From mountains to seas: writing about different cultures

by Sonja Price

My debut novel The Giants Look Down will be published in April. It is about a Kashmiri girl’s struggle to become a doctor, much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal society she lives in. The story takes place in both Kashmir and Scotland.

From Kashmir…

On the drive to work one day, I was listening to a report on the radio about the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, which killed 86,000 people. Besides the tragic details, it contained an evocative description of the Himalayas and the string of lakes stretching through the Vale of Kashmir. I later discovered that, with its mild climate and fertile landscape, the vale is the green heart of the region and could be a paradise on Earth if not for the natural disasters and political tensions that have blighted its development.

                                                      …to Scotland

I started to imagine the life of a girl who wanted to become a doctor and help her homeland. As the native population is mainly Muslim even though Kashmir belongs to India, which has fought three wars over it, I decided my protagonist would be Hindu. What problems would Jaya and her family encounter, and what would happen if a tragic event were to shatter her dream of a career in medicine and she were transported to the other side of the globe? The idea of the contrasting landscapes of Scotland and Kashmir appealed to me; I have often come across people who love either the mountains or the sea, depending on where they have grown up. What would Jaya make of the sea and the rugged landscape of Scotland? How would the rain and the cold winds that sweep its shores affect her? How would she navigate the differences in culture and religion, especially if she were to fall in love?

I allowed my imagination free rein long before I had a clear plot and my research was completed. I may not have pored over the histories of Kashmir before sitting down to write but I did keep two books of breath-taking photographs open next to my keyboard: for example, at the deep turquoise image of Sheshmag Lake, which is high up in the mountains, or the gondola-like shikaras gathering at dawn on Dal Lake when the vendors fix their prices for market day. John Isaac’s The Vale of Kashmir and Raghubir Singh’s Kashmir, Garden of the Himalayas were wonderful sources of inspiration.

I interviewed Indians about Kashmir and New Delhi, where Jaya spends some time with relatives, and talked to a German doctor who had practised in an Indian hospital. He recalled the rudimentary state of medical apparatus as well as the smell of iodine and coconut oil, and the presence of relatives, who slept in or outside the wards. It was relatively easy to switch to the more familiar Scotland, and a Scottish friend advised me on everything from the name and location of Jaya’s home in Scotland to the characters she meets there. I then placed all this in a 1980s context.

For me, writing about the unfamiliar is an adventure worth embarking on. My imaginary journey to Kashmir seems as real to me as if I had spent years there, and I have grown to love the region and to care about its fate.

The Giants Look Down will be published in April 2016.

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Beryl Kingston on WW1, writing and upcoming book Great War, Little Peace

Beryl Kingston

by Beryl Kingston

Rosie Goodwin, like most working class children in 1909, is sent out to work as a nursemaid as soon as she is twelve years old, and from then on she sees her family only once a year, on Mothering Sunday. She must grow up fast. Intelligent and courageous, she vows to change her life as soon as she can. Life will interrupt, however, and soon she will have to face the horrors of World War One, followed by the crushing poverty of the twenties and thirties – there are hard times ahead of her.

Great War, Little Peace is about World War One and the terrible years of depression that followed. The original spark for it came from a distant but much loved relation of mine whom I called Dardy when I was too young to pronounce her name properly and who, like my heroine, was sent away to work in a great house on her 12th birthday and from then on, only saw her family on Mothering Sunday and Christmas. She accepted it phlegmatically as just something that happened but I thought it was absolutely appalling to do such a thing to such a young child and made a note of it in my diary.

Dardy

Useful things, diaries. I kept a whole series of them from 1935 to 1950, so a lot of the details about the thirties in Great War, Little Peace, were recorded and therefore accurate. I revisited a lot of the places I knew as a child, like the Borough Market, Petticoat Lane, Cheney Walk, the Tate Gallery and the streets in Worthing where the fascists of the BUF strutted and roared,  just to be sure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks and was delighted to find that they were all reassuringly familiar.

I also had two other relations who unwittingly gave me information which I recorded in my diaries and used in this book. Dardy’s husband had served in the trenches in World War One for four years and told me a lot about that. My aunt was a Suffragette and she was a wonderful source of information, too; a lovely, determined, intelligent lady who chained herself to the railings in Parliament Square and was proud to have been part of the movement.

The only ingredient in this story that was entirely new to me was the very tiny hamlet of Binderton, just north of Chichester, where I wanted my heroine to be born and bred. In her time it was simply a hamlet, consisting of a farm, half a dozen farm labourers’ cottages and a rather grand manor house. When my granddaughter/amanuensis and I drove off to discover it, it was so small, we’d driven through it and out the other side before we were aware of it! But it was exactly what I wanted as a launch pad for my Rosie and she grew in my mind from that moment on.

