Saturday 28 March 2015

Recording Podcasts for Rachel

On Thursday I had a very lovely afternoon before a roaring fire at my house with Avril
Recording our extracts with Rachel
Joy and playwright Rachel Cochrane.

Rachel’s second string is her excellent audio internet site Listenupnorth. Her mission is to get audio versions of writers’ work out there for the world to enjoy. She works with individual writers and writing groups and is about to embark on on a project creating an audio installation inspired by the Nissan Car Factory. She also runs day writing retreats where people can write in peace for a day with no restrictions, domestic or otherwise. A wonderful idea.,

Our own mission on Thursday was  to record  podcasts for Listenupnorth.  Avril read from her excellent Short story collection Millie and Bird  (which she launched last Friday) and  I read extracts from my new novel Writing at the Maison Bleue  (which I will launch on May 1st)

Did you get your invitation to the launch? If not just email me and I will send you one.

It was fun. We embarked on our readings, very much  encouraged by Rachel's calm presence, I felt confident in the knowledge that any stumblings and hesitation would be edited out by Rachel’s audio engineering skills into something much smoother. And it was a good rehearsal for reading similar extracts at the launch.

I am even looking forward to hearing my own twenty minute podcast when it’s ready in a week or so's time/ I will put a link here on Lifetwicetasted so you might like to hear it yourself and tell me what you think..

I chose to read three five-minute extracts from the opening chapters of Writing at the Maison Bleu. The first extract (below)  introduces Joe, the youngest participator in the writing retreat on the banks of the Canal du Midi which has members of all ages, right up the Francine, who is in her eighties.

But first, here is Joe...


...It was on Giro day when the Award letter came through Joe’s door. He celebrated his award with his girlfriend Lolla at the Black Bull - their usual meeting place on a corner at a decent distance from their respective hostels.
‘A thousand quid? Y..yum! ’ Lolla smacked her pouting lips – not really a pretty sight. ‘We can celebrate on that, Joe.’ For Lolla celebrating meant something serious up her nose or down her throat. At least, thought Joe, she did this in a quiet fashion. She had told him more than once that she hated anything vulgar. There were people around them who were vulgar. And that, she said, was the worst thing in the world.
Joe shook his head. ‘No cash, Loll. Really, like! Says here the Award covers the plane and this place on the river. Sunshine and writing. And talking.’ He frowned. ‘Dunno whether I’ll like that. Talking.’ He grinned, ‘Good job I got a passport.’
His social worker had got him a passport when Jonny Green, a singer who had been in the same care home before his rise to fame, had treated the present generation of kids there to a beach holiday in Spain. In the end Joe had not gone because he’d been in a fight and was seen to have blotted his copybook.
Now Lolla pouted, her eyes gleaming through the long blackened lashes that flapped against her fringe. ‘Not fair, that, Joey. You should see some cash shouldn’t yer? Won the competition didn’t yer?’
Until today he hadn’t talked very much about his writing with Lolla until today The writing was mostly his private thing.
In his heart of hearts Joe agreed with Lolla. He wondered if all the winners of the Room to Write Awards got their prize in vouchers and tickets. Or was it just those who like him  lived in temporary hostels?  Maybe it was like clothes vouchers for the needy.  He knew he was not as needy as some of his other acquaintances. He was lucky. Drugs had turned out to be not his bag. It was a fact that drugs had been pushed onto him in prison when things became hard. And it was true that when he got out he was still using. But he’d been rescued from sliding down that road by a guy called Cragan, whom he met in the Black Bull. Cragan helped him to get off the gear for good. These days even the thought of the gear made him gag. He stuck to bottled beer.
Cragan – a strange, uneasy sort of man - turned out to be some kind of a counsellor or psych. At first Joe thought the older man was hitting on him. After ten minutes in his company it was clear to Joe that he was not. Several conversations with Cragan at the bar of the Black Bull finally convinced Joe that he really didn’t have an addictive personality. He’d just been having a very bad time in his life and was self-medicating.
After a while this made sense to Joe and he just stopped using drugs at all. It took three months but in the end it was like gradually switching on a bright, irritating light and seeing things as they really were. After that Joe felt he could hear, smell and taste like a new-born and life was better.
In those months Joe got himself clean Cragan was a regular here in the Black Bull. A tacit kind of trust grew up between them. In the end Joe began to show Cragan some of his pages, some scribbled in his own hand, some typed on library computers. Then, in the week of their last meeting Cragan had brought him a pile of novels - battered paperbacks, mostly American writers. As he put the pile of books on the stained pub table he told Joe that he was going away to America to take up this job in a psychiatric hospital. Then, out of his bag he pulled a battered laptop computer. ‘Old one, kiddo. Surplus to requirements. Thought you could use it. Save you all those trips to the library.’
Joe was a regular at the library, surfing the Net and transcribing his stories.
After he’d left England Cragan sent Joe the odd email with articles attached but Joe never saw him again. He had settled down, though, read Cragan’s books, line by line; some of them more than once. And as he read them it was as though Cragan were still there, smelling of cigarettes in the Black Bull, and arguing the toss.
Joe felt an affinity with the people in the stories - people getting lost, getting high, grafting on the streets, dreaming their lives away. There were even people like himself, who were fighting to keep their heads above water. All this reading made Joe write like he’d never written before.

