…to write for you

(You can also invite me to teach or give a talk)

I have probably tried my hand at every kind of journalism and narrative non-fiction (apart from sports writing). My specialism, if I have one, is in-depth interviews – with well-known authors and so-called ‘ordinary people’. But I also have fun deconstructing a bestselling novel, summarising complicated survey data and whingeing on about gender inequality.

My work has appeared in Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent, Times, Sunday Times, Express and many other publications, including, (of course) Mslexia. Scroll on down for examples.

Interview

Interview with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel
(This was published in Mslexia in July 2006 and recounts what she describes the ‘pure bliss’ of writing the first page of Wolf Hall)

‘Sometimes I’ll walk around the house thinking “Why am I so cold?”. And then I’ll realise that I’ve just killed one of my characters, and they’re cold, so of course I’m cold’

Hilary Mantel’s emails to me always begin ‘Dumela’, which is ‘Hello’ in Setswana. Twenty-odd years ago – unbeknownst to one another – we both moved to Botswana. There, landlocked in the parched centre of Africa, we embarked on our separate writing careers, tapping away on our manual typewriters at dawn, before the heat set in.

We never met; she lived in a village near the border with South Africa; I was further inland, towards the Kalahari Desert. But for both of us the dislocation was an opportunity to devote serious time to a craft we’d never attempted before.

Mantel was working on a hugely ambitious historical novel about three key players in the French Revolution. She’d started it almost unconsciously, back in the UK, reading obsessively on the subject and taking copious notes. ‘After a while,’ she remembers, ‘I started wondering why I was taking all these notes. Then I realised it was going to be a book.’

A Place Of Greater Safety was nearly 350,000 words long – four times the usual novel length – and took six years to write. She refers to it now as ‘my Brechtian novel’, with a guttural rolling of the ‘r’ that recalls her working-class Derbyshire background. The book displayed many trademark Mantel characteristics: elegant writing style, satirical authorial voice – and a passionate engagement with the politics of power.

I visit her lofty penthouse flat in a vast converted Victorian asylum. She’s poised and pillowy, resplendent in a turquoise kaftan; her face is pixyish, her eyes enormous. Her laptop is set up in the corner of an expansive living room. I’m here to talk about Beyond Black – shortlisted for the Orange prize – but she’s bursting with excitement about a new book she’s working on: Wolf Hall, another big historical novel, about Thomas Cromwell and set in the 16th Century. ‘It’s very clean, very pared down,’ she says. ‘I’m not trying to reproduce Tudor language, because I hate pastiche, but I don’t want them to use words that they wouldn’t know. And I’m going for simple language and images in the narrative too, so it’s very filmic.’

Read more…

Review

Vengeance In Mind

by NJ Cooper (Simon and Schuster, pbk, £7.99)

(Reviewed for www.bookoxygen.com, a website that operates a gentle positive discrimination policy in favour of female authors and reviewers, in an attempt to rebalance a glaring inequality in the literary world)

This is the fourth in NJ Cooper’s series of whodunits featuring intrepid headstrong forensic psychologist Karen Taylor and the two toothsome rivals for her affection, chunky Charlie and winsome Willie – aka DCI Charlie Trench of the Hampshire Police Major Crimes Team (broad, dark, leather-jacketed, fiery, Northern) and Mr (if you please) Will Hawkins, leading brain surgeon (sinewy, blonde, cashmered, OCD, Southern).

The book opens with Karen hurting her foot – fans of the series will know that our Karen regularly demonstrates her intrepid headstrong nature by injuring some part of her willowy anatomy. In this case the culprit is a shard of glass from a smashed French windows in her apartment: cue writerly comparisons with the glittering diamond ring Karen recently eased off her finger when Will mysteriously broke off their engagement.

But there’s no time to mope. Karen’s phone is ringing and it’s chunky Charlie on the line: ‘We’ve got a body. Bad one. Crucified and castrated.’

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Column

Heat and Dust

(This is the fifth instalment in a series of 20 Heat and Dust columns for the Home section of the Sunday Times.)

Heat and Dust

Watching my Nearest and Dearest walk down a flight of battered stone steps towards the Greek village house I’d fallen in love with, I could tell they were underwhelmed. Where I imagined a cosy whitewashed homestead with blue shutters and froths of cerise bougainvillea, they saw a hotchpotch of concrete-roofed rooms with ugly aluminium doors and a courtyard cluttered with decayed farm implements.

There was silence in the car as we drove back to the hotel. What little headway I’d made by appealing to the Poet’s baser nature (by mentioning the fortunes we’d rake in from letting out the separate barn) had dissipated when he examined the building in question.

A charmless little two-room hovel, it was built primarily from those peculiar Greek bricks that are filled with holes, like an Aero, and collapse into red shards when threatened with anything more substantial than a teaspoon. I called it ‘the Stable Block’. The Poet rechristened it ‘the Chicken House’ after the single glum occupant he found scratching around the dirt floor inside.

I loved it; they hated it. I cajoled; they glowered. I pleaded; they stuck out their lower lips. Faced with an impasse, I did what all great generals do: I made a List.

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Feature

One baby equals two unwritten books

pesterNovelist Candia McWilliam once famously declared that the time taken up caring for a young child is the equivalent of two books its mother might otherwise have written. Debbie Taylor counts up the creative cost of motherhood

(This feature was first published in Mslexia, in October 2004.)

People often refer to their books as their ‘babies’, but in my case it has been spookily true. The plot of my first novel started with the conception of a baby in Zimbabwe and culminated with her birth. The book took me nine months to write, during which time I completely stopped menstruating.

My next book, a travelogue, also took nine months to write – but this time I actually was pregnant when I was working on it. My daughter was conceived the day before I started writing, and I went into labour the day after the book was finished.

With each book, I worked intensely, with no interruptions: alone on a Greek island for the first book; with my partner in an isolated Scottish cottage for the second. I spoke to almost no-one and did almost nothing except write. All things being equal, then, nine months seems to be the time it should take me to write a book.

But after my daughter was born, all things were suddenly not equal. And my next novel took 10 years to complete. In fact it was the experience of motherhood – and the dismaying effect it had on my creative output – that prompted me to start Mslexia.

Feeding my daughter in the middle of the night, strapping her into the car-seat, dangling my car-keys in front of her for hours, I became aware of how very difficult it was for women with children to find the time, energy and mental space to tackle any major piece of creative writing. And I began to see that this might be one reason why the lists of literary prize-winners have been so dominated by men for so long.

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Travelogue

Cheap thrills

(From: Raging Against the Machine, 30 Years of Campaigning for Global Justice, Ed Chris Brazier (New Internationalist Publications). This feature was originally published in New Internationalist magazine. I was in Thailand, staying in Bangkok between trips to villages in the North East, where I was doing some research for the World Health Organisation – but felt I had to write about the sex industry too.)

fish-tank

What a grand hotel it is: a white palace, delicately floodlit, fountains playing in the courtyard, trees festooned with white bulbs in the best possible taste. Though it’s nearly midnight, eight lanes of traffic stand tangled, hooting and snarling, in the Bangkok street outside.

Up the wide marble steps and in – through huge smoked-glass doors – to the foyer. You stop and blink. It’s dark. You step forwards, bump into someone, apologise, step forward s again, bump into someone else. Then realise that you are in a crowd. It’s a well-dressed crowd (this is, after all, a grand hotel); their wallet bulge with baht. Their eyes are bulging too. You follow their gaze.

They’re looking at a huge shop window lit from the inside. It’s the only light in the foyer. Behind the expanse of plate glass the goods are displayed on wide shelves that look like a shallow flight of stairs running the entire length of the shop. Deep-pile rose-coloured carpet, like velvet, covers the stairs, matched by folds of hanging drapes that clothe the walls.

At this time of night business is brisk and the shelves are emptying fast. The goods are coded by numbers on different coloured discs pinned to each item. You make your selection, pay the cashier, and – before you can pocket your change – your purchase is waiting to take you to your room.

What a bargain! Blue Number 33 has long shiny black hair cut into a thick straight fringe over eyes that are dark and slanting – but not too Chinky. Blue means body massage (not just hands, but Number 33’s luscious body rolled all over you) – all the trimmings too, for just 100 baht. Spain touts sunshine and sangria. Thailand specialises in sex.

The Vietnam War taught many lessons. And Thailand was not slow to learn. Having seen American GIs turn the country into a giant restroom away from the battle zone, Thailand learnt to service the servicemen: service with a smile. The GIs went home in 1976, but the word got around. Now everyone wants the same service.

To day Bangkok welcomes bulges of all kinds: wallets and eyes definitely, and trousers particularly. Bulges mean business.

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Report

(Results of one of Mslexia’s quarterly surveys; this was carried out in 2012)

book-fetishes

Are you a book fetishist?

We seem to split into two groups when it comes to our attitudes to books. In the first group are the fetishists – the organisers, the hoarders, the obsessives – who treat books almost as sacred objects. These are in the majority among the 2,300 women writers who took part in our survey (conducted for Mslexia magazine in 2012): three out of four mark their place with a bookmark to avoid dog-earing the precious pages; 57 per cent gingerly ease their books open to avoid breaking the spine – and 20 per cent avoid lending their books in case they’re returned in a scruffy state.

‘I love the look of books,’ was a typical comment, ‘just as I love the look of LP album covers. And I am desperately afraid that paper books will cease to exist in the future. I just love to have books, the smell, the feel, the colour, the shape. E-books are an abomination.’ These are the women (69 per cent) who like to inhale the scent of a new book – in fact a few (four per cent) consider second-hand books a bit of a health risk…

Then there’s the other group, the cavalier couldn’t-care-less minority. These women leave books open face down (33 per cent), write in the margins (31 per cent), and turn the page down to mark their place (16 per cent). They’re probably the same renegades who shove their books higgledy-piggledy on their shelves (36 per cent) and fling them across the room in disgust if they turn out to be predictable, badly written or tasteless (32 per cent). One confesses: ‘I once tore a book in half down the spine so that my friend could read the first half while I was finishing the second.’ They are as different from the first group as chalk from cheese and – it would seem – the bane of their lives.

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