My top ten reasons why I love writing novels…

I’m an avid reader. I’m the sort of person who will read everything: all genres, crisp packets, adverts on buses. I have my preferences, of course – I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Ian Hancock, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Winman, the Brontë’s, Zola, Turgenev, Cecelia Woloch, Kamila Shamsie and lots more. Reading is fuel for the mind, the imagination and the emotions. I can’t read enough.

Reading also helps me as a writer. I start from the place that someone has written something as a gift and as a reader, I have the joy of unwrapping it. It has taken them a long time and their work has come from a special place in the writer’s creativity. I extract everything I can from it, like a nutritious meal. Mostly I love lots about others’ writing and, if I don’t, I can still learn about the style, the craft. Other people will love a book I don’t get and so I seek to find out what it is about the novel that hits the mark with readers. Very rarely, if I can’t get into it at all, I put it aside, like some people do with Brussel sprouts. It’s not for everybody but it’s not my style to be negative.

Then, of course, writing books has given me so much to be grateful for. I’m learning about the craft and the industry all the time. My next novel The Age of Misadventure is out this month and I’ve just finished writing another novel I have so much love for, so it is a good time to reflect and pick my top ten reasons why I love writing. Putting them into an order has been difficult, and of course, I will find more reasons as time goes by and there may be a top twenty. But here we go. My top ten:

10 Holding the baby. It is a powerful moment when the novel stops being a series of pages on the PC and first takes the form of a book. The writer can actually hold a copy, touch the printed pages, read the familiar first lines and the acknowledgements and think ‘Wow – this is real.’ To be able to take the book in your hands is incredible, turning it over and realising that you did this yourself – (well, not entirely by yourself – more of that later.) Then the book arrives and it’s in German, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, and the Canadian edition. I’m so grateful to so many people.

9 Being asked to talk about the novel. I’m quite a humble soul really and to be asked about my book is something that triggers a strange reaction. I’m being allowed to talk about something I’ve created and people are really interested in it. It takes some getting used to. I’ve done radio interviews, which I love, and a few signings and talks at book shops and universities. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit surreal when people ask How did you think up that character…? And why did you make this happen at the end..? But I’m overwhelmed that people have invested the time and interest to read and think about my novel. It’s a real honour.

8 The cover. Being shown an artist’s visual interpretation of your novel, and design which an expert believes will encapsulate the story and persuade others to read it is a great experience. My daughter is a talented illustrator and I’m always overwhelmed by people’s artistic talents and interpretation, and the time it takes to create the final piece. It is a joy to reveal a cover, and quite an emotional moment. Then, seeing the way the cover is designed for release in other countries is an experience that takes my breath away.

7 Being outside and being inspired. One of the greatest joys of writing a novel is that I have the freedom to choose how I schedule my working day. I’m quite driven, so I don’t spend lots of time in the bath or gazing at the sheep in the fields but I do make myself stop, in order to think and to recharge. The beach is a favourite place to go for thinking time, or on the moors, where ideas will blow through like clouds and I become clearer about what I want to write. I’m lucky to have a campervan so that I can travel, research my work and just let thoughts move around.

6 Laughing out loud at my own story – and even crying. If my own writing can move me, then it might move a reader. I find myself laughing aloud at what I’m typing sometimes and that’s a good measuring stick. Characters such as Evie Gallagher and Nanny Basham, and the three main characters in my latest novel, have all made me guffaw. When I’m editing and I know the story so well, it is another good time to test the waters. I shed a tear at the end of A Grand Old Time and Nan’s story about her past in The Age of Misadventure made my heart ache. I think the central issue is that I care about the characters – always flawed, dented by life’s experiences but optimistic and feisty, they deserve something special and that’s what I’m aiming for by the end of the novel. Of course, it won’t always be a happy ending for all of them…

5 Starting a new novel. Like a first date or a new love, a new novel grips the writer and you can’t get enough of it. I just want to write all the time, I’m so full of enthusiasm and energy to tell the story. Of course, I have dumped a few novels on the way at 20,000 words. Filed might be a better word. But if I’m not bursting with excitement, then probably the reader won’t be.

