Monday, March 20, 2006

Great locations, substantial plots

Also in today's blog

Small publishers growing at 21% p.a
Where do you get your ideas?
Interesting choice of speaker for Savoy award lunch
Talking to Martin Goodman about Slippery When Wet

The first person to respond, by direct email, to my question in last Sunday's blog [ about whether it's abnormal to read different books at different times of day ] was an Australian, Isabelle Bennett, a former journalist who for 12 years was a media adviser to the government of New South Wales.

Mrs Bennett tells me she came across this blog by chance while looking for my fiction backlist. She began her email, subject-lined "From a Sydney fan" by writing -
"Dear Anne Weale, I've enjoyed your books for many years and I think I've read most of them. I like the interesting people, great locations and substantial plots as well as the emotional and practical messages that set women up to make progress and succeed, personally and professionally."

Mrs Bennett's South African husband, Jack Bennett, who died in 2000, was also a journalist, and their daughter, Jennifer, [see photo above] is currently a sub-editor on the Jakarta Post, the largest English newspaper in Indonesia. Jack Bennett wrote a number of books - Jamie, Mister Fisherman, The Hawk Alone and his best-known title Gallipoli, described at Book Crossing as "a quintessentially Australian book".

Isabelle Bennett's answer to my question about reading more than one book at a time was -
"I also read several books at once, the choice depending on the time of the day and how alert/harassed/tired I feel. When really stressed one needs Trollope, Austen or a really good biography, or to be thoroughly entertained."

She went on to tell me that her reason for quitting her government post was to finish her master's degree in applied linguistics. Not being sure what applied linguistics were, I shot off to Google and discovered at AAAL that they embrace "language-related concerns, including language education, acquisition and loss, bilingualism, discourse analysis, literacy, rhetoric and stylistics, language for special purposes, psycholinguistics, second and foreign language pedagogy, language assessment, and language policy and planning."

Isabelle's plan for the future is to be a part time academic writing tutor to post-graduate students from overseas, to write, and to do some more travelling. Her favourite countries are France, Greece, Afghanistan ["I feel so angry about what has happened there in the last several years"] and Indonesia.

She concluded her interesting email by asking, "Did you write the sequel to Time & Chance?"

Considering that this book, the third in the Longwarden sequence, was published in the late Eighties, I'm both astonished and delighted that readers around the world continue to write in and ask if Vol 4 is in the pipeline.

The answer is yes. But whether I shall finish it this year, and if, having done so, I can find a publisher for it, remains uncertain. I have toyed with following Grumpy Old Bookman's example and publishing it myself. But do I have the energy to publish as well as to write? Perhaps the solution is to find a small press to publish it.

Small publishers growing at 21% p.a.

There was an interesting story about them this week in The Book Standard.
" “So many conglomerates are taking over in the publishing industry,” says Carol Hoenig, Small Press Month coordinator. “We are trying to raise awareness and get the word out that there are other opportunities and other books out there.” The numbers back Hoenig up: A study conducted by PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, called “The Rest of Us 2003,” found that the smaller publishing bases—more than 80,000 publishers—account for almost $30 billion in annual book sales. The study also notes that independent and small publishers have grown at an annual rate of 21 percent since 1997."

Where do you get your ideas?

"Where do you get your ideas?" is, apparently, the question most often put to authors who regard public speaking as part of their job.

I believe a writer's time is best spent in seclusion, concentrating on the next book or pursuing the interests which enrich their fiction. Also, ideas for plots and characters come so thick and fast that it's impossible to list or explain them. Many are quickly forgotten.

However I don't think I shall forget the idea that struck me last Sunday morning when I read about Ben Griffin in The Sunday Telegraph. First my eye was caught by the heading beginning "SAS soldier quits Army in disgust…" and then by the photograph of the man who "…expected to be labelled a coward and to face a court martial and imprisonment after making the most difficult decision of my life" last March."

[I was hoping to show a photo of Ben Griffin here, but so far the Daily Telegraph has not responded to my request for permission.]
The report continued
"Instead, he was discharged with a testimonial describing him as a "balanced, honest, loyal and determined individual who possesses the strength of character to have the courage of his convictions".Last night Patrick Mercer, the shadow minister for homeland security, said: "Trooper Griffin is a highly experienced soldier. This makes his decision particularly disturbing and his views and opinions must be listened to by the Government."

What does a man like ex-Trooper Griffin, who is 28, do next when his principles forced him to give up his first career choice?

There, surely, are the bare bones of novel?

Interesting choice of speaker for Savoy award luncheon

When the March issue of the RNA News arrived last Monday, I was astonished to read that the speaker at the Savoy Hotel lunch on April 20, where the FosterGrant Reading Glasses Romantic Novel of the Year Award lunch is to be held, will be Stanley Johnson.

In case you haven't heard of him, Mr Johnson is described in the RNA News as "novelist, ecologist, polymath and former parliamentary candidate, (father of Boris)."

