Navigate / search

Guest Post: A Sense of Place by Alex Christofi #LetUsBeTrue

I’m very happy to welcome Alex Christofi today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel, Let Us Be True. Set in post-war Paris, it follows the stories of Ralf and Elsa, who meet there but come from elsewhere, and is a fascinating take on love and loss, home, belonging, and identity, especially that which we choose to conceal and how we present to others.

Alex very kindly agreed to write about his thoughts on the importance of place to understanding who we are and why where we are matters more than some of us might think. 

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that

Keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next. 1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place. Read more

Writing Elba: Guest post by Emylia Hall #TheThousandLightsHotel

Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel

All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.

I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.

Alta & Marina
Alta & Marina

When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity. Read more

Author Q&A and Book Review: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg #AllGrownUp #BlogTour

I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:

Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married? 

“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.

One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more

Author Interview: Louise Walters #ALifeBetweenUs

Last Thursday, I reviewed A Life Between Us. Today I’m delighted to welcome Louise Walters to the Nut Press to talk about her second novel.

Louise, I’m interested in where A Life Between Us began for you. 
I started with one character, Tina (called Nell initially), and I knew she was missing somebody important. Everything else followed on from that.

Do you think the story would have worked so well, had Tina and Meg been sisters but not twins?
Probably not; I think I ended up making them twins because of the overwhelming sense of loss Tina experiences. I think I needed the twin relationship to justify the way Tina behaves.

What is it about twins that fascinates? Is that relationship something you’ve been wanting to explore? And how did you go about researching and writing the bond between twins?
The twin thing was a later development. At first Tina talked to an imaginary friend, who became her dead sister, who became her dead twin sister. I didn’t research a great deal, to be honest. I just needed to get to know Tina, and understand the way she thinks and feels.

My dad is a twin, and I suppose I may have learned a few things over the years about twins! There is a strong bond between my dad and his twin brother. It seems unbreakable at times. But of course in A Life Between Us the bond is broken and poor Tina does not adjust.

How did you approach writing Meg, the dead twin? Was she a manifestation of a need within Tina or a ghost or a remnant because they were twins and had a close bond?
Meg was fun to write. I don’t know if she is “real” (ie, appears as a ghost to Tina) or if she is just a figment of Tina’s imagination – the result of Tina not coming to terms with Meg’s death in 1976. I have left it for the reader to decide if there is a “real” haunting going on here, or if it’s all in Tina’s head.

How did you decide when to set the novel, and how much leeway did you have in deciding which dates to use?
I knew I would be exploring Tina’s 1970s childhood, and as I got into the story I decided I needed to go further back to other characters’ childhoods too. It all became rather complicated for a while, and I had to disentangle lots of knots. Read more

#Sealskin Blog Tour – Interview with Author Su Bristow

I’m thrilled to welcome Su Bristow to the Nut Press today. Su was the first winner of the Exeter Novel Prize and the resulting novel, Sealskin, is out now from Orenda Books.

Su, I was lucky enough to be at that first prize-giving ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize. Can you give me an idea of what happened after you won the award and how you went from prize-winning writer to published author, and the time it’s taken to make that transition?
Immediately afterwards? I went away in a daze, had dinner with some good friends, and spent two days working through the flood of facebook and twitter responses. It was amazing! And after that, I set to work to finish the book. The competition only required a synopsis and the first 10,000 words, and I’d done about 50,000 at that stage. By the time I’d got to the end, submitted it to Broo Doherty (the agent who judges the competition) and worked on her suggestions, another year had gone by. Then there were about six months of rejections, until Sealskin was accepted by Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books. She was busy establishing her business, and the first publication date she could manage was early 2017. So here we are, three years on!

What advice would you give to other writers considering entering writing competitions?
Tell yourself you might win, and be prepared! Ideally, you’d have the finished manuscript ready for submission. Beta-test it with readers who ‘get’ what your writing is about, and have good critical abilities. And listen to what they say! Build a good social media platform on facebook and twitter; that shows prospective agents or publishers that you’re willing to put in the necessary work to publicise your book.