‘Joe!’ Lolla was drawing lines in the steam on her cold glass. ‘Can’t see why anybody could get money for a few pages of words,’ she said. ‘Not like me grafting, or you getting coins for playing your guitar at the station, or nothing.’
‘It’s just like grafting with a pencil, Lolla! Lying with intent,’ he said, watching her finger move up and down the glass. Her nails were short and bitten but they gleamed with the residue of blood red polish.
‘Whatever,’ she said, now rubbing her finger up and down the sleeve of her jumper.
‘Whatever! Don’t know that my mate Cragan would see it like that.’
She grinned widely, and her face lit up in that way Joe really liked. ‘Good thing the old boy saw it like he did though, emailing you that competition link all the way from America. An English competition! From America. God bless the Net!’ She lifted her glass, slurped off the last of her lager and looked at him expectantly.
Joe picked up her glass and took it to the bar. He liked Lolla. She was uncomplicated. She liked company and adored chattering away, mostly to or about herself. She didn’t mind the odd sexual roll but was not really needy. She told him frankly when they first met that she could take it or leave it. ‘Mostly I think fucking’s overrated,’ she said firmly. He had the feeling she’d had some bad experiences in that department and left it at that....

Links for You

Monday 23 March 2015

A Lovely Package of Poems

A lovely package dropped through my post box today - a chapbook of poems written by American poet Anne Grenier.  It is handmade, beautifully designed book. My inscribed copy is Number 14 of 111.

I first met Anne when she wrote a poem called Breaking Through, set in Escomb, a Saxon village near here and we broadcast her poem on our local Bishop FM radio
programme #The Writing Game.

Ann  certainly broke through time with that poem - set more than a thousand years ago and thousands of miles distant from her Rhode Island Home.

I am delighted to see that this poem finds a place in Ann’s chapbook Where Time Dropped Me Off

Many of Ann’s poems reflect on her mindful life in her house among woods and gardens around her home in Rhode Island. She writes from what she calls ‘a restless alchemy of viewpoints`
 A feast in a fire-lit room full of sparks,
ticking clocks and old leather, burnished
and bruised; pressed together forever in
indent of stars, stamped in bronze with a cross
sealed in a century, haunted and thrilled
by whispering chant and bells of descent
 (From The Gamekeeper)

She’s right. Forget what used to be.
Get out of this musty old shop,
leaving finger prints in the dust.
The only thing alive is a little girl
In a movie world, humming a tune;
A sleeping beauty – a forest of dreams .
A young woman unpacks old memories,
a heat on her back tattooed with thorns
From  A Two Dollar Princess


As a writer of prose fiction where I speculate about time  it has been so refreshing to read Ann’s poetry  in  Where Time Dropped Me Off ' WX

Links for you.

Ann’s Website   (Lovely site...) 

