I spent last week in the UK, which is something I rarely do, especially on my own. Because of that it became a very condensed seven days doing all the bookish things I would do more often (but in a more spaced out way) if I lived in Britain.
On Thursday evening was my initial reason for the trip: a Newnham College alumnae networking dinner. My old college is great at finding ways to bring people back together, and this dinner was themed around literature. There were 15 of us, including authors, screenwriters, radio producers, journalists, publishers and editors and a fascinating talk was given by Cathy Moore on how she founded and developed Cambridge Word Fest, now Cambridge Literary Festival. I was reminded how lucky I am to be part of this network of accomplished women who have gone on, and continue going on to do diverse and extraordinary things in their lives.
On Friday I called by Bloomsbury to pick up some books they were kindly donating for my school visit on Monday. I have to admit to keeping the very sexy ‘Sleeper and the Spindle’ bag they came in. I also managed to snag an hour with my lovely editor Helen for a catch up, which generally means talking about what books we have read, the state of publishing, life in general and my writing. I was happy to be able to finally tell her that she’d be shortly receiving the MS of my new novel.
Coffee in Bloomsbury was followed immediately by lunch in the basement of Pizza Express in Soho. The lovely Gillian Stern had organised a “twunch” (yes, it’s a thing) where a whole load of lovely literary Twitter chums get together and talk writing, publishing, books and just get to know each other a bit better in the flesh. There were more than 30 of us there and of course I didn’t get to chat with with everyone, but I managed to catch up with some familiar faces and meet some new. Just as on twitter, there was a very diverse bunch of people (although Ben, Lloyd, Barry and Alexander had to hold up the side for the men), all with interesting stories and backgrounds and all willing to be open about their writing ups and downs, to offer cheers as well as sympathy and to network in the best sense of the word, sharing experiences and ideas. A really energising and fun do, and here are the last six of us to leave after managing to make a pizza lunch last four hours…@JaneRusbridge, @IsabelCostello, @EmilyBenet, Jackie Buxton (@Jaxbees) and @KnightJennyMrs
At the twunch, fired up by a glass of prosecco, good humour and dough balls, I started talking about my new book, Everything Love Is as though it was actually a thing. That might sound like a strange thing to say, but after so long writing and editing it, and all the doubts and uncertainties that go along with writing a novel on your own, I’d become very reluctant to discuss it. But since it had already been with my agent a week or so, and now I’d told Helen she’d get it next, it had suddenly begun to seem inevitable, regardless of what fate has in store for it. It was very encouraging that when I told people ‘what it’s about’ they seemed to like the idea (although small voice inside still whispers “maybe they were just being kind”).
Over the weekend I caught up with some of the friends and family I miss so much. It was absolutely lovely to spend time with some of the people I wish I saw more of – the major downside of living over here in France
Then on Monday I was up in South Yorkshire where I grew up, visiting Bawtry Mayflower Primary school where I had a chat with a group of year 6 pupils about reading and story telling. I’d been asked to do this talk because I’m signed up as a volunteer on the Inspiring the Future project – it’s not just for writers, it’s for anyone who’d like to volunteer, offering an hour a year of their time to go and talk at local schools about what they do. The idea is to inspire the children and expand their horizons. I’d encourage you all to please sign up for this if you can.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had no idea what this class of children would like, or be like, so I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive. I was delighted to find a really lovely friendly school, with bright, polite and engaged children, full of questions and enthusiasm for books and reading, which made my job a lot easier.
We all chatted about our favourite books and why we like them (Roald Dahl did really well, but there were some very diverse books discussed and I made a note of some for my 9yo), and then we talked about why human beings tell stories and what reading stories does to your brain.
Then we talked about metaphors in story telling and discussed the idea of G.K. Chesterton that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
An interesting question that came out of that discussion was this: Why are children’s stories more fantastical whereas adult stories tend to be set in real life situations, with events that really could take place?
I thought that was a great question. We had the idea that perhaps children have more imagination, or that real problems upset children more than imaginary ones, or that children have very little power and fairytales can imbue child heroes with not only courage but also super human powers. What do you think, why do children’s books lean more to fantasy whereas in adult fiction it’s only one genre of many?
As part of the discussion we used the books donated by the lovely people at Bloomsbury Kids and it was brilliant to see how excited the children’ were about receiving these books for their class.
At the end of the session one of the girls asked about my writing, and when I mentioned The Night Rainbow she said “My mum has that book!” This was followed by a flurry of requests to sign autographs on scraps of paper. I’ve never been asked for an autograph before. I suddenly felt quite the star!
Tuesday and back down in London to meet my agent and find out the verdict on The New Novel. But first, since it was armistice day, I got up early to see the poppies at the tower before it got too busy. Even at 7:30am there were lots of people. The installation was stunning, inspiring and an invitation to contemplation, not just about the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in the UK in the first world war, but about all those other lives lost across the world, then and in subsequent wars. About the families left behind. About the wars which are still raging today, and what is behind them, and how peace still evades our species and why. This is what I think the arts do best: yes, they can be beautiful, entertaining or relaxing, but most importantly they turn the questions back on ourselves and provoke us to think.
The previous day, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had made a speech advising teenagers to steer away from arts and humanities subjects if they wanted a better range of job opportunities. That maths, science, engineering and technology would be more worthwhile. Putting economic arguments aside (but not because I believe for a minute that devaluing the arts wouldn’t harm the economy), how can we reconcile the idea of the arts being less useful with the amazing response to the tower poppies? People flocked to see them, to be moved and reminded and challenged intellectually and emotionally. The arts and the humanities are needed to balance out the STEM subjects. They make the human race human.
Some of you may know that I do also have what I call a “day job” (my day job colleagues consider that I am “also a writer”), and after seeing the poppies I popped into an office in Old Street to catch up with a few people there. And the most beautiful surprise, out of the blue I was given this beautiful leather bound copy of The Night Rainbow as a present. I now feel as though I’ve won the Booker. And it smells so good!
Book shopping! One of my highlights of trips to the UK, as I just love browsing in bookshops, but I do read mostly in English not in French, so it’s not as much fun over here. Right by the office I found Camden Lock Books, a gorgeous little shop with books piled high around the base of the shelves and creatively stacked to fit as many in as possible. Obviously I bought some, including a couple of Michael Morpurgo’s I hadn’t heard of for my daughters.
Then it was off to Covent Garden to meet my agent…
Hallelujah, she loves the new book. Much rejoicing over fish pie and a cheeky lunchtime glass of wine, followed by the crossing of fingers over coffee.
Then on Wednesday it was back home to autumn sunshine, the first snow on the mountain and best of all, my lovely family. What a whirlwind of a week.
Since Helen is going to need some time to read and consider Everything Love Is, the waiting game starts here. I’ve decided to take a writing break until the new year, to refresh and catch up on reading. I’ve just read The Rosie Project and The Kite Runner, and I’m in a pause midway into The Luminaries, and now reading Carys Bray’s A Song for Issey Bradley. I bought Roald Dahls short stories in London too (it seemed appropriate after his popularity on Monday). I fully intend to gorge on books between now and Christmas.
My other plan is to do lots of “spring” cleaning as the house has suffered rather a lot during the last couple of years of writing, and to get stuck into some of the DIY that’s been waiting around. I find that smacking things with big hammers is great therapy for nerves…