Thursday, 1 July 2010

Prince Maurice Prize

Winning the Prince Maurice Prize for East of the Sun was a terrific and unexpected thrill for me. The whole affair could so easily have been the perfect set up for an Agatha Chrtistie: 'Three short listed authors are flown to a remote island together- only one can win.....' but it wasn't like that at all . Everyone felt they'd won simply by being shortlisted- the hotel was divine and we had a week of great conversations, good laughs, and what is dryly called cultural exchange- in our case teaching in local schools.

On day two as Sadie Jones and I swam through brilliant blue sea towards an island we looked at each other and burst out laughing. What part of the struggling writer script was this ? Sadie, author of the Outcast and Small Wars, had arrived after a fourteen hour flight with drunken Germans from the Hay Festival. (Germans so drunk I have to add, that they had to be lassoed to their seats). I'd come from raining Wales, and here we were at this five and half star hotel .(Did you know they existed over five stars ? - me neither), with the infinity pool stretching out to the Indian ocean, the floating restaurant, wonderful rooms. thermal spa. For me, the most nerve wracking moments of the week came on day one. Each author had to talk to the judges on the theme of love in our books. I was first to go. During my presentation, I was sitting about two and half foot from Sebastian Faulk (a hero because he wrote Birdsong). In the end, I enjoyed myself : Viva, Rose and Tor, the characters in my book felt very present as we sat at dusk with the sun setting over the Indian ocean behind us.

A spirited discussion followed in which we all agreed that to write convincingly about love without sounding sentimental, half witted or unreal, is one of a writers more difficult challenges. Talking to the other writers about their work and their lives was a rivet - although the intellectual discussions did slip a bit on the night we all murdered a few of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Beatles hits on the beach. Classic song book stuff. Teaching at local Mauritian schools was another highlight. The British Council ran a short story competition while we were there- the prizes included lap tops, and language lessons and a master class with the English and Mauritian writers who were part of the judging panel. During one class I taught, I asked the 15-16 year old girls to write a letter to themselves at 20 ,to say where they'd hoped to be. One girl wrote that she wasn't all that keen on herself at 16, and she didn't imagine much would change when she was 20 either. The next day, when her name was called out for a major prize in the short story writing competition, I watched her face split into the most incredulous and incredible grin. Dreams can come true, as I was well aware because the most surprising moment of the week for me was during the gala evening on the last night, when my name was read out as the overall winner. I had convinced myself that Sadie would win for her wonderful book,'Small Wars.' and had no speech prepared.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Jasmine Nights

Back in Istanbul to research my new book, provisionally titled JASMINE NIGHTS, and set in Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul in 1942. This time on my own and staying at the Avicenna Hotel in Sultanahmet in a converted Ottoman mansion - built out of wood. The trip was a bit of a shot in the arm, after a freezing cold winter in Wales (- we'd actually gone tobogganing on our field and been snowed in for a week).

On my first day in Istanbul I walked my feet off the first day with John Dyson, an English translator, musician and writer man, who lives out there permanently, speaks fluent Turkish and who is translating the book of an Ottoman Sultan. He knew the city so well I was lucky to find him. One of the pleasures of researching books is the almost spooky way in which the right person seems to show up at the right time to help. For instance, my heroine in this book is a half -Turkish half -English singer, and one of my aims was to find out how differently a Turkish singer and an English singer might approach a song. The first person I spoke to at the hotel, a delightful, pretty girl called Gulsah Dumy, was half Turkish and half English and wrote songs.

That night, I had dinner in a Russian restaurant with a well known Turkish singer called Sema. This was not a coincidence a friend had found her on the internet. Sema was a find too. She was funny and warm and voluble (she reminded me of the Turkish version of Bette Midler) and quite undeterred when half way through our conversation a four piece band booted up their balalaikas and accordians and bellowed, 'My Way,' in Russian in our ears. I've been playing Sema's new CD (Sema Ekho) while I work. The cover shows Sema feathered, veiled, hennaed and red lipped giving the camera a very saucy look.

During our conversation she told me that in certain parts of Aetolia girls from peasant families are still given away much like you'd give a horse or a sheep in marriage. Some get their own back by singing lullabies to their parents in which they complain bitterly about the raw deal they got. A wedding planner's nightmare, but what a brilliant wheeze.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Band of Angels

I'm excited because my first book, THE WATER HORSE, is about to be published in the U.S. with a new title, BAND OF ANGELS and a new and beautiful cover.

