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Some progress at last


I finally, finally, finally seem to be making some progress on my novel. After what seems a long time of false starts, long fallow periods, going up blind alleys, I now seem to be on the right track.

Famous last words probably.

The impetus has come really from going to the York Festival of Writing which I went to a couple of weekends ago. I deliberated for a long time about whether to go or not – could I justify the money, it involved lots of complicated childcare arrangements, but in the end I registered and paid. No going back. I entered the Best Opening Chapter competition just before it closed (and made it to the final seven, which was brilliantly encouraging.) Having to pitch your book to agents face to face against the clock was nerve jangling but taught me so much.

The weekend was packed with things – so many things I’m still processing them – but I had several light bulb moments – a workshop on backstory, one on dialogue, and one on psychic distance stand out. What was best was meeting so many like minded people – I had so many conversations with writers grappling with the same things, the same insecurities and challenges of time and juggling other commitments, but all consumed by writing and loving it. I couldn’t wait to get back and get on with it. Having people now actually wanting to see it is giving me that real impetus not to squander my chance.

Since then, I have been editing relentlessly – getting up earlier, going to bed later, snatching moments from here, there and everywhere. I have rewritten huge swathes of dialogue, altered timelines, chopped up backstory and threaded it through instead.

I read masses over the Summer and rearranged my bookshelves (I blame Marie Kondo) and will do a little recap in the next post as to what I enjoyed but I’m finding other people’s novels are unduly influencing what I’m writing. Especially the brilliant Margaret Atwood. And the BBC adaptation of The Go Between to be shown this Sunday has just destroyed a whole section of my plot.

                                                    Mid Kondo

Mid Kondo

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – book review

fishbowl pic

Earlier this year I stayed in a high-rise hotel in a district of Manhattan, quite far off the tourist track. My window looked out onto a vast residential block. At dusk, a thousand lights came on. I wondered about them all in their little boxes stacked in lines.

This is the premise for Fishbowl, set in a 27 storey apartment block called the Seville on Roxy. It’s not specified where it is but it’s an archetypal block. The fishbowl of the title is also a literal fishbowl – Ian, a goldfish belonging to one of the residents, has taken a leap for freedom, plunging from his bowl, and as he falls towards the concrete sidewalk, he catches moments, freezeframed, in the lives of the various inhabitants. The reader needs to take a similar leap of faith and go with the fact that a goldfish is the novel’s main protagonist.

There is a grad student, and the owner of Ian, who is going to have to decide between his girlfriend and mistress, an agoraphobic phone sex worker, a pregnant woman on enforced bed rest who just wants the baby out so she can have an ice cream sandwich from her freezer and her construction worker boyfriend Danny, Jimenez the building’s stoical caretaker, Herman the homeschooled boy and Garth who is awaiting an important parcel. Each one of them is at a momentous point in their lives. Gradually we see all the little unexpected connections and interplays between them.

Whilst the narrative construction was very easy to follow, with very short chapters only advancing each characters story in tiny increments, as a device it is risky – if the reader is less invested in one particular story, you find yourself eager to get back to the one you are more interested in. And all the time Ian is falling (I liked the little picture of him on the margin of the text descending down the page like one of those flip books I had as a child).

Bradley’s Somer’s writing style is arch and mannered but it is suited to the tale ; he plays around with the authorial voice, telling you what’s going to happen and that Ian will hit the ground in Chapter 54. There are ruminations on time and space, philosophy and physics, risk and adventure. Overall, I was not really emotionally invested in any of the characters, but I’m not sure that matters. The whole literary device of the goldfish is distancing in itself but enables Somer to make some humorous but pertinent observations about life and death and everything in between.

Fishbowl is out now from Ebury Press. Thanks to them for my review copy. Follow Ian the goldfish on Twitter @goldfish_Ian

A Q&A with Laura Barnett – Author of The Versions of Us

june 2015 082

Laura Barnett is a journalist and theatre critic. Perhaps you read her touching piece in last weekend’s The Guardian about people finding love in their later years. You may not have noticed the byline. But now her debut novel –The Versions of Us – is garnering rave reviews. The book is one of those novels with universal appeal because it taps into your feelings about your life no matter at what stage you are. Everyone at some point wonders what might have been, if they had done things differently, taken another path. said yes instead of no or vice versa. It might not necessarily relate to a love affair, it might have been a quirk of fate that made you miss something or put you somewhere at a certain point in time.

