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a visit from fiona robyn

Throughout March, writer Fiona Robyn has been travelling from blog to blog to celebrate the publication of her first novel, The Letters, in her very own blog tour.

The Letters is the story of Violet Ackerman, who has “drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. After moving to the coast, she starts receiving a series of mysterious letters sent from a mother and baby home in 1959, written by a pregnant twenty-year-old Elizabeth to her best friend. Who is sending Violet these letters, and why?”

It also features a cat called Blue, an unexpected twist in the tale, and (according to Aliya at Veggie Box at least) an impressive number of references to vegetables. What’s more it has already won praise from everyone from Scott Pack at Me and My Big Mouth who described it as ‘an accomplished and promising début novel‘ to Vulpes Libres who admired Fiona’s ‘wonderfully descriptive writing‘ to Caroline Smailes who described how she ‘devoured [The Letters] within a couple of days‘.

Fiona has already visited 16 other blogs as part of the tour (you can read the full list here, including where she is going next). As it’s now Day 22 I reckon she’s probably getting a little weary, so I suggested she put her feet up and then asked her a few questions:

Firstly… it’s Day 22 of your blog tour, and you’ve already visited 16 other blogs. Are you getting at all tired of answering questions about yourself and The Letters yet?

You’d think I would be, but nobody is asking the same questions! It’s really interesting how different people have approached the book in different ways, and are interested in different things…

Do you have a favourite question you’ve been asked on the tour so far?

‘Tell us what you grow in your veggie patch’ by Aliya at the Veggie Box and Lane asked me lots of good questions about cats. Caroline also asked me some good questions, one involving Mr. Men. You can see that I like to take things very seriously…..

You’ve already been asked a lot of questions about The Letters: the idea for the novel, the characters, and how it came to be written. To make a change I thought I’d ask you a few questions about the three blogs you write as well as your novels: a small stone; a handful of stones and your personal blog, planting words. How do your blogs fit in as part of your overall writing practice?

I try not to let them interfere with my novel-writing – if I’m writing, then I’ll always do that before I do anything else (including checking Facebook). a small stone usually only takes a few minutes a day, and a handful of stones maybe takes half an hour a couple of times a week. I only write Planting Words when I feel the urge, and again this can take a few minutes or up to half an hour. I do sometimes wonder if three is a bit excessive, but it’s been ok so far!

What first got you started writing blogs?

I started writing a blog called Creating Living when I was working as a coach, as a way of promoting my services. It was a little bit like Planting Words, and resulted in my book A Year of Questions: How to slow down and fall in love with life. a small stone came next.

What gave you the idea for your blog project a small stone?

The phrase literally arose in my mind one day when I was driving back from the sea. I was thinking about starting another blog for my poetry at the time, but I didn’t even know what it meant, and it felt a bit boring as a blog title. It was persistant, and then I happened upon the idea of picking a small stone up and carrying it home from a long walk – something little that you could save from every day.

Which other blogs do you read regularly?

I’ve always been a big fan of whisky river and have recently found lassie and timmy, both of which have a strong zen flavour. Sarah is always finding good stuff.

I recently wrote a post about how much writers enjoy the actual process of writing, which provoked a bit of discussion. Is the process of writing itself something you find pleasurable?

I find parts of it pleasurable – and parts of it horrid. It’s hard to sit down and get started, especially with first drafts. I’m sometimes struck by terrible doubts. But I love reading back a sentence and thinking ‘ah, that’s a good sentence’, or finding something new out about my character. Intensely satisfying. Really, nobody is holding a gun to my head – I’m a writer because it’s supremely important to me – and things that are important aren’t necessarily fun all the time.

What inspires you? Where do you go to find inspiration when you need it?

Being outside in my garden is good for me – whatever the weather – but I do prefer sunshine! I’ve been lucky enough to wait for inspiration to find me so far, rather than going out and looking.

