Claire King


Archive for April, 2011

Literary ladies, canons, bottoms and inspiration.

Posted on: April 30th, 2011 by Claire - 6 Comments

I have just the juiciest and best talks on writing and books linked below! They’re taken from the launch of the Newnham College Literary Archive in February. You might not have heard of Newnham. I spent three of the most amazing years of my life there in its beautiful surroundings.

But even more fabulous than the gardens and the buildings are the alumnae, of whom you will have heard. I am privileged to count myself amongst such amazing women as Sylvia Plath, AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Salley Vickers, Mary Hoffman, Caroline LawrenceJenn Ashworth, Ali Smith, Patricia Duncker, Sarah Dunant, Gillian Allnutt, Wendy Mulford, Claire Tomalin; Elaine Feinstein; Lisa Jardine, Joan Bakewell, Katharine Whitehorn, Julia Neuberger… It reads like a ‘Who’s who?’ of literature, doesn’t it? And that’s before you even start broadening out to include actresses and directors such as Miriam Margolyes, Eleanor Bron, Emma Thompson…

Sorry, I am a little bit star-struck. So imagine, in February I found myself sitting in a small room, densely packed with women of this caliber, to talk about literature. It was a very exciting and inspirational moment for me! And that was really the idea Newnham had in creating the literary archive – to bring together donations of work, photos, manuscripts etc from these and other alumnae, to celebrate the achievements of Newnhamites past, and to encourage and inspire current and future students.

You’ll notice that I’m only mentioning women. Newnham is an all-women college, and whilst in many respects that doesn’t make a bit of difference to studying there and our lives afterwards, it does mean that topics specific to women, or examined from a women’s point of view are often on the table. I don’t believe this is intended to create a gender gap, but to acknowledge that one exists and take that as a context.

Over eighty years ago, Virginia Woolf visited Newnham to give a talk to the students on ‘Women and Fiction’. She discussed the idea that, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ and this talk was to become  ‘A Room of One’s Own’, an essay that has proved inspirational for many women writers ever since.

Alison Wells’ recent series on Mother-Writers on her blog highlights, I think, that we still have a lot in common with women writers of the last century. Do we have the space yet to write as successfully as we could – either physically, or figuratively?

I’m so pleased that the video clips of the talks and the Q&A have been made available and I really recommend having a look when you have a chance (men and women alike, of course!). They are really worth it.

Here are the links, enjoy:

Sarah Dunant on Renaissance art, inspiration for her novels, and babies’ bottoms. This talk inspired this post Everything Speaks.

Nicola Beauman on Persephone books, and why women write so well. This talk inspired my post The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Claire Tomalin on biography

Q&A Part 1 (on Feminism; female writers and racy novels; the literary canon; crime writing; and is there a difference between men and women?) and Part 2  (Male/Female ratios in publishing and reviewing; positive discrimination; The Orange Prize; the impact of new university fees on reading literature at universities)

Whatever You Love, or feel vaguely ambivalent towards…

Posted on: April 26th, 2011 by Claire - 16 Comments

I’ve just finished reading Louise Doughty’s novel, Whatever You Love. It was amongst my Christmas presents (oh, I’m not even half-way through that To Be Read pile yet) and came on the recommendation of my lovely agent.

Well, what a recommendation. As I’ve mentioned before, what with small children and writing my own novel, my reading time has been spare and this was the first book of Louise Doughty’s that I’ve read. I truly loved it. I galloped through it in a way that is rare for me and all along the way saying ‘Wow!’ and ‘Yes!’ The kind of book where i go out and buy the entire back catalogue. *THAT* kind of book.

Honestly, I loved this book and wholeheartedly recommend you buy it.

I try to write reviews on Amazon for any book that really rings my bell. (I don’t write negative reviews because I rarely feel passionate enough about a book that just didn’t quite do it for me). Of course I read the other reviews up there while I’m on it, and was quite shocked by the polarity of the comments. As an author on the brink of receiving my own reviews, this sort of reception, especially for a book I would rate so highly, terrifies me. I’m sure I would take it to heart. What do you make of it all?

