I learned how clever must be actresses who do this for a living. (I am now even more grateful to Anne Dover who so brilliantly reads my novels in the audio and CD versions.) I also learned how important breathing is to be able to do this task well. I have to say that as a breathe-er I’m a very good writer!

That being said, Dave the engineer and Rachel the director were very kind and supportive. And I survived to write another day…

And Rachel offered grapes and juice. And sandwiches.

Rachel and this Listen Up North will be something to watch out for…

From Hexham Book Festival Programme:
Wednesday 29th April
7 - 8pm – Wendy Robertson
The short story is suddenly in vogue! This month Wendy Robertson’s contemporary short story collection ‘Knives’ is launched at the same time as her historical novel Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker. Wendy considers the unique charms and challenges of writing short stories in contrast to long project of the novel .
1. £2.50

Sunday 26 April 2009

Notes on Long and Short Fiction

This Wednesday night, at the Hexham Book Festival I have agreed to give a talk about ‘The Long and The Short of It’. I will read from my novel Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker, and from my short story collection Knives to illustrate the differing challenges of writing long and writing short. Rather conveniently both of these books are just out this week.

I have to admit that, in the main, the focus in my writing has been towards long fiction, (sometimes very long fiction). I love writing my novels. But I have always written - and from time to time published - short stories.

Among serious and aspiring writers the short story is now very fashionable. As well as being a distinguished, discrete literary form in itself, the short story can be a showcase for writing talent. Beda Higgins' success in the recent Mslexia Short Story competition, for instance, has led her into discussions with an agent and a major publisher. These conversations, I feel, will veer towards talk of a novel...

Up until a year ago I was co-director, with Gillian Wales, of a national writing competition which ran for ten years. Our first winner was Jonathan Tulloch whose clever story Season Ticket later exploded into a novel and was then made into a film called Purely Belter. Another success in one of our competitions was Beda Higgins herself. It was very nice to see Beda at the launch of Knives last week.

Such showcasing of talent is surely one reason for the increasing popularity of short story competitions. However I have found that in the competition stakes the novel surely loses out. In our national competition we alternated each year between short stories and three-chapter novel samples. It was always extremely difficult to judge a novel with so little access to its essential architecture and true outcomes. In the light of such difficulty, judging a short story was a gem of a task: a short story is a whole thing in itself, its language, architecture and outcomes were visible to the judges.

Herein lies the charm of the short story. Like a poem, it is a prime example of economy - the right word in the right place implying multiple layers of meaning. A short story may present a whole life in a coherent slice of it; or it may present an encounter which defines two lives and their intersecting energies; or it may present us with bright fragments that we readers must make into our own whole thing. A short story can bring people and places to life with a few strokes of a pen. It can show us tragedy, comedy, misery or irony with a single allusion or a clever metaphor. It may reflect our lives back to us or take us into strange new interior or exterior worlds.

Short stories are like those scrunched up Japanese paper flowers I loved as a child. Tight, rolled up nuggets when dry, when you put them into liquid they would open up into technicolour glory. For me, the reader's imagination is that liquid. We writers give the readers our tight flowers and they open up and blossom in unexpected and unique ways to deliver the story.

Perhaps, word for word, the short story has more screwed up power than the novel - that more languorous form which twists and turns in our minds like a great bolt of silk. A novel demands of the reader diligence, and a certain indulgence so that our story can unfold and take a proper shape. We invite our readers to live with us through time and space. We make them wait for our explanations, our outcomes, our illuminations. With them we celebrate our resolutions, our epiphanies.

Readers, of course, are quite capable of enjoying and responding to both our long and short writing. I only hope they don't just prejudge these two distinct forms as a fast read or a slow read. Each form brings with it, its own literary enjoyment.

As a writer and a fan of both literary forms I have more usually leaned towards the luxuriant expanse of the novel. I love playing with the multi-layers, inventing a large cast of players, and relishing the sheer literary manipulation of a large idea. But an equally pleasurable challenge is the encapsulation of a hot idea in the short story form. For certain inspirational notions the pure form of the short story is the only way to tell it.

