Clarissa Luard Award

Remarks on receiving (Thursday, 7 March 2013):

“Encouragement is precious to writers.

Whether it comes from a school teacher, a loved one, an expert, or a reader – encouragement given at the right time, and in the right spirit, can make the difference between whether books get written or they don’t.

For this reason, I’m so grateful to receive the Clarissa Luard, an award named for someone who made it her business to encourage writers.

My thanks to the Arts Council; Book Trust; Ursula Doyle; and Bill Hamilton.

And my biggest Thank You of all to Hilary Mantel, for your guidance, friendship and belief, and for the encouragement that you continue to give. I will treasure it always.”

Hilary Mantel receives the David Cohen Prize for literature: link to Book Trust website.

Interview with Hilary and Katie on Front Row, Radio Four (starts after 20 mins).

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The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter: book review

In her debut novel, The Sea Change, Joanna Rossiter writes about a peculiar kind of grief. I do not know the name of it. I wish I did.

Her book, you see, is about lost landscapes. She bases her story on two real events: the appropriation of Imber, a Wiltshire village, by the War Office in 1943; and a coastal community in India crushed by tsunami in 1971.

In each case there is destruction, the residents are displaced, their homes are robbed and the familiar environment scarred and garrotted. War and wave bring death to families caught up in them – and yet there are survivors too, left to mourn, recover and possibly to rebuild.

Rossiter gives us one family touched by both incidents. In 1971 (‘the present’), Alice is travelling overland through the Middle East to India with her spur-of-the-moment husband, having left her mother, Violet, in England on bad terms.

Meanwhile, her mother’s Imber upbringing forms the other portion of the story three decades earlier. She is the daughter of a parson, and Pete is the object of her teenage infatuation.

When catastrophe comes, personal loyalties are tested: the roots to the past that hold you back; the excitement and appeal of new experiences pulling you forward.

Violet’s love for Pete is intriguing. He is a wanderer without sentiment for any specific location, whereas Vi harbours a deep desire to ‘go home’, though war games have rendered Imber unrecognisable.

Her relationship with her daughter is equally complex. Alice’s adventuring hurts Violet, is intended to spite her, perhaps. The strings of affection tug, knot and unravel.

Rossiter has a gift for bringing geography to life, her descriptive passages are some of the loveliest and most effective I can recall reading. Likewise the devastation of landscapes she’s so skilfully created are poignant and anxiety-inducing. Rossiter makes it easy for us to see through Violet’s eyes, to empathise with her pain as her beloved birthplace is ripped apart. But as well as being a beautiful book, I think this is a subtle one. Is there something self-indulgent in Violet’s grief? Undignified even? (Bricks and mortar aren’t people after all.) Do villages have a heart, the same as any other loved one? It is an interesting question, intelligently asked.

One of the greatest pleasures I had reading this novel is the recurring theme of water damaged paper: the patches of mould on wallpaper like an atlas; the damp books drying over a banister; the ring from a teacup on an open map; the letter turned to mulch by the sea. I read a chapter in the bath and accidently got some pages wet – it was as if the moisture had leaked out of it.

Rossiter has a mature sensibility. She writes with fluency and grace. It seems implausible that The Sea Change is a debut novel, but it is. And the prospect of more work as good as this, or even better, is tantalising. She knows herself.

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

Published in the UK by Penguin, April 2013

@jojo_rossiter on Twitter

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The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson: book review

One of the most resonant phrases ever written is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). To me this means there is nourishment other than the basic necessity of food to keep us alive; there is the nourishment of the heart, nourishment of the mind, nourishment of the soul. To me, it says we are more than merely physical beings, that we are entitled to make the most of our intellect, creativity, spirituality and compassion. Moreover, that we have an obligation to – that we are morally compelled to be curious about the world and the gifts in it – and if we choose not to do this, then we are letting ourselves down in a terrible way.

Reading The Emperor of Paris reminded me of this idea.

