I wonder as I wander....

Last week I heard this lovely Appalachian folk carol sung in Gloucester cathedral, where the extraordinary acoustics made the voices of the St Cecilia's Singers soar and echo and resonate between the vaulted arches...they sang many wonderful works that evening but this simple and poignant piece was one of the most moving.

There is much to wonder about in this world, especially at this time of year when, for those who celebrate Christmas, spiritual attempts to see the past in the present, to transcend time and ponder the meaning of Bethlehem, come up against the crass consumerism all around. Not to mention the ongoing horrors of terrorism and war.

"And is it true? And is it true/This most tremendous tale of all...." so wrote John Betjeman in his famous poem "Christmas," juxtaposing the humour of the "tissued fripperies" and "hideous tie so kindly meant" with the mind-blowing possibility "The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?"

I cannot tell, I do not know, but I would like to celebrate Christmas as if it were indeed true. (And I would like to consider Christmas as lasting for twelve days from Christmas day onwards, not starting in early December and ending on Boxing Day!).

One of my three children is already with us, two are wandering in from abroad and I wonder if they will arrive in time, despite storms and strikes. Then we will have an enormous Christmas gathering with my many siblings and their families, and our mother. Even through this ghastly cold I have been fighting, which as colds do has been making me feel as if the end is nigh, I have the sense to know how very fortunate I am, in so many ways.

We have a candle in a glass jar behind our lovely German advent calendar, a cut-out of San Marco in Venice, with angels by great artists in every window. As the light shines through the windows, the angel paintings glow. But the candle is burning low, and stammers like my own faith or spirituality or whatever name I can give the thing within me that keeps flickering, but feebly.

Blessings on us all, whatever we believe, trust in, or hope for; and now it's back to a few more tissued fripperies, bed-making, and nose-blowing. May "a star's light" fall on everyone this Christmas, and may the New Year bring a more peaceful world, and hope of a home for all.





Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new.  We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.

Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.

The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture.  Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline;  "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."

Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there.  There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so.  (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in  Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).

Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece  HERE  prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern."  I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.) 

Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern. 

Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?  

That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.

*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).




Orla & Super Sowilo!

Sowilo Press is an imprint of Hidden River Arts, a Philadelphia arts foundation. As anyone visiting this website can't help knowing by now, this small independent press awarded my novel Inscription the Eludia Prize in 2013, and published the book last year. Then, in the 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Inscription was chosen as one of twelve semi-finalists. This is a serious award, and the winner, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, has been named Book of the Year in many quarters, including Oprah's magazine. My book was in excellent company!

In 2014 the Eludia Prize winner was Northern Irish writer Orla McAlinden, for her collection of short stories The Accidental Wife. Sowilo Press published the book this year. Now one of those stories, 'The Visit,' has won a major award—it's the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year!  

This means that a small press in Philadelphia has international reach, publishing books that have been connected with major awards both in the USA and Ireland!

Sowilo does publish home-grown authors too; Tree Riesener of Philadelphia won the Eludia award in 2012 for her own book of stories, Sleepers Awake! and she is also a prolific and much-published poet. There are earlier Sowilo books by American writers as well.

The point of all this, apart from my wanting to celebrate Orla's success, is that small publishers can be an important part of a book's journey to finding readers. Writers shouldn't overlook them.

I have some good news of my own: my first poetry collection will appear with Oversteps Books in 2017! More information to follow. 

And now I am trying to really make headway on a second novel. It is so true what they say: you know you have written one book, but you just don't know how you did it, and you can't believe you will be able to do it again.

But I am forging ahead, if forging is the word for a process that feels like wading through treacle. I have help from writing friends; it's good to be accountable to someone. Good to check in with a fellow writer and compare notes....which is exactly what I have to go and do right now.

Forza, fellow writers! Forza is a word I learnt in Italy, it's how you cheer on your team; something like "Go for it!" combined with "Courage!"  Forza, and forge onward, and never ever give up.






Present and Past

It's about time I mentioned Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings. Her compilations of inspiring and thought-provoking words from writers, artists, and thinkers of all types are marvellous, and her newsletter brings regular treasures to my inbox. The latest is about poet Mary Oliver and her book Upstream: Selected Essays.

The whole thing is a brilliant meditation on the creative life. And I will copy out these words of Mary Oliver's and put them where I can see them, often:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.


I've been going to various events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, listening to writers who have heard that call to creative work, and who have, by dint of dedication and sheer hard graft, succeeded in making something beautiful or powerful or interesting out of nothing.

I loved the poetry of Matthew Hollis, who read from his pamphlet Stones.

What passes in the present is present in the past. 

And there it lies upon the latch.

Our hands tremble on the morning match.                                                                                                                                                            

The book is letterpress printed and bound by hand; Hollis prefaced his poems with an illustrated talk about how the pamphlet itself was made. We understood a little of the care and skill that went into making this slim volume; the work of setting the type, hand-spacing it, line by line, page by page; of the printing itself, of trial and error until it is just so, and of letting the ink dry, which takes three days. It was fascinating, and seductive, and a celebration of the book-maker's craft. 

Other poets whose work I enjoyed were Sarah Howe, who wrote Loop of Jade, and Rebecca Perry. Confusingly, nomenclature-wise, the Festival also brought us the novelist Sarah Perry, speaking about her book The Essex Serpent. Sharing this event was Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built and the brilliant Unapologetic, about faith; he has now written a novel, Golden Hill. There was an interesting conversation about setting novels in the past; Perry's is set in 1890s Essex, and Spufford's in 1740s New York.  The moderator Andrew Holgate asked if either of them had hesitated before writing something that could be called a "historical novel," because, he said, a snobbish attitude is still sometimes found towards to such books. Both replied firmly, No. Sarah Perry said that she did hesitate five years ago, when she was writing her first novel, "...because I wanted to be taken seriously," and didn't want to be accused of shirking a novelist's duty to grapple wth the present day. (I'm paraphrasing here, from memory and scribbled notes). But then  she realised that even a novel set in the past is "as much about us as it is about them." And besides, she said, "human hearts do not change, human behaviour does not change."

