Thursday 28 August 2014

In Praise of Fiction and THE RISK OF READING

All of us  – writers, readers, teachers, parents, probation officers, managers, MPs and lawmakers - anyone who cares about our world should read THE RISK OF READINGby Bob Waxler

Avril has written on her blog about how she and I met and worked with Professor Bob Waxler on the absolutely seminal international project Changing Lives ThroughLiterature.  

Meeting Bob in Boston USA was inspirational and we related to his principles of the life-changing properties of reading stories which we were putting into practice in the prison where we worked.

There is something messianic about Bob. Even now, years later, he will say ‘Keep the faith!’ at the end of an email.

In his book Waxler argues that we need "fiction" to give our so-called "real life" meaning and that reading narrative fiction remains crucial to themaking of a humane and democratic society.

Waxler 100w
Robert P Waxler  
 University of Massachuset
Waxler’s book considers the importance of story in terms of "real life", The Risk of Reading focuses on human language, especially language shaped into narrative, and how such language is central to the human quest for identity.  

Waxler argues that we are "linguistic beings," and that reading literary narrative is a significant way to enrich and preserve the traditional sense of human identity and knowledge.

This is especially true in the midst of a culture which too often celebrates visual images, spectacle, electronic devices, and celebrity. Reading narrative, in other words, should be considered a counter-cultural activity crucial on the quest to "know thyself."

Reading literature is one of the best opportunities we have today to maintain a coherent human identity and remain self-reflective individuals in a world that seems particularly chaotic and confusing.

Our own work on this project was with men and women in prison. There we witnessed the transforming affect of whole narrative fiction in our project. (We read whole books, not bite-size pieces…It was not an O or A Level course in Literature...)

THE RISK OF READING made me think don't we too, on the outside, live in different kinds of prison? Narrative fiction has a strong role here too in restoring wholeness to our lives. It certainly did for me as a child and a girl who noadays would have been considered underprivileged

Reading narrative fiction feeds the brain, flowers the imagination, strengthens the empathy muscles in the individual. It could just save the world from self-immolation. 

Bob Waxler is interested in changing the world. And he might just do that through this important book.

Keep the faith! as Bob would say,

This book is out in November but can be pre-ordered now,. The very thing for some thoughtful person’s Christmas stocking, perhaps.

Links: I have written  elsewhere about this HERE and HERE 

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Gabriel: A Character Inspired by Underground Miners

The Family

As the grand daughter and niece of lifelong underground miners I 

grew up with the feeling that miners were exceptional, even mythic 

human beings.

      I had one uncle – down the pit from 14 to 62 years -  whose
 knowledge of  the very veins of the earth was down to experience, insight and long study. The seams underground were his obsession, even his poetry. 

       I had another uncle – a leader of his men – who when he was aboveground grew prizewinning flowers and had a hand in creating new strains of certain familiar flowers. He also had a very good singing voice  which he liked to share.
Doodling  -Thinking  of Gabriel
Read a chapter about Gabriel's
Perceptions of Light and Colour
 on the Tab above or HERE 


The Artist

It was a nephew of the flower-growing uncle – the late Norman Cornish - who in his youth turned his mind and his hand to drawing and painting, and ended up with a national reputation as a very respected artist.  
        Then I met the late Tom McGuinness – and entirely different artist from Norman, whose luminous paintings created new ways of seeing the world both above and below ground.


The Writers

Inspired by my background  I have written short stories based on my literary and museum own research, as well as  my  family experience of the role of the underground miner.  And  I am a particular admirer of writer Sid Chaplin – one time miner whose novel The Thin Seam is of perfect  evocation of men working underground.

        The thing is, I am  novelist, not a painter. So it was that into my life - into my imagination - strode the lovely Gabriel Marchant who is not any of these me above but who would not have existed without them. To me now he is as real as any of them.

The novel is called Gabriel Marchant; How I became a Painter

 and for a week is on  Amazon Kindle from 99p

Gabriel’s own story is fiction but it  springs out of my personal experience of a particular place at a particular time and my research into the true experience of people whose lives were changed in such a way.

The  Dedication. 

In the book I say: This novel is dedicated to all those whose lives impelled them to dig in the darkness, who still found the grace there to create beauty. In particular I honour the inspiration of the art of Tom McGuinness, Ted Holloway and Norman Cornish, in addition to the literary inspiration of the writer Sid Chaplin. All of them, in their unique fashion, flourished as young people through the magic of the Spennymoor Settlement. 
See the images of their work in Wales and McManners' wonderful Shafts of Light


Truth and Fiction

I hope  in this novel, through my fiction, I have arrives at some truth about the lives and the heritage of all those grandfathers  and uncles,  going back through generations in my family.

       I was thinking about Gabriel Marchant when I came across this quotation from Eudora Welty. It made sudden sense to me. 
She says  "Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.” 

Most Important: The Reader ***** on Amazon

The first reviewer says: 'Gabriel Marchant' is a rites of passage story sympathetically revealing life in the raw. Gabriel matures not only as an artist but discovers at Archie's Settlement 'the complication of women' through Rosel, art teacher and older woman, Marguerite an artist’s model and Greta the gauche, clever schoolgirl who makes a pact with Gabriel to do 'the thing that men and women do.'
     And always in the background is Archie working to release the butterflies in chrysalis state, a gifted group of young people desperate to escape the web of ignorance that could condemn them to life in the dark as black as any mine'

Gabriel is on Countdown offer up to end of the month.

Monday 25 August 2014

Unknown Worlds. WIP

Extract from my work in progress, A clutch of writers are working together in the Languedoc

... Again Joe leapt off the bed. He shook his head very hard and - without bothering to decant it into the glass - gulped down water from the water-jug. Wiping his mouth with his hand he satdown at his work table and turned on his laptop.  
Then he closed his eyes and brought up a vision of the first group home - lvy House – where he lived when he was ten. He decided that this new story must start on the boy’s first day because he’s in the front hall and the kids could only use that when they arrived. The rest of the time they had to use the side door. Then, remembering what Kit said, Joe begins to make a list 

Black and white tiles
fine carved staircase
table with fancy  flower arrangement - dusty
long, thin red carpet  
two over-stuffed chairs – dusty
smell of burnt broccoli,lavender, wax, coke dust

Joe began to think that this story would be about the fear the boy felt  on entering this unknown world. The words started to flow onto the screen,...

From At the Maison Bleue

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Evolution of Paulie’s Web ( Now on Special Kindle Offer)

The Meeting

I first met my friend and RoomtoWrite collaborator, novelist Avril Joy, in prison. We were both, in our own way, ‘serving time’. Avril was three quarters of a the way through a twenty-five year teaching commitment. I was  beginning what was to be a four year association with this women’s prison as a Writer in Residence. It was then that she started out on her writing career and it was then that I had the life-changing experience of helping a whole range of women from all walks of life to find their (often silenced) voice in writing.

The Novel

One of several great outcomes of this experience for me, my novel Paulie’s Web, was a long time coming. It took me ten years to digest these powerful impressions sufficiently to write this novel as true fiction - in a way that still paid tribute to the many  women I met while working there;  I thought that if it went some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of 'women in prison' that would  be an extra delight.  It is true that there are some dark passages here in the novel but the ultimately optimistic tone of this story is a true reflection of the mutual support, humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.


So, what is it about?

Paulie Smith, rebel, ex-teacher and emerging writer, comes out of prison after six years, her conviction overturned. As she moves around in the next few days, struggling to readjust to the scary realities of life
‘on the out’, she reflects on her life in prison. She focuses particularly on her first few weeks inside, alongside the four very different women whom she first met in the white van on their way to their first remand prison.

Paulie’s thoughts move from Queenie*, the old bag- lady who sees giants and angels, to Maritza who has disguised her pain with an ultra-conventional life, to Lilah, the spoiled apple of her mother’s eye, and on to   to the tragedy of Christine - the one with the real scars.

And then there is Paulie herself, who ended up in prison through no fault of her own. The unique stories of these women, past and present, mingle as Paulie - free at last - goes looking for these unique women who have now been ‘on the out’ for some years and are, Paulie hopes,  remaking their lives.

Read the Chapter introducing Queenie HERE
Or click on the tab in the heading.

Most  importantly: The Readers

*****Amazon Reviews - Samples

***** ‘… I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their back-stories and in spite of everything - their humour.’

*****  In this exceptional and insightful novel, Wendy Robertson introduces us to the hidden world of invisible women that is prison. Her characters and their stories leap off the page at us, there are no stereotypes here, this is not Prisoner Cell Block H or Bad Girls but it is every bit as compelling. She is a consummate story-teller, who weaves a fascinating web around these disparate lives and if you want to know what prison is really like and who the women we lock away every day are then READ THIS.

***** ..’With the sharpness of a journalist and the skill of a novelist, Robertson cleverly brings all of these characters to life, making the reader care about them. She has a deft style, almost a magician's touch, in that the characters quickly take root and you feel yourself urging Paulie forward and hoping she and the others find some resolution and peace. I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their backstories and in spite of everything - their humour…’

*****  ‘Wendy Robertson has pulled off something quite remarkable in her latest novel, Paulie's Web. I loved everything about it and read it in one sitting - on a long haul flight, something to be grateful for, even on that level.

***** ‘..Wonderful novel based on much truth of prison life impacting on women.’

***** ‘…also an argument for the way that literature and education can transform the lives of prisoners. It has as much of a good feel exit as is compatible with the plot … Wendy is a brilliant story-teller who has written more than twenty novels. This one draws on her experience of being a writer-in-residence working with prisoners. It's a fascinating glimpse behind the tabloid headlines at the unimaginably hard lives of some of those who end up in the prison system because of mental health problems, abusive childhoods, drink and drug dependency.’

Link here  Avril Joy   

Hope you enjoy it as well. wx

Saturday 16 August 2014

Norton Conyers & My Charlotte Bronte Short Story

Some years ago, my writing group Wear Valley Writers  used to go on ‘field trips’,  visiting interesting places – a farm, a beach, a stretch of moorland – to have a picnic and tackle a piece of observation and writing on the spot. The quality of the writing outcomes emerging from these adventures was always high, giving us something to build on.

On one outstanding occasion by special arrangement we visited Norton Conyers - a grade 2 listed late medieval manor house with some Stuart and Georgian elements - owned by the Graham family since 1624.  We were privileged to visit it before it was more generally open to the public and to be shown around the house by the owner and the garden by the owner’s wife. It had all the atmosphere of a family home stretching back hundreds of years and, as we made our way around it, it was easy to feel the company of people from other times.

Our very informed guide  eventually led us up a newly unblocked staircase connecting the first floor to the attics and led us through several attic rooms to a dark attic at the end with a single round window. He told us of the family legend that a mad woman had been confined to this attic for years. He also told us that Norton Conyers had been visited by the writer Charlotte Bronte in 1839  and this house was said to be the model for Thornfield Hall in her novel Jane Eyre.

Then we had a look around the fascinating historic garden (which they were developing then and is now open to the public).  So, both inside and outside,the house we found  masses of atmosphere and inspiration for our writing.
Eileen, who was there, has just turned up this photo of some
of us picnicking outsied the Orangery before embarking
 on the writing. I am in the straw hat...

Later we settled down before the Orangery,  ate our picnics and wrote like fury for forty minutes before we read our drafts to each other. There was some good writing there.

In the next week I developed my own 'orangery draft' into a full blown story called Letter to Emily inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s visit to Norton Conyers when she was 23 years old. You can read it here  if you want to see how my story  turned out, or you can click on the 'Short Story' tab above.

All this was brought to my mind by an article this week in The Independent which talks about Norton Conyers and has a splendid image of the very attic. I see that Norton Conyers is much more developed now, with its history well documented and it’s Orangery for hire for weddings and other events.

I am so glad to have been there when the house was its true self and as I read my  fictional story again I can remember it when the pretty Orangery was dusty and somewhat overgrown, the house was still in its historical slumber and  I  was visited by  Charlotte’s shadow as she made a call on the Lady of The House at Norton Conyers.

Monday 11 August 2014

A Bargain Book. A Bit of an Experiment,


My novel Journey To Moscow (The Adventures of Olivia Ozanne)has been selling nicely on Kindle and has so far achieved a welcome
100% Five Star Reviews. 

Hoping that more of you will read and enjoy Olivia, this week (from 13th to 19th August) I am offering the Kindle version  of Journey to Moscow at the reduced price of 99p/99cents. This is a bit of an experiment as I don't know how it works but look forward to discovering the outcome!

To share Olivia's adventure. here - as a Russian taster -  is the adventurous Olivia, caught with her lover  by her bossy daughter and driven to defend her new protegée - an old Englishwoman who has survived in Moscow since the 1917 Revolution.  - 

... And I am saying, ‘don’t worry Ninochka, I will . . .’ I hear a banging on a far door and the thunder of footsteps on wood. I reach towards the girl, thrusting dark and dingy clothes in her hands, shouting ‘Put them on, darling! Put them on!’ Through the window I can see young men, boys in shabby army fatigues pouring into the house. The knocking gets louder.
    ‘Mother! Mother! Can I come in?’
     I sit bolt upright in bed, blinking down at Volodya who is curled in a foetal position on the floor. ‘No, Caitlin. No! Wait.’
    I grab my wrap, squeeze through the door and shut it behind me. Caitlin is standing there, vivid and elegant in a green trouser suit and  sturdy, well-polished, boots.
     ‘You look elegant, darling.’ Fending-off words. An old habit
      ‘Is he in there?’ She says fiercely. ‘The Russian?’
      I push my hair out of my eyes. ‘I’m afraid so. It was a bit late for him to get back across Moscow when we––’
     ‘I don’t want to know!’ She pulls me into the narrow hall and faces me, holding both my arms, hard, above the elbow. ‘Now, Mother, just two things! Charles will call for you here at ten. Why he wants to take you careering across the countryside I don’t know. But it seems you’ve caught his fancy. Or your story about that old woman has. But I want you to promise me something.’
     ‘Yes, dear?’ I am trying to struggle out of her grip.
    ‘You do not let Charles Conrad have the old woman, do you hear me? If she’s anyone’s she’s mine.’
      I pull away from her. ‘Mary Martha! Her name is Mary Martha Johnson. You can’t have her. And she’s not mine to give to anyone, you silly girl. I certainly wouldn’t ‘give’ her to Charles Conrad. But I won’t give her to you either.’... 

Thursday 7 August 2014

Mountains,RLS, and Blogging

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a note about this book to a friend. This so very much applies to my feeling about posting blogs here that I could not resist quoting him.
Every book – for me blog post.w. -  is, in the intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him (she) who writes it. They alone take his meaning; they find private messages, assurances of love and expressions of gratitude, dropped for them at every corner…Yet though the letter is addressed to all, yet we have an old and friendly custom of addressing it on the outside to one. Of what shall a man be proud of not proud of his friends?
I count all who drop by Life Twice Tasted with any regularity as a friend and RLS’s words really apply to me.

And now to Travels with a Donkey

Trying to cling onto the magical effect of my time in Marseillan I have been reading again Robert  Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. To remind you - the Cevennes is (are?) the range covering the precipitous southern section of the mountainous massif central where cold air from the Atlantic coast does battle with the warm air blowing in from the Mediterranean, causing heavy rainfall in Autumn – the season in 1878 when the 29 year old Robert chose to make his famous twelve-day hike through the Cevennes, assisted and sometimes obstructed by the stubborn, vengeful and characterful donkey Modestine.
I had forgotten what a great storyteller RLS was - how transparent how emotional, how direct, how well observed is his writing:
The road smoked in the twilight with children driving home cattle from the fields; and a pair of stride-legged women, hat and cap and all dashed past me at a hammering trot from the canton where they had been to church and market. I asked one of the children where I was. ‘At Bouchet St Nicolas,’ he told me.
I loved reading it again but I’d forgotten the religious focus our perceptive Scottish Protestant brought to this long travel essay. He was travelling through the country of the Camisards. Unlike other protestant Huguenots, the Camisards of this regions did not flee the pursecution if Lousi X1V. They survived and stayed protected by the hard terrain of the Cevennes and their own self reliant culture. But their survival was not without cost:
… when Julien had finished his famous work, the devastation of the High Cevennes which lasted all through October and November 1703, and during which four hundred and sixty villages and hamlet were, with fire and pickaxe, utterly subverted … a man standing on this eminence would have looked forth upon a silent, smokeless and dispeopled land.
And then, in the same paragraph RLS brings us back on this same eminence in his own day, on his own journey, to
…perhaps the wildest view of all my journey. Peak upon peak, chan upon chainof hills ran surging southward, channelled and sculptured by the winter streams, feathered fro head to foot with chestnuts, and here and there breaking into a coronel of cliffs. The sun, which was still far from setting, sent a drift of misty gold across the hill-tops , but the valleys were already plunged in a profound and quiet shadow…
I read an edition of Travels With a Donkey which incorporates a highly informative and helpful section by travel writer Laurence Phillips. This is his detailed guide as to how the modern traveller - on foot, bike, by car or even donkey - may follow Stevenson’s precipitous route through the Cevennes.
I am tempted.
I would, dear friends, highly recommend it. wx

Tuesday 5 August 2014

A Sense of Place.. The Maison Bleue, Work in Progress.

Extract from The Maison Bleue 

(This novel will be published in September, If you would like to order a signed copy email me at )

Crime writer Ruthie Dancing finds the house where she will set up her writer's retreat:

'...The Maison Bleue is half massive old stone and half rendered, peeling plaster; its garden sprawls down to the great plane trees that line the Canal du Midi. The window shutters are pale blue, framed in dusty white. There are nine windows – two on each side of the door on the ground floor, two on the first and second floors and one at the top under the white-painted arch of the roof. All of them, even the small one at the top, have narrow balconies painted a glossy dark blue. On the rendered walls the pale blue paint is dusty and peeling and quilted with dozens of cracks, gauzy as spider’s webs...'

And in an outbuilding in the garden Ruthie finds the place where her writers will find inspiration and write.

... ‘Don’t go in there, Ruthie!’ Aurélie’s voice comes from behind her. ‘It is a very nasty in there. Full of filthy stuff.’
The heavy door with its big iron latch should be hard to move but it isn’t. It slides easily when Ruthie pushes it. And now where she is standing the bright southern light trickles through gaps in the roof and through the five arched, unglazed windows on the opposite greenish black wall.
The floor is knee deep with the detritus of centuries – rank soil, rotting leaves, tree branches, paper labels, wrinkled condoms, tin cans, broken glasses and bottles: all whirled here on the wings of the mistral, that high southern wind that will leave nothing in its proper place.
Aurélie stands, arms folded, and watches with some amusement as Ruthie scrapes her way through the rubbish down to the surface of the floor then pulls off her scarf to scrub at it. ‘It’s marble, Aurélie! Marble!’ She laughs with delight. She scans the space. ‘This must have been a very important room.’ On a place high on the far wall and are streaks and lines of dust like shadow of a high tide. ‘And there’ve been bookshelves here. Bookshelves!’
She stands there, her face burning in the high sun of mid day streaming through the windows. She can see long tables here, high desks. And she can see men with their heads down over their writing, filled with the focused energy so familiar in her own working life. 
‘Ruthie? Are you all right?’ Aurélie is beside her, her hand on Ruthie’s shoulders....'


If you have read so far you might be interested in my posts elsewhere  about the importance of place for this writer -  here where I spoke of it in relation to my novel Lines of Desire. and here where I spoke of Castletownshend in Ireland and travel as inspiration.


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