The story, which stayed in my notebook for years, began in 2003 when I set off on a retired show jumper, Fred, to ride across Wales. On my way home, I stopped at a village called Pumpsaint in mid-Wales where I saw a church plaque commemorating a woman called Jane Evans who, in 1853, ran away with the Welsh cattle drovers in order to nurse with Florence Nightingale in Scutari. I tried to find out what I could about Jane Evans, but drew a complete blank for the very simple reason that few of the nurses wrote anything down because most were illiterate. I decided then with great trepidation to try and write a novel. That lead to a number of walks and long distance rides across Wales, to explore the drover's tracks and later, a trip to Turkey with my then 80 year old mother - who was always game for a laugh.

It was snowing when we arrived, and on the first day, I took a ferry ride to check out what was then called the Barrack Hospital at Scutari on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus where Florence Nightingale and the nurses lived. The hospital - gaunt and terrifying even today - is now a military installation, but amazingly, when I asked if I could look at the tiny rat infested tower where the nurses had first slept, it was still there. Florence Nightingale's room was below. Her green chaise longue and her writing desk and her pens were all laid out as if she'd popped out briefly to tell the nurses off for being noisy, (they were an uruly gang) or to supervise the feeding of some beef jelly to a patient.

When I joined my mother again she was having a ciggie and a glass of wine in the lobby Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul the hotel where Agatha Christie is said to have mysteriously fled to when she found out that her husband had been unfaithful to her. Somehow, my mother had got us invited to a Turkish wedding that night, by a friend of the bridegroom, a boy with magnificent dark eyes.

The wedding was great fun: tables groaning with food, lots of cymbals and wailing instruments and men dancing like Zorba. Late in the evening we were dragged onto the dance floor by a portly man who reminded me of the P.G. Wodehouse toff who'd ' been poured into his dinner suit and forgotten to say when .' He bowed low and proudly announced,' I Madame am the Commissioner of Istanbul, this,'he turned to the smiling woman by his side, 'is the Commissioner's wife, the Commissioner's car waits outside and will be happy to escort you home.'

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

East of the Sun and Le Prince Maurice Prize for Literary Love stories

There was a moment when I was writing East of the Sun when I nearly threw it in the stream. I can’t remember why exactly now, but it was one of those moments when you are a writer when you suddenly feel that this thing that has so thrilled and excited and kept you up at nights is about to be revealed as a cringey failure. Most writers I know have these crashes of confidence. Now I think they are simply part of the journey and you have to man up when they appear.

Anyway, I am so happy that this book is not at the bottom of the Wye. It’s taken me on an incredible journey: first, the excitement of getting the thing published at all – absolutely nothing is for sure in today’s precarious publishing world - then being chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club last year. In February of 2009, it was chosen as the U.K.‘s Romantic novel of the year, and last week, I heard that I am on a short list of three for Le Prince Maurice Prize for Literary Love stories. Here’s what the organizers say about the prize.

This prize, now in it’s eighth year, aims to discover love stories of the highest literary quality that engage the heart as well as the head. The prize is awarded to an English-speaking writer every second year (alternating with a French-speaking winner), and the novels submitted cover love in one of its myriad forms. The authors must do more than just impress the judges with the quality of their writing - they must also have the capacity to move them.

The other authors on the short list are Sadie Jones, for ‘Small Wars,’ which was also on the Orange Prize short list this year, and William Sutcliffe, for ‘Whatever Makes you Happy.’ I’ve just ordered it on Amazon. Sadie’s I’ve read and thought was terrific.

When Kate Mills, my editor at Orion, phoned me in January to tell me I was on the long list, I thought she was having a cruel joke with me. I was sitting- long johns track suit, two sweaters –in our draughty farmhouse in what was then Sub-Artic Wales. She asked whether I would be available to go and stay, this June, for one week at the incredibly beautiful Constance Prince Maurice Hotel a five star hotel in Mauritius. This hotel is, I’m told, so wonderful that the likes of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta hang out there. Someone told me they have people around the pool to relieve you of the irksome business of polishing your own sunglasses. (Note to self, buy new sunglasses - I’ve never owned a pair for longer than about ten minutes. Also wardrobe? I don’t think my vintage summer wardrobe is going to cut it.)

Thank God Sadie will be there to have a laugh with. By strange and wonderful coincidence, I’ve known her since she was about 16. Up until a couple of years ago both of us were two distinct species of struggling writer. We’re still struggling writers - part of the addiction is knowing there is always so much more to learn.

Sadie served a long seventeen year apprenticeship writing screenplays in a cupboard in London. My apprenticeship was even longer, I was, for twenty five years,a jobbing writer, writing short stories, articles, (for everyone from Sandwich Monthly to The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone. I had an unpublished novel in my bottom drawer called ‘The Water Horse,’ which my husband persuaded me to take out. Another story. Anyway, the moral is, cast not thy novel upon the waters, you never know what might come thudding back.