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‘Hope’ is an invigorating word that should be high in every writer’s lexicon. Hope that an agent, then a publisher, then the reading public will like their story. ‘Belief’ is another sustaining word. Belief that after countless hours at a desk that same agent, publisher, and public will indeed revel in the story woven from the writer’s research and imagination.

I have been working on a novel which was to be the first of a trilogy – the second and third are written and published – Fireburn and Transfer. Thank you, OC Publishing, and thank you for believing in me enough to agree to publish the next – with a working title of Emancipation. A hopeful title. It was only later, when I envisaged three spines standing side by side that I realised they would read EFT which, depending on how one’s mind works, could be either a juvenile newt or an electronic funds transfer. Neither very catchy for a boxed set, but I hoped readers would get over that.

Emancipation started with the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Brazil after fleeing Napoleon’s encroaching army. It told how Anna Clausen’s grandfather accompanied the Prince Regent to Rio and how, as a consequence, he came into his fortune which, in turn, lead to Anna’s Fancy, his sugar plantation on St Croix in the Danish West Indies. It was a hopeful book because it revolved around the ‘rightness’ of emancipation. On reflection, I should have called the book Manumission. I don’t think there is an anagram for MFT.

The title is however a moot point.

I knew I could write about freedom. I know I can write about violence. What I hadn’t realised was that I would struggle to write about sustained cruelty. Graham Greene said that in order to write dispassionately, “A writer must be able to retain a splinter of ice in the heart.” Barry Unsworth in Sacred Hunger was able to delve into the tragedy of slavery and write a riveting book. Marlon James did the same in The Book of Night Women. Whilst not putting myself into the same lofty realms of either author, I have found that Apple Gidley cannot retain that splinter on certain subjects. Part of me is pleased. I don’t want to become inured to horror.

My books are character driven. As I research, characters form. Their backstory becomes part of the plot in minute ways. For example, Anna’s favourite colour is yellow because it reminds her of the glow of the Caribbean sun, or the centre of a white frangipani, and it brings her joy. The character’s foibles, their idiosyncrasies, make them real to me and, hopefully, the reader.

Every story needs tension, so not all characters have to be likable but I have to care about the majority of them. The coffee mat on my desk, courtesy of my son, reads, “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” It’s true. I had great pleasure killing off Anna’s husband, Carl, in Fireburn, but I can’t murder everybody – I’d be writing slasher novels and not historical fiction. 

And that brings me back to hope. Emancipation was truly a time of hope but the more I wrote the less hopeful I felt. That could be a product of what is happening in America today. I’ve been immersed in writing about the issues of racial inequality 200 years ago, and here we are in 2020 seeing how relatively little has changed and it has made me sick to my stomach. I am well aware I’m not alone in that feeling. An email from an African American friend has been churning in my head the last couple of days. After the outrage in Minneapolis he asked, “Where is God when you need him?” He then asked me to excuse his rage. He is indeed a gracious man, always, but particularly in the face of current events when hope seems hard to come by.

That all sounds pretentious. I don’t mean to be. The Swiss-born, British philosopher, Alain de Botton, says “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.” I was at the despair stage.

So, this morning I wrote to my publisher and said Emancipation is no more. Then I filed all my research notes and put away reference books that have been stacked on my desk, sticky tags in varying colours forming a frill on each book. Usually the process makes me a little sad. A year invested in my characters, my imagination, shelved, but today I felt relief. 

I have failed in a way but hope is once again returning to my lexicon because now, as I think of Langston Hughes’ words, I am smiling at the thought of the next book to be written.

"Hold fast to dreams, 
For if dreams die 
Life is a broken-winged bird, 
That cannot fly.” 

Words we should hold close in these seemingly hopeless and difficult times.

Paris – ooh la la!

November 27, 2018 — 1 Comment

I came to a staggering stop, gasping to catch my breath as another forty or so steps glared down at me. The chill of a Parisian November afternoon felt at the bottom of the hill had given way to an unpleasant clamminess and I loosened my scarf, undid my coat, and tugged at the neckline of my woolen sweater. I even dispensed with my gloves. Gathering what small amount of fortitude I had remaining, I hauled myself ever upwards. The effort was worth it. In the 38 years since my last adventure in the French capital very little had changed and I gazed in wonder at the glistening marble dome of the Sacre Coeur. Inside the same smell of candles mingled with a thousand tourists and devotees. The priest, I’m sure the same one, intoned a passage from an aged Bible. A nun, her arms spread not in supplication but in order to conduct the choir, wore the black and white vestments of her vocation, her hair chastely hidden. The voices were still sweet as they soared in harmony to the arched domes high above. Christ continued to gaze at his followers from the ornate stain-glass windows.