Had you completed the manuscript for Sealskin when you entered it for the Exeter Novel Prize, or did you do so after you’d submitted your entry?
See above. I knew where it was going, but it took about three more months to complete.

From the extract I’ve read, your novel Sealskin centres around a myth which I find fascinating, that of the selkie, a creature who lives as a seal in the water and sheds its skin on dry land to take a human form. What interests you about the myth and what did you want to explore by writing about it in your novel?
Where to start? Stories that blur the boundaries between human and animal are told all over the world. We place ourselves outside nature, and yet we want to be part of it. The selkie stories come from the coast of Scotland and the islands around it, and I’m half Scottish so they have a special appeal for me. And this particular story… It’s beautiful and haunting, but there is ugliness at its heart. The legend says only ‘He took her home to be his wife’. She had no choice, and yet she lived with him and bore his children. So if that really happened, how could it possibly work? That’s where Sealskin began. Read more

Joanne M Harris #Runemarks Blog Tour

Joanne Harris is one author whose books I always buy when they come out, so today I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for the new edition of Runemarks, her fantastical tale of magic, adventure and Norse mythology. It’s been re-edited, and comes with a new introduction and a gorgeous cover by Andreas Preis, who also designed The Gospel of Loki.

It’s been five hundred years since the end of the world and society has rebuilt itself anew. The old Norse gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic is outlawed, and a new religion – the Order – has taken its place.

In a remote valley in the north, fourteen-year-old Maddy Smith is shunned for the ruinmark on her hand – a sign associated with the Bad Old Days. But what the villagers don’t know is that Maddy has skills. According to One-Eye, the secretive Outlander who is Maddy’s only real friend, her ruinmark – or runemark, as he calls it – is a sign of Chaos blood, magical powers and gods know what else…

Now, as the Order moves further north, threatening all the Worlds with conquest and Cleansing, Maddy must finally learn the truth to some unanswered questions about herself, her parentage, and her powers.

Want to read some? Great! Because from 21 November to 3 December, book bloggers are posting extracts from Runemarks (details of all participating blogs below). Yesterday was the turn of bookmagpie.uk and today it’s mine. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

No one knew much about Red Horse Hill. Some said it had been shaped during the Elder Age, when the heathens still made sacrifices to the old gods. Others said it was the burial mound of some great Outlander chieftain, seeded throughout with deadly traps, though Maddy favoured the theory that the place was a giant treasure mound, piled to the eaves with goblin gold. Read more

An afternoon with Choc Lit’s Pink Ladies

L – R: Authors Christine Stovell, Evonne Wareham and Christina Courtenay looking very snazzy in their Choc Lit tees, and kudos to Evonne for tolerating a kimono-wearing squirrel on her shoulder.
L – R: Authors Christine Stovell, Evonne Wareham and Christina Courtenay looking very snazzy in their Choc Lit tees, and kudos to Evonne for tolerating a kimono-wearing squirrel on her shoulder.

If you follow me on social media or have ever read this blog before, you’ll know that books, chocolate and adventures with squirrels (and yes, Squizzey, especially one in particular) are three of my favourite things. Luckily, I caught a Facebook post by Evonne Wareham earlier last week advertising an event that combined all three. On Thursday lunchtime, Squizzey and I ventured over to the neighbouring valley to check out the newly refurbished Ystrad Mynach library. It’s bright and welcoming – as are the library staff – and even stocks squirrel-friendly book titles. (Although Squizz was a little wary of the purple dragon guarding them!)

The authors’ books on the table with Japanese footwear and fan underneath it
The authors’ books on the table with Japanese footwear and fan underneath it

As part of the re-opening celebrations, three author friends – Christine Stovell, Evonne Wareham and Christina Courtenay –  were there to talk about Heroes, Heroines and Happy Endings. All three are all published by ChocLit; a publisher of a wide selection of stories, told from both the hero and heroine’s point of view, which all have romance at the heart of them.

