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VOTE FOR THE VISITORS!

Voting closes at midnight tonight for the Edinburgh First Book Award and THE VISITORS is one of the nominees. This award is voted for by readers, so if you liked it, please take a moment to vote for it. 

Click here to vote:

https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/first-book-award/vote?book=4911

and what’s more, everyone who votes - and whichever book you vote for - you’ll be in with a chance of winning a copy of every book nominated from those lovely people at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

THANK YOU!

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BOOKS ARE MY BAG party report!

I was thrilled to be invited to Watermark Books yesterday for the Big Bookshop Party event. It’s a beautiful bookshop at Kings Cross railway station nestled beside the Harry Potter shop and the Platform 9 3/4 where all the people queue up for their photos. It has a brilliant range of stock and a super atmosphere with very helpful and knowledgeable staff.

There was cake and drinks on offer and then I signed a stack of books:

and met up with fellow authors to celebrate independent bookshops. Simon and Poppy were with me:

and we met up with my wonderful agent Jane Conway-Gordon, as well as authors I’ve never actually met but have become writerly friends with through social media, such as the lovely Louise Walters (‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase) and Antonia Honeywell (‘The Ship’).

Right to left, here’s Jane Conway-Gordon, Poppy, me, Louise Walters and Antonia Honeywell:

Also at the event were such luminaries as Meg Rosoff and Francesca Simon, both of whom were extremely lovely to Poppy - Francesca signed Poppy’s book:

& Meg enlisted Poppy’s help to put all the ‘Signed by the Author’ stickers on her books! I chatted to both of them and what delightful, fun and down-to-earth superstars they are. It was also lovely to meet and talk with Kate Mayfield, whose memoir ‘The Undertaker’s Daughter’ is out now.

Other writers there were Jake Arnott, Jason Hewitt and Catherine Hall, though annoyingly I didn’t get to talk with them as it was so madly busy, but hello to you all and I hope we get to talk another time. I did buy Catherine’s book and look forward to reading it - ‘The Repercussions’ looks very interesting indeed.

Earlier on in the day I popped into a super bookshop called Slightly Foxed in Kensington to sign a copy of The Visitors and say hello.

We met Tris who works there and had a browse through their excellent stock:

It really is a gorgeous indie bookshop so check it out the next time you’re in London, on Gloucester Road.

Last but not least, before the event we went on Pop’s first visit to the Natural History Museum and loved all the glorious old beasts on display!

All in all, we had a super day and thanks very much to Watermark Books, Books Are My Bag and particularly lovely Alex Peake-Tomkinson who invited me so kindly in the first place (also she has ACTUALLY MET Elizabeth Jane Howard, lucky thing). And thanks, as ever, to my lovely fella for taking all the brilliant snaps. A day to remember.

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BOOKS ARE MY BAG London, here I come!

Hello folks! I’m in London tomorrow for the Books Are My Bag celebration. I’ll be popping into the gorgeous Slightly Foxed bookshop on Gloucester Road around 2pm for a flying visit:

and then heading over to the wonderful Watermark Books at Kings Cross Station at 3pm for the Books Are My Bag Big Bookshop Party, with cake, lots of book signings and many other authors coming and going.

If you’re in London tomorrow and free around 3pm, why not come over to Watermark to meet all the authors and pick up a signed first edition or two?

Hope to see you there, folks.

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INTERVIEW WITH DEBBIE TAYLOR!

This rainy autumn morning, I’m delighted to welcome Debbie Taylor to the blog. I was fortunate enough to be asked to do an event with Debbie at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss our novels this summer and so enjoyed meeting and working with her. Debbie is a highly experienced and seasoned novelist, with novels including ‘Hungry Ghosts’ to her credit, as well as her role of Editorial Director of ‘Mslexia’ magazine, the brilliant ‘home of women’s writing’. Some of the themes of Debbie’s books are close to my heart, from the C18th travelling female of ‘The Fourth Queen’ to ‘My Children, My Gold’, that lives alongside women from some of the most challenged countries in the world.

Her latest novel ‘Herring Girl’ is the story of Ben, a teenager who is convinced he should be a girl, living a secretive life with his uncomprehending fisherman dad in North Shields in 2007. Through hypnosis he connects with Annie - a herring girl from 1898 and possibly one of Ben’s own past lives - and reveals a mystery which comes to involve a disparate group of people who meet Ben and become irrevocably caught up in his story. I found the novel completely compelling and the characters entirely sympathetic and very real. I was particularly engrossed by the gorgeous dialect and historical recreation of the late C19th fishing industry, which also contained many echoes of where I live now - Grimsby - and the disappearance of our local fishing industry too. It was an original and enveloping read with an impressive variety of voices, minds and issues.

You can read an extract from ‘Herring Girl’ here on Debbie’s website:

http://www.debbietaylor.co/?page_id=337

What appealed to you differently in writing about 1898 and 2007?

What appealed to me about 2007 was that I was actually living in North Shields, where the book is set, at that time – so there was very little research to do. Also 2007 was when the smoking ban came in, which is crucial to one character who is a slave to her nicotine addiction, for reasons linked to her previous life (did you mention that Herring Girl is a novel investigating the evidence for and against reincarnation?).