A sense of continuity, of history that is all pervasive in European churches is on one hand comforting, on the other, almost anachronistic. Nothing changes. Possibly a reflection of my somewhat conflicted feelings about organised religion.

We left the murmuring worshippers to see Paris stretched below. The grey louring sky punctuated by famous landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bourse cloaked in tenting, and curling through the city like a sleek satin ribbon, the Seine. Lights began to wink through the misty evening and an image came to mind of a thousand gas lighters striding the streets before electrification in 1878.

Coming down from on high, tawdry shop fronts selling pink rubber dildos shaped like the aforementioned tower reminded me we were nearing Place Pigalle, and the famous sails of the  Moulin Rouge and ooh la la Can Can dancers in frilly knickers. I clutched my handbag closer and strode along, daring interference. Paris’s red-light district is not the place to show uncertainty. Entreaties to enter one sleazy, curtained establishment after another made me hanker for the windows of the Wallen, the rosse buurt of Amsterdam where girls and women display their wares from the windows – the older the prostitute the higher up the building she goes. Somehow the Dutch equivalent seems less vulgar.

My companion for the weekend was my sister Val, and heading in the vague direction of our gracious host’s flat on rue d’Hauteville we realised we needed sustenance. Perhaps an aperitif and hors d’oeuvre. We were in Paris after all.

The reason for the trip – as if one needs a reason to visit Paris – was research. Though the manuscript for my next historical novel, Transfer, is  firmly in the hands of OC Publishing, Val suggested that rather than research, the visit would be confirmation of various places mentioned. To that end, dinner was to be at Le Bouillon Chartier – founded in 1896, it plays a minor part in the book. Very little seemed to have changed from information gleaned from various websites – certainly not the decor, nor the uniform of its bustling but pleasant waiters. The food was unremarkable but the ambiance unbeatable, and yes, the bill was totted up on white paper tablecloth. No calculators allowed.

The next morning, flaky crumbs of fresh croissants clinging to our lips, we made our way across Pont Neuf where the Seine shimmered in the cold brilliant sunshine. Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité tempted us but we continued along Boulevard Saint-Germain to our destination, Musée de Cluny. We were not disappointed. The “Lady and the Unicorn” woolen and silk tapestries were magnificent – works of art from Flanders in the Middle Ages depicting the five senses. The sixth tapestry with the words “À mon seul désir” has a more obscure meaning, possibly representing love and understanding.Cluny

Museums are thirst inducing so we found respite and refreshments at that most famous of writer’s establishments, Les Deux Magots, where I could imagine Hemingway and Baldwin sipping cognac as they solved the problems of the world, or at least the comma. Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre chatted with them. Now it is patronised mainly by tourists, and people like me hoping some of their genius might still linger and alight on my shoulders.

Another ooh la la moment came after recrossing the Seine via the footbridge, Pont des Arts, when the ground rumbled from the throaty revving of about sixty motorbikes waiting at traffic lights. All the riders wore yellow safety vests and we learned they were part of an organized demonstration against rising fuel prices and the Macron administration. The bikes roared past us, then again as we walked north but apart from shouts and roaring engines there was little of concern.

The tear gas and police cordons of the following weekend did not thankfully impinge on our Paris sojourn, and I left the City of Light comforted that whilst German and Allied tanks might have rolled along the elegant boulevards, and discontented citizens might harangue politicians, it is still a city of culture and excitement, imbued with that wonderful air of  je ne sais quoi!

And I won’t be waiting so long time for my next visit to Paris!

Cherish the Ruins

December 31, 2017 — 2 Comments

The flurry of Christmas is over, and it’s that time of year. Time to reflect, but not linger, on the past.

It is a theme that has been much on my mind lately as I have been writing an article on an exciting joint USVI / Danish proposal, known as The Legacy Project, for St Croix This Week – which, as a Caribbean quirk, is produced bi-monthly. It is on the conservation of the past, the restoration of the present and the transformation for the future.

I am referring to the old Danish army barracks which, after their final iteration in the 1960s as a high school then police substation, were abandoned to asbestos and bush. It is a project dear to my heart and not only because it is IMBY (In My Back Yard) but, and this is a direct quote from the piece which I thought quite good even if I do say so myself, “Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad.”

The history of these aged barracks is etched into the walls built from ballast bricks and coral stone. The bricks were used to stabilise empty ships arriving from Denmark ready to load up with sugar and rum for eager consumers in Europe. The coral stone was cut by slaves, hauled ashore and used not only to be aesthetically pleasing but to help cool the buildings.

But this isn’t a blog about buildings – you’ll have to read SCTW for that.

No, I’m talking about me. In May 2018 I will reach the 60 milestone or, as miles were counted in Nigeria, the 60th pole – the telegraph poles strung along the dusty roads crisscrossing the country when I was a child.