This is CS Richardson’s second book (his first was the award-winning The End of the Alphabet). It is set in early twentieth century Paris. Part way through, the Great War disrupts the lives of the Parisians, and then the story resumes with the characters picking up the threads of their lives. But this is incidental.

It is a romance, as one would expect. There is a girl, Isabeau, who reads books in the park and cleans paintings at the Louvre. There is a boy, Octavio, the son of a baker, who inherits his father’s gift for storytelling. There is a terrible fire in the bakery that destroys his library. There are the gossips who act like a Greek chorus, commenting and speculating as events unfold. Anyone who has read Girl Reading could guess how it might appeal to me. All the ingredients are here; Richardson even dispenses with speech marks.

But there are other kinds of romance: the smell of croissants; the bookstalls on the river bank; the colour of book spines; the starving artist who washes his canvases in the Seine and never sells a single work; the young woman who resembles The Spring by Ingres, and yet hides her face from the world with a scarf. The perspective switches, taking in a variety of people with little lives and little dreams.

Sometimes when reading The Emperor of Paris, the images in my head turned into book sculpture. The characters seemed to be cut from the printed page, the landscape they inhabited was novelesque, as in ‘made out of novels’. I mean this as a compliment.

When I was giving my author talks at The Philharmonic in Naples, FL, several people asked me if I had seen the Painting Women exhibition? ‘It’s synchronicity!’ they exclaimed, referring to the epigram in my novel and one of the themes explored by Elaine Newton. Yes, I did indeed see the exhibition, and I thought it was superb. What they didn’t know, however, is that the very morning before I saw Painting Women, the showpiece of which is La Visite au musée by Degas, I had read the part in The Emperor of Paris where Isabeau is given the Louvre guidebook, then goes to visit it for the first time. Now that’s synchronicity.

Reviewing a book you like or respect is a simple matter. You tease out several good points, dotted perhaps with one or two weaknesses, and so the reviewer comes across as impartial, the review balanced. However, if you love a book (or hate it), your review turns into hyperbole. The reviewer’s voice raised in hysteria becomes unreliable.

I declare that I adore this book. It is fragile and beautiful. It aches with romance. It is for art lovers, book lovers and Francophiles. It tells its tale quietly and splendidly.

The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

Published in the UK by Portobello Books, June 2013

@PortobelloBooks on Twitter

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#moodboosting

The Reading Agency is asking people to suggest #moodboosting books for their new list of fiction, non-fiction and poetry guaranteed to give you a lift. I can’t resist! Here’s my list. What do you read to make you feel better? Please tell The Reading Agency; your choice might help someone else. K x

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers
The Art of Happiness by HH Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler
A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 by Wendy Cope

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Meeting the ladies of Naples

‘Ours is the biggest book club in the world,’ my host says. ‘We think so, anyway.’

This is my second speaking engagement at The Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples, Florida. The first was on Thursday 7th February in the Daniels Pavilion to a sold out house of 282. On the following Saturday, the auditorium is at around half capacity. However, as this is the Hayes Hall, a full scale concert hall, it equates to some 672 people who have come for … well, just a book talk really.

While I’m waiting in the wings during my introduction, one of the crew adjusts the monitor to view the audience. ‘That’s a big crowd for a book lecture,’ he mutters to his mate.

There are two podiums on stage like the presidential debates. The US edition book cover of Girl Reading is projected on a screen the size of a billboard making me look rather puny in comparison. And all this is for me. Sort of.

Actually, these audiences have come because of Elaine Newton who, according to one director at The Phil, ‘sells out faster than Tony Bennett.’

Elaine lives in Florida for part of the year and in her native Canada for the rest. She’s an academic, her home university is York University, Toronto, but she has given lectures on book, films, theatre and psychology in cities around the world, virtually anywhere she’s stopped for any length of time, and she does it ‘for fun’. I also think she does it because teaching is in her blood, because she has quickly flowing, sparkling ideas, the gift of effortless communication, and the ability to draw people to her with warmth and enthusiasm.