4. Waking up at 2 am. I love it when I wake up and characters are sitting at the end of my bed, yelling ‘So, what happens to me next? How do I manage to resolve…?’ and I spend hours working it out. Early morning is active brain time for me but I don’t mind. It’s productive and fun, so I roll with it.

3. Finishing a novel. It’s a great feeling but not a simple one to explain. Finishing a novel goes way beyond ‘Yahoo, I’ve finished – bring out the bubbly.’ There is a feeling of immense satisfaction, because I’m pleased with it and I’ve brought the novel to a conclusion and all the characters have a resolution. I know I need to go through and edit and re-edit, and I enjoy the process of improving what I’ve written. But there’s also a bitter-sweet tinge of sadness. I have to let the characters go now… they move from the smaller place of my life and into the wide world. But like children, you have to let them grow, move on and find their own way…it is a good feeling to have brought them this far.

2. The support. I can’t praise enough the people who help me with writing novels. I know lots of writers advocate self-publishing and I admire their expertise and focus. But I am blessed with the invaluable support of experts. From my wonderful agent to cheerful and skilled editors who are so experienced and helpful, to the exuberant publicist who works non-stop, I am truly lucky. The encouragement and love I receive from friends, neighbours, ex-students from my theatre-teaching days, even people I hardly know, is immense. I’ve had some really touching messages and incredible support from all over the world. It’s mind-blowing and truly wonderful. And then there is the encouragement I get from my family. At the end of The Age of Misadventure, my daughter whooped out loud and cheered at Nanny’s brave actions. My son knows every plot twist and my partner will read a chapter or two of a first draft each night, offering me technical advice about anything that has a motor engine. They are special people, my family, and I can’t thank them enough.

1. Readers. I’ve left readers until last because a book has no purpose without a reader. The readers are in my mind all the way through the writing process…will the reader enjoy this? How can I entertain, move, grip, interest, surprise my reader? It is an honour to be in the position of offering something I’ve created to someone else. And it’s not something I’m anxious about: it’s a privilege. Whoever and wherever the readers are, male or female, new to my books or not, whether they are bloggers, editors, people who’ve picked up a copy in a shop (someone told me they’d bought it on a whim because of the title and had no idea if they’d like it,) whether it features in a reading group or it’s an audio or on kindle or in paperback, I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful readers. It’s what it’s all about, the process, the ideas, the crafting, and the editing. The reader is the prize at the end of the race. So whoever you are, thank you.


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Why some of my protagonists are older people..

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times in interviews: why do you write about older protagonists?

My first reaction is that I don’t – I write about people, all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m comfortable doing that, as long as I know what I’m writing about. This in itself is part of a debate I’ve heard many times: should writers from one social class or specific background write about people from other groups; should writers create characters of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, background to themselves? Is researching a character’s lifestyle good enough preparation or is a character only valid if the writer has personal life experience? That’s an interesting and complex debate for another time.

There is a woman I know – we were students together – whose academic work I admire, who wanted to write about women’s lives in the sex trade and so she integrated herself within the industry in order to discover what she wanted to write about. Not easy research. It’s a similar concept to the method acting work of performers like Robert De Nero, who worked as a taxi driver in order to give his role in the film an authentic representation. Research and knowledge about the character are important, whatever length an artist goes to in order to understand, but should we, in fact, only write about characters when we have first-hand experience? Certainly, for me, that’s a starting point. My protagonists could, arguably, be said to be composites of many people who have been an influence during my life.

My second reaction is that I write about older protagonists because they are perhaps underrepresented in the genre I write. Older women and men have been, somehow, perceived less interesting, less worthy of empathy, less attractive, less likely to be involved later in life in fascinating escapades, romantic or otherwise: less sexy and somehow less interesting. Of course, now that sixty is the new forty, we know that’s no longer the case and it’s a shame that it has ever been perceived otherwise. Age is just a number: we all know health and happiness are more important.

My third reaction is that writing reflects the world:  novels will contain characters of any age and background and older people are very much a part of the world. But it is true: I do like to create some of my protagonists as people in their golden years. Now they have no daily job, no growing families, no looming responsibilities, it’s time for them to make mischief. I enjoy winding such characters up and letting them go.