It’s a bit of a shock. In my mind I am 35 but my mirror says, “Add 25 years, ducky”. 49 stitches down my back is a good start for counting the scars. My husband did suggest I get a zip tattooed over that one. And my face is running out of room for stitches, no matter how adept the plastic surgeons. But as I reflect on the past I comfort myself that the physical flaws are part of my heritage – the good and the bad. I’m sure I have mental flaws but can’t think of any at the moment!

I have been inordinately fortunate in my life. I come from a happy, if slightly unusual and nomadic background. I met a man in Papua New Guinea 40 years ago and still adore him, and our children and grandchildren bring great joy. Of course there have been tears, disappointments, frightening times and moments of ‘what the fuck’ but those are events that have etched themselves into my psyche and made me stronger, if not more patient. There’s a flaw!

I have wiffle-waffled around in various jobs in various countries – all of which have been great fun but none could have been called a career. Perhaps it is the fault of my Zodiacal sign. Geminis are notoriously fickle. That question, so often asked of me around the world, ‘what do you do?’ has invariably caused a seconds conundrum.

However the last ten years have seen me knuckle down. Expat Life Slice by Slice (Summertime Publishing 2012) was a memoir and, much as I enjoyed writing it, did not to my mind give me the right to call myself a writer. The words did not come from rigid discipline, interviews and research as non-fiction does – they came from my memory nudged by diaries and photographs. Or as in fiction, from allowing the imagination to float freely backed up by discipline and research.

But with the publication of Fireburn (OC Publishing 2017) – an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies of the 1870s, I have a label. No longer will those little tags at conferences, cocktails or coffee mornings merely give my name – I have, at the ripe old nearly age of 60, a bona fide career. Writer.

Oh yes, another mental flaw – procrastination!

As we head into the New Year, I’m going to stop dithering and write the sequel, Transfer of the Crown. And I’m not going to linger on birthdays and scars. Instead I’m going to return to those decaying army barracks and think of the words spoken by Danish architect, Ulla Lunn, as she passionately called for their restoration – “cherish the ruins”.

May 2018 bring you health and happiness – and wonderful stories to share.

Finding the IRS

February 14, 2017 — 5 Comments

As an inveterate browser of all things decorative, I was thrilled to find an ornately carved teak door, partially hidden by statuettes of worthy Asian deities. I am particularly drawn to all things Oriental, having spent a large part of my life in South East Asia. Including the frame, the door measured ten feet high and five feet wide. This I know because an arsenal of facts would be required if I were to persuade my long-suffering husband these doors were indeed entirely necessary to our future.

I was rebuffed with the words, “But, love, we don’t even know what country we will retire to, and we are not going to buy a house to fit around some doors.” I have never forgotten those doors and, more importantly, the questions they raised. His words were the start of an intense search. Finding the IRS…. the Ideal Retirement Spot.

My life has been nomadic since birth – countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands have been home. My husband started his global wanderings when 23 and, whilst enjoying returning to England to visit family and friends, did not envisage returning to that green and pleasant land. Pubs, cricket and rugby notwithstanding.

Contrary to popular belief, a peripatetic life does not make the search for the IRS easier.

After spending holidays as a teenager with my parents in Provence, on the outskirts of villages with names like Draguignan and Mougins, I had romantic notions of finally mastering French and spending our leisure years sipping rosé by day and cognac by night. But the area had become expensive and not quite as inviting as my childhood memories.

An intense affair with most things Italian, including grappa, sent me scurrying to the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. Palominos gave an equine serenity as they merged into sizzling summer landscapes, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Hungry hogs, foraging in the undergrowth as fireflies came out to play, added an element of danger. Remote villas as old as time. Villages perched on hilltops, narrow doorways tempting us into darkened interiors offering culinary delights – pecorino, salami and vino; cafés spilling onto Fiat-wide streets with the ever-lyrical sound of Italian – what more could we want? Less laments! Utterances, from those expatriates already living la dolce vita, about the lack of a favoured cereal or the slowness of service – so different to home.

Living for a time in a small, despotic, sub-Saharan West African country honed our Spanish. How about Spain? High up in the hills behind Malaga, away from beer-bellied Brits thronging the malecons along the Costa Brava. A vineyard, perhaps? An olive farm? The idea of producing our own appealed to my taste buds. Following garbled instructions along remote lanes, ditches on either side ready to swallow the unwary driver, we viewed several – both grape and olive groves.

And then it hit us. What would we do once we’d trodden those grapes or picked those olives? Did we want to spend our retirement working the land – something neither of us had every done. We appreciate the countryside but really we are water people. A babbling brook would not be enough. Who would we socialise with? Driving half an hour along rutted roads for the daily paper, a cafe con leche or a glass of wine in the local hosteleria, and driving back, held little appeal and would not allow for easy integration.