In this novel, it is a random thing that sets everything off: Eva, a student in Cambridge, is cycling on her way to a tutorial, when a rusty nail in the road causes her to swerve. The story splits off into three different versions – does she meet Jim who stops to help or not, does she leave her actor boyfriend David for Jim or not? We travel from 1950s Cambridge up to almost the present day, taking in New York, Greece, Suffolk, Cornwall, and London along the way. None of the three stories pan out in the way you would have expected or maybe they do, because your view of how things work out for them is coloured by your own views of love, happiness, marriage, compromise, ambition, adultery to name a few.

I am delighted that Laura answered some of my questions

I understand that you wrote the book chronologically – plaiting the three parts together rather than attempting to ‘lift’ each timeline out. I think this very much shows as no narrative strand is dominant and I was equally invested in all three versions. Did you ever try it another way or did you always know this was the way to go?

You’re absolutely right – I did write the book chronologically, plaiting the three parts together as I went. This approach just seemed natural to me from the start. It never even occurred to me to, say, write the whole of version one before tackling versions two and three. I was aware from the beginning of the need to pace the novel carefully – of, to borrow a filmic term, the need to jump-cut from one version to the next, while at the same time holding the whole narrative in view. Throughout, I was trying to conceive of the novel as an organic whole, rather as the sum of three disparate parts.

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I love the fact it is a completely random quirk of fate that – a rusty nail in the road that punctures a bicycle tyre forcing Eva to swerve to avoid the dog and meet Jim. Do you have your own ‘what if’ moment that you can share?

I’m so glad you related to that. It was important to me from the start that we got the sense of how the course of our lives can turn on a dime; of how easily, even randomly, we find ourselves choosing one path over another. As for my own “what if” moment – well, my mum often jokes about the fact that, aged 21, she very nearly married a biochemist and moved to New Mexico, so I could very easily never have been born…

I really enjoyed reading some of your short stories (read them here) particularly ‘You’. What were the specific challenges you found when moving away from the short story format to the novel?

Thank you – I’m so happy to hear that. I do love writing short stories – it’s a chance to conjure a whole world in miniature – but I was actually drawn to the novel first. As a child, I’d get my mum to sew pieces of paper into little books, and I’d write the title of my next magnum opus on the cover – usually, as I recall, a highly derivative sequel to Narnia or the Famous Five. I rarely got past the first few chapters, but I seem to have always had the novel in mind as a format. Later, as an adult, I began writing novels as well as short stories, so my interest in both really evolved in tandem.

My favourite kind of fiction is also the kind that, as you say, “takes the world we know, and our own familiar, everyday lives and renders them rich and strange.’ citing Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley as great examples. Is there one novel that you constantly go back to or wish you’d written?

Ah, there are many! I do adore both Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley, among others, but a book that had a particular impact on me at a young age, and which is often in my thoughts, is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I studied it for GCSE English. It was my first encounter with Atwood’s luminous prose, and it opened my mind to the wonderful imaginative possibilities contained within lives that, on the surface, could seem humdrum, even dull. I remember a particularly wonderful image about memory being not linear, but a deep and multi-layered thing, like a pool of water into which we can dive to retrieve the elements of our past. That has stayed with me ever since.

Thanks very much to Laura. The Versions of Us is out now, published by Orion. The clever marketing campaign is asking readers to share their ‘what if’ moment.. Tweet or Instagram your moment using the hashtag #what if.

Rosemary for remembrance

My house is full of the smell of stocks – great towering bundles of cream, lilac and fuchsia. They have an almost cloying sweetness: it hits you as soon as you walk in.

I’m climbing the stairs to J’s room overlooking Parker’s Piece. Her room is awash with stocks in mason jars on her bureau, on the wooden floor, on her shelves. J wears granddad shirts with braces, chinos and brogues. That is her signature look. I don’t have a signature look. We take black and white photos of each other. She waves her hands around as she talks about Descartes and Rimbaud and I feel a whole new world opening up.

