Friday 25 October 2013

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

Do you have this children's book I've heard about? It's supposed to be very good. It's called "Lionel Ritchie and the Wardrobe".
It goes without saying that booksellers are the salt of the earth. That they are also long-suffering and possessed of a fine appreciation of life's quirks and oddities is the joy of this tome by poet and short story writer Jen Campbell, who toils at an antiquarian bookshop in London.
Chock-full of mind-boggling queries and responses, it's like eavesdropping on incredulous staff in the storeroom. And it really is jaw-dropping at times - as well as being laugh-out-loud hilarious. If you haven't discovered it yet, run don't walk to your nearest bookshop.
Customer (holding up a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses): Why is this book so long? Isn't it supposed to be set in one day only? How can this many pages of things happen to one person in one day? I mean, I get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home...sometimes I might go out for a drink, and that's it! And, I mean, that doesn't fill a book, does it?
Customer (having read the blurb to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief aloud to his son): Excuse me, is this book based on a true story?
Bookseller: It's about an American teenager discovering he's the son of Poseidon by accidentally vaporising his maths teacher.
Customer: Yes.
Bookseller: So, no.
Dead-pan responses from the booksellers are particularly well done, especially when books are not the main concern of a surprising number of people who pitch up in bookshops.
Customer: The things on the walls...
Bookseller: Bookshelves?
Customer: Yes.
Customer: Do people still have them in their homes?
Bookseller: Yes, I think so.
Customer: My friend's just made some - would you be able to sell them for him?
Customer: I've got an aubergine and I don't know what to do with it.
Bookseller: Oh, well, what did you buy it for?
Customer: I didn't - someone gave it to me and I just saw you've got cups and saucers in the window - do you know about cooking?
Bookseller: ...Our window display is the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland.
I've been chortling ever since I picked up this book - it would make a brilliant gift - and I can't recommend it highly enough for booklovers and those of us who really appreciate all that the booksellers of the world do. The good news is that there's a second volume, and (I've just discovered as I went over to Jen Campbell's blog) she's announced today that she has a new book in the pipeline, The Bookshop Book. Hurray! 

Friday 18 October 2013

The author photo

"Also," said Jennifer Barth, my editor in New York, "What are you thinking in terms of an author photo for the new book?"

Hmm, I'm not sure I was thinking about it at all. Possibly that I might just get away with using the one that went out last time...have I changed that much in the three years (nearly) since it was taken? Some long hard stares into the bathroom mirror. Some even harder questions to long-suffering husband.

I don't really like having my photo taken. I'm not sure I ever did, being forensically self-critical and possibly a bit vain. Not that I think I'm marvellous in any way, you understand - it's more a question of wanting a bit of a break for trying hard with what I have. Or, these days, simply bearing up without recourse to anything stronger than Dior moisturising serum when women of my age (and much younger!) in the public eye have so often developed strange bulbous lips and oddly sculpted expressions.

The nuclear option would be to have a full makeover and airbrushed studio portrait. But for someone like me, is that just a bit desperate? And I do have an ace up my sleeve: the photographer Rebecca Eifion-Jones, whom I met through a friend, and who took the last set of author pics. She is quite simply brilliant. And it was only the thought of going along to see Bex, not in a scary studio, but in her own light-filled home in Kent that tipped the balance. For these kinds of pictures, she uses only natural light, of which she has an almost magical understanding.

So off I went this week. The most intervention I considered was going to get my hair cut - and then decided against, as hairdressers tend to take one look at my thick mop and go in for the kill, and it's weeks before I feel myself again. I got out of the car and straight into the shoot. Bex makes it all look so easy, chatting and laughing as she moves around with her camera, no fuss, no artifice, just her unerring eye.

I haven't yet seen the full results but she sent me some samples of what to expect, of which this is the one I like best. It may well end up on the book sleeve.


Friday 11 October 2013

A cover question

Now here's a knotty issue for those of you who take an interest in book covers. Should a cover be an accurate reflection of details in the story? Does it irritate you if a prominent feature of a cover is simply wrong?
The reason I ask - and I suppose I'm looking for confirmation that I did the right thing - is that I've now seen a mock-up of a potential cover for The Sea Garden and loved it at first sight. (And that doesn't always happen, let me tell you.) But there was just one thing, very minor but nevertheless a potential source of puzzlement for readers: the image showed a mysterious tunnel of wisteria, and the garden tunnel in the novel was formed of bougainvillea.
I wish I could post the cover here, but I can't as it's still under wraps. Wisteria really is very beautiful, as well as bringing a feeling of gnarled history, perhaps for the simple reason that it takes so long to grow and is often associated with old houses.
Bougainvillea, on the other hand, is even more rampant and lends an undeniably exotic splash of colour that is absolutely appropriate for my Mediterranean setting.
What to do? The manuscript was right there in front of me, still open to changes in the copy editing process. In the end I did a bit of horticultural research and replanted my imaginary garden in the South of France with wisteria. But did it really matter one way or the other? What would you have done?

Friday 4 October 2013

Knowing when to let go

    "The shepherd’s body was found up on the steep slopes where the lavender made its last wild clutches at the mountain peak.

    Each year the sheep were moved across the high meadows above the lavender fields. Here men still adhered to the old ways: hardy men with gnarled and twisted limbs as if they had been carved by the same winds as the rock sculptures.

   One of them was the shepherd Pineau. Alone under the blue citadel of the sky, he guided his flock from one ancient stone borie to the next. All the farmers knew him: Old Pineau in his ragged clothes was part of the landscape when the great surge in lavender growing for the perfume industry had begun, when the Mussets and others began staining the slopes purple. The shepherd was a man who knew every stone and tree of the ridges, a man who had seemed part of nature: part mountain, part stream, part animal, living his life by the turn of the seasons, solitary with his sheep, walking from rocky ledge to pasture, valley to plateau as they fed. He sang as he went, songs that had been sung for centuries.

   That summer day in 1943, when small puffs of his flock broke away and drifted in lazy clouds down the hill, the lavender farmers knew something was wrong. In the uplands men and women had always relied on one another. They went up looking for him."

                                                                                    from The Sea Garden

No sooner had I started to immerse myself in research for a new novel last week, than the copy edits on the book to be published next summer arrived on my desk and I had to put the notebook away to re-focus on the previous story.

Quite a good thing, I think, to have started to move on from the completed work. I'm sure it sharpens the critical facilities. Sometimes, when I've spent too much time continuously a manuscript, it feels as if I can't see the wood for the trees, or the sense for the words on the page. The terror at the copy-editing stage is in wanting to change everything, and I'm sure there are authors who give in to temptation.

The art is doing enough, but knowing when to let go. Now is not the time for wholesale rewrites but for trust in yourself and your primary editor, and the work that has already been done.

A tiny glimpse inside The Sea Garden, then. I chose this extract because I know many of you enjoyed the lavender sequences in The Lantern and this gives a flavour of the link between the two novels. I hope it's not too misleading, though: the new book as a whole is not a prequel, but one section does relate the story of Marthe Lincel as a young woman and how exactly she became a perfume maker. And it gives me a chance to post one of the lavender photos I took in the summer! 
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