What drew me to 1898 were old photographs of North Shields. It was the height of the herring boom, when there were so many fishing boats moored on the quayside that you couldn’t see the water; and the river bank was seething with slum houses, pubs and brothels. I wanted to write about that amazingly vibrant (and smelly!) lost world. Reports in the local paper at that time reveal that people were worried about the effects of overfishing even then. Today there are only a few little prawn boats operating out of the harbour and the slums were bulldozed in the 1930s.

What definitely didn’t appeal was the prospect of all that research. My writing style is very intimate; I try to get right inside my characters’ heads – which means I need to know, before I start, exactly what their world looks, smells and tastes like. (I once made a special trip to the British Library in Boston Spa in an attempt to find out whether men in 18th Century Morocco shaved their bodies. My second novel, The Fourth Queen, is set in a Moroccan harem at that time and I had some crucial sex scenes to write…).

Do you believe in reincarnation? Ghosts? Any of that sort of thing?!

When I started researching the novel, my answer would have been a pretty definite ‘no’. I was using reincarnation simply as a literary device to link the past with the present. But when I started researching the topic, I was astonished at how persuasive the evidence is. I’ve listed the main publications I consulted on my website http://www.debbietaylor.co/ along with reports of some astonishing recent research on the topic. I also did some research of my own, and discovered that 13 per cent of the 2,500 people who took part in my paranormal survey believe they have had direct experience of a past life. I also asked about other paranormal phenomena – such as apparitions and hauntings – and was amazed how many people had experienced these too. So do I believe? I really don’t know.

What did you like best about researching the fishing industry in North Shields?

Long nerdy days in the local history section of the library: squinting at microfiches of the Shields Daily News from 1898, poring over enormous old maps of the area, checking out the actual handwritten census reports… Bliss.

I hear that you live in a similar place to Mary. How has your own home life influenced you in the writing of this novel?

It’s not similar to Mary’s house, it actually is Mary’s house! Her house is exactly what our house was like before we renovated it: damp and unmodernised with an avocado bathroom on the ground floor and a little spring in the foundations.

You inhabit the minds of so many different characters in this book – how did you juggle them all? Did you have planning notebooks for every character, for example?

I set up a fresh computer file for each character and developed a back story for each one. Because Herring Girl traces people’s current obsessions and neuroses back to events in their previous lives, it was vital that I understood in some detail how their minds worked – and how that might relate to the minds of their previous incarnations.

That meant that I had to make sure their motivations made psychological sense, but also that they made sense from a karmic point of view. Fortunately I have several close friends who are Buddhists, so I was able to sound them out about how karma might play out in the context of the novel.

In fact there are only six main characters in the 2007 story, and each is the  reincarnation of a character that lived in 1898. So I could argue that there are really only six characters in the whole book… 

Thanks to Debbie for taking time out of her incredibly busy schedule to share her insights into the writing process. You can find out more about Debbie (she’s had a REALLY interesting life! Check it out!) and her writing in the following places:

http://www.debbietaylor.co/?page_id=33

https://www.oneworld-publications.com/books/debbie-taylor/herring-girl#.VDJkC_ldXT8

and Mslexia magazine:

https://www.mslexia.co.uk/

and finally, here’s a happy memory for me of sharing the stage with Debbie (and our marvellous chair Julia Eccleshare) at Edinburgh:

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INTERVIEW WITH S.D. SYKES!

I’m delighted to welcome Sarah Sykes to my blog this morning in a fascinating interview about her brand new debut novel, Plague Land. I enjoyed reading this hugely - a compelling murder mystery with a stark yet poetic style, a vivid sense of place and a period of history with which I wasn’t very familiar, and I’m now hooked on it!

[1] Your research into the period seems impeccable. I was most interested in the details about such things as food and medical matters. What kind of sources did you use to find out about these aspects of daily life?

There are very few handwritten cookbooks that survive from this pre-print period, so I mainly used secondary sources to research diet – books and websites that describe medieval food, menus for banquets, table etiquette etc. I also studied images in the margins of medieval manuscripts, as kitchens were a favourite subject for illustration. Boar, venison, rabbit and fish are often seen roasting on spits, being turned by a bored-looking scullion, (though it’s important not to put too much store by these images, as meat formed a very small part of the average person’s diet.) Chaucer talks regularly of bread, ale and wine – which is a much more accurate description of what people ate – the poorer ones anyway - with ale supplying a substantial percentage of the calories a person needed to survive. And then, of course, there was pottage – a type of vegetable and meat soup that was an absolutely staple part of the diet for rich and poor alike. Pick up any medieval novel and people will be eating pottage!

Medicine in 1350 centred very much around the teachings of Galen – the theory that the body is ruled by four ‘humours’ that need to be kept in balance. There is much written on this subject, so it was easy to research via books and the internet. Once again I drew on the graphic and sometimes macabre imagery in manuscripts for inspiration. Depictions of bloodletting; the repair of anal fissures; even caesarean births. Through my research I discovered that pretty much anything went in the world of medieval medicine. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful cures for the Bubonic Plague for example – including smearing the lanced buboes in dried excrement and drinking your own urine!

In the unlikely event that the physician cured you, then it was a miracle.  If you died, then it was God’s will. The physician was rarely blamed for poor care, or even the death of his patient. For my own part I would rather have visited a monastery if I’d been ill, where the monks had a good knowledge of herbalism – often based on their translations of ancient Arabic and Roman texts. If the use of herbs did not relieve the symptoms, at least the treatment was less likely to kill you.