Writers are such magpies. We gather gossip wherever we go, picking up unconsidered trifles like Autolycus, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, always a jolly sight too quizzy for our own good. But this is the first time I’ve used information from my family, usually I’m listening in to strangers.

While I was writing this book, I was very aware that national and international history intermeshes with family history. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne said, “it tolls for thee.” If we live in the UK, we are children of our time and our class, whether we are aware of it or not.

Great War, Little Peace will be published in February 2016.

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Back to the beat: Constable Nick returns

Nicholas Rheaby Peter Walker

When ITV’s Heartbeat ended in 2009, I decided to bring a close to my series of Constable books upon which the TV drama was based. They chronicled the work of a village bobby in the North York Moors during the 1960s and the TV series became hugely popular in the UK and overseas – with repeats still being screened.

The first book was Constable on the Hill (1979); the last was, appropriately, Constable Over the Hill (2011) with 35 others in between. In transferring these to the small screen, I became the Heartbeat script consultant, attending planning meetings and production both on location and in the studio. What impressed me was the dedication of the cast and production teams and their attention to detail, which produced a response from a serving policeman who told me he had no idea that ITV made documentaries about the police (I had to tell him it was a drama, not a true story) and another policeman commented, “I wish we had a sergeant like Blaketon.”

This indicated the efforts made to produce a realistic police series. One surprising outcome was that applications to join the North Yorkshire Police soared, including some from urban officers who thought a transfer to such a rural spot would be most enjoyable.

After the series concluded, several viewers and readers told me how much they missed the exploits of Constable Nick, Sergeant Blaketon, PC Alf Ventress and a certain rustic rogue called Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. It seems they also enjoyed the countryside and rural atmosphere. After a time, I decided I could relate more tales, setting them several years before Nick became the village bobby at Aidensfield.

The new series of Constable stories begins with Constable on Trial. As it was the ambition of many young constables to work in the Criminal Investigation Department, I decided to transfer Nick into civilian clothes and have him working as an aide to CID. It transpired Nick had been selected as a potential aide after arresting a thief whom he had noticed wearing a raincoat that had been stolen two years earlier (this was a true tale, it was my own coat!).

In those days – the late 1950s/early 1960s, suitable young constables were offered a short attachment to their local CID, being perhaps a period of three or six months. They were known as aides to CID but their attachment was really a test to determine whether or not they were suitable for non-uniform duties. This provided me with the title of the first in this new series – Constable on Trial. The “trial” was Constable Nick’s test period as an aide.

However, working as a police officer in plain clothes differed greatly from patrolling in uniform. Constable Nick was investigating crimes, not only those occurring in Strensford, but others in the entire Strensford Division which included a large rural area with lots of villages, a coastline and some busy market towns.

Among the crimes Nick had to investigate as an aide were break-ins on an estate near the town centre; car crime which was becoming more prevalent as people regularly parked their vehicles overnight on the streets, often with valuables on display; a thief taking cash from collection plates in a church; a murder in far-off Leeds and the many vehicles that were taken without consent. There were secret files, too, most dating to World War II when traitors were operating in Strensford, and a serious complaint from a householder who claimed that one of his garden gnomes had been stolen. It was all in a day’s work for Detective Constable Nick.

9780719818141I hope to write more tales about Constable Nick’s work as an aide to CID as I enjoy producing them, but whether the yarns will attract interest from TV is not something I can answer. I know my agent will be offering the books to a range of markets in the UK and overseas, but like a detective keeping observations on a suspect criminal, all I can do is wait and see what happens….

Buy your copy of Constable on Trial here.

Another outing for Inspector James Antrobus

Norman Russellby Norman Russell

Next April will see the publication by Robert Hale of my second Inspector Antrobus novel, An Oxford Anomaly. Set in late Victorian Oxford, it centres around Jeremy Oakshott, Fellow of Jerusalem Hall, and an authority on the Crusades, who is urged by the renowned archaeologist Mrs Herbert Lestrange to join her expedition to Syria. His wealthy uncle, Ambrose Littlemore, refuses to help him financially, and is murdered soon afterwards. Detective Inspector Antrobus, who has already investigated the savage murder of one of Oakshott’s old friends, believes Oakshott to be the killer, but the scholar’s alibis are completely watertight. Assisted by his doctor friend Sophia Jex-Blake (of whom more later) Antrobus looks further afield, visiting two criminal lunatic asylums, a remote nunnery, and a quiet country village, where at last they uncover the truth about five savage murders, and bring their perpetrator to justice.

