Friday 30 May 2014

Communications...stand by!

Racing to update my website before US publication in a matter of weeks, I've spent the afternoon writing a Reading Guide for The Sea Garden (all the while having a head full of ideas I am trying to pin down for the next book.) Then I suddenly realised it was well over a week since I'd managed a blog post. I hadn't a clue what to write until I found this photo of what my brain feels like at the moment, all loose wires and dodgy connections!
Actually, it's a Second World War wireless transmitter disguised as a leather suitcase, as used by British agents and their contacts in Occupied France. This one is in the Musée de la Résistance at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Being a wireless operator was an extremely dangerous job, with a life expectancy down to a few weeks by the closing stage of the war. Extraordinary to think of the bravery of those who used this machine in the field and the lives that depended on the Morse code messages (see the tapper at the front) they managed to send out.
Next month, in the countdown to publication on June 24, I'm intending to post all sorts of pictures like this that are relevant to the book and which should add to the experience for any reader who comes to this blog looking for interesting background. The redesigned website is looking pretty good too - thanks to Judith Barrett. Not long now before that's up and running as well.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Chelsea Flower Show 2014

     ‘You have a sense of history, too,’ he went on. ‘You respect that.’

     ‘If you mean the Chelsea garden,’ she said, knowing full well that he did, ‘that was very different. It was a modern impression of an era, not historical fact – a stage set, if you like.’
                                                                                 from The Sea Garden

The famous Chelsea Flower Show is on this week in London, and although I haven't been lucky enough to go this year, I have been swooning over the photographs and TV coverage. The achievements of the growers and garden designers are breath-taking, all the more when you consider that these perfect patches are only temporary, created in the grounds of the Royal Hospital.
In The Sea Garden, Ellie is a garden designer who has exhibited at Chelsea. It's due to the media coverage she receives after winning a coveted gold medal that she is asked to travel to the French island of Porquerolles - where the commission proves to be much more complex than she had imagined. Here is the competition she would have been up against this year. It's the combination of exquisite plants at the peak of their beauty (sometimes replaced every day), hard landscaping and installations of focal points that make these show gardens so special.
Particularly relevant to the one mentioned in the novel is Charlotte Rowe's No Man's Land garden, above and immediately below, designed to support ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. It recalls World War One, in particular the static conflict on the Western Front, within a landscape of minefields and across a narrow No Man’s Land between frontline trenches. The black pool is the "mine crater" now teeming with life, and Rowe's artistry reflects how the landscape, though changed forever, has been regenerated. There are representations of scarred hillocks which were once cut by trenches, now left to meadow flowers, including poppies.

This year, almost every garden seems to feature soft and subtle planting with a nod to the wild, even when the landscaping is starkly formal. And everyone seems to have gone for blues and purples! Below is the Cloudy Bay sensory garden by the Wilson McWilliam Studio, designed to reflect the tasting notes of the Cloudy Bay wines of New Zealand.

The M&G garden by Cleve West is a modern English take on the paradise gardens, driven by water, made by the Persians two thousand years ago - below.

 Time to Reflect, below, is by Adam Frost in association with Homebase and the Alzheimer's Society, intended to evoke the simple pleasures and memories of being outdoors.

And finally, the Daily Telegraph garden, with its immaculate lawn and topiary. 

I've just picked out a few that appealed to me, but there is much, much more. All the photographs come from the Royal Horticultural Society's website, and you can find far more details, images and background information there.

Saturday 17 May 2014

The Sea Garden: UK update

I heard yesterday that it will be a little bit longer than expected before The Sea Garden is available here - publication has slipped from the end of July to August 28. These things happen with publishers' selling-in cycles to book chains and other retailers, but it does mean that it will be an autumn rather than a summer read this year. It's not such a bad thing. More people will be back from holiday and see it in the shops, and with any luck will want to buy it to prolong their summer mood. I hope so, anyway.
The US publication is still set for June 24, and when I'm sent my author's box of books I think I will organise some kind of draw for readers in the UK to win one of those copies. I'll keep you posted.
The picture here is the UK cover visual by Sarah Perkins, without the lettering so you can see the fabulous detail of the fictional Domaine de Fayols on the island of Porquerolles. 