So here you have it: ‘The Long and the Short of It’, two different but – I trust - equally exciting reading experiences for my readers. If you are one of them, I hope you enjoy both Sandie… and Knives, equally but in different ways.
What do you think?

Wendy <


Thursday 23 April 2009

Officially Mint Book Launch

We had a special launch for my short story collection Knives last night. We expected forty and nearly eighty came. Publisher Peter Mortimer, (Iron Press) brought his boxes of books and many friends, colleagues and lots of very welcome newcomers came along. (see avril's account at

A writing friend, Jackie, brought her sixteen year old daughter Ashleigh and has just emailed me. 'I just wanted to let you know that Ashleigh thought you were ‘mint'. This, if you don’t know, is the ultimate accolade among today’s youth – it my day it was always ‘ace’... She’s also taken your book so it may be some time before I get a look in.'
That has just made my day.

My friend Terry, who, apart from being a seriously good photographer, is known as a country music disc jockey for BishopFM, with internet fans round the world, took some photographs. Here's me getting carried away with my own prose... I am reading from Glass, my short story about a young burgler who drops in on a vicar's wife through her glass roof.

My friend Avril and I gave the reading as a kind of double act, an 'In Conversation With WR'. As always she was great - knew the stories inside and out and threw me some very inspiring questions. She read an extract from the story 'My Name Is Christine' which refers to the savage experience of some of the women we worked with in prison. She read it with such feeling.

My cousin Carol Winskill, whom I have not seen for years, came along with her husband Jack. When I read from the story 'The Making of a Man' ( about a boy's first day working undergound at in the pit), I referred to her father, my Uncle Tom, a very clever and thoughtful man who loved the pit and knew the layers of the earth like the veins on his hands.

So thank you, all you lovely people who went home my book in your bags and pockets. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed reading it to you last night. Let me know.



PS Next Wednesday to the Hexham Book Festival to talk about Knives and Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker with a talk called 'The Long And The Short of It - about the two different modes of writing. Come, if you fancy it...

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Orange Prize Behind Bars

The announcement of the Orange Prize Short List brings to my mind my experience last year at this time. That was when,in prison, we set up our own Orange Prize Project. Week by week, we read the books on the short list,reviewed and scored them, and posted our reviews on a board. Some people read whole books; those who couldn't manage that read large extracts and joined in the discussion. The discussions were very lively.

We had voted and found our winner before we were visited by a rather grand member of the judges' panel who gave us the low down on the judging process and distributed her own books to the women. Asking which novel she fancied to win, - this was before the final judging - she proposed The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Our choice was The Road Home by Rose Tremain.

Our discussion of The Outcast had been quite searching but we rejected it because its ultimate revelation of domestic abuse did not seem authentic to this group of people - some of whom, in real their lives, had had first hand experience of abuse and its consequences. Our group went on chose the Rose Tremain novel because the writing was clear and humane, the characters rang very true and the driving narrative kept them interested.

Ironically, in the subsequent months we were both proved right. While the Rose Tremain novel actually won the Orange Orize, The Outcast generally stayed ahead of The Road Home in the lists of best sellers.

This year I'll have to read the shortlisted novels on my own, probably in France between bouts of writing (and walking, and eating, and drinking wine). I'll be posting opinions here which might be of some interest to reader friends who are doing their own Orange Prize Inside.

At present I fancy Molly Fox's Birthday by Dierdre Madden. Don't ask me why. I'm not sure! I'll tell you later when I've read it.

What do you fancy of the list? Let me know.

Happy reading (and writing)


Orange Prize for Fiction finalists:
Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Monday 20 April 2009

Editing in the Garden

Warm enough to work in the garden. Hooray!

My big task today has been to respond to the line-edit for THE WOMAN WHO DREW BUILDINGS. The sunshine filtering through the old trees and the sound of the twittering birds - only slightly muffled by the distant traffic - helps this quite challenging work to flow.

