Sunday, August 25, 2013

My notebook goes on holiday - without me

It is common for writers to follow in the footsteps of their more august predecessors, either literally or metaphorically. It’s less usual for their notebooks to do it for them. But that’s just what mine has done. The original footsteps are those of Robert Louis Stevenson, he of Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde fame. When the great Scot was still in his twenties he spent twelve days hiking through the Cévennes, a wild and beautiful region of Languedoc, along the southern edge of the Massif Central. The result was a highly readable travelogue entitled  Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1878) , the donkey being Modestine, who emerged as one of the more vivid  – and indeed sympathetic – characters in the book. (It seems a good few of the locals were decidedly wary of the RLS, and kept their distance.)

I was near the Cévennes earlier this summer, and took with me a notebook, as I always do when travelling. It was rather a nice one - a gift - leather bound with a hard cover. I wrote many notes for The Valley of Unknowing in it, and I had I stuck to things literary, I might never have lost it. Unfortunately on this trip I used it to write down directions to a nearby supermarket (and a shopping list, for shame!) and then left it in the trolley, on one of those little fold-out seats used to torture small children.  I could never have suspected that the next person to use that particular trolley would be a man from the Cévennes, who makes a living taking visitors through the region on donkeys; but that’s just what Christian Brochier does.  (I am told that his donkeys are as lovely as Modestine was, but that the locals are now a good deal friendlier.  Nor are you required, as RLS was, to share a bed with any of them – unless you want to.)

A few weeks later, the notebook turned up again in England with a card from M. Brochier, in which he wrote: “I thank you for this moment of poesy and adventure in the great temple of consumption. I felt like a detective trying to resolve the question of the lost booklet – important for somebody, probably for a book or a film – and was especially puzzled by the map with the shops.”

I think the great writer would have understood this reaction very well. And I offer M Brochier my sincere thanks for his kindness.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Young girl in an old town

Where she discovers the thrill and danger of other people's door-knockers. And more besides...

Back home again I find this nice review from the Irish Examiner.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Pleurisy, Nabokov and me

I recently wrote this short piece for the Vintage books blog about how I got into writing fiction, which I largely put down to a nasty lung infection contracted in the Andes at the age of twenty. The accompanying pictures, put through my rather rudimentary scanner, have come out looking like they were taken about 100 years ago using a Box Brownie, but maybe that all adds to the general sense of ancient history... 

Digging them out, I found myself wondering what happened to my two companions on that journey, Vanessa and Julia, both then students at New Hall. One I know spent a long time in Madrid working for Reuters (we met up there c.1990 when I too was journalistically employed there). The other became an expert on China, a while before it became a manufacturing superpower. More than that, I do not know...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Small girl, BIG greenhouse

Katja at the Palm House, Kew Gardens, last Saturday. For my part, a nice break from First World War murder and mayhem... And the children love it there.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sharing the I-phone

They were watching a YouTube video of a song from Guys and Dolls... Nice to know the classics haven't lost their magic.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A new slant on 'The Valley'

The new Vintage paperback edition of The Valley of Unknowing comes out just after Easter. This is the new cover, front and back (below). I don't know whether this photograph was taken in Dresden or not, but I do know it was taken in the former GDR. At my suggestion the figure in the foreground was 'enhanced' - which in this case means made to look less fat.
If only life could be Photoshopped as easily as a black & white photograph, we'd all be much better off. Or would we ...?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

Watch the trailer for this upcoming feature documentary No Fire Zone. It reports on the mass slaughter of civilians by the Sri Lankan government in 2009 - a crime to which much of the world, including the UN, wilfully closed its eyes.

Well, it's about time they were opened. Tell your friends.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Five books for 'The Wall Street Journal'

Following the publication of The Valley of Unknowing in the United States, I was invited to contribute a piece to a regular arts column in The Wall Street Journal. In 'Five Best' writers describe five favourite books on a particular theme; in my case 'Life behind the Iron curtain'. Encouraged by the editor to delve deep into the dustiest recesses of the bookshelf, I came up with these titles, each one from a different part of the former Soviet bloc. In their very different ways they're all superb, and you can read why I think so in last Saturday's column here. Annoyingly, my copy of Sandro of Chegem disappeared years ago, and copies are now quite hard to find in the UK. Even my agent, whose knowledge of these things is famously encyclopaedic, was unable to remember the publisher.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Leo creates an Installation

But then we needed the table for lunch... So much for Ars Longa and all that...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Interview with a Siren

I recently did a Q&A with the up-and-coming American book blog Sirens of Suspense, which is run by the distinctly siren-like Chantelle Osman. Rather than focus on any one book, she was interested in looking at all of them, and seeing how they all fitted together. The result is below:

Unlike many authors with a historical bent, you don't specialize in one era. Your books are all very different, in both theme and location—pre-WWII Berlin (The Einstein Girl), Revolutionary Russia (Zoia's Gold), Communist East Germany (The Valley of Unknowing) — and require a lot of research. Tell me a little bit about what inspires your choices? Are these periods of history that have always interested you? Do you have a wish-list of places/times you'd like to visit with your work?

