From the depths of winter to The Peacock Summer

There is a general consensus that broken hearts are fertile ground for creativity. The break-up album. The affecting, painted canvas. The revealing memoir. Joan Didion wrote eloquently about loss and grief after her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds wrote the dark and dazzling album, Skeleton Tree after the tragic death of Cave’s young son. Sir Francis Bacon produced some of his most important and moving paintings after the suicide of his lover. Meryl Streep once famously concluded a Golden Globes acceptance speech with, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There is a clear sense that the experience of deep emotion can be somehow as transformative and productive as it is painful.

Not so, for me. In the earliest days of loss my feelings were out of control. Everything felt sharp and hyper-real. I was on the edge and capable only of emotional outpourings in my diary. Real life had become more scary and far less predictable than any plot twist I could envisage. I was holding on by a thread, focused on the nuts and bolts of living, of getting out of bed in the morning and facing the days. I was trying to fathom life as a suddenly-single parent, with all the responsibility that brings. I had a half-finished first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop and a looming deadline, but frankly, writing fiction felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford.

It turns out, however, that just as we cannot hold on to perpetual joy, we also cannot spend our days at the coalface of raw emotion. Feelings are ephemeral, cyclical. After the emotional overload of the early months, I sank into a different state. Numb paralysis. The empty heart. I fell into the depths of winter. It was, in a way, worse.

I once said in an interview that as a writer, it’s important to try and feel what your characters are feeling. If you don’t feel it, your readers won’t either. After months of heightened pain, I realised I wasn’t feeling anything. My senses were dulled. And the half-finished first draft of The Peacock Summer sitting on my laptop? Well that seemed to belong to a different writer, from a different time. Not me.

So how do you return from the empty place? How do you find your creativity again, when it feels as though it has been lost for good? Well, as so often in nature, it involves a long, slow thaw. It takes time. And it takes work.

I carried on writing in my diary – private excerpts of sadness, as well as more hopeful pieces about the life and love I still glimpsed around me. I joined a closed writing group for fellow broken hearts led by widow and writer Megan Devine. A month of writing prompts allowed me to explore my feelings in a safe place with fellow grievers. I slowly began to return to reading, dipping in first to those books that mirrored my experience and made me feel more sane for echoing my emotions. I took advice from other writers, particularly the late Penny Vincenzi who reassured me that I would get back to it and that writing could become a kind of therapy, in time. I read all the Harry Potter books with my children, religiously, night after night. Together we explored love and loss through the words of J.K. Rowling and slowly, gently, I rediscovered my love of fiction and the escape it could offer. I began to pick up novels again, and fall in love with the power and beauty of the written word. My own writing became a personal release. It offered escape. It was a chance to leave my life and immerse myself in another’s. Slowly, the numbness faded and the feeling returned.

Just as ‘you can’t hurry love’, I think it’s fair to say that you also can’t hurry grief. You can’t fast forward through pain. It’s a gruelling exercise of endurance. A little like writing a novel, it simply takes as long as it takes. Until, one day, you raise your head and realise that the fog has cleared a little and there, in the distance, is a path. Not the path you thought you’d be taking, but a path none the less, and with the arrival of the path comes the renewal of something else: the curiosity to step onto it. Just as in writing a novel, you may have a rough map in your head of where you hope the path will lead, but you also have to be open to the unexpected twists and turns ahead. Both the joy and the sorrow that you know will come.

For today at least, I feel like the depths of winter are behind me. Today sees my third novel, The Peacock Summer, (that half-finished first draft I once couldn’t bear to look at) published in Australia and New Zealand. In another two days it will be released in the UK. I have just signed the contracts for several more countries to publish the book next year. On a perfect English summer’s day like today, with the sun falling through a window onto my desk and the sky a holiday snapshot blue, and with a book on the cusp of release, it’s almost easy to forget the personal and professional work that it has taken to get to this point. It’s almost too easy to forget that these are events I truly thought were beyond my reach even just a year ago. And it’s also a little too easy to skip forward and to focus now on the worries of publication … the anxiety of reviews, promotion, events and sales.

But today I won’t future gaze. Today, it feels important to take a moment to recognise the person I have become and the work that has gone into getting here. I am remembering exactly what it took and just how many people were involved in helping me. Today, I acknowledge the painful – but real – transformation that has occurred. Not necessarily a better version of myself; but certainly a different one.