(An interesting aside here, that in my next novel Song of the Sea Maid set in the C18th, the idea of the 4 humours still dominated medical thought 400 years later and was used - completely erroneously - to explain the causes of scurvy, with disastrous results, of course.)

 

[2] Your writing delivers a very visual sense of place – did you find yourself living in the period in your mind, while writing? Did you use a picture wall or something similar?

I’m very lucky to live in the setting for Plague Land – a part of Kent which is remarkably untouched by modern life. A surprisingly large amount of medieval timber-framed homes, barns and fortified manor houses have survived in the high weald, and, wherever possible, I’ve tried to get inside these buildings and just sit – to imagine the light, the smells, the sounds. Of course, conjecture plays an enormous part in this process, as most buildings have been renovated or modernised in some way or other – but I was able to visit the wonderful Weald and Downland Open Air museum near Chichester, where many medieval buildings have been saved in their original form. This was a joy!

I didn’t use a picture wall as such – but there is an image to which I often return.  It’s a touchstone for me - the drawing of two dog-headed men on the mappa mundi in Hereford Cathedral. (Look to the middle, right hand side of the map.) This small image, more than any other, conjures up the medieval mind for me – a place of enchantment and wonder, but also superstition and fear. These two strange-looking creatures were the original inspiration for Plague Land.

[3] What choices did you make when it came to rendering the speech of your C14th characters? Did you update/modify how dialogue would have truly been back then, and what aspects remained faithful to the period?

This was very tricky, and thank you for raising it. I read (rather I tried to read) Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, because Chaucer was writing about 30 years after Plague Land is set. However - Middle English is incomprehensible, unless spoken aloud, so that was a non-starter. I chose, in the end, to give a flavour of archaic speech – and hope that this didn’t sound strained, cod-medieval or comedic in an Edmund Blackadder kind of way. This meant a careful choice of vocabulary in places – and the constant looking up of the etymology of words, to ensure that their origin was not much later than the 1350s. One example of this would be the word ‘side-tracked.’ I had used it in an early draft, before realising that the term derives its meaning from the railway industry.

 

[4] As well as being historical fiction, this is of course a detective/crime story. What methods did you use in your planning to work out the mystery plot?

There is a craft to writing a crime novel – certain conventions that the reader expects - such as a murder early on, a range of suspects, the inclusion of red herrings, suspense, and a plot that moves with momentum towards a surprising, but inevitable conclusion. I’ve read many crime novels and wanted to make sure that I hit as many of these important markers as possible – so there was a lot of plotting and planning (some of it with different coloured highlighter pens and long pieces of paper.) I’ve heard some crime writers don’t know the identity of the culprit before they set out on their novel – but I would find this impossible! I even wrote my big ‘reveal’ scene before writing most of the novel – to make sure that everything led up to that one climactic moment.

[5] The plague itself names the book and is of course a running metaphor throughout. Could you explain what you feel the plague metaphor stands for in terms of the characters and the period? (if you can do that without spoilers?!)

The word Plague is so emotive - conjuring up death, panic, desperation and desolation – all of which topics exist in the novel. Initially, however, I felt the word was too obvious to use. Plague Land was just my working title – and I hoped to come up with something much more literary and clever sounding! But, as the novel progressed – the title just seemed to suit the novel more and more. And not just because of the literal meaning of the word ‘plague’ and its obvious relevance to the Black Death, but also because of the way Oswald is plagued… with self-doubt; with responsibility he doesn’t feel ready for; by a hell-fire priest who’s trying to crush him.. and by the women in his life - a nagging mother who is always on his case and a sister who resents his power and position. I stuck with the title – because it does encapsulate what the book is about.

 

[6] I’ve just finished writing a novel set in the C18th. There were certain aspects of the period that really appealed to me – such as the quaint language – yet others that made me very grateful I live now! What are your feelings about the C14th? What do you feel we’ve lost and gained since those faraway times?

In all honesty, I’d love to travel back in time to 1350 – but then I’d want to return pretty quickly. It’s often said that life was nasty, brutish and short in those times – and in many ways it was.  We’ve gained sanitation, medicine, literacy (most people in 1350 could not read.) We’ve eschewed ignorance and superstition; the dogged, dictatorial supremacy of the church; unquestioning deference and obedience to the ruling classes.  We have democracy, equal rights… I could go on and on!

So, what have we lost? The simple life, I suppose. Living with the seasons and nature. Even something as basic as just being outside. In those days, people spent a lot of their time in the open air of the fields, the streets or their gardens. Their cottages were small and cramped, so they only went inside when it was cold or they wanted to eat or sleep. They had extended families and very close communities that gave companionship and security. They were fully occupied with their work; they had the satisfaction of growing their own food and creating their own homes, clothes, tools etc and they used their imaginations and memory in a way that we no longer do. As long as they were healthy and reasonably fed, I have a suspicion that people were happier.

Thanks very much to Sarah for her brilliant answers and I hope it helps spread the word about her super novel. If you enjoy Plague Land, look out for The Butcher Bird (great title!), her follow-up novel starring her detective Oswald, due out October 2015.

