Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

So here are my three wishes for us all in 2009...

This one's pretty obvious...

And this one is so that you always have someone or somewhere to rest against when needed ...

And this is a velcro jacket - designed so that lonely or bored people can fix themselves to new friends if needed. May you feel you are wearing one of these this year and that many many good things come and stick fast to you ...

I'm in Virginia at the moment, so I'll probably be celebrating new year later than most of you, but a happy, fruitful and peaceful 2009 to you all, x

Monday, December 22, 2008

A very happy Christmas to you....

And here's a game to play....

I'm off until at least the New Year, so may I wish you all a good time and a happy, fruitful and peaceful 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A joke news story too frighteningly true to what could happen. I love Newsbiscuit's daily 'news' snippets:

Village to close after contributing nothing to local Tesco

A 1000 year old Oxfordshire village is to close after it was deemed not to be economically viable to the local Tesco superstore. Villagers received the news at a tense public consultation meeting last night when Councillor Shapley revealed that not a single person from the historic village of Stony Bridgeford shops or works in the Tesco store a few hundred metres away. ‘It’s no good being sentimental about these things. In this modern competitive environment, villages either have to pay their way as far as the supermarkets are concerned or face closure.’

An early Christmas present for you....

No. Not more jokes. Although you want them, don't you? Go on, admit it. You laughed just a little at my last post. What, just a smile? You guys are hard to please.

Anyway, there are some books I want to press on people because I loved them and know others will too. Others I need to hug to myself a little first. This second lot are much more precious because it's like there's a ping button in my brain they set off. Hey, they say, this is what to write next, or how to write it, or even what to write about. Not copying but the opposite. Allowing me to take off in a completely different direction. In her too excellent not to mention again book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about the spine of her project. How she can use another structure - myth, picture, story - to lean her own art against but no one would ever guess where the original inspiration came from. This is what these books do for me. It's a door that suddenly opens in my brain - or that's how it feels. Aha, another route has been activated when I thought I was just banging against solid surfaces.

Am I making any sense?

Anyway.... such a book has been Elizabeth Strout's amazing, wonderful, human Olive Kitteridge. A novel in stories. Suddenly, I know what I'm doing in Virginia in January now. Suddenly, I know what I'm going to do with a whole lot of floating ideas - poetry, short stories and possible novel notes - that I was rather despairing of.

I'm so excited - it's like getting a sudden scent and knowing you're on the right track.

So an early Christmas present for me. And I promise if you read this book, then an early Christmas present to you too. It's my book for 2008. And I've hugged it to myself for far too long. I need to start pressing it on people now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Everyone's a cracker....

Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?
A mince spy

Why are chocolate buttons rude?
Because they are Smarties in the nude

Why was Santa's little helper feeling depressed?
He had low elf-esteem

What athlete is warmest in winter?
A long jumper

What's the fastest thing in water?
A motor pike

What's furry and minty?
A polo bear

What is black and white and noisy?
A zebra with a drum kit

What do you call a man who used to be interested in tractors?
An ex-tractor fan

ps even more good cracker jokes here. And here

ps YES they were jokes. Stop whinging and get that paper crown on....

Monday, December 15, 2008

She likes sleeping in the spare room. She cherishes the peace. Loves how books she reads at night come to life in her dreams. Forgotten childhood imaginary friends start emerging from the walls. Only sometimes will she be disturbed. Reminded that not even a shut door can stay slammed forever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I've been playing...

... recently with the idea of taking a photograph and writing a 50 word story to match. It's a variant of Your Messages. I'll upload some of them here - and if you want to play too, send me your link and I'll put them up.

His mother said witches lived there. We’re lucky, she’d say. A warm home to keep us safe. Nowadays his front door stays shut. He talks to no-one. But on mornings like this, when the mist rises, he imagines those witches sitting by their fires. Wonders just what luck really means.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lists, lists, lists

I'm rather mortified that two people arrived at my blog yesterday after googling 'crap lists for 2008', and only slightly mollified that they didn't really mean me because I haven't published any lists yet.

Hmmm.... time to put that right.

I'm going to wait for the CDs promised in the Great Salway Anti-Giveaway Promotion, (and if you haven't sent me one yet, there's still time...) before I publish my music finds for 2008, although I know any list of my music passions would now have to include the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. ***

However, I have two other lists I'm currently compiling, and need help on.