Because I am now a person who knows that grief will never leave me. I understand the ebb and flow of it. I know that just as it can retreat and soften, it can also surge back, sharp and painful. I know that it will always be a part of me – just like the love it stems from. I know I will keep living and writing … changed in ways I never could have imagined … my heart more broken yet more capable of feeling both sadness and joy than ever before. And as I write these words, I do shed a tear for the man I loved deeply and unconditionally, and for the person I was who loved him. And I take a moment to acknowledge him, before I hit the ‘publish’ button on this post, close the window and turn back to the new document sitting on my laptop, ready for the work ahead. Creativity as release. There are worse things to throw your bruised heart into.

camus

 

 

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!

Writers Ask Writers: The Books That Changed Your Life


‘A very long time ago, in the Golden Age, every one was good and happy. It was always spring; the earth was covered with flowers, and only gentle winds blew to set the flowers dancing …’

And so begins the book that changed my life.

I’ve been pondering which book to write about for this post ever since Dawn Barker asked if I would contribute this month to the ‘Writers Ask Writers’ initiative, set up by six talented WA authors. I was delighted to be asked (thank you for having me, Dawn BarkerEmma ChapmanAmanda CurtinSara FosterNatasha Lester and Annabel Smith) but when the topic was emailed through, I was a bit stumped.

The books that changed my life.

I have no doubt that words carry power, for every book I’ve loved has affected me in some way; tears, anger, joy, inspiration – I’ve found them all between the pages of a good book. But is being affected by a book the same as being changed by one? I wasn’t sure. I started to feel a bit worried about how to contribute to the topic and studied my shelves, nervously scanning the spines … until suddenly, there it was, right in front of me: a book that really had changed my life.

greek 1

I was about eight-years-old when my Grandmother gave me this book. ‘I think you might like it,’ was all she said, passing me the dusty volume from her own bookshelf. It didn’t look a bit like the Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and E. Nesbit books I was so enamoured with at the time, but I accepted it (graciously, I hope) and started to read that night.

Inside were the Greek Myths, stories of brutal gods and powerful goddesses, fallible mortals and amazing, mystical creatures. They were fairy tales on steroids, filled with the sort of racy content that boggled my young brain and left a lasting impression. I read them over and over, often by torchlight, and returned to them many times throughout my childhood.

At school a few years later I chose to study Classics and Latin, hoping for similar excitement and inspiration. The reality was, unfortunately, a little disappointing (Caecilius est in horto, anyone?) but I persevered and I can see now how those myths not only steered my education, but also fed my passion for language and words, as well as my ongoing yearning for stories with a real sense of tension and drama at their heart.

Later, I went to university then found a job working in publishing and I forgot all about that tatty orange book. But ten years on, when I began to write my first novel, I was reminded of it all over again.

greek 2

Writing Secrets of the Tides had me thinking long and hard about why terrible things happen, and about what’s left behind for a family when the very worst has occurred. Re-reading the myth of Pandora brought me a new level of understanding, and by referencing the myth in a small way within my novel, I felt able to add an extra layer to the story. It’s no mistake that the three key female characters in the book are named after famous classical women (Pandora, Cassandra and Helen), nor that the character of Helen is a Classics Lecturer. Their names say a lot about their experiences as women.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see quite clearly the big role this book has played in my life. I don’t think I’d be travelling the writer’s path now if it weren’t for that early grounding in storytelling, and I honestly don’t know if I would have found the inspiration to continue with the earliest draft of Secrets of the Tides if it hadn’t been for rediscovering the myths again, at exactly the right moment.

My grandmother’s book looks a little sad and worn now, and while I don’t think it would hold much value to anyone else, I’m wondering about having it restored.

greek 3

Perhaps, one day, I will take it down off my bookshelf and hand it to a grandchild? They’d probably think me an eccentric old woman, but just maybe they’d give me the benefit of the doubt and open it one night by torchlight, surprised to find their own world changing, word by glorious word. Wouldn’t that be nice?

‘Writers Ask Writers’ is a group of six authors living in Western Australia who blog about a bookish question a month and then link to each other’s pieces, sharing their ideas, processes and inspirations. It’s been fascinating to be a guest with them and see everyone’s life-changing book selections, as well as to note how many favourite books we all share. 

pwfc-author-collage

Amanda Curtin has picked some of my favourite children’s books, as well as two non-fiction titles I didn’t know. I absolutely love the image she paints of the ‘brittle flower’ falling out from between the pages of an old text book. Read more from Amanda here.

