Saturday 28 September 2013

How it begins

The grapes above the outdoor dining table are just on the turn from green to ripe purple. In Provence it's another sign that high summer is drawing to a close (this photo was taken in mid-August). Each evening, another day of hot sun has darkened a few more beads of fruit.

Now, back in England, I can't help but feel wistful at missing out this year, not only on tasting the grapes - a dessert variety, very sweet and muscat-floral - but on those days in the garden when life slows down. I was going to give myself a break from writing until the new book comes out next summer, but somehow the idea forming for the next is too insistent to ignore. The theme has been in mind for a while. In the notebook, the observations and ideas to explore are slowing coming to fruition. The story is no more solid than trailing leaves from the vine canopy. I can't say anything specific about it; it might change out of all recognition.

But early research reading is bringing plot possibilities. There's a tingle of excitement and anticipation of something new that could be achieved. Not there yet, by any means, but each day some new aspect develops, and the colours change. This isn't work - it's fun.

Saturday 21 September 2013

A publishing lunch and other distractions

A rainy day in London, but all was colour, light and clamour at Bocca di Lupo in Soho, where I had lunch the other day with the four women who are the mainstays of my writing career: from New York my literary agent Stephanie Cabot and publishing editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Barth; and the London team: agent Araminta Whitley and Orion fiction editor, Kate Mills.
Over sublime Italian food (including a radish and celeriac salad to match the ceiling fittings...see above and below) we shared news and views, and discussed plans

for publication next summer of The Sea Garden, as the new novel is now titled. For a wonderful couple of hours I felt in the thick of it, the publishing gossip and the zeitgeist, revelling in Kate's account of how she came to admit publicly that she had turned down J K Rowling's pseudonymous detective novel for being a competent but not stand-out read (it was in a twitter exchange with author Ian Rankin, who writes the fantastic detective fiction Kate loves).
Jennifer's schedule in London was eye-opening, back-to-back meetings; I realised she is as meticulous and hardworking at the business side of publishing as she is in her editing role, and all achieved with distinct intelligence and charm. Stephanie, too, packs a lot in when she comes over - she arrived from seeing another of her UK authors in Oxford, and it's all down to her laser-sharp advice, loyalty and professionalism that I am where I am. She and Araminta - tough and funny and brilliant at spotting new trends - have been friends for a long time, and it couldn't have worked out better for me when they decided to join forces to co-agent my books. 
It really was a lunch to remember, not just because it was such a treat, but because it was quite something to have all of us there together. We talked a little about my idea for a new novel, and it was good to be able to try out a few ideas (they are only ideas so far) face to face. But best of all, it was a chance for me to say thank you.

Afterwards, I popped into the National Gallery to look for the Velasquez paintings given to the nation by Sir John Hookham Frere, a distant ancestor of my husband's whose portrait hangs in our sitting room. The information surfaced in a book trail I've been following through the British bohemians and Bloomsberries. The Velasquez works in question, including St John the Evangelist at Patmos, seem not to be currently on display, but there was no chance of being unable to see the other item on my agenda: the Boris Anrep mosaics in the floor of the entrance staircase landings.

Created between 1926 and 1952, the mosaics depict figures of the day - from Churchill to Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell to Edith Sitwell - in evocative greens, greys and browns, with a lively dose of humour. Russian émigré Anrep's great friend Augustus John is depicted as Neptune offering Alice in Wonderland gifts from the sea. The Hollywood film star Loretta Young fills a loving cup with red and white wine to symbolise British and American friendship.
I'd been reading about Anrep in Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians, which does a good job of putting famous names into social context. It prompted me to look again at a book already on my shelves, Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw, a novel in which her memories of Sanary-sur-Mer in the late 1920s and '30s are only thinly disguised. Then on to Julia, A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, which is choc-full of incisive and poignant detail.
A tenuous family link here: husband's "Granny", universally loved for her great charm by young and old (she lived to a grand old age, and I was privileged to be invited to many an open house in Somerset), was a cousin of both the redoubtable biographer and Bloomsbury member Lytton Strachey, and of the artist Duncan Grant, lover of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, etc, etc. Among the photographs in Julia is one of Julia Strachey aged ten, which bears a startling likeness to both husband as a child and our daughter. (Those genes must be super-strength...)