Monday 16 March 2015

Anna Akhmatove and Writing Under Pressure.

anna-akhmatova-1922.jpg (537×745)

Anna 1922

Click for more  images of Anna A.

To cheer me up (there are reasons...) in the days between my birthday and Mother's Day,   @lickedspoon sent me a copy of this poem by Anna Akhmatova.  
She (D) and I visited the home of this iconic Russian poet in 1991, just after the Yeltsin Revolution. *

In her narrow room my daughter and I thought about Anna A, who was now at last being venerated for her determined pursuit of her art and her right to create it. There had been a time when she was declared a non-person with no papers and no rights but survived and worked on, sheltered by brave friends.  Her work, fated to be destroyed on paper, survives because her friends and followers learned all her poems by heart, word for word.  

Reading Akhmatova's wonderful, uplifting poem here, and thinking about her pressured but luminously creative life I think again about contemporary writers (myself sometimes included...) who rather go on about the way we are treated by the distressed end of the publishing industry.

I also feel humbled by having a daughter who knew just how to remind me of all this.

When I Write Poems

Anna Akhmatova 

When I’m embraced by airy inspiration,
I am a bridge between the sky and earth.
Of all what heart high-values in creation
I am a king, when breathing with a verse!

Just if my soul wishes it, my fairy,
I shall give you the peaceful coast band,
Where, with a hum, the pinky sea is carrying
The dreaming tide to reach the dreaming land.

I can do all, just trust in me: I’m mighty;
I have the roots for kindness and for love;
And if I want, from clouds and from the lightning
I’ll make a cover your sweet bed above.

And I can, dear, create a word such special,
That it would change laws of the whole world,
To call again its own celebration
And stop the sun from fall in the night cold.

I’m all another in my inspiration,
I am a bridge between the sky and earth.
Of all what heart high-values in creation
I am a king, when breathing with a verse!

Her Desk  

Click for an insight into her life.

* That visit inspired my novel Journey to Moscow. But that's another story.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Channelling Francine: A Celebration for writing and Writers

Channelling Francine: A Celebration of Writing and Writers.

For most of the time of its writing my  new novel Writing at the Maison Bleue was called Francine, after a character of that name 

The story is about a group of very different writers, men and women, young and old…

‘…But at the heart of this disparate group is Francine, a gentle, intelligent woman, who grew up in occupied France during WW2. She is frail but has never lost the power and truth of her writing and she has one last story to 'tell'. A truly fascinating read. Don't miss it…’ Amazon Review.

Francine – Writing at the Maison Bleue -  is now available on Kindle. My friends Gillian and Avril and I celebrated this momentous event on Tuesday (my birthday!) with a sparkling afternoon tea at Whitworth Hall,  an old RoomToWrite stamping ground.

So, channelling the elegant Francine, I decided to wear a hat.
As you see…

Sunday 8 March 2015

Celebrating Julia on International Women's Day

Chris , Liz,   Kris,  Sue,  Eleanor,  Linda, Rachel, Amanda, Rosie,   Hilary, Eileen, Rachel (2) Avril, Gillian and Wendy – all  eager writers at Lafkaido Centre in Durham,  anticipating International Women’s Day with this celebratory playwriting workshop hosted by  RoomtoWrite.  

This workshop was offered by our friend playwright Anne Ousby, to honour the
memory of the multi-talented Julia Darling. We began by talking a little about our various memories of meeting Julia – of learning from and  being inspired by  this charismatic writer.

As for me, I first met her when I presented her with the money prize for a competition which I had judged, I did not know or know of her then her at all then, Today I quoted  from a blog post I wrote in 2009 in which I recalled our association through the years. This post is printed in full after below here..

This  great group of interested and variously experienced writers, encouraged by Anne, we  set about writing our fragmentary plays. Based on the idea of the Rendezvous Café – a favourite place of Julia’s in Whitley Bay.

