My new novel, My Life as a Bench, is out today. I’ve opted for a virtual book launch rather than the proper let’s-drink-at-our-local-bookshop variety.
Perhaps writing a novel is as simple as this:
An attempt to distil 25+ years of effort and experience into a simple diagram.
Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway) and I’m always interested in any clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons I love a literary pilgrimage.
In the UK, I’ve visited many houses with literary connections, such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, Kipling’s mansion, the Brontes’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse.
Last summer I ventured further afield, and after the full-on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. This was the home he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle), and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.
An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that overlooks the pool – originally there was a boxing ring below – Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.
So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see Jane Austen’s tiny writing table (squished next to the window, but far enough from the creaky door to be warned of imminent disruptions), or the Brontes’ front room where the sisters workshopped together?
These houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. I doubt Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of the film adaptations of Ernest’s books (especially after he went off with Martha Gellhorn), and yet the house does offer a glimpse of a writer’s life: the domestic set-up with kids and pets, and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.
The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet if offers insights into how he lived and visiting made me want to read more about him. Last summer I was grappling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to send out his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. He rewrote the ending about seventeen times, and reading this spurred me on to once again revisit the ending of My Life as a Bench. Somehow it helps to know that even the greats have had to struggle to ensure the ending of a novel is right.
A version of this feature was first published on Britfic.com.
Recently I read the first chapter of my upcoming novel, MY LIFE AS A BENCH, at literary event Novel London.
Novel London, founded by novelist Safeena Chaudhry, fills a gap in London’s literary scene by providing a platform for emerging authors to read from their latest works. These readings are filmed and can be viewed on YouTube and the Novel London website.
If you’re a novelist and would like to get involved Novel London is open for submissions.
For free tickets to the next event check out the Novel London website.
This Friday I will be reading from my upcoming novel, My Life as a Bench, at Novel London.
Novel London is the brainchild of writer Safeena Chaudhry. Having been to many short story and poetry events she noticed a lack of new novels from new novelists being read on the literary scene and decided to launch a regular event where writers read out their opening chapter.
This Friday, October 7th, Novel London will be celebrating fiction from London and beyond at independent bookshop Travelling Through Bookshop & Cafe in Waterloo. There will also be readings from Ben Starling and Helena Halme, and author Stephen Marriott will be the compere. The event is free and you can register for tickets here.
London Book Fair always buzzes with big names and LBF16 was no exception. Meg Rosoff, Deborah Levy and Judith Kerr were all interviewed at the English PEN Literary Salon (a designated area away from the publishers’ stands). Sadly, I missed all of the above but I did manage to catch appearances from other successful writers: Jeffrey, Peter and Jeanette. But can you learn anything useful by listening to a half-hour slot from an established name?
First up, I happened to be sitting in the PEN Literary Salon area (meeting a friend) when who should show up behind a wall of press photographers than Jeffrey Archer in a novelty tie (it may have had books on it, but I wasn’t close enough to see).
Archer is brash (often dismissive of press and underlings) and irrepressible. He talked about book promotion rather than writing, and declared himself a “storyteller” rather than a writer. He produces about 14 drafts of each novel.
Peter James is the antithesis of Archer. Where Archer is loud, larger than life with an ego that fills the room (Olympia), Peter James is quieter, considered and calm. Whether or not this is due to the amount of time he spends with dead bodies I don’t know, but this unassuming man certainly sees the darker side of life firsthand as he often accompanies police on various raids and has lost count of how many autopsies he has attended.
James offered sound advice, saying character is key, followed by research (to ensure accuracy) and finally plot. ‘You’ve got to surprise yourself as a writer or you won’t surprise the reader.’
Jeanette Winterson was both formidable and passionate as she regaled the audience with her thoughts on Shakespeare, theatre, and the London he knew – a young city where everything was urgent and people lived life to the full.
Winterson’s latest novel, The Gap of Time, is a reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. ‘I am a foundling,’ Winterson said, ‘it has an abandoned baby at its centre and I used to read it looking for clues.’
She went on to say that there are three available endings: revenge, tragedy and forgiveness, and that as she gets older she is more interested in forgiveness.
Impassioned and inspiring, Winterson followed her dynamic reading by sharing her view that creativity is at the centre of everything. ‘Creativity is a birthright. Never doubt that what you’re doing is at the centre of life. Money is not the heart of life, it’s creativity.’
This is a photo of the house I rented with five other students in Nottingham. It was rundown and in a rough area, not that we cared at the time as it was more important to be near the college and city centre.
My room was at the top. It provided a fascinating window on our street that happened to be in the red-light area of the city.
Watching from that window provided the inspiration for my novel I Came to Find a Girl.
This extract forms the end of the first chapter (after a woman’s body has been found nearby).
Back in my room at the top, I looked out the window to see if there were any girls out on the corner at the crossroads. The wall where they liked to sit was empty but I sketched it anyway – the waiting-for-a-trick wall with its bricks falling from one end.
I reapplied my eyeliner and pinned up my hair, gathered my uniform together, and raced down the two flights of shag-pile carpeted stairs. “Seeya,” I shouted out in the greying light of the hallway, and slammed the front door behind me, pressing my fingers against it to check.
Two women with bare legs were sitting on the wall opposite. It’s too cold to dress like that, I thought. What are they doing there? Have they not seen the news? I wondered if Mum and Dad had. Probably not, this was local stuff. They didn’t even know I was living in the red-light area.
As I turned onto the main road, I saw the police cordon further up the hill by The Vine, our local pub. Nottingham and particularly our scrappy corner of the city suddenly seemed more dangerous, and yet nothing had changed. The threat of a madman roaming the streets had always been there. It’s probably safer than normal – police everywhere, I thought. But still, to make the twenty-minute trek across town to Saviour’s Bar and Restaurant, I slipped my keys between my fingers. The sharpest, jagged-edged Yale was between my index and middle finger, and gripped discreetly by my side. Everyone needs keys.