Our focus changed. Perhaps we needed to consider towns. Barcelona and Tarragona appealed, but prices didn’t. And then we lost our way again. How about living on the beach? Grenada? Beautiful, friendly, too difficult to navigate, too far. Belize? Barrier islands seemed risky when considering the possibility of hurricanes. Let’s try on the mainland. How about Corozal? Jaguars and jacaranda ticked environmental boxes, but difficulty in obtaining basic necessities – fresh produce, cheese, good bread, wine – put us off.

Baja California was next. Not the more usual Cabo san Lucas, but what about the capital of the province, La Paz? A charming old town with a Friday night parade of cars driven by love-lorn Lotharios, looking for the girl-of-their-dreams tossing coquettish smiles as they sauntered along the palm-fringed malecon. Affordable. A good produce market. Interesting history. The sea on our doorstep. But. That intangible but. It didn’t feel right. We were forcing the issue.

Subdued, I returned to Houston to pout and ponder. For a number of years. I gave up house hunting around the world, and concentrated on writing. Until one rainy Sunday afternoon, a golf tournament on the television keeping my husband engrossed and me less than, I restarted the search for the IRS. Trolling through websites in lesser known Caribbean islands, I came across a West Indian house in dire need of love.

“Look,” I said, blocking my husband’s view of the 16th hole. “What about this? It’s in town. We loved the island. Easy to get to. And it’s American, so our investment would be safe.”

“We haven’t been there for thirty years,” he reminded me. “There’s a reason for not showing photos of the bathrooms. And the kitchen looks as if its made of balsa wood.”

“Look at the views. Ignore the clutter, the bones are good. It just needs attention.”

“Interesting, I suppose,” he said, his eyes straying back to the 17th hole. “Why don’t you go and have a look?”

Three days later I landed on the island of St Croix, USVI. I came, I saw, I bought. It felt right – the IRSview-of-the-bvi

Writing is a lonely business.

A thick outer skin must be ordered – I believe they are available online – and worn so the writer doesn’t disappear into a tightly wrapped ball of fibres, which can later unravel into the distance hauling away what little snippets of self-confidence have been painstakingly garnered through the occasional success.

Pitching brilliant ideas to magazines is a thankless task often shot down by breathtaking silence from editors. We shake our phone, switch our computer on and off, in the vain hope the longed for acceptance and promise of small monetary gain has merely disappeared into that great universe called the ether. But no, the phone is working, so too the computer – every email from that online site from which you so rashly bought two years ago is managing to escape the junk box.

For those of us trying our hands at longer pieces – a book for instance – rejection from literary agents becomes a way of life and we really do grow an extra epidermis. We nod and smile wanly when our well-meaning friends trot out J K Rowling, again.

In need of moral support recently, I wasted hours but eventually came across a wonderful piece which cheered me no end. Did you know, for instance, that Agatha Christie had five years of rejection? The Da Vinci Code, two years. Fireburn, my manuscript is not a thriller, but I found the following critique of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold of utmost comfort, “He hasn’t got any future.” Mary Higgins Clark, J G Ballard, Stephen King and many other now respected authors have received numerous dismissals. And whilst I don’t put myself in their elevated ranks, their perseverance and self-belief does provide an inkling of hope.

Why do I need hope? Well, I almost blew it. Only time will tell. An email arrived from a relatively new, small press chosen because it was young and, I hoped, hungry. Keen to make a name. Eager to do the best for both me and themselves. I read those magic words – we want more. And then seven – count them – seven days later another email appeared saying they were interested. A flurry of further communication, culminating in a phone call, and then, and then, the moment when the contract lands with a ping.

The cork is popped. Texts to loyal readers of both early and later versions of my book, three years in the making, are sent with exultant responses of the ‘told you so’ type. And then, and then, you actually open the contractual attachment and the fizz goes flat.

Having been verbally assured of the stringency of editing – both content and copy – you find the contract is full of typos and inconsistencies. A cobbled together document, which would ensure any lawyer worth his fee slit his throat rather than let out it the door.

The bubbles have truly fizzled. And those little inconsistencies tamped down during the phone call merge to create a cacophonous roar. You have been seduced.

No, let’s be honest! I was seduced. Seduced by the thought of a publisher who promised marketing to all and sundry – here and abroad. Foreign rights – no problem. Film rights – of course. I was already sashaying along the red carpet – a yellow dress, I thought – as actors clamored to praise the role I had written for them.

The harsh hand of reality grabbed my throat on the seventh or eighth reading of the contract. How could I sign with a company who didn’t care about their own words, let alone mine? So yesterday I wrote thanking them for their interest and time, and closed that portal.

Now, I shall pull on my newly-bought skin and head back to the computer screen to scroll through pages of literary agents and publishers.

There must be one out there who might be interested in a book called Fireburn!