Written in Britain: beyond patriotism

Edith CavellThe memorial to Edith Cavell (“Patriotism is not enough”) at St. Martin’s Place, London UK, by sculptor Sir George Frampton, R.A., P.R.B.S.

Someone asked on Facebook, “Why is it bad to love your country?” It made me think about my belief that patriotism can be a deeply negative force in a big, damaged world. Like religion – a particular way to love God (and I write as a religious person) – a love of country can motivate racism and war. For me, the only love worth living embraces, not divides. On a diverse planet we’re in trouble if we can’t respect difference and learn from others, recognising the importance of understanding through knowledge and connection, rather than judging or opposing those who don’t share our beliefs or life experience. As a reader and author, I love the English language and every great writer who has used it, skilfully and creatively, to shed light on our humanity: from Shakespeare to George Eliot, Ted Hughes and the wonderful Carole Shields (who was Canadian). I cherish the British countryside, holidaying in the UK – but for environmental reasons because flying adds so much carbon to the atmosphere. I was taught my nation’s history (not all of it uplifting) so I’ve dramatized the familiar in three of my four historical novels. And yes, I tend to write about my home country in the contemporary books, not just because I’ve been immersed in it for fifty-nine years, but because as I no longer fly, I can’t go abroad in order to recreate a country on the page. START, a novel about climate crisis, had to depend on research, and photographs I aimed to translate with multi-sensory imagination. Continue reading

Not very FAQ

Sue at Loreto

Thank you to the students at Astley Cooper School in Hemel Hempstead for surprising me with these interesting questions.

Why do you always wear red?

Firstly, if this was a court of law and that was a crime I’d plead that I don’t absolutely always. But yes, it’s true that even if I wear black I’ll add red or multi-coloured accessories. It’s also true that I didn’t wear as much red before I lost my hair. I think subconsciously it’s a bold (as opposed to bald) statement, a show of confidence. As a colour red is exciting too and I do find writing thrilling. Red is powerful, like stories.

How do you feel when someone criticises your work?

I’m glad to say it rarely happens. My writing has been praised by Michael Morpurgo and Beverley Knight, a professor at the University of the West Indies, teachers, psychologists, artists, musicians and librarians, and a few other writers too. But yes, negative comments hurt – deeply, because writing is very personal even when nothing in the story has ever happened to me. I’ve learned, though, that you can’t please everyone. We have different tastes and enthusiasms and that’s part of what makes us all unique individuals. As a writer I need self-belief but I also need to be very analytical about my own work. Being self-critical helps me improve.

How would you describe your writing in three words?

Deep, powerful and inventive – I hope! That’s more of a goal than a description.

What is the earliest memory you have of writing?

When I was in Year 2 or 3 my teacher set us a task: to write a story over a few weeks, trying to fill a notebook rather than a page. It was a competition with a prize and I was determined to win. I can’t remember what my story was about but I do remember drawing horses in the illustrations although my teacher may not have known what they were! I won, and it confirmed for me that writing was what I do best as well as what I love best.

What do you enjoy most about writing your novels?

1. The excitement of having a good idea before I begin. 2. Getting to know my characters. 3. The joy when the story rolls out as if I’m not controlling it, just recording it. 4. Thinking of original imagery that really works or rereading a sentence that has power or music. 5. Laughing out loud or crying at something I’ve written. 6. The triumph of writing the last sentence and being happy with the whole. 7. The thrill of holding a new book in my hand once it’s published. 8. Hearing that someone loved it.

Do you prefer writing for children (as you only have two adult novels and 21 for kids or teens)?

I don’t prefer it but it’s very different. My second adult novel, out in October, is about 90,000 words long so that’s quite a commitment. Writing for young children is fun; I can be playful and make myself laugh. Adults are a very critical audience, and often limit themselves to whatever kind of story they’ve decided is for them, but children are more open to trying different genres. I began a third, real-world adult novel just after finishing a primary age fantasy and I like that variety.

Which book most inspired you to become a writer?

As a child, THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As a teacher, WHY THE WHALES CAME by Morpurgo. As a reader, the work of George Eliot and Carole Shields. And I wrote POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCES, where the action takes place over 12 hours, because I so admire MRS DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf.

Did Alopecia ruin your life?

Fifteen years ago I might have said yes. Now I call it a problem that became a gift. People find it tough because although it’s not an illness it undermines self-esteem. As a young woman I felt less feminine and attractive because we expect females to present in a certain way and society judges by appearance. It was also a shock. I had a new identity and for many years I felt I must keep my bald self a secret so I wore wigs and hoped I fooled the world. This meant I was living in fear of discovery. But things began to change when I used my experience in a story – THE WATERHOUSE GIRL – and when it was finally published I felt confident and happy enough to go bareheaded. As Ambassador for Alopecia UK I can support people young and old who are struggling as I used to, and my two alopecia books (there’s a sequel now, CRAZY DAISE) make a difference to the lives of people with hair loss because they don’t feel alone any more when they meet Daisy. These novels also teach readers with hair that it’s not easy to be different but it’s OK and we all deserve respect and understanding. That’s the power of stories! Any experience that’s difficult can make us braver and stronger and now I wouldn’t take any miracle cure even if there was one, because I don’t need hair to be happy, or to be me. All we need is love!