Keep up to date with Sarah at her website (very attractively designed!) here:

http://www.sdsykes.co.uk/

and see another interview with her by fellow historical novelist Antonia Hodgson on the excellent historylivesathodder here:

http://historylivesathodder.tumblr.com/post/98378343274/antonia-hodgson-interviews-s-d-sykes

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INTERVIEW WITH E .O. HIGGINS!

I met Edward Higgins and his lovely wife Katie whilst I was waiting nervously at the side of the stage of the Jura Unbound event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Talking with them gave me the courage to ascend the stage and do my reading, part of an evening of spooky events inspired by Edward’s first novel ‘Conversations with Spirits’.

I’ve since read the book and absolutely loved it, a Victorian mystery story that plays with the era’s obsession with spiritualism and introduces a great new character in detective fiction, the gloriously drunken and yet touchingly grief-stricken Trelawney Hart. Also present is Arthur Conan Doyle and other real-life personalities of the era, yet perhaps my favourite character was Billy, who becomes Hart’s sidekick and friend, and was written so lightly that he felt like a real person to this reader. 

I’ve asked Edward a few questions about his super book, which has been nominated for the First Book Award and you can vote for it here:

https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/first-book-award/vote?book=5156

Where, when and how did this book begin in your mind? Also, where did your interest in Victorian spiritualism come from?

I’m not sure really. I have always been very interested in the paranormal. 

I remember being gifted the Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World when I was about eight – and it was from there that I first learnt about the ‘ghost hunter’ Harry Price, who features in Conversations with Spirits.

About the same time, I had my first foray into the world of writing, and produced a – er - ‘pamphlet’ on the most notorious crime of the Victorian period – the Jack the Ripper killings.

It was a fairly derivative piece, mind you - cobbled together from two different Encyclopedia entries and then badly-typed up on my mum’s Olivetti. (My life hasn’t moved on much…)

I suppose, really, Conversations with Spirits grew out of my fascination with the unexplained, and with my love of classic ghost stories, Victorian magic and alcohol. Without giving too much away.

Could you take us through your historical research process: how it begins, how you organise it and how you incorporate research into the writing of the novel itself?

My research mainly involved reading a lot of Victorian and Edwardian novels - and then trying to appropriate a suitable voice and style of writing to give the book some kind of verisimilitude.  

Since a large amount of the book is based in Broadstairs in Kent, I probably cheated a bit too…

Save from having a few less Lyons’s Corner House Tea Rooms - and perhaps a few more Starbucks - the seaside town has barely changed in the last 150 years.   

 

This novel has a clever and tricksy plot. Without any spoilers, can you explain some of the process of how you worked out the intricacies of your plot i.e. what methods you use to plan your narrative?

Nothing was really planned - so I’m very pleased it worked. 

At one point, quite early on, I did try to map the story out chapter-by-chapter – but, thinking about it now, this was probably just another form of procrastination.

Looking at the chapters as plotted now, it actually looks nothing like the finished novel - and, indeed, has a markedly different ending.

I did, however, spend about two and half years fretting constantly about the book…

It probably took about eighteen months just to work that there’s a very good reason why no one ever writes mystery novels in the first person. And that’s because it’s basically impossible.  

 

The book was published by Unbound, a somewhat unconventional approach to publishing. Can you explain how the Unbound publication process works?

Unbound are the first publishers to use a crowd-funding model – which is basically an updated version of ‘subscription publishing’, popular in the eighteenth century.

It’s a fairly simple process. Authors pitch an idea, and readers can choose whether or not to back it. The more they support a project, the greater the ‘rewards’.

Since it’s true that traditional publishers are now quietly pulping around 77-million unsold books each year, it probably makes sense to make the commissioning process a bit more forward-thinking and democratic.

 

Do you envisage that the book might have a sequel, perhaps being the first in a series? If not, can you share something of what you’re working on next?

Well, when I finished Conversations with Spirits, I started writing another book that was quite a departure. But, after a meeting with Unbound, it seems they were quite keen to see a sequel. So, I am now currently working on that. I can’t say too much about it – other than it’s moved away from spiritualism – and into a world of esoteric societies and Black Magic… 

Watch a fabulous video about the book and also about the brilliant Jottify website on Unbound’s site here:

http://unbound.co.uk/books/conversations-with-spirits

and check out Jottify here, where you can share your writing and discover new writers:

http://jottify.com/

Thanks very much to Edward for his answers and I’m delighted to hear that there will be another Trelawney Hart novel coming soon…

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THE VISITORS in German!

I’m delighted to announce today that THE VISITORS is going to be published in German by the wonderful Droemer publishers Verlagsgruppe Droemer Knaur.

It should be out at the end of next year or thereabouts. I don’t have many details yet, but I know the translation has been done and I’m really excited about seeing the new front cover and hearing what it will be called in German. More details when I get them. In the meantime, a big thank you to Droemer for publishing the book, to Julia Becker for translating the book, to Michaela Kenklies and Lisette Buchholz for editing the translation, to Suzanne de Roche of the Liepman Agency and my own agent Jane Conway-Gordon for making this happen.

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INTERVIEW WITH SCOTTISH NOVELIST KAREN CAMPBELL!