In my first novel, ‘A Grand Old Time,’ the central character, Evie, is in her seventies. She is witty, feisty and glamorous; she embarks on a journey of self- discovery which takes her through France in a campervan. She meets a septuagenarian hunk. Jean-Luc, who is difficult and brooding: but he has a private problem that will ultimately affect Evie. So yes, the two older protagonists are central to my story, but so too are the marital difficulties of Evie’s son Brendan and his wife Maura. The four characters have needs and problems, they have to bring about changes in their lives and they find themselves in situations which spark mischief, comedy and bittersweet action. I enjoyed writing about all of them.

Although my novels are perceived as being in the category of romantic or comic women’s fiction, I’m delighted for anyone and everyone to read them. I had a lovely comment from a man who read the novel and said that, although he valued Evie and her fun adventures, for him it was Brendan who struck a deep chord. In a job he dislikes, a loveless marriage and blaming himself for his hapless situation, Brendan is depressed and lonely. The male reader suggested that many men would empathise and he found Brendan’s plight moving. I was moved myself to hear his response and very grateful.

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My second novel, ‘The Age of Misadventure,’ is a story of four women of three generations, who go on the run together. The youngest, Jade, is twenty-four; the oldest, Nanny Basham, is eighty-eight. The other two women are in their fifties. Having the opportunity for the three generations to interact together gave me the chance to create comedy, but also to examine the difference between the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour of the women. It’s true, most of the comedy comes from Nan, who is outrageous at times, but her character is inspired by the idea that dependent older people might be lonely and Nan’s brusqueness is a coping mechanism for how hard it is to live a solitary life. As Nan says, she’d rather be faced with the danger and death during their experiences on the run than stuck at home in a cold house eating dinners for one.

I’m currently embarking on a new novel. The main characters are two sisters in their seventies and a very bad man of a similar age. I’ll keep the storyline under wraps for now but yes, I’m writing about older protagonists who are interesting, who are not what they first seem, who are full of mischief and who have the opportunity to be a little iconoclastic. But there will be a whole range of other different characters in the novel, of all ages and backgrounds. I’m looking forward to writing this during the autumn and I know if I have a whale of a time creating the characters and the action, then there’s a good chance readers might enjoy the romp too.

The answer to my question, then, is yes –I do write about older protagonists, giving them the opportunity to misbehave and go on adventures, to fulfil their expectations of life. But they can’t do it alone. The world is full of all sorts of people: it’s a rich tapestry of diverse characters. Ideally, that’s how I’d like my novels to be.





My novel is out today! But how should I celebrate?

In complete harmony with my rock and roll lifestyle, I’m keen to celebrate my novel coming out in paperback today. Available at Waterstones, Tesco, Amazon, at all good bookshops throughout the UK, ‘A Grand Old Time’ has finally hit the shelves.

I have been on book tours, had radio interviews, been featured in newspapers, on social media, done a talk at Loughborough university, and I’m ready to launch into party mode now. It is an exciting way to live and I believe in taking every opportunity to celebrate.

My novel ‘A Grand Old Time’ has had wonderful reviews. The response has been better than I could have imagined. Here are just a few excerpts from bloggers and readers’ thoughts from Amazon.

5☆ I Loved Evie… She has a Passion and Zest for life… I want to go travelling with her!

I loved this book cover to cover

I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant story. I laughed and cried in equal measure

Made me laugh & cry- lovely book!

A lovely book about an older person finding a new lease on life.

It is being sold abroad in many countries incuding Canada, Sweden, Croatia, India, Denmark, Italy, Japan. It is all so thrilling. I have book signings coming up;  it’s totally rock and roll.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is about an older woman, a widow, Evie Gallagher, who has moved to a care home in the hope that she will have some company, but Sheldon Lodge is not for her. She wanders into Dublin one day, talks to strangers and enters a betting shop. One thing leads to another and she takes a plane to Liverpool, a boat to France, buys a camper van and sets off on adventures.

Her son, Brendan, who is struggling with his marriage and his job as a Sports teacher, decides to bring her back home, believing she can’t cope independently. Brendan’s unhappy wife, Maura, insists on tagging along and their parallel adventures begin.