Number One is TV detectives with successful love lives. I'm hooked on Wallander, but as soon as I saw Kenneth Brannagh smile during his blind date last Sunday night I knew his new best friend was trouble. It rather spoilt the rest of the programme for me, not least because I couldn't help wondering if sexual frustration is taught at the Detective Plot School. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that particular Christmas party!

Number Two list contains films fitting the unlikely - apparently official - genre of Transport Horror. It seems it has a section all to itself. So far I've come up with Snakes on Planes, Speed, Alien, but there must be many many more.

Good game, eh? And it involves absolutely no glasses of water in faces. See Alex, I can play nicely when I try.

*** ps I was just enjoying a satisfying few minutes watching both You Tube videos above before I came to a startling conclusion. Maybe I only like musicians with beards? Now that would be a CD compilation I'd like to hear...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My New Years resolution No 1

To hand-write more letters - and here's one of the reasons why...

Doggone, I can't download the video, but it's here.

Yes, we have a winner ...

... or two.

Lynne and I have chosen two writers to get a selection of our books in this November's Your Messages project.

Running the Messages project this year reminded me all over again why I liked working with someone else so much - when it works you can both manage to make the other think in new ways. It's one of the joys of collaboration, you don't get two separate strands - you get a third new one, which spills back to your own process, making it stronger.

And congratulations to Kathryn and Jacqui. Their pieces are very worthy examples of just how strong it can be when you spin off from someone else's words.

The whole project is worth a look though. It's up for a while, although individual authors may remove their pieces to use elsewhere because there are literally hundreds that deserve to be developed and sent off elsewhere.

It's been great fun - and inspirational for Lynne and me too. Thank you everyone from here who took part. And if you miss it, you can always buy the original book for Christmas inspiration!

Character is all...

"I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they
start talking. Then I start to love them. By the time I finish the
book, I love them so much that I want to stay with them." --Joan Didion

I wrote a whole lot of stories last year around the theme of clothes. Each one started with a brilliant idea, the kind of theme I could easily talk about when someone asked what I was writing about. And I did. Everyone told me they sounded great. Some people even got excited. I was starting to feel like a proper writer. With plots and all.

But I knew the stories weren't working. They were dead.

Reading them again over the last week has been hard. I'm putting together a work plan for Virginia and I wanted to see if there was anything in these stories that I could bring back to life. But I've decided they're not coming with me even though, yes, the ideas are great. Really mad and fun and inventive and, yes, quirky.

Trouble is they're much bigger than the characters. In every one, my little fictional people are standing in the middle of their stories, scratching their heads and asking me - the author - what they should do next.

I haven't allowed them even a minute to start talking to me, so they could tell me what they would like to do.

One good thing - it's made me feel not so inadequate when someone asks me what my novels are about and I start to splutter. And I know what to tell them now. They are not about the situation but about the character. Why does it take me so long to realise what other people seem to know instinctively?

Monday, December 08, 2008

A new game, a new game ....

Oh life is good.

Just when my kids have got old enough to tell me that I'm actually the only one in the family who likes races with wind-up toys and they don't want to play with me anymore, the Guardian has come to my rescue.

Here's Deborah Moggach's game:

"We all play the water game, which is the only game where you get punished for getting something right, which I think is a very good corrective to the usual scheme of things. You sit round the table and someone has to think up a topic - makes of cars, British birds - and then think of something from that category that they write on a secret piece of paper - a blue tit for example. You go round the table one by one and people have to guess what it is. The person who gets it right gets the glass of water thrown in their face."

It's got everything I love. Randomness, adrenaline, fun, and even a touch of cruelty thrown in. We did use to play something similar when the kids were small and we had those adult and kids parties when it's always the adults who get a bit, er, over-excited with the games. Here's our version:

An adult would have to sit on a chair at the end of the hall and face everyone else. A child would be positioned directly in front of the chair with a fully loaded watergun and then everyone else would - in turn - ask questions. The only rule was that, although they could be questions about anything, the questioner had to know the answer. Every time the adult in the chair got it wrong, the child would be allowed to shoot the watergun at him or her.

