Tuesday, 24 July 2012
I'm looking for some lessons in South Indian cooking because I've just heard that I've landed a two book deal in the U.S. with Touchstone Books, which is part of Simon and Schuster. In recessionary times you don't take anything for granted, and I know plenty of wonderful writers whose overseas sales are right down, so this is very exciting news. All I'm allowed to say for now about my next book is that it takes place in 1924 and 1948 in Oxfordshire and a small village in Kerala, and it's about the pleasures and perils of a mixed race marriage. Some might say that all of my books have a section set in faraway places so that I have an excuse to travel there to research them. If that's true, then who can blame me? It may be sunny today in Wales, but it's a rare and beautiful exeperience.
Monday, 11 June 2012
It's been quite a month,with the publication in the U.K. and the U.S. of 'Jasmine Nights,'bringing the usual mix of nerves and excitement, plus a visit from darling daughter who lives in Sydney,followed by floods and rain in Wales, the arrival of a new collie, Jelly Bean (O.K. I didn't choose the name.) plus lots of lovely emails from readers. One reader pointed out that Saba, the heroine in 'Jasmine Nights,' is, like Catherine Carrag in 'The Water Horse': a bolter. I hadn't thought about this before, but when I did, I realised that I've always been fascinated by bolters- Nancy Mitford’s perfect description of women who make a dash for freedom. In East of the Sun too, my girls are runaways- towards new jobs, new countries, new lives, or unsuitable adventures in a stranger’s arms. The reasons why I’m drawn to such escapes would make no dent in an analyst’s couch. I was an Air Force brat. As a child, I changed schools, houses, often countries, every two and a half years. If this emotionally scarred me,I was either too thick or too distracted by new schools and new houses to notice it. But what it does mean is that restlessness is bred in the bone. Which is why I love writing historical fiction: it gives me a perfect grown up excuse to scratch that itch periodically- roughly every two years and a half years come to think of it. My first book came by chance on a long distance horse ride across Wales where I live, and where the mountains and valleys are criss-crossed by drover’s roads -wide green grassy tracks that were once the only way of delivering sheep and cattle to the meat markets of London. We stopped to give the horses a rest; I saw a small plaque outside a tiny country church. It commemorated a woman called Jane Evans who, in 1853, ran away with the drovers in order to join Florence Nightingale and her nurses in Scutari during the Crimean War. My skin prickled when I read this: for many of the fifteen years I’d been a journalist I’d secretly, passionately, longed to write a novel, and here it was, and it was a travelling book. My second book, ‘East of the Sun,’ was another good excuse for bolting, now officially called research. I think of this book with great emotion- I wrote it in my fifties and its success changed so much in my life. My young girls saw India through romantic eyes. You meet them at a huge moment of change: they are separating themselves from their parents, their culture, to some extent, their old values. To understand them, I had to strip away layers of cynicism and false thinking, common sense and hard experience and see myself at 18 or 19 and relatively innocent again. 'Jasmine Nights,' led to more travels: last year to Cairo and Turkey, where I interviewed Turkish nightclub singers and spies. One of the best bits of the Egyptian part of the trip was taking a 1930's Cox and Kings paddle steamer up the Nile. I was struck by the extraordinary unspoilt beauty of the river itself, with its lush green banks, the timeless villages, the glowing sunsets all framed by our cabin windows. The wonderful things we saw inside the Valley of the Kings reminded me of Flaubert's quote on his Egyptian tour: "I have taken in so much beauty through my eyes, I hope I can bring some of it back.' Back in Cairo, I explored some of the places my ENSA troupe might have hung out: Groppis for ice creams, The Mena House Hotel for parties, and the souks behind Tahir Square where Arleta bought her disastrous hair dye. I was lucky too to find a man called John Rodenbeck, an academic and writer, who had lived for over 20 years in Cairo, who edited Mafouz the wonderful Nobel prizewinning author. John's numerous emails on the language, the music, the poetry the richness of life in Egypt were a revelation and became, for me, like a parallel education adding hugely to the enjoyment of writing the book.. He was adamant that I should avoid what he called, 'The Hollywood Hokum' version of Egypt, a trap he says many Western writers fall into. ***