The novel is character-led. Evie is feisty, full of mischief. She pretends to be a porn star, drinks too much and collapses, lies to the police and sings on stage in an Irish Bar. She meets a French septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Meanwhile Brendan and Maura discover that their marriage is in real trouble and inevitably, changes need to be made to their lonely unfulfilled lives.

The audio book is read beautifully by Aoife McMahon, who brings the characters straight from the page to the heart.

So, back to the celebrations, the rock and roll. I wanted to have a huge party, a band playing in the garden, champagne, a barbecue, a hot tub. Dancing on tables, singing up at the stars until four in the morning. Guests wandering lost in the rose bushes, stragglers asleep in the fish pond at dawn.

Image result for gogol bordello party party after party

I thought I’d have a Prosecco breakfast in the morning, ask the neighbours round for buckwheat banana pancakes, sharing jokes and good craic on the patio. Then there will be an open house all day, in which people I don’t see often enough roll up, have a glass of punch and a big hug and we talk about old times. Friends will jet in, land on the helipad: people I haven’t seen for ages, from India, Italy, Ireland, France, London, Liverpool, Cornwall and Totnes will duck the whirling blades and rush into my arms, tears on their faces and a bottle of Moët clutched in their fists.

My agent, publisher, publicist, the whole lovely team will be there under the rose-clad pergola, holding martinis, looking cool, laughing and reminiscing, chatting to novelist celebreties nibbling canapés.

Then as the evening dwindles, the perfume of jasmine and night-scented stock warm on the air, I will leave the happy throng and slide away for quiet chat with my family and a smooch with my significant other to something romantic, like ‘Pretty Vacant’ by The Sex Pistols. Then it’s back to the party,  moshing beyond midnight.

Of course, that’s all in my imagination. What is more likely is that I’ll wake up with the cat, have a piece of toast and read the paper in my pyjamas. My neighbours might pop round for a cuppa and then I’ll work at the computer all day. In the evening, I might go out.

An ex-student of mine has kindly sent me a thank you present of a meal at a local restaurant. He is now embarking on a psychology degree and I know he will reach the stars. I’ll toast him and Evie when I sit quietly in Flavours with a glass of Romanian red and a plate of vegetable wellington.

Then I’ll start planning the special launch party, which will happen one day, however retrospective. It might be on the beach this summer, or in my camper van in France, or round the table at Christmas time when the crumbling walls have finally been plastered, or with breakfast at the top of The Shard as the sun rises in a winter sky. Why not? After all, it has to be Rock and Roll.

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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

Like most writers, I started young, with a pen and any paper I could find to scribble on. I wrote my name on the kitchen walls when I was two and had a slap for my efforts. I penned poems on empty Corn Flakes boxes. I filled jotters with an assortment of stories. In my spare time, I composed some shocking song lyrics on the back of scraps of paper.

My teachers, the nice ones anyway, said they expected to read my work in print some day and I thought I’d achieved it when I had a non-fiction book published about Drama teaching.

Once I’d made the decision to write full-time, however, I concentrated on being published anywhere I could. Niche is good. I made money from having all sorts of short stories included in all sorts of publications. I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. I entered competitions, being placed in a few, including a second prize for a story about a hedgehog cake and a second place at The Winchester Festival for a piece about a woman searching for the same man throughout time. I liked the idea so much I wrote it into a 90,000 word novel last summer: it’s the only serious one I have ever written and I think it is both tragic and uplifting.

A year ago, I was a hopeful writer, with an ambition to be published. I had written my first novel, found a great agent and believed I could actually do what I had dreamed of for so long: I would see a work of fiction with my name on it for sale in a book shop.

It didn’t take long for my agent to find me a two-book deal with HarperCollins Avon, and I was on my way, hardly believing my luck. I had always intended to do it and I suppose I always believed that I would.

Being published has taught me so much. I didn’t realise how my thinking had changed until other writers handed me their work and asked for an opinion. I suddenly started hearing the voice of my editor and suggesting important details which would upgrade the readers’ enjoyment. There is much more to writing than interesting words and characters. I now think much more visually about what the readers will see in their imaginations. I’ve always been a bit of a cimematic writer  but now I focus totally on what images the reader will experience.