Funnily enough, there were as many screeching takers to be the question answerer as there were for the shooter. The best time was when we had an ex-Scottish rugby captain over to play. Everyone got drenched as we tried to figure out just who had scored what try in obscure games. Although if I remember, when it was his turn in the chair, we flummoxed him with details of fashion design. Actually I seem to remember that by that stage the children had got bored, and it was just the adults playing.

Yep, nothing like a bit of meanness to make Christmas go down well. This is what Deborah Moggach - who I just know would be my best friend if we were ever bored together at a party - says about it:

"The world is divided into two sets of people - those who say what a completely great idea it is and those who look at you as if you are crazy and ask why you would play such a cruel game. Well, life is cruel and it's not that much water anyway."

Oh oh oh but ..... just when I start thinking that the wind-up toy olympics could have had its day and glasses of water thrown in faces sounds more fun, I look at these little fellas, wound up and ready to go and my heart turns over. Don't worry, guys, I won't let you down, and it's just once, well ok twice, yes, yes, three times a year, H & R - and I know you do love it really.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Keeping up with circus friends...

Probably because I'm getting ready to go to America again (VCCA in January), I've been thinking about how blogs make it easy on one hand to keep up with friendships, while on the other, run the risk of substituting for proper contact. Often when I speak to one of my friends who read this blog, they tend to know most of what I've been up to. Or at least what I choose to show publicly. It can make for a rather strange one-sided conversation, and always makes me think that I spend too much time on the internet!

But where blogs are brilliant are when some of those friends are just too far away to meet up with properly. Some of the blogs I love to read are those of artists I met up with in Iowa this summer during the Tiny Circus. They never fail to inspire me, so here they are if you fancy a peep too.

First off, there's Holen's, film-maker and writer...

and then there are Carlos's journeys in the airstream...

Jess from Minneapolis...

... and the marmite queen herself, Grace, who I wish wrote more ...

And last but not least, there's Greta, who I didn't actually meet but wish I had (and feel I did somehow through internet contact!)

Of course, the circus squirrels don't have their blog yet, but it can only be a matter of time. Look how big, and obviously intelligent...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

I'm off to the library ....

Actually I am. But I'm also stopping at the Chocolate Library today too.

"A world where chocolate and words collide..." And plus, of course, Scotland. What's not to like?

Friday, December 05, 2008


I've been thinking about blurbs recently, not least because I've just done one for Caroline Smailes's Black Boxes and two people I've mentioned this to have asked me whether I'd read it.


I'm not sure why I've put that in caps apart from the fact that I really really can't understand the idea that you might put your name and recommendation on a book that you didn't love. But much much more than that ... why on earth, as an author, would you want someone's name on YOUR book who didn't love it. Or, worse, hadn't actually read it.

I know there's a cynical attitude 'out there' that blurbing is just done as an act of croneyism but this hasn't been my experience or that of anyone I've talked to. Maybe I've just been lucky but I don't think so. Most writers aren't stupid. What will having your name on a book you don't think is all that good say about you? It's worrying to have to read a book by someone you've become friends with - if you don't like their writing, will you still like them?

But the other side of the coin is becoming friends with someone after you've fallen in love with their book. I've 'met' lots of the writers I am proud to call my friends now first through their words, and I can't understand why people think it's some kind of plot when writers become friends with each other and go out of their way to champion each other's books - even by giving reviews on Amazon. We are readers too.

And it makes me sad that I have to think twice about asking these friends to 'blurb' my books, or to agree to 'blurb' theirs, in case we get accused of not meaning it. It isn't a plot to keep other writers out of the in-gang, as some journalists seem to think, because there's nothing better than finding new writing friends.

I take the privilege of people agreeing to put their names on my books extremely seriously. When The ABCs of Love came out in the US, the publishers sent it out to various writers for quotes, and I made sure that I read something by everyone who had been kind enough to say something. Equally when I got sent Kate Long's book to read, and was proud to give a quote, I knew I'd found a writing soulmate when she contacted me to discuss my writing too.

The good thing is that this isn't unusual. It is a compliment to be asked to give a blurb for someone, and, from my experience, it's enormously frightening to have to ask for one. So I hate the idea that we might become cynical about it.

And so, for the record, I have read Black Boxes and I absolutely loved it and I recommend that you read it too.

Sorry, I'm not sure why this has turned into some kind of rant, and of course, asking people you like and respect for quotes can produce some stunners. Here's Neil's first attempt, and the one I wish I'd been brave enough to use! Maybe I will one day...