Tell us a little bit about what you’ve got coming up next…

The Blue Handbag is out in paperback in August, and then Thaw in February next year, both with Snowbooks. I’m currently working on a novel about a young boy that goes to stay with his aunt in Amsterdam – I’m off for a research trip this summer. What a life, eh?

And finally (just because I had to ask) do you own any red shoes?

I’m afraid I’m not much of a shoe person – black trainers is pretty much it… I do think they look nice on other people though – I’m sure yours are lovely!

Perhaps you’re just more of a handbag person, since your next book is called The Blue Handbag? Anyway, thanks very much, Fiona (for visiting and for complimenting me on my shoes!) and enjoy the rest of the tour!

can independent publishers beat the recession?

I was interested to read Hirsh Sawnhey’s piece on The Guardian blog this week, How Independents will save literature from the recession. Writing from New York, Sawney reports that the city’s commercial publishing scene is already beginning to feel the effects of the “credit crunch” (“sales are flagging… some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades”) and increasingly look likely to be shifting resources away from riskier, innovative titles from new writers towards “safe investments” like the ghost-written celebrity novels and autobiographies that are already so ubiquitous on the shelves of high-street bookshops.

The extent to which the same will be true here in the UK is currently hard to say. We can only hope there won’t be quite such a dramatic effect: according to this post on Litfest’s blog, Tim Waterstone has recently been speaking about how, historically at least, UK book sales actually increase in times of recession. That does make some sense to me: after all, a £7.99 paperback looks like a pretty good investment compared to a couple of pints, especially if you’re like me and you can easily read a single book three, four five (ten…twenty…two hundred) times. And if you’re in the mood for a treat, a book feels like a relatively reasonable and sensible impulse-buy compared with splurging on, for example, a pair of frivolous shoes (not that I would be at all inclined to do that, of course… hmmm… anyway…) So perhaps the credit crunch will see us all spending more evenings curled up with a good book and a cup of cocoa? It certainly looks likely to herald happy days for local libraries, second hand bookshops and the like.

However, even if the picture for the big commercial publishers does look a little bleak, it may be that literary culture will not be significantly affected. Sawnhey suggests that it will in fact be safeguarded “through the dark economic days ahead” by a core of small independent publishers, who are uniquely placed to weather the financial crisis, and I think he might just be right. After all, there’s no doubt that smaller, more flexible independents are all ready well used to continually innovating and adapting their businesses, working with narrow profit margins, delivering a lot from only limited resources, and coping without expensive businesses lunches, glossy marketing staff and hefty PR budgets. And all this whilst building strong personal relationships with their writers, prioritising artistic experimentation and innovation and playing an important role as ‘talent scouts’ identifying and developing the most exciting new writers.

Given all this, perhaps Sawhney is right to suggest that the current climate will provide an opportunity for small independents to thrive in comparison to their market-driven corporate cousins. Let’s hope so – because as Sawnhey himself rightly points out, “good things come in small, independently-owned packages!”

playing with the grown-ups

I’ve just finished reading Sophie Dahl’s first novel, Playing with the Grown-ups, which left me with an itch to pinpoint exactly what it was I found so peculiar about reading it.

I’ll admit that I did approach the book with a certain degree of initial trepidation. After all, the cover is very pink, with butterflies and curly-wurly writing; and what is more, no one could say that the notion of a “somewhat autobiographical” first novel from a world-famous supermodel exactly inspires an instant vote of confidence. However, I was also genuinely prepared to enjoy this book: for one thing, I do actually quite like butterflies and pink things, and for another, in spite of the apparent “double jinx” effect of being simultaneously both an extremely beautiful celebrity, and the grand-daughter of one of Britain’s best-loved writers, Dahl does strike one as someone not short of a brain cell or two. Her previous novella, The Man with the Dancing Eyes (2003) was very enjoyable (in spite of taking the concept of “whimsy” to whole new levels) and she has since written some interesting pieces for Vogue and The Guardian. More tellingly, however, Playing with the Grown Ups has also received some very favourable reviews in the press, being compared by a number of critics to not just one but two of my all-time-favourite-ever books: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As far as I am concerned there isn’t really higher praise than that. For extra reassurance, the book’s cover is laced with lavish recommendations from everyone from Time Out (“a lush and rhapsodic coming-of-age novel”) to ELLE (“lyrical, knowing and stylish”). The only potential warning sign is a thumbs-up from Cecilia Aherne, who I have to admit is not a favourite of mine – I did manage to survive PS., I Love You, but only barely.

