Sunday 18 September 2022

The Writing Process: The Relationship between notebooks and publications.


“Writers live life twice – once when they live it and once when they write it.”

Anaïs Nin.


My friendship with literary archivist  Dr. Donna Maynard has always been interesting and continues to be fruitful. She was excited when she saw the hundreds of notebooks on the shelves in my little writing room, which go back through my fifty years as a working novelist. As she read through them  she realised that they mapped the 20 or so novels and the short stories and poetry which have been my professional preoccupation through that time..

She came to a personal conclusion that these notebooks and the books themselves formed a very interesting literary archive. Since then she has begun to map the relationships between the notebooks and the books, cross-referencing them in a way which somehow reflects the creative process of writing novels. In essence this relationship between the notebooks and the novels would be an essential part of any emerging archive.

 So, part of this process has been our discussion about the individual novels and my own stories of the process whereby they came about. I have found  myself telling her about the underlying story of each novel in the creation of each novel, each story and each poem -  the stories as it were of the uniqur creative process.

 It has now emerged that an essential part of this process has been my self-imposed  task of writing on my blog an essay documenting the story of the creation of each of the novels and some of the short stories and poems. These essays will be published week by week on my blog/website and will eventually be collected together as part of the archive and possibly make a book in themselves.

This may take a year of so but it will be interesting and the collaboration with Donna is very inspiring.

 So far I have documented the stories of of the creation of five of the novels on my blog: Theft, The Real Life Of Studs McGuire, Lizza, French Leave. and I am now focusing on Under a Brighter Sky.

The Process:

 We began by considering my first published work – Theft, a children’s novel from 1972published by Corgi Transworld (I wrote a story about this novel here on the blog in an essay entitled ‘The 50 Year Novel.’) 

Our consideration of this  children’s novel was followed by another so-called young adult novel, The Real Life Of Studs McGuire published by Hodder and Stoughton.  Writing the essay about this book focused my emerging understanding  of the nature of friendship between boys as I observed the boys in my classes and my own son growing and changing. 

Then we focused on Lizza, my first young adult novel, published in 1987 by Hodder Stoughton, later transformed to Headline At the time it was seen as  my "breakthrough” novel, Lizza. And I thought then - I think now  that there is little or no difference between young adult and an adult novel.

 Anyway, Donna and I examined both editions: of Lizza - the hardback and the paperback. First we looked with new eyes at the hardback cover - illustrated by Steve Braund – and admired it for its sensitivity and its own visual storytelling arc. Then we compared this cover with the cover of the paperback which, as you can see, is much sharper and more modern, but still very appealing and charming in its own way.

 Although I remember the novel very well I had almost forgotten the details of the covers. Now a frisson of shock ripples through me as both of these images began to remind me of myself at the particular time of writing.  On the hardback cover the biographical blurb reminds me of myself at this time in 1987: a younger self that has  faded deep into the background of my life which in turn has faded into the background of in my older life. See again here - in the words of my first great editor, Anne Williams -  what it says about this young, aspiring writer :  #

"Wendy Robertson is senior lecturer in education at Sunderland Polytechnic. She has been writing since she was 16, but because of a full-time career much of the writing remains unpublished. In 1973 her first novel Theft was published in paperback k by Corgi Transworld and for several years she also wrote a weekly article on a variety of subjects for the Northern Echo and she has published and she has had several stories published in magazines.

Wendy Robertson lives in a Victorian house at the centre of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, which he loves because yours is obsessively interested in what she calls “the past in the present. What is reality and what is fantasy can never be disengaged’ she writes. “In my writing I take this a stage further placing my magic imagination at the service of the basic story which may be a well-rehearsed refrain.” She is married with two grown-up children a boy and girl."


Well , dear reader, that was 40 years ago and was very true of my life at the time, which was a combination of a very committed family life and a very intense working life, where my long-term lifetime commitment to writing had to be squashed in around college vacations, transporting children to their schools, visiting museums and art galleries for my interest and for their education.  

And so with the publication of Lizza by this major new publisher Headline,  I was given permission to acknowledge that I was indeed a writer and this allowed me at last to place the writing of stories to its proper place at the centre of my life  This meant tailing off my work in higher education, where I had learnt a lot and which I had really enjoyed. In reality I still sustained my commitment to education in that I transferred it to running workshops and a pattern of mentoring new writers through many years. I wrote about that here:


I could have written or expressed those same feelings this year and all the years since the publication of Lizza.  You will find similar sentiments expressed throughout my blog posts here on Life Twice Tasted.