Trying to walk in the heavy kimono
Trying to walk in the heavy kimono

All three authors were generous with their time – and the chocolates they handed round to everyone – and open to questions from the audience throughout the afternoon session. They covered the type of books they write, which range from contemporary romance to young adult and historical to thrillers and suspense, and why, showing how the fiction they write stems from their other interests, a desire to combine one or more of those and create a hybrid work, places they had lived or visited, and/or a need to make sense of the world we live in.

A fan of Christina’s books
A fan of Christina’s books

Chris, Evonne and Christina talked about the starting points for stories: a character, a place, a situation or a premise. They all seemed to be pantsters rather than planners, although Evonne did admit that she was academic in her approach thanks to her background, and they all keep some record of the timeline they’re working to, so that this doesn’t cause continuity issues. Christina also said that it was useful for her to colour-code characters’ points of view, to ensure that her stories achieved the right balance, and didn’t favour one character more than any other to the detriment of the whole story. This was especially important to her when writing time slips, where both stories have to carry the same weight.

While both Chris and Christina write straight onto a computer, Evonne still prefers to write long-hand and showed us the manuscript of her current work-in-progress, complete with her own red pen edits. Respect to Evonne for not only writing in longhand and also leaving the house with a handwritten manuscript. I would only do this, if I could clutch it to my chest for the whole time I was away from the house. Not doing regular enough back-ups makes me break out in a cold sweat, as it is! Read more

Author Interview Part 2: Jo Verity

Welcome back for Part 2 of my interview with Honno author Jo Verity. (You can read Part 1 here.) Today, we’re talking about her latest novel, Left and Leaving

Photographer Gil is on an extended grey gap-year, working in the London hospital to which Vivian brings Irene for emergency treatment; together they try to establish calm amid the chaos. Irene is thrilled with her ‘guardian angels’, they less so with her ongoing interest in their lives.

Gil has a girlfriend, living in the same building as him, and a troublesome family back home. Thirty-something Vivian has a high- flying boyfriend, an irascible father and a demanding job. But they keep finding reasons to spend time together in the run up to Christmas. And still there is Irene, intent on filling the holes in her life…

Marooned in Tooting by a sudden snowstorm, Vivian and Gil are forced to spend the holiday confronting secrets and responsibilities they’ve been complacent about for too long.

Left and Leaving is your fifth novel published by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, where did that have its origins?
I have a daughter and grandchildren living in London and I spend a fair amount of time there. (What a place to people watch!) No one cares who you are or what you do – both a blessing and a curse. I thought it would be interesting to bring together one character who craves its anonymity with one who has become isolated. These two people would, in normal circumstances, never meet. The interesting part for me was working out how to get them together. Playing God is one of a writer’s greatest pleasures.

I love the cover image of two garden chairs covered with snow, standing in the snow. It suits the book so well. Is it the cover you had in mind and did you have much say in it?
Honno has always listened to my suggestions for cover images. We’ve had some ‘lively’ discussions, but we’ve always come up with something that’s acceptable to both of us.

Having worked in graphics, the ‘look’ of a book – mine or anyone else’s – is particularly important to me. I know what I like! (Not wobbly hand-lettering and pastel colours, for a start.) Over the course of 5 novels I’ve come to accept that an image which pleases me may not be right for the book. The publisher knows what helps to sell a book which is, after all, pretty important! Ideally a cover ought to hint at what happens in the story or at least the kind of story it is.

I’m delighted with the cover of Left and Leaving. I think it succeeds in being both a striking image and it conveys the mood of the story. Two abandoned chairs, close together but isolated. A hard winter. Read more

Author Interview Part 1: Jo Verity

One of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year has been Left and Leaving by Jo Verity. It’s a great contemporary novel set in London, in a winter which mutes that hectic city, and is as much a story about the random connections we form as well as the more problematic relationship between a daughter and her widowed father. It’s a terrific wintry read. 

