Sunday 3 January 2021

Work in Progress

Update: I'm still here, still quietly working away in these strange, unsettling times. I can't say I've worked all through last year, but I have a rough draft now of the hardest and most rewarding book I have ever attempted. Its scope has expanded though, and I now envisage a two-part work in the same volume. The first will be a fictionalised novella based on my mother Joy's diaries, set in Moscow in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War. The second will be a memoir of her, and our experiences as a family - what happened next, in other words.

My thinking is that this might seem odd at first glance, but actually could be very satisfying. And sometimes writers have to try new formats, surely, or all books would conform to the same dull template. This is the idea I'm currently working with, anyhow. It's a way to avoid compromising the drama of a spy story based on real, known events, in particular the continuing enigma of Kim Philby before his unmasking as a Soviet spy, while also examining the personal price paid for what she herself called "an interesting life".

There's a true romance in the fiction, too. It was in Moscow that my mother met my father. Their tales of their dates trailed by the KGB became part of the fabric of our family history. Some of their adventures sounded fantastical when I was growing up, but research has proved it all to be true, and much more besides that I never realised. 

In the end, this personal memoir of her is a universal story about how families and their stories evolve; the narratives we thought we knew and understood, yet missed the point due to familiarity and mistaken assumptions, or lack of courage to ask, or lack of curiosity at a given time. And sometimes, secrets kept until the last.

A short extract from the first draft:

My mother never discussed any specific work she did. But I read and then carefully transcribed her diary for 1958 knowing what she had finally told me in her final years: that she had worked for MI6 and that “There were four of us who knew all the secrets” at the British Embassy in Moscow.

She would have had a natural aptitude for intelligence work. Despite her beauty, she was self-effacing almost to a fault, did not court attention and was irritated by those who did. She was analytical and patient, interested in psychology and sociology; her nature was self-sufficient and she had deep inner resources. 

Some people - perhaps most people - want to seem more than they are. Very few people are content being more than they seem – but Joy was one of them.

What was always clear was that the past was never all that far from the present. It resonated throughout my childhood. The war my parents experienced as children. The lucky near-misses in wartime bombings. The fateful meeting in Moscow. The Cold War. Kuwait. Peking. When they entertained, which was often when we were abroad, the talk was all of foreign postings and people and upheavals, political and personal. Communism. The Cultural Revolution. The grey oppression and underlying threat of Soviet Russia. It was a lot for a silent, observant child to take in. I would sit quietly, lest I be told to go out of the room, absorbing it all, as the tales rolled out of people who had disappeared, what had been tried to save them, or find them, or help them across a border, like the European nuns who had taught me and other international children at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the last Catholic school in China.

When my sister and I were growing up, she made sure we knew that she thought satisfying careers for girls were far more important than finding husbands. Though in the long run, husbands and families were to be encouraged, they shouldn’t be considered until we were in our thirties and had had more experience of life. (When I married at 28, it was with a sense that I might have rather let her down.) It was typical of my mother that when I left school after taking Oxbridge entrance examinations in December, I found she had booked me a secretarial course starting in January. Her reasoning was simple: with typing and shorthand skills, I would be able to earn good money in the university holidays, and would always have something to fall back on. I did wonder, though, whether there was a subtext. She wanted me to understand that clever girls could forge interesting careers by careful choice of which typewriters to bash.

My parents in Moscow in January 1959, at the wedding of friends - Joy was a bridesmaid. They would marry later that year in London.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

A new beginning

Happy New Year to any of my old faithfuls who still check in to this blog from time to time. My plans to switch to using the blog on my new website didn't quite come off, as I discovered that this one was more user-friendly after all (or maybe I just like what I know). So I plan to update this one more often this year.

The two Penelope Kite mysteries written with Rob under the nom de plume of Serena Kent will come out in paperback in the USA and Canada in February and March. But meanwhile, I have been playing around with a new solo novel, one I have wanted to write for several years but couldn't find the way in. I think I can see the path now, and have been doing some fascinating research.

