Childhood Memories As Writing Inspiration

I have had the good fortune to tour around Australia recently with Get Reading, talking about Secrets of the Tides and The Shadow Year, meeting lots of readers, booksellers and librarians. I’m not a great fan of public speaking – I’m of the sweaty-palms-thudding-heart category – but the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. Plus it’s incredibly satisfying to speak to people who have not only read your work but also engaged with it on some level.

One of the things I am asked most about is where my ideas come from. Over the course of the tour, my response to this question has become quite automated – I give a quick snapshot of of a place from my childhood that evoked powerful memories in me (Dorset) and talk about my own journey to motherhood, as well as my relocation to Australia … and how the three combined in some magical way to create the seed that grew my first novel, Secrets of the Tides. It’s become such a stock response for me that the other day I found myself wondering if it was even true, or something convenient I was just spouting in public.

So I was amazed (and reassured) when my Mum sent through THIS photo last week.

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

I haven’t seen this photo for about twenty years and it took my breath away because it could be a scene lifted directly from Secrets of the Tides, right down to the overcast sky, the flapping welly boots, and the craggy cliffs towering in the background. I’m the girl in the foreground in the red boots. I wonder if I’ve just tried to skim a pebble across the waves.

Since I began writing, I’ve come to understand that childhood is a powerful place from which to draw inspiration. Tapping into the truth of an experience and the emotions that surround it … building upon them … letting them grow into a new, fictionalised idea can provide amazing fodder for a writer. It took seeing this photo after all these years to remind me of that and convince me that Secrets of the Tides is a more personal book than even I truly understand.

ps. How funny is that man, slumped on the beach behind us? I hope he’s OK!

Out in the World: the UK

I’ve been itching to blog for a while but it’s only now that I find I have the time to catch my breath.

The hardback of Secrets of the Tides launched in the UK in mid-April and two weeks ago I got to travel there on ‘official author business’. Thank you Orion, it was a great experience. Yes, I shed a few tears leaving my kids for the longest time since their arrival, but by the time I’d checked-onto the flight, revelled in the ease of negotiating an airport with just one small piece of hand luggage, and sipped my first glass of champagne it’s true I wasn’t feeling quite so distraught!

On landing, I spent the first twenty-four hours at my Mum’s house in Wiltshire. We visited her local bookshop, Ex Libris in Bradford-on-Avon where they had ordered in a few copies of Secrets of the Tides. It was exciting see it there in the flesh and to sign a few copies for some of Mum’s friends – apologies to those of you browbeaten into purchasing it by my over-enthusiastic mother!

Ex Libris, Bradford-on-Avon

Next up was beautiful Bath where we caught sight of Secrets in Waterstones and WHSmith, there rubbing shoulders with heavyweights such as George R. R. Martin and The Hunger Games!

Secrets brushing up against the mighty Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games

The following day heralded the start of a road trip through Dorset (the location of the novel) with Declan, the Orion sales rep for the region. We were lucky with the weather  – beautiful sunny blue skies the colour of my book jacket – and we travelled the coastal road from Bridport to Bournemouth, stopping at many bookshops along the way to meet with booksellers and sign copies of the book.

Waterstones, Bridport - in the 'local heroes' section

With Dee, Manager of Waterstones, Poole

Waterstones, Castlepoint, Bournemouth

The coastal road from Bridport to Weymouth

My trusty tour guide Declan

While there I also got to spend a few quiet moments at my grandparents’ grave in Chideock. Thanks Declan for the short detour, it meant so much!

The next morning I headed into London and joined my agent – Sarah Lutyens from Lutyens & Rubinstein – and some of her colleagues at the London Book Fair. I couldn’t believe the size of the place, the buzz, the masses of people all congregating to talk about books. I met my publishers from France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Holland, the agents for Portuguese and Catalan rights and even bumped into a few old friends from my publishing days. Heleen and Joeska from The House of Books saved me from the jetlag droop with their stroopwafels … if you’ve never tried one I highly recommend them, sort of a caramel waffle biscuit – delicious!