I have always had a deep interest in the late Victorian period, its works and its ways, so it was not surprising that for my PhD thesis at London University I chose to examine literary responses to capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. I turned my thesis into a book, The Novelist and Mammon, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.

Over the last fifteen years, Robert Hale have published nine of my Inspector Jackson novels, set in the Warwickshire countryside in the 1890s, and seven thrillers set in the same era, featuring Inspector Arnold Box, who works out of the old Scotland Yard buildings near Whitehall Place. This year saw the first appearance of Detective Inspector James Antrobus, another nineteenth century police officer, this time operating from the headquarters of the Oxford City Police. I spent four very enjoyable years studying at Oxford, and when I conceived the character of Antrobus, it seemed natural that I should place him in that ancient university city, where he can tackle the many sinister criminals thrown up by both Town and Gown. As a further tribute to my alma mater, I decided that all the Antrobus novels should feature the name “Oxford” in their titles.

An Oxford Tragedy (2015) showed James Antrobus, and his petulant but fiercely 9780719816086protective sergeant, Joseph Maxwell, investigating the death of Sir Montague Fowler, Warden of St Michael’s College. He crosses swords with a number of secretive and eccentric dons, uncovers a long-hidden academic fraud, and has deep dealings with the late Sir Montague’s devious family before he brings the truth of this particular Oxford tragedy to light.

However, it is not only the criminal world that Antrobus has to contend with. James Antrobus is a man coping as well as he is able with chronic consumption of the lungs. Throughout the Oxford stories we see him seized with haemorrhages of the lungs and appalling coughing fits, together with periods of hospitalization, where he has to submit to some of the stern and rather terrifying treatments of the day.  Countless thousands of people lived with the many crippling variants of tuberculosis rampant in that era, including a number of prominent police officers, men like Antrobus, who fought valiantly to carry out their duties, often with complete success before an inevitably early death.

Inspector Antrobus is lucky to have a friend and fellow-sleuth in the person of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, who becomes both his ally and, when necessary, his physician. Jex-Blake was, of course, a real person, one of a group of remarkable women who laboured for the right of their sex to become doctors. Given the medical context of these stories, I think the alliance of the fictional Antrobus and the real-life Sophia Jex-Blake works well.

Will we see more of Antrobus and Sophia Jex-Blake? Well, nineteenth century Oxford was a place concealing many dark mysteries, festering professional jealousies, murderous desires, and other sinister proclivities common to the human condition. So if Dr Jex-Blake can keep Antrobus in the land of the living – and I rather think that she can – then there will be plenty of work to keep him busy.

An Oxford Anomaly will be published by Robert Hale in April 2016

Up the winding stair and an affair gone wrong: when love – or lust – becomes dangerous

by Pam Fudge and Millie Vigor

Pam FudgeMillie Vigor 3

In this double author post, Millie and Pam talk to us about their upcoming books, The Winding Stair and Not My Affair. Both novels deal with the themes of obsession and a woman who is being harassed and stalked, either by a man who doesn’t know how to express his love in the right way, or her husband’s mistress who simply won’t let her lover remain with his wife.

NOT MY AFFAIR – Pam Fudge

Unsurprisingly, this is about an affair, an affair that comes to light on Christmas day because of a careless mistake on the part of the adulterer, Fay’s husband Jack. There are two ways forward for the couple at this point. They are that the affair heralds the end of the marriage or Fay and Jack can decide to work together and begin to repair the damage the infidelity has caused to the relationship but, of course, it is rarely that simple, and it certainly isn’t that simple in Not My Affair.

THE WINDING STAIR – Millie Vigor

Trying to get an anonymous suitor to stop phoning her and leaving her red roses, Ginny leaves her hometown for a short break, only to be found again. She returns home and is befriended by local librarian Curtis. When he invites her into his house, she discovers her trust has been misplaced when he traps her inside. Reminded of Mary Howett’s poem, ‘The Spider and the Fly’ in which the spider persuades the fly to walk up his winding stair, Ginny wonders if she’ll walk free or perish like the fly.

Millie Vigor: One of the questions an author is often asked is, ‘What inspired you to write that story?’ The inspiration for The Winding Stair came first from an item of news about a young woman who had gone missing without trace, and secondly from the content of a book I had read. ‘The Spider and the Fly’ by Mary Howett also plays a part. “Will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly” and “the way into my parlour is up a winding stair”. That is just what Ginny had done; she had walked up the steps and into Curtis’s house to borrow a book.