The photo shows the heroine, my mother Joy, who passed away five years ago. Here she is in Moscow in 1958, at the Donskoi Monastery. She was working at the British Embassy, but what exactly was she doing there at the height of the Cold War? Her diaries tell us very little, though some of the entries contain a wonderful mixture of the exciting and the mundane, such as the contrast between two letters in the entry below. There are intriguing clues between the lines, some that make sense only to those who know the family stories. I see it as a novel about remarkable events never spoken about, mothers and daughters, and what we don't - or can't - know about those we love. Wish me luck!

Diary for Saturday, June 14 1958: Panic stations this morning with a lengthy Khrushchev letter to go out; four of us worked on it & it was ready in time; home late, only to dash out again on the Kremlin visit. Only I turned up & we had no guide; the museum & churches were quite interesting, but O so tiring – and the Gruesome Twosome weren’t receiving after 4. [Deborah's note: The "Gruesome Twosome" refers to Stalin and Lenin, who shared a mausoleum between 1953 and 1961. A nice example of my mother's dry humour.]

Joy came in for a cup of tea – we were perishing cold, and then I was quickly out again with Valerie to see “The Monte Carlo Story” with Dietrich & de Sica at America House. Enjoyed it very much; came straight home & managed to get my letter home written in bed.

Sunday 27 October 2019

The joys of re-reading Mary Stewart

I love Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels: their sense of adventure and intriguing storylines, their strong-willed heroines, and most of all, their transporting settings. Her first, published in 1955, was Madam, Will You Talk?.

The narrative takes place around 1950, in a hot, dusty Provence where Roman ruins and stony, abandoned villages dominate the landscape. The Second World War still casts a shadow over the life of young widow Charity Selborne, whose husband lost his life flying RAF operations. On a summer motoring holiday through France with a friend and fellow teacher, Charity arrives at a small hotel in Avignon. Through Stewart’s lyrical descriptive prose, we feel her release and excitement at being in the balmy warmth of the south.

It was dusk when I set out, and the street was vividly lit. All the cafés were full, and I picked my way between the tables on the pavement, while there grew in me that slow sense of exhilaration which one inevitably gets in a Southern town after dark.

This is the opening of a piece I've written for Perfectly Provence e-magazine. To read on, please hop over to Perfectly Provence on this link.

Friday 22 March 2019

Blog move

After more than eight years on Blogger, I have moved my blog to my new website: It made sense to combine the two, especially as I no longer have the time to devote to writing posts, and it seems to me that there are diminishing returns from doing so. Naturally, I shall keep the archive here, as it's a record of the first publication of my books in the USA and an illustrated background to the stories.

Along with many other writers, I also enjoy using Instagram to interact with readers and booksellers, and I'd be delighted if you wanted to find me there: @deborah.lawrenson and @serena.kent

Tuesday 6 November 2018

The mystery of Penelope Kite's money

How can Penelope Kite afford to live in Provence? It’s been bothering some early readers of Death in Provence, and I think that’s great because it shows they are really trying to imagine her enviable new life in the sun. So while discretion usually applies to financial matters, I can’t allow the vexing question of Penelope’s money to overshadow the other mysteries in the books.

In fact, the answers are all there in the book – though subtly present, like all the best clues.

For more than twenty years, Penelope was married to David, a solicitor – later, partner – in a law firm that specialised in City of London transactions. In London “the City” is shorthand for banks and large companies, the US equivalent of “Wall Street”. It is quite conceivable that David would have earned several million pounds a year from the mergers and acquisitions and share issues he worked on, and equally possible that Penelope’s divorce settlement, after a long marriage, would have reflected this at £5-10 million.

Penelope owns a house in Esher, Surrey, an affluent suburb in leafy south-west London. It might have once been the family house. A spacious five-bedroom house in Esher currently costs £2-3 million, perhaps more.

But let’s err on the side of caution and say that Penelope bought a smaller house in Bolingbroke Drive after the divorce. Even that would most likely be worth more than £1 million. When she moves to the south of France, she rents it out. A quick look at rental prices for a well-presented three-bedroom house in the area shows that she could make £3000-4000 a month. That alone would be a very decent amount for a single person to live on.