As I work through the manuscript I feel pleased that now, emerging, is tht text that will be 'it' between covers. And now I feel pleased. It's looking good. For a moment I think that - with the sunshine streaming through the green, and the tea and toast delivered by B at half time - 'Nobody except you or I, love, knows what goes into these books' - how could I fail? How could it not go well?

Done now! And this great lump of work is ready to be sent to Celine Kelly, of Headline, who so efficiently drives my manuscripts through the system.

Now I only have three books to think of: Sandie Shaw.... - just out in her paperback livery; Knives, my short story collection; and At The Villa Estella - just embarked upon and to be written in the Languedoc in May and June. (I think...)

Then, at four thirty, I flee from of my garden down the High Street as far as No 1 Market Place - the new bar I'm just in love with - to meet and drink coffee with my buddy Avril ( We talk about the launch in Wednesday, at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, of my short story collection KNIVES.

We will launch KNIVES in the in the art gallery at Bishop Auckland Town Hall with a public conversation between Avril and me, about why my stories - whatever their up-front narrative - focus on people on the edge, people confined, and people running away to a new life. (Of course, it could be about me running away to France for eight weeks, but the stories have a much older history than that).

I was so reassured by our conversation that I now know that the public conversation with Avril on Wednesday will be interesting, entertaining, and fun. And then, if all else fails, there is the glass of wine and the nibbles. Anton always makes an effort...

But we did take a bit of time out to discuss: linen trousers, Ryanair's measurements for onboard luggage, essential cosmetics, medication and other frou frous to take to France. To be honest, we just gloated a bit... Then we had a glass of wine.

We hope to generate a good gathering of friends, new friends, old buddies and acquaintances who are interested in writing, to our event. I see - to my great delight - some of our friends from the prison will be there.

I'll tell you about it....


Saturday 18 April 2009

A Mslexia of Writers?

There’s no better way to approach the city of Newcastle than by train. I never tire of looking up and down the River Tyne through a lacework of bridges to the distant city skyline then peering closer at the foreground, where bright new developments crowd the riverside on quays that, a century ago, heaved with rough commerce as ships jostled for prime places to unload their goods.

Off the train, out of the portico’d station, we dodge the traffic to cross the road and make our way up Pink Lane. (This when I was young, was famous for being the territory of working girls plying their trade). Then into a pub called the Forth – punters jostling like those old ships for prime place to buy their wine. The place is bare floored and bustling with people of all ages having drinks after work before going on somewhere in the city. Reminds me of London.

My friends Gillian Wales ( ) Avril Joy and I make our way through to a back room full of writers talking. This is a gathering generated by Mslexia Magazine - the national magazine that is published out of Newcastle. The gathering is open to anyone with an interest in writing and literature, and as this is a magazine that focuses on women writers, the room was mostly filled with the friendly roar of women talking.

One exception is Peter Mortimer, publisher of Iron Press, ( Peter – publisher, playwright, poet, traveller and man about literature - gives me news of the imminent arrival of my short story collections Knives, just published by his Iron Press. He assures me that the books have now rolled off the presses and will be ready for the launch next week. A book launch without books is a recurrent nightmare for writers. He assures me the books look great and I will get my copies very soon. We make an arrangement for him to drop the books off at Avril’s house, as he will pass close by it en route to Lancashire.

(Now! See the story on Avril’s blog ( about Peter arriving at her house with the precious boxes of books.)

I only have time to sniff the books with animal delight and run. (Why does one always sniff new books?) The books look beautiful, and - peeping nervously inside - I think the stories are enjoying their new livery. One box is carried in by our mutual friend, novelist and playwright Kitty Fitzgerald, who worked on projects with Avril and me at the prison. Kitty, beaming broadly, looks gloriously wild and Irish as usual.

I have to leave them enjoying coffee with Avril and rush home to see another visiting friend Jane Bidder, whose new novel The Wedding Party, (under her professional name Sophie King) is also out this month. Jane (still a prison writer in residence) brings her new husband and her new large and friendly puppy Jack, who had the silkiest black coat, impossible not to stroke.

But I am ahead of myself! Back to the gathering and the Forth on Pink Lane.

At the gathering I connect again with poet Marilyn Longstaff who has just returned from a writing workshop in Narbonne in the South of France which, coincidentally is not too far from Agde, where Avril, Debora ( and I will stay during May and June to write like mad.

I’ve admired Marilyn’s collection Sitting Among the Hoppers where her poems - to quote poet Andy Croft - ‘…move effortlessly between the religious and the secular, between the domestic and the public, between preaching and entertaining. ..' Marilyn’s poems load up with fresh meaning every time I read them.

It’s good to see again poet Ellen Phethean who came into prison last year and read from her book length poem Wall – another great read based on a community residency in the Byker Wall housing development on Tyneside. Then I talk with Claire, a new writer who has a terrific idea for a novel and is buzzing with enthusiasm about it. I eavesdrop then on a conversation with Helen, an architectural artist (I think that was it) who will soon be building an art installation in Durham Cathedral. That will be a good thing to see. The cathedral is one of my most favourite places.

Then I have an interesting chat with Daneet Steffans, editor of Mslexia. We talk about the changing face of the magazine and its ongoing success in Britain and the wider world. Daneet, an American, talks of doing her GCSEs as a fifteen year old in London, her years in journalism in New York and the almost coincidental way in which she has ended up here in the North, doing this demanding job which she obviously relishes. People are full of surprises.

Then the room thins out, as many of the people are rushing off to listen to poet Kevin Cadwallender. Apparently the venue closes its doors at nine. Not wishing to risk a closed door we decide to go for coffee, then leap back onto the train home and – as writers do – discuss all the interesting people we have just met.

Essentially I work on my own and like it. Sometimes I might go for months without seeing other professional writers, apart from Avril who is a buddy, and Debora who is a daughter. This month seems sprinkled with writers of every hue and it’s been great fun.

Afterthought: would a good collective noun for writers be a Mslexia of Writers? What do you think?


Wednesday 15 April 2009

Fragile Manuscripts and the Charm of Skellig

Behind me, as I sit here at my desk, are two shelves full of manuscript notebooks. These are fragile, precious things. Manuscripts chart the conception, process and completion of this whole, strange, imagined thing called a novel.

All writers have their rituals. I buy three bound hardback A4 notebooks from Rymans. Nice paper. £6.99 a shot. When the time is right I choose one of three ink pens ,and begin to write in the first book. I move from scribbles and doodles, sketches and phrases, first person riffs and place poems - on and on to coherent paragraphs and chapters. In the end there will be three or four hundred pages of writing and there might just be a novel that works. Fingers are always crossed.

On the soft brown covers of the books I paste pictures, to break their pristine touch-me-not demeanour. With my new notebook for At The Maison d’Estella - more about this on later pages – I have pasted a copy of an 1877 painting of a lady in orange lying on grass, her head on a cushion, a book in her hands. Her body is languorous, her face is totally absorbed. The painting is by Winslow Homer and is called The New Novel. I cut this image from a birthday card given to me by my friend Gillian. She is very good at birthday cards - presents too. She has a unique gift for choosing just the right gift.

I only ever write on the right hand side of the paper – so soft and easy to write on. When I was at school I thought how horrible it was to write on the skinny left hand side of the page. All I wanted to do was write on the right, easy side. (Perhaps it’s our duty as grownups to reward the child still within ourselves, by fulfilling these simple childhood desires). Then, as I work on and begin to revise and edit my first draft, the originally blank left hand side becomes full of arrows and balloons , questions and answers, speculation and self criticism. Looking back at these pages I can trace the convoluted thought processes that went into any one of my novels.

Some years ago I used to run a very successful writing group in my town. (It’s still successful without me around). Anyway, one time we asked writer David Almond to come and give a workshop and talk to us about his work. I didn’t know him then – except for his fine reputation as an editor and a short story writer - but was blown away when he showed us two bound books which were the typescript of the novel he’d written that was then hitting the literary headlines. It was a book called Skellig. He went on to show us his workbooks - which flowed with writing, scribbles, doodles, crossings outs, fillings in - which were the starting points for this book that went on, on to win the Whitbread Prize. The writers loved the notebooks. They reminded me of some of my notebooks and disabused me of my illusion that I had invented this method.

There was this other time David gave up his time to come to the prison and give a workshop for the women writers I worked with. After getting the women to imagine and invent around a series of objects produced from a velvet bag (the pastry cutter was very inspirational…) he went on the show us the visual drafts of the art work for his new book The Savage –a collaboration between him and the artist Dave mcKean. The Savage has a kind of dark energy. It’s a powerful collaboration of two artists with extraordinary imaginations and is a work of art in itself. I wrote a report for the prison of this and other events that were part of our Litfest Inside, which we put on as part of the Durham Litfest of that year. In this report, I gave David Almond the title of The Magician.

All these thoughts came tumbling back into my mind the other night as I watched – with a faintly possessive pleasure - the film version of Skellig. Since we first saw the manuscript we have seen Skellig move to become a prizewinning novel, we saw it come to world-wide eminence ( I was once in Colorado Springs USA and saw a window full of David Almond’s books, an experience brought a lump to my throat). And then Skellig was transformed into a drama for the stage, an opera for which David himself wrote the libretto, and now it is a film.

Of course a film and a novel are different animals entirely; I think it was Harold Pinter who put it very well, when he said that his screenplay from John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman was a metaphor for the novel, rather than an adaptation of it. I like that.

In this film, Tim Roth is spellbinding as Skellig – dark, threatening, pathetic, revolting, and glorious in turns. The boy Michael, to my relief, remains firmly at the centre of the story. I rather relished the filmic cross-references - to the unique film Kes (with the pantomime sports master) and to The Snowman (where Skellig scoops up Michael and flies with him). And I was pleased that the beautiful shots of the house, the shed, the country and the sea, and the luscious music, underpinned rather than subverted the original central story.

Of course there are precious elements in any novel that are impossible to render in terms of film. In the novel Skellig there is this wonderful discussion about shoulder blades and angel’s wings which was so perfect and fragile it couldn’t happen in a film. But I did love this film. For me the most wonderful surprise was Skellig’s wings – scratchy and workmanlike, more pterodactyl than angels’ wings: not so much nativity play as a visceral link with the age of dinosaurs.

Good stuff. If you get a chance, watch it.


PS For some great stuff on gearing yourself up to starting a novel, look at Avril Joy's blog at

Sunday 12 April 2009


The social crimes of family dysfunction, petty long term cruelty, and occasional suicidal or psychopathic outbursts have frequently been part of my long fiction. However two long terms as writer-in-residence in a women’s prison have shown me that the sharper focus of the short story might perhaps be very well suited to explore the darker themes inevitable in such a setting.

In prison I worked with individuals who had walked the razor edge of survival all their lives, whose given role as victim had been transformed by circumstance to that of perpetrator. At first, these perceptions crept into my long fiction, from Long Journey Home - about women in a Japanese internment camp - to my most recent novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings (out in September) where one of the two main characters is just out of prison.

However, more and more those sharp insights into individuals on the edge began to crystallise into elements of a short story. This distilled form reflects the epiphanic glimpses and the flashes of insight I experienced many year in recent years through this inspiring contact with the people as I encouraged them to write and to read to make more sense of their world.

The outcome of all this is KNIVES, a series of short stories - ranging from the inspired ravings of an old woman, once respectable and now on the streets, to a young man who goes to view a house and has a near miss with a psychopathic killer, to a young woman - more sinned against than sinning - hell bent on self destruction. There are other, less pathological stories in the collection - of a woman breaking free from a long and confining marriage, of a boy learning his craft deep in the bowels of the earth.
But I think that - more than violence, more than darkness, all these stories reflect the knowingness and the sense of irony - even comedy - that is the human saving grace of people under stress and in either physical or psychological confinement.

Knives (Iron Press) is launched this month (April 2009).
Happy reading, happy writing


Friday 10 April 2009

Wise Owl Writers

I was inspired to think about owls by a piece on television: an examination of how silent owls are in flight. It seems that design engineers are experimenting with feather-like fringes for the wings of planes, to make them more silent as they land in cities.

Some wonderful shots of a white barn owl flying reminded me of a farm holiday we had in Scotland when the children were small. Mr J, the farmer, was a whipcord, weatherbeaten man whose hobby - when his farm chores were done - was to break in fine horses. Long before the Horse Whisperer was written, we witnessed that same strange magic on this farm in Scotland.

Every day at dusk Mr J would walk a section of the boundary of his farm. One night he asked me to join him and - as we walked - he uncovered for me the layers of history of the landscape and the nature of the families that once lived in the tumbled cabins. When we got back I was tingling all over, quite certain that I had just travelled through time. Later, Mrs J told me - without a touch of rancour - that was the first time he'd ever let anyone do the walk with him. Even she was not allowed to go. A true honour.

Because of Mr J's Pied Piper charisma the children spent a lot of time 'helping' him, so I was free to roam. Beside the river down from the farm was a ruined water mill where I spent a lot of time watching the water rush by and scribbling in my notebook. Late one evening I was sitting there and suddenly felt very conscious of being observed. I looked around. No one. Then, as I watched, a white barn owl rose with a whirring rush - up, up through the trees growing inside the mill. He glided silently across my vision and vanished into the darkening sky.

After that, I went down to the mill every night to be rewarded by that same magic. And I told no one. Not even the children.

Since then I have loved owls. I have read and enjoyed books full of owls, from Winnie the Pooh's advisor, to the one who went to sea with a pussy cat, right down to the owl that flutters cleverly around Harry Potter. I have learned that - according to legend - Greeks believed that owls had a a magical "inner light" so they could see in the night. And Greek stories tell of soldiers seeing an owl fly across the field on the night before a battle and knowing it as a sign of victory.

But owls are creatures of the night. They have a vicious, dark side. They are silent stalkers and serial killers. Maybe that's part of their attraction. For me The Owl Service by Alan Garner, (winner of both The Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal), best expresses the mythic contradiction within these enigmatic creatures. His beautifully written novel is a brilliant evocation of the fragility of adolescent relationships and young people living in the borderland betwen myth and reality. (As an adolescent I myself lived in such a place...) Only David Almond, writer of the wonderful Skellig and the even more wonderful Fire Eaters can match Garner in this combination of insight. sensitivity and crackling, poetic prose.

Perhaps it's worth noting here that The Owl Service was one of only two novels, where - once I had finished it - I instantly read it right through again, to find out what the heck had really happened and enjoy it even more. The other novel where that happened to me was The Magus by John Fowles. That must be a mark of a good novel, I think.

(I wonder what instinctive signs and signals you get, to know when a novel is a good one? I like these instinctive personal signs. Much better than waiting to be told what makes a novel good by some reviewer or literary advisor)

Happy reading!


Wednesday 8 April 2009

Dead People Walking

Currently I am thinking quite intensely about ghosts. My Auntie Lily was a medium - you know, one of those ladies who would stand in a church hall and bring messages from the dead to anxious people. She was a dramatic women, remarkable in some of her perceptions.
I have seen a few ghosts in my time and some of them have crept into my stories. Then there is the seeing through time, which happens now and then on ancient pathways and in old buildings.
There was the woman who wandered about my house for a few years before fading from sight and sense. She had large bosoms and folded her hands together across her stomach. She seemed to offer no harm. My sceptical friend B, who used to come for a glass of wine after our pottery class, saw this woman and thereafter never went on the back corridor by the toilet which seemed to be her territory.
Then there was the child standing mournfully at the end of the bed in the rented cottage. And even more dramatically there was the column of bright light at the end of another bed in an hotel by Lake Maggiore in Italy. I felt certain that this amazing light was an angel of some kind. I blinked my eyes hard and flapped my hands but the thing stayed far too long. Then there were boys from another age playing in the street where B was born. And there was my mother, two years dead, standing at the top of the staircase, arms open wide.
More generally, there are the shadowy presences in buildings, lurking at the edge of my eyeline, or hiding behind the shadows of the afternoon. This haunted feeling has pursued me in recent years even to the deep south west of France where sighting and feelings have come on very strong and buildings kept vanishing.
Talking with my writer friend P today we speculated whether all novelists, whether they know it or not, develop these gifts of seeing through time and intuiting dead people walking. When I think of Auntie Lily I sometimes wonder if it's all in the blood and bound up with stories. They were great storytellers too, Lily and her sisters. I do find that many of my odd visions can creep into my stories and inhabit my characters - even though I've never dealt with these ghostly themes 'front on'.
But now I'm thinking that it's time to do just this. I've decided to test these feelings to the limit and I'm off in May all the way to the Languedoc to write a story that has been brewing inside my head for more than two years. It will be called, I think, At The Villa d'Estella.
I already have some sketches. Here's one:
'...Now I see old men about their canal business in those times, steering loads of coal and steel, bales of cloth, racks of wine. And now they fade and there is only the limpid beauty of the water, silver green, slate grey, alternating between ladder shadows of the straight trees slicing into the bright blue sky,
One hour into the journey I notice the boy, orange haired and eyes too bright for life. He's leaning backward gazing up at the sky, his long hair dropping towards the water like strands of fire. Beside him sits a tall young man in a crew necked sweater; no shirt. He's reading a worn black book. Occasionally he puts out a hand to stop the boy falling.
They are an odd pair. Father and son? No. Brothers? I have to settle for brothers. Even so, there is no resemblance. None. The younger is fair and freckle faced, the older heavier set and dark, his narrow face sardonic.
I have this prickle of unease...
Can't wait to get there and get on with it...

Monday 6 April 2009

Artistic Licence

From time to time on this blog you will see art work by my young friend Fiona. She has always taken an interest my writing; I have always taken an interest in her art. One highlight of our joint creativity was the publication of my novel Honesty's Daughter, inspired by the manor house of the Shafto family, Whitworth Hall. Fiona painted a beautiful collection of images in and around the hall and exhibited them on our summer's day launch of the novel. As all launches should be, this was a celebration of the first order.

I am hoping some of Fiona's drawings will be part of the cover design for the new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings, a novel partly set in Poland. You can see one of her drawings of Kracow on this blog, alongside my very first post. Making People Is Mad. (Click on this title left, on my archive list)

On this page here you can see her imagined view of Whitworth Hall before it burned down in the eighteenth century, alongside her painting of the High Street where I grew up.

To enjoy a full and proper view of Fiona's gorgeous work, look at her website at


The Potency of Paperbacks

This week the postman arrived with a big box of author's copies of the paperback version of my novel Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker. I have written a good number of books - see - but nothing beats the sight and smell of a brand new novel that started on my desk ,written with my inkpen in my notebooks. The cover of Sandie... is great. My publishers, Headline, have caught the spirit of this novel in those bright faces.

I don't know why paperbacks are so much friendlier and sexier than hardbacks, but they are. They are like sparky teenagers in comparison to the maiden aunt hardbacks. Paperbacks seeem set to live harder, travel further and die younger. They will hang around the streets, end up in strange places and fall into the wrong hands.

Boy, they will they have lived!

But where would we be without our sturdy maiden aunt hardbacks? Mine have done me proud, nestling in libraries all over Britain - even now in Australia and New Zealand according to my post - perhaps it's a kind of personal diaspora. People read your books and feel they know you. That's a naked truth for writers. B - who keeps me right on numbers - tells me that my novels are borrowed the best part of two hundred thousand times a year. Every year. Sturdy maiden aunts, these.
So it's good that Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker - out last year in hardback, this year in paperback - is getting its second breath. (See also post 1 Making People is Mad).
I have written stories set in many places but never before in a factory. This has been an omission because - knowing the fizzy politics and dark humour of the factory world - I always knew it was ripe for a good novel. I never liked the fact that factories are always presented as dark, dingy places. In Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker I wanted to show the colour and the human comedy of a factory, the charm of its people, the potency of its dark places. As dramatic settings, I think factories beat city firms, restaurants, and shopping malls into fits.
So anyway, my energetic teenager Sandie is now let loose! And I am sure her maiden aunt will watch her tearing around with sturdy pride. Let me know if you like her.

Sunday 5 April 2009

PD James

This July I will be giving a series of workshops in on Lifewriting and recently a close friend's drew my attention to PDJames' memoir Time to be Earnest. This writer's technique, of taking the events of a single year and delving backwards and forwards into a long life, is inspired. The memoir is a close and fascinationg read. Her highly detailed observations of her childhood feel like a visit to another planet. And how cleverly she applies appropriate restraint in alluding to more painful aspects of experience! In all our lives there are areas where discussion and disclosure would be betrayal.

More significant here is PD James' magisterial take on her metropolitan literary and political world - also like a visit to another planet. I think her comment on the Booker Prize process is particularly shrewd. As a writer I appreciate her masterful analysis of the detective novel and her dry asides about genre and literary novels. And I note that she only stopped her full time job shortly before she was due to retire. (I find myself comparing this with new young writers I meet who are desperate to drop their jobs and dedicate their lives to succeeding in business of writing...)

Most of all PD James is inspirational - fitting this memoir in between novels and writing ( at 77, then) of a life full of work, incident, people, journeys, talks etc. She is a model to us all. This memoir made me, for one, optimistic about a writer's life.
What do you think?

Saturday 4 April 2009

The Sequinned Bag

Among photos scattered around my house is one of a small family - an upright man, an anxious woman in a pretty hat and a pretty, plump child in a velvet coat. There is another photo of the father of this family in naval uniform. This family is no relation at all to me but I knew the pretty child when she was an old woman, a spinster - but not, as she always assured me, an unclaimed treasure! She was the last of the line, with no descendents. I feel happy that these photos make her ours by adoption.

I thought of her last week when I was running an original writing workshop for International Women's Day (called Handbags and Gladrags). Amid sisterly laughter we looked for inspiration to, among other things, the contents of our handbags. I found myself thinking and writing about that pretty child, my old friend Isabel.

A Mattisse drawing,
Of a woman dreaming
An ink pen and notebook,
Bleeding life
Battered bills to document money
Concert tickets never used
Strepsils to stop the screaming
Bright green purse, handmade -
Bought in France, a heart’s home.
A small sequinned bag, left to me
By my old friend Isabel, among
Her ‘personal effects’ -
Along with corsets, nightgowns, old fur coats
Edwardian photos of her sailor father,
Her mother, (the dressmaker),
And Isabel herself at three years old
Wearing a favourite, homemade velvet dress.

So - nothing of value,
Except the sequinned bag in which I keep
My mobile phone, which now I never lose...

Friday 3 April 2009

Making People Is Mad

True to the title of this blog, I watch myself at the moment living in a strange hiatus between novels. I have lived for a whole year inside the world of my novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings - Durham in the present day, Poland in 1981, inside the minds of Marie, this woman in a coma and Adam, a boy just out of prison...

Now, because the paperback is just out, I've had to return for a while to last year's world of eighteen year old Cassandra, who worked in a factory in Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker in those wonderful times when sex and rock'n'roll was on offer even if - to be honest - drugs were in short supply. Signings and talks about this novel mean that readers are well up on my stories, so I have to be the expert on the lives of all these people who originated in my own head.

It's crazy, isn't it, inventing all these people who live and breathe in my imagination, only to lose them when they get between hard covers? But, of course they don't leave you do they? They hang around and people the air, as significantly as do my flesh and blood family and my solidly human friends.

And then, oh dear, around the edges of my life come creeping the people who will drive the reality in the new novel - Estella, the woman who sees ghosts and writes astrology columns, Michel who guards the life of a young boy who has powers beyond time. At least I think that's who they are...
I wonder if other writers live such crowded lives?
Perhaps all this is life thrice tasted.
Wendy R
PS Why not send me a post here so I can see whether this blog works?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...