Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Please welcome ... Sue Eckstein

I don't know about you but I'm fascinated about the way other writers live and think. What DO they do when they're not playing crazy golf or searching out benches?

So as part of the virtual tour for the novel, The Cloths of Heaven, I'm delighted to welcome debut novelist but established playwright, Sue Eckstein, as my guest blogger today. Here's what she says...

A (sort of) writer’s life

I didn’t write any fiction during my long career with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) but ten years after returning to England from The Gambia I found those three years infusing my first novel, The Cloths of Heaven, and I didn’t even have to shut my eyes for the people and places to come flooding back. Many of the experiences I’d had as programme director became those of Daniel Maddison – the visit to the women’s garden project with the EC horticulture advisor, evenings spent rather reluctantly at the High Commission, hours spent in markets, cloth warehouses, buses to rural areas, evenings in rural villages chatting over cups of ataaya. My work with VSO brought me into contact with hundreds of people I wouldn’t normally have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting –Vice Presidents and Government Ministers, eccentric expatriates, people living in extraordinarily isolated communities with little exposure to the outside world, people living in vast wealth and people who owned little more than a couple of cooking pots. Somehow they seeped into my mind and years later were distilled into the characters who populate the novel and the places that inspired it.

I loved the years I spent working in overseas development and I really enjoy my current work in medical ethics which I find both stimulating and fascinating, but my first love remains literature and drama. Once, long, long ago I dreamed of being a theatre director. Somehow my life took a series of very different courses and I know that I’ll never do that now but my play-writing has given me a taste of that world. I’ll never forget the buzz of excitement in the auditorium just before the opening of The Tuesday Group in London, or the extraordinary sensation of hearing the words of my first radio play, Kaffir Lilies, being brought to life in the recording studio at BBC Scotland.

Thinking about my life as a writer, I’m struck by just how much of my life I spend not writing, or at least not writing fiction and drama. Sometimes I mind this a lot and think that if only it wasn’t for my day job, I’d be incredibly prolific but the reality is that I probably wouldn’t be. I have had several periods off work while having my foot reconstructed (a long story) and haven’t written a word in all that time. But give me a new, very full-time job and lots going on at home and somehow I manage to write.

All my jobs have had huge casts of characters – from my various jobs with VSO to my current job as lecturer in medical ethics at a medical school. My day job is, and has always been, much more than just a day job. The people I come into contact with, and the issues I think about, enrich my life and thereby enrich my fiction and without them both I, and my writing, would be poorer.

Thanks, Sue! You can buy The Cloths of Heaven here, or read an extract here. It's published by the very interesting Myriad Editions, and is immensely readable with larger than life characters and some beautifully cutting dialogue.

Here's the blurb:

Isabel Redmond is tiring of her iconoclastic husband's penchant for pedulous black breasts, the High Commissioner and his wife Fenella are both enjoying illicit affairs; an old English judge is wandering through teh scrub following a tribe of Fulani herdsmen; Bob Newpin is about to make a killing in timeshares; and just what Father Seamus is up to is anyone's guess.

Enter new diplomat Daniel Maddison on his first posting abroad. Rebeling gainst the endless rounds of cocktail parties, golf and gossip, he finds himself drawn to the people and places that lie way beyond the experience of his High Commission colleagues - and specifically to the dusty warehouse in the heart of the city where a thin white woman is silently measuring out lengths of brightly coloured cloth.

I think the horrific Bob Newpin is possibly my favourite of this cast, not least because I once spent a summer being followed round London by someone just like him who enthusiastically called out 'Sally!' whenever he saw me. But what I liked most about this book is the way that all the characters are given the chance to change, sometimes unexpectedly. The moment when the buffoonish High Commissioner confesses to love is beautifully drawn, not least because of the reaction of his ghastly wife, Fenella. She's defeated for a second before she gets back on the bitchy treadmill she's created for herself

'No, you idiot,' she says, reverting, with what sounded like relief, to her usual self. 'God! How will I live without your sparkling intellect and razor-sharp wit? No. Don't answer. Just take the case down for me...'

Loneliness and passion - great themes that Sue explores well here.

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