Pam Fudge:  I think we’ve all met or read about someone who is quite scary in their determination to get their own way – no matter who gets hurt – so it was a compilation of remembered snippets from real life and fiction that were my inspiration. Not My Affair came to me, as my ideas often do, from the kind of problems that beset even the best of families. I knew that Jack’s affair was going to come to light right at the start – on the first page as it happens – but I hadn’t planned much more than that when I started to write. I am not a meticulous plotter, but like to see how the story and characters develop and I absolutely loved the way that Not My Affair really took off in ways that I hadn’t imagined.

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MV: ‘What if?’ questions began. What if Ginny, my main character in The Winding Stair had been abducted and imprisoned by Curtis, a young man who had fallen in love with her and wanted her for himself? What if he lacked the social skills required and thought that if he locked her up, but was kind to her, that she would grow to love him? But what if the trauma in that young man’s early life had warped his mind to such an extent that his personality had split and divided into many others? What if he had developed Multiple Personality Disorder?

PF: The ‘what ifs’ that Millie mentions are such a great writer’s tool and it was a very early ‘what if?’ that determined Iona was going to be one mistress who had no intention of simply fading away. I didn’t so much choose Iona for the role she was to play, as have her present herself to me at quite an early point in the story and give an indication of what she might be capable of.

MV: I found the idea of a person morphing into another personality fascinating so to research the condition, I read all I could about it. Consciously or not, we all tend to present different faces to whoever we are with, but that’s where it stops. Not so with Multiple Personality Disorder. The condition is believed to be brought on by serious mental or physical abuse in early childhood. When Ginny defies her captor, Curtis changes dramatically into the violent character of Mikhail and she is forced to adjust her attitude towards him. Then Angel appears who says that she is the protector and that there are others. From then on Ginny never knows who will come through the door of her cell. In an odd sort of way this is a love story, for Curtis is genuinely in love with Ginny, but is mistaken in the way he pursues her and instead of drawing her to him he repulses her.

PF: I feel that reading Not My Affair would make women – and men, too – a lot more alert and aware of the possible dangers that can be the result of thoughtless actions. My research opened my eyes to what constitutes stalking/harassment and hopefully it will open the eyes of my readers, too, because some may be suffering in a similar way to Fay and realise there are laws in place to protect the innocent.9780719817625

MV: I hope my readers will sympathise with both main characters. One was not given the guiding hand of loving parents as a child. The other did not look deeply enough into the character of her friends. The meeting of Ginny and Curtis was a recipe for disaster.

PF: After reading Not My Affair, I would like my readers to feel they have been on a journey that has kept them on the edge of their seat at times – though there are lighter moments, too.

MV: The message overall is to not be too quick to trust ready smiles and sweet words. Honey means bees and bees can sting.

The Winding Stair will be published by Robert Hale on 31st October 2015, and Not My Affair on 30th November 2015.

For more information on the prevention of harassment and stalking, you may find the following links helpful:

http://www.stalkinghelpline.org

http://www.supportline.org.uk/problems/stalking.php

https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/help-victims/ive-been-affected/stalking-and-harassment

Echoes From The Music Room

9781910208250Not surprisingly, the idea for my novel, The Music Room came to me at a concert on a winter’s night eight years ago. Watching the young solo violinist rip majestically through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides symphony, my thoughts roamed away from the stage. I pondered the tremendous pressures on her to convey the hours, days, perhaps years of rehearsal into a thirty minute moment of performance perfection.  Then the applause. The bow.  Finito. That moment, once passed, is gone— and until the advent of recorded sound, some 125 years ago—gone forever. Performance is finite. Rehearsal goes on forever.

Is the musician’s incessant rehearsing akin to the writer’s eking out many drafts? I don’t think so. Writers write and re-write, and though the book itself passes through many hands (agent, editor, copyeditor, production people, publicist,) it emerges often without fanfare or applause. No bow. Sorry. And once published, the writer does not return to rework it. No second chance to right what was wrong, as a musician can with the next performance.

Moreover, for the most part, writers work alone. Music and drama, on the other hand, are collective undertakings. Musicians and composers and actors and dramatists actively require the input of others to bring any given work to fruition. Without the composer’s work, the cellist has nothing to play. Without the band to enrich the song, the songwriter might as well just sing in the shower. For musicians (and for actors and dramatists) each undertaking creates new professional and often personal relationships. In working together artists connect, come to recognize whom to trust.   These relationships, in turn often open up into future endeavours, broadening everyone’s horizons.