I pass a man in the street – he’s wearing Jazz. I’m back in Finsbury Park, in a dingy flat with ripped lino, in love with a man who doesn’t love me. The debt collectors rap on the door looking for the people who moved out in a hurry. My landlord lets himself in with no warning and tells me tales, perhaps lies, of being a stunt double for Bond films. The man I love leaves me a note on the kitchen table. I slide down the door, crying, until I’m sitting in a heap.

They’re tarmacking the road a few streets along from my house. Workmen are stirring cauldrons of black molasses with wooden poles. I’m seven, the tarmac is melting in the heat. My baby sister, in a lemon knitted bonnet, is in a Silvercross pram on the front lawn. She throws my Dad’s treasured Bugatti in a perfect arc. It lands on the road and is promptly squashed by a real car. My best friend and I pick up some of the tarmac that has split into bits and put it in a white paper bag. We tell A J from the cul de sac that it is our mother’s home made gingerbread. She takes a bite and cracks her teeth. I laugh before I feel ashamed.

A very modern mystery: Q&A with the author of What She Left

what she left coverWhat She Left by T R Richmond is, in many ways, a classic mystery.A young woman, 25 year old trainee journalist Alice Salmon, is found dead in a river. Did she slip in and drown after a drunken night out with friends? Did she kill herself? Or was she murdered? However, the way the story is told feels new and brilliantly executed. An elderly academic becomes obsessed with the case and compiles his own evidence – but what are his reasons for doing so? Using a mixture of blog posts, police transcripts, tweets, forum message board and diary entries, the reader has to piece together the clues. If you’ve ever spent any time reading the comments below the line after someone has disappeared or been murdered (never advisable) Richmond has managed to capture the tone perfectly, complete with those well meant but oh so casual RIP’s. With no linear structure, I did sometimes find it hard to see how everything was going to add up but it does mimic the way these cases unfold in real life: things are messy, everyone interprets things differently.

It was in fact a tweet that sparked the idea for the book. Someone was talking about what song they would like played at their funeral – an oddly intimate thing to share. Richmond began to wonder what else you could piece together about someone purely from their online life. We all, whether we like it or not, leave our own ‘digital footprints’. With this in mind, I set about to see what I could find out about him. Within a few minutes I discovered that he has been a journalist for over twenty years, and had read some of his award winning features online. I found out that he has had two other novels published under a different name. Delving a bit deeper, I found out the name of his wife, saw pictures of his cats, that he once set fire to a bin, and that he owns a set of Blue Denby pottery.

Being much in demand, I was pleased when he agreed to answer some questions.

I read that you got up every day at 5am to write for two hours before going to your day job as a journalist. I imagine things have changed dramatically since publication a few short weeks ago or perhaps not. What’s been the best thing so far about having a book on your hands that everyone is talking about?

Everything’s changed but actually nothing’s changed. I still have my day-job. I still get up early. I still like writing at that time of day (I’m working on a new novel). The whole experience has been amazing and there have been so many unforgettable moments but ultimately for me the buzz is the writing itself and that’s like an itch you can’t scratch. One of the best aspects of having a book published is suddenly being part of a team, For years it felt like I was working in a vacuum without any real guidance or support. Now I’ve got an agent and an editor who are a constant source of ideas, encouragement and, when it’s needed (as it often is!), constructive criticism. Knowing that you’ve got talented people looking out for you and fighting your corner is the best feeling in the world.

The onslaught of 24 hour rolling news sometimes feels that the news will eat itself. With the explosion of social media, it seems everyone is a journalist but with none of the legal training. Suspects are being named on social media despite warnings from the police and the press are often playing catch up. You’ve written about this here and as a journalist myself it worries me too. How do you think it will continue?

I’ve heard it said that the internet and social media will sound the death knell for journalists, because they no longer have a monopoly on providing information. Actually, the opposite is true. There’s so much information out there that the need for accurate, timely news that can be trusted is greater now than ever. There’s still a lot of brilliant journalism happening – the problem is that there is so much space to fill, whether it’s on the internet or on 24-hour rolling broadcast news, that a lot of what is served up is, frankly, tosh. It’s recycled, speculation, gossip and padding.

In terms of the public, I think we’re in an interim phase where people are going to realise they have a responsibility in terms of the information they share. If you have, for example, a well-read blog, you might not consider yourself to be a journalist, but you are in a position of responsibility and are governed by the same laws regarding defamation and contempt of court as those working in the media.