The same goes for feelings. I’d assumed if a character sighed, for example, every  empathic reader would automatically know how she felt and be able to understand her plight. Now I focus much more on inner dialogue and thoughts, what has led to emotions and how they manifest themselves.

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The most interesting part of the journey in many ways has been to do with my character’s impact on the reader. Evie Gallagher, the 75 year old role-model in ‘A Grand Old Time,’ is inspirational, as she takes off on a road trip in a camper van, having adventures. She learns a lot about the world and even more about herself, and develops her capacity for enjoying life independently.

Interviews and questions are part of writing a book. I have loved the opportunity to go on the radio, talk to newspaper reporters, complete questionnaires, write articles and guest blogs.

The question I’m asked the most is ‘why did you write about a 75 year old woman?’ This makes me smile. I wonder if Thomas Hardy was asked why he wrote about 16 year old Tess, or if Vladimir Nabokov ever explained about why he invented 12 year old ‘Lolita’? Age is a number. It defines my character less than traits like a sense of humour, altruism or a positive attitude. Yet repeatedly, people are fascinated by a 75 year old protagonist who defies stereotypes and has a tendency to behave badly.

I couldn’t be more delighted by the responses to my 75 year old role model as she takes off in a camper van and has crazy adventures. Reviews have said things like ‘I want to be Evie’ and ‘I want to go travelling with Evie.’ Someone else said they ‘laughed and cried in equal measure’ and, honestly, there can’t be better praise than that.

One woman wrote that her mother is 75 and has recently embarked on a jaunt to Amsterdam, just to behave like Evie. Another person said that her mother was delighted to read a book about an older person living life to the full and now had a role model.

However, I believe readers who will enjoy the novel won’t just belong to the category of women in their seventies and beyond, although I’m delighted that older people have a trail blazer in Evie. There aren’t enough stories about brilliant people enjoying their golden years.

I have farmed early versions of the novel out to friends, including  young men in their twenties, who’ve found Evie hilarious and upliftingly iconoclastic. They decided that the scene where she pretends to be a porn star is hilarious and, equally, when she sings karaoke, gets drunk and lies to the police officer, they loved her sense of mischief.

But there are tender and poignant moments in ‘A Grand Old Time.’ Evie finds love where she least expects it. As a widow, she’d had no thoughts of meeting her soul mate, but when she does, this part of the novel is both comic and touching.

Now I am a full-time writer, and published, with a real novel I can hold in my hands, I can reflect on the past year, going from aspiration to publication. Yet I’m still aspiring. That’s the point of a journey: you never get there. There is always so much to find out, to learn, to reconsider, to aim for and to try again.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is out in paperback on 3rd May. It’s already an ebook and an audio book, read gorgeously by the talented Aoife McMahon. I’ve written several other novels and the second one is currently at the editing stage, scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2019. I’m living a dream.

Like any journey, any dream, I have no idea where it is going, but as long as I’m in the driving seat with the wind in my hair I know it will be a blast. I have many people to thank for this first year: my agent, publisher, publicist, reviewers, all the loveliest of people. Kind and encouraging friends, the very best family. It is good to feel blessed and it is great to get up every day to do something you love doing. There may be many more novels out there. I hope so.

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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Campervans, cherry clafoutis and my novel…

Last night was lovely. Perfect ingredients: London skyline, champagne, a real home-made cherry clafoutis (baked with love,) a giant cut-out campervan. A team of Avon angels, lots of smart independent booksellers and hundreds of great books. Wine. Canapes. Speeches. And me.

My first Indie event with HarperCollins Avon was such great fun. I met the charming CEO, brilliant authors such as Cecelia Ahearne, the fabulous Bosh! boys and some really lovely people. I had the opportunity to introduce my novel, A Grand Old Time, which is out in April. I talked about the novel’s origins and development and it was so nice to have the time to chat about my protagonist, Evie Gallagher.

My novel is about Evie, a woman who is seventy five, but it’s not just a book for older women any more than Wurzel Gummidge is a book for scarecrows or Pooh is a book for bears. Evie goes to live in a care home by mistake and runs away. She gambles, drinks too much, misbehaves, buys a camper van and goes on a road trip. Of course, her son and daughter- in-law think her behaviour is inappropriate and they follow her, to bring her back. But, trapped in a car together, they realise they have problems of her own.