 But always at the entre of my life were my long novels, which I went on to complete just about one every year for the next couple of decades. I became a novelist.

One interesting thing about this 1987 blurb - forgotten by me since then – are my quoted comments on the cover.

“What is reality and what is fantasy can never be disengaged’ and “In my writing I take this a stage further placing my magic imagination at the service of the basic story which may be a well-rehearsed refrain.”

I had forgotten that I had made this declaration on the cover of Lizza, but now must say that I have continued to write and work from these principles in all the decades since. Evidence for this commitment still exists in many of my posts here on Life Twice Tasted. I have also preached these principles in many of my writing workshops.  See: http:/

 Already we are finding and noting cross references between the notebooks and the books themselves. This is an exciting process. The next novel we are focusing on is Under a Brighter Sky and the writing of this - as with all the novels to come - has its own story. 

If you are interested you may read this essay next on the blog.




Wednesday 7 September 2022


 Growing up with France in the head.


As a child born during World War II and growing up in the years after I was very much aware of the existence of France and Germany.  As an early reader I read newspapers, in imitation of my father Billy, whose chosen paper was the News Chronicle. I found it easy to admire the brave French partisans who defended their country from their powerful occupiers. In the years after the end of the war as well as relishing of the victory, I read eagerly the tales of the liberation of France. Even as quite small a child I felt lucky that Hitler didn’t get to walk down Whitehall as he strode down the Champs-Élysées, swastikas flying.

My sense of the existence of France and Germany took a richer and more informed shape when I finally went to the grammar school at the age of 11. The so-called Eleven Plus was a crude if effective generic IQ test across the whole population which carried with it the reward of a well-resourced education.

So, despite being the poorest of the poor, and living in a two-bedroomed house complete with privy in a narrow street in a mining town in the North East,  three of the four children in this family passed the eleven plus for the grammar school. The fourth – my sweet brother Tom, had been in hospital in the crucial year before and didn’t sit the test.

So, at the age of eleven I entered the much revered grammar wearing the basic uniform bought on tick from Doggart’s store. In this school the teachers wore caps and gowns for assembly and the curriculum was geared towards white collar jobs and the university.

I knew I had entered a new world when – in the first week - I met Mr Phorson, head of French, who addressed my class only in French from the moment we entered the classroom. I was to discover later that this was called the Phorson Method. Interestingly this Method was experienced in the next generation by my daughter Debora at her school, at the hands of her teacher Mrs Snow (Madame la Neige!) who had had been a student of Mr Phorson when she was at Durham University. By then he was a respected professor in the  French at the University. A footnote here might be that Debora  now lives in France and writes lyrically about her life there. (See )

Through  Mr Phorson’s meticulous teaching,  by the time I was 18 I was reading in French the works of Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac and the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud. But truly there is balance in all things.  A couple of years after meeting Mr Phorson  I also fell into the hands of Mr Thompson, head of German,  and eventually was reading Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in German. At times I was bemused to think that a country with such fine and sensitive literature as Germany could fall into the trap of Nazi ideology

Anyway, here was I in my shabby uniform, walking to and to the grammar from my Little Street house, becoming a serious European while many around me expressed their distaste for Germans: the boys playing fight games labelled German’s ‘n English, or Japs ‘n English with pretend guns, the girls turning up their nose when I practised quoting Goethe.

However that feeling was mitigated for me as I absorbed the tenderness of Heinrich Heine and shared the pain of a German soldier in as he froze  on the Russian front in Heinrich Heine’s poem Der Viele Viele Schnee.

And then there was a salutary experience in the 1950s when my German teacher Mr Thompson introduced the class to a visiting German teacher from Dresden who had experienced the wipe-out bombing in that beautiful city by Allied forces towards the end of the war.

Anyway, this growing access to the language and literature of both France and Germany served me, you might say, as an early lesson about the complex nature of my European identity.

By the time my third young adult novel French Leave was published, (still at that time Hodder and Stoughton – not yet Headline…) in 1988 my son and daughter were 22 and 24 respectively. You might say their childhood was my very long practical study in the identity and world-view of both boys and girls.

So it was a pleasure writing more closely in French Leave about a friendship between two boys -Joe and his gypsy friend Skemmer as well as well as Joe’s grandfather, who was part of their adventure. Never having had known either of my grandfathers – or only having  met them in my imagination – it was great fun that as well as exploring the relationship between Joe and Skemmer in that story I enjoyed inventing the relationship between Joe and his grandfather who had experienced service in the Second World War.