Anyway, Aherne aside, I was feeling pretty good about settling down to read Playing with the Grown-ups, which was shaping up to be everything I like best in an easy-going, escapist, Saturday-afternoon kind of read. But 100 or so pages later, I was feeling confused, even a little cheated. The book I was reading didn’t seem to bear any real connection to most of the reviews on the cover. Was I even reading the same book?

Now, before we go any further, I have to point out here that this isn’t going to be a hatchet job on Dahl’s novel. Frankly, I think she has enough to contend with as a famous-supermodel-cum-author-cum-girlfriend-of-Jamie-Cullum without getting into that sort of unhelpful sniping. It is, after all, a first novel – and besides, I think it really does have quite lot going for it: there are some very sharp, sensitive observational moments; it is often genuinely funny; and I enjoyed the touches of early-90s nostalgia. Broadly speaking, the story follows Kitty, a young girl growing up at the idyllic Hay House, where she lives with her “eccentric” English family: grandparents, teenage aunts, half-siblings and her glamorous but temperamental young mother, Marina, an artist and “spectacular beauty” whose whims pull Kitty away from her familiar childhood home and whisk her through a string of new and strange locations – from a slightly grim boarding school to a ritzy New York apartment to an ashram. The narrative is framed by sections which focus on Kitty in the present day – now grown up and pregnant by her rather sickeningly perfect husband – returning from New York to the UK following her mother’s overdose. Though she doesn’t always quite convince, the character of Kitty is thoughtfully drawn, and certainly a lot more subtle than some of the overworked “eccentric” figures who are amusing but not always very believable – even Marina herself always remains something of a try-hard bohemian stereotype, although interestingly Dahl has acknowledged that her character is largely based upon her own mother, Tessa Dahl. But where the novel really falls down for me is when it tries to be Deep or possibly Serious, and thus slides into cringe (or giggle)-inducing psychobabble and melodrama – at times, there is just the tiniest hint of Dawson’s Creek. The occasionally rather overwrought and self-conscious prose style doesn’t help matters: I could have done without the references to “spectacular” beauty and “silver eyes” though as Katy Guest, writing in The Independent points out “any writer who uses the line, ‘She was in bed wearing a silk peignoir’ with a straight face deserves a prize.”

There’s something more than language, though, that bothered me about this book – which, when Dahl relaxes and lets herself go, is actually rather gracefully written. I think the closest I can come to it is a very classic and clichéd piece of advice (which I have been given myself in the past…perhaps, dare I suggest, many of the things which disappointed me most about Dahl’s writing are the very things that frustrate me about my own?) and that is “murder your darlings”. What’s really wrong with Playing with the Grown-ups is that there’s no sting in the tale, no bite. In spite of the rather tedious roll-call of the usual ‘misery-lit’ ingredients – drugs (check), alcohol (check), sex (check), dysfunctional family life (check), hints at eating disorders (check), self-harm (check), tragic beauties (check) nothing seems to have consequences. Far from being dark, it’s actually all rather glossy and well-lit: you can imagine everyone a little bit wooden, but with perfect hair, like characters in a made-for-TV movie. In spite of all, at the end of the book, the now supposedly well-adjusted grown-up Kitty seems to have a cringingly ‘nice’ relationship with her family, whilst Marina herself is rather too neatly ‘punished’ for her insensitive ways by turning out to be a bit of a sad case. Dahl has been quoted as saying how much she hates “bitter books and bitter people” and I’m the last person to advocate for the grim and the joyless in the books I read, but it all just seems a little bit gooey – like eating a lot of cream cakes – maybe whimsical pink ones, possibly with some kind of star-shaped sprinkles on top?Now I don’t mean to imply that Dahl ought to have written a misery memoir (let’s just say I am not a fan of those), and of course, a lovely, light-as-air, enjoyable cream-cake of a book, even if it is a bit sugary at times, is not automatically a bad thing, especially when it has that extra touch of magic-wand sparkle to it. However, by the end – I’ll admit it – I was desperate for something to take the edge off all that sticky sweetness.