Today I’m thrilled to present an interview with Karen Campbell. She is the author of five novels: The Twilight TimeAfter the FireShadowplay and Proof of Life - all Hodder & Stoughton. Karen’s new novel This Is Where I Am and is out now, published by Bloomsbury Circus. A graduate of Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters, Karen also teaches creative writing and carries out freelance communications training.

Photo: Ian Watson, Studio Scotland

I recently read her latest novel ‘This Is Where I Am’ and was hugely impressed. The story of the relationship between a Somalian refugee and a Glaswegian volunteer was incredibly moving and life-affirming. Karen’s first four novels are within the crime/police-procedural genre, whilst her fifth novel is somewhat of a departure from this; as Karen explains below, all 5 of her novels have a lot more in common than one might think at first glance. 

Here Karen shares her thoughts on writing, on Glasgow and the Scottish vote, amongst other things:

[1] I understand you attended the Glasgow University creative writing course. How do you feel this helped you as a writer? And how do you feel about creative writing classes in general?

One of the main benefits for me in doing the Masters was that sense of being part of a community of writers and fellow readers, where you could both share work and be inspired.

When you start writing, it tends to be a solitary, hidden thing – almost like a guilty secret you don’t want to mention! And there’s a sense, or a worry maybe,  that you’re ‘getting above yourself’ or being arrogant or self-delusional in some way – when all you’re really trying to do is tell stories, and work out what you and your characters think about life, beliefs, emotions, whatever. Suddenly being with all these other folk who also think the same thoughts as you, who you can talk to and share your work with and not be embarrassed or shy was like someone had turned a light on for me. It wasn’t a prescriptive course – nobody said ‘this is how you write a novel’; it was more about listening to established writers talk about what works for them, being set a few challenges, having your ideas stirred up – and then being left to get on with it – with a bit of nudging and gentle guidance. But I never felt I was being asked to ‘be’ a certain type of writer; only given the space and encouragement to be the best possible writer I could be.

[2] In a previous life, you were a police officer! Your first novels were based around this theme. Your latest novel ‘This is Where I Am’ seems a departure from this. What brought about this change in your choice of subject matter? How was writing this novel a different experience from writing your previous ones?

To me, there’s honestly very little difference with this book and my others. They’re all about social issues, all set in Glasgow. I’ve always said that, with my first four books, I was writing about people who just happened to be cops, but the thrust was always about identity – the public and the private faces we present to the world: lives behind closed doors, behind facades, behind the uniform – and This Is Where I Am  is a variation on that theme. Those faces you pass in the street everyday – who are they? Where are they from? What do they go home to at night? I find all of that fascinating.

Having been a police officer before my kids came along, that was the impetus to start writing the first book – to try and describe what it’s really like to walk down the street in uniform – the same 20 year old girl you were the week before, but with a new ‘status’ imposed on you by the clothes you’re wearing, the expectations and restrictions that places on you, the presumptions folk make about you and so on. With each police book I wrote though, I was pushing myself further and further away from what I knew. For example in the second novel, After the Fire, I write about what happens when a police firearms incident goes wrong. I’ve never been a firearms cop, never even held a gun. So all of that required a lot of research, and every book thereafter was much less about my own experience and more about exploring other lives, about the disparity of what wee ‘bits’ folk see of you and the ‘whole’ you (if there is such a thing!) . So This Is Where I Am feels like a natural extension of this, definitely.

 

[3] ‘This is Where I Am’ tells the story of a Somalian refugee, Abdi, and his Scottish mentor, Deborah. Can you share some of your methods into researching Abdi’s situation and Deborah’s work?

Glasgow has the biggest amount of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland – but it wasn’t until my husband started volunteering for the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), that this ‘issue’ became more personal, about real people like you and me. I couldn’t count how many times I said: ‘You’re joking?’ when Dougie would talk about stuff he’d seen that day: Folk destitute after having their claim for help refused. Asylum seekers left in limbo for six or seven years. Families with children, settled at school after years of living here, being abruptly ‘returned’ to a place their kids no longer knew. And I kept thinking: what if it was me? That was the key for writing ‘This Is Where I Am’.

I started to imagine what it must be like to lose your home, your job, your family and end up in a place you never even knew existed. Like driftwood. The most immediate way in for me was to think of language.  When you go abroad, and you can’t speak the language. You can’t articulate what it is you feel. You feel stupid, vulnerable. Scared. And that’s before you have to start thinking about arguing your case for sanctuary, about battling the system, about remembering what you’ve lost.

I spoke to several refugees and asylum seekers, to try to get the facts right, about refugee camps, about the asylum process , but also to try to build up a picture that went beyond what I might imagine it must feel like to be a refugee. Having my husband working as a volunteer helped hugely with understanding how the SRC charity operates, and what Deb’s role as a volunteer might be within that.  I also did lots of online research, watching documentaries about Dadaab Refugee Camp, reading UN reports etc. But when it came to writing the characters, I had to boil all the facts down to feelings. Abdi is a dad who’s lost his wife. He’s lonely and sad. He’s fled to a foreign country – which is disorientating, and makes him scared and brave in many different ways. He’s trying to get to grips with what he ‘is’ now, who he can trust and what kind of life he can make for himself and his daughter.  Debs is also suffering a loss, and learning how to live in a way she hadn’t planned, so she’s just as confused and vulnerable as Abdi. These are universal emotions –we’ve all felt them. Of course, Abdi’s traumas are far bigger than any I’ve suffered, so I spoke to a doctor and an educational psychologist about the impact these experiences could have. But one of the things that struck me most about the refugees I spoke to was their resilience and their hope, so I tried very much to show that too. This is definitely a hopeful book .