When writing Inscription, I thought about the same issues, wondering about the difference between "historical novels" and novels that just happen to be set in the past. Francis Spufford made a distinction between novels that are written like a theme park trip back in time, where you know what you are going to get, and those that offer creativity, surprise, and invention. Others might say that since so many "literary" novels are now set in the past, we should drop the genre label "historical novel," or at least stop thinking of all historical novels as "bodice-rippers" with minimal literary value. Indeed, A. S.Byatt, Hilary Mantel, David Malouf, Jesse Browner, Marguerite Yourcenar, and many other writers have amply shown that a novel set in the past can be of the greatest literary excellence.


The Festival, as always, prompted much thought about writing, reading, and creativity.  Now to see what inspiration I have gleaned and use if in my own writing. I hope it will help me as I shape what I hope will be my own new novel set in the past; this time, not as distant as the first century AD of Inscription, but much closer to us: the 19th century. Which I have been thinking about for several years, and, for the record, before I knew about Sarah Perry's book or any other of the recent 19th century novels. It must be something in the Zeitgeist. I am trying to find out what, and why.  Trying to give some "power and time" to my own creative instincts. For after all, as Hollis says, "What passes in the present is present in the past."




Accidental Wife; and Writing Life.

I read Orla McAlinden's book The Accidental Wife as soon as I could get my hands on it via my trusty local book supplier. 

This book of interlinked stories has been published by the independent Sowilo Press of Philadelphia as the latest Eludia award winner. My own novel Inscription won the award the year before, so of course I would think the press has brilliant judgement! But honestly. Skip mine if you like (though of course I hope you won't!), but read the first Eludia winner, Sleepers Awake by Tree Riesener, and read Orla McAlinden's book, and you'll see that Sowilo is picking very talented new writers for this award.  

So I thought The Accidental Wife would be good, but in fact it's even better than I expected. It has variety, and interest; I believe in its world and its people. It moved me as I read, and made me laugh, too. But you can learn more about it, and what I, and other readers, think about it, on Amazon. Go HERE (UK) or HERE  (USA). (Actually, I said the same thing in both places, but if you go to the right website for your country it might be easier for you to click "buy now"! Or if you prefer, order from another online bookseller; or from your local bookshop).

On her blog ( HERE ) Orla McAlinden writes amusingly about the experience of being interviewed on television in "Fame, Shame...and One-handed Typing." She surprised herself by cleaning the kitchen for the cameras and by caring more than she ever thought she would about how things would look to the viewers.  A sort of "shame," she says, an unusual feeling for her. 

Like Orla, I was brought up Catholic; though I'm not a Catholic now, I am grateful for this upbringing. However, in the wrong hands—and I did encounter some of those—there was an over- emphasis on guilt, sin, and shame. But shouldn't we sometimes feel a bit ashamed? Her blog piece made me think about what I am ashamed of now.

Some things I'm ashamed of won't be mentioned here. But one of them is the disarray of my writing space. Or not-writing space, as another thing I am ashamed of is my current lack of writing discipline.  Or more specifically, because I did rediscover discipline when preparing my poetry collection last month, my lack of application to my new book.

I've been reading Gordon Haight's biography of George Eliot. (This is part of my research for the new project, so it does count as work. Lots of one's work as a writer is reading, and mulling). I am encouraged to learn that even this most brilliant of novelists suffered from lack of confidence. Before each new book she felt that what she wanted to do was impossible; she would never be able to achieve it.  After spending thirty-one days in Florence doing research for Daniel Deronda, she wondered if it would all be in vain. Or if, as she wrote, "it were possible that I should produce better work than I have yet done! At least there is a possibility that I may make greater efforts against indolence and the despondency that comes from too egoistic a dread of failure."

Ah, that last phrase. "Too egoistic a dread of failure." The old, impossible, balance between caring too much, for egoistic reasons, and not caring enough. The writer's struggle. The writing life. Which reminds me of Annie Dillard's wonderful book of the same title....

...but now I must go to my yoga class. "Greater efforts against indolence" are needed, both physically and mentally!

Feeding the Lake

Third time lucky. I've been trying to write a blog post for a while now, and actually wrote two pieces that both somehow vanished when I tried to save them. I was hoping to manage a post while it was still August, which would have meant for the first time achieving two posts in the same month. But it was not to be. A poor show, considering I have been aiming for once a week! But the weeks fly past nowadays, as fast as months used to do.

One of the lost posts was about the tragedy of another terrible earthquake in Italy, while the memory of the 2009 devastation of L'Aquila, once my home for five years, is still fresh. That city and surroundings lost 300 people and will never be the same. Nor will Amatrice and the towns around it.  But whatever I said about it would have been not very coherent and after all, what can one say, or do? Except weep, and prompt each other to donate to the Red Cross....

Now it's September. My poem "September Afternoon in the Schoolyard"—its final lines are on this website's home page—begins like this:

Taut, amazing, lazuli sky: September:                                                                                               four o'clock: each leaf is distinct: the brightness                                                                             edges every pebble: the shadows sharpen                                                                                 woodchip and grassblade.

This is North America's clearest season,                                                                                           lucid, unequivocal; this light suits white                                                                                   clapboard houses ruled like unwritten schoolbooks.

It was started, as the title indicates, in a playground in the town in Pennsylvania where I lived for twenty years, in that extraordinary clear light you often get in the north-eastern US in September and October.  But as the poem shows, lovely as that light was and as much as I enjoyed its clarity, I missed England:

                                         But I keep wanting                                                                                                                          muted English shades; and a crumbled honey                                                                          limestone wall, its time-softened contours blurry,                                                                            lost in moss....

Now I'm in England again, among the muted shades and limestone walls. Yet sometimes even here there is a clear bright day, and yesterday was one of those. Bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, and in the afternoon as the sun dropped lower, the air cooled fast, and this autumnal hint gave me that September feeling. A feeling of those new school notebooks, and of new beginnings. I haven't been part of academia since I left university, but I have three children fairly widely spaced, and so for a huge swathe of my life September meant "back to school." Once they were all at school full-time, this also meant back to work for me, back to days with solitude and time to write, as I was in the lucky position of not having to go off to a nine-to-five job. So the feeling of a clean slate, a new leaf, a fresh notebook, affected me too.