Peoples Book Prize

A question of sport

Lap-Of-The-Gods-588x900My brother Dave rowed for the UK, my mum bowled googlies for Essex Ladies and my nephews Tom and Dan Hampton are professional cricketers. My son cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats and (this year’s injury permitting) my daughter will run the next London Marathon for Greenpeace. But I’m afraid when it comes to the sport gene I’m the missing link, unless you count shouting my way through a track relay or stressing over Andy Murray. I do, however, engage with character and psychology so I’m interested in sport as a subject for fiction. It can work well in movies. After all, it’s a form of action and not so different in its language from the battlefield. Even the brain sport of chess, which in the UK can’t shake off its rarefied public school image, is a war game – and war, like love, is a theme that has served Hollywood well.  So The Thomas Crown Affair succeeded in making chess compelling as a new form of seduction. But I’m not sure it could be repeated, and the remake didn’t try. Among sporting misfires like Woody Allen’s Match Point and the flimsy Wimbledon with Paul Bettany, there have been box office successes and critical triumphs like Chariots of Fire. Although most have passed me by, I know Kevin Costner has a strong track record (sorry), but while Bull Durham and Tin Cup use humour as well as pathos as the ‘old guy’ strives to overcome past failure and shine, it’s Field of Dreams that really scores by using baseball as a vaguely mystical metaphor in an emotional film about loss and longing. Essentially sports movies only connect with a mass audience when they’re really about struggle, courage, sacrifice and love – but what about novels? What are the difficulties and has anyone overcome them on the page? Continue reading

“You’re so brave.”


Caroline in the commons

People tell me I’m brave and who can object? But I’m not. I’m prone to despair on a personal, professional and ideological basis! I’m a pacifist by conviction and by nature I have very little fight in me. Children, teens and adults who call my bareheaded choice courageous are generous and genuine but it makes me feel a fraud. Of course Alopecia undermines, distorts and challenges – but it’s the child or teenager I’m in school to support who has to find real strength, without the benefit of life experience and the perspective of maturity. I took forever to get there, and I’m simply too old and creaky now to care. No credit in that. I’d prefer not to attribute the bright-eyed awe in which I’m held to some aura of celebrity (H list?) but then again, I suspect that without that I’d be unable to help. I’m an author so I make an impact in school. And of course I’d like my characters, my imagination and my writing style to have the same impact as my bald head! Courage is one of my favourite themes, and my brave characters overcome bullying, injustice, mental health issues and betrayal – problems I’ve been spared. Daisy Waterhouse isn’t the only one of my creations who’s a lot braver than her creator! But I do aspire to her fearless activism… Continue reading

Gonna make you a star?

Steve Rodgers
Steve Rodgers



Tom Billington
Tom Billington

OK, authors who’d score higher on Pointless than Kim Kardashian and Jedward? Well, Shakespeare and JK. It says something about celebrity that my greatest literary heroine, George Eliot, isn’t one. But as the song says, if we’re talking fame she’ll live forever – like Van Gogh, who died poor and rejected. There are days when I find myself besieged by awestruck kids who want autographs and photos, and I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy it. It’s a buzz, and a useful antidote to “Who’s she?” But that’s just ego. A celebrity lifestyle with its obscene excesses has zero appeal, and I could do without the fear that my bin could be searched by tabloid hacks, or that any unguarded word that spills out of my mouth could be used against me. I can’t comprehend that any celebrity could enjoy this way of living, and yet many of today’s kids claim that’s just what they aspire to. Celebrities make money and money’s like war: it distorts values we know to be true. With war and money, we never learn. Continue reading

Peaks, troughs and keeping the faith

peak districtAt events, festivals and book signings there are always writers who want to talk about what to do with their own unpublished book or story idea. Members of writers’ groups I address with Leslie are often preoccupied with how to get published. Long as that story is, I’ve learned over nearly seven years as a full-time author that it’s just the preface. I certainly never imagined how the real life post-publication plot would develop and only now do I know its theme: survival. When a novel makes it into print, the author is really taking a seat on some ride that – unless she is lucky enough to have a rich publisher prioritising her title – will take her up and down and up a little, and way, way down, and just possibly up again at times… So, speaking as a novelist with five publishers, all very different but none of them with the resources for full-scale promotion on an Underground wall or the side of a bus, I’d like to offer an insight into those professional peaks and troughs. Continue reading

This reader’s needs: key features of a great novel

George EliotCarol ShieldsGeorge Eliot at 30 by François D’Albert Durade, and Carol Shields

As a reader what do I look for in a novel? Naturally this analysis is personal, a result of my attitudes and emotional needs and my experience of life, novels and writing. The writers in the brackets are simply those who spring to mind, in some cases (Zusak, Michaels, Lee, Ondaatje, Levy, Butler) on the strength of a single but deeply memorable novel once read.