Thursday 8 May 2014

Books and chocolate

Books and chocolate...sigh. There's pleasure just in thinking about the combination. But what would be ideal reading with which chocolate? This is the question posed by the great chocolate book tag challenge, accepted from my blog friend Gill at A Head in a Book. As I try to do with real chocolate, I have gone for quality over quantity, and have limited myself to two choices, but I hope they look as delicious to you as they are to me.
Candied orange and clementine dipped in bitter dark chocolate would be a perfect accompaniment to Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, a bitter-sweet love story that begins in Italy in 1962 and fizzes with humour and satire. (Couldn't resist adding the mock-orange blossom, Philadelphus.) I loved this novel, from the opening line: "The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly - in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier." The quality of the writing is a constant delight, as are Walter's observations and cynicism about the film industry both then and now.

A white chocolate shard studded with pieces of nut and dried fruit would go beautifully with Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940 by D J Taylor. This is one of those books I pick up and dip into - and end up re-reading completely because it's so good. A bit like thinking I will only eat part of the white chocolate shard. And the book is equally full of fruit and nutcases: the mad party world of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. But who were they all, these "vile bodies" and what became of them after their gilded youth? Highly recommended if you enjoy literary connections and the novels of the period.

I'm aware I haven't risen to the full chocolate challenge, but the baton is anyone's to take up! If you go over to Gill's blog, you can see how it's supposed to be done. Post me - and her - a link if you do.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Irises, art and Jeanette Winterson

Truth to tell, I've found it hard to get back to the work in progress since my work frenzy before the Easter break. I've opened up the files, tinkered around a bit, and then closed them up again. Sometimes that's the way it goes, and I try to see the positive in that, because what happens is that it gets handed over to the sub-conscious, or the creative part of the mind, or whatever you want to call the magic of writing. For the past week I haven't been able to write much, not even a blog post, but I have had two important ideas for the next novel that have made me reassess what I have done so far and will improve it immeasurably.

For me, the way this re-firing works is that I give myself time to wander around, observing what's all around and making connections. I take my camera everywhere. I frame shots and then reframe by enlarging and cropping the images. All the while I'm looking and thinking. These irises at the northern edge of our garden, for example. You can't be in the South of France and not connect them to Van Gogh's irises. If you look very closely, especially in the centre-right part of my photo, you can even see the same speckle of yellow weed in the field behind as in his painting.

This looking for detail is what Eve did, in The Lantern, and it's a way of digging in deeper, becoming aware of the interlocking of times past and the present. It's also about experience, description and interpretation, and all the points between that artists and writers have in common. And then there's reading. I read a great deal anyway, but even more when I'm not working. You simply can't be a writer if you're not a reader in the first place.
Jeanette Winterson is a brave and brilliant writer who looks deep and makes every word count, and at the end of her novel Lighthousekeeping I found an interview with her in which she perfectly expresses how I feel about the way novels can explore the wild uproar of life while offering the security and order to be found in connections and patterns.
"Storytelling is a way of establishing connections, imaginative connections for ourselves, a way of joining up disparate material and making sense of the world. (...) I think that art is one way of discovering a genuine and unforced pattern in our lives and in the world around us and that's why writing can never be formulaic: it can never be done according to plan because it arises from a deeper part of the self which I think is less neurotic than the conscious mind and less afraid of not immediately having a shape to put on every new situation. (...) Nothing in the story ever quite works out in the way you imagine it will: there are always surprises, there are always twists and turns."
"...doing things slowly and doing things well - finding time for your friends, cooking properly, reading, going for walks, playing - all of the things which apparently yield no results. You don't make money that way and you don't get on in life that way, but what you get is something much more important. You get space for your mind. We don't have a lot of that and, of course, you can't believe in art in the way that I do and not believe that people need space for the mind, to slow down and to find time."
And as a final illustration of the point, here are the same irises, photographed from a different angle, with the setting sun in the west. A completely different set of plants, you might think, but no. Just the way the light has struck them.
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