Today, on September 1st, I have this frisson again. Over the last month I've been sorting poems with a view to gathering them into a collection. Despite the luxury of time over the years (or some would say, because of it) I have a very small oeuvre (!); I am an exponent of slow poetry. Very trendy, surely, like slow food. Also of slow novel writing. And slow essay writing.  So there aren't that many poems to sort.

But I am done with the collection-gathering, for now, and am ready to turn to other work. I have a couple of projects in view: my embryonic new novel is seeking its shape; I also want to write a couple of essays, and re-enter the freelance world. Time to dig in, to get cracking....slow writing is all very well, but I don't have all the time in the world. I must work harder, I must do more.

What is it that drives us to write? It's a mysterious thing.....though in my own case, using language is really all I know how to do well (except for various skills acquired during the raising of those three children, skills that aren't much appreciated in the world at large). But still, what impels me to keep doing it, to keep honing words and phrases and listening to their sound and trying to balance it all? I am not sure; its something to do with loving what Jean Rhys called the "huge lake" that is all writing. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, she says, and we can add the writers we admire; and there are "mere trickles, like Jean Rhys." (Of course now she is acknowledged as much more than a trickle). I do not matter, she says. Only the lake matters. You must feed the lake. 

And so I keep trying to feed the lake with my own tiny runnel of writing. And now, the nights are drawing in.



Today, it seems, is #Nationalbookloversday...I saw this on Twitter, and so global is the world nowadays that only this moment have I realised it is a US rather than a British thing. When I saw it, I wasn't actually thinking of it as connected to any particular nation, but rather to all of us who belong in the Republic of Books. Anyway, I may be based in the UK now, but I lived twenty-seven years in the States, and most of my library (or what's left of it after moves and downsizings) was gathered there.

"Blessed books—any one of which is worth all the toggery we ever put on our backs," wrote the artist Samuel Palmer in a letter. And how true. I'd always sooner buy a book than a piece of clothing. I read Palmer's words in the wonderful biography Mysterious Wisdom by Rachel Campbell-Johnston; she brings this artist of poetic landscapes to life, often quoting his own vivid expressions and forceful opinions, as well as delicately probing the mystery of his art. I heard her speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2011, the year the book came out, and on the strength of her brilliant talk I bought the book on the spot. I hadn't read it properly, though, until just the other day. The book was waiting on the shelf for just the perfect time; that is what books do, our faithful companions. 

My novel Inscription is a love letter to the book, to the book's codex format as well as to the richness reading brings. The books we write are alchemical compounds of all the books we've read, transmuted somehow.  Inscription touches on the historical mystery of how the codex book form evolved, and I have my first-century protagonist affect its spread a little. The protagonist of the modern strand is herself a book-lover who says, "Books have become my country."  The books on my shelves, or so I feel, hold my life, remind me I have lived and read; they are part of me. 

Of course, I also love libraries and bookshops. Second-hand and charity bookshops are my favourite haunts. In Cheltenham, where as a teenager I combed the shelves of Alan Hancox's room after room of books, I now browse in Peter Lyons's eclectic and fascinating collection; or in Cheltenham Rare Books next door, with its tempting first editions and literary oddities (as well as Inscription, honoured to find itself in such company). Even a modest budget will stretch to something in both these places. Then in the charity shops, especially those just selling books, there's always some great find, and the money goes to a good cause, or that's my excuse.

For new books there's Waterstones, and I am glad of it, but when possible I go to the independent Suffolk Anthology, a beautifully curated (as the trendy saying goes, but it's really fitting here) selection of new books on every subject. I'd be singing its praises even if it too didn't stock my book, as it also has coffee, cake, a place to sit down, and always a warm welcome.

"Blessed books,"indeed; I can't help loving them, and wanting them. What I have to safeguard, in this new world of addictions like facebook and twitter, is time for the reading of them. And I have to make sure I have a bit left over to write my own.




Distractions and the Tightrope

First, an update on the new planner....I have been using it, off and on. It's not quite incorporated into my routine yet, partly because I went away and the book was a bit too big to take with me; but when I have used it, it has really helped, and I can see that using it consistently could hugely improve my self-organization. The key part is (of course) the part I find hardest: writing the goals I set for the week into an actual time slot on an actual day! But I do like the way it encourages thought about the shape of a day, a week, and even year ahead, and reflection on where one has been and where one is going.

Part of the problem with productivity is avoiding the lure of the internet. This is harder when there is some Seriously Good Stuff to be found. The last couple of days have been a feast of thought-provoking pieces. First, the wonderful Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has some inspirational excerpts from Herman Hesse about books, starting with this:

"Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books."                                                     From his 1930 essay "The Magic of the Book." 

Then a facebook friend posted an excellent essay on Rose Kelleher's website Rambling Rose by poet A. E. Stallings debunking some of the common misconceptions about formal poetry. Some of these ideas (formal poetry is anti-feminist, formal poetry is elitist) seem to me ridiculous, but it appears some people do have them; Stallings disposes of them brilliantly. 

And then, just when I have been thinking a lot, again, about Gerard Manley Hopkins, I come across a recent piece about him and his dark sonnets in Commonweal by Matthew Boudway. It's complex and thought-provoking and I need to re-read it before I know whether I am on board with everything it says, but anyway it brings eloquently before me once more this brilliant poet and his struggles, so hard to relate to today for those of us in secular society. Hopkins died on June 8th 1889, just shy of 45, after some very miserable months, even years; so it is some comfort to know his last words were apparently "I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life."

At least essays like these feed into my writing mind. So much on the internet doesn't, and is distracting or (as with recent news from Orlando) deeply upsetting. Some discipline is required, some filtering, some dedicated time-keeping, and I am (with the planner's help) trying to start working on that....just as soon as I've looked up that reference and checked my Twitter feed....Enough of this "I am an addict" stuff—especially galling as I thought it would never happen to me. (Can I just point out that at least I don't, usually, go online on my phone?) In other news....