In The Music Room Gloria’s endless rehearsing involves no one but herself. In this she is more like a writer than a musician. Gloria imagines (or remembers) some joyous moment of performance, applause, public recognition for her talents, even her genius. However, in her dedication to rehearsal, to grooming, perfecting her repertoire, Gloria has lost some crucial connection to the world.  She has also lost a central element of musical life. Musicians are not meant to be alone. Even if, and as she achieves perfection, Gloria has atrophied, wizened as a human being.

Gloria Denham seems to me a splendid example of the artist as pathetic character, isolated from anything and anyone who might have given her life richness and savor. Her willful ignorance only underscores her pathos. Her gorgeous music room with its brilliant acoustics ought to have exalted the collective efforts of many musicians, and at one time it did. When that moment passed, it became a sort of cell, Gloria its prisoner in solitary confinement. Ironically, Gloria finally trades that room for the chance to perform, to play in front of an audience of sycophants who are waiting for her to die.

Thematically The Music Room asks:  what do the arts extract from people who practice them? What does the artists’ obsession, their single-minded pursuit, oblige from spouses, children, parents, the people who live with or around them? Musicians, composers, painters, actors, writers must, of necessity, carve time from everything else in life to give to their work. There will be costs and losses, just as surely as there will be moments of glory. The costs and losses in this novel are borne by two children, Marcella and Rose-Renee, detritus, in their parents’ nasty divorce, debris in their family’s egotistical pursuit of the arts.

My two sons, both musicians, have taught me a lot about music, about rehearsal and performance. When they were in high school rehearsals were always at our house. As they moved out into the world, I have attended their various gigs and concerts, recitals and recording dates. While the performances are exhilarating, my favourite part of the experience is rehearsal. I like sitting at the back of an unfilled theatre, a sparsely furnished rehearsal room,  an empty nightclub, or in the recording booth at the studio, and listening to the start-and-stop, the mis-steps, the sometimes tedious repetition leading to the “Let’s move on” moment. Then they begin the same process on the next part of the program or the piece.   I enjoy sound-check just before the show. The guy at the soundboard barks at everyone. The musicians oblige him, but hold themselves in check: every bit of psychic energy must be saved up to walk out in front of the audience. Performance.

In the months just before I went to the Mendelssohn Hebrides concert that inspired The Music Room, I had watched my eldest son Bear conduct an orchestra of some eighty musicians, and watched my youngest, Brendan give his all onstage at a rock venue.  After being part of their bright, communal musical life, to return home, to this well-known room to write, seemed suddenly very lonely. It was winter and the days were short and sunless. The Hebrides concert inspired me to create, at least on paper, the noisy lives of children who live with music lilting through their lives. I wrote for a few months, finished a full draft, but then abandoned the book. Over the course of some seven years, I returned to the novel, and then left it again. The form changed, the title changed, but the story always stayed the same.

I intended to dedicate The Music Room to Bear and Brendan McCreary.  But now I have a little grand-daughter, fittingly, for a musical family, named Sonatine. So, of course, The Music Room is for her. I expect one day to attend her rehearsals too.

The Music Room is published July 2015 by Buried River Press, an imprint of Robert Hale Ltd.

 

Anne-Marie Vukelic talks to us about Caged Angel, Charles Dickens and Victorian novels

For those of us fascinated by Victorian history, who has not been educated, enlightened, and entertained in some way by the works of Charles Dickens?

During his lifetime he wrote fifteen major novels, drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the injustices of child labour, and the absurdities of the legal system. By raising public awareness of such matters he contributed to a number of social reforms.

My own interest in Dickens was sparked by a visit to the city of Rochester in 2005, where the author spent his final years. With its cobbled streets and crooked houses it is a city in which time appears to have stood still, and Dickens drew both characters and settings for his novels from this place which was very dear to his heart. My own time in Rochester motivated me to begin examining the author’s life in greater detail, and wondering how much of his work was biographical.

How vividly the story of Oliver Twist came to life when I learned that at the age of twelve, Dickens worked alongside other boys in a ‘Blacking’ factory under the guidance of a man named Bog Fagin. I discovered that in this same time period Dickens’s father was being held in the Marshalsea Debtors prison and the proud, solitary figure of William Dorrit came to my mind.

And what of Dickens’s heart? As a young man, it had been crushed by his first love, Maria Beadnell, who coldly referred to him as ‘Boy’. While standing in the shade of Restoration House – the inspiration for Miss Haversham’s Satis House – I thought of poor Pip cruelly spurned by Estella in Great Expectations. Yes, there is much of the pain and rejection that Dickens felt he had suffered in his youth that spilled from his pen onto the page.

By his own efforts, Dickens rose from humbling circumstances to author of great acclaim, but in studying his life I found myself curiously drawn to the shy, clumsy and somewhat disorganized wife who lived with this talented, impatient and restless man.

