Saturday 27 March 2010

Writing America and the Young Man from Texas.

Once I met a young Texan, across in Britain for one year of his university qualifications. He love England, although the smallness of everything was something of a culture shock. One day, standing in Durham Cathedral, he looked up at the exquisite, soaring roof and said, ‘We-ell. I think we might have the space but you guys certainly have the time.’

Being something of an actor he could imitate of all kinds of accents – from cockney to Scottish to northern and southern Irish, to Yorkshire to Lancashire. However he did say the north eastern accent was impossible to ‘get’. I suggested he started with Scandinavian and moved West from there.

He had some interesting observations on what we take for granted, that in our ambiguous society to say what you mean is out. He observed that false modesty and understatement were de rigeur.

For example at an early meeting, the university drama group were asked what they could offer to the upcoming production. He mistook this for a real question, ‘We’ell,’ he said truthfully. ‘I can act, I can direct, I can build and paint scenery, I can do sound….’ He only stopped when he saw the looks being exchanged in the group around him.

I had always loved American writing, from Tennessee Williams to Henry Miller, from Mark Twain, through Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa M Alcott, Edith Wharton, F Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Henry James, to Alice Walker and the glorious Toni Morrison. Lee knew as much – perhaps more – about Shakespeare than I did. His grasp on English-English literature was strong, I remember a discussion about the vast archives of English literature at the University if Texas at Austin – original archive material at that time apparently being gobbled up by American money. He looked at me with the wisdom, the transparency of youth. ‘We’ell, Wendy,’ he drawled. ‘It’s my literary heritage as well as yours isn’t it?’

As he could trace his ancestry to the Pilgrim Fathers and I can’t get further back than 1895 I definitely conceded that he was right. He has now vanished into the mists of time, having become a trauma surgeon. As you do…

Lee came to my mind last week when I listened to the BBC’s Capturing America Mark Lawson's History of Modern American Literature which led me to the BBC’s American Collection.(Link below)

From this list I chose to listen first to Mark Lawson’s Interview with the John Ashberry – a writer unknown to me. Ashberry’s voice was hesitant as he searched for the right word. Occasionally there was a chuckle in his voice. He was modest but quite firm. ‘I don’t believe in inaccessibility for its own sake.’ But he thought it was a good thing that the reader has to tussle for his own take on a poet’s meaning. The problem of writing over many years he defined as the tendency to strike the same note. Like seeing an old photograph of oneself.

He described how following great writers as ‘going downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push back at your feet.’ He talked about fancy phrases jostled by street language. And how in poetry the everyday becomes fixed and transfixed when language goes off on its own and has adventures in words.

All so inspiring. And listening to it reminded me of the young man from Texas and just how much we all – as readers and writers – owe to American literature.


Hear among others - Edward Albee, John Ashberry, Patricia Cornwell, Done Delillo, Dave Eggers James Ellroy John Irving Joyce Carol Oates Toni Morrison Walter Mosely, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut. Tom Wolfe

Monday 22 March 2010

Getting It Like It Really Was

Very occasionally I suffer from insomnia. I have to get up because of the whirligig of negative thoughts that hammer in my head. I’m too distracted to write, too sleepy to read so I turn on the television and channel - hop to find something soothing to make me forget the hammers in my head.

The other night I hit on an old edition of The Book Show on Sky. One small segment was a visit to a writer’s writing room. So at three o’clock in the morning I reacquainted myself with Diana Athill, the legendary editor of household-name authors such as VS Naipaul . She is also an exquisite memoirist of publishing life in the twentieth century and also the nature of old age. She retired in 1993 at the age of 75, after more than 50 years in publishing. at the point of this interview she was in her nineties, still writing and still being heard,

We are in the top rooms in a house in London. Sitting in a comfortable chair is an white-haired elderly woman who looks tough and solid - anything but fragile. She speaks with the clipped, educated London speech of the nineteen thirties and forties.

Opposite her is a colourful rocking chair upholstered in tapestry, worked by herself. Fine pictures and prints hang in a more or less convenient fashion on the walls. Around her there are overflowing bookshelves and piles of papers and folders. She says, ‘I live in a state of complete chaos. When I was in publishing my desk was famous for the horror of it.’ Her smile has a touch of glee about it

Her wisdom about writing emerges as blazing self confidence. ‘I write on a lined pad of paper, then go across there and put it onto the laptop. There are changes from the scribble on my pad. ‘ She nods towards the heaped desk. Then we see her writing with the pad close up to her face. ‘All my books have come to me spontaneously. I tend to write late in the day.’ She nods. ‘I look up and it is three in the morning.’

‘I write and then I look at it. I find the work is perfectly shaped as though a lot of thought has gone into it. I suspect that for some people a lot of the work is done when they’re sleeping. One’s subconscious is working away at it.’

As her watchword in writing she cites similar phrases from two writers. ‘Jean Rhys said to me, You have to aim to get it like it really was. And Vidia Naipaul said, if you get things right, then people understand. however remote from their own experience it is.’

‘Both these things count for me,’ she says firmly. ‘I feel I must get it as it really was. This is the kind of writing I really enjoy – rather plain, exact writing. That’s what I try to do.’

In 2009 Diana Athill won the Costa Biography Prize, for her memoir Somewhere Towards The End' - a book about old age. My favourite is her publishing memoir Stet. There is a new book out now - Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill. London. These books demonstrate that this tough, graceful writer has succeeded in what she has tried to do.

I have to tell you I went to bed, slept like a baby and woke up fully inspired to get it like it really was and make my writing even more plain and exact than I think it is.

Which is all very good for me as I am embarking on a new novel, which might have been the reason for the hammers in the head.


Wednesday 17 March 2010

Tracey Chevalier and Stories in Cloth

One of my favourite thought provoking blogs by Norman Geras led me today to a lovely clip from the V&A which has Tracey Chevalier talking about quilts, her own inspiration, and writing a commissioned story for the V&A based on one of the quilts. Reminds me of going to the Beamish Museum with my friend Avril Joy, to look at their fascinating quilt collection. Stories certainly leapt from the intricate fabric crafted by working women. Tracey Chevalier expresses this perfectly.

Click here to see and hear…+

If you are like me you will be inspired…wx

Monday 15 March 2010

Mother’s Day Signings and the Precocious Child

book signing 009

Saturday was, as they say, well packed.

We had this Roomtowrite Conference at Whitworth where we were discussing how writers could use their reading to develop their novel writing techniques. Or how to steal skills from successful writers . Great group. We worked very hard in a sunny conservatory in a park with deer. Roomtowrite 006

Then I had to skip lunch and go down to WHSmiths at Bishop Auckland where the lovely manager Tony Fox, in collaboration with Headline’s exceptional Gillian McKay, had set up a signing of The Woman Who Drew Buildings in time for Mother’s Day. Well it is about a mother and her son, so it seems signing 011

Gillian, as always, took great care of me, making sure I signed lots of books. One little girl, blonde hair, straight fringe came up for a word. She was all of nine years old. I asked her if she liked reading.

‘Oh yes, I like books,’ she says

‘What do you read?’ I say, thinking JK Rowling of Jacqueline Wilson.

‘Jodi Pecoult.’ she says.

I blink just a little. ‘Very sophisticated. So, which book have you read?’

‘I’m reading My Sister’s Keeper',’ she said. ‘I got it for my Mum last year and we watched the film and now I’m reading the book.’

And her mother came up, smiling, and swept her away.

Afterwards I wondered why I had been surprised. When I was her age I was reading books which followed my mother’s tastes. I remember reading quite erotic books by a writer called Nora K Strange. I looked her up recently to discover that among other things she wrote about Kenya under the British and possibly had some experience of the scandalous Happy Valley set.

Children get their emotional and sexual educations where they can. Novels are not a bad starting point.

Then back to the afternoon session of RoomToWrite where we were discussing beginnings and endings with reference to The Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman, Let It Bleed by Ian Rankin, and The Lovely Bones, by Alice Hoffman. Maybe Jodi Pecoult should have been in there somewhere…

If you are interested in The Woman Who Drew Buildings she is available from all good books shops (WHSmith, for instance) and on Amazon. ISBN 978-0 -7553-3381-3

Afternote. The writers at the RoomtoWrite conference were great. There are some promising novelists there. My writing friend and colleague Avril Joy has posted more about says more about the conference on her blog Writing Junkie.

But for now here are some sunny picsRTW Gillian & Hilary Sunny DayRTW Gillian;

rtw alison

RTW Jackie 007

rtw Avril

rtw Mike

rtw Gerry

Thursday 11 March 2010

The Best Ever - A Hand Made Birthday


Birthday party 009  

I only started to celebrate my birthday last year, with a small gathering of people - each one a very special writing friend. That was so enjoyable that we had a few more enjoyable un-birthday gatherings during the year. But yesterday my actual birthday came round again and the same small gathering joined me at a round table at the historic  Pump House, Durham to celebrate not just my birthday but ourselves, our own survival in the constraints of sometimes challenging lives.Birthday party 003 Sharon 2 We missed our friend Fadia who was away publicising her book.

So we ate well, drank wine, laughed and talked. (I think we might have been quite a loud table.) We talked of everything – from Hilary Mantel to Will Self, from Michael Foot to Nye Bevan to Barbara Castle, from the Emperor’s New Clothes to surprisingly winning books and films, from misery literature and film to the dangers of voyeurism, to the delights or otherwise of younger men, to jealousy and rivalry in the field of writing, to the challenged state of publishing nowadays, to inheritance of traits and the possibly suspect fascination with one’s own genealogy, to the need to look forward rather than back. Birthday party 008 Liz

In all the talk I discovered that I had only started to know how to be happy – to laugh and see and be spontaneous - when I went to my small rural college when I was eighteen. Then on to the possibility that life might be a series of self –reinventions.Birthday party 004

There was a great deal of laughter. I am a bit of a sober-sides myself but my friends are very witty. I noticed the delicacy, strength and expressiveness of their writers’ hands.

Then I went home to find I had missed a birthday call from my dear friend Judith Gates in Florida and Birthday party 005thought how much she would have enjoyed the party. (She joined us in one or our un-birthday lunches last year…)

And there was a card from my friends Judy who is just now in New Zealand.

I had a little breather then, and watched a  saved episode of House, my favourite TV drama. I looked through my lovely cards which told me so much about myself and how my friends and family see me. Then I started to read a birthday present – a beautiful book about how to draw - and decided that this was the way I would teach myself to relax this year. I would teach myself to draw.

Birthdya Cards 001 Mantelpiece

Then my son and his wonderful family surged in. A big kiss and a hug from my Grahame. Then greetings from Angus and Calum disguised by bunches of flowers, Then a kiss from Kate who was carrying the mandatory bottle of bubbly. The a hug from her lovely mother who handed over two beautifully wrapped square glass vases. And chocolates. And great, great chat.

Then later, just after B and I had settled down to a lovely quiet house, an hour long call from my dear girl Debora, known on this blog as love and a licked spoon. The interesting thing was that our long meandering conversation was a wide-ranging, intensely interesting, one to one version of the round table conversation with my friends this lunch time.

On my birthday this year everything connected, It was the best birthday. Ever. WX

Birthdya Cards 002

Birthday party 002  Sharon

Monday 8 March 2010

Easington Writers & Pandora’s Box

What Thatcher did with her actions over the miner’s strike was to open a Pandora’s box, freeing up the potential that has existed in this village for generations, unleashing the talent and energy here that shows itself in this book. It is a credit to this community. John Cummings MP for Easington. ‘100_0461[1] (Right, with Avril and myself and his successor)

Now I’ve completed the work on the book I feel differently about the place, I see it with a fresh eye. I see its beauty now, its potential. I am more positive about it now. Agnes Frain Easington writer. (Read her 'Tunnel Vision ' p55 & 'Gladiators' pp 136.)

This project is unique in that the outcome, in this lovely book, is tangible. So many of our projects have intangible outcomes but here we can see the work that has gone into the project and the benefit that is coming out of it. Emma Snowden, of the Lottery Fund.


And here is the Book, now available. I has taken eleven people, including nine great Easington writers, Avril. Gillian. and myself a year to write, edit, select, print produce and publish, It was hard work but a labour of love on everybody’s part, and illuminated by the paintings, drawings and photographs of Fiona Naughton. Now it is now out there. It is being snapped up by people who know Easington by residence, association and affection. It is also being widely bought by everyone who knows a good book when they see one.

If you would like a copy it is available through all good bookshops (ISBN 978-0-9564823-0-3) OR through AGNES FRAIN . Email her at

On Saturday a crowd of more than two hundred friends, well-wishers and fans the packed the magnificent ball room of Easington Welfare Hall, to launch our book Shrugging Off The Wind. As the writers read their work to this great crowd I felt proud of them and the progress they had made in their writing this year. Aged from thirty plus to seventy plus., each one of them had entered into a contract with me to work hard at their writing and editing, to develop their work and produce something unique in this field of local and community writing. As I say in my preface (reprinted below) I wanted them to move out of the sentimental and nostalgic field of community writing and produce something dynamic and modern which still paid respect to the uniqueness of their own community. On the whole they managed that. Anyone who reads the book carefully will note that the writers in this collection have aspired to that quality and lifted their writing game.

But today we writers were not writing. We were celebrating. We gathered there in all our finery: Agnes and David Mary B in her lace skirt and beautiful beads; Chris with her silver butterfly belt; Ann in her elegant shawl; Joan in her sweet pink jumper; Susan with her new make-up; Terry in full Goth gear, including his stick with its silver skull head; Agnes in her elegant grey jacket; David in his best shirt; Mavis, as promised, in shocking pink; me with my red spotted tie and Avril with her head wrapped in a pretty scarf.