Since I last posted here, I've had an exciting experience with my novel Inscription: it was long-listed for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, one of twelve semi-finalist titles chosen out of over 150. Although it wasn't a finalist, this vote of confidence in the book has given me great delight.

It's also a spur to beginning my new book, which is an amorphous blob at the moment, but gradually begins to take shape. (I think. Or am I mad to be saying even this much?)  I know, or I trust, that once I have a better idea of where it is trying to go, I will be caught up in it and dedicated to it, as I was when writing Inscription. Though I will still need to make time for working on my poetry and gathering my first collection....

Good luck to all of us handling that slippery medium, language, and walking the tightrope of the writing life!


"What is all this juice and all this joy?"

"Nothing is so beautiful as Spring..."  says Gerard Manley Hopkins, opening the poem I quote in my title. I agree; spring is definitely my favourite season, and always has been. An American friend of mine experiencing her first English spring said the other day that it was "magical."  In Pennsylvania Spring can be wonderful too, especially after the brutal winter; but there it changes so quickly into summer. There isn't (it seemed to me) the same tentativeness, the same delicacy, the same limpid light that is outside right this moment, as the morning's showers clear—perhaps only for a while—and the sunshine breaks through. And then comes the song of the blackbird, which I used to miss so much....

Every spring as a child, and then as a teenager and college student, I felt the same delicious frisson, a shiver of promise, and I still do. As intensely as when I was young? Perhaps not quite. But I feel it, a sensation that can't be described—not that this has stopped people, including myself, from trying. The challenge is to try and say something fresh about spring's very freshness, and it seems impossible. (I have been lucky, a couple of my spring poem attempts have been published; perhaps I'll post them on the Poetry page).

It's always and miraculously true that the season brings renewal to the green and growing things, and I find myself seeking renewal too. Wanting a fresh start in writing, in relationships, in my (currently dormant) spiritual life.  There ensues the usual struggle between this desire and my simple human laziness. 

This year something very simple and—apparently—unspiritual is helping with a tentative rebirth of creativity; how much, only time will tell. It's a new planner. Just as the mundane chore of cleaning and organising one's desk can make space for fresh ideas to blow in, so finding a planner that seems to allow room for creative projects as well as daily chores can help one (or help me—best drop this pretence that everyone's as hopeless as I am) manage time a trifle better.

 I carry no brief for this company, with which I have no connections whatsoever, but I am liking my new "Passion Planner." My sister discovered this American enterprise, and when I was last in the States I ordered and brought back two planners, on sale because we're almost half-way through the year. The company was originally and successfully crowd-sourced as so many people responded to the idea of the young founder, Angelia Trinidad.

Her planner notebook allows space for mind maps, prompts you to write down good things that happened as well as things "to do," helps you to formulate clear goals for both work and personal life, gives you space to write your hopes at the start of each month and a reflection at the end, and provides nice big sections named "Space of Infinite Possibility." There are also inspiring quotes scattered throughout: this week's is from Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today."  There are helpful tips which you may or may not like, but can ignore if you want, such as "Avoid the unnecessary stress that comes with procrastination" followed by an idea of how to use the planner to actually do this.  In short, it's an unusual mix of the guided and the open-ended. A combination journal, agenda, and sketchbook. As Trinidad says on the introductory page, "I wanted to create the planner I wish someone had give me when I was feeling lost, so I decided to make it myself." 

I'm currently enthusiastic, though of course, like so many new starts, it may fizzle out. But perhaps the breezy energy of spring will buoy me towards a new phase...

"Birds build — but not I build," said Gerard Manley Hopkins, in another, very different, poem.  That's how I've been feeling for a while, but now I hope there's a change in the air, for me and for anyone who longs to build or to make something this spring.

Here's wishing everyone creative juice and joy.






Alan Garner: "The numinous as a book"

How quickly time passes, how many days have gone by since I last wrote here. At least by posting today I'll prevent April from slipping away unmarked.

I was lucky enough recently to be at the launch for a wonderful collection of essays in honour of Alan Garner, called First Light, edited by Erica Wagner.  As a teenager I was captivated by Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and I have been in his debt ever since, though have not kept up with all his books through the years. But now I will read all those I missed, and revisit the ones I read when so young that I probably missed a good deal of their complexity.

 A few years ago, I heard him speak at the Cheltenham Literature festival and he was mesmerising. And what a wonderful feeling to be there listening to someone whose work enchanted me so forcefully when I was fourteen; apart from anything else, it made me feel much younger than I am. Or, to put what I mean less flippantly, it gave me a wonderful sense of continuity in my reading life. (A bit like when Madeleine L'Engle, whose Wrinkle in Time was one of the most important books I read as a ten-year-old English child, came three decades later to a conference centre near where I lived in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I met her at last).  

If you don't know the work of Alan Garner, I can't convey his spell here. But contributors to the book include Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Robert Macfarlane, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers, Margaret Atwood, Rowan Williams, Michael Wood....he appeals to writers and artists, but also, as Erica Wagner says in her introduction, to scientists, archaeologists, historians. His words "make worlds which connect" with the work of all these different people.

At the afternoon lecture preceding the reception, I found myself sitting next to writer Katherine Langrish. In her contribution to First Light, she says Garner's first four books changed her imagination. "Under the seeing eye, landscapes reveal layers—strata—of history, prehistory, geology and legend. Places are founded in time, time becomes a dimension of place." 

Garner himself, in his talk "The Voice that Thunders" (collected with other lectures and essays in the book of the same name), says he has the combination of "an academic's and a magpie's mind that sees, finds or makes connections and patterns where others do not."  It's this making of connections and patterns that is his magic.

His fictions connect real places in modern England with the life of their past centuries, and with the myths that sleep in their stony underground bones. He does not really write for children, though children are sometimes the protagonists of his books and young readers can enjoy some of them.  Describing the twelve-year-long writing of Strandloper (published 1996) he said it began with a newspaper cutting about a man from a hamlet called Marton, close to Garner's own home, who had been transported to Australia in 1803: "I know instantly that I am pregnant with his story." He begins researching, delighting in what he learns as he collects information, follows many seemingly-unlinked threads; and then becomes "enthralled as the unconnected themes begin to converge....and for me it is the convergence, an elegant and natural simplicity of resolution, that hidden union, which has always been waiting: the numinous as a book."

The "Voice that Thunders," he says, is the name the Aborigines give to the source of inspiration. He has heard it himself. In the writing of Strandloper it commanded: "Go to Marton church." He had known this church all his life,  but now it showed him, in the patterns of its medieval windows, a link with the patterns used in Aboriginal ritual body art, and with the abstract patterns of dot, zig-zag and spiral, the "entoptic lines," used in cave paintings and elsewhere in many different times and places. In this church he found the climax for his story, and his fiction came full circle, back to home ground.

Impossible in this space to give more than a hint of the resonating power of Garner's themes, stories, and images. Or of his language. Or of the way he intertwines myth with reality, making them seem—or showing that they are?—part of the same story. But it was an amazing experience to be with so many other people who had been moved by this writer. It was a testimony to the power of language, of story, of the way books can touch the deepest parts of us. 

As Hugh Lupton writes of Garner in First Light: "At the back of our battered landscapes and our tattered shreds of folklore he gives us story and prayer, the deep culture of England." And David Almond puts it thus: "He helps us touch the extraordinary ordinary objects, helps us experience the sacred places...And we are enthralled by this world made so very real, and by the mystery that lies within and all around it." 



There is balm in Gilead

I'm reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila, third in a sequence of novels after Gilead and Home. These books are extraordinary. Sometimes, reading a brilliant book makes me feel a sort of irritable envy, a "wish I could have done that" resentment. But Robinson's work is beyond that sort of response. It leaves me awed, moved, and full of gratitude that she exists, and that she has made these books.

They do what books should do: illuminate the ordinary moments. ("Oh, I will miss the world!" says dying old John Ames in Gilead). Bring to life, through real, flawed people, the power of kindness, faith, and love ("Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It's all grace," says Boughton, forgiving the son who has given him endless sorrow, in Home). Show redemption, resurrection even ("Strange as all this is, there might be something to it, thinks Lila in Lila). But never preachingly, never cloying or sentimental, and looking unflinchingly at the hard things too, so the flashes of grace are well-earned. These books may have spiritual implications, but they make you love the very stuff of physical life.

I've always been drawn, in reading and in writing, to matters of the spirit. My background and inclination are Christian, but my beliefs, not that I have anything so firm as to merit the word, are more and more open-ended and wide-ranging, and I flee from dogma. Paul Elie says, of psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, that he "was the very archetype of the secular post-modern pilgrim—not a believer himself, but a person who is attracted to belief, prone to it, often covetous of it in others, and who is brought to the threshold of belief imaginatively through his reading." I recognise something of myself here, though I have done so little with my own pilgrimage. 

That quote is from Paul Elie's fascinating book, The Life you Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage, which looks at four writers, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor, and they way the sought the truth in their lives, in their ways of living but also in the way they wrote: "Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort."

Years ago, I was asked to participate in a conference at DeSales University about writing and spirituality. As I listened to the other speakers, I felt an overwhelming sense of homecoming: this is my place, my territory, this intersection of writing with the search for something "beyond", and although I've been forgetting about it, this is where I belong. Similarly, when I read Parabola magazine, which examines "the search for meaning" and explores the world's spiritual traditions, I feel at home and enriched there (and glad three of my essays have contributed to its archive). The writers who excite me often inhabit that borderland where twin yearnings, to make something well with words and to find meaning, flow into each other: Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Darcey Steinke, Frederick Buechner, Michael Mayne, Ronald Blythe...

That borderland is my natural habitat, though I could never shed the kind of light on it that they do, and that Robinson does. Apart from anything else, my "faith" in anything "beyond" is at present a feeble and wavering flame. But then, perhaps that is when I most need to spend time there? At any rate, I know that's the territory where I want to walk, and work. 


Note: The reason I'm reading Lila now, and about to re-read the earlier Gilead books, is that my wonderful local independent bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology, is running a seminar on them on March 23rd.

A Blank Page

Spring is in the air; there are greening leaf-buds on the trees. Crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils are at their peak or even beyond, and the next wave of new growth and flowering is almost ready. The days are longer; and there's a subtle excitement, a sense of potential for something new.

I'm sitting looking out of the window at the morning sun beginning to break through cloud cover and I'm thinking about my idea for a new book. It's still very much unshaped...like a water-colour artist's paper covered only in a hint of wash, with faint forms beginning to appear, but still undefined. I have become fascinated by the mid-Victorian era, 1840s and 1850s, and I know the book will involve that time frame somehow. I know some of the themes, am formulating an idea of character, a sense of place; but it is all happening so slowly.

Spring comes quickly; soon the bluebells will be here, azure mist on the woodland slopes ; and one spring follows another faster and faster for me now. This book idea has been simmering for a few years already, though I find that hard to believe. It was the same with Inscription; and even once the idea took shape, my perfectionist way of making draft after draft, of rewriting over and over, meant the book took still more years to create and complete.

Time's wingèd chariot is snapping at my heels, to ruin Marvell's metaphor; and I berate myself for being such a slow writer. Months to write a poem? Years to write a book? Why? Why am I so ridiculously glacial in pace, when my bones know, every day more deeply, how brief this life is?

I can change some of my habits, I can exert more self-discipline. I can remind myself of what it felt like to write journalism, with no leeway.  I can give myself deadlines. And with the new impetus of spring, I'm determining today to do just that.  But I don't think I'll ever be a speedy, prolific writer, turning out a book a year, as some authors do, or a finished poem a day.

And I realise that, as usual, I have to find a balance; once again, it's that tightrope we writers walk. I must indeed get a move on, if I want to finish another book. But I shouldn't panic about it, as that leads to paralysis. I need to forgive myself for being slow and perfectionist. It can be modified, but it probably can't be fundamentally changed. I need to accept that it's just the way I am.