For me though, it is not simply the over-the-top praise the book received, but the endless comparisons to Smith, Mitford (and on occasion, Evelyn Waugh) that are the most baffling. OK, so Dahl is writing about the experience of being a teenage girl, and yes, she clearly has that whole English-rose-eccentric-aristo thing going for her, but beyond that I am slightly confused. Have any of these reviewers actually read The Pursuit of Love? I can just about countenance the idea of Kitty as a sort of parallel Fanny, though I can’t somehow quite imagine Fanny skipping school or going on a coke binge, not to mention wearing white jeans, even if she had happened to live in the 1990s. But Marina as The Bolter, frankly, is just a bit of an insult to the poor old Bolter. The Bolter would never have gone down the road of self-harm or drug overdoses. She didn’t need to find herself in an ashram. She was quite happy just being the Bolter, really. I think that was always the point.

Having said that, is it really just that Nancy Mitford just happens to be en vogue at the moment, and so is a sort of shorthand for a vaguely stylish kind of book (after all, it has been written by a supermodel) that would go well with your Christopher Kane by Burberry or maybe your Alice Temperley tea gown? I don’t know. It’s all a bit of a mystery to be honest. Still I did eventually manage to track down one review of the book that seemed more in line with my own take on it – Katy Guest’s in the Independent which gives a much more balanced reading of Playing with the Grown-ups. Even though she does go down the whole Mitford/Waugh avenue, Guest qualifies it by describing Dahl’s novel as “like Mitford and Waugh after they’ve worked through their issues with an understanding therapist.” Hmmmm. Quite.

I suppose if there’s one thing all this proves, it’s that age-old truism “don’t judge a book by its cover” – or by the strap-lines on its cover anyway. Most of all, I think what was peculiar about reading this book was the disjunction between the PR spin and the book itself – which gave me a sharp reminder of just how vitally important marketing and PR is in today’s publishing world. It left me wondering if, when so many talented writers have an uphill struggle to even get a manuscript looked at by a serious agent or commercial editor, a slightly uneven first novel would attract anywhere near this level of rhapsodic (or even hyperbolic) praise and critical attention if it wasn’t penned by a marketable celebrity – and thus, something of a guaranteed “cash cow”.

On the plus side though – and just to finish on a less cynical note – it is fantastic to see that it is still possible for new writers to get published in spite of being (shockingly) non-celebrities – or so far, at least! Can I please direct your attention to Jenn Ashworth’s first novel A Kind of Intimacy which is due out next month from Arcadia Books, and has already been selected for Waterstone’s New Voices 2009 promotion . If you go to her blog here you’ll have the chance to win a copy – if you’re very clever that is!

happy new year!

I haven’t written anything here for a while, largely because I’m in the middle of trying to write an essay about Mrs Dalloway. Right now, I feel like I hate Virginia Woolf a bit, but I know from experience that I will probably forgive her again when I have finished writing the essay. That’s just how it goes. The essay isn’t actually due until 19 January (which, coincidentally, is also my birthday) but I have been trying to get as much written as possible before I go back to work tomorrow.

