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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Book Group Talk - Bryony Doran's "The China Bird"

We were fortunate enough to have author Bryony Doran come and talk to our book group about her novel The China Bird. The book was a winner of the Hookline Novel Competition, a competition judged by reading groups. Our reading group took part in the competition, and I have to say the entries were very mixed, some excellent, some awful. It made you realise just what editors have to wade through in order to get a decent read.

Bryony Doran's book is in the excellent category. It is a tender study of the relationship between an artist and her model. It is even more interesting because the model is Edward, an inhibited older man with disability, who up until meeting the artist had a mundane and regimented life. When he meets Angela the art student in the intimacy of her studio, questions arise for both of them as their relationship becomes more sensual, and their lives begin to shift in unexpected ways. The four main characters are very well drawn, and this is the sort of book where the subtle nature of the developing relationships is what pulls you through the narrative. One book group commentator said it reminded her of Anita Shreve.

Bryony told us that her book was inspired partly by seeing Alison Lappa on the TV, and partly by observing a mother and son interacting in a local tea shop. Something about their theatricality interested her, and what began as a short story grew into a novel.

As an example of how to talk to a book group, Bryony's calm and focussed manner engaged us all from the start. She had chosen three short very different passages to read, which reacquainted us with the characters and enabled us to appreciate being read to. She then told us about her process of writing the book in an amazingly frank way - telling us about the different drafts, how it had lost 35,000 words in the crafting process, the ups and downs.

She described some of the early constructive and not so constructive criticism, the rejections from agents and publishers, and her determination to plug away at it until it became a better book. And I have to say that the failures on the way are just as interesting to the audience as the finished product.

There was plenty of time for questions from the floor, where we could ask more about the detail of the story, and find out about Bryony's research. As a writer, it was a privilege to hear about about another's process, and Bryony was very generous in not holding back. Thanks Bryony!
The China Bird is available from Amazon.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Erotica in the 18th Century

Recently the custodian of a National Trust house near where I live found a hidden stash of eighteenth century erotica in the library.
These were chapbooks - printed on cheap flimsy paper and designed to be sold for pence - they were the Playboys of the day. Because they wre thin and flimsy they were able to be concealed behind other  books on the shelves.

 'The Merchant he softly crept into the room. And on the bedside he sat himself down. Her knees through the counterpane he did embrace. Did Bess in the pillow did hide her sweet face.

'He stript of his clothes and leaped into bed saying now lovely creature for thy maidenhead. She strug led and strove and seemed to be shy. He said divine beauty I pray now comply.
Read more about the find.

Of course what strikes us most is that the extracts seem to be saucy rather than explicit - but then this was an age where to bare an ankle might be considered too revealing. In a Daily Mail interview Emma said 'The Chapbooks have really caught the imagination. The Brownes were obviously far from straight-laced.'

The Library at Townend
Townend is a house that has been in the same family, the Brownes, since it was built in 1646 right through until the twentieth century, and so houses one of the most important libraries anywhere in Britain. Important, because it shows what an ordinary yeoman farming family might read for pleasure and leisure through the ages. The collection, which is looked after by custodian Emma Wright, is shelved in the original library, but visitors are not allowed to handle the books. Instead there are facsimiles provided for visitors to read and enjoy.

I have a particular interest in Townend as I am going to launch The Lady's Slipper there. It was one of the buildings I used for  research and just seemed a very appropriate place. I have not yet decided whether to read my own erotic parts of the novel out loud to carry on the tradition! But I suspect not, launching a novel is enough excitement already!

Townend, Troutbeck

Thursday, 15 April 2010

What makes me buy a book?

My book will be out in a month or so, and I want people to buy it. So, I ask myself, what makes people buy a book? Or to be precise, what makes me buy a book?

Well today I was in a charity shop browsing and came out with no books under my arm. This is unusual, because there were definitely books in there I would read. I passed on Melvyn Bragg's The Soldier's Return and Rose Tremain's The Colour, neither of which I have read, and they are writers whose other books I have enjoyed and admired. Well why did I not snap them up? Answer - the covers were dreary. They just did not appeal to me. And when I analyse it, it is not just the image I am attracted to - a large part of the appeal to me lies in the typography on the cover, never mind the image.I am drawn to interesting typography.

So what have I bought recently and why? Well, having thought long and hard about it, there is usually a very personal connection. Apart from the fact that Instruments of Darkness (Imogen Robertson) has a gloriously twining typeface in silver foil, she also happens to have the same agent as I do, so I couldn't just walk past it in Waterstone's. I opened page one, and bingo - hooked, straight to the till.