Yet I am an impatient person, at the same time. I have to remind myself that it's not a race; remind myself to relax; to rediscover the play of making something, the enjoyable puzzle.

Here's a bit from a book that is moving so many readers now, When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a writer and doctor who died a year ago at 37: when he held his newborn baby, her weight in one arm, gripping his wife's hand with the other, "..the possibilities of life emanated before us. The cancer cells in my body would still be dying, or they'd start growing again. Looking out over the expanse ahead I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page on which I would go on."








Laughter in the Bath

I started this post last night because of something that made me laugh while reading in the bath. It was about people in a boarding house during the war: "Mr Thwaites...spent much of the time writing embittered letters in the Lounge. These, after he had put on his overcoat and cap, he took round to the Post Office and posted in the most acid way. He passed pillar-boxes on the way, but did not trust them, as not going to the root of the matter."  

That last bit is what elicited the chuckle: Mr Thwaites is a thoroughly nasty man, but I admit I share this trait with him. I too hesitate to consign a letter to a pillar-box, much as I like them—and we even have an octagonal Victorian one five minutes' walk away, the VR elegantly adorning its front, the (admittedly small) mouth leading to a perfectly responsible cavity emptied regularly by employees of the Post Office. It was apposite that I was reading this in last night's bath; earlier in the day (which of course was Sunday) I'd posted a letter in a box that proclaimed its last collection was at 5:30 pm, but "there may be" other collections during the day. That half-promise was annoyingly vague. Immediately after dropping the envelope in, I was assailed by regret: surely it would have been better to go to the post office next morning, Monday, when my letter would have been pretty imminently dispatched, rather than leave it in a box which quite possibly would not be emptied all day. (My regret would have been greater if I'd remembered then what I've only just recalled as I write, that I could have gone to the Post Office anyway because it's open on Sundays now! This is quite a recent development; perhaps a hearkening back to earlier times, for example 1841, when post offices were open on Sundays—except during morning religious services—and from 6:00am to 10:00 pm during the week.)

All this reminds me of a British book about a British man in England, who for a reason I forget was looking at or thinking about a pillar box. It was seen from his point of view, through his thoughts. Because I was reading the American edition, I found him thinking about a "mailbox" instead. This man would never have thought that, and I'd bet millions that the author didn't write that. The editorial tampering destroyed the credibility of the character and his world.....I'd better stop, this is a hobby-horse of mine. Of course, after years of living in the States, I learnt to say "mailbox" myself, instead of "pillar box" or "post box." Now that I'm back in England I find I've sometimes forgotten the vocabulary I grew up with.

But to get back to the bath, where I laughed, recognizing myself in the ghastly Mr Thwaites.  He comes from Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947); it is bleakly funny, and brilliant. Hamilton is like a sort of grimmer Pym (and this is an accolade, for I deeply admire Barbara Pym, and she can often, beneath the surface cosiness, be very dark—see Quartet in Autumn). Slaves of Solitude is about a disparate group of people who for one reason or another—bombed out of their London flats, suddenly impoverished—have to live in a boarding house. Trapped there, enduring ghastly communal meals rife with awkward and even cruel conversations, they struggle through their days as best they can. I'm only a third of the way in, but I am awed by the writing of this author whose work I've only now discovered, on a friend's recommendation.

In fact, she lent me her copy; I hope when I give it back it won't be too wrinkly. I approach a bath like Dodie Smith's Cassandra in I Capture the Castle: "I bask first, wash second, and then read as long as the hot water holds out."  Unlike her, I have the luxury of being able to top up the water greedily to extend the bliss....how wonderful that the blessings of hot baths, and of books whether in or out of them, never grow stale.


Glorious mud

Follow me, follow, down to the hollow, where we will wallow...you know what comes next, and we have certainly seen enough mud in the last few weeks to serve us for a very long while. Maybe I shouldn't have written about the sun last time.

Today I'm concerned about a practical issue: how you may follow me, or rather follow this blog, should you wish to. All three or four of you. So this post is just a test one as I try to work on that. I may try to link this blog with my old blogspot blog...watch this space.

Anyway I will be back soon with more about really important things like books, reading, and writing.


The sun!

It does make a difference. The sun is out, the sky is blue; and although it was frosty this morning and is still chilly outside, the clarity of the day is invigorating after all that rain and cloud. Not that I mind the rain and cloud so much, as long as the temperatures don't drop to the insane cold I knew in Pennsylvania. When I lived there full-time, winter dragged on remorselessly through February, March, and often into April, with nothing green visible; just cold and ice and unmelted heaps of grimy snow. But here the daffodils are already up and in bud, and in parks and gardens there have been flowers of some sort without interruption since autumn.

There are some long-tailed tits frisking around and chirruping busily in a tree outside my window. Although it isn't nest-making time yet, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his anguished spring sonnet. "Birds build, but not I build..." I've been between projects for a while, and I'm uncertain of where to move next. This is scary: I am afraid full-fledged spring will arrive and I'll be echoing Hopkins, watching the creation all around and not making anything myself.

Paul Muldoon, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year, spoke about pattern, shape, and structure in his poetry. He said—admitting it's a truism, but it bears repeating—how the traditional patterns of form can allow for more emotional openness in a poem. Some people call poetic forms "artificial," but they are not: as he said, there are patterns everywhere in nature—in the structure of DNA, of crystals, of snowflakes.  

He also spoke about putting together a collection of poems. He doesn't start out with a theme, but over the four to five years of writing it, he said, "your obsessions are of a piece; themes appear."  He is interested in the sequence we read poems in, and how the experience changes accordingly. This concern with shape and structure is natural: "It's the urge to construct, to build things."

I know this urge. But sometimes it's so hard to begin. I plan to make a collection of my poetry, but far from representing Muldoon's "four to five years," it represents over two decades. (I'm a slow writer!) Where to start, and how to shape it? At the same time, I have a new prose book in mind, but my ideas, like Meg's jelly in Little Women, are reluctant to gel. 