Four features are key, emotionally and analytically:

1. Extraordinary sentences that demand rereading for music, wit, insight or structural perfection. (Carol Shields, George Eliot, Marilynne Robinson, Dickens, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan)

2. Imaginative, daring word choices and combinations that may include imagery. (Siobhan Dowd, Dickens, Geraldine McCaugrean, Toni Morrison, D.H. Lawrence, Susan Fletcher, Anne Michaels, Markus Zusak) Continue reading

Alopecia and the teenager

Ambassadors AUK

Ambassadors, Alopecia UK: Heather Fisher (England rugby), Joanna Rowsell (cyclist, Olympic gold), Sue Hampton, John Altman (composer, saxophonist, conductor) and Joelle (singer).

As an Ambassador for Alopecia UK I’ve heard hundreds of stories of hair loss and they’re all different. Some have lived with it since birth while others kept a full head of hair right up to their fifties, sixties or beyond. There’s no best time for Alopecia to strike, but no doubt that during the teenage years it brings particular challenges. Through this small but active charity I’ve met lots of teenagers affected by the condition in one form or another. But sometimes I meet their mums first, or even instead, because the young ‘sufferers’ they love can’t face such a community and don’t want to belong to it. They just want hair. And hair, not support, is what they think they need. Continue reading

The purpose of fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird_posterThe BBC’s charter identifies its purpose: to inform, educate and entertain. This blog is not concerned whether it now achieves these goals (although I am concerned about that) but debates the purpose of the author in writing a novel. It might sometimes appear that authors write for money, fame or self-promotion – but if that’s the case, a VERY tiny minority succeed. But some – Alan Gibbons, Malorie Blackman and Michael Morpurgo, to name three I respect – write from conviction, to explore real issues important to them. Do writers have a purpose or role in society and if so, do these three verbs fit? Continue reading

Where do I begin?

So it begins...Where to begin? Of course, of all pages the first is the most thoroughly worked and reworked to the verge of insanity. In fact, it’s the most likely to fall victim to highlight and delete, or strangulation by tweaking. After all, with that blank screen there are so many options. But once it’s filled, so much is already determined. From the start, voice sets the tone and provides the perameters of plot and register. I’ve only used a first person narrative three times in over twenty novels, but I think that’s another blog post… So, the next question: character or setting? Because my characters drive the story, I usually start with whoever is at the helm – unless there’s a pressing reason to do otherwise: to establish time and place first and then zoom in on this figure in the midst of the scene, or to create an atmosphere defining genre. Continue reading


Mum and Dad with author as ghost
Mum, Dad, and the author as ghost

Perhaps they were always there, the ghosts. That’s the way I began TRACES. More than any other it’s my novel for my dad and although he’s dead he inhabits it. Or rather, what underpins it is his spirit in me. I don’t believe in ghosts but I do recognise the enduring power of the dead over the living. It’s called love, without which there is no pain. My early novels were written in the years after my father died, which led to a lot of dead parents.  But it was a while before I considered exploring the life of a dead character.

It’s fashionable to cut through flashback to another, earlier history. Siobhan Dowd did it brilliantly in Bog Child, literally fleshing out the earth beneath the feet of the twentieth century characters. It can be effective to alternate the past and present, with a secret connection between the two that may not emerge until the end. It’s a convention the reader has come to accept as long as the pay-off feels authentic, and it enables the writer to adopt two distinct styles and tones. But I’m thinking about how to bring a dead figure into a narrative in a way that illuminates the contemporary storyline, acknowledging the enduring presence of the loved and lost in all of us.

Continue reading

Talking about dialogue

activistsWe were talking about dialogue in novels.

Leslie said: “Apparently, if you begin with the speaker rather than the speech, and the speech is longer than a line, you should precede the speech with a colon rather than a comma.”

I took a while to compute that, before I asked, “Really?” and could see the logic in following Jesus said with a colon to cue in a whole parable. Even though I don’t do a lot of that myself.

“The modern way is to leave speech unattributed.”

“That’s annoying, though.”

“The novel as cinema.”

“It’s laziness and it’s demanding.”

“Or, almost equally minimalist, to use only said,” he said (when he might have added, concluded, cried, whispered, gasped, opined, interjected or even ejaculated.) Continue reading