 

Dadaab Refugee Camp

[3] How important is Glasgow to you as a writer? What part does it play in your oeuvre as a whole? I read one review of ‘This is Where I Am’ that said it is a celebration of Glasgow – how do you feel about that view?

That’s a great thing to say! It definitely felt like a bit of a love letter to the city – after writing about some of the darker bits of Glasgow in my police books, I was keen to show off some of the many, many lovely and/or quirky places Glasgow has to offer. Plus, writing from a refugee’s point of view, it forces you to look at the world anew – places that you take for granted can look very different through an outsider’s eyes. For example, Kelvingrove Art Gallery is a splendid, Baroque museum – and it’s free to enter. But, if you didn’t know that, and you saw the man in uniform at the vast, arching front doors, you might not even venture up the steps to look inside. You might actually see it as intimidating instead of welcoming.  Which could be a metaphor for Glasgow…!

Even in the police novels, I always tried to show the light and shade of the city. It is a wonderful place, with beautiful parks and buildings, a really sharp, distinctive identity and a gallus humour that can’t help but seep into the dialogue of the characters I write. But my next two books won’t be set in Glasgow – I think you need to keep stretching yourself away from the familiar if you want to keep ideas sparking. Certainly, I feel I need to do that at the moment. Also, we moved away from Glasgow a few years ago, and now live in rural Galloway – so maybe that has something to do with the change in setting too.

 

[4] ‘This Is Where I Am’ was a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. How was that experience of hearing your book transformed into a sound piece? 

It was amazing. It was the first time I’d had anything adapted, and I’d no involvement in the process at all, so the very first time I heard it was when the initial episode was broadcast. When Abdi spoke, I must admit, I had a wee sniffle – the actor playing him got the voice SO right – Abdi was a multi-faceted man, with a temper and a sense of humour - not a ‘victim’ at all. And Maureen Beattie, who played Deb was also spot on. I’d met Jane Marshall, the producer, in advance and she was so lovely about the book, I knew it would be in safe hands. Obviously, a lot of the ‘side’ stories had to be shaved off for reasons of time, but the essence of the book was all there. Plus radio had some real advantages – there’s a part in the book where Abdi’s daughter hums a Somali lullaby, and Jane managed to track down a recording of this and have it playing in the background of some of the scenes. Which set me off snivelling again..!

[5] Would you like to share your view about the Scotland vote? 

Happy to share! Since the turn of the year, I’ve been speaking at various events across the county on behalf of Yes – as have a huge amount of creatives. This has been such an exhilarating, dynamic process for Scotland, and it’s been a real privilege to be involved. Not many folk get the chance to truly consider: What kind of a country do I want to live in? What do I think about democracy and where it should lie? The Yes movement is such an inclusive, positive campaign – living near the border, I’ve shared a platform with many English Scots who also see the benefits of what our Holyrood Parliament has already done for us, and how, with control of all our resources, we can build a better Scotland. It’s about taking responsibility for our own actions, our people, our policies – all that any nation wants really. Everything’s on a knife edge at the moment, but whatever way the vote goes, folk are so engaged – they’re suggesting a possible 90% turn out, which is amazing for democracy and politics as a whole.

[6] Can you share what you’re working on next? Are you attending any events coming up you’d like to publicise?

Sure. I’ve got a new book that will be coming out with Bloomsbury next spring. It’s called Rise and surprise surprise (see above answer!), it’s set in Scotland in the run-up to the referendum. Essentially it’s about a marriage in crisis and a cuckoo in the nest of that marriage, who brings her own problems to bear, but it’s also about how you feel safe, and where you call home when you carry your shadow with you. And I’m just back from Italy, where I’ve been doing a bit of research (involving much wine and pasta…) for the book I’m starting now, about the US Buffalo soldiers in Tuscany in WW2. I’ve never attempted a historical book before, so am way out of my comfort zone! But the story’s been nudging at me for 3 years now and I can start to feel the characters forming in my head – in fact, I wrote the first 500 words today. Only 89,500 to go!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Karen-Campbell/dp/1408857928/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410530783&sr=1-1&keywords=karen+campbell+rise

Thanks so much to Karen for such fascinating responses. Please look out for her books in your next bookshop browse and I’d particularly recommend ‘This Is Where I Am’ as an excellent read. 

To find out more about Karen and her work, check out her website here:

http://www.karencampbell.co.uk/

and her Wikipedia page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Campbell

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INTERVIEW WITH KATHERINE CLEMENTS!

Today is paperback publication today for the excellent historical novel THE CRIMSON RIBBON. To celebrate, I’ve interviewed Katherine about her writing and here it is, including my original review of her debut.

[1] Why have you been drawn to this period of English history in particular? What appeals to you about this period? And what aspects of it make you glad you live in the C21st?!

I first became interested in the 17th century after reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful novel Restoration. I began reading history about the period and was fascinated by some of the historical figures and the English Civil Wars. As I learned more about the revolution I came to understand what an important time it was in British history.