It’s now 2009. Today it’s very cold, and as I am writing this it is snowing a tiny, tiny bit. It’s a grey and dark day.

2008 has ended, and I don’t really know what I think about the last year. It was a funny one I think. It had a lot of good bits, but overall I feel it was a tough year, a year of hard work and graft. If I was going to represent it symbolically, it would be one of those big cart-horses, or possibly some sort of barefoot Victorian orphan getting sent down the mines or up chimneys. I hope that this year will be different, with less hard graft and more fun. I would like to feel a lot more healthy, have more energy, and spend more time sleeping. I am tempted to say I would like this year to be like a happy sloth, but I think it might be better to opt for something with a bit more vitality and ‘oomph’, like a poodle, or an iguana, or perhaps an anteater.

I haven’t actually made any new years resolutions, but if I was going to make any they would be along the lines of “eat more cake” (which I’m sure I saw suggested on a blog somewhere -can’t remember where though) or “more playing” (see Chris Cleave’s ‘Down with the Kids’ column in yesterday’s Guardian).

Here’s a few highlights from 2008:

Books: as always, too many to list, but off the top of my head, The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and pretty much anything by Haruki Murakami and Barbara Pym.

Exhibitions: many, many, many, but some that spring to mind are Peter Doig at Tate Britain, Pipilotti Rist at FACT, Made Up at Tate Liverpool especially the Drawing Room, The Intertwining Line at Cornerhouse, Made Up at The Bluecoat, and…erm… From Toad Hall to Pooh Corner at Seven Stories.

Watching: Juno, The Dark Knight, The Cat Returns, Little Dorrit, The Wire, Quatermass and the Pit

Listening to: CSS, Kraftwerk, Bat for Lashes, Stereolab, The Long Blondes, Squarepusher’s ‘Just a Souvenir’ album, old Kate Bush records, Birdsong Radio and of course the Ting Tings.

Events: again, far too many to list, but I must mention the very fine no point in not being friends, as well as of course, the Manchester Blog Awards at MLF.

Thing I missed but wish that I had not: the La Machine Spider in Liverpool.

Some other things I have appreciated and enjoyed this year include: blankets (especially my electric blanket); pyjamas; dark chocolate; rare moments of sunshine; the outside bit at The Bluecoat in Liverpool; my leopard print earrings; trains; cinnamon tea; the colour moss green; porridge for breakfast; ginger beer; knitting; long cardigans; Spritz Aperol; baths; vietnamese food; exploring London; my mum’s soup; mittens; making lists; chicken dinner with my favourite red cabbage; really nice pens; parks; naps.

ladybird books


I absolutely love Ladybird Books… but then, is there anyone who doesn’t? They whisk you back into your childhood in an instant – suddenly you’re there all over again, fascinated by ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, or, my personal favourite, ‘The Enormous Turnip’ – and don’t even get me started on ‘Puddle Lane’. Though in fact, I think part of the magic is that actually, they have the power to take you back even further than that, into another, imaginary childhood, where things are priced in shillings, magnets are unaccountably fascinating, lawns are green, policemen are friendly and helpful, and Peter and Jane go Shopping with Mother or have a jolly time with Pat the Dog. All this and the opportunity to hone your skills at reading such essential words as ‘dog’, ‘girl’ and ‘ball’. I think the other reason I love Ladybird Books is because they also remind me of the sheer, electric joy of learning to read, of devouring whole books by myself.

Someone has obviously caught onto the universal appeal of the Ladybird Book because you can now buy notebooks and mugs and fridge magnets and suchlike with vintage Ladybird illustrations (see here), as well as a book, Boys and Girls: A Ladybird Book of Childhood. I’m not usually a one for novelty mugs or indeed those just-for-the-sake-of-it gift books that people give each other for Christmas and then never look at again, but I have to admit that I can see the appeal of these. But what I really want for Christmas is a real-life Tiptoes the mischievous kitten.