I read Macmillan New Writers because I have met them or talked via the blog. The latest was The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (Ann Weisgarber) which I am now enthusing about to my reading friends.  My book group reads books which are usually recommended by someone in the group - currently the really racy The Bride Stripped Bare (Nicky Gemmel) which my friend said she had to hide from her husband!

I picked up a book called The Seamstress - a thick blockbuster, because it was about the relationship between two sisters, and my Work in Progress has a similar theme and I was half-terrified of reading it in case it was better than mine and left me feeling inadequate, but I couldn't leave it on the shelf. I bought The Secret Scripture (despite its cover) because I find the borderline between sanity and insanity fascinating. Remarkable Creatures (Tracey Chevalier) because I have a thing about rocks and fossils.

None of this seemed very helpful in giving me a clue how to promote my book.

Online promotion? Well, I have visited a number of historical fiction sites looking for the next big read, but I have to confess, I am not a Kings and Queens sort of reader, and I baulk at wading through the Boleyns and the Eleanors of Aquitaine to find my sort of book. The only books I buy online are research and non-fiction. The rest I buy in actual bookshops where I can browse the shelves looking for a nice typeface! (Check out Remarkable Creatures - classy type!) What I was clear about was that I don't buy books because I have seen them online. I seem to need to see the actual book - a picture of a front cover alone doesn't do it for me - and I have seen  covers of some books online frequently and I am still not drawn to them at all. And although I enjoy the blogging community in general, and reading guest author interviews on book blogs, I haven't yet bought a book because of one. I'll let you know when I do!

I think I am a typical idiosyncratic reader. I have my likes and dislikes, I have pet subjects - I'm currently obsessed by swords and swordsmanship and have a weakness for books about artists -particularly William Blake, and mad scientists. The cover is very important, as if I need to say it.

In short, there is no real consistency to what I buy, so why other people buy the books they do is still a bit of a mystery. In a sense the most important thing for me is the personal connection. I do buy books if someone I know recommends it, or it connects to me in a very personal way. I buy books at conferences from people I've met, and from the nice man in the bookshop (where I'm trying to promote my book) when he tells me, "this is good - its by another local writer."  So what, if it's called The Coffin Trail and looks as though it has been dipped in blood?
And guess what, he was right, it is a good read.

What does this mean? The personal touch is everything. It's the only thing that seems to make much difference to my frankly erratic buying habits. I guess it means I will have to get on the road for that book tour after all.

PS Want to know which historical novels were the best sellers for 2009? All the info is on Reading the Past.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Diary Writing

This is a picture on the left of Vernon Marion Babbit's diary of 1871.

For many years in my teens I kept a diary. I first started with a little red book with a page for a week in which I listed amongst other things, the boys I had the hots for in class, my favourite music, and my secret envy of my more beautiful best friend. What I didn't write about was my parents, just in case - oh horror of horrors, they should come across it hidden away in the drawer under my school vests. With delusions of writing a document of Anne Frank-type significance, after a year I bought a bigger book with a page for every day and kept this going for about ten years. Fortunately for posterity I burnt them in a purge a few years later, tired of hiding them and their embarrassing contents from my live-in partner. But had you read my earlier diaries you might have been forgiven for thinking I was an orphan.

Which brings me to my point about diaries - these days I am often reading diaries as historical research. For The Lady's Slipper I read both Pepys' and George Fox's. (The founder of Quakerism.) What struck me about both of them was that there was very little of the uncertainty that was such a feature of my own. Perhaps this is because they were more mature, or because they were male, or because the society in which they lived simply did not allow wallowing in self-pity. There was very little in either diary of "I wish I hadn't..." Both seemed more concerned with detailing the facts of their daily itinerary than their internal reactions to their lives.

Fox, certainly, was aware that his diary was likely to become a public document as he re-wrote substantial chunks of it within his own lifetime, dictating new versions of events to his scribe later in his life. Which leads me to the conclusion that even the history we take for granted cannot be completely relied upon to be the truth. Even if the period is documented by a diarist of the calibre of Pepys, the so-called factual evidence we are reliant upon is still a work of fiction in that it is written from a particular slant. Nevertheless, these diaries are still such a fantastic insight into the language and culture of the time, available to everyone now, courtesy of the internet.

With the advent of blogs and so much personal writing happening online, I wonder if the diary is an endangered species? If so, that would be a shame, for the diary is a very particular lens through which to view the world - that of a single vision, necessarily written by a self-obsessed writer, who has made him/herself the subject of his own novel. That is why I find diaries, and the characters who write them, so fascinating.