"Sarah Salway is the Madonna of writing books. The dancing one, not the Mother of Jesus one. Except she's younger and has had less plastic surgery. Sarah Salway that is. Also she writes really well."

The only thing I'd add to that is that I've had NO plastic surgery, not just less... I do love yoga though. And dancing. Perhaps that's the next stage of blurbing - the qualifiers.

This is the best book ever by the best writer ever!!! Blurber

(ps Actually Shakespeare is much better, Author)

No wonder we normally leave getting blurbs up to our publishers!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How much are you worth?

I'm just asking you that because I'm putting this blog up for auction, and I KNOW WHAT I'M WORTH... well, ok, since you ask, thousands and thousands of dollars.

Any takers?

Nope, I thought not. I'll settle for a tenner. You can find out your value too - here (and thanks to VP for the link!)

My blog is worth $22,017.06.
How much is your blog worth?

Here and now, now and here....

I enjoyed one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon yesterday - engrossed in books at the British Library. Afterwards coming out blinking from the 16th century to the 21st, I went to a nearby cafe and got a sandwich.

'Are you eating it here, or taking it out?' the woman asked. I was still blinking. I really had no idea. 'Take your time,' she said. I checked to see if she was sneering at me, but she wasn't. 'We get people like you all the time,' she said then.

And indeed there was someone behind me, frozen in front of the range of sandwiches available. He was also blinking, and I wondered what period or subject he still had half a foot in. Of course, I quickly came out of the trance - the Euston Road takes no prisoners - but for the rest of the evening the idea that something magical had happened to me still kept floating in front of my mind. And every time I realised it was what I had been reading in the library, it felt even more magical.

I'd been looking at the letters of Thomas Tresham, as part of a presentation I'm giving today for my garden history course into Lyveden New Bield.

The house and garden were built in Elizabethan times by Thomas Tresham, and left incomplete after his death. But it's the history behind it that's equally fascinating, because TT was a Catholic and spent the ten years before work on the garden started in prison. He directed most of the work by letters and it was these I was looking at. A parcel of his letters and papers dating from 1576 to November 1605 were found by accident sealed up at Ruston Hall in 1828. It is thought they were walled up in a state of emergency after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, as his son Francis was one of the ‘plotters’.

Yep, the story really does have everything, but it's the idea of someone planning a garden so elaborately while they are in prison that makes it so special for me. A garden that they might never have seen. And of course, more and more of the Catholic symbolism Tresham implanted into the garden plans is still being uncovered. Gardening as a secret language. I love it.

Mind you, I struggled with some of the language and spelling of the letters until - ping! - a lightbulb went off. I read it as if it was a text from one of the teenagers I hear from regularly - a mixture of shorthand and predictive text - and immediately it all made sense.

See what I mean? Here and now, now and here ...!

Here's one of the letters from his wife:

26th September 1597, Artlingborough
Lady Tresame to her husband:

“Jesu Marye. Good Tres. the wake a state of hore besbeloved sestar this barar can addres you, yf remedys wyll serve no dote bothe for honesty and cylle (skill?) I make no dote bot she shall hafe thame. Wavysar and hylton ware at london on saturda last bytymes and tomoro the fotmane shalle be wythe you at hely. God grant we ma shortely hafe you at russon, thys barer makes hast tharfor my many harty commendacyons to you, I hand (end) the 26 of sebtember 1657 from hartalynboro your hobedyend and lovying wife m. Tresame.” *

There was something else very identifiable in this particular letter too. A note attached said that on the front of the paper it was addressed to: “To my very besbeloved husband ser tomas Tresame knight at hely (Ely) give these.”

While on the back, it’s recorded that there are: ‘Numerical calculations by Sir Thomas of a mystical character in which the words Crux, Maria and Christus appear.’

Hmmm... I'm not making a sexist point here about distracted men because it sounds awfully like me. I've found notes about stories I've scribbled on whatever is at hand too - however personal and precious. Let me tell you that this blog knows ALL about obsession. And distraction.

(*Reference: Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on manuscripts in various collections, Volume III, London 1904. Manuscripts of T B Clarke-Thornhill, Esq of Rushton Hall)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A quick dose...

These little bottles are from an exhibition by Mads Hagstroem we recently went to in Copenhagen. I can't help thinking what they would taste like...