Emma Chapman has chosen, amongst others, The Magic Faraway Tree. Yes, yes, yes! If there was ever a book to set a child’s imagination alight it is this one. I loved Silky and Moonface like old friends and I am in complete agreement with Emma. Read more from Emma here.

Dawn Barker has chosen a list of books that could be pulled from my own bookshelves. I completely relate to her experience of reading We Need to Talk About Kevin – it was so visceral and it’s for that reason I haven’t watched the movie. I’m not sure I could take it! Read more from Dawn here.

Sara Foster‘s list of life-changing books includes a section of ‘inspiring, absorbing, twisty fiction’ which includes some of my most favourite contemporary fiction reads – we’re clearly on the same page when it comes to a good page-turner. Read more from Sara here.

Natasha Lester has cleverly broken her selections down to various stages of her life. I share her love of Judy Blume and am now intent on searching out Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem after her fervent endorsement. Read more from Natasha here.

Annabel Smith has chosen three books that she says ‘you will probably never see grouped together again because they couldn’t be more different from each other’. Want to find out what they are? Read more from Annabel here.

And finally what about you? Will you share the books that have changed your life? Feel free to comment below … we’d all love to hear from you.

The House of Tides

No … that’s not the title of my second novel. The House of Tides is the US title for Secrets of the Tides which Grand Central will publish in July 2013. And here is their glorious cover. I love it so much. It makes me want to thread daisy chains and do roly-polys all the way down that hill!

Image

Richard & Judy!

It’s paperback publication day in the UK and I’m utterly thrilled and completely gobsmacked that Secrets of the Tides has been selected for the autumn 2012 Richard & Judy Book Club. I found out just a few weeks ago and have been smiling and pinching myself ever since.

Richard & Judy won’t know this, but we go waaaaay back. As a kid, the best thing about being sick and off school was watching them on This Morning. Fast forward a few years and I was skiving university lectures with my flatmates and hanging out a little too much with Richard & Judy from the comfort of our knackered old sofa (yes, there was also a little Sunset Beach, too … I know, ssshh). Jump ahead a few more years and there I am working in publishing in London as it’s announced that Richard and Judy will launch their very own Book Club. Excited? You bet!

As any UK book lover will know, Richard & Judy have championed a huge number of books and authors since they launched the club. I was working at Hodder & Stoughton in London when it all began and  had the immense joy of seeing David Nicholls’ hilarious debut Starter for Ten (2004), David Mitchell’s mind-bogglingly brilliant Cloud Atlas (2005) and Jodi Picoult’s emotional roller coaster My Sister’s Keeper (2005) all get selected for the club. Those moments when we found out at Hodder that books (and authors) we all, as a company, felt so passionately about had made the campaign still remain some of the best moments of my publishing career.

It’s a testament to just how crazy/strange/cool life can be that seven years later I find myself with my debut on their book club list. I have only four words: Get. Out. Of. Town.

Sadly, 12,000 miles just seemed a teeny bit too far to travel to meet them, what with a looming novel deadline and two small people at home to worry about but, with hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t for the best. I’m sure there would have been sweaty armpits (mine) and shaky legs (mine) and maybe a little bit of inappropriate gushing and knee touching too (me to them). Perhaps I would have, in my nervousness, even delivered a wardrobe malfunction spectacular enough to surpass that moment of Judy’s at the 2001 National TV Awards. I can only imagine.

So, instead, just a few weeks ago, on a gorgeous winter’s day, I went to the Sergeant’s Mess in Sydney’s Chowder Bay, where I filmed my answers to a few of their questions. And yes, I was giddy with excitement about the whole thing. (There is a video somewhere – I’ll link to it when it goes up.)

Now the 30th of August is finally here, the Richard & Judy Autumn Book Club has been launched and my paperback is out there. I’ve seen for the first time the wonderful titles Secrets of the Tides will sit alongside and I feel truly honoured and gobsmacked all over again. I’m particularly thrilled to see Eowyn Ivey’s magical The Snow Child on there, which I’ve already read and loved, and another fellow Orion title, The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz of which I’ve heard wonderful things. My current reading pile is already out of control but I’m certain I’ve just discovered a few new favourites to add to my bookshelves. So thank you Richard & Judy. Thank you WHSmith. And thank you Orion.

If you’d like to find out more about Richard & Judy’s autumn Book Club and the other great titles selected you can get more info here.

Here’s to a happy northern hemisphere autumn jam-packed with books and reading!

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 …