Elaine Newton has spearheaded the Naples Book Club since The Philharmonic Center for the Arts was built in 1989. There were 40 people at her first talk; now they spill into the largest arts venue for miles around causing parking problems and traffic jams.

‘I’ve been coming to Elaine’s talks for 12 years,’ one lady tells me in the book signing queue. ‘I’m one of the new ones, other people have been with her much longer.’ Indeed, I meet several women who have been loyal members for over 20 years.

There are several ‘book clubs’ in the world that might lay claim a larger following than this: I’m thinking of Oprah, Richard and Judy, and online communities such as Good Reads and BookCrossing. Based on sales of selected titles and membership registration, these run into thousands, even millions. However, if you remove the media and internet from the equation, keeping the definition of a book club strictly in the real world and honour the notion of real people meeting up on a regular basis to share a book they’ve all read, then Elaine’s claim that theirs is the largest becomes entirely plausible.

Each year they publish a Critic’s Choice Summer Reading List of 35 – 40 titles that goes to libraries, bookstores and periodicals all over the US. It doesn’t exactly ‘go viral’ (Elaine isn’t fond of technology and avoids online platforms completely). It’s more like old fashioned word of mouth on a grand scale. From this list, Elaine will lecture on 6 chosen books. She takes a folder of notes to her lectern, leans into the microphone the way experienced professors do, and seems to deliver her entire presentation from memory, even creating it in the moment like a jazz musician.

The list is a collaboration. Elaine meets with Jessica Olson and Felicia Santiago, the communities team at the Naples branch of Barnes and Noble. Over piles of books and cups of coffee they thrash out / cajole / tease / argue for their favourites out of dozens of novels. They treat the process with the same care and attention as any literary panel, but I suspect their sessions are more good natured than most. After all, they’ve been doing this for a while, and I don’t think they’d keep doing it if they didn’t love it with a passion. Elaine’s name is on the publicity for The Phil events, but like any true academic she is open to persuasion and has read and spoken on books because they were championed by Jessica and Felicia. She knows them and trusts their judgement. If they believe in a book, there must be something to it.

It was Felicia who first contacted me through my website back in April 2012. She sent me a thoroughly charming email saying how much she loved my novel, and would I consider coming to Florida to speak about it? I admit I was confused. I’ve been invited to speak at book groups before, in King’s Lynn, in Cirencester, in Cumbria, in Woodbridge, in Ipswich. The largest of these was around 35 people; the smallest was 5 people which included members of my own family. What Felicia described sounded a bit mad.

Of course, authors travel abroad to talk about their books all the time, but I simply didn’t believe I was there yet. Girl Reading was only available in hardback in the US. It had attracted a sprinkle of positive reviews from that side of the pond, but it was still (what is the euphemism for obscure?) ‘niche’.

I decided Felicia had made a mistake. She didn’t know I was a nobody and I didn’t know how to tell her, so I took the coward’s way out and batted the email to my publisher, quietly confident they would veto the whole thing. Actually they thought it was a good idea too and suddenly we were talking about booking flights.

Six months before of my first talk, I look at The Phil’s website to discover it has sold out. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a terrible public speaker, when I do a talk it’s usually fine, but if I’m being honest I probably wouldn’t pay $34 to hear me. And so I develop a new worry, that I will come across as (what is the euphemism for disappointing?) ‘a work in progress’.

My fears are alleviated to an extent when I meet Elaine and her husband, Alan, a man with a heart of gold who patiently drives me from place to place which in a city carved down the middle by a six lane freeway is essential. One of the first culture shocks I get when I arrive in Naples is that everyone drives here because even when something is nearby, it’s miles away, such as the Barnes and Noble bookshop that looks like a short walk from the hotel on Google maps, but is in fact a long walk.

Here I spend some time with Jessica. She tells me about the work they do in schools and the local area generally to promote reading. Their store is small by American standards. By my standards it is palatial with two floors, escalators, and longs aisles of bookshelves almost disappearing into a perspective point. The energy and dedication of the staff make it a centre in the community. Jessica asks me for a recommendation for their next reading list, which I give. Before I go, I take some photos of Twitter friends’ books.