Little has been recorded about Catherine Dickens and yet, within the numerous pages that have been written about her famous husband, her voice appealed to me and so began the random jottings which eventually became my first novel, Far Above Rubies. Dickens’s world is traced from the perspective of a Victorian wife – the mother of ten children – who struggled through life quietly at the side of an exacting husband. When Dickens cast her aside in later years, he wrote a statement for the newspapers and, creating his own fiction, inferred that it was because she had some ‘peculiarity of character’. It was she who was to blame and not him.

My second novel, The Butterflies are Free, followed the fate of the Dickens children, the legacy of bearing the Dickens name and how their father’s secret affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan influenced their own relationships. The title is a quote taken from Dickens’s novel, Bleak House, and for me captured his wish to escape the life he found himself constrained by in his middle years.

Caged Angel, my forthcoming novel, was written as a result of my enduring interest in Dickens and the discoveries I made about some of his lesser-known contemporaries.

Caged Angel relates the story of the banking heiress, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was considered a remarkable woman for her time in that she largely ignored what society expected of someone in her position, and chose instead to immerse herself in social issues of the day.

Dickens’s own interest in such matters made their friendship a natural one, and he was an ambassador for many of her projects, one of which was a home for former prostitutes.

Their backgrounds were completely different: Burdett-Coutts, the daughter of a baronet, had been raised on her family’s country estate. Dickens was the son of an improvident naval clerk, imprisoned for debt. Many of Angela’s equals could only have seen her in the context of her position in society, but with Dickens as her champion she was free to explore opportunities not usually open to women of her time.

Angela’s great wealth brought with it many unsolicited marriage proposals and unwanted suitors, the most persistent of these being the barrister Richard Dunn. Exploring newspaper archives and court records, I discovered how his enduring fixation with Angela became a frantic obsession. In a world largely dominated by men, there were no laws at the time to protect a woman from the term we are now familiar with as ‘stalking’.

The streets of nineteenth century London could not have provided a better setting for such a dark story to take place, and it is one by which readers of Victorian fiction are always excited.

I have an ongoing interest in the Victorian era for many reasons but partly because of its contradictions: the extremes of elegance and squalor, the veil of sexual morality twinned with hypocrisy, the contrast between the lives lived by Victorian men and women, and also experienced by those within the different class systems.

My interest in psychology and human emotions means that I am always curious about what drives an individual. What are their motives, their ambitions and inner thoughts? When writing the journal of Richard Dunn, capturing this aspect became even more challenging as Dunn’s thoughts descended into insanity.

When considering the time period in which to set a novel, the author has to consider the social attitudes of the day and how these will influence their characters. This becomes inevitably more interesting when the novel is set in the Victorian era, as so often an individual will find their own wishes going contrary to such attitudes and expectations.

All of the foregoing provides an author with an array of tools which lend themselves to a setting with tremendous atmosphere, a society from which one can draw intriguing plots and interesting characters. I think this is why Victorian fiction is still being written, and enjoyed by readers.

Author Wendy Perriam talks to us about her daughter Pauline on that day that Americans celebrate Mothers’ Day

“WHAT A LUCKY MUM I WAS – SPOILED ROTTEN ON TWO SEPARATE MOTHERS’ DAYS!

From the time my daughter, Pauline, married an American and went to live in Seattle, she never forgot our British Mothers’ Day, whilst also observing the American one. So, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, my first delivery would arrive, followed by a second in mid-May, usually a luxurious bouquet or stupendous hothouse plant – a far cry from the toilet-roll-tube bunnies and wonky home-knitted scarves she had given me in childhood. One of these Mothers’ Day plants is still exuberantly flourishing after twenty-odd years and has even propagated four offspring, filling my flat with ice-white blooms and lush green leaves.

Tragically, Pauline herself failed to flourish and, after a long, courageous battle with cancer of the tongue, died in 2008. Both Mothers’ Days died with her, of course, and part of me died, too, since she was my only child, conceived with great difficulty after two miscarriages. In fact, even during the pregnancy, there was a horrendous scare at twelve weeks, when the obstetrician declared the foetus dead in the womb. I was rushed to hospital, where, extraordinary as it sounds, the foetal heart restarted and Pauline made it through to her birth-day, New Year’s Eve, 1965, the best day of my life. My devoutly Catholic mother, who’d been fervently praying that I’d finally have a child, saw this as her personal miracle. So, much later on, when I dedicated my fourteenth novel, Lying, to my daughter, the dedication read: “For Pauline Maria, Grandma’s miracle”.