Happily, Jo lives in Cardiff and we’ve since been able to meet up and talk writing and her latest book. I’m going to post the interview in two parts, today and tomorrow, when I’ll also be giving away a signed copy of Left and Leaving, so be sure not to miss tomorrow’s instalment.    

Jo, your writing break came about thanks to watching daytime TV while ill. Can you tell me more about that?
It was October 2002. I’d been writing for about 2 years. I happened to be off work with food poisoning – whiling away the time watching the Richard & Judy Show. It was the last chance to enter their short story competition (this was long before the Richard & Judy Bookclub started) and I happened to have a story ready to go. I posted it off and forgot all about it. A couple of months later I got a call to say that my story was in the final 15 (from 17,000 entries) and could I go up to London the following week when the winner would be announced live on air. It was very exciting. Martina Cole, Suzi Feay and Tony Parsons were the judges. I was flabbergasted when they picked my story – Rapid Eye Movement – as the winner especially as I’d sent the same story out to a couple of competitions and it had done nothing.

The prize was to have the story published in The Independent on Sunday.

I suppose I assumed I would be inundated with offers from agents but the weeks went by and it all started to fade away. Then I got a letter from Janet Thomas at Honno Welsh Women’s Press congratulating me and asking if I’d written anything longer as ‘books of short stories by unknown writers simply don’t sell’. I’d just completed my first novel – Everything in the Garden. I sent it to them and, two years later, they published it.

That was my break – the bit of luck that every writer needs. Thanks, Honno. Read more

Author Interview: Stephanie Butland #TheOtherHalfofmyHeart blog tour

My guest today is author Stephanie Butland whose wonderful first novel Letters to my Husband I reviewed hereToday Stephanie’s stopping off on her blog tour for her second novel, The Other Half of My Heart, which came out last Thursday. Here’s what it’s about: 

“It smelled bittersweetly of sourdough, and there was the trace of hot, fresh bread in the air. She took a deep breath and unlocked the door”

Fifteen years ago Bettina May’s life’s veered off course in one disastrous night. Still reeling from the shock of losing everything she thought was hers, Bettina opens a bakery in a village and throws herself into the comfort of bread-making.
She spends her days kneading dough and measuring ingredients. She meets someone. She begins to heal.
Until someone who knows what happens that night walks into Bettina’s bakery. In the pause of a heartbeat, fifteen years disappear and Bettina remembers a time she thought was lost for ever . . .
Can she ever go back?

Welcome to the Nut Press, Stephanie, and congratulations on book two!  
Thank you! It’s lovely to be here.

Second novels can be notoriously troublesome for their authors. Did The Other Half of my Heart cause you any heartache along the way, and how did you deal with this?   
It was a little bit tricky – but largely because I did the equivalent of starting your homework at 10pm on a Sunday night… I’d done a lot of research and thinking – but I sat down on 1 January with 13,000 words and a deadline of 1 March! I wrote 50,000 words in January and although it was brilliant, in many ways, I won’t be writing a book that way again.

The main character in your book, Bettina, opens a bakery which goes some way towards helping her recover from a traumatic event in her past. There’s something about the smell of freshly baked bread, and the process of breadmaking itself, the kneading of it and allowing it to rest in between times, before it (hopefully) rises in the oven, which makes it a wonderful comfort food. Was this behind you choosing a bakery for her?
Absolutely. At an early stage I went to see a baker named Andrew Smith (www.breadandroses.co.uk) and as he talked about bread I understood that it was much more than something you mix up, put in the oven and eat. A loaf of bread is an ancient alchemy of flour, salt and water; the making of it is an ancient act, even if you do use a mixer! Bettina needed to heal, and she needed to be patient, because she was never going to heal quickly. Bread saved her in a way that nothing else would have.
Read more

%d bloggers like this: