A Peak, a Trough, and now.....?

October already….This is the season of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, a fixture in my calendar. It’s increasingly focused on media personalities, but there are still many excellent literary writers reading from and talking about their work. I’ve heard, among others, the brilliant Sarah Perry, who has published two books about the 19th century since I began my still-in-progress one; and Geoff Dyer, whose genre-straddling work I very much admire. In his talk, Geoff Dyer, who grew up in Cheltenham, mentioned Bob Beale, the English teacher who inspired him to become a reader (and thus later a writer). This name is haloed for me: two boys in the art club I belonged to as a teenager were at the same school as Geoff Dyer, and said that once in class Bob Beale read out, and praised, a poem of mine! The poem had won a local contest, which is how, at fourteen, I’d learnt about this club where we sat around in blissful nerdiness talking about poetry. You can laugh; but it was life-changing. Now, after Geoff Dyer’s talk, at the very end of the questions, I saw an elderly man near me raise his hand, too late. Somehow, I knew who he was, though my (admittedly unreliable) memory says I never met him before. Indeed, it was Bob Beale, and he said he’d actually judged that contest, which I don’t think I ever knew; so I was able to tell him how grateful I was that he chose my poem, all those years ago. He still remembered the boys in his class back then. Apparently Geoff Dyer has kept in touch all this time and gives him a copy of each new book.

This encounter was, obviously, a peak, small, but significant to me. Then, a couple of days later, yesterday in fact, I was strolling in the Festival area, which is in one of the town’s prettiest parks, and found that the historic bandstand has been turned into a comfy space to sit and read, with sofas, and shelves of books. Lovely idea. Examining the titles for something to read as I rested, I saw one I recognised: Inscription. My book. Nearly three years ago, I’d applied to the festival to be included among the local author presenters, and had dropped off a copy. Of course I understand why an unknown book published by a small foundation in the States might not have been picked; in their place, I wouldn’t have picked it either. Now, they’d donated unneeded books to this charming spot. Fair enough. But it was a bit of a blow to see, still tucked inside, my own letter of application, there for anyone to find, complete with home address, email address, phone number, and my rather cringemaking attempt to explain why my book and I should be considered worthy. That I should come upon this letter seemed a wittily cruel stab of Fate: a reminder, as if I could forget, that our writerly fortune is borne in the frailest of barks. I doubt the letter was ever read, far less the book, which I left there: maybe someone will dip into it. (Hope springs eternal).

That was the trough. But. I’ve been looking at my notes from things I saw in Italy that connect with my new book. I’ve been working on the novel’s structure (an elusive and essential quarry, for me). I’ve heard more writers—this field of language is so rich to work in. Perhaps, under the sunshine of this new October day, I can hope for an upswing.

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Blog Refreshed: SCRIPS

Today, a new slant. I want to write shorter (and, I hope, more frequent!) posts. Each piece will spring from a line or two in something I’ve been reading that day.  They will be snippets.

I want to share the excitement or wonder provoked by good writing. And I want to remember. Even a powerful response evaporates when the next good thing comes along.  I hope to capture them before they dart away, as my children used to snatch fireflies out of the air, closing a gentle hand around the glow, holding it for just a moment….                                      

I’m now calling my blog: SCRIPS.


…a small piece or scrap (of paper, usually with writing upon it); …a small scrap of writing

That’s from the Oxford English Dictionary. “Scrip” meaning small piece of paper apparently comes from “scrap” and “scrape." The change from “a” to “i” may have been “expressive of smallness.” “Scrips” therefore fits my blog as I will try (a challenge for me!) to write short bits. The "i" was probably also due to influence from the word "script,“ so "Scrips” resonates nicely with my novel Inscription and with some of my recurring themes.

Other OED definitions include:

A small bag, wallet, or satchel, esp. one carried by a pilgrim, shepherd, or a beggar.                                                                                        Fractional paper currency….A receipt for a portion of a loan….a prescription.

Each of my scrips will be a container, like “a small bag or wallet,” for the quotation that has been its spring-board. But whether they will have value, like currency vouchers, or healing potential, like prescriptions, remains to be seen!

The first Scrip comes from something I read in Writing Magazine about the brilliant novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald.





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."





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!


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!








Seductiveness of the Blank Book

What is the seductive appeal of a blank notebook?  Whenever I see them offered for sale, whether in a traditional legatoria in Florence or on the shelves of that discount store ending in Maxx, I have to stop myself, remind myself that I already have at least ten unused ones at home. (Actually, on the one occasion in my life so far that I found myself in a bindery in Florence, with marbled papers and leather spines and age-old craftsmanship all around, I did not in fact stop myself. I bought, after ages of agonizing decision between ravishing marbling here, or tooled leather there, a notebook which is, of course, too beautiful to use. So it is more truthful to say that when I see them on sale, I am tempted, always. And manage to resist, usually.)

It's to do with several things.  First, the shape of the book itself, the codex form. The way lifting the covers is like lifting the lid of a treasure box. The way the pages are nested, with the gatherings stitched safely into the spine, yet the leaves are free to move. They can be turned, forwards, backwards; when reading a book, you can see from the stack of pages ahead, how much longer you have to remain in that world. You can turn back to an earlier part of the story, re-enter the past, or anticipate the future, as we cannot do in life. The book holds past, present, and future in a capsule. 

And there is more, there is so much more one could say; I have said some of it in an essay exploring the evolution of the codex from the book-roll, and the importance of nursery rhymes, and the delights of early reading, and why we love books, their physicality, their heft. An essay rather longer than is usual in these sound-bite days (it's available for publication….anyone out there interested? Anyone?  Ah well….) because there is so much richness in the subject of the codex book.

The essay is a love letter to the codex book, and so is my novel Inscription. So it's ironic that I am currently in an agony of impatience because it is taking longer than expected at the printer's for the words to undergo the transformation into a physical volume, on paper, with pages, that you can hold and read, and pass (in my dreams!) from hand to hand.

Part of Inscription's story takes place at the end of the first century AD, around the time when, in Rome, a new object appeared in the shops: a gathering of parchment pages, literature on leaves of skin instead of in the traditional scroll. As Martial said, this made a good Saturnalia present; easy to travel with, long works compressed into a small space. Before that, there had been (it seems, though the mists of history obscure all this) parchment notebooks used by artisans; but a scroll was the proper place for any decent bit of writing. The codex did not catch on immediately, but over the next few centuries it grew more and more popular. (All this refers to the story of the book in Western Europe, of course; elsewhere, it is different). Now the codex has been our preferred book form for almost two thousand years. But for how much longer?

To return to the blank book, it's also seductive because it invites the act of writing. Writing by hand. There is such a physical pleasure in taking a pen, forming the letters, the little curlicues and upstrokes and dots and loops that mean something; in making something, in progressing through the pages. But the unwritten book, the book of the imagination, the book I think I will write when I contemplate the porous blank field of the page, that unladen ship that is a blank book, is always far superior to any scrawlings I actually produce. In fact, quite often I hesitate to mar the pages at all.  I open the book, riffle them a bit, and then (as I say in a poem about that moment, which, since this is an informal blog post, I can shamelessly, or almost shamelessly, haul into the discussion) I let the covers scallop shut.  Which is why I have so many unused notebooks.



Check out      here    my earlier blog about France, language, living….




Ponza: island of history, and mystery

Off the coast of Italy, in the Tyrrhenian sea, there is a small archipelago: the Pontine Islands. They are Ponza, Ventotene, Zannone, Palmarola, Santo Stefano, and Gavi. The largest is Ponza. I first visited it in 1979, when the man who soon became, and still is, my husband planned a surprise trip there from the central Italian city where we lived.

I hesitate to tell what a magical place this is…..even to my small but loyal (!) readership. White volcanic cliffs, clear blue-green waters; pale-washed houses climbing the steep rocks, church with its cupola at the heart of the main town clustered round the harbour.

We returned many years later, along with two of our children, now almost grown up. On this second trip, I was looking at it differently. By then I was thinking about a book.

Ponza and Ventotene (then called Pontia and Pandateria) were, in Imperial Rome, places of exile, where emperors sent family members who annoyed them, or political enemies. Today, an island in the Mediterranean is a holiday dream, but in ancient Rome these were dreaded destinations. To be banished from the Empire's heart, in utter disgrace, living on a parched and primitive rock with fishermen, under supervision of soldiers, fearing every moment the emperor's assassins—this was a terrible fate. Augustus sent his daughter Julia to Ventotene; Caligula's mother Agrippina the Elder and his brother Nero (not the emperor) were exiled to Pandateria and Ponza respectively, and died on those islands, probably murdered or forced to starve themselves to death; and the list goes on. Among the names of famous exiles in the ancient world is that of Flavia Domitilla.

But there is confusion about Flavia Domitilla; ancient sources contradict each other. She is variously a mother of seven children sent to Ventotene, a young girl sent to Ponza, a Jew, a Christian; exiled for this reason, or for that. And from some kernel of historical truth there arose, over centuries, the hagiographical romance of Saint Domitilla, virgin martyr, one of Ponza's two patron saints, still celebrated with festival and flowers and the loyalty of the islanders. A loyalty that is recorded since at least the fourth century AD, and probably goes back to the first.

On Ponza, you can still see Roman ruins; parts of the old imperial villa, the remains of the fish-pools where the Romans raised fish (interconnected with sluice gates that could be dropped and lifted between the ponds), cellars that were once Roman houses, and Roman tunnels, including one that goes right under the island's rocky spine, at its wasp-waisted narrowest point, from one side of the island to the other.

Climbing the island's narrow paths, for it is a steep place with the main town clinging to the cliffside, I tried to imagine myself two thousand years ago, when Domitilla was sent here by an emperor who hated her, for reasons history has not made clear.

To walk down the Roman tunnel under the island's rocky mass, seeing on the tunnel walls the diamond-shaped traces of Roman brickwork, opus reticulata, reticulated or "net-like" work, is to dive back into the the past.

For years I traced the interconnected filaments. The book that came out of all this probes the places where history and hagiography meet, explores the gaps, and finds a way to reconcile the conflicting stories of the two exiled Domitillas. And from long ago emerges a companion for the exiled Roman girl, a woman with strange blue tattoos and unusual green eyes, a woman originally from distant Britannia. She has worked as a scribe (for there were some female scribes who took notes and acted as secretaries in ancient Rome.) On Ponza, in the heat and dryness of exile, she writes for comfort's sake, using parchment pages, an early version of the codex notebook.  And what she writes has survived…as the Nag Hammadi codices survived...or as the lists and letters written on thin wooden tablets were found two thousand years later in the mud of northern England at Vindolanda.

The scribe's parchment pages are read two thousand years later by a modern person, a woman who had also been to Ponza; a tiny scrap of land in the blue Mediterranean connecting them across the centuries. And as the modern woman reads the story of that long-ago scribe, she finds there is much more that links their lives. So much more that the voice from two thousand years ago has power to change her now.

A place can, sometimes, be a catalyst, even years later. One day I will go to Ponza again, and give thanks for the twisting paths—narrow, rocky and difficult, like those of the island itself—that finally led to a finished book, Inscription.


Covered in Glory

Well, perhaps that's an overstatement. But it is undeniably an exciting moment when the cover of your book (especially a first book, especially a book you've worked on for more years than you care to admit) is ready, at last. 

Here it is, and I am delighted with it.

Being published by a small press has meant, for me anyway, that I've been involved in the cover design and also in the internal design of the book.  Of course, the process was in the hands of experts, in this case Miriam Seidel for the cover, and Douglas Gordon for the internal design; but I was able to make important choices. I've known of writers published by big houses whose books have had covers conveying completely the wrong impression, so I count myself lucky.

There's so much more to a book than I, bibliophile that I am, had ever thought about. For example, what is written at the top of each page?  Often, it's the book title and the chapter heading alternating. But what if your book (like mine) doesn't have chapters? Book title on both pages? Or your authorial moniker on one and the title on the other? These are matters I'd never even considered before.  

Then, do you have a line separating that running title or chapter heading from the text below, or just a space? Where do you put the page numbers—at the top or bottom, on the right or on the left? Do you want any little squiggly symbols separating the sections of your immortal prose? 

Of course, as soon as these issues were drawn to my attention, I started looking in a new way at the books I have around me, and noticing the effect of different designs. Often a book is visually satisfying and harmonious, but as we turn the pages, we're only subliminally aware of this, and don't even realise why. Yet the design affects our aesthetic experience.

For the cover there is even more so to think about, from the main image to the typefaces to the layout.  All the elements involved, and the way they work together, are more complex than I'd ever realised. In fact, the whole book design thing is a specialised world, and I'm so glad the professionals were there.

Anyway, it's done.  I've had visions over the years of what might be on the front cover of the book, if it ever achieved a physical life: leaping dolphins from a first-century mosaic; an ancient Roman ink-pot; a stylus (antique, not the kind you use with some modern hand-held devices); Odilon Redon's painting "The Mystical Boat";  a notebook half-bound in leather with a marbled paper cover, like the one my modern protagonist writes in; an very early codex, like the Nag Hammadi books, leather-wrapped and with trailing thongs; and more. But in the end I am very happy with this cover as representing—hinting at? echoing?— my double-stranded story of two women connected across two thousand years.






Never Lose Hope!

While writing my book Inscription I kept a notebook about the process. In it I thrashed out with myself ideas for how to proceed, recorded the many, many times I was stuck, agonised about how the thing was utterly impossible, followed myriad false starts and twists and turns and ideas for the structure, and wrote many times that I simply couldn't see how to do it and was on the verge of giving up.  The notebook spans years. A lot of them.

Years later, the novel was complete. It's incredible to be able to say that. Often, I thought it never would be, I thought I couldn't manage it. Not only that, but the book is on the verge of publication. The proofs are done, and the cover design, which should very soon be unveiled to the world (!). This too was a moment I thought might never come. My wonderful agent submitted the book to many publishers (a process we began just as the economy started to flounder badly!) and despite complimentary comments from editors, and optimism at first, in the end no-one felt able to go to bat for it against the publishing house bean counters.

It was never quite the right time and place…eventually I submitted the book to two contests: in the UK, the Cinnamon Press Novel/Novella Award, and in the USA the Eludia Award run by Hidden River Arts. The book was long-listed for the first award, and it won the second. Part of the prize is publication, and so the book is now being published by Sowilo Press, one of the Hidden River Arts imprints. 

I've read accounts like this by other writers, and, while they did help me to keep going, I could never really grasp that they had actually ever been in that place of almost no hope, of being unable to visualize the ending of the book and the writing of it, far less a published volume.  That place of rewriting the whole book over and over and over again. Of being in a labyrinth with no visible exit.  Of waiting and waiting for an editor to take it on.  And of course, there is a tendency in us to want to make it look easy. The tightrope walker runs lightly across the rope, as apparently easily as walking down a lane, and the art is in not letting us know how many falls and failures and practices there have been. Vladimir Nabokov said that showing anyone else unfinished work is like passing round samples of your sputum. 

But I was there in the midst of it, in that labyrinth.  Already deep in the process, I wrote things like "I feel I am back to square one" or "I feel such fear that I can't do it at all. Then I realise that I must just try anyway…"  I really was in that place, over and over, and I am here to say that it is worth it to carry on regardless, to persevere.

It's a difficult tightrope. You have to find a balance between humility and self-confidence. Enough self-belief to keep going, even when no-one cares whether your book lives or dies; enough modesty to realise finding an agent is hard, a publisher even harder, and accolades hardest of all. Self-confidence that you can do it; humility in accepting that (speaking for myself) I am not Nabokov, and the input of others during the process—though not too early—is really helpful. 

It's an impossible balance really, and I found myself ricocheting between extremes. As for accolades, I don't expect my book to be widely read (though I'll try my best!).  Outside family, friends, my agent Julia who loves the book and had faith from the start, and my publisher Debra, I may never have an accolade that means more than the one from Kevin Crossley-Holland. This poet, memoirist, author for adults and children (The Hidden Roads: a Memoir of Childhood; The Seeing Stone; Pieces of Land:Journeys to Eight Islands) picked a poem of mine for first prize in a contest years ago. He's a writer I've long admired. Out of the blue, I asked him to read the book, and not only was he kind enough to do so, but he wrote this:

"Clean, lean, superb prose; the quality of research; thoughtfulness; the subtle interweaving of the stories of two women divided by two millennia but drawn together by circumstance.  It's not difficult to praise many components of this unusual and deeply moving historical novel, but what is less obvious, and in the end more profound, is Christine Whittemore's conspicuous achievement in writing a novel about both the consolation of fiction and of writing fiction."

 Gosh. In the heart of the labyrinth, I may have dreamt yearningly for a response like this, as one dreams of winning the lottery or inheriting a castle; but I could never have imagined it actually happening. That my book not only somehow got done, but touched a chord like this with a reader of this calibre, makes it all worth-while.



Rediscovering the Music of Poetry

The 2015 Cheltenham Poetry Festival, held in the spring, was an exciting event in these parts. The tireless volunteer directors brought some amazing poets to Cheltenham. Listening to some of these poets and their work, I was captivated all over again by the power of poetry; by the force of language to move me, enthrall me, make me laugh or cry.

I was honoured to be in the line-up too, reading with Sue Johnson.  It was very rewarding to be reading our poetry to a smallish but nonetheless apparently appreciative group of kind souls who came to listen. 

My novel, Inscription, took many years to write, and during that time I didn't write very much new poetry, especially towards the end. The actual composition involved some of the same creative functions that poetry does, but in the latter years I was concentrating more on revision and structure and similar issues, and using the editorial bit of my brain more than the intuitive.

Now, for the last year and a bit, I've been working on rediscovering poetry and making it once more part of my life as a writer and as a reader.

How to do this? Well, poetry prompts with other poets can help—giving each other a small exercise and a deadline.  Also, a workshop can trigger all sorts of creative impetus. I was so lucky last year to be able to do a weekend-long workshop with fiction writer Amal Chatterjee and poet Jane Draycott. It was inspiring, stimulating, and reconnected me with myself.

Sometimes I enter contests, as I find (procrastinator that I am!) that the deadline marvellously focuses the mind. 

Going to local readings and short workshops is also worthwhile, and I enjoy doing that and participating in the local poetry scene.

And then there's reading poems in books! It's embarrassing how easy it has been for me to slip out of the habit of reading poetry regularly.  The new books I bought at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year and at the Poetry Festival this year have really helped here. Poets I've been especially enjoying recently are Robert Peake, Michael Symmons Roberts, Daisy Fried, Jo Bell, and Sue Rose….to name but a few.

And of course you don't need to buy books to read poetry. So much classic and contemporary poetry is available online. For new work, there are now many well-respected online poetry journals, like Antiphon where my first poems to be published online (instead of in print) appeared.

 I've found out about some journals from unexpected sources. For example, I didn't think Twitter would lead me to poetry, but it has. Just today, I saw (because of the kinds of accounts I follow) an announcement about the online journal The Compass. Browsing around in its "pages" I found a lovely poem called "Against Hate" by Pippa Little. I haven't read the whole journal yet, but I'm sure there's more to enjoy there.

What I'm finding is that it's just a question of nurturing the poetry mindset. That used to be a place I lived in; but I drifted away from it. Now I am coming back.

As for the actual writing of poetry, I have been finding, as I return to it, that it's important to remember the sense of play, the delight of making something. This can be such an important part of the process. In all the endless revising and editorial work on my book, I'd lost sight of the actual joy.

"You need to rediscover the music,"  as one of my poet friends said.







Introducing myself

Thank you so much for visiting this website.

Here's a personal note, a sort of "who I am and how I ended up where, in various senses, I find myself" piece. It may—indeed should, as it's called "blog"—be the first of several conversations I'll have with whoever might happen to drop in. But, knowing myself as I ought to by now, I make no promises.

And so:  I was born in England, and I was lucky to grow up with nursery rhymes, songs, and books. Reading was my great pleasure.  A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Prince, the Narnia books, the stories of E. Nesbit, The Eagle of the Ninth and all Rosemary Sutcliff's books, A Dog so Small and others by Philippa Pearcethe work of Leon Garfield,  Alan Garner….others who once were bookish children will have many of the same favourites.

As a child I wrote poems. In my teens I joined a young people's arts centre, a formative experience where the love of language was encouraged and nurtured, and we could read and discuss poetry. I will always be grateful to the centre's director, the late Elizabeth Webster.

Going to university, living in Italy, teaching English, getting married, starting a family, moving to America, teaching English some more….in the business of life, writing sank away into the background. I rediscovered it in my early thirties. At home full-time, with two, and then three, children, I began snatching moments to write: essays first, and then I returned to poetry.

It wasn't only because of the demands of living that I had let writing slip away. It was also because I knew I could never hope to emulate the writers I admired. But now I came to recognise the truth of what Jean Rhys said to David Plante, as he records in Difficult Women, though I think I first saw it quoted by Madeleine L'Engle in Walking on Water: 

"All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

Since then, I have published poetry, essays, creative non-fiction. And I've written journalism about the arts, and about local history. I also enjoy teaching and have led writing workshops in schools, community colleges, and at writing conferences. I like giving talks, too. On one challenging occasion, I was asked to talk about poetry to a group of business people during a networking breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. It seems they liked it. 

I am very excited about the forthcoming appearance of my novel. Inscription will be published this year by Sowilo Press and will be available in the US, UK, and elsewhere. I will be keeping you updated here and on the Home and Books pages.

What a strange journey it was, being immersed in a book-length project for so long (longer than I care to admit to). Especially a project that took me into another time and place, or places—ancient Britain and ancient Italy, two thousand years ago.

The book isn't a "historical novel," though. It's a novel with a historical strand. It is told in  the voices of two women, one living and writing in the first century AD, the other in our own time (or almost; the end of the twentieth century). Their stories interweave across two thousand years.

I've also co-written, with Harriet Dronska-Feitelberg, the memoir of her experience as a hidden child in World War II. My Father's Promise: a hidden child survives the Holocaust is an extraordinary story. Almost all the Jews of her city were killed. Thanks to her father, to a Catholic neighbour, to her own chutzpah, and to luck or providence, she survived this traumatic time disguised as a Catholic child, living under an assumed name. Exposure meant death.

Today she is in her eighties, like the others who are left of her generation. She has found it painful to think about her past, far less to tell her story, until now. But at last she has been able to remember. These stories must be told before it is too late. I've been honoured that she entrusted me with hers.

After twenty-seven years in the States, and three in France, I am now spending more time in my native England.
I keep on trying to feed the lake. There is always so much more to know and to discover about working with and celebrating language, in all its mystery. 

Some tutelary spirits, in no particular order:  
W.G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Metcalf, Denise Levertov, Virginia Woolf, e e cummings, George Herbert, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys, R.S. Thomas, Madeleine L'Engle, Penelope Fitzgerald, David Markson, Charlotte Mew…. .

Some living writers whose work I love—an ever-changing and incomplete list:
David Malouf, Julian Barnes, Geoff Dyer, Colm Toibín, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Jeanette Winterson, A.S. Byatt, Linda Pastan, Frederick Buechner, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard…...

That's enough for now. More soon.