There are other differences too, like the sizzling hot waffle iron for guests to use in the hotel breakfast room. This would never happen in the UK – it’s too much of a health and safety risk, not to mention a fire hazard – but here in the land of the free, and light touch regulation, untrained members of the public are blithely dolloping batter in it to make perfectly formed American waffles covered in syrup. If my speeches are a disaster, I reason, they might never invite me back, so I ought to make the most of this. Pour confidently, turn the iron with assurance, and the waffle will rise. Try not to burn yourself.

Elaine and I emailed and spoke on the phone in advance. We sketched out the content of our talks, but she warns me we will be improvising and the events themselves would bear little resemblance to our plans. And she is right.

Elaine leads with a question, my journey to publication, my research, how I chose the artwork I based each chapter on? And I, mindful that we have 90 minutes to fill, answer in more depth than normal. And perhaps because I am in another country and the feeling of unreality never completely leaves me, or simply because Elaine is such a skilled listener, I am as candid as I’ve ever been in the company of readers.

People who attend both talks tell me that the first one was good and the second one was better. For me, the second is harder as I try to engage the enormous space. We also stray into new territory, I share insights that I’ve kept private for a very long time. (If not now, then when?) Perhaps something of this comes through.

Elaine is the perfect reader. She sees the tiny details you ached over, their dual meanings and thematic resonance. Moreover, she perceives things you didn’t notice you’d put in the novel. Best of all, she tells everyone she knows how much she loves your book.

The ladies of Naples are the warmest and most supportive readers any author could hope for. I wish every writer could have the same feedback as they gave me. If so, perhaps collectively we would write with greater courage. (NB, there were a few men too and I am grateful for that, but they would agree they’re in the minority.)

One lady bought me flowers to have on stage while I spoke. Another gave me some cards she’d made from her photographs of pelicans and the local landscape. Another had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Another who found the book signing queue too long asked my husband to sign her copy on my behalf: ‘Thank you for supporting Katie,’ he wrote in it.

Here is what one reader said in an email: ‘Katie, we just wanted you to know we loved every moment spent with you and so look forward to reading more of your future works.  The book is terrific and hopefully, all of us will see you in Naples again soon!!!!   Thanks for autographing all our books! Three generations of fans!!!’ (Grandmother, mother, and daughter.)

It wasn’t totally plain sailing. For example, I almost gave away the ending of the last season of Downton Abbey not realising it hadn’t aired in the US yet and was shushed by every person in the room. ‘Nothing bad happens,’ I added innocently. ‘Everything is fine at Downton.’ I also did that thing every author dreads when signing books: I spelled someone’s name incorrectly. It was the last lady in the queue and my concentration slipped for just a second, so I sent my husband off to get her a new copy. Sorry, again. I’m still embarrassed by it.

After the second event, in the lobby of Hayes Hall, I asked Jessica what she was doing for the rest of the day? ‘I have to get back to the store,’ she said. ‘Newt Gingrich is coming in for a signing.’ (Hmm. I wonder if he ever spells somebody’s name wrong?)

Afterwards I went to Elaine’s and Alan’s home for lunch with some of their friends. They’re all from other parts of America, or Canada, because Naples is a place filled with people who weren’t born there. The house has an international spirit, the walls covered in Alan’s photographs. In his garage for example are pictures of Buddhist monks and ancient monuments in Burma, anachronistic in a town where the oldest building dates to 1910 and large swathes of it have been built within my lifetime.

When most of the guests have gone, Elaine suggests we sit on the side of her pool with our feet dangling in it. After the heat and pressure, it is a welcome relief and a moment of stillness.

I started out treating this as work. Four days later, I feel as if I’m saying goodbye to family.

The car doesn’t arrive until 10am the following morning which is enough time for one last waffle. I make it with gusto, batter leaking out the edge of the hotplates. I turn it out. It isn’t exactly perfect, but it’s golden in colour, fluffy in the middle and delicious.