And from there it was straight to Bluebird on the Kings Road where I joined some international booksellers and bestselling authors Antony Beever, Anthony Horowitz, Kate Mosse and William Landay (gulp!) – for an export dinner. I really did feel like a fraud, sitting amongst such stellar company but Mark Streatfeild and the Export team at Orion couldn’t have been more welcoming or the other authors more down-to-earth and generous. A definite ‘pinch myself’ moment.

Me with a friendly bookseller from Greece - at Bluebird. Jet lag kicking in right about now.

On Wednesday it was to Covent Garden with the marketing team from Orion where we made a short video about Secrets of the Tides. I found it strangely unnerving talking to a camera but special thanks to Louisa Gibbs and her crew for making it so painless. Then it was on to the BBC where I did my first ever (live!) radio interview.

BBC studios, Portland Place ... nervous smile!

I made it into a Tesco supermarket where I saw the book instore, bought a copy of Red magazine where they were advertising the book and stocked up on proper English Dairy Milk chocolate!

Secrets in Tesco

Red magazine - May issue

Then, after a quick change, I headed into Soho to the House of St. Barnabas where Orion were hosting a night with journalists, booksellers and a group of fellow female authors all publishing their novels this year. It was a glamorous, champagne-fuelled affair and after the event I sloped off for dinner in Soho with new author friends Lesley Loko, Julia Gregson and Liz Fenwick. It was so much fun to talk shop and realise that some of the feelings I’ve been having as a new author (nerves, elation, self-doubt) are completely normal.

Orion authors from left to right: Cherry Menlove, Me, Lesley Lokko, Erica James, Shelley Harris, Veronica Henry, Kate Mosse, Julia Gregson, Katherine Webb, Liz Fenwick

The last day of the tour involved a few business meetings in London – about which I hope I will be able to share more news soon – and a wonderful publication lunch with the talented crew at Orion at hot new restaurant Ceviche – amazing Peruvian food and great company. Then I was off to the BBC at Portland Place for a final live radio interview with the RTE Arena Arts Show. And then it all ended with a last visit to Orion House and then on to Lutyens and Rubinstein in Nottinghill where I was greeted with the news that translation rights for Secrets of the Tides had just been sold to Iceland, making it 13 translation territories to date! For once I got to do my happy dance in front of everyone at the agency, and then celebrate by buying more books in the shop upstairs – truly it’s one of the most beautiful bookstores in England, crammed full of exquisite finds. 21 Kensington Park Street, Nottinghill – go!

So then it was a rainy goodbye to London …

En route to Heathrow

… and hello sunny Sydney. I was itching to return to my family and this was a very welcome sight from the plane window as we came in to land at dawn:

Sun coming up on Sydney

So, a total whirlwind trip and a great experience, both from the point of view of seeing the hardback out there in the real world and also as an opportunity to meet such a talented bunch of people working in the book industry all around the globe. I owe a massive thank you to the entire team at Orion – particularly Gaby Young who arranged the trip – and all the booksellers and media who have supported the novel to date. I’ve said it before but it’s even more clear to me now that publishing really is a team sport and I feel so lucky to be part of such a talented and vibrant team.

And now I’m home? It’s time to launch Secrets of the Tides in Australia and New Zealand …

12,000 miles too far

Living on the other side of the world definitely has it’s low points and not being at the burial of my Grandmother’s ashes in Dorset today is one of them.

My sister texted me earlier. She’s in the car on the motorway, heading to the cemetery now. My Dad is driving. My lanky brother probably lounging on the back seat, choosing the music. It’s pissing it down, apparently. I texted back and asked her to throw a pebble into the sea, drink a Coke from the bottle with a straw and find a cow pat to stand in – for me. I know they’ll be playing the same game our parents used to distract us on the long journey down there as kids: first person to see the sea …

I wrote down a few childhood memories of times spent at my Grandmother’s house in Dorset, for the funeral. It feels good to remember the happy times, amongst the sadness. I only wish I could be there today to stand beside my Dad, brother and sister as they bury Gran in her final resting place. Some days 12,000 miles really is too far from home.

