Richard and Judy

It was a lovely day!


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Writing Process

What I am working on.

I am currently coming to the end of a three week writing break, so if I’ve been working on anything its normal life: surfing in Cornwall, seeing friends, even cooking; it all comes up fresh and shiny after a year in a room with a laptop.

I am also working with the Michael Joseph team at Penguin UK to promote my debut novel, “Daughter,” out August 28th.

Just short of three weeks ago I submitted the manuscript for book two; (working title Stolen,) to my editor at Michael Joseph, Penguin; she is currently editing this, soon I will have it back and that whole different process will start. Maxine spent a day here the day before we left for Cornwall; cold white wine was drunk, we had family lunch with my sons, home from university. The dog was walked, much useful talking done, there’s much to do.  This was a book I wrote in less than a year and the process wasn’t organic.   I went to the edge of the Kalahari for two weeks last November where the book is partly set. I needed to meet the people, especially the traditional doctors, I wanted to experience the country side, and take in the early morning smell of the bush, to see the kind of roofs that  were on rural  houses and what was on the roadside  verges. (Dead donkeys, broken glass.)

I’ve also just sent out the synopsis of Book three; I’ll tell you more when I know.

So in this unreal moment of freedom, I know there will be three things to carry forwards at the same time: publicity, (Book one editing(Book two) and new writing. (Book three) I’m looking forward to it, the imaginary space has trumped real life, I feel homesick.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Psychological suspense, (thriller/drama) is the nearest that I can get to placing the book, not a very  meaningful label  as so many books within this capacious scope are completely different from each other. My background is medical, I’m an ex- GP, my husband is a neurosurgeon. It was helpful to use this known world to create the back drop to both books, and some issues from that world become important. In Daughter: the dangers of labelling, of short cuts, doctors playing God.  But Daughter isn’t a medical drama; it’s a story about a missing girl and the themes of grief, loss, harmful secrets, betrayal and fear do resonate with others in this genre.

Why do I write what I do?

I began Daughter initially as a way of exploring loss and grief, something I was familiar with from work. No one it seemed, was unscathed.  Survival of loss particularly interested me, the question of the day after day after day. The challenge lay in making a quiet  space where the reader  could  look at grief (at the grieving, unravelling family, the silent toll suffering extracts, the way it changes lives ) while simultaneously  crafting the tension to keep the pages turning.  I did this by splitting the time frame, to intersperse elements of the abduction with chapters of the mother’s life a year on, alone, having lost her child, her family, her marriage, her career. How her life reconnects with the past and the secrets everyone had been keeping, and how then the trail of her missing daughter comes back to life, became what kept the tension tight.

Book 2 also has a family at its heart. How can a family not be interesting?  All that love, hate, joy, jealousy, grief, work, and  play. The tolling bells of birth, growing, ageing, death. A prism through which to refract any theme. The themes that came up in this second book have  to do with  power games in a marriage and their toxic legacy, and a family gap year in Africa  that ends with a devastating loss. Underlying this was an exploration of the way beliefs and truths clash and confuse across cultures.

I  start by writing  what interests me and what I  know about;  then it’s about what I create imaginatively as I sit here. Usually after effortful thinking and many, many re-writes, though sometimes(rarely) it arrives like a gift. 

How does my writing process work?

Doing the  Bath Spa Creative writing M.A was a turning point( meeting a group of people equally passionate and determined, great authors to tutor, permission and structure…) By the time it ended I had most of a novel laid out. After, I had to step up a gear to do it on my own but I had learnt about sitting here by then, grinding out the words, make something to shape later. Doing the job of writing.

One of our tutors told us a little story about a peanut- butter- jar stacker and how unimpressed the store manager would be if he came across the peanut- butter -jar stacker sitting mid-aisle on an upturned cardboard box, waiting for the inspiration to continue. So write, she told us, it’s a job. Write for a minimum of two hours even if your house catches fire and the flames are licking around the legs of your desk.

At the beginning of the last  novel, I sat there with clenched teeth, waiting out the two hours, writing a few hundred words a day; that was when  it paid  to be part of a writing group. I’m part of  a small  group of friends from the M.A; we  meet once a month in each other’s houses ,flats or canal barge, having sent out work ahead for critiquing and feedback. The meetings have a chairman and a structure but we also eat, drink wine, chat and cheer each other on. Sometimes I write simply to have something to give to my friends. As time goes on and editorial deadlines approach, I can find I’m still in pyjamas in the afternoon, working a solid eight to ten hour shift or more, not noticing time. That sense of involvement is the best part of this whole thing and the reason this is the best job.

Pitch Perfect.

Two nights ago, on Friday 2nd March I pitched a fragment of my novel Practising in an event organised by Bath Literary Festival.