On her travels, Evie meets a septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Of course they do – she is feisty, wickedly provocative, unpredictable and a bit of an iconoclast. She’s bound to have adventures.

But A Grand Old Time is a novel for us all. It’s about having an appetite for life and not being afraid to take a big bite out of the present. In our so-called ageing society, we may all expect to live to be seventy five and more, and we certainly won’t want to be on the scrap heap. Evie says of her own mother, ‘She was done at forty. I’m seventy five and I’m  damned if I’m done yet.’

The novel is for all our mothers and fathers who, bless them, endured society’s concept of age as something which should slow you down, which limits you and makes you behave yourself. In fact, it could be an opportunity, a freedom, the time to do something wonderful. It is a chance to turn the mundane into a road trip. Like Evie, I hope we’ll all live to a ripe old age and then, I hope, we’ll take a leaf out of her book and find ways to have A Grand Old Time of it all.

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Three authors, three ‘Russians’ and my own novel

I am fascinated by etymology and I enjoy juggling with words but, as a writer, I try not to create blatant stereotypes in my characters. The word stereotype comes from the 1798 French adjective, stéréotype, which is a “method of printing from a plate.” It has come to mean a set ​idea that people have about what someone or something is like, ​especially an idea that is ​wrong, or in some way a mischaracterisation or an unfair generalisation.

It is easier to add depth and layers to a major character than a minor one: in my novel ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder,’ I gave myself 92,000 words to develop the central character of Evelyn. Her daughter-in-law, Maura, begins as a stereotype but I took trouble to create empathy for her and to focus on her motivation as I wrote.

However, it is more of a challenge with characters who appear only briefly. In my novel, Peggy and Geoff, whom Evelyn meets momentarily in Dax, with whom she shares a bottle of wine and who are the recipients of her mischief when Peggy mistakenly thinks Evelyn’s accent is Scottish, are as close to stereotypes as I want to come. I considered how I wrote them them for a long time: I have met Peggys and Geoffs, people whose middle-class idiosyncrasy is defined by their ability to analyse the bouquet of wine in depth and who carry their own prejudices and proclaim definitions of everything they see, measured against how they wish to see themselves. And, of course, Peggy and Geoff are there for humour and light relief: they are the foil for Evelyn’s honesty as I demonstrate her capacity to be a little iconoclastic. But I try to be fair with my characters, never abusing them or mocking them too harshly, and I always try to avoid harmful stereotypes.

Perhaps Paul Murray had similar thoughts, as he was writing his book, ‘The Mark and the Void’. I wonder if he considered the impact on the reader of creating stereotypes in many of his characters. Being of Irish descent on my mother’s side, I wasn’t sure how to take the tirade against the Irish on Page 112/113:

‘blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived….drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex…their punchbag history, their bankrupt state, their inveterate difference.’

I know we are hearing this onslaught through the persona of rich, feckless, French Claude (!) and I won’t deny that I have spent time with lovely relatives who have shared a bit of a drink and indulged in a bit of a falling out, but I puzzle over whether this is a damning evocation of a race for humour’s sake, and I also wonder how it is received by readers. Is it just funny, which is fine, or seen as the mad rant of Claude, which is probably fine, or would anyone out there actually consider it a valid view which supports their own narrow judgement?

Murray’s minor character Igor is ‘a great hulking creature, almost seven foot tall, with a sloping forehead, and brawny knotted forearms that extend from an ill fitting nylon shirt.’ (p 76). This is a vivid description of someone who is both funny and fundamental to the narrative: Murray makes us quickly suspicious of Igor’s assumed role and of his motives: he is probably going to reveal himself as a thug and a crook. Here we have a stereotype of Russian males, seen often in the movies.

I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch,’ especially for the character of Boris. A brilliant contrast to the main protagonist, Theo, and a terrible influence, Boris is big-hearted, morally suspect, always loyal and a source of great humour. His desperate and ill-fated love for Kotku, his drug-fueled binges, his battles and his bad relationship with his father make him a well-drawn character against whom we measure Theo’s development and his failures, and whom we love for the comedy and mayhem he creates and for the poignant truth of his tough and vulnerable lifestyle. Boris is a secondary character and he is Ukrainian, but he is not a stereotype. I always prefered him to Theo and as I read the book, I found myself  perpetually waiting for the next episode with Boris.