Mary and chis

Terry in Gothid Mode

Barney Preens 048


Bookstall with flowers

Gillian, in a lovely tourquoise jacket, took on the selling of the books. She sold more than two hundred….

Joan and Ann

I was going to write here about my perspective in dedicating a year to the project but decided to copy across the preface that Avril and I wrote for to the book, Perhaps it says it all:


When we agreed with the Easington Writers’ group to mentor and tutor them through their Tall Tales Project, we did not realise what we were getting into. First there was Easington itself. We knew of its strong association with the history of mining, right up to its crucial involvement in the 1984 Miners’ Strike. We also knew that – in common with most mining districts – it had lost its mines and with that its central livelihood and its working energy.

But, until we went there regularly to work with the Easington Writers’ Group in their magisterial Welfare building, we had not realised the beauty of this place, with its long beaches and inlets, its wooded denes and everywhere the sea. Of course there are no gantries and pit wheels but – as at least one poem here shows – these icons of a bygone age are missed and are still seen to have had their own unique beauty.

The other special delight has been the sheer character, energy and originality of the writers with whom we have worked. As these very original writers tackled our writing tasks with open minds, the quality of their writing grew enormously, month by month. They have embraced the challenge of transforming fact into fiction with great imagination and have written pieces which contain gold nuggets of truth for all of us, whether or not we come from Easington.

These writers, having fulfilled their brief to talk with Easington people, have come back with stories ranging widely from well-researched historical tales to tales of Easington before even the railways arrived, to heart-felt narratives based on Easington’s mining heritage to contemporary tales of the disaffection of the young and the social consequences of the lost industrial base. Here also are well-wrought ghost stories and poems of lyrical quality that reflect the poignant beauty of the landscape and its meaning for Easington people. Humour and occasional roguish insight lace many of the stories with the unique quality of the Easington point of view.

Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy

Consultants and Mentors

Easington Tall Tales Project

Thursday 4 March 2010

One Hundred Posts and Still Counting

I started this blog just about a year ago because I was relishing the thought of my DSCN0316 forthcoming two month stay in the Languedoc and thought it might be a good idea to document that and to go on and write a hundred posts that somehow documented my pre-occupations in what I thought would be an interesting year. I didn’t know whether I would last out but here we are and this is the hundredth post.
The outcome is a book-length text that somehow does document the year – including that endless and too short time in France. Every day there made me reflect on my life and the work I was doing there – posts like sounds not of silence. So now I invite you to join me as I revisiting my posts on a writer's mindset on the house in France and the cafe where I watched and wrote and the joy of beginning and working on the novel that has become STARR BRIGHT and the amazement there in the Maison d’Estella of the first sight of the newly published Woman Who Drew Buildings (now out in paperback) I could not keep off the subject The Miracle of The Woman Who Drew Buildings. Then back to Starr as she climbs a wall. And thinking about Starr again in research leading down strange pathways.
My posts reflect the inspirations of great people – in the flesh and on the page - Mary Davies who inspired The Woman Who Drew Buildings; Sylvia Hurst whose life was more extraordinary than any novel ; the late Julia Darling, indeed a darling of the Northern writing world, my own Angus who is always an inspiration, and John Fowles; and Jane Yolen; Alan and Nira Chidgey. And the sparky and dynamic Easington writers whose book Shrugging Off The Wind will be launched with balloons and rip roaring readings just this Saturday coming (Obviously that will be worth its own special post) .
And more…
And threaded through all this are posts that reflect elements of my own life from my occasionally troubled childhood onwards. There are also also many posts on my sometimes idiosyncratic and obsessive views on writers , the process of writing and aspects of syntax and language - both from a practitioner and mentor’s point of view.
It being World Book Day today I have the thought that I might make a book of all this – a ‘How To Write’ book with a difference. What do you think?
One unexpected joy of the blog has been that need for images to support the prose and to give the reader some colour. So I had to teach myself to take (not very expert) photographs. I have to admit I see these as writer’s notes rather than works of art. But they have been a joyous bonus of writing the blog . So I offer here – in no particular order – some of the hundreds of photos this bloWednesday Agde 047g has taught me to value for their own strange selves. .
A Glass of Wine on the Roof Terrace
Wednesday Agde 059
the woman who drew buildings[1]

P1160135 Boody boody 002River PathDSCN0286


Mary Davies 014m17 P1140777 DSCN0144

books Etc 028P1150840P1010046DSCN0317

DSCN0189 (2) DSCN0310 Family Ties 003Autumn 011 Obsolete 121b&w with D


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