My appearances in Naples would not have been possible without the kindness and support of the following: Elaine and Alan; Jessica and Felicia at Barnes and Noble; The Philharmonic Center for the Arts; and my US publisher, Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, especially Gwyneth. With many thanks from a grateful writer, K x

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Recorded for posterity

I just had one of those awkward moments where DHL rang my doorbell when I wasn’t wearing any pants, but it was totally worth it! The Scribner US paperback of Girl Reading has arrived – and I *love* it. K x #gratefulwriter

 

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Xmas MMXII e-card #vss

Please let me out.

I want to drink cappuccinos, like all the other reindeer.

 

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The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright: book review

This is a novel about mental health, memory and how the fabric of families can potentially unravel – all rich subjects for fiction – and Susan Elliot Wright delivers them splendidly.

The Things We Never Said begins with Maggie waking up in a mental hospital in the 1960s unable to remember who she is or how on earth she got there. She gradually acquaints herself with her fellow patients and the staff ‘caring’ for them, having to learn (or is it relearn?) the rules and etiquette as she tries to recover her past. It’s a great premise to launch the story from, and the bygone era of chilly mental institutions and electroshock treatment (that seems to be used as punishment rather than therapy) are absorbing and scarily plausible.

Meanwhile in the present day, we meet Jonathan, a teacher with a pregnant wife and aging parents. His first challenge in the book is to find a way to tell them they’re going to be grandparents. There’s no obvious reason why they’d be unhappy about it, it’s simply a case of Jonathan choosing his moment . . . And yet this becomes but one of several things various characters leave unsaid, or have difficulty finding the right words for, and naturally their lack of communication has consequences.

The Germans have a term, Weltschmerz, for the sadness felt when one realises the world cannot match the ideal of one’s mind. This is what Jonathan is going through. He is in crisis because he cannot accept his father for the barbed and distant man he is; and, when he learns an uncomfortable truth, is drawn into a spiral of anxiety and unseemly behaviour that threatens his job and relationship.

While Maggie’s far more dramatic break down is exacerbated by the prejudice and ignorance of post-war Britain, Jonathan’s issues have a distinctly modern flavour: binge drinking, pent up rage, the ups-and-downs of marriage and imminent fatherhood, not to mention the stress of being embroiled in a workplace investigation. The comparisons and contrasts drawn out between the two eras are subtle, and cleverly done.

Some of the most touching portions of the novel, past and present, take place when it snows, a detail not even hinted at by the cover design. Perhaps it’s because I read this on trains in December on my way to and from family visits, but there’s something very appropriate about the author’s choice here: the quietness of snow; the numbing cold; the way it disguises familiar landscapes; the connotations of Christmas, sentimentality, journeys and reconciliation. It’s probably not the easiest angle to promote a debut novel from, but this is an excellent winter read.

The themes in The Things We Never Said are treated knowledgeably, but gently, and I was swept along by Elliot Wright’s assured storytelling. An ideal choice for readers of genealogy mysteries.

The Things We Never Said by Susan Elliot Wright

Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, May 2013

@sewelliot on Twitter

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Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman: book review

I’ve recently learned that there’s a single sentence which, when used, compels me to read a book better than any other sales pitch, incantation or bribe ever could: ‘This plot has a twist we beg you not to disclose . . .’ Hello? I thought. I suspect this only appears on advance copies to warn off spoilsport reviewers – but seriously – they should consider using it on the book blurb when it’s published too.

No spoilers here, I assure you. Beatrice Hitchman’s secret is safe with me.

Petite Mort is set in the silent film industry of early twentieth century Paris, and is told from the point of view of Adèle, an aspiring actress. She escapes her drear and parochial village to pursue her dream, only to find herself sharing digs with a prostitute, and scraping together a living as a seamstress in the Pathé studio costume department. Adèle is tormented by the opulence of garments she makes and cannot wear. However, her fortunes appear to change when she catches the eye of André, an influential producer: what he offers, instead of a starring role, is a job as his wife’s personal assistant.