However, the only time I’ve ever drawn on her illness or death in my work was in a short story called Worms, based on my younger grandson, Will. I was in Seattle, looking after Pauline’s two small boys, while she underwent another operation and, one day, when I was taking him to school, he kept stopping to pick up dozens of worms we saw stranded on the sidewalk. “Worms mustn’t die,” he told me, desperately, but I knew he was really saying, “Mom mustn’t die.” And no wonder, when the last time he’d seen her, she was linked up to a scary array of tubes and drips, her face scarred with radiation burns.

Worms appeared in my fifth short-story collection, Little Marvel (the Little Marvel of the title being not my grandson, but a variety of garden pea!) I have recently published my eighth collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, where mothers, I’m afraid, don’t always get a good press. Many Mothers’ Day sites insist that love for one’s mother is rock-solid and universal, but, as a writer, I’m more interested in how jealousy, resentment, dislike and even fury can co-exist with love, and I’ve frequently explored the complicated mother/child relationship in my work.

However, the bad mothers in my new collection are balanced by some truly good and loving ones, and also by several brilliant lovers, so I hope it may appeal to American Moms for their Mothers’ Day on 10 May. In contrast to the long-established British Mothering Sunday, the American version was instituted as late as 1914, when a feisty Virginian called Anna Jarvis appealed directly to President Woodrow Wilson to have the day officially sanctioned and written into law. Ironically, she was arrested towards the end of her life for protesting against the very holiday she’d helped create! Her protest was fuelled by the way the day had been hijacked by rampant commercialism; she also deplored the laziness of children who could no longer be bothered to make their own Mothers’ Day cards and gifts.

But arrests and laziness are pretty depressing subjects, so let me end with a poem by David Harkins, which was read at Pauline’s funeral and seemed to strike a chord. Many people asked me for a copy, warming to its message that mourners should dwell on the joy the living person had afforded, rather than on their death. I myself will re-read it on American Mothers’ Day, to celebrate the fact that my daughter lived for forty-two radiant years, rather than a truncated three months in the womb.

You can shed tears for her, by David Harkins

You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
Open your eyes, love and go on.

Find out more about Wendy Perriam’s latest book Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

The Bookseller as Romantic Heroine by Caitlin Raynes

9781910208243What Would Ginger Rogers Do? testifies to a life-long love of bookstores.  I never tire of the smell of fresh print-and-paper spicing the air, and the bright array of appealing dust jackets gleaming.  The titles shelved on those long narrow aisles each seem to whisper Your next favorite book is right here, right now.  Bookshops are physically full of promise and sensory delight, an experience the internet cannot duplicate.

I especially like bookstores with high ceilings, worn wooden floors and a little dust here and there.  The best bookshops are warmly lit, lending a glow to the shelves. No cold, utilitarian fluorescence, thank you. I feel instantly welcomed in bookshops with creaking fans and a bell over the door. These affections are clear from Carter &Co, the bookstore I created for my romantic heroine, Tosca Tonnino.  Tosca’s job at Carter &Co is Events and Publicity, scheduling author events. (These always guarantee sales because writers absolutely cannot walk out of a bookshop empty-handed.  I know this from experience, and I passed that experience on to Tosca.)

In Carter &Co, as in any bookshop, you immediately sense the implied camaraderie between the staff and the customers, confirmed readers, one and all. Or not. Booksellers are also unfailingly kind to those grouchy customers, the non-reader desperate for a gift for Weird Uncle Ned.  As a writer and avid reader, I enjoy conversations with booksellers.  I admire their enthusiasm; their swath of knowledge and taste boggles the mind.   How can they be so well read, and yet work such long hours?  What Would Ginger Rogers Do? is a sort of  love-letter to booksellers in general.

The creative nub of the novel came to me—not surprisingly—from a bookseller.   This woman once placed a book in my hand, and with reverential solemnity said, “Here, take this book.  I promise you will love it. I love it. It’s an incredible novel. I’m so convinced you’ll love it, I’ll buy it back if you don’t.”  Or maybe the shop would buy it back; I don’t remember her exact words. I bought the book. I couldn’t possibly refuse after an intro like that. However, I don’t remember if I liked it. Sad to say, I don’t remember the book at all, not even the title. The incident shines in memory because her gesture made me dream of the day when a bookseller would press a book I had written into readers’ hands, would laud my novel with such conviction and sincerity. (Though I confess that What Would Ginger Rogers Do? is not a solemn novel. Quite the contrary.)

What Would Ginger Rogers Do? is a sassy tale of sex, ambition, and assumptions that all go awry. As Tosca says, “I felt less like Ginger Rogers and more like Tess of the d’Ubervilles: I knew I had been screwed, but I wasn’t sure how it had happened.”