But there’s more. Penelope is an only child. Both her parents have passed away. No further details are given in the first book, but it’s revealed in the next that Penelope’s father was a doctor, a GP and police surgeon, and that the family lived in Bromley, another leafy suburb of south London. Penelope would have inherited her parents’ entire estate, including a house that could easily have been worth £2 million, and other investments.

Penelope can well afford to buy a run-down farmhouse in the Luberon with a realistic asking price of around €800,000, which converts to c. £700,000. She can also afford substantial renovation work, along with croissants, bottles of rosé and new clothes – and the “nearly-new” Range Rover she buys for the hilly Provençal roads.

Fairly early on in Death in Provence, Penelope sees the red Ferrari that keeps popping up on the local roads and muses about where she fits into the social scale: ‘There was an interesting mix of people here in August, she thought: happy holidaymakers from northern Europe; artists and photographers; walkers and cyclists; the farming community; the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers who gave so much pleasure to everyday life; and some extremely rich people – Parisians and Swiss and Americans - staying at their second homes. Penelope wondered if people would assume she was rich. She didn’t think she was. Comfortably off, perhaps. And, for the first time in her life, reckless with a lump sum.’

Penelope doesn’t see herself as belonging to the Ferrari-driving classes. But, like most well brought-up, conventional British women, she is being discreet about her own wealth - which many might consider substantial.

Sunday 26 August 2018

Lazy Sunday in Provence

After a "soft launch" of ebook and audio only, the paperback edition of Death in Provence is out now from Orion in the UK! A blog tour has brought forth a raft of lovely reviews and all's well with the world. In the US, readers have only to wait until February for the Harper hardback and ebook, but I am going to run a giveaway open to all so there's a chance to be an early reader.

In the meantime, here's a introduction to the main character, Penelope Kite in a piece written for The French Village Diaries blog - a Lazy Sunday in France:

Our accidental sleuth Penelope Kite loves Sunday mornings in Provence. Even though she no longer works nine-to-five as assistant to an eminent forensic pathologist, she still savours that delicious Sunday feeling of waking with no pressing need to leave a soft bed when the sun slants through the open shutters. No family to prepare lunch for, no housework, just lovely croissants for breakfast on the sunny terrace of Le Chant d’Eau, her recklessly purchased old farmhouse with views of the Luberon valley.
   Cello practice (what bliss to be able to play again, letting the notes rise into the open air, disturbing no one) is followed by a quick swim in the pool. The pool looks glorious in the walled garden now, with lavender lining the walls and four sentinel cypress trees. Fortunately, there is no dead body floating in it today.
   The sun is already hot as she prepares to go out tat-hunting at a classic Provençal brocante.

Continue reading...

"This was such an entertaining and refreshing read. With eccentric characters and a twisty but, at the same time, hilarious plot, you just need to sit down and enjoy this captivating mystery set in the beautiful South of France."

Review from Book After Book blog.

Thursday 21 June 2018

New book! Death in Provence

At last, all can be revealed! The lack of posts on the blog this year is squarely down to hard work at the desk on not one, but two new novels. (There was also a lengthy trip to the US, the Bahamas and Chile, during which, blissfully, no work of any kind was undertaken!) But here we are, with publication next week in the UK of Death in Provence, the fun - yet fatal - mystery that Rob ("The Panto King" for long-time readers) and I have written together.

It's a soft launch, which means ebook and audio download first, on June 28, followed by the paperback on August 23. For those who want to pre-order, you can do so here: AMAZON. The good news is that until August, the ebook is only £1.99, so early readers will get a bargain.

Mercifully, Rob and I are still speaking, if only just, after five intense months drafting the sequel, Death in Avignon. Our nom de plume, Serena Kent has her own website, where you can find out more, see background pictures and read the opening.

And if you're wondering about the name, it's all that was left of our determination to make one from an anagram of our surnames, Lawrenson and Rees. Sadly neither Serena Rowlsen, nor Loren Wassener had the requisite charm, but we and the publishers all liked Serena. So Serena it is - with her young-at-heart, croissant-scoffing, clever heroine, Penelope Kite!

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