In an unreal two  and  a half minutes  I described my novel, “Practising”  as  a literary thriller set in two time frames, concerning a teenage abduction in Bristol 2009;sentences that felt  entirely inadequate to convey the  truths and themes embedded in the book. Nevertheless these few words    summed it up the same way as a book cover does. I went on to enact (briefly… the bell went so soon) the time when the mother remember s back to when she (unknowingly) last saw her daughter; and again, in a few sentences, perhaps a paragraph tried to convey much more than the space allowed. This potentially stressful experience was salutary…how many times have I gone into a bookshop and judged a book on a less than three minute glimpse at the cover ,at the first paragraph This  what will happen to my book too. The practice was tough but useful .And though I had looked forward to it with a beating heart it was also  fun  to have   those few moments in the limelight, and interesting to act out my characters.

I will have another chance too;I am also presenting a different fragment of my novel at the 100 Woman event at 2 pm in St Michael’s Without Church,Broad Street,Bath.BA1 5U on Thursday 8th March 2012.

Anselm Keifer at the White Cube

So many themes and images dance in my head; I want to write about extraordinary work I saw yesterday, at the White Cube in Bermondsey. Anselm Keifer’s largest European collection. In the cool white spaces of this South London Gallery his vast sculptures and canvases resonated with power and mysticism. The writing, scrawled black on the walls behind each, told the titles.

Spracher der Vogel: (the Language of the Birds.) Two great bird wings attached to either side of a tall pile of lead books between whose open pages burrowed crushed aeroplanes… this piece, the glossary told us, encompassed the ideas of a secret Ur-language shared among the birds up in the heavens, representing a gateway to perfect knowledge.

Merkaba: a spindly, bicycle four wheels in series, with weighing scales balanced within the structure. Merkaba, God’s mysterious chariot; described in the Old Testament by Ezekiel as being pulled by four creatures with four heads, man ,lion, ox and eagle ,each with four wings and accompanied by four wheel shaped angels. This biblical description has been the focus for occult study among early Jewish mystics, seeking the hidden meaning in the text as a portal to heavenly knowledge.

Alkahest: this was the name of a sculpture that looked like a cement mixer coated in crystals spewing forth lead film (absurd, impossible) denoting a universal solvent that might dissolve anything. The name was concocted by a Swiss physician. Paracelsus (1493-15410 who wandered the universities of Europe, seeking hidden knowledge and stirring controversy; as part of his polemical teaching he burnt books in public.

There was also a fallen wing of a plane, lead… so could never have flown. Inserted into this a streaming flow of dead sunflowers, as lengthy as a garden path.

A canvas of a dark town, attached to which a pram; again full of dead sunflowers.

A foetus in a jar on a table, a golem, next to a rock .Lead letters from a printing press scattered around both. (Incidentally, Jewish legend has it the word emet Hebrew for truth, written on a golems forehead will bring it to life, rub out the e and you are left with the Hebrew word met meaning death.)

Then Keifer’s monumental canvas of the Templeh of Airport in Berlin. Built on land once belonging to the medieval Knights Templar, the airport was redesigned in the following decade as part of Albert Speers’ master plan for the Nazi reconstruction of Berlin. The vast complex was intended as Hitler’s gateway to Europe and as symbol of his “world capital” Germania. It was never finished, but was seen as a forerunner of the airports of the late twentieth century. On canvas it is transformed into a derelict cathedral, a mystical site of aspiration reduced to absurdity. Close up the rugged surface of this canvas shows its evolution, Keifer exposes his works to the elements for years, or dips them in solvents.

Anselm Keifer was born in 1945 in Southern Germany. His work is in now in international private and public collections .In 2007 he became the first artist to be given a permanent commission to install work at the Louvre. The substrate he used for many works here was the dark history of twentieth century Germany, while the overarching theme was alchemy, the transformation of substance over time; Keifer says he is merely part of that process; all he does is to accelerate the transformation already present in things. I thought of the parallel in the writing experience, transforming ideas or forms of story already present, by imagination into something else or perhaps just hastening their evolution.

Kiefer in the video interview was surprisingly playful, even mischievous. He wished he had a wife as faithful as Francoise Gilot had been to Picasso; she would faithfully copy his work at any given stage so he could imaginatively depart from that point and yet still return to it if he wished . He also talked about how important the observer is to the meaning of his pieces, the interpretation of his work being the observer’s responsibility. Again the parallel in writing fiction, a narrative exist s only if it is read, the interpretation of stories belongs to the readers.

He also says: You have to find a golden pathway between controlling and not controlling, between order and chaos. If there is too much order, it is dead, if there is too much chaos, it doesn’t cohere .I’m constantly negotiating a path between these two extremes.

That sounds like life to me. My life and maybe yours.