The title alone gives the reader a suggestion of what could be in store, like a lady’s ankle on display in a salon. Added to the mix is the mystery of a film lost in a factory fire; the peculiar personal habits of Terpsichore, Pathé’s leading lady; and an infamous murder case. In fact there are several rather tasty twists in this novel, more than enough to keep you guessing until the end.

It’s difficult to tease out comparisons with other books, or movies for that matter, because Hitchman is leading us into relatively unexplored territory. At different times I was reminded of Moulin Rouge, The Prestige and (with my admittedly limited knowledge of silent film history) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Like the silver screen world Hitchman portrays, her writing shimmers, drawing you in with glamour and trickery. A fascinating, beguiling and wily debut. What will she do next?

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

Published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail, March 2013

@serpentstail on Twitter

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#WIP: guest reader at Lumb Bank

On Wednesday 14 November 2012, I was the midweek guest tutor at Arvon, Lumb Bank. This booking was made over a year earlier via Twitter, when Girl Reading had been out for a short time and I had done few author appearances. I agreed, even though I’d never heard of them, mainly because I thought it would be good practice and it was in a part of the country I’d never visited before.

It wasn’t until the brochure arrived that I realised what a special undertaking Arvon is. I was struck by the quality and range of writers who teach these courses, and that the programmes are thoughtfully put together to meet different writers’ needs. The course I was invited to speak on was for unpublished writers with a work in progress, people who have at least one near complete manuscript in hand amounting to months or possibly years of work. They’ve progressed beyond the bog standard how-to-write-a-novel shtick, requiring something more thorough and personal to help them bring their work up to a higher standard, and move them closer to publication.

Arvon offers courses in genre, poetry, comedy, drama, radio, biography, pretty much any writing form you’d care to mention. They choose inspiring locations for their centres, for example, Lumb Bank is a former home of Ted Hughes, set in the exquisitely atmospheric Upper Calder Valley. Sylvia Plath is buried in the church yard at Heptonstall, a short walk away, and a destination for many writing pilgrims.

I knew the students would make me work hard, but what surprised me was how attentive, generous, and humorous they were too. They had probing questions (which hopefully I was able to offer some sort of insight into), dedication, and oodles of passion. I tried to tell them that the problems they face are the same for all writers, published and unpublished alike: moments of doubt; moments of isolation; moments where the ending of a book seems far out of reach.

Several students had done more than one Arvon course on their writing journey, and I asked them how they benefited from the experience? Inspiration, they said, and the comfort that they weren’t alone – which is interesting because that’s what I took away with me by meeting them and being their tutor for an evening. I felt that these were my people, that I was with my tribe.

The tutors for the week were Peter Hobbs (‘The Short Day Dying,’ ‘In The Orchard, The Swallows’) and Liz Jensen (‘The Rapture,’ ‘The Uninvited’). As it transpired, I had a cup of tea with Peter on the Wednesday afternoon, and then with Liz on the Thursday morning. Both Peter and Liz have published more books than me, are experienced creative writing tutors, and lovely company. I felt safe sharing with them some of my debut novelist anxieties, and if I were writing up these conversations as fictional dialogue, I would describe how each was building or stoking the fire as we talked. Both gave time and attention to the students above and beyond the call of duty. Liz, who has written 8 books, told me that she attended an Arvon course herself before she was published, and that the encouragement of a tutor she met there gave her confidence to keep going; it’s why she supports Arvon the way she does, because she is a genuine success story from it.

Two karmic learning points then: (1) Unpublished writers can help make their own luck by looking for, and taking, the opportunities that will potentially yield valuable inspiration and support. (2) By remembering where they came from, and who has helped them along the way, writers fortunate enough to be published can return the favour by passing on something significant to the next wave of talent.

On the way to Hebden Bridge railway station, the taxi driver asked me if I would come back again? I don’t know, I said, I’ll have to wait and see if I’m invited. K x

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