Amazon 1/2 star reviews:

“absolutely HATED this book”

“The story is drawn out unnecessarily”

“Faber & Faber, get your act together and use some decent copyeditors and proofreaders. The book was littered with spelling mistakes and typos”

“…she was waffling”

“…this novel unfortunately failed to reach me, as the grief the protagonist felt over the loss of her daughter seemed one-dimensional and failed to encourage any sympathy.”

i’m aghast; each to their own and all that, but I just can’t even begin to see where these comments came from. The book was tight and meticulous…wow. If I had been on the receiving end of these I would be reaching for…what? My husband probably. But then look at these:

Amazon 4/5 star reviews:

“I found these scenes almost unbearably moving in their honesty.”

“Wow. I didn’t expect this! This book is so powerful and insightful. I was blown away to be honest”

” compulsive reading! I could not put it down”

“simply one of the best novels I have read in a long time”

“a genuinely captivating read”

“A book that tugs at the heart, draws tears and still manages to surprise right to the end.”

“…I could not put it down…”

“300 pages of insightful and expertly-crafted story-telling.”

Yes! Yes to all of these comments.

So what is it about a novel that can divide readers this way, and how are we, as writers, supposed to digest this kind of reception to our work?

Heads up, everybody!

Posted on: April 22nd, 2011 by Claire - 22 Comments

Most days, when I’m running (or walking) the view looks something like this.

And this is what I’m thinking…

  • I’m about half way around now.
  • I must post that letter when I get home.
  • How do I improve that short story I’m writing?
  • I wonder if my invoice has been paid today.
  • How do I develop the conflict in this novel I’m writing.
  • I must answer that e-mail. How to best phrase my response?
  • What will we have for dinner? Shall I shop first or get the ironing out of the way?
  • Where’ve those dogs got to?
  • It’s getting hot, I ought to have another drink of water.
  • No, but really, how would that character react in that situation…

Then sometimes, occasionally, I remember that I’m not driving a car. That I am allowed to take my eyes off the road. And that I can lift my focus away from the path and from where I’m putting my feet. I remember where I am, what I am doing. And then this is the view.


After that I’m no longer thinking about all the things I have to do. I can take a few deep breaths and then get back to concentrating on one thing, which for me is always mulling over the story I’m writing.

Now, I know that not everyone has this particular view, but it does work in towns and cities too. Even in supermarkets. Try it. Zoom out from your focus, from the pavement or the people in front of you or the shortest distance between you and your objective, and have a look around. See the big picture that you’re in. Change your perspective, notice your environment and see what effect that has.

NB – I still don’t advise this while driving!

I think that this applies also to writing fiction. Sometimes we can get too caught up in propelling our characters through their character arc and forget that although they may be the focus of the story, they are still part of a bigger context. Pulling out from a tight character viewpoint and bringing in the bigger picture is not a change of location, or a change of scene, but a change of  perspective. It acknowledges the world in which the narrative is taking place. And for the reader it can offer a moment’s rest.

I bet in screenwriting there is a name for this. Does anyone know?


Mother/Writer Interview on Head above Water

Posted on: April 13th, 2011 by Claire - No Comments

I’m interviewed by Alison Wells as part of a series of blog posts on mothers who write. Or writers who mother. Or Mother-Writers…

ISBN 9781408824672

Posted on: April 11th, 2011 by Claire - 2 Comments

I have an ISBN number.

Really, this seems exciting to me. *Happy Dance*

Just four little letters

Running up that Hill

Posted on: April 2nd, 2011 by Claire - 7 Comments

I do NOT look like this when running. Part of me wishes I did.

I do NOT look like this when running. Part of me wishes I did.

“Just to that tree there, then I’ll stop and walk.” I must say this to myself dozens of times on every run.

I’m fine at running downhill, really, I’m very good at that. But I’m rubbish at running uphill. I gasp for breath, my muscles burn, my knees wobble. Rubbish. I look nothing like that woman in the photo. Perhaps I’ll get someone to take a picture of me in the act just so you can have a laugh.

But if I pick a tree, not too far away, and tell myself I’ll just keep going until that tree and then we can reconsider, things look much better. The hill becomes less daunting, and I often get past quite a few trees before I revert to ‘walking smartly’.

And it’s the same with writing.

For me, in particular, novel first drafts. The whole task seems so daunting at times. I tell myself I’ll just write the next 1000 words and then we’ll see…