Archive for the ‘about me’ Category
Well, we’re in the new house now. It’s taken some time, and we’re still not all settled (I’ve spent all evening painting the kitchen, for example,a beautiful warm subtle green) but it’s feeling more and more like home. I write, now, in the loft—which I refer to as my Writer’s Garret. I’ve got a heater, a window, and a view of a gargoyle’s bum.
A gargoyle (back view)
It’s been pretty cold, so Rock God has nailed up some silvery insulation to keep the heating in around me, and it works, though it makes me feel as if I’m shielding my brain from the alien transmissions.
The Writing Garret
A side effect of moving house is that my brain has been entirely taken up with packing and then unpacking boxes, redecorating, deciding where the books will go, and worrying. So I haven’t had many little grey cells to spare to think about writing. However, last week I did some thinking and some planning and as a result the WIP is going much more smoothly. Of course, now it’s the Easter holiday and I have no time to write, but at least I’m not completely overwhelmed by crows of doubt. (Though I occasionally see a magpie or two through my garret window.)
The hardback of DEAR THING comes out in two weeks, and though no one buys hardbacks anymore and therefore this is only a faint bit of excitement before the paperback comes out in September, the review copies have gone out and real readers are actually reading my book. This is always a terrifying feeling, especially before any reviews come out, but I am bravely ignoring my utter horror by means of chocolate and wine. My friend Ruth likes it, though. My friend Ruth likes it! (Ruth is in fact a book reviewer and a librarian, so this isn’t quite as bad as saying that my mum likes it.)
Speaking of horror, I ran my Beginning Novel Writing course a couple of weeks ago and I noticed a great sigh of mighty relief when I confided in the participants that this fear about writing and not being good enough? You know the one? It never, ever goes away, and it’s completely normal.
Sometimes it’s good to hear that everyone else is shit scared, too.
Anyway, nice to be back on the blog. I’ll put up one or two things about Dear Thing, though not too much as it’s only hardback time. Anybody else have any news?
We’re moving house on Friday. Not far—less than half a mile away, still very close to Fecklet’s school—but far enough so that it will be a new neighbourhood, new shops, a new route to town.
We moved into this house in 1999. We spent the first year of our married life in a shared house, and then we lived in a rented basement flat, and then we bought this little house. We liked the fact that it was in a cul-de-sac. We liked the big corner bath. We liked the south-facing garden, and the streetlight outside, and the way that the house never, ever gets dark. We liked the big windows that open right out, all the way. We liked the school playing fields nearby, and the tree filled with birds at the end of the street. And despite the textured walls, the horrid carpets, the ugly curtains, the draughty bathroom, we liked that this house felt good. It felt friendly. It felt warm.
After we moved in, we discovered that we liked the neighbours, and the proximity to town and the local shops. We ripped up the horrible carpet and did our best to smooth the textured walls, though we never managed to get them very smooth. The spare bedroom was used as my husband’s work room, full of guitar parts and bits of electronics, and I set up my computer on the dining room table downstairs and began to write.
When I got published, the computer moved onto a proper desk, though still in the dining room. When our son was born, the front room became his, and my husband built himself a treasure trove of a shed in the garden.
Our son has moved from a moses basket to a cot to a toddler bed to the top bunk of bunk beds. He learned how to walk on these painted floors. He was conceived upstairs. We have sworn at our neighbours and turned to them in crisis. I have spent sleepless nights, typing, imagining. I have fallen asleep trusting this house and its doors to keep us safe. My husband has travelled the world and come back here. Home.
This house has memories and the weight of experience. We’ve been very happy here. We know the quirks and the noises. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to it.
Except for the dust that’s been underneath our washing machine since 1999. That, I won’t miss at all.
Okay, I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I’m a CRAP BLOGGER. I used to be a good blogger, but then I discovered Twitter, and now I am a crap blogger. I’ve been meaning to blog for some time, but every time I brought up the old (and getting older) post, I felt so guilty for not having blogged for so long, and then I felt like, hey, get over yourself, it’s not like anyone actually cares or anything, just throw something up on WordPress and you’ll feel better about it.
Anyway. It’s nearly the end of November and I’m between books. I gave in the revised version of DEAR THING last week, and the week before that I gave in a (ahem) secret project, and now I’m waiting to hear back about both these things. I’m also waiting to hear back from solicitors, mortgage lenders, surveyors, estate agents and damp inspectors, because we are selling our house and buying another.
I am not good at waiting. I am not good at all.
Meanwhile, I’m not writing. I’ve written 130,000 words since March—130,000 words of fiction, that is, not counting the articles, tweets, blog posts, emails, letters, course materials, critiques, etc etc etc—and I am sort of tired and feel like I need a break. But I’m also not good at taking breaks. I get antsy without an imaginary world to think about. I wander around the house, failing to do anything useful, and end up spending all my time reading. Not that the reading is a problem, in itself, in fact it is very important, but it’s not getting things done, is it?
I’ve got three new book ideas zinging around in my brain and I’m not entirely certain which one to develop first. So I’m doing a bit of research here, a bit of brainstorming there, just faffing around, really. I’m also planning the creative writing courses I’m going to teach next year, and I’ve got some great ideas about those, which are all coming together, so that’s quite exciting. I’m wondering whether to revamp my website to go with my FANTASTICALLY BEAUTIFUL new cover for DEAR THING.
Mostly I am faffing. And waiting.
Fecklet has gone back to school and I’m no longer on holiday. First up, I have to prepare for the Festival of Writing in York this coming weekend. I’m giving two workshops, one on character and one on pacing, and I’m part of a panel discussion about women’s fiction, and I’m doing some book doctor sessions with writers. All of which requires more time and thought than just about anything I’ve done for the past three weeks up at camp.
Before I get back to work, here are three highlights of my holiday up at Roxbury Pond:
Caterpillars and grasshoppers. They were everywhere. The grasshoppers were fun, and Fecklet and I spent a lot of time running after them and catching them, but the caterpillars were astounding. There was an enormous one, about the size of my little finger and the colour of a dead leaf, that hung for days upside down in the blueberry bushes, systematically eating its way through. We checked on it every day. I would not have been surprised if one day, it had been smoking a hookah.
There were these fuzzy caterpillars with black tufted heads and tails and either brown or bright yellow in the middle, and they were FAST. I mean, for a caterpillar, they could really move. I saw one out of the corner of my eye once and thought it was a mouse darting across the road. We spent many hours watching them bolt from one plant to another, or, in one case, climb, upside-down, all the way up to the roof of the camp. There were millions of white and black ones, too, which Fecklet and his cousin Rishi collected in a jar and fed fresh leaves every day. (It’s amazing how much poop five caterpillars can create in 24 hours.)
Fish. Why is it, that when people are in proximity with a large-ish body of water, they feel an irresistible urge to start yanking fish from it? Rock God caught his first fish (an 8″ white perch), my dad caught the biggest fish he’d snagged in years (a 20″ bass), my nephews caught fish. (I didn’t catch fish; last year I caught a yellow perch which died on my line, with a worm that I yanked from the ground with my own hands, and I felt so guilty that I have not touched a pole since.) We fried the fish and ate them, despite the fact that we already had a refrigerator full of food. They weren’t bad, and the boys felt Very Manly.
Cribbage. Every Wednesday evening, it’s Cribbage Night at the Ellis Pond Variety Store, which is really at Roxbury Pond, because Roxbury Pond is also called Ellis Pond, and also sometimes Silver Lake. Anyway, whatever it’s called, this is what the store looks like, it sells beer, pizza, bait and amusingly-sloganed t-shirts, and everyone goes up there on Wednesdays and plays cribbage.
This year we also taught my teenage cousin Olivia and my 8-year-old nephew how to play cribbage, and they took to it immediately. My nephew even BEAT ME by one peg! I still haven’t quite got over the trauma.
I learned how to play cribbage as a girl up at camp and it’s as much part of Roxbury Pond life as swimming and red hot dogs on the grill. My brother is a mean cribbage player, having learned at the hands of Roxbury Pond’s Master of Cribbage, a legendary man (now, sadly passed) called Hornet Wagnis. Fecklet tried to learn to play, but he can’t quite work out all the fifteens yet. Still, he liked moving the pegs and counting the cards. We played on a board that my grandfather had made for my father, his son-in-law, and my mom and dad gave me a handmade board so that I can play at home, too.
What were the three best things of your summer?
I am going to the Festival of Writing in York this weekend.
I am HAVING MY HAIR PROFESSIONALLY COLOURED.
(Unlike this time. And this time.)
You can stop worrying now.
I’ve been missing from this blog for a while. Actually, I’ve been missing from the entire internet for a while. I’ve been visiting my parents at our family’s camp on Roxbury Pond, Maine, and there isn’t an internet connection there. If I want to check my email, I either have to mug someone who has a phone with 3G, or I have to get in my father’s truck and drive thirteen miles to Rumford. My parents have two formerly feral cats who inhabit their house in Rumford so if I do drive the thirteen miles there to use their wifi, I also have to change the cats’ litterbox. It’s the deal.
So basically, every time I wanted to send a tweet I had to drive twenty-six miles and deal with cat poop. I didn’t do it that often. Somehow, 140 characters didn’t seem quite worth the hassle.
My phone doesn’t work either. Despite O2′s assertions that it will work just hunky-dory, the minute I take my Samsung across the UK border into another country it begins to continually restart itself as if it’s taken amphetamines. I’ve been pretty cut off from technology for the past five weeks.
For the first few internet-free hours, I am usually a little bit jumpy. I keep on thinking about how I’d love to tell my friends this or that I’m missing a REALLY IMPORTANT work email or thinking about how I’d phrase this particular story as a blog post or reaching for my phone to take a photo to share with my followers. I wander around wondering what is going on elsewhere in the world.
But then, surprisingly quickly, it settles down. I stop wondering what’s going on elsewhere and start paying attention to what’s going on here. Instead of tweeting, I talk. Instead of surfing, I swim. Instead of skimming, I read.
I spend a lot of time looking at stuff like this. Just gazing. You know.
I catch grasshoppers and watch caterpillars and go for walks and look for blackberries. I root through the bookshelves and make cakes and play cribbage up at the general store. I have squirt gun fights and I go to bed early and sleep, listening to crickets.
Now, this isn’t to say that my five offline weeks convert me from a ravening internetaholic to a calm, peaceful person who is connected to reality rather than social media. To be brutally honest, I did change that cat box quite a few times (I couldn’t resist tweeting about how I met that Robert Downey Jr lookalike on the beach, on the day I’d forgotten to shave my legs). And my computer hasn’t been off once in the thirty-six hours that I’ve been back home.
But it’s five weeks’ break from ravening internetaholicism. And it’s nice. I’m not sure I’d want to live that way forever…but it’s nice.
For a while.
Our house is for sale, so I’m doing some decluttering. Over the past few weeks I’ve taken armloads of clothes, toys, books, DVDs, small furniture items, etc to the local charity shop. I walk by the shop every day, and sometimes I’m nicely surprised to see my former dress or top or whatever in their very attractive window displays. Not nicely surprised enough to want to buy it back again or anything, but I feel a little self-congratulatory ping: Well, at least I wasn’t a fool to buy that in the first place, because someone else thinks it’s nice enough to sell.
Yesterday, on my way to the post office, I brought a pine bedside table to the charity shop, and as I usually do, I had a little look around just to make sure that nobody else had got rid of a pair of the perfect shoes. The shop is arranged by colour. Imagine my shock when I saw, on the green rack, my green comfy jumper.
I knew it was my jumper because it was from Old Navy. They don’t have Old Navy in the UK. I bought it three Christmases ago in Boston, in the sale, because it looked like a perfect comfy jumper to wear around the house while I was writing. It had a hood and a v-neck and though I usually wear size small, I bought it in medium because I wanted it to be loose.
I like this jumper. I wear it quite often. I did not remember donating it to the charity shop.
I looked at the tag. They were charging £3.49. Which is relatively expensive for a jumper in this particular charity shop, and which reflected the fact that this is quite a nice jumper which I should never have given away because I like it.
This immediately led me to a dilemma. Should I go tell the nice ladies who run the shop that this was my jumper and I never meant to give it away and I’d given them lots of other things, like that lovely bright orange coat that they used to such good effect in their display, so could I please have the jumper back please? That seemed a little mean; this was a charity, after all, and it was my mistake.
So should I buy it back? This was the obvious solution, but it was sort of annoying to pay £3.49 for my own jumper. Then again, it was a just and fair fine for making a stupid mistake, and it was for charity.
Or should I just leave it? After all, I hadn’t noticed it was missing. Maybe it was time for me to let that green jumper go, to try a life without the green jumper—a life in which, perhaps, I made fashion choices for style rather than for comfort, or alternatively in which I just wore the brown jumper I bought in the Gap sale instead.
In the end, I only had enough money for the post office anyway, so I had to leave the jumper behind. I left it in the laps of the gods. I thought, Next time I walk by with money in my pocket, I’ll go in to buy the jumper, and if it’s gone, then I wasn’t meant to have it any more.
That was yesterday afternoon.
Today, I was putting some things away in the closet where I keep my clothes, in my house. And there was my green jumper, underneath two other jumpers. I pulled it out and checked.
Old Navy. Medium. With a v-neck and a hood.
What has happened?
Fecklet, age five, took me out* for sushi for US Mothers’ Day. (Mothers’ Day in the UK was back in March; we went out for sushi then, too.) We sat at the bar and took plates off the conveyer belt as they went by.
This was what our table looked like after we’d finished. The stack on the left is Fecklet’s. The stack on the right is mine.
It’s quite an exciting time…I’m waiting for the announcement of two bits of news, and I’m not sure which one is coming first.
Publishing is such a strange business. You write and write and write and submit and submit and submit, and nothing at all happens. You get used to long periods where you hardly talk to anyone, and work all the time, and spend most days doing mighty battles with crows of doubt.
And then…suddenly…it does happen. All at once. All at the same time.
Anyway, a lot has been happening with me, publishing-wise, and I haven’t been able to talk about any of it. I can soon. I’m just not sure which bit I can talk about first.
Meanwhile, I’m going to the aquarium today to see some sharks.
I’m going to a dinner tonight…not just any dinner, but the 14/4 Literary Dinner, which is part of the Windsor Literary Festival and features 14 authors who move from table to table during the night to meet different guests. I have a gorgeous handmade vintage scarlet chiffon frock, and fabulous accessories, and I decided I wanted to put my hair up and look really glam.
Two problems. One. My hair is too short to put up properly in a glam fashion. This is a problem I’m prepared for, because I bought this great fake hair thing for when I dress up like a Regency gentlewoman. However, we now have problem two. I bought the fake hair thing when I had brown hair, and my hair is currently red.
Fake hair on left (brown). Real hair on right (red).
Now, you would think this wasn’t much of a problem. I’m not all into this red hair shade anyway, so the easiest thing to do would be to dye my hair back to brown, to match the fake hair thing. Simple. Right?
Not right. The thing is, I have a history of dying my hair immediately before Very Important Events. And sometimes, it goes horrifically wrong. Like the giraffe-neck debacle before the Festival of Writing. Or the Wicked Witch of the West/Fairy Liquid disaster before the RNA Conference. After the Wicked Witch/Fairy Liquid disaster, I vowed never ever to dye my hair again myself, and to let professionals handle it.
The thing is, that letting professionals handle your hair colour requires making an appointment several days in advance, and spending at least sixty quid. Whereas doing it yourself takes twenty minutes and costs just upwards of a fiver. And you get Boots points! Yes!
I asked on Twitter whether I should dye it, and everyone who knew me when I washed my hair with Fairy Liquid screamed “NOOOOOOO!” And everyone who didn’t, said, “Yeah, why not? Live dangerously!”
It was that phrase that got me. My book is called The Summer of Living Dangerously after all. I sort of had to.
I am so gonna look like this chick.
Black gloves. Wicked Witch again? Or just achingly cool?
I put on the dye. I waited for thirty minutes. I washed it off. It made worryingly little mess.
This is the result.
Real (dyed) hair on left. Fake hair on right.
Perhaps this post should have been titled The Spring of Dying Ineffectually.
Still, it is a shade lighter, though you can’t quite tell in the photo, and more like my natural colour, and nice and shiny. And with any luck the dinner will be dimly-lit. I might use the fake hair anyway, even though I have told everyone about it on the internet.
Now that’s living dangerously.
My friend Ruth turned up the other day with the most delicious little cakes. They consisted of two rich, chocolatey brownies with a gooey melted marshmallow sandwiched between them. She said that they were whoopie pies.
Rudely, I contradicted her (whilst stuffing my face, of course because they were fantastic). ‘Those aren’t whoopie pies,’ I said. ‘I’m from Maine, where whoopie pies were invented. Whoopie pies aren’t as chocolately. Or as marshmallowy. Or as rich. They’re more sort of…’
But I couldn’t describe them. It was like trying to describe a law of nature, something that you’ve grown up with and always taken for granted and never really thought about. In Maine, whoopie pies are the default dessert. Everyone knows someone who makes them from scratch and when they’re delivered to your house or to the church bean supper or wherever, everyone falls on them with ravenous jaws because, of course, homemade whoopie pies are The Best.
But usually, you buy whoopie pies as a sort of afterthought. In nearly every corner store and gas station in Maine, there’s a plate or a box of them on the counter near the till, individually wrapped in plastic wrap. They might be homemade, by the owner’s mother or neighbour; they might be a commercial brand. They range in colour from brown to nearly Oreo-black, but the filling is always bright white. You pick them up as a little treat when you go in to buy your gas, or your cigarettes, or your six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. You unwrap them, and the filling and part of the cake sticks to the clingfilm, and you lick those parts off and then you eat the whoopie pie, which is gooey and sweet and bland and soft except for the slight crunch of undissolved granulated sugar in the whipped filling.
The flavour is difficult to describe. ‘Like childhood’ doesn’t quite cut it. Of course it has nothing to do with an actual pie; there’s no pastry involved. The cakes are like cakes but also like soft cookies, and they’re vaguely chocolate flavoured. You can tell there’s some chocolate in there, but it wouldn’t offend anyone by being too chocolatey. The filling is…white. It’s not a marshmallow, and it’s not buttercream. It’s just white and soft with a whiff of vanilla. You can eat the whole thing in about two bites without having to think about it too much. It’s not a cake that’s going to sit in a patisserie window, not a cake that you’re going to write a breathless review about. It’s just a cake. It’s sort of like Mainers: unassuming, but good.
Anyway, after I’d blatantly questioned the authenticity of Ruth’s brownie-and-marshmallow confections, I had to demonstrate what a real whoopie pie was like. So I got the recipe from my Mom, who got it from Denise. Denise and her mother are legendary in Rumford, Maine for their baking. And quite rightly so. Therefore I didn’t question the recipe, which was, if I may say so, a little bit odd and required vast amounts of pure white hydrogenated vegetable fat. To make the filling, you create a sort of glue made of milk and flour and then beat other things into it until you are weary and satisfied.
They turned out just like whoopie pies. I ate one. It tasted like Maine.
I hear advice, very often, about how writers should trust their instincts. How we shouldn’t follow the market, but write what we love because we should trust our instinct about what people would like to read. How we should take criticism but always with a pinch of salt, because we need to trust our instinct about what’s right for our stories.
This is good advice. At least, my instincts tell me it’s good advice. Writing and publishing are so very subjective that we need a life-saver of instinct to cling to, or else we’d flounder around in a sea of conflicting ideas. Well, more than we already do.
The thing is, I don’t really know if it’s completely true. Personally, sometimes my instincts are spot-on. And sometimes, they really really suck.
My instincts, for example, tell me that everything I write will be loads better with at least one penis joke in it. This is so self-evidently not true that I can’t help but regard my instincts with suspicion.
I’ve submitted at least three books that I actively hated when I pressed ‘send’…and every one of those three books has been called ‘your best yet’ by my editor at the time.* On the other hand, when I sent in my last book I absolutely loved every word of it…and my editor (quite rightly) gave me huge revisions.
Several times, I’ve come up with what I think is an absolutely brilliant idea for a story, only to have it shot down in flames by my agent. But then another idea is okay. Why? Why? For the love of God, why?!!?
My instincts do not tell me. They are too busy partying with the penis jokes.
On the other hand, I usually know instinctively when there’s something wrong with a scene or a plotline a conflict or a character, even if I can’t figure out why. It gets all tangled up and it doesn’t work.
Except, of course, when it does seem to work, and I totally love it, and only discover later on that it doesn’t.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says that truly effective instinctive people have trained themselves with knowledge and experience, so that their split-second decisions are often the most accurate. After eight years as a published author, I’d like to think that’s true; that my instincts are informed by what I’ve learned. But sometimes, I can’t help but think that while you should trust your instincts, you shouldn’t trust them too much. You should look around for knowledge and experience too. For good reasons to fall back on. Maybe this is why I’m an analytical writer as well as an impulsive one; I like to know why something feels right.
I’ve had a really good couple of writing weeks, and I really like what I’ve produced. I think it does exactly what I wanted it to do; I think it’s challenging me while playing to my strengths, and I am in love with the characters**. I feel that way, of course, until it comes time to let it out into the world. Then my instincts run off to party again.
What are your thoughts about your instincts?
*I like those books a lot better now, with distance. And no, I’m not going to say which ones they were.
**It doesn’t include any penis jokes, though. I wonder if maybe I should put some in?