Finally, a most fruitful visit to my friend Sophie's new boutique in Sevenoaks, Kent - The Clever Dresser (she is, very - and what's more, she can make you one too). This rambling blog post, you see, was begun in order to explain why I haven't been doing much blogging lately... Excuses, excuses, and none would be complete with the biggest excuse of them all, the writing notebook which has been simmering along nicely.


Monday 9 September 2013

The Coffee Shop Book Club

I never thought I'd get under the same cover as Tracy Chevalier and Kate Mosse, let alone Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, but I have sneaked in somehow... Out this week, The Coffee Shop Book Club is a fantastic collection of short stories, each the perfect length to read with a cup of coffee or tea. "Irresistible stories of love and fidelity, mystery and unexpected lives from some of the bestselling authors writing today", runs the blurb, and I do feel quite pink with pride to have made the cut.
The roll-call of writers really is quite something, including some of my personal favourites like Elizabeth Buchan and the hilarious Kathy Lette, Jojo Moyes, Victoria Hislop and Adele Parks. The collection is edited by Fanny Blake, once Dirk Bogarde's publishing editor and now a novelist - and story contributor - in her own right.
My story is The Scent of Night, originally writtenas most if not all these were, for Woman & Home magazine's summer reading section. It was a tie-in with The Lantern, and those who read and enjoyed my novel might be amused to spot the links. A couple, happily married for many years, rent a Provencal farmhouse for a month in the summer. But annoying guests intrude on paradise...
There really is something for everyone here, mostly in light-hearted vein but there's much wit and wisdom too. Reading the proofs, I particularly enjoyed the effervescent poignancy of Veronica Henry's A Friend with Benefits, gritty thriller writer Val McDermid's The Ministry of Whisky and Katherine Webb's Downton-esque The Midsummer Sky.
The Coffee Shop Book Club is published by Orion on September 12, and £1 from the sale of every book will be donated to the Breast Cancer Care charity. There's more detailed information over on the Lovereading site

Sunday 1 September 2013

Faro notebook

Back from Portugal and looking through the notes made and photos taken in Faro. Will any of the material eventually transform into part of a published novel? At this stage, I have no idea. The ideas I have are vague and constantly shifting. The only way to find out if they work will be to sit down, start writing and see what happens.

When I'm in a place, I like to engage with the details that I might not remember when I sit down at the desk to write. Surprisingly often, the pursuit of these details leads seamlessly to the bigger picture - the geography, the atmosphere, conversations with the locals. Take the gate to the Old Town, for example, just visible in the picture below at the far end of the Jardim Manuel Bivar.

After a few days wandering around the town looking up at the pretty Moorish-inspired buildings, I started to see dried grass hanging below streetlamps and rooflines. On closer inspection, these were birds' nests. Then I started to see wheels of grasses and twigs on churches - they were everywhere, including on the pediment of the Old Town gate (below). One evening, there was a flutter of white wings inside.

But which birds were making them? As an ex-journalist, I'm not shy of asking when I want to know something, rather to my daughter's embarrassment on occasion. ("Mum! Did you have to ask the hottest waiter what that music was?!" "Yes. And did he not bring me over a written note of the CD title? That's the way to do it.")
So I asked a cosmopolitan-looking local (many Portuguese speak excellent English) and was told they were storks. We chatted for a while under the gate and I found out that it's illegal to remove the nests as storks mate for life and only build one nest. They sleep there each night, bedding down at sunset, and the storks have always been in Faro as it's so close to their food supplies on the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa, now a natural park between the coast and the barrage islands fronting the Atlantic. 

Another story in the details that was hard to miss was the economic woe of Portugal, an issue they share with several other southern countries of the European Union. As someone who loves Europe and its people but not the EU political construct and the dead hand of its bureaucracy, I noted the evidence of closed businesses and decaying houses for sale with sinking heart.


I've never seen such pretty cobbled pedestrian streets, though; lining them, shops selling very cheap fashion items - clothes a third or a quarter of the price of similar items in the South of France - and great bags for around ten euros. (Naturally, we did what we could to help out economically...)

Faro beach was a half hour bus or ferry ride away. This is a view from the ferry, which was our preferred option. On the salt flats were tiny fishermen's huts, and constant fishing activity, whether from small rowing boats or the backbreaking work of clam digging.

Finally, a snap taken on Farol, part of one of the barrage islands, sandy spits of land that are constantly being pulled and reshaped by the strength of the Atlantic Ocean along the southernmost points of continental Portugal. The beaches are superb, the water clear and cold. And just look at that sky.

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