What appeals to me is the way that society was recognisably modern in some ways, for example we see the beginnings of the Enlightenment, the birth of an uncensored press, the establishment of parliamentary democracy and radical political ideas that still seem pertinent today, but all in the context of a religious, superstitious, patriarchal society that still feels mysterious and alien. I became interested in women’s experiences during the civil war years, because it was a time of upheaval when many norms were challenged. There are numerous stories of women doing extraordinary things and I wanted to explore that. Having said that, the position of women in the society of the time makes me very glad I live now, along with the obvious things like modern medicine, running water and sewerage systems!

 

[2] Your novel involves two extraordinary women. What did you learn about the position of women in this period and what did you feel was important to you in rendering this aspect?

What struck me early on about the real Elizabeth Poole’s story was the limit of her political influence. Here was someone who tried to make a difference – regardless of her questionable motives – and it was unusual for a woman to attempt that. She wasn’t alone – in fact the civil war period saw a big increase in women becoming more overtly political – but ultimately the impact they had was restricted. Sometimes, women who spoke out were condemned as mad, licentious, or both. I very much wanted to tell the story of these women who were on the edge of acceptable society, acknowledging how courageous it would have been to speak out.

[3] The title of the novel can be read as a metaphor for some of the themes within it. How do you feel ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ echoes throughout the narrative as an image?

The title actually came quite late but I was always conscious that the imagery of the crimson ribbon was significant. The use of ribbons in hand-fasting ceremonies was an influence, plus the association of the colour red with other key themes and ideas. To quote the book: “Red – the colour of passion, the colour of the Army, the colour of blood”. I’ll say no more because I don’t want to give spoilers, and I prefer to let people make up their own minds, but it’s been incredibly interesting to see how readers interpret it.

[4] Can you describe the planning stages of writing your novels? What part does research play and how do you tend to organise this? What work do you do in terms of planning the plot and character?

I’m still finding my way with this. For The Crimson Ribbon I planned very little but spent an awful lot of time reading and researching the historical background. I wrote a first draft, planning as I went, then rewrote several times. It was laborious, but during those years I learned a lot about how to write a book (and how not to!).

The second time around has been quite different, as I’ve been working to a deadline. Again, research has been a significant part of the early workload but the plot was planned more thoroughly. Working with real historical figures and events gives me a structure upon which to build the story. This can be a blessing and a curse, but it’s a useful starting point, and I do love a good timeline! I like to work on every character, making sure they all have a backstory and clear motivations. All this work might not make it into the final piece but it needs to be done. It’s the same with research; I need to know much more than will ever go into the book.

Any plans I make will always change as I write, but I like to have an idea of where I’m headed. At the end of each writing day I try and plan out what comes next. It helps me to keep going. I keep researching throughout – there’s always more to know and things that need to be checked.

 

[5] Can you share anything about what you’re working on now? Also, do you have any events coming up you want to publicise?

I’ve almost finished work on my second novel – as yet untitled – which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. The legend tells of a noble-born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new. It will be out in 2015.

I’ve got a few events coming up in the autumn. I’m particularly looking forward to visiting Toppings bookshop in Ely on 26th September, because of the local connection with The Crimson Ribbon. It’ll be great to visit Ely again, now the book is out. I’m also looking forward to taking part in an event on witchcraft at the Harrogate History Festival in October.

 

Here’s my review for THE CRIMSON RIBBON:

Tautly constructed and beautifully written,I was gripped from the first page. Not for the faint-hearted, Clements writes about her era with honesty and does not flinch from the more unsavoury details of everyday life. Her characters are believable and compelling. There are plot twists I did not predict for a moment, and I pride myself on being able to spot a good twist a mile off! We follow the protagonist through some harrowing events and will her to triumph in the end. The historical context is so well wrought, I could see, hear and smell my way through Civil War England. I would recommend this novel to anyone who likes a great historical page-turner, yet also appreciates accomplished patterns of imagery and other advanced literary techniques. It is also a fascinating examination of friendships and love. Overall, a winner. Well done to the author! I predict great success…

Thanks very much to Katherine for her insightful and fascinating answers and I wish her all the very best of luck and success with her super debut novel. Happy Publication Day, Katherine!

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EDINBURGH BOOKFEST REPORT!

Just back from the Edinburgh International Book Festival and we all had an AMAZING time. Here’s what we got up to. 

First we checked into our lovely Hotel Tigerlily, just down the road from Charlotte Square, then a short hop down the road to the festival itself.

We loved the venue for the festival - Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, taken over by a melee of tents and walkways, full of bookshops, cafes, writers and readers and general chatty loveliness. The weather was sunshiny-showery but the rain didn’t matter as we just listened to the raindrops on the canvas well protected from the downpour.

We had a wander round the bookshop before checking in and Poppy made a beeline for a certain book she spotted on the Today at the Festival shelf:

We saw that my venue had been changed - to a bigger tent! (Perhaps more tickets had sold than was expected…who knows!)

Firstly, I had an appointment with photographer Chris Close, who has been producing a wonderful exhibition of pictures of the authors at the festival. Simon took some photos of me having my photo taken! Chris was very chatty and nice and put me at my ease. I’m not used to this sort of thing! And it all seems very odd, when I’ve been sitting alone in my study for all these years…

And here’s Chris’s final picture, up in the festival exhibition. Looks brilliant, Chris! Thank you.