When I wrote French Leave I had only been to France once   when husband and I crossed the channel and wandered around Normandy in our blue Jaguar* with our friends Bob and Lil. It was a deep pleasure for me to hear French as she is spoken and observe the norms and practices of everyday life we explored the small towns. There were so many non-textbook lessons now to learn here – not least one about food.

One outstanding memory was stopping in a small village in the mid-afternoon hoping we could find some lunch. We stopped to get petrol in a garage and then walked in to a workman’s café next door. The place smelled of food and spice and on its  long tables lay the detritus of finished meal and empty wine bottles without their screw tops.

The owner caught sight of us, ducked his head and said he was desolate that there was no food left. At least I thought that was what he said. Then he shook his head, open his arms wide and gestured for us to sit down at the end of the large central table.

He only took a minute to clear the table of the empty bottles and plates. ‘Madame!’ He called across  to the e woman who was stacking the dishes at a long open hatch.

In no time glasses and full bottles of wine were placed before us and in twenty minutes Madame was bustling across with a tray on each arm, loaded with a large omelette. Delicious.

(* See also my poem Blue Jaguar on p44 in my collection With Such Caution)

Since then I have enjoyed many such welcomes in many parts of France right down as far as the Languedoc in the fae South West which, like my own north-east England, has its own language which refuses to be put down.

For you! A taste of French Leave.

From Page 31

(Joe has been chasing around trying to get the paperwork right for his grandfather to travel to France.)

Skemmer stood up. “And the woman said it might take ages to come, like?”


Skemmer glanced around the garage, which was deserted. Old Pollard must’ve gone out for his dinner. Skemmer pulled Joe into to the little corner office. On the cluttered desk was a white telephone smeared almost black with grease. The phone number was stuck on the front with a brown cracking Sellotape. He rang Directory Enquiries and got a number, which he proceeded to dial. When somebody answered the phone he started to speak.

It dawned on Joe that  Skemmer was pretending to be him.

“… It’s my grandad, like. He was in the war. D-Day. You know… Whether you’re in Ely shut his number… What… Dying like… Only a few weeks to go. He wants the see the place where he… Yeah, yeah! Anything you could do to hurry it up… Why thanks like. That’s really good.” Then he gave the details, the addresses and all.

As Skemmer slammed down the phone Joe noticed how black his nails were. right down to the cuticles: how black the oil was in the very pores of the skin.

‘I don’t know whether he was she was just giving me the mouth, but she says she’ll watch out for it. Give it some kind of priority. Said she wasn’t allowed to but…”

Joe was mad that Skemmer knew exactly what to do. But he was curious as well. How could somebody like Skemmer do all this?  

Cover Copy of 1988 edition of French Leave

“17-year-old Joe shares a close friendship with his grandfather, Bob, and when the old man suggests a trip to France the scene of his wartime experiences, Joe eager to go to. They travel in Bob’s old banger, gaily painted by Joe’s gypsy mate, Skemmer, who accompanies them. There the confident and enterprising Skemmer is an odd companion for Joe, whose shyness and lack of direction a stumbling block for this, his first trip to the continent and his encounter with a friendly outgoing American girl. A little rivalry, memories of truck tragic past and a real present-day crisis also to help you learn more about himself, to establish his first relationship with a girl, and come to terms with his uneasy family situation.

Publisher’s Biography on the cover of French Leave: “ ‘Wendy Robertson has written to other novels for teenagers Lizza, and The Real Life Of Studs Mcguire. Of that novel the review magazine Growing Point has written: ‘The Real Life Of Studs McGuire states fair and square in an urban dilemma in an up-to-date setting and through strongly contemporary characters… The action is swift and exciting enough to carry the message to those who read itI

I like to think that the same may be said of French Leave. Wx

I like to think that the same may be said of French Leave. Wx


Amazingly it seems that copies of French Leave is still available through the magic of the Internet - albeit without its wonderful cover. If you are interested, you can find it here: 

Afterthought.  In combing through my shelves for this new 'Tasting Life Twice' Project I have come across two versions of the French language edition of French Leave, so thought I you might like to see the covers.

Perhaps it's also worth noting here in this essay that two of my later novels – Writing at the Maison Bleue and An Englishwoman in France also take place in this France that still sits in my head ... Wx


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