It's hard to combine patience with gentle self-prodding; to keep the playfulness of writing, while not neglecting it. Long ago, aged about fifteen, on just such a bright day as this, I wrote a short poem about branches against a blue winter sky so intense it seemed it could spark the tree into spring life. I belonged to an arts centre for young adults, run by an amazing woman, Elizabeth Webster. She encouraged self-expression, while also inspiring us to work at the craft. We read our poems for the public, and she printed some—including my midwinter spring one—in a magazine. She is dead now, but I will never forget her.

Today I'd like to recover her special balance of encouragement and inspiration; and even—is it possible?—the same fresh excitement I had at fifteen about making something, building it, giving it a shape.






Return. In your cellar is the salt of life.

The words of this post's title come from a wonderful book: A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge (Bloomsbury, 2014).

I discovered it almost exactly a year ago when exploring Worcester cathedral with my husband and with our son visiting from the States. When I lived in the USA, the churches and cathedrals of England, with their layered history, were among the things I most missed. So I particularly appreciate every small old church or huge cathedral that I have the chance to visit now. It was in the cathedral bookshop that I found this book; Denise Inge lived in Worcester, right next to the cathedral, because she was married to John Inge, Worcester's bishop. In the cellar of their old house was a collection of bones, and it was this that started Denise off on her "tour." She travelled to four European charnel houses and looked at why they were created and what these gatherings of bones mean.

Bones and skulls, of course, are frightening, and it was to address that fear that she began the book. At first, her fear of death was like that shared by the healthy: there, but not always sharply felt—until we're confronted by bones or bereavement—because none of us really believes it will happen to me. But then, while writing the book, the fear comes all too close: she is diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. She died in 2014 at the age of 51. Here's her husband's obituary of her:    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/15/denise-inge

She's an excellent writer (and an authority on the extraordinary Thomas Traherne, whose words I quote at the start of Inscription), and her book would have been brilliant anywayBut inevitably her numbered days give an added poignancy to her impressions of charnel houses in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland.  And yet, the book isn't grim, but life-affirming. When she returns to her own bone-filled cellar, her fear of it has shifted towards reverence and wonder. She writes: 

"I do not know how much more time I have to live my questions out, but I am glad I started asking them even before the cancer came for, although they cannot be rushed, these are questions that must not be avoided. This is true whether or not you have been diagnosed with a frightening disease. The questions these charnel-houses asked of me stirred me to life-enriching responses. Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed? Get rid of the bitternesses. Mend the bridges. Seek and receive forgiveness. Let yourself be loved. Have you found a lasting hope? Anchor yourself in the eternal and abiding (for me this is God). Feed yourself something stronger than optimism. You are in a constant state of growth and transition, so let change transform you. What are the things for which you will be remembered? Cut the crap in your life. Do the things that matter. Find and exercise your gifts. Are you on the path of true humility? Submit to a truth that is bigger than yourself. Become part of it. Let it be your story. What I have been surprised to discover, as these questions chase and wash over me, is that preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing."

Wise words for any time, and perhaps especially for the start of a new year. I wrote them down in the reading journal I'd started keeping, which is why I have been reminded of them now, because I was looking back over its pages. Also, I was so struck by A Tour of Bones that I signed up to Twitter expressly to tell people about it. (And because I thought it was about time I joined the twittersphere. Now I am fighting the addiction!) My first tweet, almost a year ago, was to praise Denise Inge's book.

The richness of books and writing is never-ending. I look forward to a new year of reading, and writing; of writing about reading, and reading about writing; of using my reading journal to help me remember books I've loved; and of sharing some of my thoughts here for others who also love the world of words. 


Independent publishers—hurrah!

I write this on the day after Thanksgiving (I refuse to give it that shopping-related name. And I am beyond horrified that said name has now infiltrated Britain, although Thanksgiving itself is not a thing there, for obvious historical reasons. Since we don't have Thanksgiving and the last Thursday of November is just an ordinary day in Britain, why on earth have British retailers adopted the American concept of this Friday as a day to do manic amounts of shopping? Well, to make money, obviously. But it is ridiculous on so many levels…..)  

There is much to be thankful for in my life, but today, almost on the eve of the book launch my publisher has organized in Philadelphia, I want to sing the praises of independent publishers.

My publisher, Sowilo Press, is an imprint of the arts foundation Hidden River Arts. Publication by Sowilo Press is part of the Eludia Award prize. Inscription was the second recipient of the award, and the first winner was Sleepers Awake by Tree Riesener.  Both these books are being celebrated this Sunday at the Book Launch Party.

What I want to say to all aspiring writers is, you may dream of a contract with one of the big houses, and it's fabulous if you get one; but there are advantages to being with a small publisher. You might have more input into the cover design than you would with a big house. The editor is perhaps less likely to make you change things in your book for the sake of commercial appeal. And small publishers do what they do as a labour of love. That's not to be sneezed at. Not to say people who work in larger houses don't love books, and working with them. But it takes a particular courage and passion to be a small publisher in this climate of tight economy and short-lived shelf life.

But as I write this, I realise with some degree of guilt that I don't actually buy that many books from independent publishers. I sometimes get emails with lists of indie books, and I see ads in various places for indie books; but I don't often respond. This is something I plan to rectify. 

My own book might never have been brought into the world if it weren't for Hidden River Arts. I have a new-found respect for publishers like this, who, whether through a contest or in some other way, seek out the less mainstream and more unusual work.

So, I am grateful. And looking forward to the party!








Meeting readers…mine!

It is almost surreal, this incarnation of a long-standing dream. Now Inscription is out, and I've had a couple of book-related events, I meet people who have read it and who tell me they liked it, and why. I will restrain myself from actually repeating any of these accolades here! But I never fail to be amazed when I'm told that my book has succeeded in doing what I hoped it might do, but never fully believed it really would: it has succeeded in interesting, pleasing, and even, mirabile dictu, moving a reader.

And after the years of being stuck, over and over again, inside the tangled labyrinth of its creation, this is the sweetest reward. 

Yes, the readers are (so far) still very few. Only word of mouth can bring this book, from a small publisher by an unknown author, into more hands. But, for me, every single reader is precious and important. Each person the book reaches is one more person in a group I could hardly believe would ever exist.  And yet, simultaneously, while writing the book I did have to believe in the reader, I did have to write for that eventual imagined person who one day might turn the pages of the eventual, imagined book.

So, to any first-time writers of book-length work out there, I can't stress enough the importance of persevering. Yes, I know you've heard this before. It's easy to say; so hard to do. You are writing, often for years at a stretch, in complete isolation. No-one cares whether you write the next page or not, let alone finish the whole book. When I was in the throes of it, and read published writers saying this sort of thing—don't give up—I used to feel a degree of irritation mingled with my gratitude for their encouragement.  All right for them, I thought; they are published, and respected, so their work must have been good all along, and they probably knew it, or had some eager agent already waiting, or an editor was sending them the sort of frequent exhortations Maxwell Perkins sent to Scott Fitzgerald.  I couldn't, somehow, believe that they had ever really been labouring in obscurity, riding the seesaw of one minute actually being able to hope the book had some merit, the other being convinced it would never even be finished; of one minute thinking the ideas and characters were fascinating, the next feeling sure everything was flaccid and feeble and dead on the page; of balancing the confidence necessary to sustain the project with the humility to keep revising over and over again….I couldn't believe, in short, that they had ever been lost and stuck and groping in the dark, like me.

And yet, here I am, my book published (albeit by a very small press) and enjoyed (albeit by a handful of people). And although it may never go any further than this very modest reception, it has already touched more people whose opinion I respect in ways I could hardly dare to dream.  Yet I really was in that place back there, the labyrinth, the seesaw, the morass, the cave (you can't mix metaphors enough to convey what that place is like). I really was stuck, not once but countless times. I really did have to, not merely revise, but radically rewrite the book, not once but many, many times, also without number. And I really was doing it in the dark, with the encouragement not of agents and editors, but of a few friends and family members who probably just wanted an end to the whole sorry "I'm trying-to-write-a-book" saga.

Yes, I know I wrote about this in an earlier post, and said how important the comment by well-known writer Kevin Crossley-Holland was to me. And it was; but today's post is more about the importance of every ordinary reader.

And I keep saying "Don't give up," because an essay is brewing about it all. How to give believable encouragement to the unpublished, labouring, obscure writers out there. How to really convey what it was like inside the labyrinth, with some tips for survival. How not to give up. And, paradoxically, how allowing myself to think about giving up saved the day…..I would like to tell the readers of the magazines I used to comb like a dying person seeking a remedy—Poets and Writers, Writing magazine, and so on—that there is an end in sight. And I'd like to share the things that helped me in the depths, candles that illuminated the dark. 

Thank you to everyone who has told me, or told someone else, or posted on amazon, or just mentioned in passing to the butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker, that you enjoyed my book.  

"She Can Safely be Discarded…."

The words in this post's title are from an excellent book about the emperor Domitian by Brian W. Jones. He is talking about a woman possibly belonging to Domitian's circle, one of several women named Flavia Domitilla. Three women, Domitian's mother, sister, and niece, all bore this name. As Professor Jones writes, "Early Christian writers argued for a fourth, niece of Flavius Clemens (i.e. daughter of a supposed sister), and have won acceptance from some scholars. She can safely be discarded."                                       (The Emperor Domitian, Brian W. Jones, Routledge, paperback 1993, p 48).   

And these words triggered in me a desire to salvage her. This was one of many interconnected stimuli for my book Inscription.  I started to explore the story of these women in Domitian's family, and to see why some scholars accepted the view of those early Christian writers about the existence of this fourth Domitilla. (Whom it's simpler to call the second Domitilla, because Domitian's mother and sister were dead before he became emperor).  And the more I delved into this enticing gap in the historical record, where it's not even known whether the well-known historical person Flavius Clemens, a consul, had a sister or not, the more I found myself leaning to this minority view. 

Professor Jones could be quite right that she never existed, but I read all I could find on the subject, and some respected scholars, for example the late Professor Marta Sordi, made a good case for the fact that she did. What fascinated me about this controversy was that the history of the Christian church and the history of the Roman empire became tangled together in it. Which one would expect, considering that the church was growing at exactly this time, the late first century AD; but these two fields of study are often treated separately, by different scholars, historians of the growth of Christianity and historians of the Roman Empire. I wanted, in my book, to make connections.   

The island of Ponza has two patron saints; one, Saint Silverio, was an early pope who became a victim of politics and was exiled to a smaller island in the Pontine archipelago, Palmarola, where he died of starvation in AD 537.  I was fascinated by the other patron saint of Ponza, Saint Domitilla, who lived in the first century AD, and about whom there are various fanciful stories. But there seems to be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of these hagiographical legends, because non-Christian writers also mention a woman, or women, exiled to either Ponza, or Palmarola. The problem is that the earliest records contradict each other; there is a confusion of women, and a confusion of islands.

In my earlier post about Ponza, I mentioned that this historical controversy of the two Domitillas, and whether or not the second one can be discarded, is a node at which Christian and secular history intersect. It's also a puzzle that has never been solved. I took the fiction writer's liberty of solving it, in a way that reconciled the conflicting historical accounts. I preferred the unfashionable opinion of the minority-view scholars to that of the mainstream ones.  I probed the interstices of what we know, and found an answer that, while totally my invention, is the way it could, possibly, have happened...

From the gaps in the net of the distant past, a person emerged for me, a young woman, Tilla; and then her (eventual) friend Marina, a female scribe, originally from ancient Britain. All the delving into ancient volumes in library stacks and tracing of historical controversies—which I so much enjoyed!—finally yielded something that started to come alive.

And when I finally saw, in a Roman church, an ornate reliquary labelled caput flaviae domitillae, "the head of Flavia Domitilla," and stared at the skull behind the glass, my breath was taken away by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this was a remnant of someone who lived two thousand years ago and who had become, for me, a real person.

Many thanks to Professor Jones for his—entirely reasonable and authoritative opinion—that "she can safely be discarded."