For my contribution I adapted a scene from Writing at the Maison Bleue *
into a playlet. (I did this in tribute  to Julia who always took the risk of participating in her own workshops. (You will note this from the original blogposr which I have printed in full at the end of this one.)  
*HERE as en eBook ** HERE as a book

Joe, 19, just out of care meets his friend streetwise friend Lolla in a café, He comes in holding a big envelope

Lolla What’s this?
Joe  I jusr won this prize, like. Worth a grand.
Lolla: A thousand quid! Y—yum. Something to celebrate with, Joe..

(Joe knows that Lolla’s idea od celebrating os something up her nose, or down her throat.)

Joe. Nah you can’t do that.
Lolla. What can you do then?
Joe: You’ve gotta go to this place.
Lolla. What place?
Joe. This hot place by a canal.
Lolla  My Grandma lived by the Grand Union Canal over in Manchester, There, is it?
Joe: Nah this is in a hot place, There’s a picture of it. By a canal.  In  France.
Lolla. In France? Bloody Mike! You need a passport for France.
Joe. I gotta passport.
Lolla. Passport? You? You got no passport, Joe.
Joe Yes I do. They got is them once for this trip to Paris..Some charity gig. Help the poor.
Lolla: So this prize is to go to Paris?
Joe., Nah. Like I say it’s by this canal. Much further. Down by the Mediterratian Sea, it says..
Lolla: So you gotta go there?  To get this prize?
Joe: Aye. I gotta go there. This is the prize.’
Lolla; Not fair that, Joey, You should be seeing some cash. That’s what prizes are. for  Cash ….  

Based in the idea of the Rendezvous Cafe the dramas and plays that emerged from Ann's workshop were various in style and eclectic in subject matter. They all buzzed with life – and that difficult thing – laughter. They all had virtue. 

Our best hope was that  these enthusiastic writers moved on a step on their long writer’s odyssey. Their  work certainly paid homage to café culture and the inspiration of the unique Julia Darling.

From my blog 24th July 2009Café Culture, Julia Darling and things Overheard.

I relish the fact that writer Natalie Goldberg and my late, great, very lamented, friend Julia Darling have both, in their times, been great advocates of writing in cafes.

While I was in Agde in France I posted here a eulogistic piece about scribbling in the Cafe Plazza and the cafe on la Place de La Marine. In fact my delight in getting away from the desk, out into the street, into the inspiring neutrality of a cafe did not start in France. It is an old habit that I found I shared with Julia.
Julia was not just a great tutor, poet and playwright, she was a novelist and lyrical poet who wrung every last drop of joy and delight, love and affection, out of her writer’s life, before her tragically early death.

For several years she came here to give wildly popular workshops on her own and sometimes alongside me. Despite her great gifts she was modest and comradely - as well as merry, enabling and respectful of others’ talent. She always worked alongside the work-shoppers, never sat on a pedestal above them. She risked herself alongside them in the read-around, saying, ‘Well this is mad, but…’

Julia was the mistress of original, telling, firecracker metaphors and knew the magic of the right word in the right place. The work-shoppers would go off inspired to write closer, to do better.

When lunchtime came around she’d rush off, either to swim, or go to the nuts and bolts cafe near the old Post Office. She did this for rest, for refreshment, and inevitably, for inspiration from the other tables, where bin men and office workers would stoke themselves up with cake or a good fry-up for the afternoon’s work. Things overheard there would be filed away in that considerable intelligence and become natural resource for her in her writing. She had a sympathetic and an empathetic ear for the natural dialogue of so called ordinary people.

This is interesting, as although she was a bit of a maverick, she came from a distinctive upper class intellectual background. But she was uniquely classless in her apprehension of the life and people around her - so very refreshing in writing circles that can be riddled with all kinds of snobbery.
Much has been made of the graceful and poetic way in which she tackled the process of dying - writing of its challenges with frighteningly forensic insight and luminous grace. To be honest, though I prefer to think of her in terms of the way she lived. She was a joy to be with, wryly witty and always kind. She was inspirational and prepared to be inspired. She lit up any room she was in with her broad smile and wide eyes.