His more famous son, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, better known as Boris Johnson is one of my favourite columnists. Although, being a believer in one-love-forever, I've been disappointed by press stories about his private life.

His father has also been married more than once. At
Stanley Johnson's website
, we learn
"Stanley has four children by his first marriage to the painter Charlotte Johnson-Wahl, including Boris, a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, MP for Henley and Editor of the Spectator. He also has two children, Julia and Maximilian, by his second marriage to Jennifer.

He has had ten books published dealing with environmental issues, including the Politics of the Environment, the Earth Summit and the Environmental Policy of the European Communities. He has also had nine novels published, including The Commissioner which was made into a film starring John Hurt."

You might want to read a story headed Sun, sea, odyssey which begins
"After a 40-year search and a false start in Italy, Stanley Johnson decided to have his perfect hideaway built from scratch in Greece. 'Roll on that little place in the sun!" When my (first) family was growing up - in the 1960s and '70s - this was a regular refrain. Most often, we would hire a villa in Greece or Italy and at the end of the statutory two weeks, when we returned to Britain, we would vow that one day we would buy a place of our own."

Talking to Martin Goodman about Slippery When Wet

[Author photo and book jacket can be seen in March 12 blog]

Instead of posting reviews of the books sent to me, I feel it would be fairer to put my comments to their authors and blog their reactions to my reactions. Martin Goodman has kindly agreed to be the first interviewee.

ANNE : When you sent me a copy of Slippery When Wet, you wrote "The book was also a very conscious way of writing about Bangladesh for the UK market - with a visit to Thailand on the side - so it seems to fit your own travel book profile…I'd be surprised if you didn't enjoy it - but am happy to take the risk."

I enjoyed the book…with a few reservations. It has one of the most intriguing openings I've read in a long time. But I couldn't believe that the central character, Maggie, a white-haired upper class Englishwoman whose age I worked out as 58, could be comfortable having a sexual relationship with Sepen, a slightly-built Bangladeshi of 21. Particularly as you give the impression that she had a disastrous marriage with the husband whose ashes she is taking to the River Kwai where he was imprisoned during WW2.

MARTIN : In fact Maggie's 60, which makes it an even bigger question for you. I told a friend about the story. "That's just like my friend," she said. Her friend was a Danish woman, suddenly widowed after a long and happy marriage. This lady was very large. She took herself off to Goa, to sit on the beach and stare at the sea, numb with grief and wondering if it would ever pass. A very young man sat at a distance, gazing at her. When she moved, he moved, day after day. Eventually she challenged him. "You are the most beautiful being I have ever seen," he told her. "I have to look at you." She never returned from Goa. The large elderly woman and the young Indian man are a blissfully happy couple.
So there's a real-life example. In crossing boundaries as startling as that between aristocratic England and Bangladesh, you enter different levels of need as well as shaking yourself out of old habits and beliefs. Sepen is an orphan as well as being needy. Maggie is seeking to find the girl in herself. The man sitting beside her on the plane out to Dhaka was her age, but physically distasteful to her. Yes, the relationship is unusual, but I do think it's credible. We also learn how physically exhausting it is to her, and how fine to sit by the pool with a drink while the young man takes all the exercise!

ANNE : Maggie's late husband, Charles, owner of Mawsby Hall and 72 at the time of his death, seems to have had his whole life blighted by the years spent as a prisoner of war. I once had a long talk with Russell Braddon, author of The Naked Island. He was imprisoned by the Japanese for four years and had a rough time. But it didn't ruin his life. Surely most people who survived imprisonment wanted to make the most of their lucky escape in the years that followed?

MARTIN: Many did come from hellish wartime conditions determined to make the most of life. Remember Maggie's view is partial too. Her husband was older and physically wasted, hence the young woman's view that marriage was her own wartime sacrifice.
Charles led his own life - we never see him in that life though we know he has died in the bed of a woman in the village, surrounded by his own possessions. The sense though is that the most vital part of him was left by the River Kwai, where his youth was lost and where his friends died. I feel many wartime survivors (and in many ways a central theme of mine is the after-effects of war, even Sepen is orphaned because of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971) get on with their lives, but nothing will ever match the sheer weight of their wartime experience. It's not spoken of, but it is held deep inside. Walking among the graves of the fallen, in the vast tended cemetery in Kanchanaburi, the ghosts of so many young men sweep sadness above the grass. I felt the memories could cling to Charles and pull him back.

ANNE : The reader is told that the return of Charles Mawsby after his wartime internment was Maggie's sacrificial moment. "She chose to die that he might live. Their eventual marriage was her act of charity." I felt this needed to be far more fully explained.

MARTIN: My explanation lies above. He was older and war weary, she was young and hoping for better, but how selfish of her to deny the returning hero. If you felt it needed to be more fully explained I concede the point. Thanks for pointing it out. Maybe the next edition!