When I was a young girl my Grandmother lived at H. House in Chiddeock.

It was a house that fired a child’s imagination. Nestled at the top of a muddy single-track lane, perched on the side of a hill. You couldn’t see the sea from there, but I used to lie in bed imagining I could hear it, amidst the rustle of Granny’s starched white bed linen.

It was big. Full of clocks that ticked and chimed like living creatures. It smelt of furniture polish, and roast meals, and prize-winning flowers picked from the garden.

Breakfast was always in the dining room. White tablecloths and the best polished silver. Mini packets of cereal to squabble over. Who gets the top of the milk today? Toast aligned in the rack, homemade marmalade dolloped with the best jam spoons, and cups to rattle in their saucers. Gran always liked to do things properly – every morning felt like a child’s fairytale tea party.

I remember evening board games in the back drawing room – Granny’s ivory mah-jong set, musty with age and darting silverfish; the wooden solitaire block that could amuse me for hours; pick-up sticks and cards bent with age and handling.

Upstairs – spooky. A dark landing, heavy wooden furniture creaking and groaning as the house settled in for the evening. But then, at the end of a long corridor lay a mysterious, colourful room. Granny’s bedroom, with its enormous bed and bobbly blue bedspread. And a pink bathroom separated by a hanging waterfall of emerald green beads – exotic and wonderful to wrap yourself in. Coloured crystal perfume bottles and a box with endless jewels and strings of pearls – an eight-year-old’s treasure trove.

Then outside we went, for croquet on the sprawling lawn or hide and seek among the orchard trees at the back of the house; Easter egg hunts among the flower beds; wheelbarrow races and dam building in the stream that ran through the jungle of bamboo canes – damp earth smells, dark and mysterious. A greenhouse that churned out fresh tomatoes year on year, turned into jars of Gran’s delicious green-tomato chutney. My sister and I cantering madly over high-jumps built from garden canes and flower pots, our baby brother following at a distance.

But not always the house, or the gardens. Sometimes a treacherous summer walk, down the laneways, amidst the tourist traffic, to Seatown. Past the house with fossils and shells set into the concrete begging ‘touch me’. Wellington boots clumping rhythmically on tarmac until we reached the sea. Pebbles to collect. Coke from the bottle drunk with a straw and a packet of crisps. ‘Don’t ruin your lunch!’

My grandmother’s house was a place of secrets, of treasure; a box of delights, waiting to be re-opened at every visit. A place of hugs, of laughter, of warm cooking smells. A place where, even as the clocks ticked on, for a few days here and there time stood still. And we were a family.

Those days are gone now. And we are grown. My brother no longer a baby but a tall man of 32. My sister a mum to three beautiful children. My own babies growing and so many of us living on the other side of the world now. And Gran is gone too. At the ripe old age of ninety-six she went peacefully, a painless death, with her son and grandson nearby, surrounded by photos and flowers and the tears of the nurses who were touched by her courageous spirit in the six short weeks they knew her.

My Gran is nowhere now, and yet she is everywhere. She is in the memories of those days spent at that beautiful house, she is in the blue-grey of my father’s eyes, she is in the careful hands of my sister as she kneads, mixes and bakes, she is in my brother’s gentle manner, and the independent spirit of her great grandchildren as they learn and grow and thrive. And I think she is here now too, in these words that I have written, and in your faces, her friends and family, gathered to celebrate her life.

My grandmother was a kind-hearted woman, who showed us generosity and dignity and love … and how to bake the perfect cheesecake … and without whom, none us would be here today.

We love you and miss you Gran.