Death: the biggest theme of all?

candle card

Postcard image by Paula Fairlie O.S.B

I’d like to think it’s number two, after romantic love. But given the prevalence of crime fiction and dark, corpse-strewn fantasy, I’m not sure I could make a case. At the other end of our timeline, birth is bigger outside the novel than within it; it rarely translates onto the page with the same emotional force or compelling physicality. That’s with the exception perhaps, in Anna Karenina, of Levin’s profoundly honest observation of Kitty’s pregnancy, labour and delivery – which is plagued throughout by fear, in any case, that death may steal the scene. And in The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels it does, with the most fiercely detailed portrait of a miscarriage (and I had three) I’ve ever read. Death is the biggest drama we know, and of course Shakespeare worked it to the max with few key characters surviving to the final curtain. In EastEnders now, affairs and secrets aren’t enough and murder most foul has become obligatory to keep the ratings healthy. But at the same time, in real life we find it hard to be direct about the commonplace tragedies we face when someone we love ‘passes on’ or is ‘lost’. There’s a big difference, of course, between death as a crime to be solved and that very ordinary painful experience we share in bereavement. Poetry rarely touches on the first but habitually explores the second. In the kind of novels I like to write, whether for adults, children or teens, authentically routine death is often there – a shock, a waiting game, a bruise to be healed, a bond that can’t be severed. And even here and now, I notice the vocabulary it seems to require, because of its power over us. Continue reading

Coming your way? Author on tour!

Sue 2With my author husband, Leslie Tate, I’m experiencing something new. We’re on tour! A year ago, when GORILLA DREAMS came out for children, illustrator Mary Casserley and I signed at a few Waterstone’s stores, but this time the tour is rather more extensive (into 2016) and varied, and it’s a novel for grown-ups I’m launching, like my other half of #authorsinlove. This is the Purple Tour and so far, with the fourth event tonight, it’s been a five-day whirlwind. But let’s be clear. Forget U2 and their private plane, or even an imaginary band of ambitious part-timers sleeping in a van on autobahns (with associated wild behaviour). Think intimate, passionate and (overlooking the odd verbal flourish from Leslie) civilised. Remember small is beautiful. Continue reading

Woman: body and soul

better Huff Post mag pic

Image: Huffington Post, censored!

Now that I’m spending more of my life waiting in hospitals, I always have my Kindle with me. But sometimes I’ve found myself drawn to the magazines I never buy. I’m a woman after all so I must be the audience the editorial team have in mind?? I may not have hair but I like clothes to be colourful, imaginative fun; I admire actors and musicians if their talent contributes to my life; I enjoy eating. But I don’t live just to consume or to make an appearance in the world. And any boy flicking through pages like these would grow up assuming that females are helplessly materialistic and insecure, and pitifully self-absorbed. Continue reading

Music: the only proof?

adagioQ What’s the connection between: Barber’s Adagio, Tavener and Bach, Onward Christian Soldiers and Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, OK Computer, Stayin’ Alive and In the Bleak Midwinter?

A: They’re all mentioned in my adult novel FLASHBACK AND PURPLE – where of course, every one of these pieces is personal. But in a sense the music that defines the novel appears near the end, because the book is set in 2013, which felt at the time as if it would always be the year Mandela died. So my book tour events may begin with the very moving tribute to Madiba by the Soweto Choir in a South African supermarket, where shoppers are surprised, stilled and uplifted by soaring song. Some stories are generational sagas stretching over decades but my novel begins in October and ends at Christmas. My themes are time, change and connections. For my central characters, lives are unexpectedly redirected and redefined over this short autumn period, and the open ending asks readers to imagine what a new year will mean for each of them. Continue reading

Camera-shy in the Age of the Selfie

Mikaela whitePhotos are everywhere. More than ever they document our movements. They illustrate ideas and make points. We’re all photographers now, but does being at ease with the selfie, however impromptu, convict us of vanity or suggest healthy self-acceptance? Is the individual who never posts such a photo a heroic non-conformist existing on a higher plane, or secretly engaged in a struggle with her physical identity? It seems to me there are rules, or limits, even outside the Passport Office regulations which require the subject to look humourless if not dangerous. On Facebook we have to be seen to be having FUN, but there’s a difference between the ‘night out’ photo – with friends, red eyes and wide mouths – and the solo nightclub pose (with pout) by daylight. That difference may apply both in the intention of the model and in the response of the viewer, scrolling down in pyjamas, who won’t know that intention for sure but may ascribe one anyway. We live in a highly competitive society and had I been born into the selfie generation this habit would not have enhanced my self-image. Once I reached about seven or eight, I began to HATE photos, attempting to hide at the back of any group if there was no escape. Once developed these photographs, however occasional and whatever the cause of the celebration, were not something I wanted to see or be seen. Continue reading

The subject: happiness in school

happiness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When, in my previous life as a primary school teacher, I met parents a few weeks into the school year, I’d begin each consultation with a question and a hope: “Is he/she happy?” Happiness is essential to learning, and for many years as a teacher I was ridiculously contented in my work. Children can be challenging in many ways, but they’re curious and enthusiastic individuals, wonderfully open to ideas and experiences. When I began teaching back in 1978, my job was simply to share with them my knowledge, expertise and passion – as I saw fit, in the light of four years of study and practice, recognising their different needs and all the while learning myself through experience. I remember, for example, deciding to spend half a term exploring FIRE, and the excitement I felt as I began a growing spidergram of ideas across time, continents and disciplines. What would yours look like: 1666, volcanoes, cave men, Stravinsky’s Firebird, the local Fire Brigade, autumn leaves, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a candle clock? This approach wouldn’t suit every teacher but it made my role enormously creative, and my head teacher was happy as long as the children were learning and developing – happily.

Everything in school has changed, again and again, and each initiative and requirement has further eroded creative freedom. New buzzwords make way each year for newer terminology and long before I stopped teaching it was getting in the way. I recall the anxiety of a student observing my Y4 poetry lesson and pointing out, “You didn’t say what the objective is.” “Ah,” I said, “it’s for them to enjoy poetry – reading it and writing it.” And they did. When required to complete feedback forms, my classes always named Literacy among their favourite lessons – just as in the next-door classroom, they loved P.E. best and learned sporting skills I couldn’t offer. If as adults we think about the best teacher we ever had, it’s the one who made learning fun because he or she had such fun teaching us.

Am I a dinosaur groaning from my swamp at the enlightenment of progress? I don’t think so. I may not keep up with each new method or acronym, but since I gave up teaching in 08 I’ve visited 500 schools as an author and listened to thousands of teachers. And I have the feeling that in many staff rooms, the idea of weekly Happiness lessons will be received with something like exasperation. Not because teachers don’t value happiness, but because successive governments have spent the last twenty years undermining the very wellbeing these lessons would aim to nurture. In fact an obsession with ‘achievement’ as measured by highly competitive data has created the stress cited by Lord Darzi. Teachers are exhausted and demoralised by it and children, even in Key Stage One, sometimes feel it. Continue reading

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

Children's Author

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