In my own cafe sojourns eavesdropping is of secondary importance to a clear table not far from the window and staff who will both take care of me and ignore me. Mostly I sit here and fill my diary with plans; make both creative and practical lists; draft these posts for my blog; scribble the next chapter for At The Villa d’Estella; read a heavy tome about ‘Gaul in Antiquity’ for said novel. And so on.

These times away from the desk are essential for someone who works from home. Surrounded by strangers, I work very quickly, get a great deal done. (I’ve been thinking that this perpetual desire to get away has something to do with my Pisces star sign, which I wrote about recently…)

But yesterday as I was walking to the cafe I passed two men talking. One man was saying to the other. ‘…and as well as that I’ve got this cancer ripping away at my insides…’ This so perfectly expressed a combination of anger and stoicism that it made me want to cry.

And it made me think again about the exceptional and radiant Julia Darling
(AFTERNOTE I see now that Julia’s star sign was Leo - Generous and warm-hearted - Creative and enthusiastic - Broad-minded and expansive - Faithful and loving. But her sign tipped into Virgo - Modest and shy - Meticulous and reliable - Practical and diligent -Intelligent and analytical. I am thinking about all this because my mind if full of Stella, the astrologer in my new novel. But thinking now about Julia, all this fits…)

Sunday 1 March 2015

This Writer’s Creative Leap Forward

This Writer’s Creative Leap Forward

- in which a mid-list writer takes control of her professional life.

Like many writers who enjoyed a wide and responsive readership during two decades, I was more than crestfallen to discover that I was part of the great mid-list cull of the Noughties. It dawned on me that I had been abandoned for more sensational, genre-distinct and lucrative novelists.

Since then it has taken me a year or so to get my creative breath back. I have used some of this time to learn the process and re-issue some titles from my back-list using the rather magical Kindle and Createspace processes.

The processes proved not to be as complex as brain surgery. Referring to some useful sources. I embarked on republishing some of my early novels. Of course I made some mistakes and corrected them, learning a lot among the way.

As they had been refereed in their original form by skilled major company editors I was quite confident about the interior content of these re-issues. I re-read them, brought the content up to date with some revision, some fresh writing and was happy to re-issue them.

The covers were a bigger problem. Amazon have a whole range of credible template into which you can slot your original design notions. I relished this process and found myself liking the  look of these books both in Kindle and paperback. I thought I could tolerate for the time being the fact that they were not quite responsive to the creative stuff that was going comforted myself with the though that my big publishers had  whole departments and design experts dealing with this same challenge.

In the meantime – continuing my lifelong creative compulsion to write fiction - I had  written this  brand new novel about which I was very excited. I passed the manuscript to experienced, informed and  insightful acquaintances who offered very positive and constructive commentaries which inspired me to nudge the novel into its very best form.

Inevitably the problem of genre reared its ugly head. 

To one very informed commenter I replied:  As you know genre was always a bugbear with me. All I ever wanted to do is write novels which are psychologically, emotionally, sociologically and historically ‘true’. Sometimes my novels would indeed fall neatly into the ’saga’ slot  ( although they never rigidly adhered to the narrow prescriptions of that form). I always preferred writing about life to writing romance.  Other novels meandered away from the strict saga form and would be more readily described as psychological novels, crime novels., domestic dramas etc. (I once made a list under these categories. See HERE) By not repeating the same formula time and again I think I managed to keep my writing and my ideas fresh. 

This might mean spitting in the wind of Fifty Shades of Literary Fashion but still I believe in writing novels which reflect and possibly further  inspire the complex, authentic lives of many of my readers. I keep the faith with them.


So I have taken a really big breath and decided to take this Independent Publishing bull by the horns. With the creative support of  our independent support group Room To Write I have now at last got my new novel Writing at the Maison Bleue to the point of publication. (See sidebar here...)

Hooray! This brand new novel is now available on Amazon in Kindle  and paperback version. The paperback will be launched at Lafkadio Hearn Centre in Durham on May 1stWatch your Inbox for your invitation to the launch…

Kindle Cover 

(NEXT POST: The creative process of designing of the cover of Writing at the Maison Bleue.) 

Paperback Cover


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