What do you think of the apps that will tweet for you after your death or the services that will keep your Facebook page going for your loved ones? Have you thought about what will happen to your online legacy?

Writing What She Left has made me think more carefully about my online presence. On a practical level, it’s made me aware of the dangers of, for example, tweeting holiday photos because it’s an invitation to burglars to target your home. In terns of how I’m perceived after you die, I’m not desperately concerned about that. I’ll de dead, after all.

The marketing campaign for What She Left is very clever as it really serves to enhance the book. There is a Facebook page for Alice (which I actually found desperately sad) and a tumblr page ‘written’ by the Professor. Can you tell us more about how these evolved?

We wanted the story to be as realistic as possible and it just felt inconceivable that Alice, as a contemporary 25 year old, wouldn’t have a Facebook page. Similarly, as Professor Cooke took shape, it became clear that he would inevitably want to continue gathering information about Alice even after the point at which the novel finishes. Hopefully the Facebook and tumblr pages are true to the spirit of the book – it’s partly about the online environment so it feels natural that it also has a digital incarnation. Hopefully they give the book a life beyond the page and allows readers to engage with the characters in additional ways.

The cover is very strong – it reminds me of Twin Peaks. Who designed it and did it go through many stages?

I’m delighted with the cover – the image and the title work together to make it really impactful. Sadly, I can’t take any credit for it as I have no artistic sense whatsoever so resisted putting in my two penneth. I’m a great believer in letting people get on with doing what they do best and Penguin’s designers know far more about book covers than I ever will.

I love the fact the audio version (available here) was narrated by Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (amongst others) – a real Game of Thrones reunion. Did you go to the recording sessions and what was it like hearing your words come to life?

I went to one with Charles Dance. It’s a strange experience to hear someone else speak the words you’ve written but I loved it. It brought a freshness to the story and made me feel as if I was hearing it for the first time. I tried to play it cool but as a huge Game of Thrones fan, I was massively excited to meet him and probably totally star struck.

Many thanks to T R Richmond. What She Left is out now, published by Penguin.

Class of 83

misc i phone may 023It was my school reunion this past weekend. The Class of 83. I wanted to go and would have gone if I hadn’t been needed elsewhere. Now the photos and videos are rolling in. Some people joined in by Skype. Even though I knew what a lot of people are doing (and made and kept very close friends with some of them) it was different to see people moving and talking. They looked like themselves but not. It was weird to see the same mannerisms, the way someone folded their arms against their body, the same way of laughing. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.

As if this wasn’t enough to bring back those memories, I went to see The Falling. Directed by Carol Morley and with a soundtrack by Tracy Thorn, it’s the eerie, visually stunning and beguiling story of an outbreak of mass fainting and hysteria at an all girl’s boarding school set in the late 1960s. It conjured up so many memories: the elderly spinster teachers berating us for hoiking up our skirts, those very intense friendships, the rumours spreading like wildfire. I was back in our chemistry lab with its bunsen burners and Belfast sinks – the smell of sulphur mixed with charred wood (from those long handled pincer like pegs); the biology lab with its rows of frogs and hedgehogs suspended upside down in pickling jars.

My school was once an elegant Georgian manor house, built from honey coloured stone, with symmetrically placed sash windows, terraces, spiral staircases, and a warren of attic rooms – once the servants quarters. The bursar worked in the cellar, and reported us for holding seances down there. I see us in our stupid bottle green tulip-shaped bonnets which obscured your line of vision when you turned your head to the left, to the right. They had to ban them when a girl was killed crossing the road. I still don’t know if that’s apocryphal.

And finally, because these things always come in threes I find, I stumbled across this project called Yearbook. (listen here on Soundcloud). It’s an ongoing project by Luke Wiget interviewing writers and the first is an interview with an author called Darcey Steinke (who I’ve only just discovered but Sister Golden Hair is how I’d like to be able to write). It throws up all sorts of interesting questions about how writers mine their own lives for material, how people saw you versus how you saw yourself. We didn’t have Yearbooks – they’re not really done in the UK. I still have my autograph book though – the candy coloured pages are warped like a Marcel Wave. On the last day of school, I fell (or was I pushed?) into the pond onto a hidden bed of jagged glass from discarded school milk bottles and cut my leg through to the bone. The scar on my shin, listed on my passport, serves as a constant reminder.

April and algorithms




April came and went in a flurry. It seemed like I had only just put away my wooden rabbit decorations before they were out again. Easter was sponsored by Reese’s Peanut Butter and Peeps carefully brought back from New York in Walgreens carriers. We spent the first week saying ,’This time last week we were….’ and everywhere there were little reminders; receipts stamped ‘251 e 13th st nyc,’ in trouser pockets, ticket stubs from the Staten Island ferry lurking at the bottom of bags. I wondered who was looking out of our hotel window, watching the lights come on over the skyline.

Back into the routine, I logged on to an inbox teeming with press releases about Father’s Day. ‘Treat him to a new Lawnmower – you know he deserves it!’ Next came Facebook’s cheery messages Hey – Alison, exactly this time two years ago your father was critically ill in hospital? Remember?’ Yes, I remember, thanks. Every last thing. I know it’s only algorithms that brought that post up to the surface, but yeah, good old Facebook.


I had lots of things on the April calendar which, one by one, were scuppered. A vomiting child, a derailed train (empty so thankfully no one hurt but caused days of havoc). I should have just carried on enjoying Frank Underwood’s machinations, but instead I tortured myself by watching the events I should have been at unfold online. That’s the double bind of social media – whilst it is still amazing to me you can experience things vicariously, I still ended up feeling like Tiny Tim pressing his nose up against the window of the toyshop.

What I read in April

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (Penguin)

I really loved this beautifully crafted tale. It’s the story of 8 year old Peggy who is taken deep, deep into the forests by her father to an abandoned wooden cabin. She thinks they are just going on a long hike but they end up staying for nine years. Set in the long hot summer of 1976 (which has inspired so many authors) he tells her that the world has been destroyed and that they are the only two left. It swaps between then and 1985 so we know from the outset she survives but the way Fuller reveals the truth of what really happened is expertly handled. The descriptions of nature and how they actually live day to day are riveting.  It’s about the lies that adults tell and the damage they can inflict; the way that children can’t read a situation and how it becomes clear to them only in adulthood. It had extra resonance because I was about that age in 1976 and so all the references to The Railway Children etc really took me back. This is me during that summer (wearing an Aaran jumper in the heat for some peculiar reason).


All This has Nothing to Do With Me by Monica Sabolo (Picador)

This is a very odd little book – very slight and barely even a novella, with many of the pages taken up entirely with photographs. Translated from the original French, it chronicles one woman’s obsession with a male colleague who takes a job on the magazine where she works. She steals a succession of his cigarette lighters as little souvenirs and catalogues them. She draws a map of where he sits in the office complete with photocopier. If you’ve ever stalked anyone on Facebook, some of the letters she writes to the CEO of the Parisian office, seeking clarification about whether people can tell how many times their profile has been viewed, were very funny. Overall, it was a bit style over substance and it will be compared to Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property…’ which told the story of a relationship breakdown presented as an auction catalogue. Maybe I’m not the target market but ‘All This’ didn’t quite work for me.

How To Make a Friend by Fleur Smithwick (Transworld)

This is the story of Alice, a photographer, who is driving herself and two good friends, Rory and Daniel, back from her Dad’s wedding to his second wife, when they are involved in a head on car crash. She wakes from a coma, to discover that Rory died. Sitting on the end of her bed, is her invisible friend, Sam, who was her companion through her lonely childhood – all grown up. Why is he back now? Is he more than a figment of her imagination? Is it the result of the head injury or is she going mad? Knowing that if she is ‘cured’ he will no longer be needed, Sam begins to be threatening towards those she loves, especially to Jonathan, the long held object of her affections. I found the premise really fascinating and the family relationships (a cold distant mother, the dynamics between blended families ) very well drawn. Fleur also has a great author blog here.

I also read the ubiquitous The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins (the fastest selling adult novel in history!), Disclaimer by Renee Knight (yes, my jaw was on the floor) Nora Webster by Colm Toibin which left me slightly cold,  the excellent The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett which is going to be huge (more on that closer to publication) and the also brilliantly original suspense novel  What She Left by T R Richmond (a Q & A with the author is in the pipeline).

How was your April and what did you read?



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