Tosca Tonnino loves the old, romantic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals where Ginger invariably plays  one of those crisp career women, wise-cracking, sure of herself on the dance floor and everywhere else.  Tosca’s own breezy self-assurance, taken for granted in chapter one, is shaken by the arrival of a new co-worker, the brooding Ethan James. Like most romantic heroes as far back as Heathcliff, Ethan James might be best described as tall, dark and surly. Unlike most romantic heroines, Tosca might be best described as a Francophile, flawed, funny and fond of flingettes (this last surely self-explanatory).

Though the old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies are patently false with giddy plots and silly sidekicks, they are redeemed by the timeless music, the beautiful dancing. (As one feminist critic tartly observed: Ginger does everything Fred does, only backwards and in high heels.)   Of course the audience never sees the grueling hours of work that culminate in these famous dance duets, just as the reader never sees the grueling, unromantic  hours of work that go into creating a novel, even a novel as blithe as this one.

What Would Ginger Rogers Do? does not aspire to War and Peace, just as Fred and Ginger films did not aspire to be Ben Hur. Don’t look for chariot races or the Napoleonic wars in these pages.  What Would Ginger Rogers Do? offers readers thwarted romance, an island bookstore, a super-competitive cyclist, a family secret, a literary melee, and pizza. Then too, there’s the irreverent narrator herself, Tosca Tonnino, who will enliven your shuttling, fluorescent-lit Underground commute, brighten a rainy day, or enhance a sunny afternoon.

And should you, Dear Reader, find a bookseller who places my novel in your hand, swearing that you will love this book, please Tweet me immediately. I will Favorite, Retweet and pop open a bottle of champagne, no matter the time difference.

Order your copy of What Would Ginger Rogers do here

Folly over passion: what Jane Austen really wrote about

by Beth Andrews

Jane Austen

Like her immortal heroine, Fanny Price, Jane Austen was a spectator of the foibles of ordinary human existence, rather than a participant. Despite the efforts of modern mythmakers, there seems little evidence that she ever fell deeply in love with anyone. This is reflected in her generally cool, detached tone, which both fascinates and repels readers, who often forget that her novels are satires – arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century.

Contemporary reinterpretations of her work seem inspired by a desire to inject something many readers feel is missing from the original: romance. This completely overturns Jane’s intention of deflating romantic pretensions. She took marriage seriously, but romantic love she considered a comic mixture of self-indulgence and delusion. She advised her niece not to marry “without affection,” for the very sensible reason that affection tends to last, while passion – which is now almost universally accepted as the only legitimate foundation for marriage – rarely does. One early critic commented on her ideal of “intelligent love,” and Jane’s six novels consistently warn that, without the guidance of the head, the heart is bound to go astray. Some may call her modified Christian Platonism outmoded, but after Victorian excess and postmodern posturing, I find it refreshing, exhilarating, and eminently sane.

When rewriting Love and Freindship, I chose to celebrate and expand upon Jane’s joyful anti-romanticism, even making fun of the iconic BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. Having written both regency romance and cozy mysteries, I think Jane would find the latter healthier and more respectable. After all, there are many “crimes of passion,” but whoever heard of a murder, for instance, being committed in a “frenzy of reason”?

Women discussing potential matches at a ball in Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995)

Curiously, I think that the lack of sex in her books is one of Jane’s greatest strengths, and one reason for her continuing appeal. Whether a result of ignorance or deliberate choice, the fact that she eschews any explicit physical details – even so much as a kiss – is both unusual and intriguing. By contrast, writers like D. H. Lawrence now seem dated and somewhat facetious, along with their pseudo-Freudian philosophy; and Lady Chatterley’s exploits are about as exciting as a Sunday school picnic, compared with the graphic sexual content of the average Harlequin romance novel. This kind of writing is often more concerned with envelope-pushing than with getting to the real meat of plot and character development. Jane Austen’s work, on the other hand, is like a “lean, mean, narrative machine,” in which extraneous fatty tissue (sexual details, minute physical descriptions) are cut to the bone. The resulting creation is so polished in its presentation that it is easy to miss the wisdom beneath the wit.

Whatever one’s views, Jane Austen provides enough “follies and nonsense” to amuse readers, infuriate critics, and inspire writers for generations to come. The struggle between heart and head will remain relevant as long as humans possess both, and the choices made by Jane’s characters are of universal interest. The ironic zest with which she handles her subject matter will always appeal to writers who prefer to “jest at scars” rather than to weep over wounds.