Matt Haig on Ten Reasons Not To Be A Writer

The Humans

Matt Haig currently has a novel out (‘The Humans’ – I haven’t read it but I’m going to) and he frequently shares funny Facebook posts, which for reasons you will see, I read as frequently as he puts them up, and has written some great blogs for BookTrust. This is the latest and… well, it made me laugh and if any of you are reading this blog for tips on being a writer, or wondering what a writer’s life is really like… This is probably the best revelation you’ll find.

Elsewhere, Matt has written about the wonder of being a writer – and it’s true that on the day that you write well, or someone else tells you that you write well, that it’s as if the sun shone everywhere and Smarties grew on trees. There’s no better feeling. But ecstasy is necessarily rare, and so are the writer’s high points.

Mind you, I’m still doing it. I know, I’m very lucky.

Read Matt Haig’s blog here: 10 Reasons Not To Be A Writer

Something Dangerous by Penny Vincenzi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve just pressed the last click on my Kindle (hmmm, it’s not got quite the same ring as ‘turned the last page’, has it?) and finished ‘Something Dangerous’ by Penny Vincenzi. It’s a fabulous book. A proper family saga, that stretches from 1928 until after the Second World War. There’s a vivid host of characters and I got completely swept up in it – again, doing rather more reading than writing. I was intrigued to read a Vincenzi book, partly because she’s the mother of a friend of mine (Sophie Cornish, with whom I wrote the ‘Build A Business From Your Kitchen Table’ book) but also because she’s a successful – very – novelist, former journalist, and I think one sometimes hopes to be able to detect the magic formula that made it work for her.

One can’t, of course. Each writer is different, each reader is different. But there were lots of things about her book that I thought really worked (and, reader, if you think I’m gushing because of the connection, I’ll tell you now, if I thought it was rubbish, you wouldn’t even know I’d read it). The rich variety of characters, for one, and the way she slipped from writing from all their different points of view. This is VERY hard to do – to have all the different voices, and yet keep the book consistent and keep the reader attached. But she made it very fluid – I found it, oddly, much less disruptive than the current fashion for having alternate chapters for two central characters.

The attention to historical detail was brilliant – just a smattering, just enough for you to know she knew what she was talking about. The names of the fashionable designers, then, or the Society names (she had two Fellowes’s in there – Mrs Reginald Fellowes, a well-known hostess and Daisy Fellowes, a beauty), the clubs they went to, the details of the big events being played out on the world stage and how they infiltrated and infected the smallest of domestic concerns. Sensing how reliable this knowledge is, makes one very comfortable with the rest and gives the right context – a made-up successful author is very quickly believable when set alongside casual mention of Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, for example.

She uses a lot of dialogue, without doing huge tracts of ‘he said’, ‘she said’. These exchanges took me longer to get comfortable with, just because of the use of the period colloquialisms (a bit like reading dialect, which I personally always find difficult). But it was still the right thing for her to do, and it got one into the characters, and helped you recognise them as got further into the book, to feel almost intimately familiar with them. But they also became a brilliant plot device, as conversations would start and you wouldn’t immediately know what it was referring to and you have an enjoyable guessing game.

Vincenzi is an absolute master of setting up tension. I’ve not been on tenterhooks so many times within one book. Two characters will be racing against time in one way or another and because it’s such a big saga, with so many people, there’s just no telling how it will turn out. So many times I either sighed with relief; others, I wept.

And for me, this was a great book because it absolutely tackled a fascinating time in history. A time when women who lost their lovers and brothers to the horrors of the First World War, then found they had to send their sons to the same in the Second World War. I’ve read less around the subject of the latter war, and I was very moved by the descriptions of the bombings in London, the emotional tiredness everyone suffered just to keep going, the people who abhorred the war, the ones who loved it.

Oh, and terrific sex scenes, too.

I’m rather bereft it’s over now. But very exited because 1) there are two more books in the trilogy to read (idiotically, I’ve only just realised this) and 2) I’ve decided I’m going to ask her out to lunch and try to find out more about how she did it. I’ll keep you posted.

If you want to buy the book yourself, go here: Amazon.co.uk

Although you should probably not do as I did, and start with the first of the trilogy – No Angel.

Enjoy!

Reading with mother

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I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately… Life, as usual, getting in the way of plans. But also because every spare minute has been devoted to reading. I am a big reader, anyway, always have been. Since I was 16 years old, I’ve kept a record of every book read – largely because my memory is hopeless and I can’t remember what I’ve read otherwise. I once read a book twice and didn’t realise the second time until about two-thirds of the way through – and it shows that on average I read about 25 books a year, sometimes a lot more, sometimes a lot less. (At the start of a love affair, I hardly read at all.)

As I want to pursue more writing around the period of the 1920s, I’ve been reading around and about that time. At first I thought I was looking forward to re-reading some of my favourites from that time – A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, the Collected Works of Dorothy Parker. But I’ve read each of those several times, and as enjoyable as reading them again always is (I keep them by my bedside at all times, like a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard, there for when quick comfort is needed) I’m hungry for new details, new stories, new people.

So I’ve been reading the famous quartet by Antonia White, I’m halfway through the last one now and already dreading the final page because I don’t know what will satisfy me afterwards. It may mean another six months of colour supplements and newspapers because nothing can compare, so why bother? Hopefully, it’ll drive me on to read more and even better, or  best of all, it’ll inspire me to write.

The first book is Frost In May, based on White’s early years at a Catholic convent school. Published in 1930 it was an instant hit. The following three books, which all feature the same heroine, were written more slowly, thanks to Antonia’s suffering from various mental conditions – from writer’s block to nervous breakdown. She also married and divorced in the 1930s.

The four books were republished by Virago in the early 1980s, after her death, and were an instant bestseller. I remember my mother reading them then and her devastation when she’d finished them all. (She didn’t read anything for six months afterwards.) All my life I’ve waited to share this experience with my mother – she became ill with premature senile dementia in 1998 and died almost eight years ago. It’s been a strange feeling, to read the words I knew she read and loved, and think about how they affected her, what they might have meant to her and what they mean to me. It’s a reminder that books pull us all together in so many different ways.

As well as that, the first-hand feeling of being alongside someone living in that time is exquisite. The language used – binge, old girl, fancy, my dear –descriptions of the clothes worn, the passions felt, the ambitions of the young women, the repressed, frustrated emotional lives of the men…. So much the same, so much different.

White’s writing is subtle in its brilliance: deceptively simple, you think it’s almost childlike to write things down just as they happened. And then you realise how hard that is to do. She’s at her best when her heroine is frustrated in her ability to communicate with those around her – whether they are stunted in their understanding because of their religious orthodoxy, or because they are men with their own ideas for her, or because they are drunk. Equally, she is kind to the sweethearts who deserve it and chillingly cold with the stupid, who don’t. It’s a lesson in how to write and be so sublimely easy to read, as delicious and intoxicating as a Pimms on a hot day.

You can start here: Frost In May by Antonia White

Currently reading…

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Abdication by Juliet Nicholson – this is the book I am currently very much enjoying. Juliet and I spoke together at the Charleston Literary Festival a week or so ago. She’s also the author of Perfect Summer (about 1911) and The Great Silence (about 1919) – two well-researched, compelling non-fiction reads, that I have drawn on for the Downton books. This is her first novel. It has in the background the story of the Prince of Wales and Mrs Wallis Simpson and is reliably full of brilliant period detail; but the love story of a female chauffeuse and a firebrand upper class young man is just as enticing and delicious to read.