Then we went into the Authors’ Yurt where I needed to check in. We were all welcomed and given our backstage passes:

Even Poppy’s cat Chester required identification…

The Yurt is like a green room for the participants and is very chilled out and relaxed, with nice things to drink and nibble on. We saw quite a few of the great and good around and about, including Simon Armitage, Menzies Campbell, John Mullan and Haruki Murakami. Soon after, my fellow event friend Debbie Taylor arrived - author of Herring Girl and editor of Mslexia - and our chair Julia Eccleshare, Guardian children’s fiction editor. We had a chat through our event and how we wanted to order things, and then my lovely editor Suzie Doore arrived. 

I was starting to feel pretty nervous, but with Simon, Poppy and Suzie to reassure me - and hearing that my mum and brother Robert had arrived at the venue - cheered me up and took my mind off things. Here’s Simon - my rock - proudly wearing his lanyard in the yurt:

Debbie and I were asked to do a photo call with some press photographers (where I stood very awkwardly, feeling extremely self-conscious - sorry to those photographers if I presented a rather stiff and terrified demeanour!) and then we were set up with microphones - thanks to my sound lady who lent me her little shoulder bag to pop my microphone in, as I didn’t have any pockets!

And here we are, our little family, chilling out in the wonderful Authors’ Yurt:

We walked over to the venue and I met Roland Gulliver, the deputy director of the festival and very busy and all-round very nice chap.

Now it was time to go in, and I had to swallow my nerves, especially when we went up on the stage and saw perhaps 40 people or so sitting before us. I was thrilled though to see so many people, as I wondered if (apart from Debbie’s many fans) if my contingent would basically be my family and my editor and that’s it! So it was wonderful to see all those nice people there and I thank all of you for coming!

Here we are, me, Debbie and Julia doing out stuff on stage at the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre:

We both did some readings from our books and discussed child characters, voice and style. There was only time for one question from the audience, sadly, as I was really interested to hear what our audience wanted to know about. Our question was from a young lady who is a writer herself and asked a very interesting query about how to keep on track with a long manuscript when you keep getting waylaid by criticism and editing and other interruptions. Our consensus was to just keep writing and not over-edit as you go along, as you’re more likely to break the flow. Perhaps don’t even show it anyone before you’ve finished a first draft, as other voices can interfere with your own. Yet we agreed too that all writers are different and some will spend hours over one paragraph before moving onto the next, but that’s not how Debbie and I do it presently, and that suits us.

Afterwards, we were in the festival bookshop to meet some audience members and sign some books. 

It was so lovely to meet all of you lovely people who came to buy books - thank you so much - and to hear your interesting questions too.

So, the main event was done and I could relax a bit! I did enjoy it hugely in the end but I was pretty shaky beforehand and glad it was time for ice cream! Then my family and Suzie all went to a restaurant called Gusto just down the road. Here are Poppy and I outside it later on that evening:

But the festival wasn’t over for me yet, as I had kindly been asked by Roland Gulliver if I’d do another reading from THE VISITORS for an evening event in the Guardian Spiegel tent for Jura Unbound at 9pm. So, after saying a fond goodbye to my lovely mum and brother Rob (very sad to see them go and very grateful they came), we headed back over to the square, which was looking very sparkly and atmospheric in the darkness. 

I have to admit I was more nervous about this bit than any of it! I’ve never done a stand-up reading to a microphone on stage before, and the lights were very bright and I was all a bit wobbly and starstruck! I rather like this image Simon took below, with the hazy lights shining and the mysterious darkness beyond, as that just about sums up my state of mind as I stepped up there!

But I got through it and the audience were very polite and listened beautifully - thank you to everyone there. A delightful young lady called Eleni came up afterwards to get her book signed too, which was lovely.

And we were done! A wander round the bookshop, a cup of Earl Grey and a chocolate brownie later, and we were finally in bed for the night, ready for our day of sightseeing in the morning.

After a fabulous breakfast at Tigerlily we hit Edinburgh. The castle in the morning:

with amazing views of this beautiful city of Edinburgh:

and down the Royal Mile, with all its wonderful street performers on the way:

Next was a quick visit to the amazing Blackwell’s Bookshop on 3 floors in the heart of the city, where I’d been kindly asked to sign some stock by Ellie, who was also the one who told us to visit the Museum of Scotland (more on that later - thank Ellie, it was brilliant!) We were met by the lovely Ewa who looked after us and was very interesting to talk to. All the books had been lovingly prepared - thanks guys!

Then we found a lovely great pile of them on the festival display table:

And on to the brilliant Museum of Scotland in the afternoon, where we could have happily stayed all day, there was so much fascinating stuff to see:

A wonderful museum, highly recommended and FREE! Thanks to all the brilliant staff there. We had to rush off to get our train and though we were all shattered, we did not want to leave beautiful Edinburgh, particularly as there was still so much to see.

All photos by our resident expert photographer, my lovely fella AKA Simon.

So that was Edinburgh. Thanks to Simon and Poppy, my mum, my brother Robert and my editor Suzie for coming along. It was an honour to be invited, a privilege to appear with Debbie Taylor, Julia Eccleshare and my fellow participants in Jura Unbound. Thanks also to all the audience members and book buyers who came - it was wonderful to see you all there. And thank you so much to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a wonderful experience and a weekend that all three of us will never forget.