I recommend that you read Simon Wroe’s novel, ‘Chop Chop’ – it’s really entertaining and also quite poignant. All characters have a deliberate element of the stereotype in their names and their initial composition, and it is a completely valid technique, as they are chefs working in a restaurant kitchen, so their knowledge of each other is limited to their hierarchical job status and ‘professional’ rapport throughout the daily mayhem of creating fabulous food. The novel’s purpose is humour, parody, riot and a tale of raucous behaviour, but the story works so well because all characters begin simply and are developed cleverly. Monocle, the protagonist, is a lowly sous-chef forced to take the job because he needs money and can find nothing else to do with his English degree. Racist Dave and Bob the Chef become much more than simple labels as their lives unfold and again it is the Russian Ramilov, deeply funny and deeply flawed, ‘a dyed-in-the-wool psycho, a universal soldier,’ who steals the show for me.

The novel is tightly structured and the characters are developed so well that there is depth and compassion in them as well as humour. We like Monocle: despite his highbrow diction, he is the lowest of the low in the kitchen, with a lot to learn about life from the dysfunctional band of chefs who create superb food and teach him both their trade and their philosophies. It is a hilarious yet tender story, combining the ecstasies of haute cuisine with the most degenerate human behaviour and Ramilov is both filthy and heroic. It is a dark, brutal, savage and iconoclastic story and, for me, the ending and Ramilov’s triumphant villany make the book a page-turner. ‘Chop Chop’ is a great example of how a book can begin with characters which are pure stereotypes of class and race with the intention of making a hilarious narrative and then, due to the skill and the empathic writing, create a strong and plausible story in which characters are drawn with affection and detail.

As a writer, I read as widely I can, not just to immerse myself in creative ideas and good narratives, but also to switch on the analytical bit of my brain and see what type of writing works for me and why, and what might work for a reader and how other successful authors ply their craft. In my first novel humour, empathy and the bittersweet mix of laughter and loss have been a focus for me and I have learned a lot from many other great writers such as Tartt, Wroe and Murray.

My second novel is in the research stage and is more likely to be a shocker than a side-splitting rocker, so I will have many more books to read and to blog about throughout the year. Watch this space.


When my novel is an unweeded garden that grows to seed

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

In actual fact, I am now on 81,000 words and coming to the part which should make a really good denouement for the reader: if my novel is un-put-downable, then it follows that my writing is incessant  because I am so engaged with my characters and their situations that I have to keep writing.

It is there with me when I go to bed: it wakes me up at two in the morning and it is there at breakfast when I drink my tea. So what is this blog post really about? Not the inability to write. As Orwell said, and Orwell is a kind of writers’ God:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

At the moment I am certainly driven. It is seldom that I can’t think what to write or can’t be bothered. So, why the Hamlet reference about the unweeded garden? Exactly that: it is full of stuff which needs pruning, sorting out, editing and of course the seeds are sprouting out in all directions.

That doesn’t worry me: I can tame this garden and I l0ve the challenge of editing. The problem is deciding which is the best edit. A wonderful tutor on my MA course told me to follow my instinct and , of course, that instinct has to hold me up when I am not sure whether what I am creating works well enough.

The instinct also has to be there for me when I disagree with a reader’s comment. The vanity Orwell mentions, a kind of arrogance, lies between the writer thinking she or he is right, the instinct saying so and the crushing dismissal of a reader who says ‘I would do it this way.’or ‘I think you should do it that way.’

I have a lot of feedback on my writing. I welcome it. No, I really need it. I take it seriously. I always think about it and I mostly act on it.

I have lovely writer friends who always offer me an intelligent and balanced critique: mostly I listen to what they say because they are great inspirational writers and also honest, intelligent friends.

Sometimes, I ignore what they say because it’s not right for me to take on their ideas but it is always something to consider, especially in terms of my own intention and the ensuing clarity – have I got my point across, does the character behave or act how I intend to portray them on the page? Have I been accurate and clear and used the right words and the right amount of them? Will the reader get it?