ANNE : You're being extremely good-natured about my criticisms. One aspect of the book I found fascinating was the background to the Mawsby fortune and the building of Mawsby Hall. Is page 48, where you describe the stones from which the house was built being carved in workshops near Calcutta, and the house being erected by "lots of little brown men", based on fact? I also liked your tip about how to escape from a maze.

MARTIN : I based the notion of a mausoleum on the one at Chatsworth. I think the specific details were 'made up', though the notion of English country houses built on the product of East India is true enough.
At an Arvon writers' course years ago a participant said, 'Anyone looking for a job?' Generally in some need of a job I said yes. She turned out to be Lizzie Spender, daughter of Stephen, and the job was secretary to the composer Giancarlo Menotti. Off we went to stay at his Adam stately home just outside Edinburgh. That was the first of my stately home stays that have helped fuel that element of the book. I liked the extreme contrast between that high-end form of British life and Bangladesh. I also wanted to root western readers in Maggie's English experience, something they could conceive, before taking them into the near inconceivable world of Bangladesh.
And the 'how to get out of a maze' tip does work. It spoils the fun of getting lost though.

ANNE : [In passing, Lizzie Spender is also the fourth wife of Barry Humphries a k a Dame Edna, I believe.] I guess I'm too much of a cynic. Despite your friend's tale about the large elderly Danish widow and the young Indian man being blissfully happy, my feeling is young men of any nationality only cultivate women old enough to be their grannies because of the perks involved.
But even if I could believe that Sepen genuinely loved Maggie, what on earth would they find to talk about? On p 205, Maggie recognises that the cultural gap between them is a chasm.

MARTIN: The Grand Canyon is a chasm as big as any cultural gap. If it's too much to talk about, stand together and stare into it.
Sepen is a professional of course, used to pleasing people and showing them his country. He also has a genuine love for his country. And he has a true feeling for Islam, which he gently comes to share. Maggie is perhaps more snappish, uses offence as a good means of defence, but I like their conversations.
Is Sepen in it just for the money? The book doesn't consider that aspect, but you're free to. What does a young 'trophy wife' have to say to her sixty year-old banker husband? That might have been harder for me to come up with. Sepen and Maggie have boundless scope for interesting conversation in comparison. Maggie is used to having her say, but I worked to make Sepen a match for her.

ANNE : There's a gripping scene at the end of Chapter 7 when Maggie gets lost in the back streets of Dhaka and would have been in deep trouble had it not been the holy month of Ramadan. But even as I was wondering if she would escape in one piece, I was thinking what an idiot she was to go out at night in a strange seaport with a population of millions, most of them desperately poor, wearing a diamond watch and gold bracelets. It would have been risky in London in 1992. Maggie comes across as someone with no common sense. Assuming that Transita is an imprint appealing to women with a lot of sense, isn't this aspect of her character likely to alienate them?

MARTIN : Her hand had stiffened so she could not release the gold bangles. The watch was her only watch. She was wearing it when she walked away from her past life, only her tiny handbag with her. Her life before was circumscribed. I know people who have never had to handle money. Her case isn't as extreme as that, but she's never particularly walked the streets. Her watch is valuable but she doesn't value it, can't even see it because it's so small, and in fact gives it away. My mother, a woman of ample common sense, had those watches and felt the same way about them.
As to common sense, you tend to learn it on the job. That scene in the hut where her life is threatened happened to me, in some ways more severely, and I worked to apply it to Maggie. I learned to be very comfortable and feel safe in Bangladesh, but the first time you step out onto streets where poverty abounds it's like stepping through a screen. Suddenly you are not just watching, you are being watched. You are in alien territory. It throws you - maybe in the same way people who are drowning flail rather than relax when they are being saved. Everything in Maggie is stirred by her journey. It's not a common sense journey.
In a way Maggie has been bound by common sense all her life. Her journey is a voyage outside the bounds of common sense. She knows what her friends would say about her adventures, and speculates about how much more acceptable it would be if she had found romance in Rome. I wonder whether some of the 'Would Maggie really do that?' questions aren't also 'Would I do that in her situation? Would I sleep with a Bengali man almost forty years my junior?' questions. The reader's answer may well be 'No'. Maggie answered differently. Previously her mind had been in charge. Now body, heart and soul are holding sway and mind has to catch up whenever it's able. In my experience, that's the way of love. Certainly love across socially acceptable boundaries, loving the person we're not expected to love.
One of the joys of reading is travelling where you would not normally allow yourself to go. The experience changes you. To common sense readers, why not lay your common sense down alongside Maggie's for a while? Give yourself a break. Maggie's on a trip. She's trembling and learning as she goes. Go with her. Enjoy yourself.

ANNE : I could go on discussing this book with Martin, but we've already overrun the intended word-limit of these interviews. Despite my criticisms, Slippery When Wet, with its unusual and authentic locations, is well worth £7.99. If you're strapped for cash, order it from your public library. As it came out in January, they may already have it.
And if you have comments to add, hit the comment button or email me at [no website]