I don’t deliberately choose a setting, and then look for a story that will work there – at least not consciously. The premise comes first, and in developing that premise I will set the story in whatever times and places work best. That said, modern European history took up most of my studies at university, and I’ve retained an interest in the subject ever since. I guess that, for me, places like Berlin or Dresden or Stockholm are close enough to be familiar, and yet just far enough away to feel challenging and different. But if a good story idea came along that demanded a contemporary non-European setting, then that’s what I would write.
I don’t have a wish-list of places to use as a setting. It would be nice to have that degree of control over my literary destiny! But, as I said, I’m pretty much at the service of the story, and go where it tells me to go.

Your latest novel, The Valley of Unknowing, features protagonist Bruno Krug who embodies both the author's dream come true and worst nightmare. He garnered great fame and success with his debut novel, but has been unable to write anything half as good since. Was it emotionally challenging to put yourself in his shoes? Can you talk a little bit about creating Bruno, and also a bit about the political nature of creative endeavours in Communist East Germany?

The fact that Bruno is a novelist made writing about him more enjoyable for me that it might otherwise have been. I got to exorcise some demons, and to draw on my own experiences as a writer in developing his perspectives and attitudes – even though some of Bruno’s more literary reflections didn’t survive beyond the first draft! Bruno is in part a product of his childhood experiences (his most famous book is called The Orphans of Neustadt), and of German history; but his life as a writer also informs – or misinforms – his view of the world. In fact, Bruno can’t help but see his life as a living fiction; it’s almost the only way he can make any sense of it. (Some readers have pointed out that since The Valley of Unknowing is a novel, Bruno is right on the money, but I think you can be too clever about these things!)

Your father was an industrial chemist and your mother an officer in British Intelligence. What led you to the written word? Did your parents foster this love at an early age?

My parents were supportive of anything and everything I wanted to do; so it was always up to me. I was first drawn to the theatre, and it was in that area where I first tried my hand – very tentatively – at writing. I was at university then. I subsequently turned to prose fiction because working solo was really the only avenue open to me, my studies being over. Once I was on that road, I found it increasingly difficult to get off! Part of me still gets very excited, though, about the performing arts, because I love creative collaborations (at least, when they work!). I have co-written one play, which saw a number of successful fringe productions. I would write more, but I don’t think anyone would pay me to do it!

Every mystery/thriller author would probably kill (excuse the pun) to have a parent who was, for all intents and purposes, a spy. Is this as exciting as we all imagine? Did her work at all prompt the uncovering of secrets that is a common thread in your books?

For much of her career in intelligence, my mother worked alone behind the Iron Curtain without the protection of diplomatic immunity. This was highly unusual, especially for a young woman, and I think it was exciting for her, although not infrequently frightening as well. However, her story only became known to me when I was an adult. I suppose it is possible that years of obvious tact, and a certain guardedness about the past, may have influenced my outlook subliminally, but I’d probably have to go into psychoanalysis to know for sure! Certainly I am drawn to characters who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. That much I can say.

Earlier in your career you collaborated with mystery writer Gary Humphreys for a series of books under the name Patrick Lynch which focused on developments medicine and biotechnology. Unlike those forward-looking novels, your more recent work ties to the past. What prompted this change?

I’ve always had an interest in science – another family trait, this time from my father’s side. The six Patrick Lynch novels were all built around nightmares; dramatic and disturbing events made possible by the advent of new biotechnologies or by Man’s (witting or unwitting) impact on the natural world. They were carefully researched and quite journalistic books. When I began to focus on my solo work, I suppose I was probably ready for a change of mood and a change of scene. Contemporary Sweden and revolutionary Russia were what came along (in Zoia’sGold); and that pretty much suited the bill. More historical novels followed from that, although The Valley of Unknowing, being set in the late 1980s, does not strictly qualify as ‘historical’ by the most common definition. I’m quite happy about that, actually.

What's coming next for you?

I have two writing projects for the New Year. I’m going to start drafting a book set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. The starting point here has been some largely forgotten - but I think extraordinary – aspects of the conflict, and it’s going to be taking me into some dark territory. I may also be collaborating on a big screen adaptation of my previous novel The Einstein Girl, which was optioned last summer. It’s more than four years since I worked on that book, and the prospect of helping craft a screenplay is very enticing.