I have submitted a couple of short stories recently and had them accepted for publication. One editor actually went to the trouble of annotating my story, and I agreed with every comment. I like concise writing and the editor had pointed out a place where I could have cut a line or two.

I am never on the side of indulgence and I am always ready to cut. But I also have had a reader who suggested that I need to evoke all the details of the place: the reader can’t see it, so I need to paint the full picture. I disagreed with him: I had already created the ambience of the location and it was active in the reader’s mind – I checked with 3 readers – and I didn’t want to overegg it by interfering with or dictating to their personal imagination.

I like to create an idea but let the reader fill in their own details at times.

The same reader then went on to say ‘I would make this character more attractive…’ It was at that point I stopped listening to him. Vain and selfish I may be, arrogant too, but add discerning and wilful and you have an author who is writing her own stuff, not someone else’s.

I’d never preface any critique with ‘I would…’. All you can say is ‘You might consider… because…’. This is something else entirely, because you are offering a rationale and sharing ideas, not trying to control someone’s keyboard.

Worse still, the critic who doesn’t read the writing properly. The one who  says ‘You could have told the reader that…’ when I have blatantly said it once, maybe twice and don’t need to say it again. At this point I tell myself again, not every reader will like my books.

And that is ok: writers don’t seek widespread popularity, although it is great if people like your stories, but we seek to please some people a lot of the time. After all, I’m not an Austen fan and she is really good: I love Cormac McCarthy, but not everyone finds him as uplifting as I do!

So back to the unweeded garden. I am about to do something quite amazing with two of my protagonists and it is going to change the flower arrangement in my plot quite significantly; the weed killer is out and the rotavator is digging deep. I am not going to find this section easy and I’d like to thank a the brilliant author Matt Haig for a superb piece of advice, which I will gladly share.

He told me to face up to tough moments like this for the reader’s sake: don’t pussy foot around but crash headlong, make a mess of the garden, throw it all in the air and watch the soil settle. You can’t avoid the carnage of tension, and so I will be making a really big deal of the scenes I write this week.

It would be safer to not write them; it would be more comfortable to skirt around them but these scenes are not subtle and hinting won’t work – thanks, Matt – I am up to my neck in brambles in this one and I will dig my way out. It is so exciting to be writing action and emotion and I am well up for it.

So, the latest update on my novel is that I am going for some seriously powerful scenes at the moment then it is time for the big edit, where I will have to strip out sentences and upgrade whole sections. I am looking forward to it.

Then what: when it is all done and the story is over? I have a few seedlings ready to germinate in another plot in my allotment of ideas.

On writing my novel: ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder.’

My novel, Older, Wiser, Wilder is up to 57,000 words. My protagonist, Evelyn, is at a point where she has a life changing decision to make about what she will do in France. Her son, Brendan, is still trying to track her down but he has been temporarily held up; his wife, Maura, is not speaking to him and things look bad.

There has been binge drinking, bed-hopping and karaoke – not bad for a septuagenarian protagonist.

I find it is easy to write daily: what I write sometimes makes me laugh out loud and I have a valued group of readers who regularly check that it does the same for them. My critics span all personality types, genders, ages, many backgrounds and cultures and this is an incredibly useful way of gauging whether a reader will be interested and immersed.

Reading good books is a must for me. I know some writers say that plagiarism will loom if you read others’ stuff while you are writing but I believe the inspiration of reading well written prose is well worth taking time out.

Write while it rains and have fun while the sun shines is also a great way of working. It follows that you can write lots in any season unless you live somewhere hot.

Write or don’t write, guilt free. It is important not to spend the time you don’t write feeling bad that you aren’t at the computer. Time out is always good time. It is thinking time and inspiration time. Time well spent. And if it takes you on a walk, or to a friend’s or down the pub, well, that’s fine.

Writing from passion and love is also vital. I have sympathy for all my characters, even the ones you might not like much at some point in the novel; they all have their own perspective and they all have their own worth. Plus it makes for an interesting bubble in the novel cauldron.

I am not giving any more away for now: however, the novel is packed with humour, mischief and mayhem. More to follow in this genre-bending tale of travel, romance and bad behaviour.